The Game Design of a Constructed Language

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I waved as I approached the Damocles‘ quartermaster. “Skusatsu mo. Sele ma pasu. Hildo spreku?”

She cocked her head quizzically. “Tak.” Thank god, I thought. At last someone who speaks Hilde. “Kep kereru te?” she asked.

Last Chance boto kapitana yestu me. Iltre siotusa haba ma pasu. Yarog, te butu uno?”

She shrugged. “Probleme yeta.” She disappeared into the open airlock, pushing out a moment later with a small box she tossed with the experience of someone who had lived a very long time in low g.

“Danku.”

World building, whether for a book, a movie, or a game, is all about the feeling of immersion.

You actually don’t want to bury your audience in detail – a little goes a long way. That being said, if the snippets you do show your audience aren’t internally consistent and don’t make sense at an intuitive level, while your audience usually won’t explicitly call you out on that, they will definitely pick up on any lack of said internal consistency.

Thus, at the end of the day, the paradox of building an immersive environment is that the most straightforward way to build an immersive world is to construct all the details, and then proceed to only show maybe 10% of said details. The rest isn’t actually wasted, though, it lives in the implicit connective tissue of the world you are trying to build.

Constructed languages, sometimes called “conlags” have been put together for a number of different reasons ranging from attempts to bring humanity together linguistically like Volapük or Esperanto, to supporting the construction of fictional worlds such as Star Trek‘s Klingon language or J.R.R. Tolkien‘s myriad languages of Middle-Earth.

Video games have gotten into the action as well, and true to form, often in such a way as to slip beneath the radar of the player while at the same time deeply enriching the world. Skyrim’s Dovahzul.

c53e27226eb7353788723a89af6f19d0a98a79One of my several side projects is the development of a multiplayer logistics game called ORG. Set in a late 25th century where humanity has finally recovered from an appalling population crash to colonize even the farthest reaches of our solar system, I wanted to do more than make a generic science-fiction environment but to make something recognizably unique with depth that would allow for endless permutations, philosophical exploration, and narrative opportunities.

First, I started with mapping out in detail the over thirty distinct national polities that were to serve as the bedrock of a narrative milieu. In so doing, I also had the opportunity to explore the almost endless political and economic variations humanity has or might someday choose to try out.

These included everything from what might happen if you had an entire enclosed culture and state based on the often exploitive Human Potential Movement of the 60s counterculture to a society built on clone slave labor to societies where labor unions have triumphed to religious fundamentalists building a society living in terror of the possibility of technological singularity to fascinating exercises in pure democracy to…well, you get the picture.

(I admit it, I had a lot of fun seeing how many dystopic variations I could come up with. No economic or social theory was safe from my attempt to exaggerate it until its own victories would become the seeds of its own failure.)

Second, I began to explore some of the philosophical implications of a civilization like this. For example, what are the implications of culture when the frontier is dominated by a very small percentage of the human population, but the power is overwhelming maintained at home on Earth? What are the psychological and cultural implications in a society that exists in an artificially maintained environment? (Andy Weir’s novel The Martian and The Expanse series are both great fictional explorations of this.)

Org_Polities_HildasTriangleFinally, I got to the question of linguistics. Language is a peculiarly underappreciated part of social functioning. We’ve all heard of the languages that have multiple words for love (Greek) to the differences between gendered languages like French or Italian or languages without articles like “the” or “a” (Russian) or languages with minimal or no concept of tense or time (Amondawa).

While the idea of language defining how we think is in fact sometimes exaggerated to strawman-like proportions, the fact is the way a language developed does reflect the needs and foci of the speakers.

One of the unfortunate side effects of technological communication, transportation, and modern commercialization has been a rapid reduction in the diversity of languages spoken in the world today, a concept called “language death“. As the world metaphorically gets smaller by means of improved communication, transportation, and monoculture, the isolation that causes languages to evolve vanishes taking with it the losers in the memeplectic struggle for linguistic dominance.

But what happens once we (hopefully) escape the tyranny of our gravity well in colonizing force? The distances of space are vast, even when we are just talking about the distances between the Earth and the Moon – let alone the distances from Earth to Mars, or even more staggeringly, Mars to Jupiter, or the truly mind-numbing distances between the outer solar system’s gas giants and the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt. What happens when you are, really, all alone with just the people around you? How does the fragility of environmental security affect the way a language develops?

It’s not just the fact of isolation: language evolves to match the needs of its environment. Urban environments versus rural environments, arid versus wet, nomadic versus settled are all examples of the various axis that can influence and guide a linguistic evolution.

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All these factors, plus the expected improvement in capabilities of translation software (which, I should note from personal experience, is definitely not quite there yet) do suggest a reversal or at least slowing of the aforementioned trend of language death today.

Add onto this the existence of long space voyages by trained specialists who live in even more isolation and environmental insecurity than even someone who lives on a relatively safe colony on Mars or Callisto (other than, of course, the contemporaneously raging Martian civil war and Gallilean conflict) and one can readily see how such a language could evolve.

So that’s what I started to do.

ORG‘s Hilde, or “Spacer’s Cant”, is a classic example of what in linguistic circles is termed a pidgin, or in the authoritative words of Wikipedia, “a simplified version of a language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade.” (As the years go on, of course, it is starting to become a creole, or “a stable natural language that has developed from a pidgin.”)

I started with the historical background. I had decided that the natal location of my pidgin was going to be the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, specifically a polity centered around the asteroid Hilda in the fascinating Hildas Triangle.

In the milieu of ORG, the Collaborated Union of the Hildas Triangle was settled by a sort of successor state to the modern day real world European Union called Union. Unlike the European Union, however, Union grew out of Poland and Romania, with satellite states in the form of Germany and a sans-Siberia Russia.

Space Asteroid Mining sample rock

This meant the linguistic building blocks would be dominated by the phonemes (the sounds) and vocabulary of these nation’s languages. But this was going to be a pidgin, remember, so that meant I decided to make the grammar more like Esperanto – that is, incredibly flexible, very stripped down, and readily learned. There wasn’t going to be any gendering of nouns or even suffixed tenses. Word order was (almost) freeform. Years of learning French, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese in school came back to tell me what parts of languages made learning the language insufferably harder than it had to be.

On top of all of this, because this was intended as a trade language as much as anything, I tried to remove sounds that were hard to distinguish for speakers of the major language groups surviving in the 25th century of ORG. (This last I wasn’t quite able to pull off as much as I wanted to, but that’s why several phonemes don’t exist in Hilde, including f, v, and w. Vowels, as well, stick to a basic five with a notable absence of true diphthongs (where you mash together two vowels to create a new sound.)

Then came the vocabulary.

One of the reasons English has purportedly been as successful as it has been as a common language for aeronautical operations is that it relatively direct, short, and staccato, things that are very desirable indeed when piloting a massive 747. Spaceflight, one can logically reason, would have similar needs. Hilde, therefore, prefers short words generally framed on both ends by consonants.

The vocabulary, as well, reflects the needs of a spacer. There are a lot of words describing things like venting atmosphere (“atmosu”), docking clamps (“kleme”), velocity (“predkoso”), attitude thrusters (“aridiste”), and radiation exposure levels (“radso”).

In the end, constructed languages are not only immersive in the bold, obvious ways as they appear on a page or in a game, but also in the secondary effects where misunderstandings have narrative implications or the language’s constituent pieces indirectly implies history.

As a support to the narrative dictum “show, don’t tell” constructed language works by implication as much as it does by definition, and can be a useful pillar to pulling the reader, viewer, or gamer out of their own context and into a new one.

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