Last week I spoke about the Policenauts translation patch going live in late 2009. While I feel that piece articulates my own appreciation of the game, it certainly could neither convey nor stress enough how big a deal this project has actually meant to the gaming community at large. Today… to drive my point home, I went out to meet Artemio Urbina, one of three key members of the Policenauts translation team at Policenauts.net. We talked at length about being in the throes of that chaos, its homebrew hurdles, and tips on how to become game coding deities. My endless thanks to Artemio Urbina, Michael Sawyer and Marc Laidlaw for translating Hideo Kojima’s lost art-house print.
Geno: Mr. Urbina, it’s great to finally meet you! I have been following your Twitter feed for quite some time. You’re a fascinating guy! One day you’re talking about electrical engineering, the next day math and science and the next, arcade PCB‘s! How’s everything going? What are you doing currently? Seen any good movies lately?
Thanks for your kind words. Everything is going fine, thank you. I’ve been trying to repair an Irem M72 R-Type PCB, which has several faults in audio and video. I’ve made slow but steady progress so far. It is a three layer PCB, and the three were damaged in some way. So far, two are working 100 percent again.
I’ve not watched movies lately; I’ve been more into “active” entertainment, although I firmly believe I need to balance that out with more “passive” hobbies. I’ve not been up to date with cinema and my home theatre is not calibrated properly, I need to pay more attention to that as well.
Geno: People flock to see deities both alive, dead and apparition – give them murals, a tale, and some strange angular, stone-cobbled jewelry and you have yourself a religion. Tell me: How does it feel to walk on water? Surely you must be stopped for pictures and autographs… blessings… your work on Policenauts has left you, Mark Laidlaw, and Michael Sawyer immortalized, mythical Gods. How did this all begin? What initially sparked the translation project? How did you become The Beatles?
I don’t have a religion; that is all a joke by a friend in some of the video streams and podcasts I have been working with him. In reality, I kind of dislike the joke, but it is hard to stop it now. I try to simply ignore it and move on.
The translation project didn’t open any such doors and I didn’t expect it to, either. It was more of a personal goal for me, I really wanted to play the game and I had some of the means to get it started, so I did.
Geno: I have seen pictures of the Policenauts script… Hideo Kojima seems to have intense disdain for anything abridged. One page would seem more than adequate to describe walking into a spaceship’s airlock. Doing that, however, you would never know the crew who assembled it, nor the number of pegs and nails it took to secure that exterior hatch. It’s what I love about him! As a translator though, this must have been one long, trickling drink of hemlock. In a given day, how much written translation could be done? What was your typical day like? Do you remember a page count on the actual Japanese script?
It was Marc that did the actual translation work; at most I only gave my opinion when asked regarding some choice or research that was needed at the time.
My contribution was decoding stuff like the opening credit images and writing tools for extracting and re-inserting data into the actual game. Other than that, I was responsible for the website, some research for the actual patcher, the original text decoding and rebuilding the CD structure for the game to run on a real console.
Day-to-day translation work was done by Marc. He is very professional about it. I remember talking via IM daily and discussing related topics, doing research to match the best way to translate any particular phrase. If the text referenced another piece of culture, he’d figure out how it had been translated in the past so that it all made sense to a western reader.
Just as you mention, Kojima games are very intricate works with lots of attention to detail. A series of seemingly small details add up and create something that is complex when seen as a whole, I believe Kojima creates his worlds based on this premise. Every small detail counts and makes a believable world.
This is why the game could not be translated without deep knowledge of it. Marc was the best person to do the job because he loves the game and knows it inside out, even before having the script in his hands. He always checked if the lines made sense in context, recalling or replaying that part of the game in order to polish it so that it flowed as naturally as possible. He always questioned himself if the character whose lines he was translating would say things in that manner, based in what we knew of them and how they expressed it in Japanese.
Geno: I have this vision of Marc: Michael and yourself – hunched over these huge, supercomputers and reams of paper with red ink shooting from loud printers. No one can hear anyone else talk; development PlayStation kits are cabled haphazardly into fuzzy televisions. As it happens though, you guys were in very separate parts of the world completing the patch very much isolated from each other. What sort of challenges did this kind of distance create? Did you guys ever get to meet during the project? Can you do impressions of one another, that kind of thing? It seems you would have had to become a close bunch. Any funny stories you want to share?
