Return of the Obra Dinn released on October 18 last year to a great critical and commercial reception. My own review was one of those very select few 10s ever given by TechRaptor. It’s a highly cerebral investigation game played in first-person with a monochrome art direction that harks back to the art style of some Apple II classics. Lucas Pope, the developer, was formerly a Naughty Dog employee and worked as a programmer on titles Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, before striking out as a solo indie developer and releasing the indie masterpiece Papers, Please in 2013.
Ars Technica has just released a video on their YouTube channel, where Pope discusses one particular aspect of the game’s development, which is localization. The game shipped with interface and subtitles support for French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian. It’s a lot of languages and a lot of work for a game that requires a lot of verbal gameplay. Last month the game received an update that added Korean, Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese localizations.
At its core, Return of the Obra Dinn asks its players to solve the fates of a crew in the early 18th century. You board the empty ship and, with the help of a mystical artifact, you can deduce how they were killed, whether by accident, by other crew members, or by something else. There’s a whole menu of possibilities describing the deaths of these people, from drowning to getting shot, to getting strangled or crushed or decapitated, and so on. Pope goes into detail on the specifics of that system:
In kind of a simpler system you would say, “John killed George.” And that kind of thing is very easy to localize. You’ve got your subject, your object, and your verb. And those get shuffled around for different languages, but generally those are the components that you’d use to make that in any language.
The problem comes when it matters how you killed them. So to sort of explain in an English relative way, in English we have the word “knifed.” You can say, “I knifed somebody,” and that’s like both general and specific. It’s specific that you use a knife, but it’s general that like, I could’ve cut your throat, I could’ve stabbed you, you know, do all kinds of things to kill with a knife.
But most languages don’t have that verb, and to understand that is that if you think of a verb, to be killed by a sword, for example. We don’t have “sworded” in English, and I really wish we did because it would have made things a lot easier. So other languages also don’t have “knifed,” so when you’re designing the grammatical system where you want it to work across all these different languages, you need to remember as an English-only speaker basically that you can’t say “John knifed George.” You could say John killed George with a knife, but then you’re talking about a different sort of grammatical structure for the sentence.
And you can imagine that problem expanded across seven different languages that all treat sentences differently, and also treat gender differently.
He goes on to discuss the nuances that come with gender differences in languages, and all the challenges that came with localization in general. The video includes some spoilers for the game, so if you haven’t played it yet (and you really should, especially if you like indie and investigation games), watch out. If you’ve already played the game and enjoyed it, this is a fascinating glimpse into what went into the game, and how much thought went into the language and the way players interact with it to complete the game. There’s also some really helpful advice for indie developers at the end.
Have you played Return of the Obra Dinn yet? How long did it take you to solve the fates of all those missing people? What do you think of this glimpse into the complexities of localization? Let us know in the comments below!More About This Game