One of my favourite aspects of being Someone Who Writes About Games is that you occasionally have the opportunity to sit down with the people who created these experiences and pick their brains… or at least exchange some questions with them via email and interpreter!
For me, there’s always been a certain amount of mystique surrounding both game development and the art of bringing a commercial product to market. I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember — even to this day. It’s an aspect of what is, I guess, childish innocence that I’m keen to never let go of; video games, visual novels and creative works are exciting, and the people who create them are magicians, and I don’t ever want to forget that.
With all that in mind, I was delighted when MangaGamer, localiser and publisher of The Expression: Amrilato’s Western release, agreed to let me have a chat with the developer SukeraSparo and find out a bit more about where this unusual, fascinating title came from.
“As the scenario writer, I was first asked to compose something that incorporated two concepts,” explains the game’s author J-MENT when I enquire how the game came about in the first place. “1) a story of two girls falling in love in another world, and 2) that the girls would not understand each others’ language at first, but they would grow to understand each other over time.”
Amrilato’s basic concept is essentially a twist on the popular isekai format, as it sees its protagonist Rin being cast into a world other than our reality. Unlike most isekai, however, the world in which Rin finds herself is not a fantasy or video game-inspired world, but one which is remarkably similar to our own. It’s the same but different; it’s recognisable, but just enough of it is wrong to be unsettling. And a big part of that is the language.
Even with its obviously isekai-inspired elements, J-MENT acknowledges the popularity of both this genre and conventional romance stories, and was keen to do something a little different.
“I was asked to ensure both were equally established instead of favoring one or the other,” J-MENT notes, referring to the two distinct aspects of the game. “Since two girls falling in love and other-world stories are kind of clichéd, I decided to lean slightly more on the second concept [of the girls not being able to understand one another] and create something more original.”
The idea of making use of Esperanto as the “alien” language in The Expression: Amrilato came very early in development — even before SukeraSparo as a group had a name.
“I was asked to come up with the brand after the implementation of Esperanto had already been approved for this title,” J-MENT explains, “so I proposed using Esperanto and naming the brand ‘SukeraSparo’ (‘Sweet Tai’ or ‘Sweet Red Sea Bream’), and my idea was adopted.”
SukeraSparo, interestingly, can also be interpreted as a possible Esperanto translation of the Japanese snack taiyaki, which is a sweet, fish-shaped confection. “Sukera” in Esperanto means “sweet”, while “sparo” derives from “sparidae”, a species of fish. At the point where Rin is cast into the other world during the opening moments of the narrative, she is seen eating a taiyaki, so it was an eminently suitable choice for the brand name in a number of ways.
J-MENT notes that the game was always intended to have an educational element, since this idea fit well with the overall concept of having to learn a new language.
“I figured it wouldn’t leave much of an impression on players if I just wrote scenes about the character learning Esperanto”, they note. “So we integrated study mode stages into the game from the beginning as the story progressed. We chose to make them quiz-style to make it feel more like a game and lower the player’s resistance to learning.”
It’s important to note, though, that if you’re just in this for a touching love story (and perhaps a bit of girls kissing), the explicitly educational aspects are optional.
“In the end we decided to add the ‘homework mode’ function so those who weren’t interested in learning at all and those who just wanted to proceed with the story even faster could skip those segments,” J-MENT adds.
The language learning aspect of the game had me a little curious about something, so I had a question I wanted to ask. A favourite game of mine from years gone by that incorporated a character who didn’t understand anyone around him at the outset of the narrative was Aselia the Eternal. In that game, protagonist Yuuto finds himself sent to another world (see, this isn’t anything new; Aselia originally came out in Japan in 2003!) and confronted with people who speak an alien language.
In that game’s case, the language is fictional, but it handles things similarly to Amrilato; as Yuuto gradually comes to understand the people who are addressing him, the text begins to be represented as “partially translated” — and indeed on subsequent playthroughs, you have the option to see the full translation right from the beginning, which can put an interesting new twist on certain scenes. I wanted to know if J-MENT was familiar with this game, and if it had provided any inspiration for Amrilato.
“I hadn’t heard of that title or what it was about until after Amrilato was on sale,” they note. “If I had known about it beforehand, perhaps it might have influenced me then.”
That answers that, then. Another thing I was curious to know was whether or not J-MENT — or indeed anyone else on the SukeraSparo team — had experience of being in Rin’s position: of being in a place where they were unable to communicate.
“The closest I’ve ever come to the essence of that experience was when I was riding on a train with three Esperantisto,” recalls J-MENT. “I was the odd one out with my Japanese, and for those ten minutes it felt like I really was in another world.”
Considering J-MENT hadn’t been in Rin’s predicament for longer than about ten minutes at a time and thus had to use their imagination to contemplate how someone might react if stuck in that situation, they did a remarkable job of drawing the reader in and really helping them to empathise with Rin.
One of the ways in which the game emphasises that you are really learning a new language is through its use of a special, custom alphabet for “Juliamo”, the game’s take on Esperanto. I was curious why the game adopted this heavily stylised alphabet rather than using the mostly Roman characters Esperanto typically uses.
