The Life and Games of Jeremy Blaustein

By John Szczepaniak

As a married father of three with a black belt in matsubayashi-ryu karate, Jeremy Blaustein will happily speak about his love of Japan, his many cats, and telling his son Pok?mon stories. He casts an unassuming figure - just a regular guy looking after his family. Many people won't realise the vast number of games he has worked on over the past 18 years. So many games in fact, that there is probably not a single person reading this who has not either experienced one of them or knows someone who has. While he hasn't yet reached Creative Director on a project, Blaustein's work as a freelance localiser, translator, writer and voice director has given him a unique opportunity to work alongside some of the most prominent people on some of the best games in the industry. He has had a hand in shaping for its western audience everything from established franchises such as Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill and Castlevania, to lesser known cult-classics such as Shadow Hearts, Sky Odyssey and Senko no Ronde. He was even involved with the creation of Shenmue on the Dreamcast.

INDEX
Early years and Jaleco
Konami
Freelance
Metal Gear Solid
A renaissance and period of change
Too many army games today
Shadow Hearts
Suikoden II
Valkyrie Profile
Silent Hill series

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Some say bitter
Dragon Warrior VII
Dark Cloud 2
Japan's Downfall
Fallout 2 and Peter Molyneux
Jeremy's big game idea
Shenmue
Senko no Ronde
Invincible Tiger and Velvet Assassin
What his family and friends think
Future plans

Early Years and Jaleco

Born in New York, 1966, Blaustein went on to read Asian Studies at University. As he explained it, "I wanted to be able to communicate with a foreign culture of some type, something 'exotic' and Japanese was certainly that. I always had the sense that Asian countries may have figured out some of the deeper truths about reality than we had here in the West."

Fresh out of university in 1991, Blaustein found himself in Chicago when Jaleco USA were hiring. He landed a job as Assistant Producer, though it was to be short-lived. "Oh, man, I was only there for like a couple of months before I got myself fired by getting angry."

Prior to this, though, Blaustein was given a fascinating view into how the old guard of games developers operated. As he explained, "It's interesting because it's a snapshot of a certain kind of relationship during a certain period, that hasn't existed for a long time. It makes you realise what small potatoes videogames were back then, and how they were viewed. And we were dealing with tiny budgets, tiny amounts of money, tiny bits of memory. Tiny little games, you know? To look at the games we have now, and these huge launches, and these multi-million dollar things, it's hard to believe they're the same thing as Shatterhand on the NES, like we were doing back then, or Whomp 'Em. I remember this meeting with my first boss Howie Rubin, the sound guy on Q*Bert, and he was like, we'll make a pizza game and call it Delivery Boy! And we'd write up these half-assed little game plans, and send them to Japan asking 'can you make a game like this?' And they would maybe throw a little team at you. We'll give you a team of three guys and they can work up this little game. Games were so innocent back then."

Shatterhand (NES)

I asked if he knew who did the Shatterhand artwork. "I do NOT know who did the Shatterhand cover. It was a Chicago art agency I think. At the time I remember talking about making a Sumo game with Sumo wrestlers from all over, many countries, and the Japanese rep there told me it was impossible because Sumo is a sacred Japanese sport with no foreigners. This was, of course, before it became as international as it is now. At that time, there had only ever been one foreigner and he only rose to the level of Sekiwake. That's a very typical example. [It was the perception] that Japanese stuff hadn't yet gained the status of being attractive to the west."

Later on at Jaleco, it was a misunderstanding over an illegible Japanese letter regarding Bases Loaded which led to Blaustein getting into an argument with his Japanese superior, ending his time there. Feeling the need to improve his Japanese, Blaustein went to grad-school in Japan, culminating in a Masters degree in Japanese Anthropology. After this he enjoyed, as he puts it, a three-month stint of general slackery in Kyoto before teaching English as a foreign language. "I did that for about a year. It was one of those chain English-language schools in Japan. I was not asked to teach a second year. I spoke too much Japanese to the students, I think... But, during my time at Jaleco I'd gotten my twin brother, Michael, a job there. He later went on to Konami USA and, in 1993, returned the favour by getting me an interview with Konami Japan in Tokyo."

