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The Last of Us Game Localization Review – the Good & the Bad

The Last of Us Game Localization Review – the Good & the Bad

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Few games tug at your heartstrings quite the same way as The Last of Us, even now, 10 years after its initial release. Its thrilling soundtrack plays long in your head after the credits roll, its masterful storytelling has you at its grip from start to finish, and the relationship between its characters, Joel and Ellie, only heightens the game’s allure. In fact, one could argue that The Last of Us has cemented its place as the most emotionally resonant video game in history.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long until The Last of Us HBO series was released, in January 2023, for gamers to pick up their controllers and relive the gaming experience once again. Upon the series’ debut, the game made its way into the top 50 for daily active users, only boosting the game’s current, whopping 37 million sold copies.

But what about The Last of Us as told through the lens of different cultures? Have the game’s localizations been praised as vehemently as the game original? In honor of this gaming masterpiece and highly gripping series, let’s explore that in this article (warning: there are spoilers ahead).

The Last of Us theme and backstory – it’s more than just survival

The Last of Us (or TLOU, for short) takes place in post-apocalyptic America, years after a fungi-ridden pandemic has broken out that’s determined to leave no soul alive in its wake.
The story follows a toughened man, named Joel, who’s on a mission to deliver what appears to be humanity’s last hope –a 14-year-old girl named Ellie, that’s immune to the disease– to the headquarters of a resistance group known as the Fireflies; this organization harbours hopes of developing a vaccine from her immunity to save humanity from its otherwise doomed fate.
And so, Joel and Ellie’s adventure to move across the country finally begins… As you traverse through the game’s threatening universe, roamed by hundreds of thousands ferocious man eaters (known as the ‘infected’), there’s only one option on the horizon – and that’s, of course, survival; poignantly summarized by Ellie’s favourite one-liner “Endure and survive”. However, as Joel and Ellie’s relationship gets tested and Joel’s hardened façade begins to fade, the story becomes far more than just about survival of the fittest. Rather, it blossoms fully into a tale of growth, vulnerability and regaining one’s touch with what’s important – protecting the ones you care for most.

The Last of Us Game Localization Review – the Good & the Bad

What languages is the Last of Us available to play in?

There’s a wide array of language options that The Last of Us offers. The spoken languages that were included for the PlayStation 3 and 4 (for the remastered version) are French (France), Italian, German, Spanish (Spain), and Portuguese (Portugal). In the latest version of TLOU PART 1 for the PS5, more languages were added, including Polish, Russian, Greek, Turkish, Japanese, Latin American Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese. Here are some key clips from the game in multiple languages:

The localization of The Last of Us & game globalization

The Last of Us game first came out for the PlayStation 3 in 2013, and it was immediately upon its first release that it became available in many languages. As is the case with other big game titles, the approach the producers employed in the making of TLOU is what’s commonly referred to as ‘globalization’.
Globalization is the process by which a game is developed with cultural and linguistic adaptability in mind so that everybody can enjoy it, irrespective of their background (instead of making the game appeal to a specific demographic, e.g., to American English speakers only). In principle, it makes the game easy to translate into as many languages as possible with the least amount of effort. Although globalization allows producers to save money and see fast returns on their investment, it’s commonly found to be the culprit of mistranslation. And it’d be fair to say the TLOU’s translations weren’t exactly spared during its making.

