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Re: How come ppl never needed GameFAQs when they were kids but as adults the...
█ by » Parasite_Ib Wed Apr 19, 2017 3:27 am

Joined: Oct 2014
Pronouns: she/her/hers
Location: Somewhere in Cascadia
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Okay, as long as we’re derailing this thread to talk about creepy gaming moments I guess I’ll talk about my one big experience. It’s not some forced meme about an experimental arcade cabinet, or absolute gonzo horseshit like jasdan17 posted about some haunted Mother 2 cartridge that makes you murder hyperrealistic representations of your parents, but hey, for a change, this story’s true.

So, unless you’re a diehard fan of otome games (which, if I’m being honest, probably doesn’t describe anyone in this subforum), you’ve probably never heard of Fortune Lover. It was a visual novel released at the end of the Playstation 2’s lifespan, popular in Japan, but like so many of these things, never released stateside. Most Anglophones who ARE aware of it probably know it through the tie-in manga, which was the only thing to get a commercial release in English, but, eh, the manga’s not great. It did inspire a dedicated team of fans to form the Sorcier Translation Project, though, laboring for four long years to complete an unofficial English translation patch for the first game, so at least something good came out of it.

That’s how I know the game, and I can’t help myself, it’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures. I probably play it at least once every six months. It’s got kind of a cliché plot (and a painfully heterosexual one, to boot), but the mechanics have a surprising amount of depth, and within the framework of only a fairly small number of endings there’s a lot of permutations reflecting how you played the game, so even getting the same ending four times in a row can feel rewarding. 

Anyway. In my sophomore year at uni, I was feeling pretty bummed about having to dump a boyfriend, so I decided to lose myself in Fortune Lover for the umpteenth time. Thing was, I usually played Fortune Lover on my desktop, which was stored at my dad’s condo three states away, and I didn’t have the files on my laptop, which meant if I wanted to play it I was going to have to re-download the game somewhere. Getting the translation patch from the Sorcier Translation Project’s forum was no trouble at all, but locating a clean disc image of the game would take a little resourcefulness.

Because the vast majority of people don’t give a fuck about otome games, hitting up all my good old piracy standbys failed to turn up anything (and the site I’d gotten it from last time had since been shut down), so, if I wanted to play Fortune Lover, I had no choice but to turn toward even shadier websites. On a whim, I decided to check out The NecROMancer’s Lair, a site—now long gone—which was for the most part an ad-riddled swamp of malware and false promises nobody will miss, but which did occasionally have some rare finds.

In its archive I couldn’t find a good rip of the commercial release of Fortune Lover, but I did find a file I’d never seen before, labeled as follows:

Fortune_Lover_(TGS_Beta)(SARU_rip)[T+Eng0.75_Sincere].zip

Now, if you’ve never downloaded a ROM before, you may not know what all those suffixes mean, so I’ll break it down really quick.

“TGS_Beta” meant that this was the almost-complete version of the game that was demo’ed at the Tokyo Game Show, kind of the Japanese counterpart to E3. This version had gotten leaked to the internet a year after the official release, but it didn’t make waves. Websites like The Cutting Room Floor, and the Sorcier Translation Project themselves, have done a deep dive into this version and determined it’s pretty much identical to the full release, except that the character Nicol’s route isn’t completed (and though the secret character Rafael’s route is actually present on the game data, without capturing Nicol you can’t access it by normal means). About the only other thing interesting about the beta is that some of the UI elements are placeholders borrowed from an earlier VN called Birdsong. Kind of a letdown, if you’re into excavating these sorts of things.

“SARU_rip” just meant that this particular copy of the beta had been “ripped” from the physical media and “dumped” by a person or group called SARU. This kind of information was occasionally useful, but I never really paid it much heed.

“[T+Eng0.75_Sincere]” on the other hand, was a very interesting tag. This meant that this was, inexplicably, an English translation of the beta, that made it to 75% completion, written by someone called “Sincere”. I’d never heard of any other translation attempts of Fortune Lover besides the one done by the Sorcier Translation Project (which had no member named “Sincere”), and I couldn’t imagine why somebody would choose to translate the beta over the complete and widely available release copy, so I became intrigued. Against the insistence of my malware blocker, I held my breath and started the download.

