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Video-game-languages

How are new languages created for video games?

If your childhood was anything like mine, you would’ve spent a lot of time playing The Sims. When I think about it now, the part of the game that sticks out in my memory is the language the Sims spoke.

The completely unique language, dubbed ‘Simlish’, became a defining aspect of the game, and developed over the years alongside the quality of the gameplay. Although it’s a famous example, it’s not just Simlish that changed the landscape of video game languages, with a whole host of games creating their own vocabularies, pronunciations, and grammar rules.

So, how are video game languages actually created, and how do voice artists help bring them to life? Do these made-up languages help us feel immersed in a new world, or alienated from the characters on-screen? We take a look at some famous examples, how they work, and even the ways these languages are localised for different markets. 

How they’re created and brought to life

A great example of an effective, entirely made-up language is Animalese, the language spoken by the villagers in Animal Crossing. First released all the way back in 2001, Animal Crossing has become one of the most famous video game franchises in the world, with the latest release, New Horizons, winning the Game Beyond Entertainment title at the 2021 BAFTA Games Awards.

At the time of Animal Crossing’s conception, the way in which languages were created for video games was on the cusp of changing. Up until this point, the characters in your favourite video game were given voices with the use of ‘Beep Speech’. Back in the 90s, voice artists were rarely used for video games, so Beep Speech used randomised sounds to create an affordable, but largely effective, speech style.

So, with Beep Speech being a relatively popular and effective technique, why didn’t the creators of Animal Crossing just stick with that? Well, although Animalese may sound like computer-generated gibberish, there is actually more work behind the language than you might imagine. Voice actors recorded samples of real language, which were then chopped up and edited. The recordings were synthesised into singular sounds, which were then sped up and linked together to form Animalese.

You may not be able to recognise it, but if you were to slow down the speech of the villagers, it may sound more like a slurred version of English. It’s this technique, along with the different tones, pitches, and emphases, that helps give Animalese the perfect mix of a foreign yet familiar feel. We may not understand what the animals are saying, but the work that has gone into ensuring that Animalese replicates a more normal-sounding type of speech allows the player to not feel alienated from the new world they’ve been transported to.

In short, there’s a method in the madness.  

The same could be said for The Sims. As one of the best-selling video games of all time, with 200 million copies sold worldwide, one of The Sims’ most famous trademarks is its language. Designed to give players ultimate control of the game world, developers decided against the use of real language as they felt this could limit players’ imaginations.

So, to give the Sims a voice without explicitly telling their stories, voice artists were brought in to record sounds that showed emotion without the use of familiar words. According to Simlish creator Robi Kauker, the process was extremely difficult, and involved days of improvisation in the recording studio. Finally, with a set of recordings, Kauker and his team spent a year turning these sounds into Simlish, cutting and combining clips to reflect specific emotions, eventually forming a language.

Over time, Simlish has developed and now there is upwards of 200 hours of recordings used in newer games. Although it is gibberish, certain phrases have been retained over time, and the ‘random sounds’ begun to reflect and correlate with the Sims’ actions. There’s even Simlish dictionaries that offer translations into English. Whippna Choba Dog!

How the languages work

The real beauty of these made-up languages, though, is how they don’t just sound like a random combination of noises, and actually contribute something really important to the gameplay.

Both Simlish and Animalese are great examples of how creating a unique language can raise a game’s level of immersion. These languages have become trademarks of the games they were designed for, and immediately transport players to a different world upon hearing them.

The world of Animal Crossing is peaceful and colourful, and the villagers’ use of Animalese helps aid these feelings. As the game aims to create a joyful environment and experience, the chirpy, lively tones of the animals contribute to this and allow the player to feel part of the community. To achieve this, a language that feels “right”, and fits in with the aesthetic of the game, is essential.

Interestingly, languages like Animalese have helped highlight the fascinating ways humans understand speech and text. The fact that we don’t understand the words, and that the words don’t even necessarily have any meaning, doesn’t mean that we don’t understand what is being communicated. Through tone and pitch, amongst other concepts, we are able to feel like we belong in a world that is completely foreign.       

This idea has been addressed by Simlish creators too, as they describe the process of having to “tell a story without recognisable words”. There’s no denying the size of this challenge, but, in the end, what is created is a language that speaks to everyone.

Language variation and localisation

Simlish and Animalese don’t target speakers of any specific language, and, because of their nonsensical origins, naturally everyone has the same level of understanding of them. However, this hasn’t stopped keen-eared players from noticing slight differences in the language used across different versions of the games.

When Animal Crossing developers created the franchise’s newest instalment, New Horizons, they decided to localise the process in which they created Animalese. Using the same original recordings, they edited and sped up the sound bites in different ways, to alter the rhythm, tone, and sound. They chose to do this because, although the vocabulary stayed the same, editing the way the language was spoken helped make the game more authentic for different markets, as different languages use rhythm and speed in different ways.

So, when players compared the English and Japanese versions of New Horizons, they were right to point out the differences in the way the villagers spoke. Although Animalese remains to be gibberish in whichever version of the game you play, altering the rhythm and speed at which it is spoken has a psychological effect on players, and helps them to feel more immersed in the world of the game.

Matinée and video games

Of course, one of the most important aspects that help bring a game to life and allow players to feel part of a new world is your choice of voice actor. The concept of creating a brand new language specifically for a video game is fascinating, and we have found it really interesting to explore the foundations of these languages, but the importance of an effective voiceover cannot be overlooked.

Here at Matinée, we have many years’ experience of casting and recording voice actors in more than 80 languages, supplying character voices for some of the world’s biggest game franchises. Our experienced sound engineers are great at editing and modifying audio recordings, helping you to achieve your desired effect. We also specialise in the adaptation of scripts for local audiences, helping games to target markets across the world.

With our experience in the world of video games, our expert team will no doubt be able to help you. Whether you’re looking for the perfect voice to feature in a game – or any other audio recording for that matter – we will be able to help you make the best choice from our vast database of talented voice actors. Or we can assist you with your localisation needs, and help your content reach a wider global market.

So, why not get in touch with us today and find out how we can help you?

Call us on +44 (0) 118 958 4934

Or email project@matinee.co.uk