Introduction & Rationale
“If they open up with Pidgin English instead, I instantly perk up. Speaking Pidgin transforms them from visiting foreigner into one of the hundreds of well-integrated expatriates in Lagos… There’s a certain intimacy that this form of broken English emits; a down-to-earth, survivalist approach to everyday living and hustling in Africa’s most populous nation.” — Source.
Writing dialogue for a game runs a number of risks, but one of the biggest is a lack of differentiation in tone of voice. Flat, identikit sounding NPCs, dialogue (and by extension the in-game nomenclature of items, places etc) is not only a missed opportunity but a sign of laziness, and can be utterly immersion breaking.
It’s hard enough establishing a catchy, unique tone of voice and personality for your main characters. Add any number of secondary NPCs, and you either get the JRPG syndrome (each uttering mundane one liners about their immediate surroundings ad infinum) or bloated exposition.
There’s also a challenge in writing dialogue for characters who live in the future, plus a highly multicultural/cosmopolitan city. The best writing is invisible, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of too many characters reading (‘sounding’) the same, or them feeling inauthentic and disconnected from the setting. Tolkien felt necessary to invent an entire language for his fantasy epic, and it’s no coincidence that many of his lexical inventions have filtered into mainstream genre use.
Similarly, the first chapters of cyberpunk or hard sci-fi books often throw in a lot of proper nouns, strange abbreviations and techno-pidgin to disorient the reader, to immerse them in a strange new world and hint at the mysteries yet to be uncovered. It would certainly be no fun if Neuromancer appended a lengthy explanation to its sudden terms such as ‘deck’ or ‘ICE’.
Nomenclature, new words, evolution of language: by default, most game-characters speak in modern, western English or American-English, but would characters speak like that in an African metropolis of the near future? They don’t speak like that now.
Slang vs. Pidgin
Without audio, slang/inflection/accents etc can read strangely. It wouldn’t be immersive for a player, no matter how literate, to parse the following:
“Ay whagwan fam, allow bare slang man that shit longtingaling. Now let’s chirps gyaldem innit, be well peng.”
(Hey, what’s going on mate? Don’t use too much slang, that stuff is a hassle. Now, let’s go flirt with some local girls yeah? It’ll be great.)
Obviously the former example essentially excludes anyone not familiar with a specific local slang from understanding more than a word or two of what’s going on. However, the latter translation sounds stilted and bland, and coming out of the mouth (as text or otherwise) or a street-smart, young denizen of South London would be equally immersion breaking.
Solutions & Normalising
So what we do we do?
We create a set vocabulary of pidgin that we can thread throughout ‘normal’ text, in barks, etc, to help with immersion, expand our options for unique tones of voice, without (unintentionally) obfuscating meaning.
Pidgin (aka lingua franca) is different from slang or argot in that it evolves from a mix of dialects and slang into something supposed to be ‘universal’, and to allow the most people to be as understood as possible.
We can quickly orient players/readers to pidgin through careful use of framing, and context. Whether you guess the exact meaning of the following unusual words, you can probably sense their meaning, and after seeing it a few times, you will certainly understand what it connotes.
“Let’s grab some chop-chop, I’m starving.”
“You want to do what?! Man, you dey craze.”
“You stubborn bastard, you no dey hear word and it’ll get you killed.”
Some existing pidgin is even more obvious. For example, ‘gist’ (meaning gossip/news) very closely correlates with its widely understood meaning, and even may not be immediately understood as part of the pidgin lexicon. Of course the reverse is true, some examples are harder to parse initially, but as a result stand out, and become a more of a signature/catchy word or phrase.
Balance will be key, as will building up to each instance, so that when the player encounters words on either side of the spectrum, they’ve already understood some constituent parts of the phrase or have the necessary context.
To normalise ‘wetin’ for example, it would not be helpful to confront a player with ‘wetin dey?’ (what’s happening/up?) in isolation. So, after a few instances of breaking it up, e.g:
“Dey you listen?” (Are you listening?)
