The Life and Games of Jeremy Blaustein
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Some say bitter
Despite the fond memories of working on the Silent Hill series, Blaustein has in interviews commented regretfully on how Konami treated him. Some in the industry, having listened to his candid PushToTalk podcast interviews, have even commented that he sounds perhaps a little bitter at the way things went.
"I think when people say I sounded bitter, they were referring mainly to Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill, and you know, bitter is just a word. I was certainly regretful, and disappointed, and in a sense felt victimised by a few people. From the beginning, when you're working as a freelancer for a company, they don't want to put your name out there. So you're already kind of a stealth figure. If I'm bitter with Konami over Silent Hill and MGS to any extent, it's just that they weren't very honest about admitting my role in it. Watch the making of Silent Hill videos and look for me - you might see me in a couple of scenes, I appear in it, but it's as if I pop up in the way and they can't get rid of me. But I did everything for those games, and so it would have been very hard to make those videos without my appearing in them, but the fact they managed to do it is an indication of how hard they tried to get me out of it. My question is, where the heck am I in those videos? I was there every single day, so yeah, it bothers me a little bit."
"The bitterness comes out because I was playing the role of a director in a very unique way - and I didn't get any credit for it. If I had been a Konami employee, I would have been in those making of videos, and they would have said: here's a central figure from the localised versions of the games."
After Silent Hill 2, Blaustein was tasked with working on Dragon Warrior/Quest VII, an installment in Japan's biggest and most popular RPG franchise, eclipsing even Final Fantasy in terms of popularity. Bringing Japan's darling of the genre to the west was a phenomenal, responsibility-laden task.
It was a gig he landed as a result of one of DQ's producers being impressed with his work on Valkyrie Profile. The project though was considerably more difficult than he anticipated. There were 70,000 pages of text, with 20 translators and 5 copy editors working late nights to complete it. Was it stressful?
"Yes, exactly. Over a million words! What a nightmare! I feel so bad about Dragon Quest VII. It was more than anyone could handle. No one wanted to take it on, but I took it on. Along with my new business partner, a software designer, we named our company Wordbox, which was also the name of the software which we created to work on the game."
Blaustein went on to explain that while he was happy with the quality of the translation itself, several other things hampered them. The nature of the assets, quantity of work and also problems with the newly developed editing software meant some extremely late nights before deadline, just to make sure all the text would synch with the game's code when being re-inserted.
After Dragon Quest VII, Blaustein worked on several games, including Shadow Hearts, the unique horror game Fatal Frame, Ape Escape 2 and then RPG follow-up Dark Cloud 2. Like all RPGs, doing a good job required a lot of effort, and there were problems along the way. The examples he gives highlight some of the sticking points encountered with Japanese.
"We had lists of items to translate. They were devoid of context and in one example the word 'denkigoma' in katakana was translated by someone on my team as 'electric sesame'. Well, it turned out that it was an electric top: a combination of the words denki and koma, with koma undergoing a shift which changed its 'K' sound to a 'G' sound, which is common. It wasn't electric sesame, or 'goma'. Oops! But such errors are largely unavoidable on the first run around and need to be flagged later during the debugging process. Another mistake may be that we called something a 'Georama' which SOUNDS right because you think 'Geo = earth', but the Japanese (jio-rama) is actually just how they phonetically spell the English word 'diorama'. Anyway, I still think Georama sounds better."
Being so closely linked to Japan and the fortunes of prominent Japanese companies, Blaustein has a unique insight into the world of Japanese games development, and also the downward spiral they've found themselves in. His analysis of the situation makes for sad reading.
"How long has it been that Japanese games have started to take a nosedive compared to American games, sales wise? The real tragedy of this is for me - and I've read huge amounts of Japanese history, being a Japanese anthropology major - the real issue which I feel strongly about, is the Japanese view of themselves. It's a huge crisis of confidence."
"When the Japanese started to realise that Americans and others were loving their games, they were actually leading this massive movement. The best games made in Japan were games made by Japanese people for Japanese people. And then we just happened to say: whoa, they're making really cool stuff! And they were making this cool stuff unconscious of its affect on the wider world."
"So you look at the Japanese developers of today, the Xbox 360 comes out and Americans start buying nothing but war games and nothing but sports games, and the Japanese are shut out. All of sudden, no one cares about their creations. Metal Gear Solid has an interesting place on that continuum. Take the Grand Theft Auto games, before those came out, Kojima had done the most realistic 3D shooting games on a console."
"But the thing is, a Japanese developer cannot in any way, shape or form ever create a game, no matter how good the localisation is, that's got a guy running around saying 'Yo, Vinny! Get me a canolie!' It's not going to happen, because it's not within their ability. Nor should they do it. But this is where the American market has turned, and Japan's like, 'what the hell do we do? We can't make a better Grand Theft Auto than those guys.' Any yet it's in the nature of these companies to try to follow the leader. So it's like a worsening spiral, where the Japanese stop making things which interest themselves, and they become worse and worse creators, because they have no confidence in their own abilities. And when they do create something really special, we in the west don't take notice of it."
