The Lore Train: Interview With Michael-Christopher Koji Fox (Fernehalwes)
A couple of weeks ago at E3, we got the chance to sit down with Michael-Christopher Koji Fox and ask him about his humble beginnings. Mentions of Las Vegas, cults, Predator references, and 80’s music make up the rest of what is one of the most fun (and longest) interviews we’ve ever done!
Read on for a look at how the members of the localization team behind Final Fantasy XIV do what they do in this special edition of The Lore Train!
GE: How did you get started at Square Enix? We know that you’ve been involved with Final Fantasy XI for some time. What was the path you took to get to this point?
MCKF: I’ve loved games forever and I wanted to get into the game industry. Back when I was in high school, getting into the game industry meant programming and making games. So I took a programming class in 10th grade and… I sucked at it. The final project was to get into a group of four people and make a game. We made a game on the mac about going to Las Vegas. One guy made poker, one made roulette, one made blackjack… and I made the game that when you ran out of money you could go to the park and rob the old lady. You just had an old women waking from the right side of the screen to the left and you were in the top of a tree. There was a little cursor moving back and forth on the bottom of the screen and you had to press the space bar and stop it right underneath her in order to jump down on her and get her, and if you missed, you got caught by the cops and hung. Death penalty for trying to rob a woman and yeah, we got a B and I knew I wasn’t cut out for making games so I kind of gave up.
I really loved Japan and I was taking Japanese classes in high school at that time and I really wanted to continue. So I thought OK, maybe I can get over to Japan. What can I do when I get over there? Well OK, Japanese people all learn English so if I can be an English teacher, I’ll have a job in Japan. So I came over to Japan and I entered a Japanese university and studied for four years, got my teaching license and government certification and became the first American person ever to get his teaching license and teaching certification in the northern island of Hokkaido. I taught there for 3 years in a junior high school. I was also the basketball coach, the kids sucked at basketball but they were great kids. I think they sucked at basketball because I was a sucky coach. I loved doing it, but in the back of my head the whole time, it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I would come home from work and play Final Fantasy. I came home from work and got into the Final Fantasy XI beta and I was playing beta and then the original release and it was what got me through those hard days. I really loved FFXI. I was actually online looking for FFXI hints on how to complete quests and went to the Square Enix page thinking that there might be something there and I saw that they were hiring for localization. It was just immediate… localization! Oh yeah! Why didn’t I think of this ten years ago! So I applied and I got in. I think one of the main reasons I got in was because I was in the right place at the right time because they were looking for someone to translate Final Fantasy XI for the English version. There was so much text so they were hiring new people to come in. Because I had already been playing they said “oh wow you don’t need any familiarization! you can start today!” So my second day I was translating support desk text.
Since then, I’ve worked for so many years on FFXI and I’ve loved it. I’ve had really good relationships with the development team and Tanaka-san. Even though I stepped away from FFXI for a little bit and worked on Dirge of Cerberus and also Code Age Commanders which was only released in Japan. It was going to be released in America and then they decided not to release it so I translated this whole game and it never got released. I also helped out with Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles My Life As A King and did a bunch of little projects. However, my heart was always with Final Fantasy and I actually returned to FFXI and helped with the beginnings of Wings of the Goddess. Just around that time is when Rapture project, or Final Fantasy XIV, started up and because Tanaka-san was working on that and I was working with him for so long he asked me if I’d like to be lead localization on that project. So I was in from the ground floor there and that flowed over into when Yoshida-san took over with his new vision. The localization vision was still the same, we still wanted to have the highest quality product, it doesn’t matter who the Director is, we know that maintaining the lore is something that localization has a really big hand in. If translators change, even if the Japanese writers are the same, things can get different and then you’re alienating this whole user base that’s expecting one thing but then they’re getting something else so I’m sticking with it and having just as much fun as I was having on 1.0 and FFXI.
