The cold Winterhold from Skyrim, the Citadel, a cosmic hodgepodge of races from the Mass Effect series, and the grim Tristram from the first Diablo… Here we have three completely different places from completely different worlds; there’s one thing they have in common, though – in all of them we can easily hold a conversation in English. This language seems to have become the lingua franca of digital entertainment, which is hardly surprising – after all, the vast majority of players are able to speak it, at least to some degree. In addition, it doesn’t really affect the immersion, as few people tend to mull over the fact that the inhabitants of Azeroth seem to have picked up textbook English somewhere along the way.
Over the years, though, quite a few games have decided to abandon the tongue of Shakespeare and experiment with new dialects. Usually the developers do it to walk the extra mile and throw in another brick to the realism of the world they have created; sometimes it’s relevant to the gameplay or simply exempts them from having to write down hundreds of pages of dialogue. We’ve contacted David J. Peterson, a professional conlanger (see the box below for definition), who invented languages for the Game of Thrones TV series, and Andrew Byrd, a linguist from University of Kentucky, who was responsible for the Wenja language in Far Cry Primal, and analyzed the most interesting linguistic experiments in the history of digital entertainment.
Unfortunately, there were few viable examples: a true fictional language must be something more than a joyful display of creativity. “Each language is a different system, and requires its own unique grammar, including derivational rules”, explains Peterson. “The grammar is what’s required to make a language work; words are just atoms”. Any studio that would like to adequately distinguish its production in this aspect would have to spend months of extra work just on that, best given to an experienced conlanger. Unluckily, in most cases the languages of fictional worlds are created by complete amateurs.
Such was the case with the most popular language ever conceived for a video game. We’re talking, of course, of Simlish – the means of communication between characters of the wildly-popular life-sim series, The Sims. But in the case of this particular franchise, it wasn’t in the least about creating an interesting little tidbit for linguists: on the contrary, coming up with this pseudo-language was rather a sign of the devs’ laziness. Will Wright – originator of the whole project – pointed out that due to the nature of the game, dialogues written in English would quickly become repetitive; that’s when he decided, together with the linguist Marc Gimbel, to experiment with the language of the Navajo Indian tribe.
Soon, however, the duo gave up and came to a conclusion that the thing that would fit their needs best would be incoherent gibberish, cobbled together from unrelated words from different parts of the world and incorrectly pronounced by the voice actors. As we know, this decision hit the bull’s-eye: not only did Simlish perfectly fit the character of the series, it also became a separate cultural phenomenon in its own right. Maxis even managed to persuade such pop stars as Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry to sing songs in this completely ungrammatical language; it was also featured in another one of Will Wright’s projects – Spore.
Ubisoft, on the other hand, took a much more serious approach when creating this year’s iteration of the Far Cry series. Since FC: Primal takes us back to the Stone Age, relying on the use of English posed a risk of ruining the immersion. That’s why Ubisoft hired linguists specializing in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language – the reconstructed “protoplast” to many languages that are used today on the Old Continent. “We tried to make a language as faithful to Proto-Indo-European as possible, only with slight modifications to make it appropriate for a video game”, says professor Andrew Byrd from the University of Kentucky.
The result of their efforts crystallized as two languages, belonging to the Wenja and Izila peoples, each containing more than 1,200 words. Additionally, the first of them is used by two tribes, but as slightly different dialects. For this to work it was necessary to come up with a relatively faithful, PIE-like grammar and teach the actors its correct pronunciation and accents. Both languages also had to have their own peculiarities. “The Wenja are a shamanistic society and so they view the world in terms of grammatical gender as animate vs. inanimate”, explains Byrd. “On the other hand, the Izila categorized the world into thinking vs. non-thinking entities. Everything else was viewed as an ‘it’”. The professor also points out subtle nuances, such as the fact that when Queen Batari meets the protagonist for the first time, she refers to him using the masculine form, but when he rejects her, she begins to refer to him as “it” instead.
Byrd also shared some interesting facts on the process of language creation. “In the beginning we created a large number of words we knew that we’d use – words for animals, basic vocabulary, words like ‘to eat’ and ‘the sun’”, says Byrd. “Over time, however, as the scripts came in, we would create new words and phrases”. In the speech they were developing things like metaphors or idioms appeared rarely; the team working on the project concluded that it would be better if the grammar reflected some cultural aspects. And although most of the vocabulary was created in all seriousness, there were also some funny situations. “The idiom meaning “tasty” is “paliklayjan su” – literally “finger-licking good”. It’s a nod to our roots in Kentucky”, explains Byrd, indicating a connection with the KFC fast-food franchise.
Most developers don’t bother to do it even if they have a fictional language free for the taking. That’s right, I’m talking about various games set in Middle-earth. Ubisoft deserves praise for the decision to cooperate with professional linguists and create an entirely new speech. Any half-decent fan of fictional worlds knows that J. R. R. Tolkien created not only Middle-earth’s entire history and mythology, but also developed several means of communication for the characters living there. Two of those languages are very well-developed – and yet it is rare for the authors of games based on The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion to use more than a few snippets of Elvish in their scripts.
