Opinion Pieces

Opinion Pieces

Applying audio skill sets to the creation of a constructed language

James Stant, Dialogue Manager at Frontier Developments talks about how he approached the audio for Planet Coaster and creating a global language that reflects the spirit of the game. 


Approaching the audio for our theme park management game, Planet Coaster, we knew we would be dealing with thousands of virtual guests, each with their own likes and needs. With players given control of the game camera, it was important that we supported the crowd members from an impressionistic level all the way down to a macro focus. When it comes to human expression, language is arguably the best tool we have, so it felt only right that we gave them a unique voice.


At the time of its pre-Alpha development in 2015, I was a Senior Audio Designer. I had an academic background in music composition and my game development role was centred around sound design. I also had no traditional background in linguistics, just a rudimentary secondary school education in French and German, and a sprinkle of holiday Spanish. What I did have was an abundance of admiration for created languages; my father is a Star Trek fan (although not a Klingon speaker!) and I had poured countless hours into The Sims (with its infectiously adorable language Simlish). Despite what could prove to be a sizeable undertaking, I set out with inspiration and an arsenal of audio-centric instincts to craft a constructed language for Planet Coaster.


In the very early stages of this journey, I acknowledged the importance of linguistic consistency. I hoped that by instilling a sense of uniformity, a greater believability could be attained as we wove this exciting new language into the game universe. Whether we are expressing ourselves as musicians, sound designers or dialogue specialists, we aspire to find and sustain a consistent ‘voice’. And although we strive for innovation and originality in much of our artistic endeavours, I knew that creating a modern day human language would not necessarily need me to reinvent the wheel. In fact, elements of familiarity were to prove essential in collaboratively bringing this new language, named Planco, to life.


I quickly acknowledged that my greatest linguistic strength was my familiarity with the English language. I also knew that it would be the one common factor that would connect me with most, if not all, of the actors we would employ to voice Planet Coaster’s NPCs (Non Playable Characters), regardless of whether they were primarily English speakers or not. Whether we are composers working with live musicians, directors exploring characters with actors, or linguists sharing a new creation, we are all looking to make connections. If we can make the environment in which we do that as comfortable and familiar as possible, then we stand a better chance of breeding success.


The ambition to create a global language that reflected the spirit of Planet Coaster remained a primary goal throughout development. To establish a stable foundation, I set out with an English alphabet and the concept of using a 1:1 word replacement system based on English grammatical structure. While it felt important to establish some basic rulesets for word creation, I wanted to prioritise the language’s sonic aesthetic above all. We were in a fortunate situation where Planco could be used effectively as a sound design tool; a design palette that we could retain creative ownership of, for deeper emotive expression.


As professionals working in an audio-visual medium, we are quite accustomed to complementing the incredible work done by other disciplines. Planet Coaster already had a delightful, Pixar-like visual style that simply oozed character, so I set out to match the colour and the charm already emanating from the game. 


The romantic languages of Western Europe (predominantly French, Spanish and Italian) encapsulated the linguistic flavours I began to idealise, although perhaps unsurprising my familiarity with English and German would influence my rapidly-growing glossary of terms (which today stands in excess of 12,000 unique words). Reflecting on its inception now, I see my classical music background played a much bigger part than I attributed at the time. The spritely nature of the lexicon littered across my sheet music was set to serve as significant strands of inspiration; the likes of ‘poco’, ‘moderato’, ‘perdendo’, and ‘da capo’ could all slot into the Planco dictionary and not look out of place!


My approach to word creation would typically fall into three categories: word association, onomatopoeia and similarity to an existing language (e.g. if you saw ‘Toitelli’ on a theme park sign, you might be able to hazard a guess that it would translate as ‘Toilets’). I found all three approaches refreshingly playful and that felt very important. Most of us gravitate towards professional audio because it stems from an enjoyable hobby. If there is pleasure in the practice, whether you are creating a language or learning the guitar, you stand a much better chance of reaching your goal.


There is also a beautiful musicality to language and I wanted to embrace that for Planco. Our park management simulation was set to feature songs, adverts, entertainers and a whole host of artistically-rich features that we could utilise language for. There was already an innate sense of fun that lay at the core of Planet Coaster, and each time we involved Planco, it just perpetuated the joy we were experiencing and it became an inspirational cycle to be caught up in. Parallels could be drawn to live performance; if you, the performer, are clearly relishing the process, then this tends to translate to the audience (players) and in turn, hopefully they will enjoy the experience. 


Creating a constructed language is not an instant process and you may not feel like you have a complete toolkit to tackle it. That said, I guarantee you have an array of transferable skills that would start you on your journey. I continue to be in awe of the expertise of accomplished linguists around the world. Language is for everyone; its accessibility is what makes it special. When I started with Planco, I certainly didn’t envisage that I’d be writing sea shanties and 90s rap songs with rhyming couplets, but language exists to be shared in all sorts of different ways!




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