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Ico: Castle In The Mist And The Crossover Between Games And Literature

Ico: Castle In The Mist And The Crossover Between Games And Literature Exclusive

November 22, 2011 | By Jeriaska

November 22, 2011 | By Jeriaska
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Kajiya Productions is responsible for translating Japanese author Miyuki Miyabe's celebrated novel Ico: Castle in the Mist, inspired by the game designed by Fumito Ueda and recently re-released for the PlayStation 3 with high definition graphics.

Kajiya's Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder are no strangers to games, having previously worked in-house at developer Square Enix. Earlier this year they collaborated closely with game creator Yasumi Matsuno on the English-language localization of PlayStation Portable title Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.

Their other game credits include Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions and Final Fantasy XII. Kajiya Productions is also a recipient of a Philip K. Dick award citation for Smith's translation of the science fiction novel Harmony.

In this interview, the writers offer their unique perspectives on the areas of overlap between literary works like Miyabe's Ico and Japan's fantasy game industry. The discussion tackles two sides of creating evocative mythical environments (interactive and literary) for contemporary audiences.

Have you observed that in Japan there is less of a bias against video games among literary circles, something that would make it less risky for a famous novelist like Miyabe to write a book based on a console game like Ico?

Alexander O. Smith: This was quite awhile ago, so I think she was taking on a lot of the same risks as a Western writer publishing a game novelization today. Though there was probably a larger in crowd of readers who loved games and didn't need to be sat down and told they were art, that out crowd was just as far out of the loop as the out crowd that exists in the United States. A lot of the people who enjoyed Miyabe's earlier books were definitely in that out crowd. She was taking a risk alienating her fanbase, and maybe she was hedging her bets by printing the story in a newspaper. It was only made into a book after the serialized stories became popular.

Recently there was a New York Times review of a movie whose story was panned for unfolding "as mechanistically as a video game." It makes me wonder if such entrenched biases have made it difficult for cross-overs to exist between games and literature.

AOS: It used to be that if you were going to describe something as "flashy and without substance," you would compare it to Hollywood movies. But now you can compare flashy movies to videogames. It's just a cop-out, and I would be interested to see what some reviewers making those comparison would make of a game that is sufficiently artful, like Ico or Flower.

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For someone who might not be familiar with the process of game localization, what skills are applied in translating a book like Harmony that are also relevant to localizing a game like Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together?

AOS: That answer begins with a discussion of the differences between translating a novel versus translating a videogame, though a lot of the mechanics of the work end up being very similar. The method I follow translating Japanese to English in both of those cases places emphasis on constructing scenes. When I approach a translation, I will try to make each scene work in English the same way it does in Japanese, placing a high priority on character development, conveying information and emotional impact.

Where it becomes very different is, first of all, a game has a lot more text. With a game, you do not necessarily go from Point A to Point B, from start to finish. You tend to jump all around. I translated Harmony entirely by myself until it was submitted to Viz and an editor there did a pass. For Tactics Ogre, Joseph Reeder and I were splitting the translation down the middle and every line was vetted by the other localizer, often two or three times.

In working on this translation at Kajiya Productions, were you taking into consideration that game players might have expectations about the novel based on their experiences with Ico the game?

Joseph Reeder: This was a big concern for us. The forward explains that the novel does not follow the game step-by-step. In the Japanese publication, that's not stated until the epilogue. We moved that explanation forward as kind of a warning, because I think it makes a difference to how you approach the novel.

Obviously Alex and I didn't jump to the epilogue, so for us every time details in the novel diverged from the game, it was jarring to us as readers. Luckily Nick Mamatas, the editor at Haikasoru, agreed with us on that. With the translation, going into it you know that Ico: Castle in the Mist is riffing on the world of Ico, rather than being canon, which I think sets the reader in the right frame of mind.

What advantages would you say your company has in adapting this material over a translator who is not familiar with the game industry?

JR: I think we might have approached it with more respect for the source material than someone who was not into the gaming scene. We don't want to change the material from what it is to something that it's not.

Unfortunately, I think that a lot of the mainstream media lacks an appreciation for games. While movies have been around longer as a medium, allowing for more opportunities for great works to have arisen, I can rattle off the titles of a hundred movies with stories worse than a game like Vagrant Story. If the extent of your knowledge of games is based on commercials for first-person shooters on television, then that's a myopic view on which to be basing your conclusions.

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When it came to handling gameplay-inspired passages in Ico: Castle in the Mist, was that a situation where such knowledge of gaming proved beneficial?

