Five years ago, 20-something Mancunian Daniel Burke set out to retranslate Final Fantasy 7.
Now aged 31, Burke, who goes by the name "DLPB" online, has finished his work. He is proud, but burnt out. Never again, he says. You're left wondering, why would someone retranslate all of Final Fantasy 7?
Final Fantasy 7's status as the greatest Japanese role-playing game of all time is a matter of debate, but its impact cannot be disputed. The 1997 PSone original was a revelation for the genre in the west and captured the imagination of a generation of game players who marvelled at its pre-rendered backgrounds, elaborate 3D combat visuals and, perhaps most importantly of all, its tear-jerking story.
Final Fantasy 7 cemented the likes of Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Sephiroth and Aerith (or Aeris, depending on your point of view - we'll get to that later) in the heart and mind of the collective global gamer consciousness. Who can forget that death scene? Or that Omnislash? For many, playing Final Fantasy 7 was a formative experience: the memory of a summer spent entranced in front of a CRT telly now feeling like a warm, welcoming embrace, nearly 20 years later.
But not all of Final Fantasy 7 was perfect. We were probably too young at the time to notice, but its localisation was a poor, rushed and desperate effort, with odd grammatical errors, out of place turns of phrase and in some cases what are thought to be mistranslations of the original Japanese. But it was the best it could be given the time afforded to Michael Baskett, the lone translator within Squaresoft USA who was charged with turning thousands upon thousands of lines of fantasy-strewn Japanese into the English-language version of perhaps the greatest JRPG story ever told. Understandably, mistakes were made.
And what wonderful, enduring mistakes. Perhaps most famous is Aeris' early-doors line, "This guy are sick", but there are many more. Jenova, the mysterious being at the heart of Final Fantasy 7's complex story, has just one line of dialogue in the game, and it includes a typo: "Beacause, you are... a puppet." And who can forget the game's first boss fight, against the mechanical Guard Scorpion? "Attack while it's tail's up!" Cloud tells the player. Then, "It's gonna counter attack with its laser!" So, we all attacked the beast while its tail was up. Then it counter attacked with its laser.
Five years ago, Daniel Burke's ambition was modest. He wanted to show his girlfriend Final Fantasy 7's story, but knew she would not play through the game. So, he planned to make a video, like a Final Fantasy 7 story movie, she would sit down to watch. But the translation errors stabbed at him like a scratch that could not be itched.
Burke used his admittedly poor programming skills to prod the game, at first simply to polish up some of its worst dialogue, such as the infamous "this guy are sick" line. But, he tells Eurogamer, as he pored through the dialogue he realised its problems were sweeping. Final Fantasy 7's localisation had deep-rooted translation issues.
"You change one line, and then the next one doesn't flow right," he says. "So you change that one, and before long you've got a whole map that's been changed. And you go to the next map and you hope that one's going to flow quite well and it's going to make sense, and then you realise it doesn't.
"It spiralled out of control. It went from something that was meant to be a fast, one-week project, to something that ended up requiring a Japanese speaker and project management."
Burke says he was "pissed off" by the original localisation, although he doesn't blame Baskett for how it turned out. "The bottom line is we were short changed," he says.
"You go through the items and you realise some of them have been changed not because of any localisation reason, not for any genuine, logical reason, but simply just flat out mistakes and big mistakes at that, and it keeps on piling up."
Burke's passion for Final Fantasy 7 fuelled his commitment to the project. His mind was made up: retranslate the entire game based on the original Japanese and release it as a mod - whatever the cost.
He named the retranslation project "Beacause", inspired by Final Fantasy 7's famous typo, and housed it inside the Qhimm forum, a popular haunt for Final Fantasy tinkerers. Burke admits he struggled in the early years as he toiled away on his own. But then, a saviour: a translator called Luksy.
The mysterious Luksy, born and raised in Britain but living and working in Japan, came across the retranslation effort on Qhimm and offered to help. Burke jumped at the opportunity. It was a match made in heaven. Luksy, as fluent in Japanese as he is in English, worked through the original version of Final Fantasy 7, suggesting changes for Burke's approval. After months of not much happening at all, Beacause was on a roll.
Luksy created a tool that allowed the team to quickly and easily edit Final Fantasy 7's files. This was crucial. The game includes duplicate text, making it hard for modders to know whether they're changing the text seen by the player or text simply dormant beneath the bowels of the game. Luksy's tool stripped out this duplicate text, saving countless hours of work.
