singing in Simlish
how video game languages are made
welcome to strong feelings! Essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject. If you love our usual advice column — don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. In today’s strong feelings, freelance writer and deputy games editor at Inverse Shannon Liao explores how fictional languages make video games more immersive.
Earlier this year, I went to a 100 Gecs concert because my friend suggested it. Looking out at the audience, I saw a sea of illuminated screens — some people cheekily playing Minecraft on their phones, others watching clips of Family Guy, Subway Surfers, South Park, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, to name a few.
Despite the fact that I was clearly surrounded by otakus (myself included), I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was attending an “in-game concert,” like an IRL interpretation of the Minecraft Taylor Swift Eras tour, in which fans gathered to see a hilarious blockhead version of the megastar perform. 100 Gecs threw a Minecraft concert in 2020, and in 2023, its audience brought Minecraft to them in Brooklyn.
This blurring of physical and digital realms has created thriving gaming and music subcultures, of which hyperpop artist Alice Longyu Gao is part. Her music has been featured in Fortnite and the Sims, translated into Simlish. Much has been written about video game concerts as a concept already, but there’s less floating around the internet about singing in the languages of the video game worlds — the conlangs — which makes those digital universes more immersive.
For Alice Longyu Gao, getting her music featured in the Sims was similar to getting it placed in a film or TV show. The “gamers chose [her],” she said. “Ultimately, it’s like, if you got it, you got it. Because, for example, if you don’t understand Chinese — if I’m speaking Chinese to you right now — there’s no difference between me speaking to you in Chinese or me speaking to you in Simlish,” said Gao. “It’s an interesting thing because language is human. Simlish is just another human-made language.”
I’ve had her single, “DTM” — the track being translated — on repeat since 2021.
Her original lyrics are:
Music is just a video game
Can you play the game? (uh-huh)
What level are you currently on?
If you suck no shame (it’s okay honey)
In Simlish, the same lines translate to:
Mushav is shavoo beedo clay
Creak foo bloo shaa clay?
Voulez vous avocray na tow zoo?
If o shoo, mee zay.
If you caught some French in that, that’s not an accident. Simlish borrows from a smattering of languages, including French, Ukrainian, Navajo, Tagalog, and Estonian. During our conversation, Gao brought up a 2004 study that found that Chinese-speaking musicians are more likely to have perfect pitch than English speakers. As a Chinese speaker herself, Gao has an ear for picking up languages and found Simlish easy enough to learn via a Simlish teacher.
“In the early Sims games, [Simlish] is a little more ‘ga ga goo goo,” said Jackie Gratz, a voice director at Maxis (the studio that makes the Sims). “And then between Sims 3 and Sims 4, the language evolves a little bit more and the words become a little longer and more complex,” Gratz said. “I started as a voice editor and I never really left ‘voice’ because I was really captured by how wonderful it is that this one discipline can bring so much character to the game. It really is the hero of the Sims game in a way…it’s like, if you don’t have them speaking in Simlish, you can’t ship the product.”
In the process of translating Gao’s song, Gratz said she was tripped up by the fact that Gao uses a lot of acronyms in her lyrics. Simlish doesn’t actually have an alphabet so spelling is challenging. Instead, think of Simlish as more of an oral language, formed partially by improvisation and at other times by an ever-growing vocabulary, of which Gratz keeps track. When it came to Gao’s lyrical technique and alliteration, Gratz looked for Simlish substitutes that were simultaneously easy to sing.
The Sims isn’t the only video game that uses conlangs to world build. Think: Hylian songs in The Legend of Zelda, Splatoon’s squid language Inkling, or with Animalese, famously heard in Animal Crossing. When we’re talking about fictional gaming languages, we can’t forget the famous ones in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, which hundreds of thousands of people are still playing at any given time, twelve years after its release. All of these worlds have been made richer and more immersive with their respective languages, regardless of their complexity.
“The key thing about fantasy languages in a fantasy world, and this is the same with any kind of culture or background stuff, is that it needs to be as consistent as you can make it in the background,” said Lawrence Schick, principal narrative designer on Baldur’s Gate 3 at Larian Studios, who also worked on the fictional languages in The Elder Scrolls games. “So you come up with your fantasy rules for how the language works, or at least how things are spelled or pronounced and then you just try to stick to those.”
Sticking to a few basic pointers is important because “when you just assume that you can do anything because it’s fantasy, it just turns into oatmeal really fast and players know it,” Schick said. In designing fantasy languages, ZeniMax, which makes Elder Scrolls, made sure to mix in the invented words with plenty of context so that players could still understand what was being said, Schick added.
Even though Simlish is largely gibberish, the game similarly makes use of the Sims’ characters’ outlandish gestures and facial expressions to convey meaning. Still, Gratz said she would try to include some words that Sims fans will recognize, such as “Hello” or “baby” in music translations into Simlish, to give fans a fun moment of recognition.
“For Simlish, it’s so much more about the acting of the emotion,” Gratz said. “It’s like you don’t need to know what they’re saying. You can tell that they’re pissed as hell at someone and they’re speaking very angrily about it to them. So really, the language is almost secondary to just the acting performance.”
Just like Star Trek’s Klingon language or Game of Thrones’ Dothraki, fictional video game languages have spawned an almost cottage industry of merchandise, fan sites, videos and more. All of this is purposeful, just as it is self-referential and recursive. Gratz isn’t sure which came first, the gamers or the music. Both, maybe. In some ways, we’re all kind of living in the video game world now.