Konami

"I got the job at Konami Japan when Super Famicom and Sega were burning everything up in the 16-bit world."

Rather than work in Research and Development, something which he'd always wanted, the young Blaustein was posted in the international business department - a single foreigner in a company employing over a thousand Japanese people. Recalling the time, he spoke of the difficulty getting ideas noticed by those in positions of creativity. In spite of this though, being a native English speaker meant he was asked to write the text for several Konami games, including Rocket Knight Adventures, Sparkster, Animaniacs, Biker Mice From Mars and others. It also allowed him to get an understanding how Japanese developers viewed the west.

"The minds at Konami Japan were thinking: there are some games that we make that are going to be just domestic, and there are some games that we're going to make for overseas, because they like violence and we like violence less. We like lots of deep, rich RPG stories, with Japanese mythology, and they won't buy that. So we need to start developing a sports series. I was there when Konami started talking about developing a soccer series, and we were so far behind EA and companies like that. My direct boss was very big on the idea of getting that going. Look where they are now, with the Winning Eleven series."

Snatcher (Sega CD)

Blaustein's first official work on a game was as producer on the English version of Snatcher on the Sega CD, with Scott Hard acting as translator. Blaustein had been asked to assess the potential for Snatcher to sell in the west and, in the context of the time, he was blown away by the quality of the story and resonance of the characters. They put a lot of effort into it, hiring some quality voice actors and recording most of the dialogue simultaneously in one room. Sadly the sales were abysmal, thanks mainly to the low user-base of the hardware. After Snatcher Blaustein decided to go freelance, though maintained a strong relationship with Konami.

Freelance

"When I was getting started I basically advertised any Japanese-to-English translation. So I did some patents, semi-conductors, electronics, I transcribed American express consumer complaints. I did all sorts of stuff."

This was at a time when the CD medium was becoming mainstream, due to the popularity of Sony's PS1, and an early freelance games localisation effort by Blaustein was Konami's Vandal Hearts. "It's interesting for a few reasons, though I'm seldom asked about it. It was a rather early strategy RPG for the American market and a serious effort at doing a good localisation all by myself. I played it a lot so I'm confident that it was internally coherent."

His next project was Castlevania Symphony of the Night, and I asked if there had been any controversy regarding the religious iconography in it. "Do you just mean the crosses? Castlevania always had that same issue. Yeah, there was definitely some concern on Konami's part and mine as well, though we didn't really talk about it."

Metal Gear Solid

"When translating the script I had to balance things so it sounded as natural in English as the original, while still staying as close to the original as possible to satisfy the purists."

Metal Gear Solid, of all the games he worked on, brought Blaustein the most recognition. Rather unfortunately, it also proved to be one of the most stressful of his projects and landed him in trouble with Kojima, who didn't appreciate the changes he'd made. Blaustein did a podcast interview with PushToTalk, where he highlighted some of the heavy goings on regarding the project.

"When you create an environment where people aren't allowed to question you, you get a translation by committee where the uniqueness of any person's speaking style is wiped away in favour of a bland approach which doesn't take any risks. You get something less direct, less stylised, less intentionally suited to that market."

Metal Gear Solid (PSOne)

I asked if Blaustein feels his work on MGS influenced Kojima's subsequent handling of the series. "Yes, I do! I absolutely do. Because if he proceeded along the lines that: 'changes were made to my script are not what I want,' and he's working under the mistaken view that changes during translation are a move away from similarity, then [he's going to reign in subsequent localisers]. I started out so well with Kojima too."

Speaking on the subject of MGS, Blaustein also raised the same criticisms held by the majority of gamers: the series' over reliance on cut-scenes. As he sees it, "That's more the fact that Kojima never had [an interest in] gameplay. Look at Snatcher, it wasn't even a game in the traditional sense. It didn't even have the complexity of Pong. All Kojima cares about is creating a great feeling, great atmosphere."

Blaustein also touched upon Kojima's reliance on the rest of his team to formulate gameplay ideas - which echoes what was pointed out in making of documentaries for Sons of Liberty: Kojima handed each team member a notepad and demanded that every day they come up with a new idea, which eventually led to the bomb disposal sequence.