JR: I think that for the English language publication, the core audience is people who have played the game. In a technical sense, having played the game ourselves makes it easier for us to know what the author is trying to describe. Our familiarity helped us to economize, drawing attention to the things that we felt would be of most interest to this audience. There were also scenes where Miyabe's novel diverges for no evident reason, where we chose to keep the translation closer to the game.

One detail that comes to mind is that at the very beginning of the game, the cage holding Yorda crashes to the bottom of the tower, rocks a little and opens, releasing her. In the Japanese publication, the cage falls to the ground and tips over onto its side. We felt this detail was not a relevant plot point, so we kept it the way it was in the game. Clearly there were going to be a lot of differences to the storyline overall, such as in the chapter on Yorda's history, so we wanted to keep the descriptions close to the game where we could.

Do you find there are varying degrees of collaboration in these two cases of literature and games? For instance, you've mentioned engaging in discussions with Tactics Ogre scenario writer Yasumi Matsuno even before the translation process has been set in motion.

AOS: Yes, games can be a much more collaborative process in terms of the input from the original author and rights holder. Translating Ico was similar to a greater extent, in that I translated the novel and then passed it to Joe for an extensive edit and cross-check before submitting to Viz.

As someone who has been working on games since Vagrant Story drew a lot of attention to the craft of localization, how did it come about that you received this offer to translate a high-profile game novelization?

AOS: Typically for a company like Viz, they will contact me and say, "We have this title, do you want to do it?" That's been the case with every book I have translated for them. To Ico, though, there's a bit more history.

After I had left Square and was still working freelance in Japan, I expected to be moving back to the States and was putting more energy into getting novel work. Ico had just come out and I loved the game, so I picked up the novel and really liked it. I took it to the publisher Kodansha International, which no longer exists, and pitched the translation. They were very interested in the project, but required you to complete the translation before they would decide whether to buy it from you. For obvious reasons, that is not something you can do unless you are independently wealthy as a translator.

When I did my first job for Viz, I again pitched Ico, but wound up working on the manga Dr. Slump. About two years later, Viz contacted me and asked if I would be interested in translating Brave Story, a novel by Miyuki Miyabe, the author of Ico. While it was not the book I had wanted to do, I translated that and also her next fantasy novel, The Book of Heroes.

When in advance of the public announcement I heard that people were working on the HD remake of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, I immediately contacted Viz again, saying, "There are rumors of a re-release of this iconic game, and we have already published two Miyuki Miyabe books. Would you be interested in doing Ico in conjunction with the game?" That finally got somewhere.

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Having translated these three novels by the author, by now you must have acquired a number of observations about Miyabe's style of writing. How do you feel she was best equipped to adapt an adventure game like Ico to the form of a fantasy novel?

AOS: She was already a famous mystery novelist when she took on the Ico project. It was her first fantasy novel and, in ways, the concept was like "fan fiction by a famous writer." That's not to denigrate either fan fiction or the novel but was the spirit in which she approached the book. She wanted to pay homage, which is mentioned in the intro.

Given Miyabe's background, did it interest you to underscore the mystery of the story in your translation, the clues and sudden realizations as to why Ico and Yorda have been locked away in the castle?

AOS: Yes, and that's something that made it a great "variation," as she calls it, on the world of Ico. She has the skills to present the mysterious package that is the game in such a way that when you unravel the threads, they come apart in a very entertaining fashion, which is the skill of a mystery writer. That rings true both in the exposition of everything that takes place before the game begins and also in explanations for why things are happening as the game progresses.

Is familiarity with the context of the game useful when you encounter ambiguity in the Japanese language text?

JR: That's right, because there are things like the gender of a person or whether an object is singular or plural that might not come up. Reading in Japanese, you don't need to think about those particularities, but that is not an option when translating into English. Having that context of the game to fall back on provides you with a safety net in those instances.

Were you looking to portray memorable moments from the game that make their way into the book a certain way? Something that you see many times in Ico is Yorda leaping across a chasm, in danger of falling and being caught by the wrist by Ico. It also takes place during one scene in the novel.

JR: Of course we wanted moments that made an impact in the game to be memorable in the novel as well. Having the game to draw on when crafting those scenes was a very useful tool, because in literature much is often left to the imagination of the reader. That's fine, but here the novel is referencing events that the reader will already have some experience with. In order to present an image that works in harmony with the image in the reader's mind, when you have to add details in a translation it's important to get those details correct.

Oftentimes antiquated prose is used in fantasy stories to suggest that everything is taking place in a faraway land. Was there a style to the dialog in Ico that you wished to establish?

