Language is a beautifully essential part of life, something that is evocative and communicative in countless ways. Language is vast and all encompassing, yet the tiniest little details inspire the nuances of what language can be. Written and spoken language, physical language, inflection and tone. Every detail comes together in a beautiful dance, being the fibrous tissue that creates understanding and connects every living thing.
Underneath the art, the music, and the gameplay of Pyre is a small feature that many players may never take notice of, and it has to do with language. For years, games have been getting around full voice acting by using gibberish and noises while displaying what the characters are saying in English text. The characters can still feel emotive and alive without having to voice every little thing they say. If you weren’t paying attention, Pyre might seem like it employs these same measures, a minor game design quirk but nothing inherently special. Looking closer reveals that this gibberish is actually a language, and Creative Director Greg Kasavin recently opened up on Pyre’s forums about the creative process and inspirations behind this language.
When English Dies
Pyre’s fictional language, called Sahrian, is the language of the world, a far flung future where English and literacy are an ancient and forgotten history. As the Reader, the player has the unique distinction of understanding English and the Book of Rites in order to help those banished to The Downside earn their freedom. In order to create that rift between the Reader and the rest of the cast, Kasavin created Sahrian, a beautiful, yet familiar language. “It’s meant to sound authentic, vaguely recognizable, and old — it’s the common language of the gameworld,” Kasavin said about Sahrian.
For that familiarity, Kasavin dug into languages that formed the roots of our society today. “Sahrian is chiefly inspired by Latin but also other Romance language; I then pepper in other ingredients from Russian and Japanese because I’m familiar with those languages and like the sound of them.” Supergiant Games’ composer and audio designer Darren Korb worked on the casting of each of the characters, as well as recording the voice lines, thousands of them, each character with their own subtle dialects and speaking patterns. It makes sense then why Pyre’s language sounds almost musical at times, never calling attention to itself while being a beautifully integral part of building the world.
When aligning the spoken dialog with the written text, Kasavin didn’t worry about it being a direct translation. His focus was on ensuring the tone of the scene matched. “None of the Sahrian phrases in the game are strictly gibberish and all have English counterparts; for the actors, knowing what the phrases mean and the subtext behind them is very important to them being able to deliver a believable performance. In the game, however, I don’t necessarily match up the lines 1:1 with their English counterparts, and picked them chiefly based on what best fit the tone of the line.”
“It was much, much more important to choose phrases that matched the tone of the scene than have them be literal translations.” While there is technically a translation of Sahrian to English, Kasavin reiterates that it can’t be learned by trying to translate based on the dialog in game. “Often, the original content and subtext of a given phrase had no bearing whatsoever on the context in which it ended up being used! For example, one of Rukey’s first lines in the game is ‘Tah ramitakusteh’ (phoentic: tah rah-mee-TAH-küs-tay), whose original translation/context was ‘Ah don’t take it so hard’ — but in the game it’s used with Rukey’s line, ‘Someday! I said we’d find someone alive someday.’ — this is an example of how I ultimately wouldn’t really care what the original content of a line was, as long as it felt right for the in-game line, and this line felt right in this moment.”
Meaning of the Word
While Kasavin wasn’t worried about matching up lines in a lot of cases, there were certain words that he wanted to use to reinforce ideas of this being a legitimate language throughout the game. Noxalas is derived from the Latin ‘nox’ meaning night, and ‘alas,’ meaning wings, used to reference the Nightwings throughout the game. There’s also a particular word the characters use whenever referring to the Reader. “You hear ‘Ligaratus’ frequently when characters are referring to the Reader. I built up a dictionary of hundreds of terms during the course of the writing,” Kasavin said, indicating that there is a solid foundation to the Sahrian language. Like Tolkien before him, Greg Kasavin joins the ranks of creatives that have invented language to help build out their world, not as a focus, but as something deeply intertwined into the history and lore.
Pyre isn’t the first time that Supergiant have take on creation of a language though. The roots of Sahrian can be seen in Bastion, late in the game as a fictitious language comes into play in its story. It’s not nearly as detailed as Sahrian is, but it set the stage for Kasavin and his team’s work in Pyre. “Sahrian was a fun challenge that let us build on some of the work we did in Bastion,” Kaavin said.
In terms of the game’s lore, this means that the songs with English lyrics sung by the Minstrel and Celeste actually sound foreign to the Pyre’s characters, with only you, the Reader, able to to understand what is being sung. It’s a small but beautiful detail, something that makes the player feel like they are a great power, able to understand what everyone else can not. “Yeah, that’s the idea! It would all sound like Sigur Rós songs to them.” Kasavin responded when asked about it, I imagine with a grin on his face.
If you’re interested in learning the language, you’re out of luck for now. Sahrian exists only as a spread sheet on Kasavin’s computer. When asked about a list of Sahrian to English translations, Kasavin said “In its current form it’s just a spreadsheet used for my own writing reference. As I would run into situations where I’d have to come up with a word (e.g. ‘stars’) or phrase (e.g. ‘shut up!’ / ‘be silent!’), I would come up with the Sahrian then tuck it away for future reference. As I would write more characters, I would have a growing list of these terms to use. I thought at first this would make the writing go faster, but if anything it slowed it down in some cases as I’d have to keep searching through a growing list of terms…! I do happen to know a lot of them by heart now though.”
Not all hope is lost though! In addition to the above, Kasavin mused “It might be be interesting to clean up and release the reference material at some point.” Can I offer a suggestion, Greg? Make a Pyre art book combined with Sahrian reference material, and maybe some other behind the scenes footnotes, thoughts, and experiences the team had when creating the game. I would be more than happy to pick one up in an instant. Learning about this side of Pyre has only created an additional appreciation for this incredible game world and the depth and love that has gone into its inception.