Inventing a new language for a game that isn’t missing translation; gender and ethnicity
This interview was originally published on Gamasutra.
“Missing Translation” is an exploration and puzzle game in black and white and with no human language text; there’s an alien language instead. It won a bunch of awards (“Best original idea” at the hoPLAY festival, best game of the year, best PC game, best design, best debut game — all from Gamelab) and got a few nominations.
With all the above, I couldn’t pass such game by and asked the game’s team for an interview. So, below goes my interview with Luis Díaz Peralta of AlPixel Games.
# Hi Luis, would you like to introduce yourself and your colleagues?
AlPixel Games is an indie game studio based in Madrid. We have two sides, we work on a main project in which the whole team pours hours every day but, on our spare time, we work as a collective, making lots of games in smaller teams and collaborating with others. One thing that we all have in common is that we need to keep constantly moving, improving and doing different things.
As for me, I’m a game designer, though I also do PR. While we’re working on our smaller projects I’ll sometimes code or draw assets, but those aren’t my strongest skills.
# Missing Translation is a very interesting name, especially for a localization team like ours! Could you tell how you’d chosen this name?
In “Missing Translation” players explore a strange city filled with creatures that speak a different language.
Understanding what they say isn’t a requirement for finishing the game but you can, up to certain point, interact with them.
The game’s main theme is “being lost”, and one of the things that reinforce that thought is the fact that you can’t communicate with others.
# I spent some time playing the game. You find yourself in a bizarre new world with no means of communication, much like traveling to a foreign country without any language skills (nor a phrase book). But you can learn the world’s language to converse with the villagers and find your way around. So what does that language look like?
Basically, at any given moment you can open what I always called the “speaking interface”. You see a grid with 9 points in the screen and use lines to join those dots, whenever you’re done you just press “ok” and your character will say whatever you just drew.
I first came up with the input method and left the language itself for later, which clearly isn’t the most reasonable thing to do. Though I haven’t made many games for mobile devices, I love touchscreens, it’s an amazing input. It’s easy to see Android’s pattern unlock system was my main inspiration for the “speaking interface”.
Coming with the language rules was really hard and required lots of iterations. I kept throwing away concepts because they weren’t just working. At first, I drew inspiration from real languages and, though that was necessary, I ended up creating complex messes that didn’t really make sense in a game like “Missing Translation”.
After a while, I decided to go for a set of simpler rules that seemed to fit the world better. This is one thing that could have been improved a lot, like many other things in the game, but I believe that, at that time, I just didn’t have the skill to craft anything better.
# Very interesting. Could you expand on the grammar of that language and your creative process?
I feel that talking about the creative process of this system will be more of a list of “things you shouldn’t do” instead of being actual helpful stuff, but let’s give it a go!
When I started designing this language, “Missing Translation” had already plenty of puzzles and content. For some reason, I forgot about all this and focused on doing a deep complex language, which is cool, but it wasn’t what I actually needed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have games that take a look at language (Sethian seems to be doing a great job at this), but the game’s core theme wasn’t languages.
One of design most important rules is being aware of “the bigger goal” and focusing on it. The kind of language I was trying to design seemed interesting, but it wasn’t right for the game I was trying to make at the moment. After some time, I realized I was just trying to build a language I thought it’d be cool, instead of building what I felt I needed for this particular project.
What most games do is they create a code: Replace an alphabet with a different one… The grammar remains. We wanted to do something different
With the skills and resources we had at that time, I wasn’t able to come up with a new drawn language that I could explain without the help of text. And having some kind of large reference to check didn’t seem like a good system to reinforce the feeling of being lost.
I tried to free my mind of complex rules and went back to the very basics. If I’m lost in a weird town and I want to get out, I’m not going to look for a grammar book or pay attention to subtle details, I’m going to try to understand some general concepts that can get me out of here.
And that’s pretty much it! The language in “Missing Translation” isn’t as deep as the one in newer games such as “Sethian”. Don’t think I’m just hiding its internal logic and avoiding to explain it, it’s just that I haven’t opened that game in two years and I really can’t recall all the details, who knows? Perhaps in a couple of years, I’ll almost be able to play it like a total stranger would.
[Spoiler alert! You can have a deeper look into the “grammar” of that language on their devlog.]
