No Man’s Sky’s wonky linguistics

When I first created this website, I promised myself I wouldn’t litter the Internet with yet another portal about video games. There are already enough of those, some good, others less so, and adding yet another one wouldn’t have added anything of value. And all this despite my passion for videogames. And yet, here I am, writing about No Man’s Sky, one of the most anticipated (and divisive) videogame releases from recent memory.┬áThe marketing campaign made it look like this title was going to be the most immersive and deep space exploration game of all time, with the promise that players would encounter different factions with goals contrasting one another’s, the possibility to make an allegiance and find out more about their culture and society. The languages in No Man’s Sky were supposed to be a way through which the player would be able to learn more about the other sentient species.

No Man's Sky sometimes treats the player with gorgeous locales. No wonder it's been described as a "desktop wallpaper simulator". (Click to enlarge)
No Man’s Sky sometimes treats the player with gorgeous locales. No wonder it’s been described as a “desktop wallpaper simulator”. (Click to enlarge)

Unfortunately, none of it was true at launch and No Man’s Sky turned out to be guilty of the worst crime a videogame can partake in: after the initial sense of awe, it becomes boring. Quickly.

Part of this is due to how shallow everything in the game is, from the exploration, to space combat, to how fake everything in the game feels. The four races that inhabit No Man’s Sky universe feel cardboard cutouts, with each alien encounter playing out very similarly to the previous. Press the Interact button, give an answer based on what you know about the alien’s culture and language, and hope you picked out the correct answer. Every interaction in the game’s universe is very shallow and feels more like trying to answer a riddle than having meaningful exchanges with other living beings. Among the highlights of the game is the ability to learn the other races’ languages in order to get better at solving the puzzles presented when interacting with other characters.

Interactions are more akin to riddles where knowing an alien language gives the player clues, more than giving her interesting insights into the game's lore. (Click to enlarge)
Interactions are more akin to riddles where knowing an alien language gives the player clues, more than giving her interesting insights into the game’s lore. (Click to enlarge)

One of the most quoted aphorisms by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran is “One does not inhabit a country: one inhabits a language”, meaning that our language and, by extension, our culture provide us with a reference grid to understand and categorise the world. So, the warrior species would have to have had a huge vocabulary about war, weapons and death, whereas the scientific species should have a very deep understanding of… Well, science. Instead, languages are created by simply replacing English words with (pseudo-)random strings which are replaced with their translation once the player learns that word. She doesn’t even get to know what the original word was, just that she learned the word for “isotope” or “sky” or whatever. And none of the three languages has adverbs or articles. Now, it’s true that some actual languages don’t have them (like Finnish, for example), but what this entails for the game is lots of ungrammatical dialogues, both in the original English version and in the localized ones.

One of the ways the player can learn new word is by interacting with obelisks. This is 100% how language acquisition works! (Click to enlarge)
One of the ways the player can learn new word is by interacting with obelisks. This is 100% how language acquisition works! (Click to enlarge)

And how does one go about learning languages? By magic, of course! I mean literally. The player can interact with obelisks that will reveal the meaning of a word. That’s it. Or, in certain space stations, walking up to a light orb will reveal a random word.

And sure, it’s also possible to talk to an alien and, if you’re lucky, you can ask them for a new word, but still, it’s just yet another “click here to learn word”.

For being a game that wants players to lose themselves in the lore, there’s literally almost none of it. The player doesn’t learn anything about those cultures, with the exception of a few large obelisks that will feature a short, foggy snippet about the past that doesn’t really tell you anything. And this is inexcusable, making the whole galaxy feel incredibly empty and without purpose.

About Andrea Luciano Damico 137 Articles

Andrea Luciano Damico is a freelance translator from Italy. Among his interests are linguistics, technology, video games, and generally being a chill guy.
He runs Let’s Translate.it and Tech4Freelancers.net.