"It's like he puts all of his attention into the story and the characters, and then he would gather the rest of his team and say 'OK, you guys make a great game.' In the first Metal Gear Solid there were set-pieces where you need to use a gun, then grenades, then a Sniper Rifle - and in that sense it was just a series of minigames patched together and placed into the storyline."

"It's interesting, because it's sort of the opposite of the way games used to be made. When graphics were primitive, game creators would first consider the gameplay, and then they would think of a story that would act as a vehicle to carry people's interest. This story would be mapped on to the gameplay, and you would imagine that these dots represented a dragon, and these dots represented a shield. And oftentimes there was no story at all. Game creators were experts at understanding the interfaces - understanding what made people's hearts pump by the simple action of chasing after something, or shooting at something. And I think that in the pursuit of photo-realistic beads of sweat and hair follicles, focus on gameplay has diminished. But, I also think we're now seeing nostalgia for those well-crafted games of the past, as people yawn at today's realistic eye candy."

A renaissance and period of change

"I'm really excited by today's movements. And I've noted as well, for example, more old-fashioned games like Little Big Planet (and the games available for download). To me it looks like it's all coming back, and that the last few years will ultimately be perceived as an odd experiment. Maybe what we needed was a levelling off of technology. We can't continue with this accelerated process of improving visuals, there's got to be a limit - it can't get much better than it's gotten now, right? Plus it gets more expensive, and you get increasing competition from other forms of hardware. It's going to reach a point where that bubble explodes, it's the law of diminishing returns, and people are going to say to hell with it, we'll just create a 2D game that's going to sell 20,000 rather than aiming for 2 million."

Despite the slow diversifying of the medium, Blaustein commented on other changes within the industry, especially pertaining to the economy and localisation, which aren't so positive.

"It's getting much more difficult because the economy sucks. There's automatic translation machines, there's fan translators, and there's the perception that you shouldn't have to pay for anything today. If you've got a machine on Google which translates a page for free in two seconds, even if it's not so great, suddenly paying 20 Cents a word for a translation that's good doesn't sound like a great idea. Ten years ago the price per word for a translator was twice as much as it is now. Normally it goes in the opposite direction, because you have inflation, the cost of living. Translators have been demolished, and the industry has changed - when I started nobody translated games. I became marginally successful because I left Konami at a time when games were expanding in size, and there were so many opportunities. Even doing just Konami games was more than I could handle, and it paid so well. So I did a few games a year, that's all. But now I have to work constantly."

"Things are cyclical, and if you stay in it long enough you start to see things. I saw Square start up their in-house translation team, and I saw how that changed, and how people left Square and started their own translation agencies. Hell, people that I trained in the early days as translators that worked on games, are now out in Tokyo translating games. So these people leave and do their own thing, and big companies start examining how much it costs to run their in-house localisation group versus how much it costs to outsource, considering the number of employees they have, and so on. But it was interesting, because unless I'm mistaken, I seem to recall other companies using Square's localisation department, including Capcom. Now Capcom has their own in-house localisation team, and they seem to be doing very well. But it's a hell of a lot of work, because you're looking at manuals, at game translations. Some companies manage it well, and they might say 'we have a great team we don't have to outsource,' and some companies say this isn't working out, let's fire all these guys and we'll outsource it. The way I see it everything goes through these cycles. I'd guess the prices for translators will continue to drop, because the market is so saturated. I'd say that the good days are pretty numbered."

Too many army games today

"In a lot of ways the game industry has paralleled MTV. At first it was a counter-culture thing, and then it got bought and became more corporate. Back in 1983 I don't think anyone thought they'd see US army recruiter commercials wall-to-wall on MTV. And games like Call of Duty, there's so many damned army games."

This raised an interesting point, since among the more enlightened followers of games, there's been growing dissatisfaction towards the industry's obsession with grey-coloured military games and First Person Shooters. But this seems to conflict with the fact that one of Blaustein's greatest works, the one he tried his hardest to make authentic, was the military themed Metal Gear Solid.

