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On the Wright Track: The Writers of Phoenix Wright's Sequel Discuss Their New Case

Jan 18, 2007

Bringing the drama (and comedy) back to the courtroom.

by Chris Hoffman

Capcom has shipped the latest adventures of its porcupine-haired lawyer to stores across North America courtesy of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Justice for All on Nintendo DS. If you caught the “Court of Appeal” feature in Nintendo Power V211, you already know about the latest proceedings, which include four complex cases, loads of crazy characters, a new Psyche-Lock system to break through witnesses’ lies, and, of course, a little help from the psychic realm. You also got to find out a little about the game’s localization process—the art of translating, rewriting, and adapting the game to make it more suitable for North American audiences.

Although Nintendo Power was able to run only a handful of questions and answers, here's your chance to get the full, unabridged scoop on writing dialogue for gaming's most famous lawyer, straight from English localizers JP Kellams, Janet Hsu and Eric Bailey, and editor Brandon Gay.

Nintendo Power: How would you compare the localization of Phoenix Wright to other games you’ve worked on?

Brandon Gay: As far as text alone, Phoenix Wright is one of our largest games to localize. Since it is a text-based game, there is a high emphasis on flow and consistency among the characters. This is in contrast to other games such as Devil May Cry or Resident Evil where the story almost takes a backseat to the action of the game. It isn’t that the story is unimportant in those games, but a player may be more apt to look past the story in those games since the main focus in those games is the action. With Phoenix Wright you are trying to convey an entire world and in-depth characters through text alone. This makes it a challenge to present characters that are applicable to the US market. These characters all started off as much more Japanese-style characters, with jokes and dialogue designed with the Japanese player in mind. So part of the challenge was to make the characters and the world itself relevant to an American audience. Also, in working on Justice for All, we had to make sure the characters that reappear from the first Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game stayed consistent with how they behaved in that game. The fans of Phoenix Wright have grown quite affectionate to the characters that populate this world, so we wanted to stay true to the characters they have come to either love or hate.

JP Kellams: There is a fair amount of pressure because of how well the localization for Phoenix Wright was received, but there is also quite a bit of freedom creatively. All titles require you to match the localization to the tone of the game and Japanese text. In a serious game, an off-the-wall joke would be distracting. However, with Justice for All, the subject and style of the game give you the creative ability to add humor and little touches that just wouldn’t fit into other games.

Janet Hsu: Personally, compared with other titles I have worked on, I feel that Phoenix Wright demands a lot of yourself and your ability to understand the characters on a deeper level. Because some of the characters have a lot of depth to them, you almost have to become them in a sense to get the nuance and motivations in their lines right.

NP: What was your philosophy for determining North American character names?

Brandon: A lot of the character names were determined with the Japanese names in mind. Some of the Japanese names were already quite clever, so we wanted to keep the same feel they had. Obviously, with some names, they had to be changed quite drastically from their Japanese counterparts. But we wanted to keep the humor aspect of the Japanese names when we came up with the English names. Since there is so much underlying humor in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, we wanted the names to have the same type of double meanings that the Japanese names had.

JP: There is this mystique that names get handed down from upon high and are forced upon us. Not so. For my part, I try to make names that lean on popular culture so they have a tinge of familiarity. For instance, the logic behind the name of Lawrence “Moe” Curls should be instantly indefinable by older players, but should still give younger players that instant identification that he is a slapstick-loving clown. This popular-culture identification is something that Shu Takumi [the game’s director and creator] does very well with the Japanese naming and I try to follow that spirit when it comes to naming.

Janet: I was not as pop-culture-oriented as JP since in his episode, Takumi-san had used more pop culture references in the original Japanese, but for cases 1 and 2, I kept the play-on-words naming the first Phoenix Wright is so famous for. However, due to the more dramatic feel of the last case, I kept more to the naming sense Takumi-san used there and created names that sounded more like real names, but had deeper meanings (sometimes more than one) to them. Incidentally, Takumi-san personally approved all the English names in this game. I can now fondly look back and remember we had an interesting time bouncing names back and forth for a few days for one of the characters which he thought didn’t convey the same feeling as the Japanese [name].

NP: If you worked on the first Phoenix Wright, what was the process like determining Phoenix’s name? What other names were considered but rejected? Also, please elaborate on Oldbag’s name.

