Run down the list of last year’s top ten bestselling books in the UK and you’ll find ten books that were originally written in English. It’s the same for movies, though in fairness Parasite, from South Korea, just about squeaked into 2020’s top ten. Brits just don’t seem to be excited by fiction from other countries – but the trend is very different for games.
Out of the top ten games sold last year, franchise stalwarts like FIFA and Call of Duty made up most of the list – but if you included digital sales (which Nintendo doesn’t report, annoyingly) Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Animal Crossing: New Horizons almost certainly would’ve made it in, with Super Mario 3D World and Pokémon Brilliant Diamond also in the running.
It’s strange to think of Mario Kart being a “foreign” game in the same way that we think of Squid Game as a foreign TV show. If you told a non-gamer it was made by an especially imaginative British developer I doubt they’d bat an eyelid, whereas there’s no mistaking Money Heist’s Spanish origins. This is partly down to the fact that game translations are really good now; we’ve come a long way since “all your base are belong to us” to the point where many people may have no idea their favourite game wasn’t originally made in English.
It’s certainly not because games have less to translate. Sure, Mario Kart doesn’t have a hundred hours of audio, but Final Fantasy and Beyond Good and Evil have far more words needing translation than the average movie or TV show. The difference is that developers are now willing to spend more for better quality translations, and the lack of visible dubbing in any game that doesn’t use FMV or pre-rendered cutscenes – which is most of them, these days – makes it easy to overlook any minor issues. And though it pains me to say it as someone who cares about storytelling in games, a lot of gamers clearly don’t care about a shaky narrative (whether or not it was originally written in English) providing the mechanics are solid.
This happy circumstance has made games one of the most cosmopolitan forms of entertainment in the last century. I don’t think most players are intentionally seeking out foreign games, though; they just want to play good, original games, and the cost of development and distribution has sunk so low that you can find world-class studios in practically any country.
There are obvious standouts, like France’s strength in story-driven adventures, or Japan’s strength in practically every genre other than first-person shooters. I still marvel at how Life is Strange, one of the most beloved adventure games of recent years, was originally written in French, despite being set in the Pacific Northwest; or how The Longest Journey was written in Norwegian. Before COVID tore up the plans for the Tokyo Olympics, Nintendo’s characters reportedly were going to be a major part of the opening ceremony, in recognition of their worldwide fame.
For a while, it looked like games might become China’s main cultural export too, with the sensational international success of titles like Genshin Impact, Dyson Sphere Program, and the beautiful retro-styled RPG Eastward. The Chinese government’s recently-lifted freeze on new domestic game releases since the summer of last year hasn’t helped the industry, but it’s clearly as good as the best.
Most developers don’t set out to be cultural ambassadors, but even the most abstract and fantastical games tend to hint towards their origin; Tetris features St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and my own Zombies, Run!, recently translated into French, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese, takes players through the London Underground and into the Hebrides. Anyone playing the Chinese Parents life simulator will get a taste of what it’s like to prepare for the gruelling “gaokao” high school exams, or what it means to receive “red envelope” gifts.
During the pandemic, I started travelling vicariously by reading translated novels. It shouldn’t surprise you that one of the best French alternate history thrillers in recent years, Civilisations, is still an incredible page-turner in English, or that the best Polish sci-fi writer, Stanislaw Lem, remains funnier and smarter in translation than practically every native English author.
We’d all gain as individuals and as a society if we spent more time with media from other places. Sadly, there are countless great books that have waited years or decades before being made available in English. We’re fortunate we don’t have to wait anywhere near as long for the best games to get translated.