To my surprise and relief, extracting the .zip file didn’t blow up my computer and give all my bank account information to some Scandinavian hacker. It was a perfectly normal BIN/CUE file, which played on my Playstation 2 emulator without protest. And it was exactly what it purported to be—an English translation of the beta, distinct from any STP version (their releases always add their team logo at startup, along with the standard “not for commercial release” disclaimer).

I started a new game, and while the translation was definitely different, reflecting a different ethos—STP’s translation is more strictly literal; this one took creative license to make the writing flow better in English—it was otherwise surprisingly faithful to the source material. Kind of like the difference between subs and dubs, really. There was definitely care put into it, too; not a misspelled or badly punctuated sentence anywhere. “Sincere” had clearly worked hard on this.

It was enough that I’d completely forgotten about finding a rip of the commercial release. I was fully invested in playing through this version, and exploring how this alternate translation changed the experience I was accustomed to.

I sure got more than I bargained for.

It took about twenty or thirty minutes of playtime before I began to notice anything wrong. For those not in the know, the game opens up with the protagonist, a cookiecutter teenage heroine by the name of Maria, starting her first day of school at a magic academy for nobles. (She’s a commoner, but she possesses rare light magic, so she’s kind of there on scholarship.) The opening segment of the game is pretty linear and just serves to introduce her to the capturable love interests (e.g., she gets lost on campus and tries to climb a tree to get a better vantage, but gets discovered by the dashing, black-hearted Prince Jeord, who takes an interest in her). 

The last character to be introduced is the main antagonist of the story, Katarina Claes. In-game, she’s a pretty bog-standard “haughty alpha bitch” character, a high-ranking noblewoman engaged to Prince Jeord, who relentlessly bullies the protagonist for her lower station. She never reforms, and in most of the endings she crosses a line and winds up suffering a terrible fate. Even in the routes where she doesn’t have much presence, it’s implied her days are numbered one way or another. 

In Katarina's first appearance in the game, she’s walking by with a throng of lower-ranking minions, and when she notices Maria, she sneers at and insults the commoner—a lot of “how dare you not know your place” type shit—until Maria scurries off, feeling rattled. It's a pretty by-the-book character-establishing moment.

That’s how the scene is supposed to go. 

In the “Sincere” translation, when Katarina first walks by, all the sprites of the other girls are just… gone. Katarina’s walking alone. And while she still has severe features, she’s making a softer expression with them than I’ve ever seen on her. Weird enough, but it gets weirder.

When Lady Katarina notices Maria, there's no jeering confrontation at all. She simply greets her warmly, and asks her if she’s lost. Again, the look on her face is so downright wholesome it was kinda spooky just for how unexpected it was. I'm honestly not sure those expressions are even in Katarina’s spritesheet normally—they could just be unused, but I know I've never seen them anywhere else. But these differences, huge as they were, weren't what I found most unsettling.

See, Katarina is the only thing changed in this scene’s script. Just as in the official version, Maria still panics and hurries off, quietly musing to herself about how cruel and scary Katarina seems, and hoping she can stay clear of her from now on. “Why are all these nobles so cruel,” etc. The fact that Katarina hadn’t actually done anything made Maria’s response feel disproportionate and uncomfortable.

So around now, you can imagine I was feeling damn confused. Yeah, I was playing a beta, but the prose should have been just about identical—and why would the translation alter the scripting for the characters? If this change had been in the original Tokyo Game Show version, the Cutting Room Floor would surely have noticed. Heck, someone at the Tokyo Game Show would have noticed.

No, it seemed pretty obvious this was some kind of hacked-in change because Fortune Lover had been a fully voice-acted visual novel, and all of Katarina’s voice clips, normally provided by veteran seiyuu Megumi Hayashibara, were manually disabled. Whereas all the other characters were fully voiced, Katarina’s dialogue existed only in text. It was a dead giveaway.

