By John Szczepaniak, January 2012
(Transcribed from Skype interview conducted 8 November 2011)
Interview with the wolfgirl - Agness Kaku
"I am a gun for hire. That's what I've become, when it comes to writing. And if you're not a gun for hire, you're a cog."
As a globetrotting double-native in English and Japanese, Ivy League University graduate, passionate reader of books, web designer, and huge fan of Ridley Scott's Alien, Agness Kaku is not only a fascinating character to talk with, but is also well suited to Japanese-English localisation in any form. She's done work for over 300 corporate, government and NGO clients, in everything from superconductivity to souped-up cars, temple architecture to disaster relief. She has also handled some acclaimed games, and was also responsible for writing the delightful English scripts for the Katamari series. Undoubtedly her biggest project, at least in terms of international recognition, has to be Konami's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, for the PS2.
The increasingly absurd story in the game - involving self-aware prosthetic arms, immortal waterwalking vampires, and an all-new effeminate main character Raiden - led fans to question if Hideo Kojima and his blockbuster series had jumped the shark. Countless words have been written both defending and lambasting the game, in a proverbial game of snake and mouse, trying to hail Kojima as either Zeus of the medium or a washed up hack better skilled with gameplay mechanics than actual writing. In a sad indictment of how ugly the fan community can be, some have accused Agness of not living up to previous MGS localiser Jeremy Blaustein, attempting to bait her into an argument, while others accuse her of despising Kojima's halloed source material. I interviewed Jeremy concurrently with Agness, and the truth is, not only do both localisers have a similar approach and work ethic, but Agness has been the unfortunate victim of fanboys incapable of accepting that, no matter which way you cut it, MGS2 was misguided. As author of this piece I like to think there's a bar in Sapporo where the three of us would probably all get along, trading war stories of our sometimes difficult dealings with Konami - because they are even less accommodating to the press than they are their own freelancers.ADDRESSING CRITICISM
Agness' only direct addressing of criticisms was a single forum post, stating: "I didn't despise the titles while working on them. I was 24 years old, and excited to be working on a blockbuster. I killed myself doing it. I have never taken, nor would ever take, a job and piss on it; I have a thoroughly old-world work ethic that way. Love is a beautiful thing. I can tell that a lot of you love the MGS franchise. But once every few years someone will write me, seemingly trying to get me involved in a catfight with translators for the other MGS instalments. Why are so many fans eager for bad blood? One guy from [WEBSITE REMOVED] even went so far as to request a podcast interview, then just happened to mention that he'd talked to Jeremy Blaustein and 'oh my, he thinks your work sucks, and hey, how's Tuesday night looking for the interview?' When I told the little troublemaker I had no intention of slagging off a colleague, he abruptly ceased contact."
Sadly this isn't the first example of such behaviour from a fansite - I personally know of several examples where disgruntled fans of a franchise have tracked down and harassed localisers, voice actors, programming teams, and others, simply because they didn't like how a particular videogame turned out. Not only does this disgusting and appalling behaviour embarrass the entire games industry, but these insignificant, whiny little pissant fanboys with their irrelevant points-of-view and sycophantic blogs, make it harder for legitimate journalists to work. Many a game developer has shied away from being interviewed, because reprehensible jerks have baited them in the past.
I spoke with Jeremy about these events, and he was both shocked and a little saddened that people would try to drag the two of them into an argument. Thankfully when you work in the industry as a localiser or translator, everyone tends to share a feeling of professionalism towards each other. As Jeremy said, "No, I never said anything bad. It has always been my sense that she had wanted to make changes to make it less, you know, kind of cliched. But I think by that point they were keeping a tight control on translation, and she probably couldn't get away with any changes." In earlier interviews he has also described Agness as a "real pro" when it comes to her work.
As Agness explained, these kinds of fan attacks never happened with the other blockbuster she worked on, Katamari, or the writing work she's done for over 300 other companies. "In the case of Metal Gear though, I can look back on it now and think my goodness, I was young. I was very young, I graduated College in 1996."
Speaking about her excitement at the time to be working on a well known blockbuster, Agness also revealed that as a freelancer working through INTAC she was paid less than $5,000. This is a candid answer, especially in an industry where people are cagey about revealing figures. "Oh, you can print that. Nowadays I look back and think, wow! I was willing to become a ghost and work in complete isolation, without access to the artwork or screenshots."