Blaustein reflected further on current trends in gaming, noting the parallel to modern society's intellectual degeneration. When I talked with Blaustein, his observations to me were right on the money, and call to mind the satirical statements made by writers such as Mike Judge in the film Idiocracy. It would seem we're heading for a future where people satisfy only their base desires, and anything which is delicate or higher minded is branded by forumites and loud teenagers with microphone headsets as being 'gay'. More worrying still is the point Blaustein raises regarding the West's military actions in the rest of the world, and how this influences the populace.
"There's quite a lot of narrow-mindedness and bigotry today. When you speak to a lot of gamers now, they always say stuff like: 'That's so fucking gay, that game's gay.' I don't know, it's the way kids talk these days. Online gaming? I don't want to do it. I think we've become a dumber society in the last 10 years, we've become much more xenophobic. And I don't think it's unrelated when you look at the number of war games. When your relationship with the rest of the world is going around shooting the hell out of things, it doesn't leave a lot of room for studying pretty Japanese characters, forming and reforming in mist-like environments."
Blaustein also shared his views on some of his favourite games, and the creators he most admires.
"I really liked playing Fallout 2. Great humour - I think that very little is required to engage with it. I think there's two types of game playing: there's constant button smashing, direction moving and keeping your focus on things in real-time. Think of a coin-op or a shooter. And then you've got a game where you can control the pace that the game is going at, and can put your attention on and off of it at the pace that you choose. So, I tend the prefer the latter, and I think they're very different animals."
"I think that there's so little thinking in game creation these days - I think peter Molyneux is a great guy, and he's trying to achieve something which few else are. He pushes the envelope of what a game is, and I think there's not many who can take games in different directions, but he's one of them. He hasn't gotten what he wants yet, but every game he gets a little bit closer to it, a kind of gradual refining of what he's trying to do. His Fable series, it speaks to me."
Of course, Blaustein also has grand ideas for a game of his own. "I do have one or two big ideas for games, but it requires a lot of resources and involves great risk. And it's frustrating to never be able to work on them, but I haven't given up - maybe if I meet the right person."
"My big idea is, for example, most people's online behaviour could be described as surfing the internet, right? Well imagine you have an online avatar that represented you, and this avatar gained experience from your online activities, just like when you dungeon crawl. What if your behaviour online, just through a passive process, was able to form a character that represented you via a series of invisible attributes? Perhaps if half of your online behaviour is checking sports scores, maybe you'll become strong. But whatever, we map some sort of internal, logical system onto the creation of these avatars that grow and change and evolve in accordance with your game playing and web surfing."
"Have you ever found an RPG game where you love the character creation screens so much, you just do it over and over? Because what you're really in love with is creating an avatar. You ever have fun making a Mii on the Wii? I would find it interesting if, through the creation of this avatar, we could expose some of the unconscious behaviours that we do in our online surfing, general computer use and gameplaying. Our surfing is like our game playing in some sense - we follow things that we want to follow. That's what human beings do, they follow things that interest them and they push away things that disgust them. And so a representation of this that went with us, on that journey, and changed with us, and their changes mimicked what may be happening inside of us."
Blaustein's vision is - in one sense - creating a connection between the avatars people use for Home, Xbox Live and the Wii, and other things related to the games they play, for example the trophies and achievements they receive. "I think it would be interesting to hook those things up, because they should be hooked up. I think it would be interesting."
I asked Blaustein if he'd intend for these avatars to be controlled within specific games.
"Absolutely. It's my big idea that you'd be able to use them in a consensual reality world - the characters would be exportable and importable into different situations. And not just games, but even things like Amazon shopping if the website had a hook to detect your character. So you would have to design it forward looking enough so that people could grab these things and exchange them between websites. I think it's a sound idea based upon certain logically consistent ideas of what players enjoy. If you make posts on a forum, you already have an avatar online, it just doesn't have any representation."
Of all the games Blaustein has been involved with, it's Shenmue which is likely to generate the most interest among fans - even more so than Metal Gear Solid.
As Blaustein explains, "It was a weird time. I think if you look up Shenmue you'll see that it was localised by IMagic. I was one of three company owners at IMagic, and I've got interesting anecdotes. Shenmue was such a problematic project, you could write a whole book about how messed up things got. You know what the budget on that thing was? $70 million dollars I'm told. And I don't know what its sales were like, but it didn't even come out on hardware that sold well. So how much of a disaster was this? This is like the videogame equivalent of that famous western movie, Heaven's Gate."