“You dey craze.” (You are crazy)
“Ah hi Dee, wetin you up to?”
“Wetin dey point?” (what’s your point?/What are you saying?)
Suddenly ‘wetin dey?’ will feel more comfortable and require less effort for the player to parse. And from then on, they have the satisfaction of having figured this out, of feeling immersed in a dense culture, yet like it’s unique and different to the one they’re used to.
Authenticity & Storytelling Possibilities
Moreover, it is of course more authentic to represent the linguistic quirks of a specific setting, whether it’s in or outside your comfort zone as a writer. As with the above examples, I advocate for a player-centric balance of accessibility and authenticity. Chances are your player-base will be very diverse even before localisation, and hence making game text understandable, without becoming bland, is paramount.
Once some pidgin is established, we can play with it to frame characters and their motivations. For example, perhaps a character is friendly and wants to include Dee in a conversation:
“Dey you up to anything gen-gen recently Dee? Exciting I mean, sorry — I forget you’re not from around here.”
Contrast this to an NPC who might want to make Dee feel excluded, an interloper.
“Dey you craze for steppin’ here, wetin dey you fool, vamoose!”
This way we can create characters and dialogue that is not intended to be easily understood, to put Dee/the player on the back foot, and at the same time make a commentary on the NPC themselves. It also allows for the attitudes of some NPCs to be more ambiguous or mysterious without resorting to vague allusions or oblique sarcasm.
By the same token, establishing the pidgin means we can efficiently signpost the origin of certain characters without relying on exposition.
Suddenly a character that uses no pidgin at all could be inferred to be either aloof, a foreigner, or disassociating themselves from the milieu for some reason.
Another may use more western or internet pidgin and abbreviations such as ‘bae’ or ‘lit’ to signal they are more heavily invested in life online than in person.
Suddenly, we have another subtle tool in our arsenal beyond word choice and punctuation. The very act of omitting or selecting which pidgin the NPC favours says something about them, and it may be something Dee can use to their advantage.
Like everything, we should test the dialogue carefully, including the readability and ‘understand-ability’ of the pidgin words. Ultimately however we need to make a call, one about authenticity, attention to detail and immersion.
A Selected Inspiration Glossary:
- Abi/Ba: Isn’t it?//no? OR na so: is that so/oh really etc
- Bam: Something good
- Chop: to eat/food
- Gen-gen: Exciting/on edge
- Wetin dey? What’s happening // (aggressive) what’s your problem?
- You dey craze — you crazy
- Catching fun — out for the night/ looking for a good time
- How far na: how’re things?
- You no dey hear word: You’re not listening// you’re stupid
- Gist: gossip/news
- Sabi: Understand/get
- Oya!: expostulation of impatience// hurry up// are you ready yet?/come on!
- Vamoose: get lost/going
- Wahala: trouble/stress
- Butta my bread: My prayers/hopes have been answered
- No dullin’: Don’t prolong things/get to the point
- Sasa — how’s it going?
- Haiya! — Exclamation of surprise
- No Chill
- Om/Nom/Nom: Food/to eat/tasty as in good
- Longting: Long time/taking ages/hard, annoying
- Innit: Isn’t it/you understand? (rhetorical)
- Fam/Bruv/Bredrin: friend/family/crew
- Ya get me?: Know what I mean (usually rhetorical)
- Peng: Great/sexy
- Whagwarn: What’s going on?/how’re you doing?
- Boloss: Fool/buffoon
- Toubib: doctor
French / Afrikaans
- to jave, to ambiance: to party
- Dolo: beer of millet
- A stick: a cigaret
- A go: a girlfriend
- More fire: cheers/another drink/to your health
- I and I: we
- Dead pres: white person
Supplement this article with my thoughts on internet speak and faux-irony inA Night In The Woods.