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The Pioneers: Ted Woolsey

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Ted Woolsey was the primary translator and US producer of Squaresoft's role-playing games during the Super Nintendo era. He joined Square in 1991, and took the localization of console games to a new level. His translations, influenced by his studies in Japanese literature, raised the standards for storytelling in interactive entertainment.

 

In the early '90s, Ted Woolsey had finished his Masters program in Japanese literature and was beginning work on his dissertation when he decided to take some time off to seek employment at a videogame company in Redmond. Squaresoft was looking for a translator for the titles debuting on Nintendo's new 16-bit console. About the extent of his knowledge of videogames at the time had been some experience with the driving game Rad Racer. His major qualifications were his experience as a literary critic and whatever discipline went along with being a skilled martial artist. Only years later would he come to be known as the writer who translated Final Fantasy VI into English in just thirty days.

In Ted Woolsey's first days with Square, the company was preparing for the domestic release of their text-heavy role-playing game Final Fantasy IV. Ted discovered that the Japanese translator hired for the role had made some noticeable mistakes. He told Player One in an audio interview, "One of the descriptions for a magic effect was 'blows wizard,' as opposed to 'blows blizzard.'" Square of America's senior Vice President and several sales representatives were forced to rewrite the in-game text piece by piece. Doing what he could to give text some sense of coherence, Ted embarked earnestly as a localizer for Square's RPG's.



Screens from the SNES translation of Final Fantasy IV

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Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, Final Fantasy IV debuted on the Super Nintendo as Final Fantasy II to considerable success. The title proved there was in fact a market for text-based, story-driven titles in the West. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the producer of Final Fantasy, wanted to improve the quality of the translations, as well as the localization process, and invited Ted to Square's main office in Meguru, Japan for a short stay. In June of 1993, Ted was offered the challenge of translating Seiken Densetsu 2. The game's ROM was maxing out the memory configurations of the Super Famicom's 16 meg cartridge, so the English version demanded maximal concision. Adding to the challenges, the Japanese script underwent changes as Ted was writing, frequently requiring him to backtrack. Little of the text that was offered to him was ordered sequentially and the job had a one-month deadline. "It was just pasted together in clumps," he recalls. "Imagine shuffling a novel and having to translate the resulting mess!" But despite the difficulties, the game became one of Square's most well received titles upon its release as Secret of Mana.

Secret of Mana marked another localization success for Square, meaning two of the company's three major series had developed a following in North America. Ted describes of the period as hopeful and exhilirating: "There were times when we'd meet in Hawaii, where they'd just have the entire Square company fly over there. Those times people were just completely undone, just completely lit on the beach falling over, having a great time. It was interesting to hear that people were running around and getting into trouble in Honolulu. Honolulu is an interesting place. There are lots of dangerous obstacles there, bad things and creatures..."

It became a concern among Square's management team that the company aim to produce "one-million sellers." "They'd shipped Final Fantasy II and they felt in Tokyo that they needed something else to get people trained up on that style of gaming," says Ted. "When that one came about, we were in a board meeting and Sakaguchi-san said, 'You will make a game for America.'" The result was Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, which debuted in Japan as Final Fantasy USA. The game was constrained by several design limitations, restricted to a small ROM a fraction of the size of Final Fantasy VI. "It was a little 4 meg game, which is basically a Game Boy game that was put out on the SNES," Ted says. The game's story was simpler, the battle mechanics were less sophisticated, and the story was simplistic. As a result, the title did not sell as spectacularly as its predecessors on either side of the Pacific.


Screens from the SNES translation of Seiken Densetsu 2

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Following Secret of Mana, Squaresoft decided to port Capcom's Breath of Fire to the States, and Ted directed the localization. The next Final Fantasy game approved for North American localization was the most ambitious in the series' history. "I was given 30 days to do it, which is not a lot of time," he says. "I think there were about 1,300 pages of text and it wasn't contiguous. It was broken into pieces. People who were scenario writers would just take a chunk of scenario and dump it in. They would put in the code-in/ code-out piece or headers there and they didn't care where it was. They'd just stuck it in a file and balanced it, so it all fit in the different pieces. At any rate, I had to do my best to keep in mind all the different pieces of the game... The thing was huge!"

