Decoding Gaming’s Fictional Languages

April 28, 2022
 


If you were to ask a gamer why it is they like playing video games, the answer would likely be that it has to do with some form of escapism: Temporarily and fully immersing themselves in a different world. Immersion is critical in great storytelling and doesn’t come out of nowhere; it needs to be created. Among other means of worldbuilding, one of the most powerful tools to create immersion in a lore, is language.

Localization of a game is itself not an easy task, but some developers take it upon themselves to develop their own language for their games, dedicating so much time and thought to the players’ immersion that their invented virtual vernaculars can fill entire dictionaries.

In this article, we’d like to present some of these examples and talk a bit about the merits of creating an original language.

 
 
 

"There's always going to be a very small but ardent and vocal group of fans who will examine everything with a fine-toothed comb. Then you've really got to make something that will stand up to scrutiny." — Paul Frommer

Paul Frommer, linguistic consultant and creator of the Na'vi language from Avatar.



There are actually a few different approaches to making one’s own original language for video games, with some of them being vastly simpler than others. Let’s start with the basics.

Fictional Alphabets


Using a fictional alphabet to add depth to a game is probably the simplest of all options. All you have to do is make up your own system to substitute actual letters in the alphabet. The main advantage of the substitution cipher is that it's a prebuilt puzzle, a game to put within your game. Cipher puzzles were used for our entertainment long before the age of video games. Fictional alphabets not only contribute to immersion, but also give the player a chance to explore lore through intermediate problem-solving.
One example of a substitution cipher used in video games is the Al Bhed language in Final Fantasy X. As you meet the tribe of the Al Bhed, the game leads you on the way to organically deciphering their “language”. Since Al Bhed is based on whatever language you selected to play in, there is no actual vocabulary or grammar to the language. It is, however, a memorable part of the game that most Final Fantasy fans will look back on fondly.


The thing about Al Bhed, and any language created using a substitution cipher, is that it is primarily a written language, with the spoken form being crafted afterwards. Fundamentally, then the exact opposite of “real” languages.

Rikku speaking Al Bhed (Image credit: Square Enix)


Hylian in Breath of The Wild

The Hylian spells out "Master Link" in japanese. (Image credit: Nintendo)

Fictional Syllabary


Like the fictional alphabet, fictional syllabaries are usually not based on their own original vocabulary. The only difference is that their symbols reflect syllables, not letters. These systems usually feel more authentic and closer to real languages.

To explain a bit further, we may have a look at the Hylian writing systems from the Legend of Zelda series. Even though there are many forms of Hylian, including alphabets, Hylian syllabaries are often used to impart an “ancient” feeling on scripts and texts, and deepen the lore beyond the “simpler” Hylian alphabet deciphering.

Old Hylian, Source: https://omniglot.com/conscripts/hylian.htm#:~:text=The%20Hylian%20syllabary%20is%20a,Legend%20of%20Zelda%3B%20Majora's%20Mask.

Transliteration - Zeruda no Densetsu: Taimu no Okarina
Translation - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

 

Fish posters in old Hylian from Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (Image credit: Nintendo)

Modern Hylian, Source: https://omniglot.com/conscripts/hylian2.htm

Both old and modern Hylian are based on the Japanese Katakana syllabary, and function very similarly.

 

(Image credit: Nintendo)


Fictional Languages


Getting into the real meat and potatoes, we have fictional languages. Whereas the previous examples served as transcriptions
of established languages, on the other end of the spectrum there are fully-fledged, functional languages made up entirely for works of fiction.
One of the most extensive languages made for a video game in the last decade has got to be Dovahzul from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Created by the game’s concept artist, Adam Adamowicz, the written form of the language is said to look like Cuneiform, the written language used in ancient Mesopotamia. In the lore of the game, this language originated from dragons, which used their claws to carve letters into stone.

On further research, you'll find that there’s extensive grammar, vocabulary, and even idioms to Dovahzul, all documented by dedicated fans of The Elder Scrolls series.

Source: https://omniglot.com/conscripts/dovahzul.htm

Source: https://www.thuum.org/learn/grammar/sentence-structure.php

Source: https://www.thuum.org/learn/grammar/sentence-structure.php

Dovahzul is one of the reasons Skyrim feels as alive as it does and why, to this day, Skyrim is still a beloved classic.

Emil Pagliarulo, Design Director at Bethesda Game Studios said:
“Even though the Dragon language is fictional, it’s real for Skyrim and for all the players who decide to live in that world,”
Pagliarulo concludes, “and that’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.”


Artistic Language



Also often referred to as artlang, this refers to fictional languages which, just as the name suggests, exist solely for aesthetic and phonetically artistic purposes, meaning they possess little to no grammar and vocabulary and rather exist to convey a certain feeling, or make games appear more mysterious or in-depth.

When mentioning video game languages that have no method or sense, the first thing that might come to your mind is Simlish from the Sims franchise. Supposedly the creators of The Sims wanted to originally base their language on either fractured versions of real languages, or perhaps unexpectedly, on Navajo.
It was two improvisers who were invited to the studio and, with their excellent gibberish skills, ultimately convinced developers to go with what we know today as Simlish.

While there has been recurring vocabulary (for example, “Sul sul” means “Hello”), The Sims creator Will Wright said that creating Simlish as a nonsense language was the right decision as it enhanced the user experience, allowing players to use their imagination with the language.


(Image credit: EA)

Because most of the language is improvisational, virtually anyone can speak it. This becomes very interesting when it comes to celebrity cameos. Did you know that some of your favorite early 2000s radio hits have made their way into the Sims world? In Simlish, of course. Who could forget such classics as Katy Perry’s “Lass Frooby Noob”?


Conclusion


Fictional languages are overall a great way to create more immersion and rapport with players. Even if there is little to no realism, players on the whole appreciate worldbuilding through any means. Whether it is creating an extensive lingo, or captivating the audience with puzzling ciphers, fictional languages do not only deepen the gaming experience but also encourage people to stay invested in the lore long after finishing a game.



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