The game’s most major localization fails

Unfortunately, as a consequence of globalization, The Last of Us fell victim to translation damage for a reason not quite unexpected. It all came down to the fact that the game’s translators were working with texts that were still under development, which led to the translation of in-game text and dialogue with insufficient context.
With a deadline right around the corner and the game still incomplete, the TLOU translation crew was left with a plain spreadsheet with just words on the page and their intuitive capacities to judge the context for each scene. Expecting a video game to be localized to perfection in this way is not exactly sensible, since a single word or sentence can convey an entirely different idea depending on the situation in which it’s being used.
Consider the word “to play” which has two potential interpretations in Italian: “to play an instrument” (suonare uno strumento) or “to play a game” (giocare a un gioco). The fact that context wasn’t provided for the scene left the English-to-Italian translator with no other option but to make a guess about the purpose the word served. Thinking that the scene related to a musical instrument, likely it being a guitar, the translator chose the former option, translating the text into “la sai suonare”.
Turns out, Ellie was actually referring to a chess board! It can be assumed that the lines during which Bill mentions the popular American chess player Bobby Fischer were added later in the game’s development, which is why the translator could not account for the error. Below you can find the translated lines of this scene into Italian, as well as the game scene itself.
Optional conversation at Bill’s
EllieHey, you know how to play this?Ehi, la sai suonare?
JoelYeah. Pretty badly – yeah. Sì, piuttosto male.
EllieI always wanted to learn.Ah, vorrei imparare.
JoelHey, Bobby Fischer – don’t touch
anything on that board!
Ehi, Bobby Fischer. Non toccare
niente su quella scacchiera!
EllieBobby what?Bobby chi?
JoelJust let it go.Lascia perdere.

Therefore, to help the translators get the job done right, ideally, the game’s developers should have provided the context about each scene in as much detail as possible. Even better, were the game complete, the translators could have played through the game itself to see the context for themselves (like seeing that this particular scene was not, in fact, about a guitar). However, that wasn’t an option for the translators in TLOU, and translation errors, as well as inconsistencies, made their way into the final localized versions of the game.
The result? A localized gaming experience that, sadly enough, didn’t exactly meet international gamers’ expectations and which likely left many gamers worldwide seeking the original, English version of the game.

Does the localized voice-over of The Last of Us do justice to the original? It’s complicated

The Last of Us is based heavily around dialogue and cut-scenes (aka cinematic scenes), which act as building blocks for moving the game’s plot forward. Once again, lack of context caused some trouble by compromising the quality of the game’s voice-over, with comments such as “the characters sound like they’re reading straight out of a script” arising from the public. And that, indeed, the voice-over artists did.

The crucial premise any game’s voice-over must fulfil is to make the performance sound true to the original. Not only is it a matter of capturing the essence of the original characters’ voices, so they match their background, age and other factors, but it’s also to convey the same feeling and emotion coming from the characters with every single line. That’s notoriously difficult to achieve, especially when there isn’t a game to refer to, in cases when development is still in progress. To only add further to the challenge, different cultures interpret characters in their own unique way, and emotions, such as sadness, are conveyed differently from culture to culture too. Therefore, capturing a character’s essence, tone, pitch and prosody in a different language is a whole new ball game altogether.

So how does TLOU fair in this arena exactly? Well, depending on who you ask and the language in question, the answer will look different. That’s because public opinion is disproportionately divided on matters of this nature – some might say that a character sounds and acts the part, while others might resoundingly disagree.

Not to mention that when a game is so loved and adored in its original form, there’ll always be those fans that’d never accept a localized version of the game for the life of them, and understandably so. When certain fictional characters hold such a special place in your heart, different voices will ring alien and foreign (no pun intended), since familiarity is a power to be reckoned with. With that in mind, let’s look at some examples.

Joel’s voice, being a highly important asset in the game, has been criticized amongst fans for various reasons in different localized versions of the game. For example, many players were deeply disappointed with the French version, thanks to Joel’s young-sounding voice in French. In the game, Joel is a man in his late 40s, making a high-pitched voice unfit for his character and undoubtedly rough background. Meanwhile, a common complaint that has surfaced, from within discussions centred around the game’s Japanese version, is that Joel sounds like your stereotypical Western male character like in any other Japanese-localized game. Generally, many fans have reported that Joel’s voice in Brazilian Portuguese resounded with the character the best.

On the other hand, Ellie’s voice, being the young, and yet adult-sounding character that is, was apparently nailed in multiple localized versions of TLOU, according to fans’ accounts. Her voice in German, as well as in French, were loved most amongst natives and other fans alike.