But, hey, it was a small thing. I rationalized that maybe this was a joke translation, or some kind of weird proof-of-concept, or something. 

I kept on playing, and the game returned to the familiar territory I knew well. Whenever Katarina came up in conversation, other characters, like her fiancée Prince Jeord, or her stepbrother Keith, didn’t acknowledge a changed personality. She had relentlessly bullied the latter, and was smothering and manipulative to the former. This was the villainess I was accustomed to. 

But then Katarina appeared again. There’s usually a short scene where, after Maria’s high test scores land her on the Student Council, Katarina and her toadies corner her in the hallway and knock her textbooks and papers to the floor, demanding to know “where she gets off” besmirching the dignity of the Council Room with her “filthy commoner feet”. But in this version, it was once again Katarina all alone (and unvoiced), and she didn’t seem angry at all. She even warmly congratulates Maria on receiving an invitation to the Student Council, and makes a self-deprecating comment about her own middling performance on the exams. As she walks off, Maria drops all her books on her own, which she evidently still blames Katarina for, and wonders sorrowfully to herself why Lady Katarina must be so wicked, wishing she could simply leave her be.

As before, all of Katarina’s villainy had been totally removed from the scene, but the reaction to the villainy was left totally intact. Why would somebody do this? It was weird, because the changes to her character were making her genuinely likeable, and having someone be friendly to the protagonist so early on really changed the tone of the game, but the rest of the cast seemed to hate her anyway, no matter how different she was. What the hell had I downloaded?

It was just further down the proverbial rabbit hole from there. Normally, the next big scene with Katarina was a major development in Maria’s relationship with Prince Jeord. Maria, whose hobby is baking, makes a basket of muffins to share with the Student Council, only to be intercepted by Katarina and her followers, who berate her, bash the basket out of her hands, and try to force her to eat the spilled muffins off the ground with her mouth. Maria gets rescued at the last minute by the prince, who chases off his fiancé and her followers, and then humbly picks up a muffin off the ground and eats it, effusively complimenting Maria on her baking.

But in this version, only Katarina’s followers appeared—and instead of her, it’s one of the other nameless girls that knocks the basket out of Maria’s hands. It’s only after this happens that Katarina appears, looking surprised, and instead of joining in on the harassment of Maria, she faces down the other girls and sternly demands to know what they are up to. She literally takes Maria’s side! 

But then, Jeord shows up, and it’s like the script suddenly gets back on the rails; he immediately picks a fight with Katarina, accusing her of bullying Maria, and threatens consequences if she doesn’t leave immediately. Katarina, surprised and hurt, scurries off, and the other girls follow in turn. The scene then continues as normal, with both Jeord and Maria concluding without question that Katarina was the mastermind of this harassment all along.

I couldn’t believe it. You couldn't explain this away as simply an "adventurous" translation; this really was a “villainy-free” hack of Fortune Lover. Lady Katarina’s role in the story had completely changed. There wasn’t a single line of her dialogue in the game that remained intact; every time she appeared, she was kind and friendly (if even a little airheaded!) to the protagonist, and repeatedly tried to intervene in situations where Maria was being bullied by other characters, only for one of the love interests to show up and accuse Katarina of being the ringleader of the very abuse she had been trying to prevent. Maria never warmed up to or acknowledged any change in Katarina, invariably thinking of her as a thuggish bully and tormentor.

Honestly, it was starting to make me pretty uncomfortable. To the “translator’s” credit, the changes they hacked in with Lady Katarina made what had previously been a very nasty character genuinely appealing. Far from being anything like the original character, she had a bubbly, effervescent personality, and was extremely (if fruitlessly) supportive of Maria. Things she had been directly accused of, like that she guilt-tripped Prince Jeord into staying engaged to her, were directly contradicted by scenes between them in which she outright told him that she was more than willing to end the engagement and give her blessings to him and Maria (something he, sticking to the script, completely ignored). Keith Claes claimed he was ostracized by Katarina all his life, but Katarina always regarded her brother warmly, up until he would chase her off with displays of anger or magic. It felt… more abusive than Katarina’s own behavior had originally been.

