An exotic stranger smiles at you. You approach with a coy ease, looking up and down at the gorgeous visuals this person is putting on, intrigued by the prospect of an intense interaction. You say hi, casually introduce yourself, maybe tell a joke, but there is a problem: This person does not speak your language.
Whether you're trying to hook-up in a bar or are looking for a group in Guild Wars, you can't play socially if you can't speak the language. Language exists in games in two forms: strings of text, and interfaces. Good translation of embedded game narrative has been the gold standard of making a title fit for an international audience, but new forms of play and interface design are about to change that.
It's easy to localize a game with a concrete, static interface. The internal logic doesn't change, only the text. Socially oriented forms of play, such as MMOGs and dramatic systems, aren't so easy; while embedded text assets may still be involved, social play typically demands a linguistic interface, or "toy language." When it comes to social games, one must consider localization from the beginning of the design process.
There are three approaches to designing a linguistic interface: logographic, pictographic and alphabetical. By themselves and in concert, these approaches present different pros and cons in terms of a game's overall system design and in terms of making that design trans-cultural.
Logographic - a language of symbols that stand for specific concepts and words. The earliest written languages were logographic, but the best modern example is Chinese, which requires a reader to memorize 2,000 symbols in order to be proficient. It takes Chinese school children the better part of their education to accomplish this. While the Chinese characters have to encompass an entire society's vocabulary, not all logographic languages have to be so expansive. In fact, almost all game interfaces are logographic languages, typically consisting of a dozen verbs and a hierarchy of abstractions.
Chris Crawford's Storytron technology takes the logographic approach, requiring hundreds (even thousands) of verbs to enable user interaction with a dramatic world.
The interface, called Deikto, is structured around a basic sentence composed of a subject, verb and direct object, with the verb being the most crucial component. The logically simple cause and effect relationship of the core grammar, while not as intuitive as watching Master Chief shoot an Elite, is a straightforward representation that anyone with basic literary competency in any language can wrap his head around.
Identifying the representation calls on other linguistic forms, either with alphabetical language (Joe - Punch - Fred) or pictographic icons (an image of Joe's face - an image of clenched fist - an image of Fred's face). Icons are great in theory (they suggest the relevant nouns and verbs irrespective of language), but due to the sheer number of icons necessary to create an entire language, they're infeasible to use in a game interface.
Pictographic - the use of symbolic images to represent specific objects. The most famous example of this in natural language is a significant portion of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic, with its almost comic book-style conveyance. Pictographic language can be described as an ideal dressing for the logographic guts of an interface - icons can do great things to simplify and streamline a conventional interface. But where does pictographic language come into play for socially oriented games? It seems like the most direct approach to language has a snug home in the most direct approach to social gaming, the massively multiplayer space.
World of Warcraft is one of the most successful MMOG ever made, one that enjoys a strong fan base in China. It's possible that this trans-cultural success can be directly attributed to how the interface consists of familiar icons that fit within the logic of the franchise's fictional world. Unfortunately, the game's textual elements, which appear in nominal mission assignments that few people take the time to read, do little to aid players interested in socializing with others of different nationalities.
A soon-to-be-released MMOG, Tabula Rasa, strives to remedy that, using a full pictographic language to both inscribe lore, and to help users of all languages organize their efforts. Basic shapes and stickmen-representations constitute a large number of glyphs that have fairly self-evident meaning, even when taken together to form phrases.
The system was designed by Richard Garriott, the man most famous for the Ultima games. He seeks to pose moral and social challenges to players from different cultural backgrounds. The game's content and foundation is a logographic interface, enabling the usual spatial navigation, combat and leveling that we've come to love in MMOGs, leaving the pictographic language to serve only as a means of communication. It seems like an interesting invention, though only time will tell if Tabula Rasa plumbs any new social depths.
Alphabetical - a collection of symbols representing sounds that come together to form words. English is an alphabetical language, as are most of the world's surviving natural languages. Alphabetical language design is the hardest to pull off in a game, since most players carry their personal linguistic baggage (e.g., pronunciation of familiar lettering) into the world. On first inspection, alphabets are best left to composing embedded text, instead of being sewn into an interface.
Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern took a second look at alphabets in Façade, an interactive drama that took strings of English as its primary input. Façade is virtually irremovable from the English speaking context in which it was produced and played. The system is tied into interpreting English syntax, idioms and phraseology so deeply that to translate it for a Chinese- speaking audience, Mateas and Stern would have to re-design the game from the ground up.
Alphabetical interface design seems like a lost cause, but here's another approach: Any form of alphabetical input must simplify to a discrete unit, a logogram. The current technical impossibility of natural language processing requires all input to filter into a very specific system. So, the real aim of an alphabetical system isn't to simulate an in-game conversation, it's to offer players more verb selections than a 12-button controller, a Deikto-esque GUI or an MMOG's icon tray can facilitate. This means that an in-game alphabet doesn't have to be tied to any cultural context, but instead must be carefully designed to be consistent with a game's internal logic.
A design I'm currently developing utilizes the Celtic alphabet, Ogham, as an interface in an Irish magic school, where different letter combinations evoke spells and simple social cues. I'm divorcing the alphabet from its original phonetic use and designing my own alphabetical logic to be consistent with the game's world and its magic system. This means that a Chinese person could play it, needing only a translation of the game's embedded text to help him learn the interface.
No matter what approach is taken to designing the linguistic elements of a game, remember that human pattern recognition is more powerful than any AI system yet made. An elegant interface, and the play it supports, will reverberate as a universal language.
Patrick Dugan is the next Patrick Dugan. He's currently working on a tightly constrained, extremely stylized drama game for the Nintendo DS, and beginning to mess around with Storytron. Follow his scratchware autuership at King Lud IC.
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