NO SUPPORT FROM KONAMI
This is an important point to highlight, since it's in stark contrast to how Konami treated the localisation of the first MGS. Jeremy was blessed with access not only to Kojima himself, but also three huge, hard-cased ring binders from the R&D department, one of which was filled with original drawings by Shinkawa, another was the script and another was biographies, with info about all sorts of places and weapons. Agness laughs as she recalls the comparative lack of support from Konami, "Oh no, they were all originally just Word files. I should say that I was literally never given access to Konami."
I point out that it seems as if Konami, as a publisher in the West, didn't seem to care about the game - which is especially shocking given that at the time MGS2 was the game which single-handedly sold Sony's new PlayStation 2 to the masses. Agness agrees they didn't seem to care, "That's actually exactly right, and unfortunately that's sort of prevalent throughout the entertainment industry. I've found that as I've gone on to do other entertainment products which are under real NDAs, so I really can't talk about it, there's really almost no quality checks. So it's up to ethics of the individual translator and possibly if there's a checker. That's why you see some real stinkers go out into the open market. I'm stunned that I managed to guess the context well enough. I know people have nitpicked on supposed mistranslations. It is kind of amazing that I just sort of toddled along and did the best I could, because I think now I'd look at it and go: No! I'm not doing it, I'm not working under these conditions, because I wouldn't be able to deliver a good enough product. But you know, youth is a wonderful and terrible thing."
Wishing to know more of her background I ask how Agness came to be fluent in multiple languages, and right away she catches me out for the grammatical mistake, "Is two multiple? *laughs* Yeah, I only know two languages. Japanese and English. I'm a double native, which is apparently quite unusual in these two tongues. I am completely Japanese in terms of family history. But I grew up with a father who is a career diplomat, so I grew up in seven different countries and pretty much operated in English outside home, and completely in very correct Japanese at home. So that's how I know both languages."
Surely that kind of situation is perfect for game translation, given the number that are developed in Japan and brought over? Agness isn't so sure, "You would think, but it's not normal in the industry. I should also mention that I am now comfortable calling myself a translator because I've done so much of it and get paid enough, but I've also had kind of a double career until now. I used to be and still am sort of a web person. I've done web design, usability oversight, lots of that sort of stuff. Used to work for a big publishing company called IDG in San Francisco, but I got into game translation because I was actually just doing normal translation as a part time job. And I met this agency, called INTAC. You've probably heard of this company, but they had, and I'm not sure if they still do, a fairly exclusive contract with Konami."
What's especially exciting is that Agness gave me a peek at her back-catalogue of work, which includes translations for Nintendo, Sega, Taito, Kenji Eno's WARP, and of course Konami. Even more exciting, is I was given exclusive access to all of the Konami translation files, to distribute as I please. Agness explained, "I should mention at this point, I have never signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement with Konami or INTAC, so I feel that after 10 years it should not be any kind of a problem to give you these."
I also enquired about Kenji Eno's files for D2, which Agness then contacted him about. Alas that loveable madman Eno has yet to respond to any of our emails. Despite how ridiculous and insane the game was, its warped narrative gave it a strange kind of charm. Agness was surprised to find another fan of Eno's, having been contacted before, "My goodness, you know D2? Yeah, I think I felt the same thing, actually, working on it. I'm glad that I know at least two people in the world have gotten some enjoyment out of it. Another guy wrote me about it, so I guess it was worth doing."
I then gave the link to our massive article on Eno's games, "Oh my goodness, I love these old, very pixelated graphics. Psychedelic flashbacks coming on. Whoo... D's Diner. I gotta love that. Yeah, anyway so, you'd probably enjoy going through my strange list. Votoms and Goemon, House of the Dead 2, and Sega bumper car, and all that kind of stuff. So I guess I did about 20 titles, maybe more, before Metal Gear Ghost Babel as you pointed out. I was offered MGS3, but turned it down. Bid adieu to the game industry until I was offered Katamari Damacy, in fact."
Looking over the files we see mention of a Goemon game, hoping it's the entire script, and ask about some other titles, since Hardcore Gaming 101 has articles on several. "Alas, it was just a manual for Goemon - looks like for an N64 game since it talks about the Rumble Pak. Thanks for letting me know that Shadow of Destiny actually has a following. That was an extremely drawn-out job and I distinctly remember getting quite tetchy about things like the name Homunculus. It's nice to know Eike and co. found some love out there. Aside from the INTAC stuff and Katamari franchise, I've only worked on a handful of titles. I did a lot of Sony's PostPet for an agency, was supposed to do Ace Combat 3 but the project was canned after 1 demo scene, and I think I did a bit of one of the Soul Caliburs. There was also something fairly long called Ring of Red."