In general, while some of the characters’ voices were praised in some languages and scorned in others, the emotionless acting and a lack of proper intonation stood out amongst fans in many of the game’s localizations. And let’s not forget the translation errors and inaccuracies that creeped up in the game, which lessened the overall appeal of the game to foreign audiences. You can find one of the most heart-wrenching moments from the game in multiple languages below – are you brave enough to relive it not once, but times 11?

Localizing the cultural aspects of The Last of Us… or partly so

The Last of Us was not fully adapted to conform to the cultural expectations of its foreign audiences, but only partly so (using a blend of both a domestication and a foreignization localization strategy).

What was preserved from the original & what was changed

Overall, the cultural and geographical setting were left completely intact (i.e., the producers used a domestication strategy), which works just fine in our case, since the story clearly takes place in the Unites States. The characters’ names and the names of the infected, represented by the different stages of infection (runners, stalkers, clickers and bloaters), also remained the same. That’s also acceptable, since preserving the names of major importance to a game is common practice when it comes to big game titles.

As for references to American culture that are found across the game, nearly all of them were left untouched. That isn’t problematic whatsoever, since most of those references aren’t difficult to grasp for non-English speaking audiences; in fact, those simply enhance the game’s American feel. Take the following reference to the popular American movie “Twilight” for example. This kind of reference can be understood equally well by an American as well as international audience, given the overconsumption of American media around the world.

On the contrary, references to historical events or real existing people, such as to popular American writers or singers, would, in most cases, only make sense to someone from America.

Localizing the game for puns and humour – a job well-done

The Last of Us features humour in the forms of sarcasm, irony, and of above all, puns. Generally, most sarcastic and ironic remarks found in the game are loaded with insinuations related to getting older or women being in charge (common across most cultures). Furthermore, prosodic elements, such as stress and intonation, are frequently used to highlight the ironic nature of remarks. Replicating the humour for these kinds of instances in a different language is not exactly easy, but nevertheless, TLOU pulls them off well.
Puns, on the other hand, are designed to be language-specific and are significantly more complex to translate than ironic statements. But if there’s one thing that Ellie is known for in TLOU, apart from the blood that’s running through her veins, then that’s undoubtedly the puns she reads out of her favourite “No Pun Intended” booklet. At any rate, TLOU manages to succeed remarkably with their translation through the use of transcreation tactics. In other words, the translators navigated this complex language problem by replacing the puns with different and more culturally-relevant jokes.
To illustrate, consider one of Ellie’s puns and its Italian equivalent:
Ellie’s optional jokes with Sam
EllieYou wanna hear a joke about pizza?
Never mind, it was too cheesy.
Stai a sentire. La sapete quella sulle cipolle? Meglio di no, tanto fa piangere.
SamI don’t get it.Non l’ho capita.
EllieYeah. Me neither.Già. Neanch’io.

Since there’s no equivalent for the word “cheesy” in Italian, the translator brilliantly switched the entire joke up, creating a reference to a food other than pizza. Instead, he made the pun about onions and their ability to make one’s eyes tear up. The joke from Italian translates into “Listen up. Do you know that joke about onions? I’d better not say it; it’d make you cry.” A very cheesy joke for sure (no pun intended), but it surely serves the purpose it’s supposed to – and that’s what that matters in the end.

Conclusion: the translators did their best with what they had

The Last of Us has been praised and glorified for an obviously good reason – only few games can match the story’s emotional depth and how it’s told. However, the game’s localizations were riddled with translation errors and its voice acting did not quite make the emotional impact it intended. These problems would have been avoided were it not for the game’s rushed, simultaneous release and the seer lack of context.
The game’s American feel is maintained throughout the game and only slight changes were made for its many adaptations. But overall, the localization strategies the translators used were carefully thought-out, and The Last of Us was still made to be enjoyed by gamers across cultures with alright success.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this read! If you’re a game developer, looking for a game localization agency, to take your game to new heights, Pangea Global is here to help. With many years of experience under our belt and a crew of 900+ translators, localizers and transcreators, speaking over 75+ languages, we’re fully equipped to help you access global markets quickly and with ease.
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