“Persona,” “Super Amped Element Discharge,” “War Stomp,” “Ultrahand ,” “Omnistrike,” “Thunderbolt,” “Spacium Beam”: For an avid gamer, these terms are commonplace. They may also ring a bell for non-gamers. In video game localization, we call these words “gaming terminology”.
As the name suggests, gaming terminology encompasses terms commonly used in gaming, or a collection of words and phrases naturally recognized or artificially organized to help people communicate more effectively in specific gaming environments or situations. It is a vast domain that involves game development, localization, operations, esports, and more. For the sake of discussion, we’ve chosen one domain, Localization, to explain the evolution of gaming terminology.
The skills, places, and characters mentioned at the beginning of this article are important terms used in game localization. They are anchoring elements that tie entire titles or franchises together. At the same time, they leave a lasting impression, reminding players of their gaming experiences even when they are not playing. Because of how vastly important gaming terminology is, the slightest inconsistency within a title or franchise could drastically affect the uniformity or coherence of the game world or storyline, and consequently impact players’ gaming experiences.
Now that we know the importance of terminology in game localization, how are these terms derived? Is the process complicated? Generally speaking, gaming terminologies are derived from two sources during localization.
The first source is any previous titles. Terminology is carried forward to maintain continuity or connect features and elements across game franchises. For example, the RPG series “Ys, developed by Nihon Falcom, follows the adventures of the main protagonist Adol Christin. Although there is a chronological order to the events in the series, the character settings remain fundamentally the same. Therefore, it is imperative that the terminologies of previous titles are used consistently in later titles.
Another example is the classic Final Fantasy IP owned by Square Enix. Besides linear spin-offs, such as Core Crisis and Before Crisis from Final Fantasy 7, most of the Final Fantasy iterations have unique characters and worlds. Nonetheless, there are still unifying elements that tie the franchise together, such as Moogles, Chocobos, the character Cid, and Crystals. Therefore, in this case it was also necessary to use terminology from previous games when localizing.
The second source is transcreation, which signifies adapting a message from one language to another while maintaining the same intent, style, tone, and context. It's worth mentioning that many people equate this term with game localization and game translation, and there’s. no doubt that source faithfulness is crucial in localization. However, there are classic cases in which the target language deviates significantly from the source. For example, Capcom’s Biohazard (バイオハザード) IP is better known as Resident Evil in the US and Europe.
With a preliminary understanding of the origins of terminology, we can now discuss whether game localization is challenging and complicated, or straightforward and easy. As mentioned earlier, some gaming terms are already well established, and linguists need only“copy” these terms, saving a lot of time. Also, homophonic translation is a technique often applied to proper nouns, such as character and location names, which is pretty straightforward, albeit a little tedious.
If that's the case, then why is localization challenging and complicated? This is where we get into the nitty-gritty of the profession. Generally, the process of localization involves text translation followed by in-game testing. Testing is typically carried out in the game, whereas text translation occurs mostly outside the game. Although linguists may receive reference materials beforehand, they are often left to their own devices. In Japanese, the use of katakana, the Japanese syllabary commonly used to transcribe foreign words (especially English) for skill/ability names is often a mind-boggler. For example, does the developer mean “steal” or “steel” for “スチール”? Does “スロー” mean “slow” or “throw”? These terms have linguists pulling out their hair. Sometimes, there may be a slurry of katakana without any context at all or, worse yet, katakana that could mean a number of things. In these instances, the linguist would create a temporary term and log a note for the developer. Then, through several iterations of in-game testing and discussion, ideal terms are born. This process can be extremely challenging.
Some gaming terminologies derive from linguistic punchlines, memes, or catchphrases that pay tribute to other titles. A more recent popular example is Splatoon 3. In the game, players play as either Inklings or Octolings. A similar word manipulation technique is adopted in the Japanese version. Squid in Japanese is “イカ.” It served as the root katakana for developing various gaming terms for the game in Japanese. For example, “イカした” means “to be cool,” later localized into Chinese as “超鱿型 (stylish squid)” – a play on words of “超有形 (to be cool).”“イカす” means “to utilize,” later localized into Chinese as “鱿效运用 (useful squid)” – a play on words of “有效运用 (to utilize).”“イカスツリー” is a rearrangement of “スカイツリー (Tokyo Skytree),” later localized into Chinese as “鱿空塔 (squid tower).” “ナイスダマ” pays tribute to “元气弹/ゲンキダマ (Spirit Bomb)” in Dragon Ball. The Chinese term combines “元气弹” with the in-game “like” system to form “赞气弹 (like bomb).
The above examples show that localization teams do not simply translate meaningful terms or expressions. Rather, effort goes into researching game settings, elucidating the intentions of the creator, establishing commonalities between the source and target texts, and finally developing suitable gaming terminology. This process can be complicated.
However, it is essential to prepare your terminology before you start localizing your game. It helps ensure consistency, avoid misunderstandings, and speed up the translation process. Above all, it will enhance the immersion of your game, no matter the language or the platform.