"Suzuki was coming off of huge past successes, and he was the man. And so this was going be THE thing. And surrounding us at the initial meeting were, of course, people from Sega, but also all sorts of outsourcers: localisers and sound people and recording studio people. People to make this, and people to do that. And everyone wanted a piece of that $70 million, you know? And of course that's like the worst thing you could do, is to start out a project saying we've got all this money, and then just keep throwing more money at it."
"I'll never forget the meeting for this, it was the oddest thing. I was at the meeting - the let's kick it all off meeting. And what IMagic did for Shenmue was, we were hired to handle the voice acting... Now, of course with games there's the localisation itself, and then there's the voices. The localisation is what we'd normally do, along with the voices, but we didn't get the initial localisation work."
Blaustein was reluctant to give specifics, but speculation at the time was that Yu Suzuki gave the text translation to a family member, possibly his brother-in-law, who owned a translation company. This left the voice work to go to a separate company. Unfortunately there was the added burden that Suzuki insisted that all voice acting, including the English, had to be recorded in Japan. "The reason we did it in Japan by the way, was because Mr. Suzuki wanted access to it while it was being done. He probably thought that if he could go and quality control it himself it would be better. Or I dunno, maybe he just wanted to leave his desk and go see how things were going. It was done around his schedule. It wasn't done because it was the best thing to have done. It wasn't done because we didn't have the money to do it in New York. It was simply done because that was his decision. Nobody that was doing that thought it was a good decision. And clearly it wasn't. Add that to my regrets, that we could have done a great job. It's like, if we had gone to New York or LA and did it, they'd all have been great actors. We could have had a great script and... Let me ask you and the readers, would Shenmue have done better if it'd had better actors, or wouldn't it have made a difference?"
"I don't remember how many characters were in that game, but it's hundreds. And there simply weren't enough English-speaking voice actors. In Japan you already don't have the cream of the best actors, what you have are people who were models who turned into actors, and people who were teachers who turned into actors, or people who were actors and couldn't hack it as actors in the West and so left to become actors in Japan - and those are the best actors in Japan. So the best ones you have are the ones who failed in America and went to Japan. So it was such a stupid proposition to do it there."
"The auditions go ahead, we hire basically every single person that exists and calls themselves a voice actor. The people that are doing the translation are late, and I remember it was such a messed up situation, it was so bad that stuff was going directly from the translators, without being checked, faxed to the studio and having actors just read the stuff. That's how slapdash it all became. And there were actors that had no place at all doing the acting. There was no time for direction - it was like, get it done! When you're doing it right, like with Metal Gear Solid or something like that, you set up the situation - you're not doing anything by the seat of your pants."
"I didn't direct it, but I'm sure the director was having one cut for everything: OK here's a line, read it! OK, next. It wasn't 'let's get the best performance for this line', it was just a massively messed up situation, and the end results wound up being what they are. So, play the game, listen to it, and you'll know exactly why it got that way."
Of course Blaustein wasn't at all happy with the actor situation, so in a desperate attempt to salvage the project and find talent who could fulfill their needs, he flew back to America to round up some voice actors and then fly them back to Japan specifically for the job - something which was unprecedented in the localisation industry.
"And here's a thing about Shenmue that made it even more complicated, and I can't recall why this was the case, but for some reason we were also looking for voice actors who would physically look like the characters. I think Suzuki was planning to do some kind of non-videogame media thing. Like there's that guy Corey Marshall, who played Ryo. And Debora Rabbai too. I hired these people. I came back to America, right, and I found some unknowns and some knowns. There weren't enough actors in Japan and it was the case that Mr Suzuki wanted a good looking, young unknown. Like an actor. Not even an actor, a young newbie... I don't know what he was thinking, actually, because if you look at the page of actors on Shenmue Dojo, they're all good looking people. And Deborah Rabbai, I remember interviewing her in America, she'd had a lot of experience working with animes. Look at these people, these are voice actors that were hired partially because of their looks. Doesn't that seem strange to you?"
"The one thing you can do to make hiring a voice acting cast even more difficult, you can add this condition: they have to be good looking. So here we are with this ridiculous thing added on top of it. But we weren't going to say no. So I went back to America, I put out advertisements and I got a couple of people. And the people I got were Deborah Rabbai, and certainly Corey Marshall. And he did martial arts, that's one of the reasons why he got the job. So I wrote contracts and sent them back to Japan. Corey had never been to Japan, he'd never done acting. We were doing some weird stuff, and that's just how weird a project Shenmue was. Nobody else was doing anything like that - flying actors from one country to another."
Despite all the hard work that went into finding Corey, the end result was not without irony, as Blaustein notes. "Now, let me recap. We've done a worldwide search for this guy, we find a complete amateur, not hugely talented but good looking enough to be called good looking. He did martial arts so we could say he did them. He satisfied a lot of the checkmarks, and then they changed his voice electronically at the end of all this, to make him sound younger! Isn't that ironic? Isn't that hilarious, that after all that work they change his voice?"