GE: In version 1.0, you had the chance to make your own quest. Can you tell us what that was like and if you’ve been able to do that for A Realm Reborn
MCKF: I’ve had a bunch of quest ideas for a long time. There were plans to release some of them earlier, but we had the change of the guard and a lot of craziness happened and we were scrambling to get this new storyline up and have it completed. The main thing was to get the storyline complete and have something in place to explain what was going to happen to the world and tie it into 2.0. And they were like “yeah…. you know that quest we said we would let you do? Maybe in the next patch.” and then the next patch was “yeah about that quest.. maybe in the next patch.”
Finally towards the end there, the idea of the cults, the Lambs of Dalamud started appearing in other quests and so they said “hey you wrote that quest about the cults! Can we use that here?” So it finally fit into their story and they allowed me to bring it in. I think it worked really well. The point there being… it being a JRPG in the sense that it’s an RPG made by Japanese developers and with them it’s about bonding together and having fun and being with your friends and it’s usually a lot of lighter subjects. I know there are a lot of dark subjects in Final Fantasy XI, a lot of dark things happened, but me personally, while I like that, I like my dark fantasy as well. I like it the grittiness and people dying and people getting tricked and things like that, and I saw we didn’t have a lot of those in 1.0 where you would go in thinking one thing and them BOOM you’d be betrayed. So I wanted to put something in to make players go “oooooh! you! nooooo!”
When you think about it, the world is coming to an end. If that really happened the crazies would be coming out! There’s enough crazy people in the world now with it not coming to an end… if it got out that the world is going to end soon.. man! So I wanted to get that across because how would the people of Eorzea go crazy? So I’m thinking okay, you have this giant thing coming down and no one knows what it is, so of course you are going to have people that have theories and people that will worship it because people will worship anything if it’s grand and far away, so why not have this group of people that worship this thing but they think it’s something else and then it turns into a blood fest. It was fun seeing the players reaction to that and even some people on the dev team thought it was pretty good. Hopefully I’ll get more chances to do that with 2.0. There have been talks about me getting in there a little more. Right now it’s mainly about getting the game done and they have their ideas. Yoshida has his plans about what he wants to do, so we’ve been building up those quests for a long time now. We have hundreds of quests to explain the 2.0 story. Once that is told, we’ll have expansions and with those we’ll get a little more in there. They’ve told me they want to do some more stuff but until then I’ll chill, but I have a lots of good ideas, I’m looking forward to it!
GE: How do you approach writing dialogue for a character? How do you come up with the way they talk and phrase things?
MCKF: The greatest thing about being with the development team and being in japan – and not just an outsourced translator that’s a couple thousand miles away from the team that gets files via a middle man that knows nothing about the game – being actually there…. I sit right next to the main planner. When we get new quests or a new character I can just go right to them and say “what type of character is this? What happened to him before the quest? What happens to him after?” that way I can figure out who the character is and base a characterization off of that.
Back in Final Fantasy XI, characterization was really based on race. The Elvaan would speak very proper, and the Tarutaru would use alliteration and use “taru” at the end of all of their words and the Mithra would roll their ‘r’s and it was like that around all of Vana’diel, and they all spoke the same way. This time we went something with more city-state and region based. When you look at the US, yeah everyone speaks English and there are a lot of races in America, but it’s not only speech based on race, but what area you’re from. People in New York will speak similarly, people in Texas will use different types of words or inflection no matter what race they are because they’re living in that area. We do have racial ticks, so the Elezen will do speak a little more in the proper English and the Lalafell will be a little more cuter, but its more based on the city that they live in. So in Gridania where’s its all laid back and cool, there’s a tendency to speak in that proper English, be more calm and relaxed and not use as much slang. In Ul’dah, because it’s a city of commerce you have different classes like upper, middle and lower. So in Ul’dah there’s a big range. You’re going to get the lower class with their broken English and a lot of slang, whereas the upper class will be speaking like they’re looking down upon you. In Limsa Lominsa, it’s a town based on Piracy. There are ship builders, pirates, and sailors, so we give it the feeling that the whole city is like that. That’s why there are Lalafell in Limsa Lominsa that say “you aren’t worth an ounce of piss!” No matter how cute you are, even if you’re a Lalafell, if you’re living around pirates, that piracy is going to rub off on you, so that’s what we wanted to do there, to give the town a feel, and the people living in that town to be a reflection of the type of town it was.
