"Almost died first year I come to school and et them pecans — folks say he pizened ‘em and put ‘em over on the school side of the fence."
What impression does this line give you? Does the speaker sound male or female? Young or old? Asian or American?
This was a line by little Walter of one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and the boy was speaking in a Southern American accent.
Just as in books and movies, whenever we meet characters in a video game, we automatically try to make sense of their background based on different cues: hair and skin color (hello, orc!), way they dress (are you a troll or a hobo?), weapons they carry (is this a scimitar you got there, or are you just happy to see me?), and the way they communicate.
When we come across a NPC who speaks broken [language], we quickly categorize him as a foreigner, as someone of a low social class, or perhaps as someone who is just too badass to care about grammar. You rarely hear an emperor with bad English, and if you do, something is amiss.
When I translate a video game from English into German, whether or not to localize an accent or dialect is always a tough choice. But let's quickly clarify the difference between the two.
—>Dialects are words, grammar, and pronunciation related to a specific region. Think Scottish, Sicilian, or Bavarian.
—>Accents refer to sound, to the way words are pronounced. Think someone speaking in English who clearly comes from France or Germany.
Accents and dialects can be a great tool for all writers and translators. We can make use of language to express how gangsters talk, how people from a given region talk, or how politicians talk (or are supposed to). We can hint at a character's background or personality without explicitly stating it. In the case of geographical origin, an accent or dialect can tell the reader or player that a character is from, say, Australia or England without having to actually spell it out in the narrative. If your character has an occupation that is associated with a certain jargon or dialect—say, pirate—making the character fluent in that jargon will make the narrative world feel more consistent.
However, there are a few possible issues to consider when choosing to spice up a video game character that way:
- Accents and dialects do not make for a better gaming experience in just any language and situation.
- Most dialects only exist in oral form and can therefore make for a cumbersome translation and a very exhausting read.
- They might be perceived as offensive.
And all of those will risk the player's immersion in the game world.
Accents and dialects don't always work
Real-world accents can remind the players of specific regions and therefore need to be chosen wisely. Especially in fantasy games, German dialects are often out of the question if they don't fit the game's setting—and no gamer wants to be reminded of his or her daily life.
Using a Berlin accent in a fantasy game—image by MaxPixel
Imagine a typical fantasy setting with elves, orcs, and dwarves. Two dwarves on opposite side of a war fall in love against all odds. She knows her life would be easier with pretty much any other suitor available to her. (She’s a very nice and pretty dwarf, or something. Play along here.) But the dwarf girl holds her lover‘s hand, looks deep into his dark, dumb eyes and whispers "I don't want no one but you."
There are no double negatives in German, but as an English-to-German translator, you want to convey the feeling that this sentence gives, as opposed to “I only want you.” So you decide to render this grammatical mistake with a Berliner accent/dialect, which does indeed have some similar (if not identical) types of grammatical mistakes, which gives: "Icke will nur dir." (The correct German, in case you want to compare: “Ich will nur dich,” using the correct accusative “dich” rather than the incorrect dative “dir.”)
The problem is that a German reader will feel as if this dwarf is impersonating someone straight out of Kreuzberg (a Berlin neighborhood), which doesn’t quite make sense. It would be the equivalent of someone in Lord of the Rings saying, all of a sudden and in a perfect Brooklyn accent: “Forget about it!” Or rather “Fuggetaboudit!” (See the next section for the writing challenges involved.) Doesn’t quite fit.
So when would a regional German dialect add to the game experience?
No doubt it could be a great addition in an authentic German or real-world scenario, or when a character is meant to be from a certain German region. Since the German language is often perceived as rather harsh, like Russian for German speakers, I could see a German accent in non-German games whenever it fits the character's personality or background. It really depends on the individual game and the mood we are trying to convey. Since every game is different, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We might have to take a shot, and it might or might not have the intended effect.
Accents and dialects are a writing challenge
Another problem is the writing or translation process itself. Since most dialects only exist in oral form, they are difficult to put into writing, and can be cumbersome to read. Resources are sparse and inconsistent, and finding just the right amount of accent—one that accentuates without sounding outlandish—can be a challenge. And the automated spell check will be so annoying that you'll decide to skip it and hope for the best.
