Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, as many of you might have already guessed, I’m a bit of a nerd from time to time. Well, that’s a slight understatement, but regardless, as a nerd, I’m a fan of video gaming in general. So, for today, I figured I’d talk a little bit about the different ways that different languages are used in video games.

Right now, in-Game languages are usually rather disappointing to a Linguist.

For instance, in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the main character interacts with a variety of different human and alien species on a variety of planets. Although most interaction with humans (and a few specific non-human characters) takes place in English with actors reading lines, when an alien speaks, a soundbite of their “language” is played and a subtitle is shown on the screen. Now, this is cool, and the fact that every species that speaks has a different and recognizable sound and sound system in those soundbite is a really cool thing. However, it’s literally just two or three soundbites. So, every time your garden variety Twi’Lek speaks, one of the two or three twi’lek soundbites is played, no matter what’s being said and who’s saying it. So, although the Twi’Lek language in KOTOR has a sound system, there’s no actual grammar.

In game languages can get more complex, though. In Ambrosia Software’s Escape Velocity: Nova, they have a slightly different philosophy. Although all communication is through text, they’ve managed to work some interesting language use in. There are several species living in the same galaxy, and the naming of both the planets and the ports on them is usually reflective of the language of the species. Looking at a Galactic map, one can pretty easily distinguish the different governmental regions of control just by the planet name. For example, The Polaris (in purple) generally have names with a single syllable, an “ ‘ “, and a cluster of syllables, whereas the Wraith (grey, at the top of the map) name their planets with a syllable, a “ ‘ “, a capitalized orthographic vowel, “ ‘ “, and a syllable cluster.

However, the really interesting stuff happens when you look more closely at the Polaris planets and personal names in EV Nova. In the game, they are explained as having Five Castes. If you learn the different castes and the naming system, then just by looking at the map, you can tell instantly which of the castes controls a given system, which offers a huge gameplay advantage. Say, for instance, you needed to purchase an armor upgrade. Knowing that military hardware is sold by the Warrior caste (the Nil’Kemoria), you could look at the map for the nearest system prefixed with “Nil’” indicating warrior caste control, and go there. Similarly, it’s easy to determine where to go for cheap medical supplies (at the Healer caste planets, with “P’”). So, learning elements of the Polaris language in EV Nova is a boon to the gamer, and I applaud the folks at Ambrosia for taking the time to actually make something (no matter how small) out of the language, rather than just leaving it as creative gibberish.

Some games have interesting language features that aren’t even meant to be interesting. In Star Wars: Jedi Knight, Jedi Academy they have the wonderful option to have all dialogue, interface features, and subtitles in English or Spanish. Being a language nerd, I usually leave it set to Spanish. The translations are very good in general, with only a few comical aspects. Notable among them is the fact that Jedi, pronounced “Jed-eye” in English, is pronounced “Yed-ee” in the Spanish version). It’s also quite funny to see a Rodian speaking Spanish, with the distinctive Rodian pitch and filter.

So, oftentimes, games (especially in Sci-Fi and fantasy) will give a nod to the existence of non-human language, but very seldom will they actually go through the trouble to make that language into more than just background noise. However, those games that do choose to utilize some variety of actual, meaningful created language create a unique experience for the gamer, and deserve commendation.

These are just a few salient examples from the vast world of gaming. If you’ve got another example, leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll give it mention, or, if you’re space-travel enabled, just stop by Ling’angma, home planet to the Linguist caste. You might not want to bring any grammarians, though.

Also: If you look at the sidebar on the main page, you’ll notice I’ve added a new feature, the Link of the Moment. This is just a random language, life, or computing link that I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here. It changes every time you refresh the page, so come back often. :)

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