The price of infinite choice

Video games, like their more or less distant cousins called books and films, have always been about immersion, getting into that special flow where you forget where you are, what time it is and when you last had something to eat (or a shave for that matter). And all of those media have their unique means to get their audience to that special place. Books rely on the mind’s eye, readers’ imaginations, the wealth of their individual experiences and memories, all of which serve as reference material for turning those letters on the pages into sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Films use visuals (be they black and white or color, 2D or 3D) and sounds (monaural to multichannel) to take their audiences to other worlds. And while you could argue that each and every act of reading a book or watching a film is as unique as the reader or viewer in question, it is video games that take immersion to a new level.

A game of choice

Since the days of Pong video games, all games have been about skill and luck and choice. Games require their players to act, employ certain skills and make choices. Inertia and inactivity won’t take you very far in any game. And players have to choose their path, making decisions as the game takes its course. Such decisions come in many flavors, ranging from a (more or less) trivial choice of colors at the start of chess or pachisi to epic decisions that may seal the fate of entire galaxies. And while you could argue that each game of chess has a narrative, a storyline of its own, games with a strong focus on narrative are literally a











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game of their own. Stories told through Pong or chess are built on the players’ decisions, similar to sports such as tennis or football or hockey. But epic narrative games such as Fallout, Mass Effect or Final Fantasy open up entirely new dimensions of choice that cast players into the role of storytellers, creators of original lore. There is a reason why many massively multiplayer online games call their first editions “Founder’s Editions.”

Adding depth through parameters

One of the many groundbreaking features of 1985’s arcade hit Gauntlet was the choice of four distinct player characters: Thor the Warrior, Thyra the Valkyrie, Merlin the Wizard or Questor the Elf. While Exidy’s seminal Venture (1981) had still focused on a single player character, Gauntlet left the critical choice of in-game character to its players (Figure 1), treating them to four distinct gameplay experiences that became even more complex when up to four players joined in on the fun. And the differences between those four playable characters were anything but cosmetic, because each of them had their own strengths and weaknesses, which in turn called for a special playing style, forcing players to adopt certain roles in multiplayer matches.

Still, back in the 1980s the implications of such choices for the developers and the gameplay experience, let alone games localization, were limited. And yet it was in those days that the first steps leading to video game behemoths such as The Elder Scrolls franchise were made. After all, 30 years ago the developers of Gauntlet had to do what most game developers still do to this very day: create distinct sets of parameters. Let’s take a look at the characters’ abilities in Gauntlet for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) from 1987, which was the first installment of the franchise to introduce a story (Table 1).

In 1993 the SEGA Genesis saw the release of Gauntlet IV, a considerably more complex remake of the original Gauntlet, which now featured parameters for characters’ equipment. Things rapidly became more complex, in this case the Elf’s choice of arrows (see Table 2).

Obviously, defining parameters and adding more and more of them quickly became a convenient way of creating deeper and more complex video game experiences. And much of what we see in Table 2 (which dates back to 1993) is still under the hood of many current video games. In fact, the use of parameters has spilled over from games into real life events such as sports, attaching values to soccer players.

Of course, this new kind of parameterization creates the illusion that next to anything can be broken down and reduced into a handy and easily comparable set of parameters. Add a narrative and a storyline and you end up with a system that will allow for an incredible number of individual gameplay experiences.

The creation (or choice) of a character at the beginning of a game session has become a standard feature since the humble days of Gauntlet. In some games, and APB comes to mind, the character creation is so complex and detailed that it could almost pass for a game in its own right (Figure 2). Some players spend hours on end to create a virtual version of either themselves or the hero/heroine of their dreams.

The common goal of all games featuring a multitiered character creation: a unique gameplay experience for each and every player. And when we’re talking about genre heavyweights such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or any of the more recent Final Fantasy games, that means creating something in the league of a personal, customized and interactive version of The Lord of the Rings for millions of players.

Inevitably, this causes problems.