In fact, as the story progressed and Maria herself became much more popular and influential, the absence of any actual troublemaking on Katarina’s part began to make the sympathetic characters feel like bullies. Even though they were just following the canon script, I genuinely found myself starting to resent them for their unilateral hostility toward and gaslighting of Katarina. Rather than actually being a villainess, Katarina was someone being vilified.

All this culminated in the big scene I was dreading, the “Persecution of Katarina Claes”, which is a major event in the last act of Keith and Jeord’s routes (and the harem route). It’s a climactic moment where one of those two capture targets publicly confronts Lady Katarina with all the evidence of her criminal harassment of Maria, which she stands forward and corroborates, resulting in the absolute devastation of her social standing and placing her in legal jeopardy.

I was on Jeord’s route, and I had been anxious about this scene. I hoped it would go different, since Katarina had done nothing wrong in this story, but as ever, all the characters remained firmly on the rails, accusing her of abuse and violence that she’d had nothing to do with, or even tried to stop. It was all the more painful to watch, because Katarina was so different in this scene; where originally she was shocked and outraged about this confrontation, she now looked terrified, and was openly sobbing, something she had never done in the original story.

Probably the most physically painful moment of this scene came where Katarina slumped to the floor, whimpering “Please… please stop all this… Why are you doing this? What did I do to deserve this? I only wanted to help...” but everybody ignored it. It was horrific. Everyone in that room, and the narrative itself, was treating her like a villain on the ropes, when all I could see was a victim on her knees.

Then Maria, the supposed heroine, stepped forward and drove in the final nail. She solemnly insisted to the crowd “yes, it’s all true!”, bringing the character assassination of Lady Katarina to an ugly and inevitable conclusion. What had been, in the normal game, a triumphant scene of a brave and humble girl finally asserting herself in the face of power and privilege and winning the school to her side, became a merciless, cold-hearted act of violence. It was absolutely chilling.

From here on out (in both versions), Katarina pretty much disappears from the narrative until the end of the game, and the rest of the route is kind of happy and fluffy, almost a denouement, as Maria and Jeord fully explore their shared romantic feelings. This romance culminates at the graduation party of the second-years, where the two lovingly dance and confess their commitment to each other. It’s all pretty standard otome game fare, but after the crushing darkness of the previous scene, these characters seemed utterly loathsome, and their growing love and friendship felt bitter and undeserved. I felt like I was watching the bad guys win, basically.

Even though at this stage in my Fortune Lover obsession I felt like I could get Jeord’s Good End blindfolded and with headphones blaring Motörhead in my ears, I'd been gunning for his Bad End from early on, because in that outcome, what’s supposed to happen is that Katarina shows up and attacks Maria with a knife—which, given the changed context of these characters, would actually have felt justified—only for her to be cut down by Jeord’s sword. I'd been curious about how this event would change with the new Katarina, but after all I'd seen, I was quickly coming to regret that decision.

Lady Katarina does show up on cue, after the scene where the two of them exchange love confessions, but, true to her form in this hack, there’s no harassment or abuse. In fact, she congratulates them, reaffirming her support and approval for their relationship, and promises to bow out gracefully.

And then... Jeord simply murders her anyway.

The scene literally recycles the original CG where Katarina attacks Maria, except her expression is different, and the knife in her hand is replaced with a bouquet of flowers—she looks spooked, like she’s scrambling to get away from Jeord—and the very next CG is unchanged from the original, the same old scene of the Prince slashing her torso open. She just... dies for literally no reason.

Even though the scenes of violence in this game were mild, barely even PG-13, and I'd seen them dozens of times, I was... pretty disturbed. There was just something about the detached, almost perfunctory savagery with which Prince Jeord slew his fiancé that left me feeling like I'd witnessed something unspeakable—and I’m somebody who got all the endings in School Days without batting an eye, so that’s saying something.

