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  Mechanic #152 - Pictograph Language
Posted: 06/12/12

A game that needs no localization, as the end game is built around deciphering a pictographic language.

  Pictograph Language

One of my pet peeves in video games is localization. I can't, unfortunately, speak all the languages of the world, so I am reliant on translators to take the meaning of foreign text and turn it into something I can understand. Some of them do this very well. But just as often, foreign objects and ideas are changed completely - often to appeal to some sort of belief that Americans are xenophobic and don't want to deal with difficult foreign things. That's why you see things like "takoyaki" (sort of fried octopus donuts) translated into "hot dog". Or why some games never get localized at all for being "too foreign".

In my opinion, a good localization is minimal, taking efforts to retain the cultural identity of foreign games. But the best localization is the one that never has to happen in the first place.

The following entry is based on my experiences learning kanji (the Japanese/Chinese pictographic writing system). The basic premise is to build a unique pictographic language of my own, based on some of the more interesting characteristics of kanji, and write all in-game text in it. You play a character who has been transported to a foreign world. You don't speak or understand the language. And a large part of the plot and the gameplay involves the learning of this made up language in order to progress.

  Pictographs and You

I specifically picked a pictographic language because it seemed like it would be easier for a gamer of different cultures to understand. A picture of a tree is universal. The word "squiggly-pooch" is not. By combining known pictographs (called radicals), you can create new meaning based on the intersection of meaning from the radicals.



Fig 152.1 - Building a compound from simpler building blocks.


For example, if X means moon/darkness, Y means person, and Z means heart/soul, then XYZ could be seen to mean the darkness in a person's soul, or "evil". XY would be a dark person, or "enemy". XZ would be a dark heart, or "corrupt". And YZ would be a person's heart, or "emotion". Knowing three radicals allows one to presume the meaning of a compound. This can be further improved by creating compound words from these compound pictographs. For instance "evil" + "enemy" + "creature" would be three compounds that together could spell out "monster".



Fig 152.2 - A few sample radicals.


The heart of the language would be the radicals, and you'd probably need at least 25 or so (possibly more), but since the language would be specific to a single game world, it wouldn't need the 200 or so that Japanese has. Japanese has kanji for specific types of trees and unique ones for sheep, horses, and cows. A simplified game world just needs as a single "tree" pictograph or a single "animal" radical which could be combined with others to indicate cow (drink animal) or sheep (coat animal). In other words, the limited game world allows you to use limited vocabulary. It also means that you don't need to spend a lot of time on abstract concepts like melancholy or frustration.

I haven't put a lot of thought into how the grammar of such a language would be put together, but again, this is a language meant for a video game world - not literature. As such, it will mainly be a declarative language built around stating things like "This is a hot kettle. Touching is bad." rather than a poetic language which describes the emotional state of the steam as it changes from a solid to a gas. Of course, even going for a universal language means things like deciding whether to be a subject-object-verb language or a subject-verb-object language, and so on. One thing's for certain though, and conjugation is well beyond the scope of a simple made up video game language.

  Total Immersion

For the game itself, I'm picturing something like Minecraft on Mars - a game where you crash land on an alien world and must forage for survival. However, you stumble upon an ancient, apparently dead civilization buried beneath the ground. You find libraries filled with this strange pictographic text, and tools with instructions written in it. The ultimate goal to learn the text well enough to find out how this civilization died, and how to bring it back.

Learning an imaginary language is not exactly easy, or potentially not a lot of fun, if you do it the wrong way. Like learning any skill, it is more enjoyable if progress is visible, the experience isn't frustrating, and if there are obvious benefits to doing so. Learning this pictograph language is built around a specific learning curve:



Fig 152.3 - Numbers.


Numbers - The first thing players will probably learn are the numbers. If the number system is created based on simple universal rules (like roman numbers or arabic numbers), then it will become obvious how they work simply by viewing a list of numbers from 1 to 20.

Rosetta Stone - next players need to learn is what the pictograph radicals are and how they work together. So there needs to be sort of instructions laying around for them to find. Maybe a tablet or something which introduces a few radicals and compounds with pictures of what they represent. This should provide excellent insight into the alien culture because you'll see directly which concepts were so important to them that they became the building blocks of their language.



Fig 152.4 - I think this means toilet.


Unknown Compounds - around this alien civilization is a bunch of compounds and radicals which are no explicitly explained by a convenient visual dictionary. However, damn near everything is labeled. It will be up to the player to realize that certain radicals appear near specific objects and locations. For instance, the "train" radical/compound will be plastered all over everything at the monorail stations, while the compound for "building floor" will appear most often in stairwells.

Total Immersion - At this point in the game, all the text you find in the world will be written using the pictographic language. However, all the interface text will still be in your native language. Things like "new game", "save/load", "construction on tower is now complete" and so on. Over time, your native language will slowly be replaced by the alien language. Piece by piece. Maybe a word here or there. Then a sentence. Eventually, the entire interface - menus, item names, instructions, everything - will be replaced by the alien text. From the second you load the game up to the second you turn it off, you are now reading only this foreign alien text.

Verbal Pronunciation - Thus far, the text has entirely be written. You have no idea what it sounds like. You are just deciphering it based on the radicals and trying to form meaning from the compounds. But near the end of the game, you meet a computer which requires verbal input - something you can't do because you don't know how the pictographs make sounds. Lucky for you, you find something which will say the name of any object you show to it. If you hold up a wrench, it will say "wrench". Since by now, the text of the wrench has been replaced by the pictographic language, you can now make a correlation between specific compounds and pronunciation. From there, you must devise your own rules for how each radical changes sounds when it becomes a compound, and use this to speak verbal commands to the computer.

And that's the basic process. Each step brings new understanding, expanding both your vocabulary and your understanding of the alien culture which created it.

I know what you are saying. Couldn't somebody just create a FAQ that allows you to skip all this learning, thus ruining the experience of uncovering an alien language yourself? Well, yeah, I guess they could. That would sort of suck. But what are you going to do? Some people just get exploration games so that they can get people to tell them where to go so they don't have to explore. It's their enjoyment. It's up to them if they ruin it.



Copyright 2007-2014 Sean Howard. All rights reserved.