Saturday, March 26, 2016

Echoes of the Old War - DevDiary #7 - Language

When I first sat down to write The Echoes of the Old War, before it had that name, I knew that I wanted language to be a theme in the story - whatever form that story would take. It seemed like a natural choice based on the other themes that I wanted to work with. It also certainly helped that I could immediately see ways to integrate it not only into the story, but also the game play.

Originally, the story was going to have two protagonists: a male named Archwood (Archie for short) who the player would directly control, and Auryon who the player would team with to solve puzzles. One of the main game play aspects was going to be the idea that Archie and Auryon spoke in very different languages. As a result, they would have trouble interacting initially. As their relationship developed and the game progressed the characters would figure out ways to communicate with each other; either in the form of a sort of sign language, or through Archie slowly learning Auryon’s language and vice versa. This would reflect in game play as the player would receive commands that allowed the pair to interact in someway to bypass certain puzzles or obstacles in the game.

I started to realize that this aspect of game play caused conflicst with some of the other themes, and sent some messages that I didn’t really want to send. In trying to figure out the source of the issue, I ultimately ended up cutting Archie from the game, changing Auryon a little to compensate and making her a more complete character. But I still liked the idea of language as a central theme. I felt that it was integral to the other themes in play in the story, so it was important to retain.

In the next iteration of the story, I envisioned Auryon as a sort of Matron-in-Waiting. This position required her to travel beyond her village for trade and diplomacy in place of the Matron, who at this point was too old to easily travel far distances. This meant that Auryon would have to speak the different languages around her village at least to some degree of competency. Early on, I came up with the idea of a sort of trade language that would allow her to communicate with certain groups beyond her borders.

There were a few problems with this solution.

Whenever Auryon would speak in this trade language, or the languages around her, I would always just have to translate it to English (or whatever regional language the game was in). Effectively, this means that the player would never really be able to tell what dialect the characters were speaking in. There are a couple of ways to do this visually such as showing the words in their original language and script, and then providing a translation, but it still didn’t alleviate the issue as the player would most likely just look at the translation rather than the original text.

The trade language would also end up defeating the main idea of the theme. Language is a very important tool in society, and even when two different classes within the same culture are using the same language, differences in dialect can often act as a border or barrier within the culture itself. Without the necessary work of either learning another language or dialect, or figuring out some other method of communicating, societal and cultural divides will form with no way to bridge the gap. The trade language bridges this issue in one simple step, thus missing the entire point of the theme.

Ultimately, this version of the story fell to re-writes. Not necessarily because of the issue with this particular theme, but it certainly contributed. While Auryon was able to impart and receive necessary information, the characters that she wasn’t able to communicate with had to fade into the background. When those particular characters are key to the story, this becomes a significant problem.

The current version (which I’m very happy to say that I’m on the fifth act of at this point, with only one left to go) is much more scaled back in comparison to the previous, making it a little bit more realistic for me to actually tackle. Again, Auryon’s position within her village, Bandog, has changed. No longer is she next in line to be the leader of her village. Now she is merely a simple hunter (fuseer in her language). She is one that has received honors in the past, but not one as high as any of the Tenants of the village (who act as aides for the village leader, known as the Capsman).

Where in the previous version, Auryon was going to interact with many small tribes, villages, and even large cities, in this version, she’ll really only be interacting with one or two tribes. One of these tribes comes from the same culture that Auryon’s own came from, so there is a degree of similarity between their respective languages (English or the regional language for the player), although dialects are very different with each culture having evolved their language from the original root. The other tribe, the Clave, speaks a very different language from Auryon’s, having come from a very different culture.

With the two tribes only really interacting through war and conflict, they struggle to understand each other when they need to. There are a few in each tribe (particularly the tribal leaders) that understand the other’s language, however, someone as low as Auryon or some of the other characters would only have a very marginal understanding at best. Auryon knows a few phrases, but only just. She still has issues catching the meaning trying to be conveyed to her.

As Auryon struggles to understand what’s going on around her, so will the player (within reason obviously; I still want the game to be both playable and fun). While players may not necessarily be able to understand the language that’s being spoken, I’m writing it in such a way that they’ll be able to understand the context. More observant players should be able to even start to interpret some of the words being used, or, at the very least, pick out the more important words and their meaning.

This will help push the idea of language back into the forefront of the game, as well as support the surrounding themes. On top of that, it will also return language to being a puzzle within the game. While it’s one that the game won’t necessarily register as being “solved,” it will serve a very important narrative purpose: to act as a border or barrier for the player to ultimately overcome.

In many ways, this game is taking shape, despite its still very early stage. With one of its important cornerstones locking into place, I’m quite happy with how this draft is coming along. While many - many - revisions are necessary, I feel that something is finally starting to coalesce around the initial idea into something that I’m actually enjoying. Weird.