Brandon: Ahh, making me go back into the memory banks for this one [laughs]. We actually came up with a rather large list of names for the Phoenix Wright character. We consulted with our American branch on what would be the best name for the title character. It was agreed that Phoenix Wright would be the best and most appropriate name for the title character.

As for Wendy Oldbag, I believe that name originated from the mind of Alex Smith, who translated the first title, but the story behind it is a mystery.

Eric Bailey: We wanted to make sure that [Phoenix’s] first name was something that would really stand out with players, and so we went back and forth with the translator and the R&D team to determine the name that would work. During the brainstorming, when everyone was throwing out whatever names came to mind, there was a wide range of them—everything from Cole to Wilton—but in the end Phoenix had a good ring to it and symbolized rising from the ashes, perfect for the game’s theme, which is turnabouts. We also needed a shortened form of Phoenix for some of the characters to use in the dialog and the final nickname arrived at was “Nick” since it sounded natural but was still reasonable given the sound of “Phoenix.” Of course, we always made sure to explain any of the naming choices to the game’s creator to make sure it was something he would like and he ended up liking Phoenix Wright as well.

Unfortunately no one here seems to recall the exact story behind how Wendy Oldbag’s name came about, so it will go down as a mystery. In the end, it was a perfect choice for the character and works well with the dialog around her, so we are glad it became her final name. It’s hard to imagine her any other way now.

NP: What were some of the most radical changes made to any of the game’s characters or plot points?

Brandon: I am not sure any character underwent “radical” changes, as that would have greatly affected the overall arc of the game. Say changing a character from “evil” to “good,” as this would have greatly altered the story from the original concepts. The point that should be made is that while many aspects of the game had to be altered to suit the US player, we would be doing a great disservice to completely alter/change characters and/or plot points. It also would mean rewriting large parts of the game if we were to change key plot points. We tried to walk the fine line of keeping the original vision while making an enjoyable game for English-speakers.

JP: There were concerns we would have to change some of the more mature sections of the Japanese version, but luckily, everything was able to get through unscathed even though I had to tone down some things because concepts of age and maturity are a bit different in the west. I think the biggest changes come to the jokes. Some of them are just incomprehensible to westerners, and while there is a vocal set that wants everything exactly the same, I feel the jokes have to be made culturally relevant to gamers.

Janet: Plot-wise, we didn’t have to change anything, but character-wise, we had a few things we had to change. For example, there is one character who is a bit on the perverse side of things, and while it’s alright to make jokes about being perverse in Japanese culture, that sort of thing is not so welcomed in our own, so he had to be toned down.

NP: What were some jokes that had to be completely reworked from the Japanese version?

Brandon: A lot of the jokes that involve Phoenix’s last name “Wright” were new jokes for the US version of the game. Since his name is not Phoenix Wright in the Japanese version, all of these jokes were new.

Generally speaking, most of the jokes that appear in the English version are quite different than the Japanese version due to the differences in humor. Sarcasm, for instance, is not something that most Japanese people will find humorous. It was important to keep the overall humor of the game, but to convey it in a way that an English-speaking audience could understand and find funny.

JP: My favorite example is when Moe goes crazy in case 3. Whenever caught in a lie, he would launch into a stream of funny, but untranslatable gibberish. In the English version, Moe’s gibberish has become an upscale kind of jibber jabber.

Janet: The humor of this game relies heavily on its jokes . . . we had to change quite a number of them. A lot of Japanese humor is derived from cultural references, but more than cultural references, this series is about wordplay. Takumi-san is a huge fan of playing with words to extract humor, and needless to say, Japanese word-based jokes are not translatable. So we created a lot of jokes from scratch. One of my personal favorites that we came up with has to do with Pearl and her comments about the TV remote in episode 4.

NP: In the first Phoenix, the setting seemed to intentionally not be specified, but in Justice for All, there’s a distinctly Japanese village, and at the same time, “the Heartland” is mentioned as “part of this country.” There’s also the matter of which side of the car the steering wheel is on. How did you deal with these cultural and geographic issues?

Brandon: The US version of Phoenix Wright: Justice for All is set in the US. We think that while some aspects of the game may have a Japanese flair, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is set in Japan. There are many areas within the United States where Japanese culture and traditions are observed. Maya’s home village is one of these areas.

