I must look as if I’m trying to teach Hamlet’s monologue to an oyster. Or to order a family meal through the broken-down intercom of some drive-in during a full-blown blizzard.
But I’m actually setting up voice recognition software on my computer. And my problems do not come from the fact that it’s in English—I am a native French speaker, but generally have no difficulty making myself understood in English. Besides, the procedure is quite straightforward: the computer displays a few basic sentences that I read aloud into the microphone; it then writes them back on the screen as I pronounced them. So everything is going smoothly except for a few passages that, despite my desperate efforts described above, the system keeps converting into complete gibberish.
One of my first bosses was an able and engaging guy; his English however, was quite poor, especially for somebody in his position. A substantial part of his job was to negotiate with visiting sales representatives, most of them anglophones. I was wondering how he could manage, using only the few basic English words he knew, to sustain such long—and no doubt consequential—discussions in English; until I overheard some of them.
He was (consciously?) using a rather simple scheme. He would speak in English with the same confidence as he would French and, every time he could not find the right word (that is, quite often), he would quietly slip into the conversation the French word, but wrapped in an English pronunciation. Needless to say, it resulted in a kind of disconcerting, hermetic pidgin. But the most astonishing thing of all was that he seemed to be perfectly understood. Conversations would flow smoothly, back and forth, punctuated by laughter and other expressions of mutual understanding. Agreements were signed, and everything was always in order.
I like recalling those two episodes, because I regard them as opposite expressions of the same language phenomenon. They bring to light this same mysterious, all-powerful yet almost inconspicuous force, the absence of which can make the most meticulously pronounced words completely unintelligible, and whose mere presence is capable of giving the most obscure gobbledygook the clarity of familiar words: the dynamic stress. The accent.
What does this have to do with historical games?
A historical game tackles subjects so much larger than itself, that it needs to leave most of them out and only focus on a fraction of them. If it is to remain a game, that is; nobody wants to spend six years simulating the Second World War. The tricky work of the designer of a historical game—of any type of game, in fact—is to add a maximum of substance, while removing a maximum of details.
It’s because one cannot say everything about a historical subject that one has to know exactly what one wants to convey. Evoking the complex circumstances underlying most conflicts and historical events, by using nothing more than a few mechanisms, a few actions and victory conditions, is far from obvious. But designers who have a purpose, and who stick to it, will not make the required cuts blindly. In fact, those lacunae will go unnoticed as long as they focus on their purpose. As far as they have identified the aspects they want to stress.
Their game will have an accent.
And it’s because nobody designs in a vacuum that one also needs to identify who the game is for, and to identify with them. A game whose development takes into account its intended audience will adopt their features, their inflections, their accent. The players’ immersion, despite the errors, omissions, approximations and biases of the game, is first and foremost—and perhaps only—a matter of resonance, of music.
A matter of accent.
Immersion is first and foremost engagement. And we do not engage with dates, rules, mechanisms, scales, CRTs, terrain types or orders of battle.
We engage with a point a view, with a purpose.
Games are not very good at conveying a great deal of details. For that there are, after all, tons of scholarly publications, and gigabytes of spreadsheets. What suits a game very well though, as any practice, is a clear purpose. The less a game is cluttered with details, the more its language resembles ours, the more easily we will engage with it, immerse ourselves in it. And it is with immersion that the magic happens; we start providing, unknowingly, the missing details ourselves, fulfilling the intent by drawing on what we know, by bringing who we are.
Of course the sales reps could understand my former boss’ mangled English; he had a clear intent, knew exactly what his purpose was and how to stress it, and they just filled in the gaps themselves.
And of course my voice recognition setup fell flat; I had absolutely nothing to say, I was talking to no one, not even to myself. I was merely repeating empty sentences to a machine. Zero intent, zero accent, zero result.
The purpose, the accent, animates a game as surely as its absence kills it.
Or rather, the author’s purpose in a game animates the players who, in turn, animate the game.
A game with a clear purpose is a game that sounds right. And a game that sounds right unleashes the potential of its players, who will end up satisfied, excited by the level of detail, completeness, flawless accuracy of the game.
Without always realizing they’re the ones who made it all happen.