Localization is Far More than Translation — Why Total War: Three Kingdoms Got So Big in China

Most boys in China grew up reading or watching content based on the Three Kingdoms. It’s more or less a complex towards these heroic characters of warring times,” A Chinese fanatic of the newly released Total War: Three Kingdoms, a strategy game developed by British studio Creative Assembly, told me. “Every Chinese boy has a dream of the Three Kingdoms. You would wonder how you would have organized your armies if you were the army leader.”

At a cafe, three boys gathered around during lunch break, discussing the details and great fun they had with the game. They had all pre-ordered the title before it was even officially released. 268 yuan was all it cost for the best strategy game based on the Three Kingdoms story up until now. It seems like a fair deal.

“Right now, for my part on Cao Cao’s side, Dong Zhuo has died, and Lv Bu has inherited his legacy. However, five rounds later, Lv Bu was killed as well. Liu Bei has joined forces with Liu Zhang, and Sun Quan is made king.” When asked about why he would choose Cao Cao, one interviewee simply said according to the game’s system, it is easier to win on this side with better personnel resources and diplomatic settings.

Different from the Koei version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms developed by Japanese designers, this strategy game is much more improvised, with more variations and contingencies, and higher demands for the players’ operational capabilities during war. What makes Total War unique is that it is a perfect combination of diplomatic relations, domestic affairs, and war tactics. “It makes you feel like you are the absolute god of the side you picked, making decisions and controlling everything. It’s entirely different from just creating an archer and fighting people,” One of the boys pointed out.

official picture

Among the Chinese gamers, the majority of them were first drawn to Total War by the sheer idea of it being based on the Three Kingdoms. The previous games in the Total War series like Attila and Warhammer, although had high ratings on Steam, were unable to attain a solid fan base in China.

Localization is not just about translation

Just one week after release, the title sold over 1 million copies, two-thirds of which were contributed by Chinese players. The game developers even expressed their special thanks to Chinese players, who are amazed by the excellent localization work done by the Creative Assembly. Total War: Three Kingdoms is the first game in the series to include Mandarin dubbings, with extremely good half literary and half vernacular wordings and skillful dubbers. As for other details, the design of the user interface and texts are even better than those created by Chinese developers. For instance, a narration would play throughout loading screens in a historical tone of voice, “At fifteen I went with the army, At fourscore I came home.”

To add on, the skill tree in the game is designed with an animation effect of peach flowers blossoming, which depicts Chinese culture very well. A half-literary and half-vernacular narration would play when players click on a certain branch on the tree. A scene in the trailer depicting Taking Oath in the Peach Garden is done with exquisite detail graphically.

trailer screenshot in Total War: Three Kingdoms (source: sohu.com)

Even just a few years back, excellent localization of games was not very widespread. Players of Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms would be familiar with the experience. The translation of the lines was done completely in traditional Chinese characters, which was not compatible with the Windows system. Over the years, the Chinese market has become a major focus for foreign developers. Last year Hotline Miami decided to localize all of its games published in China. “Chinese players would just give it a low rating if it doesn’t have a Chinese version on Steam. Danmaku on Bilibili.com would cry for subtitles in a comment under a video, “I don’t understand a damn thing!”

Foreign games such as Tomb Raider and Residential Evil have all done well in terms of translation and Chinese dubbing.

Video game localization and a globalized gaming ecosystem

Game localization goes beyond a mere translation of dialogue so that it becomes intelligible for foreign audiences. It is a process that adapts the video game so that it is not only semantically and syntactically understandable, but also contextually understandable as well. Successful game localization requires a keen attention to cultural norms such as colloquialisms, idiomatic expressions and social and cultural customs. And the challenge is even harder for a historical game such as Total War: Three Kingdoms as careful research would be required so that the details of the game from the choice of words to the clothing are not only culturally but historically accurate as well.

Shortcomings: Out of Character

From a historical perspective, the Koei version might have done a better job in not bending history because it was developed by a Japanese team who would likely have a better grasp of Asian history. In the Total War series, players are free to change the course of history after joining a game. The game can be played in two modes, Romance and Records Mode. Under Records Mode, certain mandatory plots would bump into the players’ course of events, like Cao Cao’s assassinating Dong Zhuo, “Battle of Guandu” between Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, or the “Battle of the Red Cliff”. However under Romance Mode, players could effectively do whatever they wanted. A famous warrior could wipe out an entire unit, while in Records Mode, renowned warriors are more human, just like every ordinary soldier, that can actually be stabbed and killed. In other words, the brutality of war is better presented.

As for the characters, there appears to be an abundance of OOC lines or unreasonable scenes of famous characters like Guan Yu, where he would betray his allies after being held captive. According to the original Three Kingdoms story, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei are sworn brothers who would never betray each other until death. However, in Total War, the opposing side is capable of winning the heart of Guan Yu through certain repetitive operations. “Let’s say the intimacy index between Liu Bei and Guan Yu is 50. In the total war system, every time you performed actions that could raise intimacy, 5 points of intimacy with Guan Yu would be added. Therefore, all you needed to do was to repeat this action several times.” Instead of following the historical patterns in the book or history, the Total War series is creating a system for players to have things their own way, which sometimes brings unrealistic or even fantasized end results.

“The Total War series allows me to achieve results that I hope for. Let’s say, if Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang are both my advisors, my army could become so much more powerful,” one interviewee said.

Another thing is that the game lacks warfare tactics. There is an ancient Chinese saying that goes, “Food and fodder should be ahead of troops and horses.” It represents the essence of strategic planning in the cold weapon era, which is not really presented obviously here. A sense of strategy is what’s most important for the players, and how you organize your troops may affect the outcome ten steps later.

Art style of Characters

Cao Cao in Total War: Three Kingdoms (source: 网易)

In the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there are altogether over four hundred warriors. However, only about 40 of them have portraits in the total war game. The portraits in Koei Romance of the Three Kingdoms resemble Japanese animation characters, with dashing eyebrows and slanting eyes. Comparatively speaking, portraits in Total War are none-beautified versions and appear more realistic.

Cao Cao in Koei version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (source: steamxo.com)

Every Total War game will go through a long process of enhancement.” With the future complement of official downloadable content and self-created mod among players’ communities, the game will continue to improve in terms of historical settings and character portraits in the coming years. It is still early to define it as a successful case of China’s softpower expansion, but it has indeed garnered wide attention for Warcraft lovers under a Chinese historical background.

Featured photo credit to 电玩狂人