Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Watch your Language

It would have been cooler if they
spelled it "Æloy" instead of "Aloy"
Well, Horizon Zero Dawn is out and it seems to have fallen into the quandary of critical acclaim, but consumer indifference. Part of this might be coming from the fact that it's a PS4 exclusive, sour grapes and all that...However, another reason could very well be the sheer amount of open-world games that have been released in recent years; Assassin's Creed, Watch Dogs, MGSV, The Witcher, Mad Max, Tomb Raider, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor and a bunch of titles by Rockstar. These are just some examples utilizing the third-person over-the-shoulder perspective. There's also a whole slew of other titles that are first-person open-world games (Skyrim, Far Cry, etc.). In my case though, I'm not totally burned out on the genre, plus I own a PS4. That said, I'm not entirely into the idea of playing Horizon Zero Dawn, and the reason has to do with the language used.

I'm not talking about swearing or cursing here, rather the problem I have with this game has to do with the blandness of the dialogue. It's functional, but really lacking in texture and flavor. You see...here's the thing, languages are influenced and shaped by the culture in which they are used. Now, I know some people might take that to mean I want characters that talk like neanderthals, "Me friend. Hunt metal dog, yes?" and so on. No, not really...the caveman speech thing is an old cultural misconception. In any geographical location containing hunter-gatherers there's going to be tribes that have their own dialects, accents, styles of speech and so on. Because of limited contact, this can make it difficult for people from two different tribes to communicate with each other. In order to get around this potential barrier there's usually a common local (trade) language that only has a small number of shared words. Because of the limited vocabulary, conversations between different tribes can sound crude. However, individuals from the same tribe aren't subject to this handicap so their speech patterns are capable of being more refined. So, getting back to it, I'm not asking for that kind of primitive. What I would like to see is more attention paid to how lifestyle informs language.

Another post-apocalyptic 
fantasy open-world game 
featuring a bow wielding 
hero fighting robots? 
 Hmmm....
A great way to exemplify my point is with units of measurement. Time, in our postmodern society, is usually expressed in amounts like hours, minutes or seconds, but in a world that doesn't have clocks or wristwatches, time has to be referenced by the position of the sun in the sky, or phases of the moon. Very short increments of time are expressed in heartbeats or breaths. The same goes for distance - no centimeters or miles, just hand-spans, paces or (my personal favorite straight out of feudal Japan) how many pairs of zori a walking person would wear out. Counting is tricky too. From one to twenty isn't hard (just use your fingers and toes!), but large amounts often require comparisons to well known quantities. Case in point, when the native american chieftain asks the main character from the film Dances with Wolves how many white settlers are coming, he replies "more than the stars." There really isn't any other way to communicate the idea of millions in a hunter-gatherer society. Of course video games love to embrace the G.R.R. Martin school of world design and avoid any kind of spoken numerics. It can be so bad in some games that quest-givers will basically say things along the lines of "I need you to get a thing for a thing" without mentioning any details. Instead it's left to a text pop-up to explain what is actually required of the player.

Now, before I wrap up this blogpost, I should stress I'm not encouraging video game writers to use a bunch of incomprehensible future-speak such as Zackery from the novel Cloud Atlas or the Lost Tribe from the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. To me the sweet spot is Immortan Joe:
"Return my treasures to me, and I myself will carry you through the gates of Valhalla. You shall ride eternal. Shiny, and chrome!"
Alright, I get it. His warboys are basically post-apocalyptic housecarls. Of course YMMV, but as it stands now mechanics in open-world games have been recycled ad-nauseum, and anything that will differentiate one such game from the pack is a good thing, I think, especially since Zelda: Breath of the Wild is coming out a few days after.

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