Unique storylines by the millions

For one thing, creating a tailor-made experience for millions of players also implies creating millions of stories nobody will ever experience. And even if a player spends hundreds of real-world hours exploring their virtual storyline, chances are they’ll still see nothing but the tip of the iceberg, missing a lot of content that was created for players taking different approaches and paths. Actually, in many cases, they may miss the largest part of the game, which may be one of the reasons why some complex open world games such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt still focus on a single player character (of course, another reason may lie in the fact that it is a lot easier to market a game with a single iconic character rather than an infinite choice of characters).

But the problems don’t stop at the content creation stage. Actually, good old Gauntlet already sports one of those killer features that still cause plenty of headaches in game localization today: character genders.

After all, Thyra the Valkyrie is female, while the rest of the gang is male. Back in the day, that wasn’t much of a problem, just a nice way of adding more flavor. A different sprite, different speech samples, a different weapon, plus some custom assets and artworks for the arcade machine itself. And maybe even a variable as in “%1 needs food badly.” But the days of variables embedded in text were still a few years off. Remember that The Bard’s Tale (1985) on the C64 still had an all-male party (Figure 3).

Opening Pandora’s box (and hopefully closing it again)

As soon as you make variables for different genders or other game aspects part of your game’s text engine, the way it dynamically handles and generates text, you open Pandora’s box. Even if you just allow players to enter their name to make use of it in the game’s text, you might face trouble. In English it’s fine if “%1’s dog” results in “Thomas’s dog” or “Anne’s dog,” but in German, “%1s Hund” won’t work with proper names ending in “s” or “x” – it’s “Thomas’ Hund,” not “Thomas’s Hund.” Of course, you can rephrase it, and something like “Der Hund von Thomas” (“the dog of Thomas”) works in most contexts. But now Pandora’s box is open, and we’ve entered the gray zone of compromises, workarounds and cut corners.

As tempting and essential as the introduction of variables is, they often lead to loose ends or problems that turn out to be impossible to solve in one or even several languages. For example, see Figure 4.

In the source we presumably have something like “You have reached level %1” or just “You have reached level.” In German, for instance, this construction won’t work, because the verb has to come right at the end: Sie haben Stufe 6 erreicht. For reasons of visual design, however, this is not an option. Usually, we’d go for something like Neue Stufe erreicht! (New level reached!) or Sie haben eine neue Stufe erreicht: (You have reached a new level:). But it’s a compromise and, arguably, not as elegant as the English version. In such cases it might be a good idea to go for a visual design that will work in more than one language.

And often it’s not even all that necessary or advisable to use variables in the first place. It might be much easier to write out every single possible combination, even if that boils down to having thousands of additional lines of text, because that way grammatical problems such as generating “You find a book” and “You find an arrow” with “You find a %1” can be avoided, and not just in English. True, having to generate that many sentences for loot-centric games such as Diablo might seem like a daunting task at first, but the advantages are obvious:

Both translators and authors always see all possible iterations of the same phrase. No more queries about what a certain cryptic variable means in a certain context.

No need to wait for the implementation of the translations, what you see is what you get.

Every linguist can make up their mind on how to tackle certain constructions best, which leaves a lot more room for creativity and good writing instead of translations sounding too literal and unidiomatic, because they have to follow the syntax of the source language.

Translation memory systems love repetitions, so it’s not like translators are going to charge every single instance of “You find a %1” as a new sentence.

Variables are here to stay in current games. In fact, as we’ve seen, they’ve been around for quite some time now. The use of variables stems from the need to create individualized game play experiences for millions of players. But while the use of variables for in-game parameters such as speed, endurance or armour won’t cause much of a problem, using variables to create sentences invariably does. Spoken languages with their often illogical and even contradictory rules tend to be more complex than programming languages, and some languages are more complex than others. To create immersive and varied gameplay experiences, developers might want to consider limiting the use of variables to in-game parameters and use proper sentences whenever a game’s narrative is concerned. We can handle it.