Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thou Art Awesome - The failings of 'RPG-dialect'

In my post covering my impressions of Final Fantasy: A Realm Reborn, one of the points I had scrawled in my notes that didn’t make it into the final text was that most of the plot is presented in faux-Elizabethan English. That is to say, the game makes liberal use of ‘thous’, ‘thees’, and ‘mi’lords’. Although I find this approach grating, I begrudgingly accept that it is more or less ubiquitous in role-playing realms (especially in the high fantasy setting). In this post I discuss some of the reasons why this 'rpg-dialect' has become pervasive and some of the failings of its use.

The reasons for the prevalence of rpg-dialect stem almost entirely from Tolkien. A linguist by trade, Tolkien molded his fantastic world using complex language structures and flourishes of words. Naturally, as Middle Earth became immensely popular, it directly affected a plethora of knockoffs and homages that came in its wake. Just as elves and dwarfs have become fantasy standards, so has the use of flowery language. Down the line, this language has worked its way into games. I think that the use of rpg-dialect can, at times, be beneficial; it can immediately set a tone and carries with it a set of expectations that can be followed to ease exposition or be intentionally broken to comedic or surprise effect. Just as a Mario has shaped expectations of platforming titles such that most people immediately know they can jump on enemies to kill them, rpg-dialect tells the player they can expect a grandiose story, dudes in plate armor, and probably a bit of wizardry. By using rpg-dialect to set a familiar tone, a game is able to jump right into what makes it unique.

Perhaps the greatest strength of rpg-dialect is also its greatest area of potential weakness. By relying on trope expectations, the gameplay and plot are also shaped by them. This can lead to bland, unoriginal, and uninspired games. While, as elaborated above, rpg-dialect can allow for a game to showcase what makes it unique, this doesn't change that many games simply don't have anything unique to showcase in the first place. This isn't to say that rpg-dialect guarantees a tepid adventure, but it does create a natural barrier to a new experience. By relying on the road trodden by so many, one needs to work that much harder to get out of the ruts. For every Final Fantasy that elevates itself as excellent escape while using a rpg-dialect there exists a mediocre Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale... or worse. As such, I contend that rpg-dialect can actually be a hindrance if a developer is unable to competently work the pieces in unique or exceptional ways.

While the problem of originality can be, and has many times been, overcome, I feel a more consistent problem is the mis-application of rpg-dialect. This should not be confused with, as stated above, the ingenious design option to evoke the preconceived notions of rpg-dialect and then intentionally break them. A game like Brutal Legend, which mixes heavy metal in a high-fantasy setting, is able to use interaction in rpg-dialect to consistent comedic effect. Rather the problem is in the use of rpg-dialect in settings that make little sense. I think most people would agree that a terran marine in Starcraft just wouldn't feel right if every time he was selected you were treated to a straight-faced 'yes mi'lord' or 'by thy wish'. While most designers have the sense to stray away from such egregious uses of rpg-dialect, the gaming community at large routinely uses it incorrectly. For example, I take issue with the way that rpg-dialogue has crept its way onto every MMO role-playing server through player interaction. I do not understand why, as a smuggler running around in Star Wars: The Old Republic on a role-playing server, that it is considered totally acceptable to say "thou shalt feel the hilt of my rifle". Han Solo would never say this yet it seems to be the modus operandi of the community of role-playing servers. In short, just because something is role playing, this shouldn't imply that rpg-dialect should automatically be used.

Beyond the issues raised above, I fall into the camp of people who just find rpg-dialect annoying. While this is obviously a personal opinion and I do not fault anyone if they enjoy rpg-dialect, I find it superfluous. I think that there are enough fantasy tropes out there that rpg-dialect isn't needed to effectively establish a setting. Stepping away from gaming, many of the characters in Game of Thrones speak plainly and the fantasy setting doesn't suffer for it. While flourishes of language can serve a role, when every character uses them I often feel like I have to dig through the muck to get whats really being said. Unfortunately, most of the time it isn't really worth it. In these cases, rpg-dialect is just used to mask wooden dialogue; "I am sworn to thee and am obliged to do thy bidding" can be just as easily be conveyed as "you're the boss" and neither phrase is particularly special. Wading through reams of rpg-dialogue that is only obfuscating a subpar story makes me feel cheated rather than immersed in fantasy. In the same vein, overcooked rpg-dialect can actually make discerning what is being said difficult ruining an otherwise solid plot.

I am sure that opinions on rpg-dialogue vary across the board. Some, no doubt, enjoy the wordplay and immediate separation from real life that this language brings. I, for one, find it more of a hindrance to my enjoyment than anything else. Coupled with this are genuine problems of stifling creativity and the potential for immersion breaking through mis-application. Unfortunately, rpg-dialogue doesn't look to be going away any time soon.