Luksy's translation was on the literal side, Burke says. He tended to turn a Japanese word into the equivalent English word. So Burke assumed the role of a localiser, tying Luksy's translation together to create a flow that felt natural. The pair would often debate the finer details. Sometimes, the very fine details.
The night before we speak with Burke, one of these debates took place. Sephiroth has just killed Aeris and he says, to a devastated Cloud, "Do not worry. Soon the girl will become part of the Planet's energy." Luksy had reservations about Sephiroth's "do not worry". The Japanese is more of a "never mind", he said, and "do not worry" suggests Final Fantasy's most famous villain offers Cloud an out-of-character condolence.
"Sephiroth doesn't really understand emotion," Burke says. "He doesn't care, really. We went through the dialogue and we could see that it's just that he doesn't understand Cloud's position at that moment." Burke and Luksy laboured on the point, but eventually settled on the original translation. "It's just Sephiroth being a bit of a loony," Burke says.
As Beacause grew in scope, so did the attention on it intensify. Many of Burke's translation changes sparked vociferous debate among the Final Fantasy 7 community. Here we had an upstart tinkering with our childhood. Our memories are sacred, Final Fantasy 7's idiosyncrasies dogma. What gives Burke the right? How dare he?
The most polarising change is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Aeris to Aerith. The original Western version of the PSone Final Fantasy 7 names the character Aeris, but many believe her to be called Aerith. Burke's logic is sound. Late 90s Squaresoft localisation producer Richard Honeywood has, in interviews, said Aeris' name was intended by the game's Japanese writers to be a mix of "air" and "Earth", and so Aerith is correct. Subsequent Final Fantasy spin-off games, including Kingdom Hearts, corrected the mistake. Burke has also used the Square-made Final Fantasy 7 Ultimania book as a guiding light on this and many other issues during the work. You'd imagine, then, there would be little debate on Aeris - but there is.
"Someone's grown up with a name from a main character all of their lives," Burke reasons. "Maybe they haven't played the prequels and sequels. And then suddenly someone's come along and changed it.
"There's no doubt Aeris sounds nicer than Aerith. I agree with that. I like Aeris better. It sounds like a more feminine name. People don't like Aerith because they think it's got a lisp. But Elizabeth could be considered to have a lisp. That's the real reason. It's a change from what people grew up with, and it's also a change that sounds less feminine. If the change was from Aerith to Aeris, and Aerith was the original name, there wouldn't be as much opposition.
"The 'th' drives people mad."
In the case of Aeris, Burke defers to the wish of the original writing team. "If the original writing team say, listen, we don't like that name, we want it changing, I don't think anyone, localisers or otherwise, has the authority to change that."
Amid the debate, Burke and Luksy err on the side of science and logic. The Kana (syllabic Japanese scripts) for the Aeris character works out as E-Ri-Su in the Rōmaji (the romanization of Japanese), with the "su" being the closest the Japanese have to our "th" sound (the "u" at the end of "su" is often whispered"). In fact, "su" is also used by the Rōmaji for Sephiroth, which works out as Sefirosu. which is why Final Fantasy 7's Sephiroth Choir sounds like they're singing "Sephiross" during the One Winged Angel theme.
This science has fuelled other similarly controversial changes. Fans will know the Moogles as the cute race of flying balls of fluff that have starred in most of the games in the Final Fantasy series. Burke changed them to Moguri, based on the original Japanese. But, it turns out, if early translation efforts had got it right, we'd all be calling them MoleBats.
The name Moogle, which is Moguri in Japanese, Spanish and Italian, is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for mole (土竜, mogura) and bat (蝙蝠, kōmori). And if you look closely, you can see that's what Moogles are: moles with bat wings.
"But again, I think Moogle, it has a nice sound to it," Burke says. "It's cuter."
Burke runs through other changes that have caught the inquisitive eye of the Final Fantasy community.
The infamous "tail's up" line that caused so many of us to get scorched by that pesky laser is now: "Barret, watch out! If you attack when the tail's up, it'll counter-attack with a laser."
"This guy are sick" is now: "The person in there is ill." As an aside, the sick person has a name in the Japanese version of the game, which Burke has added for the retranslation: "Scruffy Man".
Phoenix Down, Final Fantasy's famous character-reviving item, is now Phoenix Tail. "That's another one of those where I get flayed alive," Burke says. "Down" refers to a layer of fine feathers found under the tougher exterior feathers of a bird. The Japanese is "Phoenix Tail", or the tail of the Phoenix, which has the power to revive.