Yet the visual novel, predictably by this point, proceeds on pretty much as normal. Jeord breaks up with Maria over the scandal and shame of having murdered his fiancé, which in the original game felt appropriately tragic, but in this hack just comes off like a non sequitur. As expected, Maria is sad mostly about her beloved Jeord's self-exile, apparently unruffled by the slaughter of a kind, friendly girl. Roll credits.

Though I was stunned and appalled by everything I'd seen, I nevertheless went back and loaded an older save just to speed through and watch Jeord’s Good ending, even though it seemed pretty clear it wouldn’t be much happier. Indeed, it plays out much the same way, except instead of Katarina getting murdered, it jump-cuts to a courthouse scene where Katarina, clad in rags, is found guilty of her “crimes”, and is stripped of her rank and exiled. As romantic piano music plays, we're shown a CG of Jeord and Maria embracing as a ship sails away, the narration telling us that Katarina is huddled upon it, murmuring despondently to herself “...why is this world this way?”

It was heartbreaking to watch. I honestly felt guilty for making myself sit through this shit a second time. This experience had taken these cute, comforting characters I adored, and made them seem cold, hostile, and dangerous. And for what? To be edgy? I could've shut the game down right there, but toward the end of the second playthrough, a very odd detail caught my eye, something I'd missed before. 

In the Jeord endings, while Katarina is still diegetically referred to as “Katarina" by the characters, in the UI, following the Persecution scene, all of her dialogue is labeled differently. Rather than displaying the name “Katarina” in a text color matching her hair, her dialogue is now attributed to “Saru-chan”, and the text is pure white.

Puzzled by this, I checked the other endings, starting with Keith's. That was... tough. Katarina’s no more villainous in Keith’s routes than she is in Jeord’s, yet his Bad End manages to be even more barbaric; an ambush by Katarina's followers leaves Maria severely injured to the point of permanent disfigurement, and Keith, grief-stricken over his failure to prevent the attack, declares his sister responsible, even though she wasn't in this scene at all. In a mad rage, he hunts Katarina down on the Academy grounds and, as she begs for her life, crushes her under the fist of his earth golem. It's singlehandedly the darkest moment in this whole hack, and I would not replay it lightly. But, I found in it what I was looking for. In that ending, as well as Keith's Good End, Katarina suddenly becomes “Saru-chan”.

I checked Alan’s route, but (somewhat refreshingly), Katarina is, while kinder than usual, still barely in it—she doesn't feature in the endings at all. And Nicol’s route is a glitched-out mess, freezing up when you try to access it. I attempted to get into it from a couple angles, but no matter what I try the game hangs indefinitely. (Which stands to reason—his route isn't supposed to be on the TGS Beta in the first place, right?) So, it's just these four accessible endings in which Katarina meets a terrible fate that her name suddenly changes.

At this point, I had pretty much plumbed through everything this ghoulish “translation” had to offer. I’d been uncovering its mysteries for several hours and only come up with more questions. I needed some kind of goddamn explanation for what this thing had put me through. I hit up the message boards and tumblrs, searching for any sign that anybody else had ever seen the “Sincere” translation—why was nobody talking about this weird fucking thing? I checked the Sorcier Translation Project website, scoured The Cutting Room Floor, and I couldn’t find anything.

Well, if the English-speaking Fortune Lover fandom wasn’t going to give me the answers, it was time to hit up the Japanese sources. My Japanese was pretty terrible—I’d only taken two semesters at uni, and they’d been taught by a guy from Macau—but I figured I knew enough to ask questions and get the gist of the answers. Worst case scenario, there was Google Translate.

Nobody I asked in the Japanese Fortune Lover fandom knew about anyone named “Sincere”. They did show interest in the translation (which I shared on a GDrive, though I think most of them, ironically, would have had to re- translate it to appreciate the changes), but couldn’t tell me anything about who made the hack, or why. They did suggest to me that the reason the hack used the beta version was because it may have been easier to alter the sprite scripting in that version (as I recall, it’d taken the STP quite a bit of elbow grease to get past the final game’s DRM), so I’ve accepted that explanation, I guess.

