February 24, 2005 - When Wolf Wikeley exchanged a few lines of Klingon with his prospective employer during a job interview, he just knew the job was his.
"It didn’t hurt at all that I was familiar with the Klingon phenomenon because of my long term Star Trek fandom. I was one of the first people, I'm sure, who went out and bought the Klingon dictionary," said Wikeley, a University of Alberta student who holds a master’s degree in psycholinguistics and is working towards a PhD in phonology.
Wikeley's near-fluency in the language, made for the Star Trek movies, paid off when he was making a presentation to the Edmonton-based video game-design firm BioWare, which was looking for someone to develop languages for their new games.
"One of the guys who was head of the projects said, 'Wow I've met someone who knows more Klingon than me – this is going to be cool.'" Wikeley said.
The job in question was to develop languages for two new games being developed by BioWare, whose works are so wildly popular that Star Wars producer George Lucas contacted the firm to develop the Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic game.
Wikeley developed four 2,500-word languages for two of BioWare's upcoming releases – Jade Empire and Dragon Age. Jade Empire is set in a mythical version of ancient China, so Wikeley and the game's creators wanted an Asian-sounding language. Wikeley, who majored in Japanese literature and minored in Chinese literature in earning his arts degree, has also studied at Shizu Oka University.
“For Jade Empire I used my experience with Asian languages to create a new Asian language with a 2,500-word dictionary, a basic primer on grammar and a phrase book containing useful phrases for that language."
He also wrote "several hundred lines" of generic dialogue. The new language, he says, is "a softer-sounding language" that "closely resembles Mongolian."
For the new game Dragon Age, Wikeley developed a 2,500-word language for each of three distinct languages and he laid the groundwork for a language spoken by non-human characters in the game.
As a starting point, Wikeley used lists of character and place names and the names of equipment and tools characters in the games would use.
"I was able to analyse those, and even if writers hadn’t been aware they had come up with a system I was able to abstract systems out of these words and incorporate them into the (new) language," said Wikeley.
Wikeley notes that BioWare's intent behind having actual languages instead of having game characters speak a form of gibberish says something about the firm's commitment to quality.
"The design team decided that it would be a great idea to have their non-English speaking characters or even non-human characters have authentic sounding fantasy languages. My feeling is that gibberish instantly compromises the entertainment experience because it is fake. I say it as a gamer and a film viewer. And movies especially – the Star Trek franchise has worked hard to give languages a sense of authenticity. The Lord of Rings movies did the same thing with Elven.
"And BioWare wants to give you a gaming experience that is cinematic in nature, so it made sense for them to get this work done."
Wikeley said the project was rewarding because it allowed him to apply knowledge in a creative way.
"This was really a dream job because as a hobby I write and as a profession I work with languages so to combine those, working creatively and scientifically, was a blast," he said. "It was also a way to build bridges. BioWare is used to an entirely creative approach and I am used to pretty much entirely scientific approach, so it was important for me to find ways to assert my expertise without appearing arrogant, and to work outside of scientific boundaries and be creative."
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