JP: You change them to something culturally relevant to your target audience. Steering wheels, signboards, etc. all have to make sense to everyone picking up and playing the game. While it has an anime feel, Phoenix Wright shouldn’t require a Japanese degree to play the English version.

Janet: Actually, we set the English version of the game to take place in Los Angeles, hence the time-difference puzzle in the first game. However, had we stated that in the game, it probably would have ruined that puzzle. The cultural and geographical issues were not as big of a problem as some people might imagine. I personally feel that since the world of Phoenix Wright is clearly not our own, some differences can be allowed. Things like the steering wheel can certainly be the same, but a Japanese-style village could theoretically exist if, say, the Fey family immigrated and then established their own village in a mountainous area of California. At least, that’s how I rationalized it.

NP: What characters did you especially enjoy writing for? Were there any characters that were particularly challenging?

Brandon: Some characters with extreme personality quirks are always both fun and stressful to write for. Moe the clown, for example, presented a challenge of writing for a clown who is no longer considered funny by anyone but himself. It was also important to show that this character had a big heart. So it was a challenge to find the proper balance between silly jokes and serious dialogue so that the player would not become annoyed by his “craziness.” We think the payoff, though, is well worth it when it is done right. We feel we were able to create a character that the player will both like and dislike at the same time. We believe this helps to create a more realistic and believable character.

JP: Moe is my boy. I love him like a clown loves a Volkswagen. As far as challenging characters, Acro sparked some heated arguments on how to get his tone and personality right.

Janet: Wow, that’s tough. I enjoyed writing all of them, to be honest. Each character had their own unique trait that I loved and even characters like Lotta Hart or Wendy Oldbag, who some people found annoying, had their own charm. But if I had to pick three, I’d say Franziska von Karma, Shelly de Killer, and Adrian Andrews. As for challenging, I’d say Morgan Fey is the winner. Her speech pattern in Japanese is a very old style and translating that into English was a tough one.

NP: Were there any big graphical changes that had to be made during the localization process?

Brandon: As with most games that originate in Japan, there are graphics that have Japanese Kanji or other Japanese characters on them that have to be changed for an American version. Since Phoenix Wright doesn’t rely as heavily on changing graphics, the changes are not as difficult to make.

Janet: There were a few changes that were made, and most had to do with changing signs in the background and clues into their English counterparts. However, one of the more interesting changes had to do with how to change a distinctively Japanese seal into something more Western. We decided in the end that if we were to go with a signature, it would give the identity of the person away, so we dropped that part of the picture entirely.

NP: Did you have any localization troubles stemming from the differences between real law and the way law is portrayed in the game?

Brandon: The world of Phoenix Wright is based more upon the Japanese structure of law than US law. While references and dialogue were able to be translated into English, the law of the game still stayed fundamentally intact from the original Japanese version. This is one area that we really couldn’t change without altering the entire game structure. We could make references and characters relevant for US audiences, but to change the law structure of the game would have sacrificed what made the game so popular in the first place. So for American audiences, I am sure at times the laws of the Phoenix Wright world will be quite wacky.

JP: Nope. I don’t recommend playing Phoenix Wright to study for the bar examination.

Janet: Actually, there is one that caused us to rethink how to phrase a few sentences in the game, but if I told you now, it would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, the way the law is portrayed in the game is more Japanese than not, but enough of it is different from real Japanese law that we could take similar liberties within the confines of the American legal system.

NP: What are your thoughts on Phoenix being successful enough to get a sequel in North America?

Brandon: It is actually quite surprising that Phoenix Wright was successful in the US. Text-based adventure games have been declining in popularity over the past 10 years or so. But it goes to show that people still love a good story combined with a good mystery. We also think that people can really relate to the characters. In too many games there are very flat, one-dimensional characters. In the world of Phoenix Wright, while the characters may appear wacky, the player can get a real sense of the makeup of each character. We believe the characters in Phoenix Wright are not so black-and-white, that they feel more like real people. We believe this aspect is important in telling a good story and people have picked up on that.

JP: Originally it wasn’t thought that the game could work in the States. It is a testament to both Takumi-san’s story and all of those involved in the localization that such a unique game could find a home where just a few years ago no one thought it was possible.

Janet: All I can say is wow. I think Phoenix’s success has surprised everyone here, but thank you, everyone, for your support. I hope Justice for All lives up to its predecessor, and please look forward to more of the Ace Attorney series in the future!

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