Interview: Looking at the SMT V Characters and Demons Localization Process

Shin Megami Tensei V is a rather massive game. There’s a lot happening. Which means there’s a lot of text too. Between interactions with characters and the SMT V negotiations with demons, ambiance is constantly being built up. To better understand how the English localization was prepared, Siliconera spoke with SMT V Lead Editor John Moralis about the title.

Jenni Lada, Siliconera: Shin Megami Tensei V ended up getting a near simultaneous launch, so what did that mean for you and the localization process?

John Moralis, Atlus: The closer we work alongside the actual content being written over in Japan, the more flexible we need to be. They’re making changes to their text at the same time we’re poring over it, editing it and trying to pound the Japan script’s ultimate truths and themes into our heads. Sometimes those cuts mean the team has to scrap lines or sequences we ended up caring about, but above all else, we’re there to bring to life their text and decisions. Plus, the advantage of working that closely alongside the devs was that we had a lot more opportunities to make sure both our teams were on the same page about the story and script’s intent.

In SMT V, negotiations with demons can be a lot more personal. What was it like handling those and how much freedom did you have when localizing them for a worldwide audience?

Moralis: One thing I started to realize as we reviewed these files was just how much comedy gets snuck into the cracks of Shin Megami Tensei as a whole. The series at large is more about the tragedy and solemn conflict, obviously, but there’s a startling degree of refuge-in-audacity banter hidden among the demons, fourth-wall-breaks, all kinds of spicy clownage that could never make it into the game’s main path. And I think series fans have recognized and appreciated that as early as the first SMT. So the key was trying to hit that exact ratio of deliberate incongruity between their imposing or unnatural appearances and their audacity, whether in the modern sense or more classically “demon”-sounding insults. Either way, it was clear all the random demons in this game will take any opportunity to thrash you physically, magically, or verbally, and by now I get the sense that’s how the fans prefer it. Seeing all the players’ flabbergasted screenshots and commentary has been adding years to my life.

The one real challenge of the demon conversations, I’d say, was being aware that we couldn’t afford to make too many petty spelling or structural mistakes. An aspect of negotiation dialogue is that you have almost zero control over what prompts appear when, over when even a single answer will enrage a demon or pacify it… and thanks to that, I’ve heard stories from colleagues of how difficult demon negotiation was to test on past titles. Having come from a QA background myself, being able to spare our valiant testing team a particularly agonizing task is always worth doing, so our editors and translators put some extra effort into refining and reviewing our work before the text hit the ROM.

Many SMT V characters and demons have unique accents and cadences. How did you ensure you properly captured everyone’s voices?

Moralis: So for SMT V’s demon conversations, we split up these specific demon archetypes across editors. So one person might be responsible for all the gentleman-type lines and another would be responsible for the lines where the demon comes across as a little kid, and so on and so forth. That way, everyone got to keep their assigned demons consistent in tone, and make sure their running gags and general style were synchronized.

Of course, the main story and voice script took several simultaneous hands on it at once to get everything done, and more often than not, we had to pass the main characters between us. So it was especially important that we all shared a vision as to how characters like Ichiro and Yakumo and Abdiel should sound in English. And that meant regular communication in our work chat, slinging English lines back and forth for checks and adjustments on both authenticity and emotional power. Especially because a great deal of SMT V’s localization took place remotely while sheltering in place, hitting and maintaining that level of communication and creative synchronicity was absolutely vital.

When negotiating with a demon in SMT V, sometimes another demon will start chatting with them instead. What was it like preparing for those? Did you find yourself researching characters’ histories for them?

Moralis: These were fascinating because they provided a lot of conversations that could really only happen in a Shin Megami Tensei game! Demons can jump in for all kinds of reasons. Setanta checking in with Scathach, Loki harassing a Valkyrie, for example, seem par for the course by their actual mythological roles… and Belphegor basically just jumps in to fling some toilet humor at otherwise-dignified demonic colleagues. But there were some that really stood out to me as making the most of SMT’s inherent mythological crossover. Manananggal recognizing a certain likeness in Loup-garou was a real treat to read and edit, for example. There’s something weirdly magical about these connections being something you can just stumble across in the course of normal play, and it really helps to make the demons feel like unique individuals instead of just extensions of your battle repertoire.

The point is, while we do have an office library of mythological textbooks and books of practical demon summoning, a lot of the mythological connections were either self-evident from the text (Loki, Odin, and the Valkyries) or cross-mythos exploration between a couple demons with something in common. When you work on a series like this, you end up having to absorb quite a bit of ambient demonic knowledge just by osmosis.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing in SMT V and conversations that are natural, but discussing what’s going on. How did you make sure different sorts of NPCs and demons would sound authentic?

Moralis: Between the concept of the Nahobino itself, the nature of the setting, and how a mid-game conflict twists from something grounded and realistic into something horrific and unnatural, I think one of the major themes of SMT V was this specific convergence of the mythic and the deliberately mundane. With that in mind, we needed to make sure everyone in the game, from the disaffected high school students to the “Ijin”-voiced demons (the ones with archaic, grand, kingly speech) came across with such strong identity that when they started bleeding over between each other, when those two worlds started colliding, you would really feel that clash. And part of that effort was analyzing who on our team had strength and passion for what kind of dialogue or character archetypes, and trying to make sure that everyone got to work on text they cared about.

How did localizations of past Shin Megami Tensei games, most notably Nocturne, influence this one?

Moralis: In a sense, we got pretty lucky that the Nocturne remaster came in when it did, because we still had the lessons still fresh in our mind from reviewing the new and old English localizations for that title. I believe Josh Malone had been our lead editor on the Nocturne remaster, and much as he might actually be an avatar of chaos himself, he absolutely loves the series and knows it inside out. He really helped us unify the approach to the various demons, and connect some of SMTV’s threads from Nocturne’s narrative echoes. Not to mention, of course, James Kuroki (Localization Producer and our project lead for SMT V) was part of the original PS2 version’s localization staff in 2003!

As the Nahobino makes choices, they’ll start heading down different routes in SMT V, so how did you handle the nuances and tones when translating to properly capture characters’ opinions?

Moralis: I think that was actually one of the more quiet divergences from past SMT titles this time around, in that the player is more in control of which path they ultimately follow. SMT IV built up your philosophical arc over the course of a bunch of moment-to-moment choices, while here in SMT V the minor decisions are more to see where your priorities lie, and the Nahobino’s ultimate fate ends up its own separate, explicit decision instead of a gradually calculated result. I can imagine it must be a hard balance to strike, weighing SMT’s signature atmosphere as an oppressive, unsympathetic apocalypse story versus giving players direct agency and impact on the world around them.

But as for the characters… not to spoil too much here, but I think it was important to show that the traditional SMT idealistic extremism these characters ultimately reach—it wasn’t a repressed misanthropic desire that enduring an apocalypse brought out of them. They were born out of common, human feelings, like pride, alienation, helplessness, wanting to shoulder other people’s burdens. It’s when these feelings were cultivated and exploited to serve a “higher cause”, or when they were pushed to their mental limits by tragedy or horror, that it morphed into something dangerous—something manipulable against an ideal’s enemies, where (like the gods’ and demons’ perspectives) the big picture became all that mattered to them in the end, regardless of any human cost. So I think that was the real aim in terms of nuance: trying to highlight what emotions drove the human characters at their core, before showing how those emotions could be warped against them.

Shin Megami Tensei V is available for the Nintendo Switch worldwide.

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