Sul Sul (Hello): The Impact and Genius of Simlish

Posted by Jill Polanycia
on Tue, Aug 01, 2017 @ 01:07 PM

The Sims

Bloo bagoo? (What’s up?)

If you’re not familiar with that phrase, it comes from the Simlish language. The Sims, a series of video games dating back to 2000, ranks as the seventh highest grossing video game franchise in history. Yet its quests are not challenging, characters compelling, or imagery stunning: you create a family and simulate normal, daily life including going to work, buying groceries, and learning new skills and hobbies.

While this might not sound exciting, there is a twist: all of the characters in the game speak Simlish, a completely made-up written and spoken language. Though the player controls their own Sims, interactions with non-player characters have to be deciphered through context, gestures, and images.

What The Sims’ creators didn’t know is that they were practicing ultimate internationalization. (Internationalization is the practice of making software that can be easily adapted for languages and cultures.) The game is revolutionary because it doesn’t need to be adapted—the characters’ expressions, gestures, and interactions are universally understood. The game is culturally appropriate for any gamer in any market—as-is.

Let’s explore more ways The Sims is ahead of the localization game.

Ah, gwanda blitz (Hey, great idea) 

The Sims’ creator, Will Wright, thought that using a real language would eventually make the game feel repetitive—not to mention very expensive to localize. So, the spoken version of Simlish is gibberish: they hired voice actors who were good at improvising sounds to record thousands (over 40,000 in the current version) of made-up words and phrases. New sounds are constantly being added with extra objects, actions, and features.

Because the language is unfamiliar to players, they have to understand and feel the emotion of their characters’ communications through tone and intonation, and use their own imagination to determine what the characters might be saying.

Gibberish ‘works’ universally—no need to translate. (Though the English translations in these subheadings come from this list of Simlish phrases, which really is players’ assumptions of what the characters are saying based on context.)

Whippna choba dog! (This is cool!)

The game deals with text, such as on signs and TV, with a fictitious script. Will Wright partnered with a language expert to create a new alphabet that takes characters from English, French, Finnish, Latin, Ukrainian, Cebuano, Fijian and Tagalog. After warping the letters beyond recognition, the final script actually looks alien. Since reading the text is not necessary for successful game play, it’s just amusing and fun.

Again, nothing to localize; this ‘fake’ text works universally.

Simlishtext.png

The title of a TV show in Simlish. Source: The Sims Wiki

Delco webney (Believe it or not)

Music is also in Simlish, and covers a wide variety of genres, from electronica to nursery rhymes. Modern-day stars such as Katy Perry and New Politics have re-recorded their hit songs in Simlish to be included in the game. This gives The Sims even more universal appeal as music already transcends cultures and languages even if the listener doesn’t know the words.

Benzi chibna looble bazebni gweb (Nothing is impossible if you believe)

In order for The Sims to purchase food, earn a living, or build an extension onto their house, the creators also made up a fictitious currency: the Simoleon, complete with its own symbol. Again, the appeal is that players get to do tasks they are familiar with, just in an alternate universe. (The lack of inflation is an added bonus.)

Forget about currency conversions, which is typically part of the localization process.

Ah, docka morpher (Hey, I know what you mean)

In addition to eliminating the need for voice actors, The Sims’ thoughts, needs, goals, feelings, and topics of conversation are represented by images in talk and think bubbles, rather than with on-screen text. For example, the desire to sleep is represented by several Z’s, now a universally understood symbol thanks to comics. A book means they want to read, a wrench and hammer means something needs to be fixed, and another character’s face with an X through it means they aren’t too fond of that person.

These clever images, coupled with the character’s expressions, gestures, and intonation, paint a full picture of what’s going on. No need to swap out these images; they are understandable in any locale.

Sims_bowling.jpg

These two characters have entirely different things on their minds. Source: TheSims.com

Firby nurbs (You have some nerve)

The Sims got quite a lot right, but it’s not all perfect: while the game and all its elements are surprisingly international without adaptation, there are a few blips. The vast majority of the imagery is probably acceptable for most, if not all, cultures, but there are some western-centric items that might not be ideal. For one, the image for a grocery store is a cornucopia. Other than around Thanksgiving in the US, is this understandable? And with a hamburger as the symbol for a restaurant, they may not get a lot of players in India. This is one area where a little bit of cultural research could have made the game even better.

Ooh be gah (Very good!)

In the end, there’s not much left to localize: only the help, popup tips, mouseover text, and action menus. The most recent version of the game, The Sims 4, is localized into 16 languages.

Here is a screenshot of an action menu: the items are short, simple, and relatively easy to translate.

Sims_action_menu.png

Options for conversation. Source: Gamers Global

 

The Sims is an example of internationalization done well: their approach expanded the game’s appeal and considerably reduced localization costs at the same time. Think about how you can “Simplify” your entertainment products to reduce (or eliminate) spoken or written content, avoid offensive symbols by using generic or universal ones, or omit locale-specific currencies, flags, and more. Your target audience will have hearts in their think bubbles for sure.

Dag dag! (Goodbye!)

Top image credit: © 2017 Electronic Arts Inc., https://www.thesims.com/media

Topics: Internationalization, Game Localization

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