Artemio Urbina: We have never met. As a matter of fact, I have never spoken with Marc, but I have known him for a decade now. I consider him a good friend, and we used to chat via IM quite frequently.
And it is funny to know: I hadn’t talked with Michael until that interview for Retroware TV; until then we had only exchanged mails or forums posts at Junker HQ.
Regarding working via the Internet, I think it worked out for the best. You see, when you work with people like Michael and Marc, things tend to be very specific and clear. Messages are thought out before being sent, you can feel it. That kind of communication, with arguments and ideas backed up by reason, help a lot, mainly because a written medium is used.
Of course a lot of the work was done in emulators, and tests were run on real PlayStation models, but we never had access to a dev kit. All was done with homebrew tools.
What might have been lost forever
Geno: I have always been fascinated with the technical hurdles you guys overcame to fit all that text into the game. What sort of things were done on the more mechanical side of the project? How did you make it all work? Any special tools? Did you have access to any of the original source code?
We only had what anyone with the game CDs have; all tools were either coded by ourselves or regular hex editors and the like. Of course, that means we had no source code or insight at all. There was very little that could be called mechanical; in a sense it was all a series of small problems that needed to be overcome. The only parts that could be labeled as such were looking into data dumps, but in reality, when looking into that, you are searching for patterns and your attention is fully needed to figure it out.
Geno: With that in mind, was there anything that occurred in development that stands out as being the most difficult? Was there a make or break moment that tested everyone?
I believe most of it was make or break. All that was done was needed to create it, and each technical or logical problem was a showstopper in some way.
Geno: When tweaking anything to perfection, patience and repetition is required. Making all those corners glisten, buffing out the marks in the old silver. You guys made something peerless, professional and one of a kind… It took that aforementioned repetition to complete. Are there any particular scenes or lines of dialogue you have seen or heard more times than you would have liked? Can you recite every line of dialogue in the game? What about a favorite scene in the game? Favorite character?
The first hour or so of the game is what I saw the most, since it is the area I did most work personally on. Of course I can recite a lot of lines, and we all know a lot of scenes by heart.
Michael did have nightmares with the car chase scene, but I don’t recall the details clearly. I did have some code nightmares too, mainly the kind when you are solving problems without reaching a solution all night long, and wake up tired from it. Sometimes those do find solutions, but it was not the case for me with Policenauts.
These things take time
Geno: Policenauts and Snatcher are arguably Hideo Kojima’s greatest games. With that in mind which one do you prefer and why?
I prefer Snatcher, since it is more innocent in some regards and because I played it first. It was a way younger version of myself who was deeply impressed by it.
My favorite character is Jonathan himself.
Geno: It’s been almost four years since the Policenauts patch went live in September of 2009. What do you remember about those final days working the project? When did you know it was done? How did you feel upon release?
I remember the day we released it the most; several of those prior months are somewhat blurry. It was mostly working on details, several of them not game related. We had beta testing in the private forums for the project, and had received their feedback. I was mostly concerned with details about the distribution, dates, where to inform and having the site ready for the most part.
Geno: Are you planning to re-team with the Michael and Marc to do any more video game translations? I have always thought the Nintendo Entertainment System’s Akira could benefit from your team’s expertise.
There are no current plans for any game. Marc and I worked on SDatcher though, and we’ll work on some other related things.
Geno: What is your fondest memory of playing video games? Do you have a favorite game series? Do you collect videogames?
Artemio Urbina: It is hard to pinpoint a specific memory. They are usually of me playing with friends, usually at a game release or vacation. Discovering those new worlds and talking about them afterwards is a great experience.
I used to have several game series as favorites, but it is hard for a series to keep up with a standard. It is easier to have favorite games.
Yes I do collect games, but it is usually in order to learn more about a specific game with several releases, or simply because they are games I’ve grown fond of. My collection is very platform agnostic and not with a completist approach. It ranges from pong clone systems to arcade PCBs.
Geno: Thanks again for sitting down with me today, Mr.Urbina; it’s been an honor to speak with you. I want to say thank you again for your tireless efforts in bringing Policenauts to an entirely new audience. It’s something the gaming community at large will never forget. Any parting words for our readers before you head out today?
Thank you for your time and attention. I hope everyone interested in Policenauts enjoys it and likes it as much as we did.
Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.