September 11, 2015 6:30 AM | Joel Couture
"As a Korean indie developer, English is absolutely essential. Because in Korea, games are treated as harmful, addictive things like drugs. I have to sell my game to foreigners."
There are various reasons why a developer would want to have their game in English, or any other language that's not their native tongue. Whether to hit a broader audience, increase worldwide appeal, or to reach people outside of certain cultural stigmas, you may need to translate your game into another language. For Somi, developer of the Indie Stream Awards Finalist RETSNOM, English was a necessity. His complex puzzle game and narrative required it if it was going to succeed.
The only problem? English was not a language he was all that comfortable with. And RETSNOM was not a simple puzzle game with an easy story to tell.
This meant finding other means to tell the story and communicate gameplay, keeping use of language to a minimum. It meant his initial ideas for the game would need to change. "Most differences were related to the difficulty of expression. To make players easily understand the game and the story, I had to make the game more intuitive." Somi says. How do you do that without sacrificing your vision for the game, though? When do you decide that something from your original vision needs to change?
Part of that plan involved looking for help with translation. Somi had to rely on friends and connections he'd already established for that, but it only got him so far. "English localization came from Sang Kwon. He is a publisher of my first game, Rabbit Hole 3D. But his mother tongue is also Korean." It helped Somi add a little bit of English into his game, but without the funds or connections to do more, he needed to find other means to help the game communicate what he needed it to say.
That was difficult for Somi, as the original vision for RETSNOM involved multiple gameplay mechanics and a deep storyline, all seamlessly intertwined. "I wanted to make a novel in the form of a game." he says. "I didn't want to make players feel that they are just playing the game. I wanted to make people feel like they are the protagonist and feel his emotions".
This limited his ability to create short, simplistic gameplay tutorials using only a few words. "There's no tutorials like 'Push the A button to flip the mirror. It can flip 9x9 squares around you.' That sentence is from the developer to the players, unrelated to the story. It makes players just game players." Somi says. A few direct sentences may have been able to communicate what Somi needed the player to learn about his game, but that would not have worked with what he was trying to create. He needed tutorials that flowed with the game world itself, told within the narrative.
This meant finding different ways to tell the players what to do and what the story was. For story, Somi communicated much of the narrative with vignettes done in the game's pixel art style. Silent characters moving together can only communicate so much, though, and without English speakers to say anything, Somi used music to tell the story. "Background music can tell the story to players. It can be one of the languages of a game." Somi says.
A few short phrases set the story in motion for players, requiring little translating work, and then the rest of the tale is told through mood-setting musical pieces. The sombre tone of the first few chapters captures the protagonist's hopelessness in his task of finding a cure for his child. Other pieces indicate a rising hope, or a yawning, overwhelming despair. Music, as a universal language, stood in for English and would help players find the story Somi wanted to tell.
The story isn't much use if players can't reach it, which was a great challenge for RETSNOM. The game involved multiple different puzzle-solving mechanics in each chapter, and Somi had to somehow explain these to players without speaking directly to the them or using a great deal of English.
"In the first world, mirrors can flip left to right. In the second, all flipped blocks fade out because it's raining - rain makes mirrors foggy. In the third world, concave mirrors flip up and down." and so on, Somi says. Things can only be moved a set amount of times as well, or have other properties that the player needs to know to solve each puzzle. It's a lot for a player to take in, even if the game had come out and explained everything in detail.
Explaining that with few words was a challenge, one Somi overcame through the use of color and grids, creating overlays that would pop in and out of the game as the player used the mirror's mechanic for that chapter. Blocks which flipped one way would change to pink, and the others to blue, and all while the game showed exactly what the player had done. The game's mechanic was also mapped to a single button, so even a player that was goofing around would see just how the game played.
The colors and grids do represent a compromise of sorts, though. It's a very game-like visual scheme, but the players, and not just the language barrier, necessitated it. "I already knew that my game was really hard until players fully understood the mechanics, but when I saw testers playing, I felt that the problem was not the difficulty of the puzzles. They were goofing around, pushing the mirror button again and again even though there was no point to it and no more way to go through." Somi says.
Players, in their boundless curiosity, were pushing the limits of what they could do in the game world, sometimes getting carried away with an unclear idea of how they were affecting it. So, Somi put in some visual schemes and limits to the mirror-flipping mechanic to help clarify the player's ability to change the world. It wasn't something that was quite in line with his original idea for the game, but it did help players learn the mechanic without words, and represented a necessary change for the developer.
"When I came up with the mechanic, I thought it was fun, but also dangerous. If players can break the levels with no limit, there can be no puzzles - just ruined maps."
Level design was the next step, composing each stage of blocks so that players could easily see the spaces that would move. After that, Somi created his puzzles to lead the eye, hoping that a curious player who was just messing with the functions would see new opportunities. "In the world 1, after players understand the left-to-right mechanic, they can make the platforms connect a broken road. Then, players should notice that a spot is not at a reachable height. After that, players should see a spot they can flip while jumping or falling. And more, and more."
By drawing the eye, mapping the mirror ability to a single button, and making it easy to see how the mechanic worked, Somi communicated much of the gameplay without saying a single word. Through music, he could convey the story he wanted to tell. He did have to compromise some things in order to achieve his vision, but these changes improved gameplay and made it more fluid and comfortable for the player. Overall, though, creative thinking got him past the language hurdle, putting his game into the hands of English speakers and players around the world.