#Were there any problems or player feedback about your language’s characters actually having some unintended meaning in some human languages?
Not as far as we know, given resource limitations we didn’t have a professional adviser for this matter, so we relied on player feedback.
# Was this the original plan to have no text in “Missing Translation” for maximum impact — so that players from any country can enjoy the game regardless of their language?
“Missing Translation” was our first project. It was supposed to be a learning experience and, hopefully, get some coverage. Our main goal was to make something that, even when it was made for a small audience, many people could enjoy. That’s why it’s on PC and mobile and why we decided to avoid all text.
# But is there any regular text in a game at all? Any UI messages? Have they been localized and if yes, how did you do it?
There are only two written things in the game, the title and the credits, which have absolutely no effect over the gameplay or narrative. We did have those localized for China thanks to Another Indie, who took care of the whole process, but that’s all.
# Just curious here, how many cold requests do you get form translators or fans about translating your game with no text?
Oh, you have no idea. I couldn’t say a specific number, but there were A LOT of them.
# About gender now! You decided to give the player an option to choose a male or female protagonist. The matter of fact, our team touched on this topic recently too. It’s kind of a hot topic today. So, could you comment on your decision?
We never planned to include a female character in “Missing Translation”, that was something unexpected that happened a couple of months before launch. We were displaying the game in a show and a girl played for almost an hour so, once she was done, I asked her for some feedback.
She said that the only thing she missed was a playable female character. I pointed out that having a female character would only change player appearance, but she still felt that using an avatar she could relate with would make the experience more enjoyable for her.
After the show the whole team talked this over, we all agreed that she was right, even if it changed nothing, having a female protagonist would be important for many players. We estimated how long it would take us to implement it and, once we checked it fitted our production calendar, we went for it.
# Do you agree with the opinion that a game dev being an artist is free to address their female players however they like, that is even as males?
I believe that anybody doing creative work should be free to decide about pretty much every detail of the project. It’s great to see more games trying to be inclusive (and I hope that keeps getting better and better), but sometimes production and creative limitations get in the way of that.
# How have you implemented this gender option in the code? Any tips or techniques for other devs?
“Missing Translation” is a fairly simple 2D game. We made the new animations and had the game choose male or female sprites depending on a value. We had to check many parts of the code because they were linked to animations and started doing “funny things”. To wrap it up we made a new menu where you chose the character you wanted to play with.
I don’t consider myself a programmer, though I did code “Missing Translation”, so I don’t know if my advice will be that helpful but here it goes: Decide it right at the beginning of the project, otherwise your project structure and logic might make adding a new gender a very tedious task.
# On your forum, I saw that at some point your team considered adding non-white characters. Because you wanted to make your game more immersive and inclusive?
We considered every feature we could think of that’d make the game more inclusive (and that wouldn’t destroy our production). Having different skin tones is something we discussed but decided not to include for two reasons: It’d take too much time to implement and, since “Missing Translation” is in black and white, it’d be impossible to change the whole player palette and still make the whole thing look good.
# How did you do the distribution? Any insights for other devs?
“Missing Translation” is free on Steam, so its distribution will differ a lot from your average commercial game. Still, we did learn many things that will sound like a cliché, but you know what they say, clichés are clichés for a reason. Basically promoting your game is a necessary skill, one that you need to work on. Talk to every journalist, iterate your pitch, try to understand what gets big articles, take the game to shows, be active on Twitter, submit it to festivals, etc. Never forget about these things nor leave them for the last months of development.
# How is your upcoming game “A Place for the Unwilling” going? What inspired you for this new game?
Our new game was inspired by so many things that we’d have to make a list, that said, I guess Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, “Over the Garden Wall” naive yet twisted world and the works of H.P. Lovecraft are on the top of that list.
We’ve been working on “A Place for the Unwilling” for quite some time now and it’s going great. It got into the Casual Connect showcase, it was chosen to be part of the Leftfield Collection at EGX Rezzed and it recently got nominated for the “best narrative” award at BIG Festival. There’s a long road ahead before its release but we’re happy with how it’s shaping up. We’re doing a streaming soon showing gameplay for the first time, so that’ll be a perfect opportunity to see the game running.
AlPixel’s Website: http://www.alpixelgames.com/
Luis’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/Ludipe