Dragon Age vs Tolkien redux: words

by Jeff

As a follow-up to my post comparing Fantasy à la Bioware‘s Dragon Age with J. R. R. Tolkien‘s own imaginative world, I have the following to add. The one true aspect where Dragon Age is actually the most Tolkienesque is… linguistics. Dragon Age still remains rather unsophisticated for Tolkien-level standards, but it definitely represents a step in the right direction. I appreciate this franchise for this reason.

One must admit at the outset that there doesn’t seem to be much conlanging involved in the making of the Dragon Age universe. There might be an invented language, probably Elvish given what can be seen at various moments in the videogames. But there is no appearance of depth and therefore it is not convincing. If they worked on it, it doesn’t show. And it would be a pity.

As an aside, I remember seeing several years ago a job offer from Bioware for a linguist. The job was indeed to create a language for one of their games under development. I remember this very well, as it struck me that, except for wanting to relocate to Alberta, even temporarily, I had everything else required to apply. That was only being a linguist and knowing how to use Neverwinter Night’s development toolset.

In any case, here’s what the Dragon Age franchise gets right, in my book:

Firstly, the amount of original vocabulary is noticeably higher than average. I’m not talking about names of places, people and monsters: those are an absolute given in any self-respecting Fantasy setting. But in the course of usual conversation between characters, common words relating to how people address each other are original and belong firmly to this universe, not ours.  They are used often and systematically, through superb and professional voice-acting, so that you get used to them quite naturally and you adopt them yourself, as a player. This ‘foreign normalcy’ is to me a very, very good feature of a fictional world. Moreover, a couple of noble titles have a familiarity that makes them work immediately. If Bann is not, as I believe, from baron, it’s still obvious that the Arl is from an earl. Writing Sir as Ser and applying it to women is also a reminder that this world is somewhat like ours, but not completely so.

Secondly, Dragon Age shows some vibes of the translator viewpoint, which I consider critical to the success and believability of a Fantasy world. In this particular setting, every culture seems to be associated with a different English dialect or foreign accent in the voice-acting. Where the spells break a little, as far as I am concerned, is the faux French of the Kingdom of Orlais, but I understand why they did this from the Anglo-Saxon point of view and I respect this as a native French speaker (albeit a little mockingly). Anyway, what this all implies is that the writers recognized that every distinct culture must be tangibly differentiated linguistically through a single medium for the product as a whole (in this case, English). This is so rarely part of the creative process in the treatment of Fantasy in the interactive entertainment industry (think videogames and movies, as books require different methods for this), that this feels like a breath of fresh air.

The bottom line is that the manner of expression should matter as much as what is expressed. That’s why naming new things and new people is truly insufficient when writing Fantasy. How you are talking about the world is perhaps an even bigger deal and a lack of commitment to this sometimes produces grossly unpolished results. I’m truly wondering whether the book it is based on has the same writing [Update: it has not.], but last Sunday’s episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones had a young and soon-to-be-married princess talk about the family gene pool. [Second update: I did not realize at the time that they were talking about someone named Gene Pool. How silly. This fully invalidates my example, but these things do happen and I will keep it here.] To me, that was just plain silly: this is too modern a scientific concept to be believable in a Fantasy setting that is inescapably modeled on our past. The Witcher, a very enjoyable game based on the work of a Polish writer (who seems to have had genuine success in its native language), errs even more on this side: the genetics talk is as absurdly modern as it is matter-of-fact. Nothing in the fictional world as presented by the game can explain why they know that stuff. But we ourselves did not come up with this knowledge out of the blue, in a scientific and ahistorical vacuum. Darwin himself didn’t know about genes. How do people still fighting with swords would know about them? Writing Fantasy is not replaying a Civilization technology tree chart abuse. Therefore, not only do I believe Fantasy should be about the past, but it should be committed to it. In other words, Fantasy should be philological. And the cardinal rule seems to be this: use language accordingly.

This is not nitpicking. Fantasy must be chosen for a reason. If it is not the past, what is it? There are many ways to write about modern problems through historical lenses. J. K. Rowling explores racism, through the Muggle vs. Pure blood issue, without ever mentioning the r-word, and Harry Potter is a contemporary British kid. One then just needs to be inventive. And that’s just the whole point of writing.