Word Play: Video Games and Language

Language is a funny old thing, and more so in the gaming world. For a community that seemingly has no problems deciphering alien languages or listening to Japanese commentary, most games shy away from using language in all its glory. While playing Assassin's Creed Unity recently, I couldn't help thinking of a comment made by GoPlayThat's Stu in his 2015 Game of the Year round up. He mentioned that the accents in Unity (set in revolutionary Paris) were more authentically English than the ones in Assassin's Creed Syndicate (set in London). It's true as well - apart from the odd French word (usually a swear word) from a main character and some dialogue from the extras, the majority of the speech is in regional English accents. This incongruity strikes me as odd in a game series that has taught me more about geography and history than my school ever did. It also got me thinking about how we use languages in games.

At first I was going to write an angry article bemoaning all the games that suffer the same language issues as the Assassin's Creed series, but I'd prefer to focus on those that do it well. Bear in mind that I'm not talking about localisation here; I'm talking about games that are set in non-English-speaking locations, and don't use English for their primary language.

The best game in recent memory in terms of language use is for me Max Payne 3: Max does Brazil. This game made many a brave choice: trading the noir grime of NYC for the sun-bleached slums of Brazil, giving Max a haircut and a paunch, but the bravest move was having all NPCs (except some important story stuff) speak Brazilian Portuguese. Even the subtitles when activated are in Portuguese, so if you don't speak it, you're in the same boat as Max. This single change switches the dynamic of the game. You are no longer Captain Hardass, all-American hero, assured of success wherever you may be; you are an overweight alcoholic gringo who is way, way out of his depth. What other game has had the hero mugged while asking for directions? It makes Max's quest for redemption so much more poignant as he is lost in every way.

Imagine the same game without the unfamiliarity with the language. The impact and originality would have been lost, and we'd have been left with another gun-toting American shooting up a foreign city.

A more recent game that drops English is Far Cry Primal. Unlike previous entries in the Far Cry series where everyone in remote locations can speak more than passable English, Primal goes all out - all spoken languages are dialects of Proto-Indo-European that has been reconstructed by historical linguists. A hell of an effort considering a lot of people won't even notice. However, it keeps the atmosphere of the game intact. Would the game have worked if everybody was chatting away in English? Probably not, and I salute the effort. Far Cry Primal also shows off the viability of the HUD as a Babel Fish or universal translator: all essential information can be found in the HUD or menu screen in English, removing the need for the characters to speak in an intelligible language (I believe this idea could easily be applied to Assassin's Creed etc.).

Finally, to round out my list, I'd like to talk about Never Alone (Kisima Innitchuna). The game riffs on Iñupiat folktales, and deals exclusively in their language with the aim of helping preserve a dwindling culture. Progression through the game is rewarded with video interviews and documentaries discussing Iñupiat history and way of life, and the whole game feels like a love letter to a culture. What's beautiful about it is this strange language does not distract from the gameplay at all, but rather embellishes it and makes a standard platformer more engaging.

I spent eight years teaching English as a foreign language in Spain, and I know how important games are when teaching or learning a language. Ask a student to spend sixty hours studying grammar or reading news articles and the likely outcome isn't great. Get a student to play Fallout in English for the same length of time and they'll hardly realise they've been studying. My first Spanish words were learned in Final Fantasy 10, and the only Portuguese I can actually speak comes from Max Payne, as I spent hours listening to the gangsters shout and swear. I can only imagine how much Italian or French I could have learned while playing the last few Assassin's Creed games! Even if the player doesn't pay enough attention to the dialogue to learn vocabulary, playing a game in a foreign language for a decent length of time strengthens listening skills and trains the ear, making learning easier. In my experience the area most people neglect when learning is the listening aspect but the very nature of games drives and encourages a student to listen, pay attention and learn.

I applaud games that focus on language. Let's see an end to anglo-centric dialogue and celebrate language diversity with the same enthusiasm we recreate cityscapes or dream up alien worlds. Feel free to shoot me a recommendation on Twitter for other games on this list!