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Arabic Localization,
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A Variable Parable—Dealing With Variables in Obra Dinn’s Arabic Localization

Return of the Obra Dinn's Arabic Localization - Dealing with variables

There’s a sort of unspoken camaraderie amongst the linguists who work on Lucas Pope games.

On one hand, they got to work on some of the finest this medium has to offer. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences that stick with you, and that’s already enough to bond over.

On the other, It’s like a veterans meet-up—you lock eyes and you just know, even if you’ve never seen each other on the battlefield, that you’ve been through the same trenches.

Some are worse for wear than others depending on what region they were deployed in, sure, but everyone is proud of their service nonetheless.

…Where was I going with this?

Right. Return of the Obra Dinn.

So What’s Return of the Obra Dinn About, Anyway?

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Return of the Obra Dinn is a puzzle adventure game, or an insurance adventure with minimal color if you will, by Lucas Pope (of The Republia Times, Papers, Please, and the soon-to-be Mars After Midnight fame).

This is a special game not solely in premise and style, but also in gameplay.

The player is put in the shoes of the Honourable East India Company’s™ chief inspector, who is tasked with appraising the lost ship “The Obra Dinn” once it suddenly reappears with no living soul on board after 5 years of drifting at sea.

The player then must investigate the deaths of the passengers, determine their identities as well as their fates, and log all that info down in the catalog. You know, pretty standard insurance stuff.

Lucas talks about the challenges of localizing Return of the Obra Dinn

The core mechanic for Obra Dinn is, people that say it’s a detective game, and the way I sort of implement that is that you’re kind of faced with these unnamed people who die in various ways.

The goal is to figure out what their actual name is, who they are, their identity, and to say how they died. And it’s 60 people on the boat, so you gotta do it 60 times.

The problem comes when it matters how you killed them. ( . . . ) To sort of explain in an English relative way, in English we have the word “knifed.” You can say, “I knifed somebody,” and that’s like both general and specific.

It’s specific that you use a knife, but it’s general that like, I could’ve cut your throat, I could’ve stabbed you, you know, do all kinds of things to kill with a knife.

But most languages don’t have that verb ( . . . ) We don’t have “sworded” in English, and I really wish we did because it would have made things a lot easier. ( . . . ) When you’re designing the grammatical system where you want it to work across all these different languages, you need to remember as an English-only speaker basically that you can’t say “John knifed George.”

( . . . ) And you can imagine that problem expanded across seven different languages that all treat sentences differently, and also treat gender differently.

Lucas Pope – How Localizing Return of the Obra Dinn Nearly Sunk the Game
BookAnim Intro 1
“Return of the Obra Dinn: A Catalogue of Adventure and Tragedy” is a book provided to the HEIC chief inspector by Henry Evans for the purposes of recording and organizing information on the fates and identities of those aboard the Obra Dinn.

I’d guess, dear reader, that if you’re a language professional some part of Lucas’ interview made you shudder.

But if you’re monolingual, that might have just sounded like gibberish. You bought the game and it just reads, sounds, and plays right in your language. What’s all the fuss about?

Oh boy.

I hope that by the end of this article, you’ll know exactly why achieving that seamless experience in your language plus 13 others is nothing short of a miracle.

Here’s how we handled one part of the challenge, Variables, in the Arabic version.

Dealing With $number Variables:

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♫ One little passenger lies dead on a bed, the

poor thing got crushed to death ♫

Plurals in Arabic come in the form of a suffix to the singular form. They can either be:

– Sound masculine/feminine plural (جمع المذكر/المؤنث السالم) which works by adding a suffix, different for each gender, at the end of a word.

– Broken plural (جمع التكسير), which works by changing the word’s structure instead of just its end, hence “breaking” it.

You can read more about plurals in Arabic here, although it’s not necessary to follow this article.

So what does this have to do with number variables?

Sentences that contain numbers have to follow these plural rules, as well as a unique set of forms called “Numbers & Countables” (العدد والمعدود), which is another thing to constantly keep an eye out for in Arabic localization:

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From the “Numbers & Countables” article on Wikipedia
They’re as fun as they look.

When localizing games, having a single general suffix variable is often a luxury, so asking for multiple suffixes for fringe grammatical cases to be added for a single language just isn’t an option.

So, we always need to make things work within the imposed limits instead.

Sounds like a challenge this complex would require some esoteric linguistic sorcery to get around, right?

Surprisingly, this was one of the easier ones to overcome! It’s a one-size-fits-all neat little trick that enables the linguist to forgo plural suffixes altogether.

Like many of these workarounds, one only needs to go for some creative thinking and re-wording:

English StringArabic TranslationEnglish Back Translation
$0 fates solved$0 من المصاير حلّت$0 of the fates were solved
Last played $h hours $m minutes agoلعبت آخر مرة منذ $h من الساعات و $m من الدقائقYou last played $h of hours and $m of minutes ago

Strategically introducing “من” to sentences that contain numbers negates the need to use plural suffixes, thus:

  • Drastically simplifying & unifying the final sentence structure.
  • Negating the need for language-specific grammatical variables.