The Zack character is now called Zax. Again, the Kana works out to have a "su" ending: "Zakkusu". Burke calls this a translation mistake similar to the one made with Aeris. Zack would require the original Kana to work out as "Zakku", he says.
Here's an interesting one: Safer Sephiroth is the final boss of Final Fantasy 7. The name has gone down as one of the game's more humorous translations, as there's nothing "safer" about Sephiroth's final form. It turns out this is yet another translation error.
The Kana, Burke insists, is a 100 per cent match for "Sepher Sephiroth", which is the Hebrew for "Book of Numerations", likely a reference to the 10 Kabbalistic Sefirot, the 10 aspects of creation according to Jewish Mysticism. Final Fantasy 7 draws heavily from Jewish Mysticism, and there are references to its terminology strewn throughout the game.
There is confusion over this translation because Sephiroth's final form is that of an angel, which suggests its name should be "seraph". But the character Red XIII has a weapon called the Seraph Comb, which is based on different Kana to that Safer Sephiroth is based on. So, according to the Kana, it's Sepher, and so Sepher Sephiroth is a seraph.
Still with us? "Yeah. Now you see the problems I'm having!" Burke jokes.
It goes on. The Midgar Zolom is a species of giant serpent that dwells within the marshlands leading to the Mythril Mine. The beast was intended to be the Norse snake, Midgardsormr. This was corrected in later Final Fantasy games. No debate here.
And of course, Jenova's "beacause" has been corrected, somewhat reluctantly. "A part of me really wants to be childish and leave that in, but I can't do that," Burke says.
The Beacause project cast its net further afield than nouns, proper nouns and the odd typo or grammatical error. Swathes of dialogue have been changed in a bid to make the game read better and in some sections make sense of the first time. In one case, a key character's dialogue has been rewritten entirely.
Cait Sith is one of Final Fantasy 7's most-loved characters. He is a cat riding a giant stuffed toy Moogle (wait... Moguri!) who works as a fun-loving fortune-teller in the fabulous Gold Saucer location. The original PSone version of Final Fantasy 7 included unaccented Cait Sith dialogue. But it turns out Cait Sith is Scottish.
Cait Sith is in fact based on the Cat Sìth fairy creature from Celtic mythology. It's said to resemble a large black cat with a white spot on its breast, and haunts the Scottish Highlands.
Helpfully, a Scot who came across the Beacause project on the Qhimm forum offered to help Burke add a shot of Scotch to Cait Sith's dialogue. So, for example, instead of Cait Sith saying, "Oh damn,", he instead says, "Och!" "To" is now "Tae".
This change makes one section of Final Fantasy 7, considered for some time to be nonsensical, sensical. The original intention was that Reeve, the Shinra employee who uses Cait Sith to spy on Cloud's party, is the one with the Scottish accent. Reeve uses it when controlling poor Cait Sith to disguise the fact he's working for Shinra. While at Shinra, Reeve defaults to his normal accent, whatever that may be.
There is a comedy moment in the game where Reeve is speaking to the player at the same time as he's speaking to fellow Shinra employees Scarlet and Heidegger, and he slips up. The pair notice, saying to Reeve that his accent is funny, and they laugh. This nuance is missed completely in the original localisation. Scarlet's quip comes out of nowhere.
"You've got no idea what she's on about," Burke says. "Now you do." You can see how this scene has been changed in the video, below.
Burke has poured his heart and soul into the Final Fantasy 7 retranslation project, and he's come under fire for it. Some have attacked him in particularly nasty ways. He's had a tough time on 4chan, for example, where one person photoshopped the tag "no life" at the top of his mugshot.
"I guarantee the people on 4chan, if they could find out where I live they would start sending crap to me," he says. "But generally speaking, away from those crazies, it's just been negativity and insults."
Still, Burke seems philosophical in the face of vitriol. "You see, these people attack the project because they see it has worth," he says. "They're scared it's going to be more well known than it already is.
"If they weren't getting worked up, I'd be doing something wrong."
Burke welcomes positive criticism, in fact. Recently an observer suggested Barret was originally called Bullet. "We've gone through that before and it's very unlikely," he counters. "But that's good. If someone comes along and says, I don't like this particular part because of this, that's great, because we can discuss that. I'm not against changing my mind. I'm not rigid that I'm going to browbeat people and say, I've done it this way, go away. If they've got a good reason for it, I'm not against changing it."
