A group of students wrote me to ask about the value of created languages and how to implement a created language in their game.
It got me thinking about the ramifications of designed languages in our medium. They can become both a powerful tool for immersion and an incredible way to train language acquisition, or even teach a new language. They can also be the fastest way to sink a game.
From Al-bhed (Final Fantasy) to Gargish (Ultima) to Simlish (The Sims) to Logos (Tabula Rasa), games have dabbled with alternate languages -- but why? What purpose do they serve? How can they be implemented without being an enormous barrier to entry? How can we unlock the greater potential hidden within these crafted languages?
Of course I didn't have an answer, so I turned to the one man who did, Richard Garriott.
Richard Garriott is better known in the video game community as Lord British, his game name in Ultima. He was the lead designer on that game, as well as the founder of the company that made it, Origin Systems (he's now with NCsoft). More recently, he was behind the game Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa.
In between flying back and forth to Russia to train for a planned space tourism trip this fall (his father was an astronaut), Garriott found time to speak to me.
These Gargish symbols make up the in-game language of Ultima.
How to Create an In-Game Language
The first question one must ask when creating an alternate language for a game is, "Why do it in the first place?" For the sake of this article -- a much fuller answer could surely be debated -- the answer is immersion.
One of the first things Garriott pointed out, and perhaps one of the most valuable statements a game designer can make, is that games are simpler than nature. While this seems self evident, it merely masks a deeper point: If you want to enrich your game world, it's not about how much depth your world has, but about how much depth the player can participate in.
Games designers that understand this principle and can execute on it can produce experiences that feel much richer than games with hundreds of pages of backstory, history, science, and religion.