"My first thought would be there's a million miles between MGS and something like, I dunno, 'Call to War, Afghanistan Attack!' You know, with these games it's like, 'Look, there's Osama Bin Laden! (mimics the sound of machinegun fire) That's not Metal Gear Solid. They're not living in the same worlds. Look at Decoy Octopus, Vulcan Raven, I mean come on now, that was like 007 - a highly stylised fantasy."

Prefer to be known for other games

With so much focus given to Metal Gear Solid, a series which has inspired hundreds of articles and podcasts, and the game which Blaustein is best known for, there is a vast back-catalogue of work which has been overshadowed. I asked if there were any other games he'd rather be known for.

Shadow Hearts Covenant (PS2)

"There are indeed. And the game that comes most to mind when I say that is Shadow Hearts Covenant. I really loved that game and it turned out that, from the moment I read the story, I loved it. It was a great Japanese game, I had a relatively free hand when translating it, and the voice over production I arranged in LA, at a good studio. I even hired a well-known, professional director - this guy named Richard Epcar. He does a lot of anime out in LA and did a lot of voices. I hired him and he directed it and did some voices in it. Anyway, the whole thing turned out very well, with great dramatic scenes, and this very interesting story with tie-ins with real historic figures like Rasputin. It was an awesome game."

"I think it was released alongside a Final Fantasy, and you literally couldn't have timed the thing worse if you wanted to. So yeah, I wish fans could have seen that one. And it got good reviews - everyone said it was great, one magazine said it was the best RPG of the year or something. It was critically acclaimed. It was by a real dark horse Japanese company too, some company called Sacanoth did it. And I know those guys worked their brains off too. This represented so much, it had so much effort. That's the remarkable thing about games - the good ones, the creators put so much effort, so much of their hearts into it, and they're not recognised. The industry is so rife with irony, the whole situation."

"Games creators can have a vision and then they come out with something that breaks the mould. It achieves some cult notoriety, it creates a bit of a phenomenon which is then pursued by the bean counters. And at that point it's no longer a work of joyful creation for the game creators, because they've got the bean counters telling them that their market survey people think they can sell a million units of a game that fits these categories. So they then force the creators to make a game, they whip them into working 15 hours a day or whatever, and they get this soulless simulacrum of a game. God, it makes me sick."

His work on Shadow Hearts also generated hostility from the fans of Koudelka, the game's predecessor. "In Shadow Hearts I changed Urmnaf to Yuri, because he was meant to be Russian. And yet I had people write me like death threats because of that. Well, not really, but I know that fans were really, really angry about it. Because the original, Koudelka, was like one of these cult hits."

Suikoden II

Suikoden II (PSOne)

After Metal Gear Solid in 1998 Blaustein worked on Konami's phenomenal RPG, Suikdoen II, a much-coveted title which today sells for over $100. Despite the love the game gets, it also garnered a lot of animosity among the hardcore fans due to some slight errors that cropped up in the scripting. These were a result of it being an extremely stressful project, forced through very quickly - keep in mind the recruitable number of characters, each with unique dialogue and back-story, numbered 108, on top of which were NPCs and the antagonists.

Blaustein mostly recalls being dissatisfied with the names, something he wasn't allowed to change. "I remember being unhappy about a lot of these names. I was so unhappy about these. I struggled with all those names. I mean, in Japanese you have 'Appuru' for example. Now is that 'Apple' or is it 'Appulu'? You tell me! Also, the developers would tend to put in a name like Victor or Edward or Ted, and to me that sounds SO mundane. So I would make it 'Viktor' for example. But that still left me somewhat dissatisfied. I was trying to satisfy the demands of keeping it close to the Japanese, but still interesting enough."

The game featured the deaths of several key characters, which created quite a strong emotional resonance in Blaustein. "As far as the deaths of the characters, I just rewatched the death of Nanami. That was pretty good stuff! Great music. Nice smooth dialogue. Many translators were on this project and they were divided up by character instead of just doing chunks of text. This was to maintain consistency of voice. No one but me was thinking about stuff like that in those days."

Many agree, finding the portrayals to be heartfelt. By the time the final credits roll, describing each character's life after the in-game war ends, most players should admit to being quite choked up.

