Akemi's Anime World

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Why can’t video games be more subtitle-fan friendly?

I regularly watch anime in Japanese and English, but I rarely play Japanese video games with the original audio. Why? There are no real subtitles. Unlike anime DVDs/Blu-rays, which have a subtitle track specifically intended to be used with the Japanese audio, video games consistently only include captions of the English dub dialog (“dubtitles” if you will). This is problematic for multiple reasons; the captions may not quite represent what’s being said in Japanese, the captions aren’t timed to the original audio and several sections of a game can go entirely untranslated.

Most dubs of Japanese video games seem faithful enough, but even if the translation is well adapted for spoken English, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a good subtitle script. The captions aren’t even timed to the original audio. They look fine when the English audio is on, but with the Japanese track the captions can seemingly disappear and reappear at random.

Two Japanese games I’ve checked out recently are Vanquish and El Shaddai. There are some broad and artificially gruff-sounding voices in the dub for Vanquish so I tried to play the game in Japanese. I started off in a room for the in-game tutorial, where all the spoken instructions went entirely untranslated. Granted a brief note in English popped up that told me what to do, but I realized if I played the game in Japanese, any spoken dialog during the chaotic gameplay, including instructions or objectives, would go untranslated. The captions only come on during cut scenes.

This is a similar problem for Ed Shaddai. For example, save points are represented by a guardian angel named Lucifel who you can hear speaking directly to God when you approach him (on a cell phone no less- must be a direct line). There are no captions for Lucifel’s dialog so that little quirk in the original game’s script is lost if you choose the Japanese audio and don’t know the language. Thankfully the dub doesn’t sound bad- the dry yet casual way Lucifel speaks to God is amusing- but that’s not really the point. I want the option to watch and fully enjoy both versions, like I can with my anime DVDs.

That leads me to my ultimate question: why? Why can’t an additional script be made for the Japanese audio? I understand it would take extra time, effort and cost, but I have a hard time believing it would be cost-prohibitive. I imagine the real reason smacks of lazniess and the original audio is being included as an afterthought.

I can only guess that back in the PS2 era when bilingual Japanese games started coming out, the percentage of gamers who wanted authentic subtitles was small enough to ignore. After around 10 years the industry and consumers seem complacent with the status quo. That’s very unfortunate because it’s now nigh-impossible to affect that change in the video game industry. As it stands the only time we can hope to see an authentic script translation for Japanese dialog in video games is when a game is released without a dub, like the recent Yakuza games for the Playstation 3. Not exactly an appealing prospect.

Has anyone ever encountered a bilingual Japanese game that had an option for a closer translation of the original dialog?