Sprawling role playing games often come with an abundance of proper nouns and a medieval flavour to their setting. Sometimes games like this try to make their dialogue match the olden times vibe. Getting this antiquated English to sound right is pretty hard, though.
I first started thinking about this when I started Octopath Traveler, playing as the hunter H’aanit. She comes from a small village where everyone exclusively speaks in a cartoonish version of antiquated English. Some words are amended with an e at the end, like “praye,” and many verbs now end with “en,” like “reachen.” Everyone uses “thee” and “thou,” and if there’s a word you can throw “est” onto, then the game probably will. It struck me not just as corny, but hard to read and understand. To try and figure out why that was, I called up my mum.
My mum is an English professor and also the kind of woman who recites the opening to Beowulf in Old English as a party trick (that’s a thing). She is the kind of woman who, when I asked her what words meant as a child, told me the Latin root and then said, “you figure it out.” She was the first person I thought of when I played Octopath and couldn’t get my head around the dialogue. I read her out a sentence from the game: “Reachen out thine hand, and taken in it Aelfric’s Lanthorn.” We talked about the things that were wrong with it for 15 minutes.
“If they wanted to make it sound like the English of the 1500s or early 1600s, they wouldn’t use the ‘en’ ending,” my mum said. “Not for a command like that.” That’s because the ‘en” verb ending indicates that this word is a past participle. Past participles are an adjective or verb tense formed by adding an “ed” or “en” to the end of a verb. If you’re a native English speaker, you probably use these all the time without knowing you’re doing it. If you broke a window in the past, you’d say something like, “I had broken the window,” with “broken” being a past participle. Using a verb tense that’s used to refer to something that’s happened in the past doesn’t make sense in a sentence that is a command for a character to do something in the present. Even if you don’t quite know the reason why, when you read that sentence, you know that “reachen” and “taken” aren’t in the correct verb tense for the situation.
“It’s not that people are really going to know or care whether it’s correct,” my mum said. “It just sounds off, so that it becomes a distraction. And that stops you from playing the game well, because you’re thinking about this other thing, like ‘why doesn’t this sound right?’”
The usage of “thee” “thou” and “thine” are also problematic in this game. “’Thee’ and ‘thou’ and the ‘eth’ ending are all parts of a form we no longer have in English,” my mum said. Other languages, like French, make a distinction between a formal and informal “you” she explained. “Vous” in French can refer to both a group of people and to a person that commands respect or that you’re not very familiar with. Thee, thou, thine and the “eth” ending also used to be used to denote that difference in status. They’re informal, so speaking as a mentor to mentee, it makes sense to use thee or thou. But every character in this village uses thee and thou when speaking to each other, and H’aanit also uses it when speaking to a respected noble from a nearby city.
In my experience playing games with tons of proper nouns, it almost never matters if it’s accurate to the period in every aspect, just that it doesn’t sound wrong. A game like 2006’s Final Fantasy XII flirts with antiquated forms of English, but most of the time just avoids contractions and leans on the voice actors’ British accents. You can see this pretty clearly in an expository dialogue dump in the prologue:
This is much closer to how we speak English now than the English of certain parts of Octopath Traveler. Most of the deviations involve randomly capitalised words and some purple prose. Listening to a British-sounding voice actor read this, though, gives it just enough of an old time-y flair that it gets the player in the right mood for a game about warring kingdoms, airships, and all the rest of that Final Fantasy stuff. In a lengthy interview with Eurogamer, Alexander O. Smith, who translated Final Fantasy XII, talks about hitting specific cultural touchstones to indicate the vibe of each faction in the game.
“We made the Empire British, of course,” Smith told Eurogamer. “The touchstone for the Resistance was Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. We had similar touchtones for other characters in the Empire.” For the Viera, a race of sexy bunnies living in the forest, the team decided to give them Icelandic accented English.
The Viera’s dialogue isn’t drawing upon any historical form of English. A lot of their mystical nature comes from avoiding contractions and sometimes reversing the subject and object of a sentence. When Fran, the Viera that joins your party, says, “This solitude you want, Mjrn?” that sentence is easier to understand if you rearrange it to “Mjrn, do you want this solitude?” Even though it’s clunky, all of the parts of speech are being used correctly, though in a different order than native English speakers are used to. Still, this simple change is evocative of a old time-y fantasy culture without throwing in any thees or thous.
Though this game has a pretty rich tapestry of dialects, it’s kind of like drinking the sugar-free flavoured seltzer brand La Croix. It’s supposed to taste like Lime, it even says it on the can, but it’s most like someone whispered the word “lime” in your ear after each sip you take. There’s a suggestion of Icelandic English, of Titanic, and a generic British Empire, but it’s not so overwhelming that it pulls you out of the game like in Octopath. Moreover, if you’re just reading the dialogue and not listening to the voice acting, the sentences are all parsable.
If there’s a castle or an heiress or a character that can summon spirits in a game, as a player you want to be able to sink into the lore, or at least for that lore to not be distracting. When it comes to how the characters speak, less is more, even in a fantasy setting that’s closer to reality than Final Fantasy. It’s not about getting things 100% right. It’s just about not getting things noticeably wrong.