To prepare for the task, Ted set about playing through the side-story laden saga. He requested VHS tapes of all the cinema sequences, which never arrived. "I pounded through that as fast as I could, and unfortunately my first delivery to Tokyo, they took it and saw it was three or four hundred percent too big. And I was dumbfounded because I tried to be very concise and I think I did a pretty good translation. I felt really good about having captured a lot of the scatological humor, which of course would have to be expunged anyways for Nintendo's purposes. Some of the references to pop culture stuff that I thought were pretty cool and clever had to be ditched for branding and licensing and registration issues and stuff. At any rate, they said go back and shorten it... I did another pass at the text and gave it back to them and it was still much too large. So I went back again and this time I threw my original translation in the trash can and just looked at each section and tried to reimagine it."

With his translation, Ted took the unprecedented step of altering the names of creatures and characters to better reflect the spirit of the game. The decision assumed that a localizer had the freedom to assert independent artistic decisions, rather than attempting the misguided ideal of a literal one-to-one correspondence between English and Japanese. This liberal method prevailed over time, but not without a struggle. For instance, Ted Woolsey invented the "moogle" from the Japanese "mogri," the winged bearlike creatures inhabiting the mines of Narshe. In the first generation of Playstation titles following Ted's departure from Square, the animals were classified more faithfully to the Japanese as "mogris" and "mogs." But when Square listened to fans, it became clear that "moogle" was more appropriate to the character of the creature. Ted also determined that the Final Fantasy VI protagonist Tina, while exotic-sounding to the Japanese target audience, was too commonplace a name for Western players to find intriguing. He lent her the more appropriate "Terra," and there has yet to be an outcry among fans to reinstate her original name.

Another innovation brought about during the hectic localization process of Final Fantasy VI was the introduction of culturally relevant popular references. With great care to introduce them subtly, and without disrupting the integrity of the game's unique world, the translator snuck in a few notable historical, political, and cultural allusions that resonated with many fans. While at the time of the Persian Gulf War it rubbed some the wrong way to hear Kefka intone, while marching his troops through the desert, "Read my lips! Dispose of all who oppose us!" the inventive line fired up the imagination of many players. The quote remains in the "new" 2007 translation for the Game Boy Advance.

Screens from the SNES translation of Final Fantasy VI

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Ted Woolsey said of his next project, Chrono Trigger that it was one of his favorite games. "I loved some of the different storylines, some of the characters, the visuals... I personally find that one of the most satisfying games I ever worked on or played." Not only did he localize the project, Ted was also involved in marketing Chrono Trigger in the US, contributing to the "It's About Time" campaign, which managed to succinctly convey the spirit of the title in a single full-page ad. "By and large, it was very complicated," Ted said of the project, "because there were so many branching storylines... At that time they had hired a couple of folks on to help with the translation but they were just getting their chops wet on translating for videogames and there were still a lot of issues. I basically was asked by Sakaguchi-san to retranslate that and craft that and work on it from scratch basically. I logged another month in Tokyo and I started reworking that game as best I could to get it out in the time provided. It would have been great to have two months, two and a half months to really work on that stuff. I think at the time, as one Japanese person explained to me, they were toys for kids and chill out. 'Let's get this thing out the door.' When, in fact, these role-playing games skewed older. They were really art objects, cinematic stories for adults."



Screens from the SNES translation of Chrono Trigger

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Ted never intended Super Mario RPG to be his last project for Square. The translation involved providing a variety of dialects for the Nintendo-themed characters, whose motivations and style of speech were modeled after the archetypes found in children's Japanese animation. It was not a simple task. Ted called upon his experiences raising children in emulating the voices of popular American cartoons. In North America, the game that had been designed to serve as a bridge between the Nintendo and Squaresoft franchises became a hybrid of Japanese and Western culture. Later the title would draw comparisons with the successful Playstation 2 game, Kingdom Hearts, both for their lively musical scores by Yoko Shimomura, and their amalgamation of separate and distinct genres.


