So, what do I, personally, think of all the hoopla surrounding the “censorship” of games (i.e., their localization into Western territories). I think of it in a few different senses.
Without a localization of some kind, certain games would probably never be released in the West, especially by certain companies. When Nintendo gets its hands on a project (like, say, any Fire Emblem game since 2002 or so), they will want to ensure that it sells to the widest possible audience – even at the expense of the fans. Part of the reason why these games didn’t even find a Western release until 2002 or so comes down to both the anime influences and the complexity of the games themselves, as Nintendo didn’t have confidence they would sell. Of course, Nintendo probably underestimate their audience, but you can’t fault them for this; how could they possibly know, with language barrier and all, that it would sell? So, changing a few minor details here and there probably made the game more popular than it would have been otherwise – that’s just a fact of life.
And that leads to another point – localization, translation, and the like aren’t cheap. Just for an interesting example, the translation of Earthbound/MOTHER 2 cost $50,000 USD; if we adjust for inflation, that’s about $70,000. And sure, companies spend a lot more or marketing and promotion than they do on the game in many case, but an expense remains an expense, regardless of how you want to frame it. The whole process costs a lot of money, and if you anticipate a person might not like some of the content in there, why not remove it?
I absolutely understand why people become angry when they change things in a game – we all want the pristine, untouched version of a creator’s vision. But, video games are not so much an artistic vision in many cases as a collaborative project between many parties. There’s bills to be paid and bottom lines to be reached, even as the creators keep creating, so sometimes compromises are made. That especially goes for projects crossing cultural lines. The wider the intended audience (or the more prudish the company – Nintendo, yet again), the more likely something will offend. They say controversy sells, but pissing off your intended audience certainly isn’t a success story either.
Hitting that balance will always be a difficult endeavor; some companies will just ignore it entirely, choosing to release their game in unfettered form (Bayonetta seems like the best example of this I can think of). Others will censor a game to high heaven to avoid offending pretty much anybody, as the entire early history of JRPGs will attest. And then some developers see a need to hit that just-right balance that pleases the majority of possible fans and the general population.
For the latter, note that Atlus handled the localization of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE which led to its “censorship” and T for Teen rating in the West. This is a stark contrast to the other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, certainly, so why would they do this? The Gamespot interview is quite enlightening in this regard, as Nintendo designer Hitoshi Yamagami answers the following question:
A portion of the Western audience that appreciates Japanese games become very upset when any content in a game is altered during the localization process, regardless of how big or small the detail may be. When adapting a game for Western markets, does that affect how you go about designing some elements? Or do you ever feel like you have to strip away things that are central to the game’s identity or purpose, just to make it a viable product outside of Japan?
Hitoshi Yamagami: Each country has its unique culture and taste. There are times when common sense in one country can be thoughtlessness in another. However, if we create a game with only that common sense that causes no problems in any of the countries, it can be a very boring game.
From among the various complex tastes of people worldwide, the developer selects settings and characters that appeal to as many people as possible. That being said, it is true that as we build up the settings and characters, we are sometimes obliged to change something in part of the game. This optimization does not destroy the identity of what we as developers want to convey. Developers would not accept such drastic changes. The changes made during localization are optimizations intended to bring to as many customers as possible the things that we want to convey. No major changes are made that would change what we want to convey.
And thus we see that not much seems compromised in the process of bringing the game over to the United States – even in the opinions of the developers themselves! Honestly, I’m just happy to see these games released at all, considering the time and effort of translating in this balanced way (along with changes content) seems like no easy feat. Does that mean I am easily satisfied? No, but I appreciate it when a game that looked entirely unlikely to make it to my country does, in fact, get released. I mean, I waited almost a decade for another Nobunaga’s Ambition game to finally arrive in English, so I’m happy whenever a game ends up with an official translation (Romancing SaGa 2 took more than two decades to obtain an official English release, so I’m not complaining!).
In the end, it comes down to whether these changes fundamentally impact the game experience – most often, the answer is “no”, since a lot of the changes come down to cultural differences or toning down sexually suggestive scenes/images and the like. I’ve not seen any sort of argument that really makes a convincing case against it – it’s either you get the game, or you wait for some fan translator (who may or may not succeed) to finally make the game accessible to non-Japanese gamers.
Would I like the games to be in their original form? Absolutely! In the same way I read the Bible as close to the original words as possible (with sexual/violent content and all), I would rather my media make absolutely no compromises in its vision. Tiny little things can add up to a lot. But, is that the reality when it comes to video games? In most cases, no – the mechanics always tend to trump everything else, including a rollicking tale about heroes trying to save the world. I guess that’s a muted conclusion, but take it for what it is.