JR: We definitely wanted to keep it on the simpler side of Oarchaic.O Florid language was not at all right for the world of Ico, which is successful with so little narrative. I think the tendency in games is to overwrite, and you find there is often unnecessary exposition and elaboration that does not add to the experience of the game itself. But the story of Ico is pulled off successfully without all of that contrivance, so short and sweet was the goal with the style of this translation.

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There are numerous flashbacks, both chapters that are dedicated to fleshing out the story of what went on before Ico set foot in the castle as well as visions alerting the protagonist to Yorda's troubling history with its queen. Do you feel such devices were successful in overcoming one rather obvious challenge to storytelling present in the game, namely that there are no verbal exchanges taking place between Ico and Yorda?

AOS: I thought that was fun. My main concern with that kind of thing is that when you are following a story, you don't want suddenly to be dragged off in a different direction. I never got the feeling that she was wedging in exposition. The visions are always anchored in the places where Ico and Yorda are, or the emotions they are feeling at that time.

The parts where I felt she was less strong on her first foray into fantasy were in her descriptions of the world. I think she gets caught up in the grandeur and beauty of it, without dotting all her i's and crossing all her t's. This continues in Brave Story, which is very game-like. It may even have been inspired by Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which she has gone on record saying she did play. I had localized FFTA before translating Brave Story, so the parallels seemed very clear to me, beginning with traveling to another world through a book.

Incidentally, Miyabe seems to hit her fantasy stride with her third foray into the genre, The Book of Heroes, which balances world description with tight plotting. It feels much more a standalone tale than her previous game-influenced novels.

What was the reasoning behind other instances where you felt the need to alter the Japanese text to better serve the context of the game?

AOS: The point is not to make the book faithful to the game, because it is doing so much more than the game does in terms of the narrative. The changes were intended to bring things back to the experience of the game without detracting at all from the narrative. A larger issue with the book is that it was originally serialized in a newspaper. When it was put into book form, it was not edited. That is a very common practice in Japan, and I don't know why. That required some mechanical edits, especially in the latter half of the novel.

In going through the book, I had to choose between going directly with the author's descriptions of certain rooms or to hue them a little closer to the game. It was clear that she had played the game, probably several times, but was not actually playing the game as she was writing the book. There were things that she changed for dramatic purposes, and those I did not touch. Other descriptions were changed, where it seemed that she had forgotten details or conflated rooms in her head.

There was some mirroring going on, due I think to her not having access to a map of the castle, as I did. Towers that should have been located on one side of the castle were appearing on the other side. If you had played the game and were very familiar with the layout, there were changes that would become obvious. Where it had no effect on the narrative, I brought those descriptions back to the world of the game.

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Overall, would you say that Miyabe's approach to this novelization was straightforward, or more concerned with defying expectations?

AOS: I think that she approached the novelization of the game in ways that were counter-intuitive. The elegance and beauty of the game is in its stripped down simplicity and starkness. The very lack of information is what makes it an engrossing experience. You really know nothing as you wake up with Ico in the castle. But I think Miyabe made a good call in working with her own toolbox, not competing with Ico on its own terms.

You can point to some novels that operate through obfuscation, for instance a lot of Gene Wolfe's. Had Miyabe attempted to start and end the book at the same parts as the game, it would have been a very boring read. I think she succeeded in using the strengths of the novel for the character and world building. She's losing the immediate visceral impact of the visuals found in the game, but is making up her losses by creating an engaging story with depth of character development.

You have recently formed a new publishing company together with other writers, called Bento Books. Looking ahead, do you feel there may be a place among Bento's publications for game-related media?

JR: Since the focus is e-publishing, people who are gamers are more likely to be accepting of our publishing format to begin with. It's another purely digital form of entertainment. The fact that we are translators and owners of the company lets us lower our costs and do what we want. I think it would be interesting to see gaming tie-ins be part of that. The trick for us as a publisher is acquiring the rights to translate material owned by companies like Sony Computer Entertainment.

Does it interest you at all to work with independent developers in Japan? It seems like there are increasingly game creators from small studios with a sizable audience that would cordon off their intellectual property with less red tape.

JR: That does sound interesting. In some ways, it would be closer to the degree of collaboration we are used to in localizing games. where we tend to have access to the director and writer. I think you get a better product in the end when there is that openness to communication. Alex and I, as well as our third partner, Tony, are all gamers, so I do think there's a high probability that those paths will intersect.

[For more information on Kajiya Productions, visit the company's official website. See also our Tactics Ogre interview. Images courtesy of Viz and Sony Computer Entertainment.]


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