Screens from the SNES translation of Super Mario RPG

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After the success of the major Squaresoft titles in North America and Europe, the company considered localizing Final Fantasy V as Final Fantasy Extreme. However, there were lingering doubts from investors that the title, initially denied localization upon its release in Japan, could live up to the million-seller archetype. Ted says he was inspired by the sounds and visuals of the game and felt he could make an American release of Final Fantasy V a success. He plowed ahead, completing a full translation, but despite his efforts, the game was denied release in the North America. Only later did English-language players discover the title as part of the 1999 Playstation release Final Fantasy Anthology, and on the Game Boy Advance in 2006. Compared with the Game Boy ports of Final Fantasy IV and VI, which built upon the foundation of Ted Woolsey's scripts, Final Fantasy V Advance suffers noticeably.



In recent years, Ted has taken the brunt of criticism rightly attributable to the constraints of the Super Nintendo's 16-bit hardware. Judging his efforts alongside those of other translators of the time reveals that there were some remarkable accomplishments he achieved. Vindicating Ted Woolsey to the haters is easier than falling off a log.




Screenshot comparison: Japanese characters often convey twice the information in the same amount of space, requiring maximal economy on the part of English translators



Before Ted Woolsey, many English-language localizations of Japanese videogames were hampered by inadequate localizations. After his departure from Squaresoft, the Final Fantasy series reverted back to what might be called the Dark Ages of game translation. Final Fantasy VII's script, a masterpiece of involved storytelling, was adapted to the English language with an unprecedented amount of profanity and typos. Considering an entire team had divvied up the responsibilities normally entrusted to lone Woolsey, what followed was a dismal disappointment for many enthusiasts of Squaresoft's masterful storytelling.



A frightening glimpse into the Dark Ages following Woolsey's departure from Square.



Ted was all set to lead the localization of Square's epic debut of the Final Fantasy series for the Sony Playstation console in 1997. The game was a notable venture for several reasons. Originally the title had been slated for the Nintendo 64, even premiering as a demo demo at the annual SIGGRAPH convention. But when Sony's Playstation console emerged as a competitive platform, offering greater memory space over Nintendo's hardware, Square switched alliances, and had to restructure their entire gaming department to adapt.

Ted moved to Los Angeles, where Square had set up its North American headquarters, suiting the lofty goals of the up-and-coming Playstation era. However, soon after relocating, he and his family had second thoughts. They missed their home in Redmond and the moodier weather patterns. Both he and his wife had lived in LA before, enjoyed aspects of the city, but decided uprooting themselves from Washington was not worth the sacrifice. "We've got friends and relatives in that part of the world," Ted says, "but we like living up here. We love the rain, the fog, the depression, and all that stuff." He bid farewell to Square and established a videogame development house in Redmond called Big Rain, which published Shadow Madness for the Playstation before closing. Ted began work at Real Media soon after, a powerful player in the bourgeoning dot com boom, and became a founding member of of Real Arcade's casual games division, where he works today as General Manager of Online Game Service.






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Roli O. Siliconera, "The Pioneers: Ted Woolsey. A Worthy Read."

Sources



Player One Podcast, "Lost In Translation" transcript, http://playerone.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=182624

Wikipedia entry, Ted Woolsey,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Woolsey

Land of the Crazy Face, Legend of Woolsey, http://www.turkeyworld.org/articles.asp?section=woolsey

Frank Cifaldi, Gamasutra, Playing Catch-Up: Ted Woolsey http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=6361

Brendan McGrath, Interview, http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Alley/8973/interview.html

Lost Levels Online, Final Fantasy 64,
http://www.lostlevels.org/200510/




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Wow... amazing article Jeriaska. Thanks for putting this together.
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