The year is 10,000BCE. The Central European landscape is rolling forests and the land is roamed by large beasts. Early humans are fighting to share the landscape with sabre-tooth tigers, mammoths… and each other.
It’s a great setting for a story, but what happens when a character opens their mouth? What do they say? Or perhaps a more tricky question is even more basic than that: what language do they speak?
That was the question faced by Ubisoft Montreal as it developed Far Cry: Primal, which was published this week on PS4 and Xbox One, and will be coming to PC on March 1st. The game takes the ‘traditional’ Far Cry mechanics of open jungle landscapes and winds back time by several millennia to follow the story of Takkar, a tribesman who is stranded after his hunting party is ambushed.
Ubisoft have great form on historical action games. The publisher is also responsible for the Assassin’s Creed series. But whereas building Revolutionary Paris or Dickensian London has a number of historical sources that can be referenced, going back to 10,000BCE is surely even trickier. For a start, the game took place around 7000 years before humans invented writing - meaning that to flesh out the game and create a world that feels real, the developers had to improvise. And this included on language.
So Ubisoft enlisted the help of husband-and-wife team Andrew and Brenna Byrd who are Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Assistant Professor of Modern and Classical Languages respectively, at the University of Kentucky. Ubi tasked them with creating the two languages found in the game, which they called Wenja and Izila. Players of the game will recognise this isn’t a token gesture - the characters on screen aren’t just making cartoon “ugg” noises - the language they are using really does work.
To find out how Wenja and Izila came about, I got a chance to ask Andrew and Brenna about the process of creating the language.
So where do you start when there is a blank sheet of paper in front of you?
“You could really start anywhere. It depends on what your goals are," Byrd told me.
“Does the language need to be learnable? Does it need to sound a certain way? Do the words need to be short or long or does it matter? Is there another language that you’re using as a model or do you want it to be completely different from most languages? And finally, will the actors or language learners be able to pronounce it?”
All constructed languages - such as Esperanto - are created with these questions in mind, and likewise these questions appear to be key to the Far Cry process too. But how did it directly affect Primal? Smartly, the linguists decided not to simply make it up but instead work backwards from a language that is known to have existed some time later - Proto-Indo-European (PIE). “a believable version of PIE was key, but the language also had to sound right for the audience and work with the gameplay. About 95% of the vocabulary is based directly on a PIE root and our knowledge of how human languages work, and the other 5% still had to be probable for PIE, so there really wasn’t anything built from scratch for this game.”
PIE was also the source of inspiration when it came to describing the grammar used.
“Izila’s grammatical structure is basically that of PIE, or at least what we believe it to have been. Wenja was constructed as an even earlier ancestor of PIE, so we took archaic features of PIE and reconstructed back even further”, explained the experts.
There was some room for creativity though. In the case of Wenja, they were able to build in grammar rules that different between animate and inanimate objects, because their colleague Chiara Bozzone (who worked on the team) was particularly keen.
The language really is extensive too. They told me that both Wenja and Izila are fully developed.
“Absent terms of modern technology, you can discuss basically anything as you would in a modern language such as English.”
Currently, both languages have about 1250 unique words, which have been used to translate the game’s 40,000 word script. To add even more complexity, of course if voice actors are to record the dialogue, they need to speak it. So the linguists had to train them too. This wasn’t an easy task and in the process, much like how often the Assassin’s Creed team will compromise on history to make a better gameplay experience (adding extra things to grab on to, on to the walls of Notre Dame Cathedral, for example), during the recording process some adaptations had to be made.
“Sometimes the pronunciation of a word needed to be modified to make it easier to say for actors. Other times the word we created for the game was too long for gameplay. For instance, the word created to mean ‘yak’, dang, started out as a compound meaning ‘shaggy cow’ (in PIE that’s dənsúgows), and then ‘Wenjafied’ as dansugawi. It was then abbreviated because it was too long”. ‘dansugawi’ became ‘dangaw’, which then became ‘dang.’"
As you might imagine, so much time immersed in the languages meant it became second nature: “When we were in the thick of translating the script, we were both briefly fluent in Wenja. Still today we speak isolated sentences to each other, and our son even knows that he’s our ‘sushnu’,” said Byrd.
They’ve even set up a Twitter account in order to talk to fans about the language - and grow the lexicon of words.
Far Cry Primal is out now.