Sunday, May 14, 2017

When It's Not Punny Anymore

In this article, game writer Sande Chen explains why puns, cultural references, and jokes in games are not always appreciated.

[Warning:  This article contains spoilers for The Secret of Monkey Island and Game of Thrones.]

As writers, we love our wordplay, our rosy-fingered dawns, our puns, alliterations, similes, and metaphors.  They can breathe life into an otherwise dull descriptive passage.  However, culturalization experts in games know that localizing these efforts can be a difficult process.  A lot can get lost in translation, especially if a game's solution hinges upon this wordplay.  A very famous example comes from The Secret of Monkey Island, which not only had to be altered to avoid offending Japanese dairy farmers, but also stumped Brits who had no idea what were monkey wrenches. (They are called gas grips there.)

Professor Clara Fern√°ndez-Vara points out in her article, "The Secret of Monkey Island: Playing Between Cultures," that the phrase "red herring" has no added meaning in Spanish as it does in English.  In another passage, she explains why the "root beer float" joke falls flat because there is no root beer in Spain.  Understanding these cultural references would have aided in her gameplay.  Unfortunately, the cleverness of the wordplay was not able to be conveyed through literal translation.

Recently, in my Game Writing Primer class, we discussed the character Hodor and the circumstances of his Hodor-ing that came to light in the Game of Thrones episode, "The Door."  It's certainly an a-ha moment when heard in English, but how did the other languages fare? Some translators had it easy.  "Hold the door" sounded like Hodor in their languages.  Others were able to find similar Hodor sounds but for different phrases such as "Block the horde" or "Don't let them go outside!"  But in some countries, like Japan, the wordplay was simply too difficult a task and was not included in the translation.

Although books, movies, and TV shows are routinely translated and subtitled, it's different in a game when a narrative puzzle can depend on a pun the player does not understand.  Even when it's not gameplay sensitive, I still tell my students to carefully consider localization efforts when writing a game.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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