GE: Is all of that reflected in the different localizations of the game as well?
MCKF: This is interesting, because I think, and again, I’m sure some people will disagree with me, but because we have so many people around the world speaking English, there are a lot more types of dialects and so many more words. There are a lot of different ways to get something across in English. Whereas with Japanese, because it’s a language mostly used in Japan, by Japanese people, there aren’t as many ways to have fun with the language as there are in English. So while I’m not saying that there are no characterizations in Japanese, I don’t believe that as much can be done. Good writers in Japanese can find ways, and there are subtle differences, but I think we can have more fun in English and if we can do that I don’t want to have five or six types of characterizations, I want to have lots of them because I think its more fun for the players if they know that the characters are going to speak in a weird type of way or this one is going to speak in a more proper type of way. It makes it fun because it makes the characters stick out more. So I think we have a little more fun than the Japanese version does, but that’s not to say that the Japanese version is boring and doesn’t have any characterization. The French and German teams do what they do. I think the German team likes to follow the English and have as much fun as we do, and I think the French team enjoys following the Japanese. Why they do that? You’d have to ask them, I don’t want to answer for them. It’s not really set in stone either because they like to go back and forth. We are given a lot of freedom.
GE: Do the French and German teams have access to your English translations by the time that they are localizing so they can work off both the Japanese and the English?
MCKF: Actually, because we’re all doing this simultaneously, they might not have the access. They can all translate from Japanese. I think we must have the best people in the business because not only do they have their own native languages, and are translating from Japanese, but each one of them is fluent in English. All of our communication is done in English so they have three languages, they’re like diplomat level people translating games for Square Enix. They’re translating huge amounts of text, hundreds of thousands of characters within a small amount of time and getting this high quality, I love it.
To answer your question, we all translate at the same time, but we all translate what we want to first. We get our chunk of text and then do what we want to do. So if there’s something that I do first, they can look off the English and Japanese and then go off which one they want or maybe get inspiration from both. They might translate theirs from Japanese but then once the English is done maybe they’ll go back and brush it up. Because the French and German teams are looking at our text, they’ll give a lot of feedback too so they can give us ideas as well. It’s a really close knit team. A lot of games that are outsourced have little communication. Our team is all together, with the Development team. We can make sure things are consistent, we know what’s going on, we know why a dev member wrote a certain character this way and what his motivation is and what he wants us to convey – or what she wants us to convey because a lot of our writers are female. The game industry is very male driven, except for our writing team. Our writing team has a lot of female writers, it’s not that there aren’t any male writers, but compared to the other departments the writing team has a really good balance.
GE: There are a lot of pop culture references in the game. There are F.A.T.Es like Breaking Bud or Clever Girls where you fight some raptors. Do you have a favorite reference or references in A Realm Reborn that you can tell us about?
MCKF: Oh man… well you know our favorite one: Ifrit Bleeds, We Can Kill It. That one was from Steven Reinhart, he just stood up from his booth one day and said “guys come here!” and he’s like “Ifrit bleeds we can kill it!” and we were all “oh my god! ahhh!” We have fun with those. A lot of people say “oh you’re ruining my immersion, there are no 80’s in Eorzea” and right, there aren’t and that’s why you won’t see stuff like that in quest dialogue. But quest titles… you gotta let us have some fun there. Sometimes when I’m writing a quest, I’ll get the title right away. When you’re doing levequests and F.A.T.Es where you’re doing hundreds of them I usually do the quests first and then give the titles later. And I’ll know that “okay today is a title day” so the night before I’ll listen to some 80’s or 90’s music or I’ll flip on some TV or go through IMDB and look through some movies I watched when I was younger or hit reddit and see what’s trending and check some memes out and see if I can use some of those. All of us on the team love games and we love fantasy, but we also love pop culture from around the world and we know that our users love it to so we want to try and put that stuff in.