"I've done a lot of these projects, and a lot of the times we've talked about my past work I've complained about how the budgets are low, and there isn't enough money, and here's a case where they made so many mistakes in the opposite direction. There was poor management and too much money thrown at it. It was rushed, and I know enough about games to know you're unlikely to get a consistent product. You have bits of it that were translated well, but there were probably 20 translators touching it, would be my guess. And with that many translators, working on that many characters, with a story that diffuse, you're going to have huge problems with consistency, huge problems with the story, huge problems with characters speaking."
As Blaustein recollects, no amount of budget could save Shenmue. "Thinking that more money would solve the problem of doing it in Japan, was a mistake. I was not exaggerating when I said it could be an outstanding metaphor for the excesses that videogames reached. The last thing I'd say about it is this: its development is a fascinating story. It's one of a kind. It may be much more of a disaster than even you know. Didn't it deplete most of Sega's finances? What a story!"
I think that piece of work came through Haruhiko Inaba, he's a guy that I worked with at Konami, in the business division, and we used to talk a lot about our games ideas. In many ways he's like a Japanese version of me. We worked together in the same company post-Konami for a while, doing freelance translations together, so we were kind of partners. Senko no Ronde would have been a game where he picked up the sales from Japan and said, here Jeremy, translate this. I don't have much recollection for that game besides the name, so it's quite likely that I simply hired some translators to translate the game for me. Among the games that I list on my company's credits, even among the Japanese to English games, there are some games I translated entirely myself, and there are others where the company said to me, we've got a million words and need it done in two months, can you do it? Obviously I can't do it all myself, so maybe I'll be one translator among six. I'm arranging the translation and co-ordinating the team.
Yeah, I remember, the Legend of Han Tao. Well we did it from English into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. I didn't do any translation myself. I wore my president's hat for that. Same thing for Velvet Assassin. Sad fact is that very few big games are given enough time to be localised by one person these days. We just worked on a MMORPG called Uncharted Waters from Japanese to English. I did some work on it, but had to work with many others.
"Everyone thinks it's cool. Although I've got to talk quietly, my wife's around here. You know, it's still difficult enough being a freelancer that you go through ups and downs. As you know, it's not the most stable economic situation, however I've been doing it for 15 years. So mostly people close to me all think it's very, very cool. It's great."
"People always ask me, do you get a copy of the game you've worked on. And it's like no, not anymore. Even back in the day I rarely got a copy of the game. You know, they just don't do that. They don't give it to people on the R&D staff either, it just doesn't happen. My family thinks it's really cool. Although, it's funny, my kids, in some ways they don't really realise how cool it is because they've been growing up with it. But they're starting to get old enough to realise it's cool. Gives them playground credit (laughs)."
"I'm in videogames, I don't want to look like a Wall Street banker."
Blaustein's current company is ZPang, which is undergoing a shift in direction. From the new year Blaustein has moved with his family from America over to Japan, where the heart of videogame localisation work is. He also has several exciting works in the pipeline, especially for Apple's iPod range.
One such game, which can't be disclosed yet due to an NDA, is a classic title with deep Japanese roots, which most people would never have expected to ever reach the west. And yet, Blaustein is concerned about Apple's hardware. "Unfortunately I don't have a lot of confidence that iPod apps will necessarily pay. It reminds me a little bit of the 1980s glut that caused the whole crash of Atari, because there's just too many apps. It takes time to design games/apps and the perceived value of these things is being really degraded by the sheer glut of free or 99 cent games. So I'm not very confident that it will work."
"I'm also looking into more dubbing of anime, TV programs and so on, as well as potentially some interesting music-related material. I know some interesting people, and as an entrepreneur, you always think about the connections you have and how can you put people together to form more powerful opportunities."
"I regret the fact that I don't do as many games these days. I regret the fact that game companies don't consider a translation to be a work of art - they consider the original script something that should be done by a script writer, and it's well written for the story. But for some reason people still think that the process of localising the script into English, from the Japanese, or creating the French or Portuguese, somehow is not an art. They think that the translation is something that can just be given out to two or three translators. That to me seems remarkably small minded. You're talking about a game that was created for the Japanese, a population of 130 million people, and then it's going out to 300 million Americans and several million Europeans, and they ask for it to be translated in three weeks, a game that was worked on for two years! I don't understand what people are thinking when they do that. How can it be given such short shrift?"
With Blaustein's move from America to Japan, you'll now likely find him giving games and other media the attention they deserve when being localised. He's got several games planned, plus work in anime and a few things he'd rather not disclose just yet. Otherwise you can follow his work on the http://www.zpang.com/.
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