The Daunting Task Of Designing Language For Video Games

To feel a connection with the virtual world, we first have to believe in it. With sci-fi and fantasy settings in particular, designing fictional languages can help paint a more realistic world that captures the diversity and personality of its characters. Would Far Cry Primal’s prehistoric setting be conceivable in modern English? What if Skyrim’s ancient draconic tongue didn’t exist?

Whether they are pushing creative player engagement with ambiguous speech as we see in The Sims, or mimicking real-life dialects to give the impression of multiculturalism in Dragon Age: Inquisition, video games are heightening the bar for immersion. We chatted with various developers about how they approach this unique and daunting task.

This article was originally published in issue 279 of Game Informer Magazine.

Reviving The Past

When Ubisoft decided Far Cry Primal would be set in 10,000 B.C., the team faced a glaring problem: How would they coherently tell a narrative if all the characters are primitive cavemen? Would groans and grunts suffice? Before settling on Proto-Indo-European, Ubisoft first explored other routes, such as tasking its writing team with creating a fictional language from scratch. After realizing it would be too much of a strain on the writers, they looked for outside resources.

A member of the localization team suggested two linguists, Andrew and Brenna Byrd from the University of Kentucky. They had prior expertise in researching and translating Proto-Indo-European (PIE), a rudimentary language that was spoken between roughly 2500 and 4500 B.C.

“Toward the beginning of the project, when [Ubisoft] sent us an email, we actually thought it was spam,” Andrew Byrd says, laughing.

The Byrds translated the game’s 40,000-word script, which was previously written in simplified English. The colossal project tasked the two with building a fictitious language based on variations of PIE for three of the game’s tribes: the Wenja, the Izila, and the Udam. Each tribe’s name is inspired from a combination of words that best represent the tribe’s mindset. For example, Wenja is derived from the word “wan,” which means “to hunt.” The Izila speak a language of their own — a more melodic iteration of Wenja. While the Wenja and Udam can understand each other, their dialects differ phonetically in a similar way that Southern English and New York English would.

Like any complete language, Wenja has a consistent grammar and syntax. Sentences follow the following structure: subject + object + verb. While it’s possible to conjugate verbs in Wenja, it is not possible to differentiate between past, present, and future tenses. By enlisting the help of friends from grad school, the Byrds turned the project into a large, collaborative activity, where they would cross-analyze each other’s work and mentor one another. 

Ubisoft wanted the Byrds to base the language off a more archaic version of PIE, which the linguists call Proto-Proto-Indo-European. Modifications were made to better suit the setting, and to accommodate voice actors who struggled with specific words. While the Byrds estimate that 95 percent of language in Far Cry Primal are reconstructions molded from PIE, the remaining five percent are educated guesses.

In PIE, there are nearly 20 different roots for the verb “to shine,” but modern words including expressions as simple as “yes” don’t have an existing term. The two had to improvise with creative solutions, such as “yes” becoming “it is correct.”

“[Accuracy] was something that was very important to all of us in the project, because Proto-Indo-European is something that many, many people have studied,” Brenna says. “We wanted it to be as authentic as possible. We wanted it to be believable for other linguists.”

The result was a rich, complex language that breathed life into the land of Oros and gave an aura of realism. A problem the development team soon realized, however, was that the foreign language would mean a heavy usage of subtitles. Ubisoft didn’t want players to spend their entire time reading, so they put more emphasis on motion capture to drive home the narrative through body language and facial expressions. To test this out, the team revisited their previous entry, Far Cry 4, but this time entirely in Japanese.

“We wanted to see if we were able to understand what was going on in the world without understanding the language,” says narrative director Jean-Sebastien Decant. “And of course, the body language, the emotion, and the situation made it very clear that people would get what was going on.” 

Next: Learn how the team at Maxis formed Simlish, The Sims’ fictitious language.

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