I just did a bunch of F.A.T.Es, we have around 150 coming in beta 3. There is a F.A.T.E where you fight Old Six Arms, which was one of the roaming NMs from 1.0. I named it (I Just) Died In Six Arms Tonight off of the Cutting Crew song (I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight. I’m pretty proud of that one, but I’m sure there are some people that will be like “uggggggggggh”. There are a ton of those, it’s pretty much just inspiration. Every single person on the team loves those, so it’s not like we have one guy that’s like “I’m never going to do those puns” everyone is like “what pun can I put in next?!”. Hopefully we won’t get to the point where we’re over doing it, I don’t think we’re ever going to put it into quest text, but for titles I’m going to have as much fun as I can.
GE: Well there was that levequest that talked about Sephiroth…
MCKF: (laughs) That’s fan service! Yoshi-P is bringing back characters from former Final Fantasy games into the world… so… okay, I’m not going to say one hundred percent but, you’re not going to see Sephiroth appearing in the main scenario, let’s put it that way.
GE: Not main scenario but maybe in a quest….?
MCKF: Can’t get that from me. You can’t get that from me!
GE: So I’m guessing that the titles for all of those quests then are differnet in Japanese?
MCKF: Yeah, and we get the OK from Yoshida-san and the quest team. With the Japanese, and the thing is, in 1.0 and the beginnings of beta, they didn’t have any fun with their quest titles. They’re pretty straight forward, especially levequests. If you had a levequest to make leather bags for a guy in Bentbranch it’s probably called like Bentbranch crafting: leather bags! And it’s like… wow really? Their whole thing was that because they were repeatable and not part of the story then just make them systematic. So I said well that’s not a good reason, if you can make them part of the story then why not do it? By giving it a cool title and maybe… why does this person need 100 leather bags? There has to be a reason! So maybe a Qiqirn came and stole all the bags we were supposed to ship to the Sunsilk in Ul’dah so we need bags now or we’ll lose our contract! It’s still the same thing, but now you have a reason why and you have “oh Qiqirns steal things!” and “oh we have business dealings with people in Ul’dah!”.
What I want the players to know, it’s not the localization team going “oh here’s that Japanese, lets ignore that and do our own thing.” because that’s not what we do. The Japanese that’s there is great, we have great writers and this great director that goes over everything to make sure it’s high quality. What we’re doing is taking a great product and making it even greater for the western market. There are a lot of things in Japanese that don’t get across language wise, there are a lot of things when they make their pop culture reference where if we make the same reference, no one in the west is going to know it and it’ll alienate a big part of the audience that’s not familiar with Japanese culture. So to make something that is not alien too, that you can feel like you’re part of the world without any kind of language or cultural barriers, we want to remove those and get across more than the text is there, but get across the experience. When the Japanese writers write their text, maybe they want the player to feel sad here, or laugh here or feel angry and want to go fight something, so if the words we choose, even if they’re a direct translation, don’t make the player feel those emotions then we’ve failed as localizers.
We want to make sure that we get across not only the word message, but the emotional message as well. It’s not like we’re changing things for the sake of changing it, and whenever we make any major changes we always get the green light from the development team, the writers, the lore planners and from Yoshida-san as well. I can tell you right now, the Chocobo that fights alongside you, in Japanese it’s referred to as your “buddy”. We didn’t’ want to go with your buddy in English because guess what else gets to be a buddy? Magitek Armor. Is your Magitek Armor really your buddy? So going to him and saying “we want to go with a different word is this OK? We want to call it a companion because it can be your companion, Chocobos and Magitek can be your companion, if we add anything in the future, we don’t know what’s going to come, but say a human comes in there, that could be a companion- it fits better in English.” and he said “OK that’s cool” and he allowed that. Sometimes we’ll go to him and ask to change stuff and he says “No, I want you to use this term instead because I want this term to be the same for everyone” and we have to respect that. He understands that different markets have different needs and English in Japan is different from English in the rest of the world. Japanese people maybe know a couple hundred thousand words, and what’s cool in English to Japanese people is not always the coolest word to Japanese people or British people or Australian people and so he understands that and allows us a lot of freedom.