Call to Arms Entry 06: Strange Land

I'm tossing another one in the ring, just for fun. Thanks so much to everyone who's contributed so far to the Call to Arms!

Strange Land casts the player as a 'stranger in a strange land,' who must survive in an urban setting with no initial knowledge of the native language. At first the game conveys the alienation of living behind a language barrier; as the player progresses, he gains the pride of mastery by internalizing and becoming fluent in that same language.

Play: Strange Land is a single-player game structured somewhat like Animal Crossing, or The Sims, or Shenmue without the story; the input and point of view is most similar to the latter, with the player directly controlling his avatar at ground-level. The player takes on the role of a young person who has left their native country and recently arrived in a bustling town somewhere in Strange Land. The people here are much like those of the player's homeland, but with different language and customs. From this starting point, the player must first figure out how to communicate well enough to survive, then build a life for him or herself in this new place.

At the outset, most spoken and written language in Strange Land is indecipherable to the player, making navigation and communication a challenge. Signs, instructions, menus and the like are written in Strange language. Initially the player may speak to Strange people, but can only reply in English and make hand motions, which communicates relatively little.

The gameworld contains tools for the player to make inroads towards learning Strange language. Some signs include an English translation along with the Strange text, working as bits of Rosetta Stone. The player carries around a digital notebook, in which he may copy down these translations for future reference. Once he has seen the same Strange text enough times, he should be able to interpret it directly without referring to his notebook.

Similarly, whenever a character speaks, the words appear as text which the player may highlight and save into his notebook along with a corresponding label in English. Then, when later speaking to a Strange person, the player may select any previously-saved text from his speech bank and say that phrase. So for instance, if the player wanted to order a sandwich, he could observe a Strange person ordering a sandwich, copy their speech text, then repeat the phrase used to order one for himself.

As these saved text samples accumulate, the list grows unwieldy. If the player takes too long choosing a phrase from the list while speaking to a Strange person, that person will grow impatient and turn the player away. So, the player may instead type Strange phrases directly into a parser using the keyboard (or 360 thumb board, depending on platform.) This encourages the player to internalize the language well enough to use it effectively without picking from a list of English translations. This mimics the feeling of actually learning to use a language naturally instead of running it through the filter of one's own native tongue.

The player's first goals are simply to make money, buy food, maintain domicile, and generally to survive. Especially in the early stages, this can seem a daunting task, when one doesn't even know how to say "yes" or "no" in Strange language. Attempting to talk to Strange people generally leads to confusion or rejection, and the only available jobs are the menial kind that don't require much verbal communication; living at the English-speaking hostel is easy and cheap, but securing an apartment is another story. The player must either push themselves to better understand Strange language and culture, or simply to subsist as an outsider.

The player uses context clues and closely observes Strange people to learn their customs and how to perform simple tasks. The player may run into other native English-speakers, who may befriend him and help him get by.
At any time, the player may highlight an NPC's speech text and ask "what does that mean?" The player's social standing with that NPC will determine whether they help you out or not. As the player becomes more integrated into the daily routine of Strange Land, his reliance on these helper characters lessens, and he gradually becomes more able to start up friendships with Strange people, using only their own language to communicate, without any training wheels.

Over time, the player's improved abilities allow him access to more fruitful aspects of Strange society: better language skills allow him to get better jobs, attend more obscure or exclusive cultural events and venues, meet and befriend more and different Strange people, and generally become a full-on Strange citizen for all intents and purposes. By increasing his own fluency, the player naturally gains access to deeper parts of the Animal Crossing/Sims-like gameplay of living in a nicer home, getting better jobs, buying more and better stuff, and expanding his social sphere.

Along with text, all Strange language is read aloud via voice synthesis. Strange language is a relatively simple, consistent syllabic, most appropriate for text-to-speech software interpretation. Hereby, the player's experience isn't limited only to the game designer's authored voiceover samples; all NPCs' speech text and the player's own input are both written and voiced. Since the natural result of game mastery in this case is fluency in a foreign language, Strange Land could even be used to teach a real-world language by acting as a "virtual immersion" tool. The trick in teaching a real-world language in this way is to make the final goal not simply "learn the language," but to make learning the language the means towards some other attractive end-- an end which could theoretically be supplied by the desire to progress in a Sims-like life-building game.

Concerns: The core language internalization mechanics would take a huge amount of prototyping, playtesting and revision to get right. Would the described system allow a player to really grasp a language and begin using it? Would the game be 'smart' enough to interpret the player's reuse of saved phrases, and further his typing strings directly into the engine? Like a language itself, executing on this concept well would be intimidatingly complex.

-Steve gaynor


Sparky said...

I would see this as being two very different games depending on whether the language involved was real or invented. I think the latter would allow for more of an artistic statement, although inventing a realistic, useful language is actually quite difficult. However, the sensation of learning this new language and going out into a world where nobody (or almost nobody) else speaks it would make the game resonate with real life in an interesting way. With a real language, this game would obviously have enormous potential as a teaching tool.

Steve gaynor said...

Yeah, I'd considered this too. Using an artificial language would have a number of advantages: design could tailor the language to the structure of the game, and it could be simpler and less nuanced than a real-world language. Along these lines, one consideration would be to use a real-world invented language, such as Esperanto or (dare I say it) Klingon.

The other side is quite interesting, but might be limiting. One would have to choose a real-world language that lends itself well to voice synthesis and parser input recognition, and even then would most likely be unable to convey or process the subtleties of exceptions to rules, etc. On the upside, tackling the challenge of using a real language could turn this into a very fruitful teaching tool. Of course, that rules out bilingual people playing and enjoying the game on the same level that non-native speakers would.

Either way, if it worked right there would be a bunch of players walking around in the real world being able to communicate with one another in the game's language. If it were a constructed language, it would be pretty crazy to have, say, a class full of schoolkids who had played the game who could talk in a completely different shared tongue than their teachers.

JC Barnett said...

"One would have to choose a real-world language that lends itself well to voice synthesis and parser input recognition"

Japanese then? Which is pretty much what I assumed you were aiming at in the first place.
But that can't be, because you were talking about better jobs and expanding social sphere...

Add a "stress meter" which can be depleted by the "blog about this crap" action. :)

Steve gaynor said...

Yeah, this was inspired by my brief time visiting Japan a few years ago. But I didn't want to couch it as a "gaijin simulator" specifically. That's another good reason to shoot for an invented language as opposed to a real one-- if you go with a real language, you're also signing up to simulate a real-world culture and place, which is a whole other can of worms.