For the most part, I wasn't getting anywhere. Some members of the community even accused me of having created the hack to garner attention (which was embarrassing, if only because I'd like to think I'm more well-adjusted than that). However, when I mentioned the detail about “Saru-chan”, a few people took interest. Evidently, “Saru-chan” is something of a meme among the Japanese Fortune Lover fandom. The story there is kind of morbid, but nobody can say if it’s true.

Supposedly, “Saru-chan”, so nicknamed because she delighted in climbing trees like a monkey, was the childhood best friend of some big name fan in the Fortune Lover fandom—some claim it’s actually somebody who went on to become a pretty celebrated dev of VNs in their own right, like Tatsuya Matsubara or Atsuko Masuda, but, y’know, nobody knows. The story goes that Saru-chan was a pretty big otaku, particularly obsessed with otome games, and was prone to losing track of time when she played them.

When she got Fortune Lover, she got really into it—played it to the exclusion of everything else. She got all of Alan and Keith’s endings easily enough, but she got stuck on Jeord’s good ending; Lady Katarina’s interference made it a challenge for her (the solution isn't very intuitive), and she kept getting the murder ending over and over again. Evidently, she was pretty spoiler-averse and didn’t like going online for help, either. Capturing every character on her own was a big point of pride for her.

We don’t know if Saru-chan ever captured Jeord, but we know that was what she was trying to do on the last night of her life, when she stayed up too late playing the VN and wound up oversleeping. The next morning, waking up late and desperate to make it to school on time, she lost control of her bike and got hit by a truck (in some versions of the story, it’s a car; one guy even claims it was a train). She was just seventeen when she died, and her best friend never quite got over it.

It sounded to me like Saru-chan was just an urban legend. A lot of people believe all sorts of things in the visual novel medium are tributes or references to her—every time a monkey, or tree-climbing, or even just a girl otaku appears in one of those games, somebody jumps to call it an allusion to her. None of these have been confirmed as referential; again, nobody can even provide clear evidence she ever existed to begin with.

But this new information got me wondering again about the strange, haunting version of Fortune Lover I played. I was no closer to figuring out who or what “Sincere” was, but I realized I’d misinterpreted one other part of the filename. I thought “SARU_rip” meant that the Sincere translation was patched to a dump provided by an entity calling itself SARU. But with this new context, it was clear that it actually meant “Saru, Rest in Peace.” It was a tribute to her. This entire hack was, in some strange way.

Though, that just leaves me with more questions. What was this hack? Why release a tribute in English to a dead Japanese girl? What is the meaning of changing only the “villainess” character—the very obstacle which is said to have contributed to the girl’s demise—to an innocent victim, unfairly vilified by a rigid, unchanging narrative? Why does Lady Katarina, in the moment of her imminent destruction, become Saru-chan? Is it a commentary on how Katarina, like the girl herself, was imprisoned by the unyielding narrative of Fortune Lover? Is there some way to play the hack I haven’t yet discovered—some way to make the other characters finally see how good and kind a person Katarina really is? I just don’t know. There's so much I can't know.

But if you ask me, I don’t think the Sincere translation is a joke—I think it is, true to its name, sincere. Having scoured its secrets to the best of my ability, I truly believe there is something very raw, some very genuine darkness that was spilled into its creation. In the end, its creator may not even have wanted anyone to find it, but still felt compelled to unleash it on the world, for whatever reason.

If I’m right, then all I can say, having witnessed the heartbreak and grief buried in its narrative, is that I hope it helped the creator work through the pain they were clearly dealing with when they wrote it. I hope, after finishing this project, they were able to move on from some of the bitterness and cynicism that had plagued them. I hope they told the story they needed to tell, and that they're finally beginning to heal.

And I hope Saru-chan, if she was ever even real, can someday, somewhere out in the universe, get that happy ending she’s been looking for for so long.