Still, Burke has run up against what he calls blind intolerance over the years. He remembers one comment posted to the Qhimm forum: "I grew up with the original translation and no matter what you do, whether it's better or worse, I'm not going to accept it."
"Now, all I can say to that is, well fine, play the original," Burke says. "There's no way I can possibly debate with that kind of mindset. If someone is against your project simply because it exists and isn't what they grew up with, there's nothing I can say about that.
"The people who attack me often see me as a great wrecker, like I am wrecking their childhood, but I think what they miss is that it's my love of the game that led me to make the changes."
Perhaps anticipating the backlash, Burke added to the mod the option to revert some of the new terms, such as Moguri and Phoenix Tail, to their original forms. Most character name changes can be reversed, but Aerith - of course - is mandatory.
"When I went in to the project, the first thing we established was we were going to treat it like a standalone game to make sure we weren't biased," Burke explains. "In other words, we weren't pushed into making concessions all over the place.
"If you start to say, well we're not going to do this, and what about that and what about this and we're going to start making exceptions here, there and everywhere, then you've failed from the start because you're deciding things not on the dialogue or facts but your own personal preferences and bias.
"But from the start I knew it would be polarising."
The Beacause mod is in fact just one of many that combine to form The Reunion, a collection of seven mods that can be installed separately. There's a menu overhaul, 60 frames per second battles, a harder difficulty mod called Weapon ("I want people to use their brain when they're going through the game. I want them to think about the spells. I want the spells to matter"), a model overhaul and memory patches. There's even an effort to hide soldiers throughout the game world as collectables.
Beacause, though, is the star of the show - and its genesis. The menu overhaul, for example, came about after Burke changed the Bolt 3 spell to Thundaga and found the new term failed to fit inside the in-game text box. Someone on the Qhimm forum taught Burke how to hex edit so he could expand the box himself. "From that one change I realised the whole menu system was rather crap, and I got rather obsessive with it. When I start something I tend to finish it."
The Reunion is a huge undertaking, and Burke is overseeing the lot at some cost ("It's a very big project and it's driving me insane."). But it seems he's taking a step back now Beacause - the original obsession - is done and dusted.
"There's a saying in computer programming that a program is never finished, it's only abandoned," Burke says. "And it's definitely true. But at this point in time, I'd be happy with it being professionally released. If I were releasing this as a company, I'd be happy with it being released like it is now."
Burke can't say how many hours he's devoted to the project. There was a six month period, during the early days, when not much happened, and moments throughout when he almost gave up. There was a point when Luksy, so key to Beacause's accuracy, took time out to focus on real-life work. "It's a long time. It's a lot of work..." Burke drifts.
Final Fantasy 7 is a massive game, with 130,000 words of dialogue as well as hundreds of character, item and ability names. There are something like 600 text files for each map, Burke's found, and each file demanded attention. "I've been through that dialogue five times over. It makes you lose the will to live, I can tell you."
It was Burke's desire to get the job done that saw him soldier through those evenings after work, those weekends spent huddled at a computer screen. "You're thinking, I've put in all this time, I've done all the non-dialogue, this has got to be finished now. We've come too far to throw it away."
That, and the fact Final Fantasy 7 is his favourite game. "If there were another game which I liked as much as 7, which I don't, and it had a mediocre translation, I'd consider it," he says in response to calls for him to tackle another JRPG. "But there isn't anything."
Burke, now 31 ("... 31 and still playing Final Fantasy 7"), works as an administrator. He says it's a boring job. Perhaps he fancies working in video game localisation, now he's had a taste of it? It's too late for that, he replies. "If I'd known this 15 years ago, maybe..."
Instead, Burke would like to teach computer skills in schools, and perhaps try his hand at writing children's stories. Oh, and he still plans to make that Final Fantasy 7 story video for his girlfriend. Those are possibilities in his future. There is no chance, however, that he'll do another retranslation. He's "100 per cent done" with it.
Thousands of Final Fantasy 7 fans have downloaded Burke's mod and are revisiting the game once again. Some are delighted. Some are annoyed. But all share a love for one of gaming's greatest efforts. Whether you're TeamAeris or TeamAerith, that death scene resonates as strongly now as it did in 1997.
As Burke waves goodbye to the past five years of his life, the thank yous and the what have you dones still fresh in his mind, he can take solace in the memory of his motivation: why would someone retranslate all of Final Fantasy 7?