“We first chose to use the Juliamo alphabet as a production effect to help convey the language barrier,” explains J-MENT. “But when the letters were too different from the originals it meant players couldn’t even guess at the lines they were reading, so we made many of the letters similar to the base alphabet and struck a balance by mixing in a few hard-to-read symbols.”
It works; Juliamo script is similar enough to the Roman alphabet to be mostly parsable without too much effort, but there are a few symbols in there (“f” and “g” being notable ones, as well as the letters with added diacritics) that give you a sense of satisfaction when you’re able to read them reliably. It’s not quite as drastic as learning a whole new alphabet — such as an English person learning Japanese — but it provides a similar feeling, with a much shorter timescale!
Another thing I was interested in was why the game uses the term “Juliamo” rather than “Esperanto”. As it happens, this is answered as part of the game’s narrative, so I won’t spoil that right now, but there’s another reason, too — the game opens with a prominent disclaimer that Juliamo is only based on Esperanto, and that there are a few differences. What could those be, I wondered.
“One example of something we changed is when Napa cabbage appears in the story,” J-MENT explains when I ask. “In Esperanto, this is ‘Cina brasiko’ (‘Chinese cabbage’), however the Napa that most Japanese know is actually a different strain cultivated in Japan. So in the story we chose to call it ‘Japana brasiko’ (‘Japanese cabbage’) so we could introduce the moment where Rin recognises the term for Japan.
“Also, our own brand name, SukeraSparo, is a manufactured term,” J-MENT adds. “So even true Esperantists might not understand the meaning!”
Clearly a lot of work went into the language-learning aspect of the game, which would already have been a challenge when only two languages — Japanese and Esperanto — were in the mix. I was curious as to whether the game had always been designed with a localisation to English in mind.
“During the early stages of development I remember hearing talk that we might produce an overseas version,” J-MENT recalls. “However, for me, as the writer, the greatest hurdle was the Esperanto, so I didn’t have any energy to spare worrying about additional languages. As a result, there are a few moments of wordplay that are dependent on Japanese — and I imagine those gave the translators some trouble!”
The translators actually handled it rather elegantly, as we’ve already seen; rather than completely replacing Japanese wordplay with more recognisably English puns that weren’t in the original script at all, MangaGamer instead opted to include inline translations for Japanese words that formed the basis of wordplay in the game — with one of the first we see being Rin and Ruka’s comedic confusion between two interpretations of the syllable “ni” (“two” in Japanese, “us” in Esperanto). When you’re dealing with the interplay between three languages instead of just two, your options for localising such things without completely rewriting the script are a little more limited!
Another consideration in this regard was that J-MENT and the SukeraSparo team were working with an external agency who wanted to make sure they got the Esperanto side of things right. I asked how the Japanese National Esperanto Association was involved with the game’s development.
“Fujimaki Kenichi-san from the Japanese Esperanto Institute provided supervision such as explaining how the grammar works and rewriting some of the dialogue in the game,” J-MENT explains. “We also had members of the JEI present during voice recording to help check everyone’s pronunciations.”
In other words, The Expression: Amrilato teaches you not only the written side of Esperanto (albeit with its stylised Juliamo alphabet — which can actually be switched off after a first playthrough) but also how to speak it properly, too — and if you concentrate on the audio rather than reading the text, it’d help with your listening skills too, making for a very well-rounded way of developing a basic familiarity with the language.
The alphabet isn’t the only heavily stylised aspect of The Expression: Amrilato; the world is, too. The sky is perpetually clad in pink rather than the usual blue (except for a few specific circumstances during the narrative), and Ruka is presented as wearing an outfit that looks distinctively “traditional Western” — perhaps from the early 20th century. I asked J-MENT if these stylistic aspects were inspired by anything in particular.
“When things feel too otherworldly it creates a world where anything goes,” they explain. “So I chose to change things that would be easily identifiable and have impact, like the writing and the colour of the sky. As for the design of the outfits and other minor objects, I left that entirely up to the senses of our main artist Naruse Chisato-san.”
The concept was as I suspected, then: to create a world that combined the familiar and the unfamiliar into something that was somehow more scary than something completely alien. This is one area where The Expression: Amrilato succeeds particularly admirably. With the success of this game in mind, then, I was curious as to whether or not J-MENT and SukeraSparo had any plans to put together any more experiences like this — aside from the as-yet unlocalised sequel Itsuka no Memoraĵo, that is.
“At the very least, I, the writer, do not [have any plans to make anything else like this],” J-MENT tells me; it’s immediately obvious that working on this game was a lot of exhausting work. “Even if I were to get an offer to write a script for a title focused on learning another language, my first thought would probably be ‘how can I turn this down?'”
J-MENT doesn’t elaborate, so I choose to conclude our conversation by asking if they had any thoughts on the initial trouble the localisation of The Expression: Amrilato had in getting a release on Valve’s Steam platform.
“With different nations and cultures come different circumstances… I imagine,” J-MENT says. “I’m satisfied that ultimately understanding was reached, even if our Expressions differ.”
That’s a rather nice way of looking at it, isn’t it? And just one of the many things we can all take away from this delightful game.
More about The Expression: Amrilato
A huge thank you to MangaGamer for the review copy of the game and for setting up this conversation, and to J-MENT of SukeraSparo for providing their commentary.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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