The same issue could be raised against CD Projekt RED with regard to The Witcher. David Peterson, however, justifies the approach taken by the Polish developer. In his opinion, Sapkowski’s books – even though they’re well-written – in terms of linguistics are… less than impressive. “The Elder Speech is the kind of work that makes a conlanger sick”, he says. “Personally I wouldn’t call it a language. [Sapkowski] grabbed a bunch of words from a bunch of different languages, altered their spelling, and threw them together without regard for grammar. He didn’t invent anything”. Now it makes sense why CD Projekt RED was reluctant to write entire dialogues in Elder Speech…
The fifth part of The Elder Scrolls franchise was a bit more successful in that respect. The dragon tongue in Skyrim is not only a trick to improve immersion – it’s also an important gameplay element. During the long hours of exploration, the player discovers subsequent phrases engraved in rocks in the language of dragons, which they can use for their own purposes. I suppose that in the heat of making sure that those magnificent flying reptiles stay down for good few of you wondered just how much logic there is in their alphabet and speech. It turns out that Bethesda approached the matter quite seriously, creating a system of characters modeled on runic writing. And you can actually compose complete sentences with it. Still, Skyrim can’t really boast a vocabulary large enough to compete with Far Cry Primal; nor does it have dedicated grammar. Nothing to be surprised about – despite the fact that the fifth installment of The Elder Scrolls series provides dozens of hours of fun, it rarely gives us the luxury of long chats with dragons.
The list of fictional languages ??– or at least parts thereof – used in video games is much longer. The iconic adventure game Myst had a dedicated alphabet, though we never had the chance to learn its pronunciation. Excerpts from the speech of foreign races can also be heard in Dragon Age: Inquisition – but in this case BioWare, just like Sapkowski, were making it up as they went, based on what was needed at the moment. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons also has an original language, only – like Simlish – it’s complete gibberish devoid of grammar. Nier, Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda – these series also deserve a mention in this article. But the thing is that none of the above comes close to the level achieved by Far Cry Primal, even though Ubisoft’s impressive work isn’t exactly flawless.
“The difference is that linguists aren’t conlangers”, points out Peterson. “It’s a bit like asking an art historian to paint a portrait: they know what art looks like, but they’re not artists”. The creator of the Dorthraki language also notes that attempts at coming up with an original language for a video game usually end up badly. The main reason for that is that this difficult and time-consuming work is usually undertaken by the same developers who need to simultaneously design the next level, transcribe the dialogue for a cut-scene, and fix an error causing items to disappear from the inventory. Meanwhile, the Internet is home to a huge conlanger community which would’ve done a much better job.
But linguistic experiments go well beyond creation of fictional tongues. Sometimes it takes something as simple as injecting some foreign words into an English-speaking game. Rockstar played this card brilliantly in Max Payne 3 – the game is set in Brazil, so naturally much of the dialogue is conducted in Portuguese. The developers, however, has left them untranslated (even if it’s a dialogue between key plot characters), which allows us to better relate to the protagonist’s position – he’s an ex-cop lost in the poor neighborhoods of a foreign country. The Istanbul stage in the second Uncharted game had a similar feel to it – all of the guards spoke Turkish and it wasn’t easy to tell if they were standing up to make themselves some tea, or to start looking for Nathan Drake. In locations modeled after the real world, such simple device can work wonders to immersion building without requiring any linguistic effort.
But realistic atmosphere can also be created using plain old English. For a perfect example, let’s take a look at the Thief series in which, despite using the seemingly common English, the developers managed to introduce distinct slang for various social groups. And so the Hammerites, believing in order and service to their Lord, communicate in something resembling a sophisticated, dignified offspring of Early Modern English, while the language of their arch-enemies – the Pagans – is extremely simplified and relies on distorted grammar. It’s a simple trick, but it’s very effective. A few hours in the game are enough to guess where a character’s loyalties lie just by hearing them speak. Thief is also responsible for the introduction of the word “taffer” to video game vocabulary. It means a thief and draws its roots either from stories about an army of beggar cannibals (!) dating back to the time of the Crusades, or from an anti-Welsh rhyme from the 18th century. The word is also commonly found on numerous message boards related to the games from Looking Glass Studios.
Experiments such as these are more than enough to change the linguistic aspect of a game into its distinguishing feature. Once again, it all boils down to immersion; both David Peterson and Andrew Byrd made it obvious. “The use of a created language really helps to capture the realism of the world presented”, says Peterson. “If we’re to suspend disbelief and to transport ourselves to another time or another dimension, then that group of people is highly unlikely to be speaking Modern English or Polish or whatever”, adds Byrd. In the end, as stated by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language means the limits of my world…”. And when we traverse a land full of elves, dragons and dwarves, we’d rather like them to be described by something which can’t be expressed in common English.