"Isn't that great? And when you consider Suikoden, graphically it was quite cartoonish, and yet that doesn't prevent you from experiencing the emotion of the game. Because you knew those cartoons were representative of characters, and they didn't need to look like your next-door neighbour to feel they were human. It's a suspension of disbelief, and it's as if for games today the idea of engaging people to use their own imaginations is a bad thing - it's a bad word."

Valkyrie Profile

Valkyrie Profile (PSOne)

After Suikoden came another RPG, Square's Norse-themed Valkyrie Profile, another game which deals with death and had a strong emotional impact on the player. And like Suikoden II, the PS1 original also garners high resale prices. I asked if he's aware of the high resale prices some of the games he's localised now go for, and if he owns a copy of everything he's worked on. Games like Snatcher, Symphony of the Night, Suikoden 2 and Valkyrie Profile at times reach triple figures. "Really? Wow. I have copies of most games. There was a time when I could go to Blockbuster and see three or four of my games up on the shelf."

"I loved Valkyrie Profile. I am a huge fan of Norse mythology from way back. Some of it was frustrating (such as Frey being a girl, so I changed the name to Freya). I sure was disappointed that I wasn't asked to work on the Valkyrie Profile follow-up for PS2. I think the original Valkyrie attracted some good reviews at the time. Enough to make people desire a sequel. I had a lot of input into that one and enjoyed working on it."

Silent Hill series

"Silent Hill 2 was a game intended from the start for the USA, because it had more blood and everyone was becoming hypersensitive about violence and gore in Japan."

The other big series Blaustein is known for working on is Konami's Silent Hill, parts 2, 3 and The Room. The second holds a particularly special place in his heart, since he came aboard as a creative consultant for the team, not only dealing with the English text and directing the voice actors, but helping to formulate early story ideas.

Silent Hill 2 (PS2)

"Forget about having started the game, even while Owaku was throwing around ideas for his story, they called me in to have a big conference and meeting about what I thought would be acceptable themes in America. There was a solid team of about four or five guys, including Owaku and the monster creator guy, Tsuboyama."

With Blaustein having such a direct influence on the game, I thought it time to clear up a few questions which fans of the series have been asking over the years. Two long-running debates held by fans, such as those on igotaletter.com, pertains to the nature of Angela's past, and also what is being said during the 'voice whisper' which can occasionally be heard while playing.

Blaustein stated categorically that the abuse Angela is speculated to have endured at the hands of her father, did indeed occur as part of Silent Hill 2's back story. He explained, "This is an easy issue to clear up. From the very earliest conversations that I was in on (the pre-script writing meeting), the team had the intention of including incest and sexual abuse in one of the character's backgrounds. They wanted, remember, to get at the very heart, or maybe I should say edges, of psychological pain. So we all knew precisely what we wanted with Angela in terms of her dialogue on paper and as performed. As you can see, it is also well reflected in her appearance. We thought about it all the time, in every scene. Just watch the scenes again. She gets physically ill when she thinks about her experience. It seems clearly depicted if you know what you are looking for."

"As for the whisper, I am pretty sure it is just a little loop of one of the actors doing what we called at the time 'butsu-butsu' or 'hitori-goto' (mumbling or talking to himself) in the recording booth. I think they just snipped a loop and added some reverb. The Japanese sound guys would NOT have known what he was saying either, if I am right, because it was just unscripted adlib."

"I would say it was without a doubt the single biggest influence I've had on a game. I don't think there was any other game where I was ever asked to have that much of an affect on the story. It was also unique in that series that I did all the translation myself, and I did all the direction myself - the voice direction and motion capture directing. It was completely unprecedented."

Blaustein went on the share his personal reflections on the game, especially the emotional impact of the letter James Sunderland writes, and revealed an interesting anecdote from the recording booth. "I was reading through a SH2 FAQ and came across 'the letter' from SH2. I really loved it and wanted more readers to have a chance to see it. The scene where Maria reads it, if you have never seen it, is one of the three most emotional moments I have ever had with the actors. The actress cried after she read it and many of us were getting a little misty-eyed. Try to listen to it on Youtube if you can. It was a great moment."

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