Video games can provide an amazing, immersive experience in a completely different world full of strange creatures, landscapes and scenarios. There is one thing that can pose a problem for game developers, though, and that is language.
Language is not easy to just make up because it’s incredibly complex. Depending on how the language functions in the game, it may need to be comprehensible to some degree for the gamer. Sometimes, game developers just use human languages, like in the unfortunate case of Call Of Duty, which actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani famously called out for using Arabic in the levels that are set in Pakistan, even though the actual language spoken there is Urdu.
When the game doesn’t take place on Earth, however, developers can be a little more creative. Here are examples of a few different languages created just for video games.
Al Bhed — Final Fantasy X
Calling Al Bhed a “language” is a bit misleading, because it’s really a substitution cipher. Each letter in this language, which is spoken by the Al Bhed people in the game, corresponds to one letter in English (or Japanese, in that version of the game). All the speech in Final Fantasy X appears in written dialogue, so the language does not exist in any spoken sense. The cipher solution can be seen here.
This language isn’t particularly exciting, except that it plays an important role in the game. The player can acquire Al Bhed Primers, each of which translates one letter from Al Bhed. Over time, you can understand the language better and better.
There’s a theory that because it takes an entire Primer to translate a single language, the Al Bhed language might be more complex than it’s presented in the game. Of course, it’s not actually a language, and it’s just used to give players another thing to do in the game, so this theory is pretty useless unless you’re really into the idea of games being realistic.
Animalese — Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing doesn’t really have much of a language, so much as it has sounds that are meant to sound vaguely language-like. This is called Animalese. Here is an example from the original Animal Crossing game for the Nintendo GameCube.
The language, overall, sounds kind of like a bunch of computer-generated nonsense, but there is actually some method at play. Each letter that the villagers (animals) speak is electronically synthesized to a single sound, which is then sped up so that you can’t actually decipher it. If you listen very carefully, the sounds the villagers make will kind of resemble what they’re saying, though. The differences between the villagers are mainly created by changing the pitch, so female characters, for example, will have higher voices than male characters.
One of the greatest shortcomings of this language-creation method is that each letter corresponds to only one sound, so an “e” will always sound like an “eh,” even if it’s in a word like “mate” (which would be pronounced “m-ah-t-eh”). This is barely noticeable though, because Animalese sounds more like someone mashing on the keys of a synth than someone speaking a language.
Hylian — The Legend of Zelda
Like Al Bhed, the Hylian language in the Legend of Zelda games is only shown in writing and is mainly based on existing languages, but it can still be pretty fascinating. The storyline and history of Legend of Zelda is notoriously ambiguous, and it involves multiple timelines, so it makes sense that the franchise would spawn at least five distinct versions of Hylian, which is the most widely used language in that universe.
The languages can be split into three basic categories: alphabets (one letter equals one sound), syllabaries (one letter equals one syllable) and logographs (symbols correspond to words or parts of words). The exact chronology is a bit wonky, so try not to think about this too hard.
An example of Old Hylian from The Wind Waker.Before Zelda’s fifth game, Ocarina of Time, the written language was completely meaningless, though it was made to look like a logographic language, based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. Ocarina introduced the Old Hylian syllabary, which was made more complex later on in Wind Waker with the New Hylian syllabary, which in the world of the game was a “modern” writing system. Both of these were directly translatable into Japanese, with each symbol in Hylian equal to one letter in Japanese. Newer games, including Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, introduced the Ancient Hylian alphabet and the Hylian alphabet, each of which are directly translatable into English.
The creative decisions for these languages were made arbitrarily to some degree, but the choice to use a Japanese-based syllabary or an English-based alphabet was made based on who was making the game. The switching between the two is strange, though, because it means the Hylian language went from Ancient Hylian (alphabet) to Old Hylian (syllabary) to Hylian (alphabet) to New Hylian (syllabary). The developers also tried to make the alphabets look their age. Old Hylian has sharp angles, as though they were carved into stone, whereas New Hylian is curvier and more fluid, like it was written with a brush. In order to avoid pulling out your hair figuring out how the language evolves, it’s best to remember that it serves no real purpose.
Simlish — The Sims
The story of Simlish is perhaps the most fascinating of all, mainly because of how popular The Sims was a few years ago. Remember? We all played The Sims for a while. It was pretty weird.
Simlish evolved because The Sims evolved, becoming more complicated each time. Well, there’s also “Old Simlish” in The Sims Medieval, but I’m not getting into that. Originally, the creators of The Sims considered using either a fractured version of a real language or Navajo (because they were inspired by the Navajo code breakers in World War II, apparently). They decided to go with something else entirely: gibberish. The language was originally created by two improvisers, Gerri Lawler and Stephen Kearin, who went into a recording studio and basically just made a bunch of random sounds like “o frazinnrat” and “wawa bralala?” The creators then took these phrases and put them in the game to make it sound like the Sims were talking, without much rhyme or reason.
Over time, however, the games needed more verisimilitude, which led to more recording (upwards of 200 hours of recordings are used in the newer games), and more purposeful programming. The Sims didn’t just make random sounds anymore; the sounds correlated with what they were doing. This led to the creation of a Simlish dictionary, so you can learn that “Sul sul” means “hello” and “Harva sol labaga along with hava so lawnumg” apparently means “Hey! Party at my house!”
We still haven’t reached the weirdest part, though, which was created for The Sims 2: Simlish music. This is not music that was written for The Sims. It is real music that the creators of The Sims got real famous musicians to record. Just watch Katy Perry in the studio singing “Lass Frooby Noo.”
Simlish is far from being a real language, lacking any sort of grammar. It’s more like a secret code you might come up with to communicate with a friend when you’re young. Still, if all this shows you anything, it’s that even silly languages can reveal something about how humans understand speech and text.