The irony is that the next Live Letter is coming about a week after the PAX East panel in which one of the major points of discussion was in ensuring that the experience for all players across the world have the same reaction to the game. For the most part, that’s correct; it’s something that Square-Enix in general and Naoki Yoshida in particular has worked hard to ensure. But when it comes to the Live Letters, it’s a principle that doesn’t even pretend to get followed, and it leads to a simmering frustration that might be best served by leaving the whole thing out for good.
First and foremost, I want to clarify something: The point here is not that there should be nothing surrounding the game that’s “for” Japanese fans. While we don’t interact much (due to my relentless inability to actually speak Japanese), I think it’s wonderful that the game has events that feature stuff for fans all over the globe. We’ve had Yoshida at PAX East multiple times, the news about the next expansion has always been announced in the US, and Yoshida has had many media tours in the state; at the same time there are live Japanese events as well, and usually Japan’s fan festival gets another big expansion announcement to chew on.
Nor do the Live Letters lack for production values. It’s clear that work is put into making these sessions well-lit, giving them interesting things to look at, and generally looking professional and capable. It doesn’t look sloppy or amateurish.
No, the problem entirely comes down to the fact that Live Letters are not for the Japanese fanbase… at least, not ostensibly. They’re advertised as major things for everyone. But in practice, they’re almost unapproachable for fans who don’t have fluency in the language.
One of my pet peeves in the past few years is using videos for information in general, which is a practice I dislike. I can unpack a lot of information quickly from a written page; an hour of video requires a lot more time to get the same information across, and doesn’t tend to include useful tidbits such as an index of what’s being discussed. When looking at time to information density, text wins.
But it gets notably worse when all of that information is conveyed in a language you don’t actually speak, simply because there’s no way to be sure you heard the same thing. I’m going to go ahead and wager that most of my readers don’t speak Japanese any better than I do, and yet we’re having a promotion for a fan-centered event in that language. I can look at the pretty pictures, but I can’t actually understand what’s being said to go along with those pictures.
That’s neglecting that the community has a lot of members who can at least attempt to translate these letters, and frequently are… well, not great at it.
I don’t mean to imply snobbery there; I freely admit that my own ability to translate these things is nonexistent, so I could not do a better job. But one of the points made repeatedly during the game’s PAX East panel was that translation is a collaborative effort, with lots of vagueness and ambiguity clarified by working closely with the writers. Literal translations can be difficult in the extreme, especially when you aren’t sure exactly what was said due to mumbling or whatever.
Speaking as someone who has interviewed Yoshida more than once, I’ve frequently had his translator listen to his answer and ask him for further clarification on something, and vice-versa. So this is not a purely theoretical concern.
In simplest terms, then, you have a fan community that’s hungry for more information about a game, and a format that all but ensures the information received will be of dubious accuracy from the start. Combine that with the fact that you’re already using an inefficient format to communicate these things, and you have something that’s a persistent problem for the game. There’s this sense from official channels that Live Letters are a great way to communicate with the fans, and maybe they are if you’re in Japan, but that’s only one part of the community.
Obviously, this isn’t made better if everything is just immediately translated into English; the game officially supports four languages, which means that in order to really make this work, it’d need to be translated into English, French, and German all at the same time. Which could probably be done if everything were read off of a very precise script… but then it’s not really “live” so much as it’s an extended news skit.
That seems like too much effort for what this is, but the whole thing currently seems like too much effort for too little return.
I’m left confused as to why we keep getting Live Letters, at the end of the day; the gap in understanding is so significant, and the effort so ornate, that it seems like this would be better-spent time doing almost anything else. Does Yoshida really like doing them? Is it an effort to appeal to “the kids?” Did someone really need a video camera and this is how the team justifies the expense to the corporate offices? The mind boggles.
But the why isn’t nearly as important in this, because it only matters a little why we get them. What matters is that they’re almost certainly not fulfilling their function of distributing information in an entertaining fashion, at least not to a sizable chunk of the playerbase. An effort to each players that fails at reaching players is, by definition, a failed effort.
What would be better? Off the top of my head, if we absolutely must have Live Letters, it would seem to me that we could have press releases and the information contained therein translated and ready to go for the rest of the world. No, you might not have direct translations, but preparing the digests ahead of time alone would significantly shorten the turnaround and ameliorate any feeling of waiting to find out what’s happening.
Of course, I think ultimately this is just a game with too many languages supported to make video formats something desirable. It doesn’t ultimately work out very well, and while we’re always going to have some degree of translation gap, creating and exploiting new gaps isn’t a good approach.
So yes, I am rather dreading the letter. It’s going to be unclear and important, like trying to read a document through a layer of slime. Sure, I’ll still do it, but if you asked me the slime wouldn’t be there in the first place.
Feedback, as always, can be left in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next time around, yes, I’m going to need to actually talk about what was in the Live Letter. It’s how the cookie crumbles.