Game localisation is a tricky business, and in some cases game publishers can't win. Leave content untouched and cultures can collide and some gamers get confused or, worst case scenario, are offended. Make changes and some fans bemoan the fact. It's a tightrope.
Of course, often localisation happens and we don't notice or care. Practically every game has differences in subtitles, names and language, of course they do - Europe, North America and Japan are distinct markets that result in tweaks both large and small. Sometimes it can be something mild like a track's name in a Mario Kart title, for example, and the reaction is typically a shrug of the shoulder; that's assuming you're even aware of the discrepancy. It's rather like reading a book translated from another language - you don't definitively know, 99% of the time, whether the words you're reading are an exact translation or have some artistic license applied. It's a matter of acceptance, ultimately; I can't read Japanese, so when I read Haruki Murakami's books I simply accept that my copy and the related experience may not align perfectly with the original text.
Yet sometimes game localisation slides from being an innocuous, invisible part of life to a hot topic, and it's happened to Nintendo a few times in recent years. Most recently the debate has been related to Fire Emblem Fates and the commonly referenced 'petting' minigame, which Nintendo of America originally said had been taken out as part of the localisation process, yet without the loss of the actual character bonding; in other words, players in the West can still develop relationships as effectively, but without that particular interactive feature. Now we know from our own in-progress review that these interactions are possible between characters with an 'S' relationship (married, in other words). Below is a summary from our own Jon Wahlgren that we published just recently.
Typically, you can select Invite Ally into your Private Quarters with the hopes of boosting your relationship. What then happens is you get a POV (point of view) close-up of the invitee and they say some canned line about friendship. There is no 'petting' involved in non-S relationships.
When you S-ship, there's a new Private Quarters option called "Bond," which is basically the same as Invite Ally but with a heart meter that tracks how often you've bonded with them. Every so often on this meter some kind of event triggers. The first (and only) event I've seen so far was my S-ship fell asleep so I poked them awake on the touchscreen.
...My understanding is that in the Japanese version anyone you invite to your quarters would get the same hands-on treatment. That isn't the case for the Western version since touch is limited to your spouse unit. There are remnants of the free-for-all since you can still get the same POV close-up of any ally you invite to your quarters, but that's it.
The aim of this particular article isn't necessarily to argue about the rights and wrongs of changes such as this, as that's a potentially never-ending debate. What I do want to do is make a clear distinction that often gets lost in the debate - the fact that localisation and 'censorship' are not the same thing.
For starters, it's important to reiterate the point that localisation is a tough but important process. I once had the fortune of chatting to the co-owner of a localisation company based in Germany which had worked with publishers as sizeable as Ubisoft. It was enlightening in terms of learning how structured and challenging the process is. Working with languages is a balancing act in terms of making the right translations, while there's also the issue of content that varies in suitability between countries. In the least pressurised cases it may relate to how a joke or comedic reference is phrased, while at the other end of the scale it can involve decisions on whether a particular country's audience will understand and be accepting of certain content.
It's doubly difficult for publishers such as Nintendo and others based in Japan, perhaps, due to the cultural differences between territories. From popular culture, to societal norms and laws, different territories each have to follow their own path. In some cases - such as the issues that can arise in titles like Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fates - outfits, suggestive lines or touching between characters that are suitable for the target audience in Japan may not fit with equivalent requirements in the West.
This is where 'censorship' is cited, but that's a term that is often ill-fitting for what's actually happening. For example we have ratings to consider - what's a '15' or equivalent in Japan may not fit the equivalent PEGI or ESRB rating, so that's a consideration. To take film, as an example, a film that's rated '15' or its equivalent in a number of countries may be given a higher rating when release in theatres elsewhere. Localisation, ultimately, is part business and part cultural consideration - if a particular line of dialogue, scene, outfit or feature doesn't fit with a particular market they may be altered.
Examples are varied and skirt the line in the debate of what's localisation and what's 'censorship'. The original No More Heroes on Wii replaced red blood with a peculiar black liquid in PAL regions, as the red was deemed too violent at the time. The game wasn't explicitly censored in my opinion - I could still run around hacking off limbs and it was still a mature game. That one is debatable, though, which I accept; removing blood has been a political argument in the past (Mortal Kombat on SNES, for example) and so can be argued as going beyond mere localisation.
There are plentiful examples of localisation that steer further away from being censorship, though. Some outfits are made less revealing or replaced with alternatives in games - including titles like Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water and Xenoblade Chronicles X - but the characters and the core content is still there (with a different look) when I play it. In The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes one line in the North American version was an awful riff on memes; as a European gamer that was a localised difference I was happy with.
The problem is that people call outfit changes, adjusted dialogue and design tweaks 'censorship'. The touching / petting social aspect of Fire Emblem Fates (as an example) has not been entirely removed - the mechanic has simply been adjusted for different territories. You can still invite characters into your quarters to socialise and benefit from improved relationships as required, you're just limited to semi-flirty touching with your in-game hubby. That's localisation, not censorship.
I appreciate that some will dismiss and disagree with these distinctions and perspectives, declaring that games should arrive untouched and identical to the source material. What I would say is that the desire for a 'pure' version of any product that's been localised is largely unrealistic. The degree of localised changes are relatively fair game for debate, of course, but references to 'censorship' should stay realistic and sensible. Taking a game and preparing it for a specific region necessitates catering to the relevant target demographic, adhering to ratings requirements and aiming to adjust - where required - content that may not be understandable or acceptable to a broad audience in a particular country or region. It's not always 'censorship' in the most negative sense of the word.
Some will argue it's wrong to accommodate the views, lifestyles and beliefs of consumers different countries - in these ways - by making changes to games, and I personally disagree with them. I think it's right to consider local societal norms, attitudes and laws, allowing ratings and localisation processes to play their parts. Beyond that and regardless of my opinion, though, desiring completely unchanged localised releases is an impractical viewpoint.
When content is adjusted for an audience it is, most of the time, localisation rather than outright censorship. The key features and content are still in place, and they fit with a regional ratings system - no-one's stopping anyone from importing a Japanese 3DS system and version of Fire Emblem Fates if they want to; yet Nintendo of America is perfectly entitled to adjust features for its market. I also accept that this is a minefield of opinion, and some - not all - of what I've said above drifts away from objectivity and towards subjectivity.
It's all relative, ultimately, but I do feel the case of the 'skinship' relationship mechanic does comfortably fall under localisation. While examples like my remarks on the blood in No More Heroes are on the line and can be debated as such, matters around outfits, dialogue and the relationship-building mechanic in Fates seem a lot clearer.
I would like to conclude with an observation that, ultimately, outrage over localisation decisions typically focuses on elements of sexual and/or explicit content. Yes, some bemoaned and mocked the meme joke in Tri Force Heroes, but that was correctly branded as iffy localisation rather than censorship. The breakdown in distinguishing localisation and censorship often seems to come when there's skin or sex involved; it's an area where some become blind to the logic of a localisation choice, and that leads to heated debates.
As a final example, I don't remember North American gamers kicking the metaphorical door down when Dr Kawashima's Devilish Brain Training: Can You Stay Focused? was renamed as Brain Age: Concentration Training - rather than, say, Brain Age: Devilish Concentration Training. It seems the European market is fine with a reference to devilish challenge in the title - albeit the region is yet to actually get the game.
A game included on upcoming release lists for multiple years with no actual date for a large region? Now that's something to complain about.