Agness then explained her reasons for sharing the Konami files, keen to stress that it's not normally something she does, "For over a decade, I did right by INTAC, Konami and other INTAC clients despite not having signed an NDA. I continue to maintain non-disclosure for the last group, though any secrecy in those Word and Excel files expired as soon as the titles hit the shelf. The obligation I chose to feel towards Konami and INTAC ended after the former demanded I expunge mentions of my own work from my own website, and the latter ferried that message." This attitude from Konami isn't surprising in the least, given how poorly they treat both their staff and the press. Thankfully Agness has granted us access to Konami's files, though WARP's D2 script is currently off-limits (at least until Eno gives us the thumbs up).
Update: Well, Konami wasn't too happy about the scripts being uploaded, so they're gone from the site and won't be coming back. They're totally in their right to request they be taken down, but it is strange how domineering they are over documents for games that are over a decade old.
"I guess INTAC started giving NDAs out eventually. That was something strange about this company. I had already worked with one other agency, which was government work, so I was pretty familiar with the procedure, and on at least two occasions I offered to sign an NDA with INTAC, and was told that was not necessary both times. I guess I was actually doing a lot of other videogames titles before Konami. I'm looking at a file list and I actually started with them in 1998. I can see that the first job I did was Hard Edge, whatever that was. So the first big game I did was Hybrid Heaven, which was really ghastly."
I agree, since despite a few diehard protests to the contrary, the game was terrible to play - I actually returned it on the day of purchase. "Oh it was, OK! *laughs* I never got to play it. That's another thing, they never gave me a copy of the original Japanese game, or the final product. So I've actually never played most of the games I've worked on."
Having written about Hybrid Heaven and other games before, with the entries on her Flickr account and Hibernium, they're so eloquent and hilarious we highly recommend you visit the link and read them in their entirety. As she states: "Somewhere in Konami, there is a box where all Really Stupid Ideas go. It may be an orange crate, a novelty cookie tin, or just a sturdy cardboard box that looked too useful to toss. I am convinced that the box exists, and that it was opened sometime in 1998, because no other facts will adequately explain Hybrid Heaven. The hard truth is, the game industry is indifferent to decent writing overall, and particularly deluded when it comes to action games. The culture of the latter is that of teenage boys who aren't particularly interested in anything except what mainstream pop culture dishes out to them, and it shows. Demand better. It's no coincidence that there's nothing but sequels and formulas coming out of this relatively new, multibillion-dollar industry."
KONAMI MAKES THREATS
Agness, much like Jeremy, shows a refreshing degree of openness when discussing past work. But as is usual with Konami, say anything which challenges their position in the market and they come down on you like a ton of bricks. In fact, infamously, when a certain print magazine dared to score one of Konami's football games only a 7/10 rating, they promptly went and pulled advertising across every magazine at that publishing house, deftly showing that yes, the tail can wag the dog. Obviously I can't say which magazine, because Konami knows who I am...
Agness shared her experiences of what happened after writing the Hibernium entries for various Konami games: "It's kind of odd. I guess I never mentioned this, but a few years, actually many, many years after severing relations with INTAC. We didn't part on bad terms, I just told them I could no longer do any work for them. So this is October 2006... No, before that. I got emails from INTAC, saying Konami had come across the same site you saw, Hibernium. And they were not happy. They wanted me to pull the stuff. And I ignored the emails. I guess they would be criticisms, but I did also write that the radio play in Ghost Babel was lovely, and you know, all that stuff. So who cares what I think? Considering how much money they made, and how many awards they got. But five years ago they basically told me that... Well, Konami told INTAC to MAKE ME pull it, and at that point, the fact that there was never an NDA could have become a real issue. I chose not to say that to Konami, because I felt that INTAC could get into extreme hot water. But I think it's been long enough now."
It's doubly interesting because INTAC is based in Japan, and so any liaising would have been with Konami Japan. As Agness points out, culturally this was unexpected, "As for the level of control that was exerted about this, it was almost American, actually. Japanese companies usually don't do this kind of thing. Yeah, that was strange."
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