Sega’s action-adventure series Yakuza first launched in 2005, and Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is the final chapter to protagonist Kiryu Kazuma’s story. His journey has been uniquely Japanese, tackling underground criminal organizations with geopolitical tones, commenting on the way people use technology, and showcasing the country’s culture. Sega’s North American localization team at its subsidiary Atlus acts as the mediator between Western audiences and the streets of Kamurocho, contextualizing Kiryu’s adventures for overseas fans. Yakuza 6 is out in Japan, and will launch in the West on April 17 on PlayStation 4.
“I want to say we’re one of the only publishers making games set in modern-day Japan, a realistic interpretation of that,” said Atlus’s localization producer Scott Strichart in an interview with GamesBeat. “With these games, we’re trying to make sure we straddle this fine line between authenticity and clarity. We want the game to read well. We want the game to play well. We want you to understand it well. But we never want you to forget that you’re a Japanese guy in Japan.”
As the name implies, Yakuza is about the exploits of Japanese gangsters. Though the story spotlights warring factions and power struggles between the various mob “families,” it also explores local nightlife. As Kiryu traverses the neon alleyways and clubs of the fictional neighborhoods like Kamurocho, he slips in and out of various people’s lives. Each Yakuza is replete with minigames in which Kiryu races toy cars, sings karaoke, starts a cat cafe, and becomes a minor real estate mogul. Some of these activities may be familiar to Western audiences, while others may require explanation.
In Yakuza 6, the localization team uses the loading screens to share facts. Some are informative, such as explanations about Japanese honorifics, while others are more for flavor, like regional specialty noodles. Strichart says that Sega aims to explain as much as is needed while retaining the original personality, which means not necessarily translating all the words or over-explaining and simplifying concepts.
For instance, instead of replacing the word aniki with English, it’s left as-is. One loading screen explains that aniki is a term of respect and that you might use it to refer to an older brother. But if players don’t totally understand the word, or other concepts, Strichart says that context is there to help convey the gist.
“As much as we’d like to believe we’re giving as much context as possible, that we’re filling out all the holes you might have if you aren’t familiar with Japanese culture, it’s bound to still feel a little foreign,” said Strichart. “That’s totally okay.”
In a few of the games, Kiryu is fresh out of prison and unfamiliar with the explosion of new slang and pop culture trends. Strichart and his team take advantage of these situations, as Kiryu can act as a stand-in for the audience. He doesn’t get all the jokes or all the references, and it’s an opportunity for comedy and explanation.
“If he’s supposed to understand, that puts us into a harder position,” said Strichart. “He’s a Japanese man, obviously. He understands the culture and knows what’s going on. If it’s clear in the Japanese writing that Kiryu’s totally on board, we have to work in a different way—like the word aniki.”
A grown-up sense of humor
Though much of the Yakuza games is about brawling with gangsters on the streets, it’s equally about the humor. The snakeskin-wearing Majima Goro is a fan favorite, popping up to challenge Kiryu to fights while wearing increasingly outlandish costumes. And Kiryu himself acts the perfect straight man as strangers on the street pull him to absurd scams and wacky hijinks.
Strichart points to the fact that Yakuza has a mature sense of humor — it’s not so much reliant on slapstick, though that’s in there as well. But it’s a game that targets an adult audience. Some of the subtler humor can be difficult to translate, but overall, Strichart says that the original source material is relatable, which makes their job easier.
“It’s not meant to capture a teenage audience, like so many video games are. It’s built for a working man player who maybe has a kid, who understands that concept at least,” said Strichart. “That’s easy for us to translate, because we get the humor. It makes sense to me. I’m an adult player that they’d be targeting with this game. It’s easy to tell when they’re going for humor. We can say, OK, yeah, this is a funny scene, and we know how that plays out, so we make sure it’s funny in our version too.”
Strichart has had experience writing satire and comedy games. He worked on Izuna 2: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja on the Nintendo DS, as well as the Legend of Zelda parody 3D Dot Game Heroes. He’s now been on the localization team for Yakuza 0, Kiwami, and 6.
“I kind of cut my teeth on funny games for some reason,” said Strichart. “That wasn’t intentional. It was just, ‘This guy writes pretty good humor, so let’s assign him the funny games.’ I guess that worked out for me.”
Much of Yakuza’s humor is in the way Kiryu interacts with the folks he encounters. He’s out of touch and doesn’t understand what the fuss is about when it comes to social media. Sometimes he’s endearingly goofy, and confident enough to not care what people think. When he bowls a turkey (three strikes in a row) in Yakuza 0, the bowling alley attendant gives him a live chicken — which he keeps, names Nugget, and hires as a manager for his budding real estate empire.