Game Languages, or Lack Thereof


In the most recent episode of Waypoint Radio, Austin and Patrick discussed how much they enjoy Hollow Knight. Specifically, they mentioned how well the game employed Banjo-Kazooie-stye voice acting, or, rather, grunting and mumbling in the place of voice acting. Austin mentioned another game which did a similar thing, but he couldn’t remember what it was. I think he may have been thinking of Pyre, which told its story entirely through text paired with short voice lines in a constructed language which may be based on Latin (your character, the Reader, is referred to as “Liberatus” by the others).

What other games deliver voice in a different and interesting way? Do you prefer traditional voice acting? What is your favorite Banjo-Kazooie character voice?


If done well, I’ll usually enjoy traditional voice acting over the absence of it, but I’m extremely happy for games with lots of dialogue to only voice the bits where they want to spend the budget because of the heightened emotion of the moment. RPGs where most of the dialogue isn’t voiced is totally good with me when it enables a wider range of writing and stories. Plus the lines that are voiced (especially important: voice the very first line by every character) give you the tone for reading the rest of the stuff. I think that’s where any of the short barks etc stuff can work well - it helps define the characters according to the authorial intent even if the only thing you get is a few “huh”, “ahh”, “hmm” lines that play while characters are talking.

It also heavily depends on genre/structure. I can’t imagine a Life is Strange game without VO but I could totally play such a game with good VO in a language I don’t understand and subtitles. It’s the performance not the actual spoken words that matter for that sort of short drama. I think it’s a minority play style but I know at least some of us enjoy some games with alternative language options (lots of Japanese games with the original Japanese direction, some French games in French, using the voice options in Assassin’s Creed games to get more into the setting etc).

From there (players enjoying VO without comprehending it) it is another step to just building out a language that isn’t actually an established language. I’m interested in where games might go with voice synthesis based not around the incredibly hard task of recreating VO actors giving believable performance you can understand but creating performances that use metadata to evoke emotional notes while the actual language can be gibberish. Characters defined as tones, ranges, and inflections; dialogue written like those classic RPGs you read yourself but with enough metadata to construct the emotional tones intended. One extremely cool thing such a system could do: make the spoken dialogue longer or shorter depending on the player’s desired (reading) speed so they always roughly fit to the pace they wish to read the actual text at (and roughly fit).


I think it would be remiss for me not to mention the moment Pyre subverts its fantasy language: one of the characters reveals that Readers can communicate telepathically - how they direct the players in a rite - and that they are also a Reader. And he does so by speaking directly to the player in voice acted English (or, presumably, the language the game is being played in), something that’s both easy to miss and to double take at since you’re already reading his words and have no reason to expect to hear them. It’s an astoundingly smart way to convey telepathy and it’d be impossible without the use of a fantasy language for the rest of the game’s voice acting. Secretly, I think this might be the best moment in the whole game.


The narrator of Sundered - the Shining Trapezohedron, of Lovecraftian infamy - speaks in Eschatonian, a language the developers invented that’s a cipher of German and Arabic, with apostrophes galore. It sounds pretty cool.


A bit off-topic, but I’ll second that the more media I consume, the more I prefer for characters to speak the language that they would be speaking in the fiction and for the game (or whatever) to just give me subtitles.


Hot dang, I wanna play that now just for that, it sounds so menacing and alien! Do you recommend it?


This is a really good point! It does a similar thing at the end, with similar effect: The song that the bard duo sing is in your selected language, which makes sense, seeing as it seemed also non-diegetic to me. Also, does being cast into the Downside maybe change the language you speak? The bad guy who mocks you throughout the game and barks the players’ names when you select them also speaks intelligibly.


One example that I find really interesting is the languages of the other species in Destiny. There was some great writing about this by Heterotopias’ Gareth Damien Martin in Kill Screen (RIP), but that always added an interesting element to traversing the world of Destiny 1 and 2. Shame you’re never given the toolset to understand the dialects in that game/the actionset of the game wouldn’t give you any way to meaningfully act on that understanding.


Absolutely - gorgeous Metroidvania, interesting story, and the swarm mechanic has gotten more forgiving with the recent updates.


Someone mentioned this in another thread, and this is isn’t spoken language, but the upcoming game Heaven’s Vault is a game centered around an alien language.


I always loved the language of the Sangheli in Halo. I liked to imagine all the shit-talking they were doing whilst kicking my arse on Legendary. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:


If I understand correctly, The Voice is being spoken directly into the Reader’s mind too.

You bring up an interesting point with the bards. The ending theme is probably non-diegetic, though it could exist in world. However, there are a couple of songs we know to be diegetic played during the story that aren’t sung in the language of the world. This is likely for the sake of the player (and musicians) more than an intentional element of worldbuilding, but it does become one as a result, suggesting Tariq and Celeste’s music either transcends language or has some magical quality to it, (which it likely does given their nature, but I don’t recall if it’s specifically mentioned).


I’d be in for Heaven’s Vault regardless on the basis of being inkle’s next game after the wonderful 80 Days, but I am also very very intrigued by how they’re going to be handling the learning/discovery mechanics for the language script you evidently interact with in-game.

This sort of fits the spirit rather than the letter of this thread, but there’s a very old and very strange French game called Captain Blood in which the main mechanic of the game is interacting with a number of alien species via a made-up language represented onscreen by about 150 icons. The game design is rather obtuse and overly difficult as a result but it really is a remarkable concept that few-to-none have even tried to approach since, save for a neat-looking recent indie game called Sethian which I haven’t had the chance to check out yet:

Having learned a language in adulthood myself, and finding the topic of linguistic pedagogy fascinating as a result, I would love to see more games approach the topic of languages in even a vaguely similar manner.