This is especially handy in stat-heavy games where LQA’ing number stand-ins one by one tends to be especially hellish.

Dealing With $gender & $subject Tags:

ObraDinn OfktwA2x67 1

Here’s an interesting fact you might have missed even if you’ve played ROTOD—When starting a new game, there’s a random chance that the player’s character, the inspector, is female.

The game will randomly select the inspector’s gender when you start (male or female). This affects 3 lines of voiced dialog in the opening audio and nothing else. If you don’t like the selection, delete the profile and start a new game – it will alternate to the other gender.

Lucas Pope (@dukope), Twitter

That aside, there’s also the ever looming need to account for death circumstances, pronouns, and suffixes, which all had to work interchangeably in Arabic and/or be gendered.

As I touched on in a previous article on gender neutrality: while It’s grammatically correct to default to the masculine form when addressing someone whose gender is unknown in Arabic, it’s best avoided for inclusivity.

In Obra Dinn’s case, even that default wasn’t an option.

Besides needing to account for the player & inspector’s gender, our approach had to work flawlessly in tandem with the deduction system so as not to break it completely— which meant that if we had any hope of not soft-locking the player out of finishing the game due to the faux hints, we had to get it right.

So, we aimed for:

  • Gender-neutral menus & catalogue
  • Gendered tutorials depending on the inspector’s gender
  • Gendered “fates” strings that can work interchangeably

Thankfully, the amount of skirting the limits of proper language usage to achieve these goals was minimal.

Obra Dinn supports swapping out complete sentences via gender tags, and Lucas designed a very intuitive tool with highly gendered languages in mind for checking and editing the “fates” the player puts together on the go— Fate Maker, my beloved.

So this part of the process leaned more towards tedium than challenge.

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“Fate Maker”, a tool for reviewing and editing all possible fates.
Check how many <F>&<M> Tags there are in the Arabic localization, and guess how many were in the English source…

In a weird twist, tutorials and menus were where most of the interesting and creative choices were made. Gender tag usage was kept to a minimum here just for the fun of it.

We’d be here all day if I listed every unique choice we made, but here are some examples that come to mind:

English StringArabic TranslationThe Approach
I trust that you now find yourself aboard the Obra Dinn. I expected this day to come and my every intention was to tell the ship’s strange tale within the pages of this book. Regrettably, failing health has allowed me to produce only the basic outline that follows. Your presence on the Obra Dinn is critical. I leave the discovery of its fate and the completion of this book in your hands.آمل أنك على متن الأوبرا دن لحظة بلوغ كلماتي لك. قد توقّعت حلول هذا اليوم، وما نويت غير سرد الحكاية العجيبة لهذه السفينة بين طوايا صفحات هذا الكتاب ريثما ترقّبته. ولكن هيهات، فالرياح تجري بما لا تشتهي السفن. تدهور صحّتي لم يخولني أكثر من تسطير رؤوس الأقلام التالية للأسف. إن وجودك على متن الأوبرا دن لضرورة. أعهد لك باكتشاف مصيرها وإكمال هذا الكتاب.The Inspector’s gender was kept ambiguous here via a mix of light re-wording and diacritics omission.
Faces will become unblurred when the information necessary to identify them has been revealed in some way.ستتجلى الوجوه حين <M>تكتشف<><F>تكتشفين<> المعلومات الضرورية لتحديد هويات أصحابها بشكل أو بآخر.The Inspector is gendered here, but the “subjects” are not.

The translation was slightly reworded to refer to the “subjects” in the plural instead of just referring to their faces, thus avoiding gendering them.
Who is this?\n What fate befell them?ﻣﻦ يكون ﻫﺬﺍ الشخص؟\n وما المصير الذي ألم به؟The “subject” gender is obfuscated here by rewording the sentence.
“Who is this?” → “Who is this person?”.

In conclusion:

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Return of The Obra Dinn was a fascinating beast. It’s one of those games where you want every project to be as interesting and fun as that one. But knowing yourself, you know that you’d probably burn out by the third in a row.

I don’t think another localization scraped the limits of my linguistic abilities as much as this one, and probably none will do for a while. But I wouldn’t trade the shot I had at it for anything. 🫡

That this localization was even possible at all is thanks to Lucas & Montassar, who were the real driving force behind making it happen.

Both masterfully handled the technical and artistic end of the game, perfectly adapting it into Arabic despite Unity’s best efforts, allowing me to focus on and do a decent enough of a job on the linguistic side of things.

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But at what cost?
(More on that in a future piece 👀)

The most challenging part of this project was needing to constantly keep my linguistic logic in sync with Obra Dinn’s intricate systems, but all in all, I’m very proud of what we achieved here.

There are very few localizations I worked on that I don’t want to go back to and change something about, and Return of the Obra Dinn is one.

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The Arabic localization hasn’t turned out too shabby according to feedback either—it even got Rami Ismail’s seal of approval.

And with that,

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(A special thanks to Jenn & Guido for suggesting this topic!)