Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Fantasy Language Barrier, Part II

World of Warcraft has languages, too. And if D&D’s languages sometimes impose unfortunate barriers to communication, WoW’s language system imposes exactly one barrier. Horde PCs and Alliance PCs can’t talk to each other. Period.

How It Works: Each faction has its own common tongue, and there’s no way (absolutely no way, period, end of discussion) for a Horde PC to learn Common or an Alliance PC to learn Orcish. That was a fantastic decision that I don’t think Blizzard gets enough credit for. That language barrier prevents the tidal wave of trash-talking that would drown out everything else whenever the Horde and Alliance are in proximity—including key places like battlegrounds and main cities like Dalaran and Shattrath.

Maybe I’m old, and maybe I have delicate sensibilities, but I shudder to think at what the shouting in Dalaran would sound like. Remember, WoW is a big place. The player population is almost six million strong (and another six million play Alliance characters!), and even spread across multiple servers, that's a lot of shouting.

When a Warcraft character of the opposite faction yells something, the game translates it into gibberish with a consistent letter- and syllable-replacement system. Back in 2005 or so, some enterprising WoW players made some rudimentary efforts at reverse-engineering that gibberish translation, enabling some awkward two-letter communication between Horde and Alliance. Predictably, it was used for trash talking, and Blizzard changed the translation algorithm to confound the effort.

If you aren’t a human or an orc, you get a racial language. But the vast majority of Warcraft players never, ever use Zandali, Taurahi, Gutterspeak, Thalassian, Darnassian, Dwarvish, Gnomish, or Draenei. The game has unlimited person-to-person whispering and unfettered ability to create chat channels (to say nothing of actual voice chatting), so there’s no need for a “secret language” to facilitate PC-to-PC communication. Those languages exist only because Blizzard was contemplating a broader language system fairly late in the design. For very good reasons (the trash-talking thing above), bilingual WoW PCs never happened, and they never will happen.

I Must Have Missed Looting That Babelfish: Just saying “no…period” to cross-faction communication was a gutsy call on Blizzard’s part. Beyond that, though, WoW seems content to blithely ignore language. When my Horde druid stealths his way through Stormwind and Ironforge, I can often overhear when the NPCs are saying—and I doubt they’re speaking Orcish or Taurahe. In quests and instances where I meet major NPCs like Thrall and Jaina Proudmoore, I can understand what everyone’s saying perfectly. If a monster speaks, I understand it. And when a demon or a dragon or another big, bad NPC addresses the Horde and the Alliance together (like in the cinematic you see after you get the “Veteran of the Wrathgate” achievement), everyone understands everyone else. My character has met Arthas maybe a half-dozen times so far. What language does he speak? And what language do all those death knights in the Ebon Hold speak, anyway?

So Who Does Languages Right? D&D strives for a realistic treatment of languages, but that realism often gets in the way of communication that everyone at the table wants to happen. Warcraft blows off realism almost completely, but it’s left one singular, key language barrier in place where it’s needed most.

I suppose maybe that leads to the following principle: only erect language barriers where you want there to be an actual barrier. Once you know the barriers you want, then let everyone else talk to each other—especially in a game like D&D which relies almost exclusively on the spoken word for communication among the players.

But justify your language setup! Don’t just blow it off like WoW did. Especially in a fantasy world, you have the ammunition to believably justify as many or as few languages as you want. And think big! Have a player-discoverable reason for your language setup. You won’t be the first to have an earth-shattering event that changes the nature of language. If you want more languages, pull off something at your campaign table like the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). And if you want everyone talking to everyone else, you could do a lot worse than cloven tongues of fire…like in Pentacost (Acts 2:1-12). Like I said, you won’t be the first.

Out of Context: “That one’s Snow White. That one’s Cinder-gorilla.”
Music: Blur, Think Tank

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