Even though certain words are pronounced differently in certain accents—they are usually written just the same as the regular language. "Don't pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd or I'll tow ya." You often hear this phrase in connection with the Bostonian accent. While this example transliterates the typical Boston T (public transport) conductor's accent all too well, the only place you'll ever read it are the Harvard gift shops for tourists. In the southern states you'll probably never read: "Ate your grayn pays, swatie."
An Eastern German example might be "Rusch ma doch dän buggel runnda" (F*** you). Imagine reading—or writing—a whole game like that!
I'm really not an expert in American dialects, but I advocate for making it easy on eyes and brain. Our brains use context to fill in gaps, which is why we can read the intended meaning of scrambled and words with minor loss of speed, as long as the used letters are identical and the first and last letters are correct (typoglycemia).
I've only conducted the study on myself, but in the examples I've given, I have to read every word slowly to make up its meaning. A strong, unfamiliar dialect will definitely slow down the player's reading speed.
The Bostonian example might still work when we only highlight certain words: "Don't park the car in the Hahvahd Yard."
However, strong accents can work for the right audience and for minor characters that only have a few lines.
Accents and dialects can be a touchy subject
When dialects are used in video games, one word comes to mind above all: cliché.
I grew up in Franconia, the Northwestern part of the province Bavaria. While we Franconians see ourselves as rather laid-back, Bavarians have a reputation of being more uptight than, let's say, people in Berlin or Hamburg. Now when a German speaker encounters a video game character speaking Bavarian—how would this character's dialect determine the player's perception?
Bavarian beauty courtesy of MaxPixel
If you meet a busty female NPC wearing a dirndl speaking in Bavarian—or in non-German languages speaking with a German accent—nothing would seem out of the ordinary as long as she serves you a nice cold beer. What if the NPC was a waitress in a diner wearing jeans and shirt, serving you a watery decaf—would you still give her a Bavarian (or German) accent? Does it still make sense that she is speaking Bavarian? Because—surprise, surprise—lederhosen and dirndl are not the most common attire in Munich, and not beer but coffee is the German's favorite drink.
I once translated a game where we translators were encouraged to use accents and dialects on various characters. Most of those already spoke in dialects in the English version. The writer of the game was a native German speaker and gave me suggestions on which dialects he thought could work. I don't even remember all the ones I used, but still feel the pain of researching and writing them. At some point I had a French vampire, the cool guy who started a revolution spoke like a Berliner, the uptight guy spoke Bavarian—and the intellectually underprivileged woman spoke Swabian. I, the girl who has about eight different nationalities in her immediate family and spent most of her adolescence getting into fistfights with wannabe-nazis, had completely gone overboard and almost drowned in the Clichéan sea.
Who will get Peach? Image courtesy of MaxPixel.
How far can a game writer or translator go before things stop making sense? Where is the equilibrium that keeps players entertained and clichés at a minimum?
But then, haven't clichés always been a central part of storytelling? There is the witch with the big nose, the superhero in disguise, and many games still can't do without the damn damsel in distress.
So what can we do?
Fear not, I killed most of the exaggerated accents in that game. But nowadays, rather than turning whole dialogs into incomprehensible word mulch, I prefer to add a few commonly known words or endings here and there. Dialects can be hard to understand for non-locals, and I don't want players having to wonder what the heck is going on. After all, they worked or studied all day and just want to chill and beat up a troll or a buddy or both.
Word choices or sentence constructions, even grammar can also show that someone has an accent. In Franconia we prefer "Knödel" over "Klöße" and "Weck" over "Brötchen". We throw coins in "die Bach" instead of "den Bach". And when we want to meet our friend, we don't invite "Kathrin" but "die Kathrin".
In German games, adding a Russian, French, or made-up pronunciation of words can be fun without drawing too much attention to actual countries.
If I chose to give a regional dialect, I'd choose German words that are commonly known and flow well, like the Berlin "icke" (I) or "wa" (am I right?), or the Eastern German "weeste" (you know). The character should have enough of a dialect or accent that the player notices it's there, but not so much that it feels like someone is throwing up on her face. If you're unsure, it's better to really tone it down—and accentuate rather than mask.
You can add regional-specific words, like the Swiss "Grüezi" or the Northern "Moin". Well-known words like "Bonjour", "Ciao", or "Y'all" can add a foreign flavor without having to go overboard making up an accent you don't know how to write.
That being said, dialects and accents can help create more interesting, more vivid video game personas. If used right, exotic speech can really add something to a character, like a rainbow colored-necklace adds a spark to a simple black dress.