Geeky Projects

Playing With Fire (Ants) – Adventures in Video Game Localization

Sep 22, 2022

Empires of the Undergrowth is a fun real-time strategy game where you are in control of an ant colony. Your task is to create and manage an efficient nest, hatch ants, protect the queen, and evolve as a colony.

The game was already released in English, German, Russian and Chinese, but publisher Slug Disco Studios decided to localize into other languages.

They asked The Geeky Pen to translate the game into Dutch, Polish, and Czech.

However, the translation of such projects is not as easy as it seems: although we obviously got to play the game, the task does come with its own challenges.

Apart from the obvious requirements, such as an understanding of both languages, their grammar, vocabulary, and idioms (which can be tricky), there are also other aspects that have to be taken into consideration: a basic knowledge of entomology (the scientific study of insects) and computer games (you won’t get far if you don’t know your basic terminology).

translate board game

The challenge is not to leave too many sugary crumbs of mistakes, because in the words of Sterling Archer: “That is how you get ants!”

How Default is Default Really? (On Language Structure)

empires of the undergrowth language
Image Courtesy of Slug Disco Studios

When working on this translation project, the first challenge I encountered was the language structure. The task of constructing a coherent translation seems easy, but it’s really not.

You see, a structure that’s perfectly fine in English might not work in another language, especially one that at its base has gender and declination.

Polish, which is my native language, has 7 grammatical cases and therefore the endings of words change depending on the number, gender, and case of that word. We have 17 different ways to say “two”. You see how that can make things a bit… problematic at times.

While translating a full sentence might require a little bit (or a lot of bits) of thinking, translating part of a code is at times nearly impossible.

empires of the undergrowth languages
Some of the terminology strings in our translation software

A perfect example is this translation string from Empires of the Undergrowth. It says “The {ColonyColour} player’s minimap”. In English you simply insert a color: black, pink, blue etc.

In Polish it’s no longer that simple: colors change depending on the situation. While the adjective “blue” is “niebieski”, “the blue player’s minimap” would be “minimapa niebieskiego gracza”.

Another example.

Ironically, the word “default” might be straightforward enough in English. In Polish however:

  • default settings – domyślne ustawienia
  • default map – domyślna mapa
  • default enemies – domyślni wrogowie

I Could Eat 50 Eggs (Idioms and References)

Image Courtesy of Slug Disco Studios

Finding and recognizing idioms or references is also quite a challenge. Not only do you have to be able to spot them, but you also have to make sure that the translation is relatable in the target language. It needs to convey the same message as the original.

In some cases, that’s quite easy: “Picky Eater” or “Quality Not Quantity” translate perfectly well into Polish. Then there are some phrases that need a bit more work, like “Get Your Own Eggs” or “Prison Break”.

But there are some that will really rattle your brain. You might spend an hour (or more) doing research and looking for something that will work and still convey the same pun, only to realize that it’s just not going to happen.

For me that phrase was “Just Isn’t Cricket”. I couldn’t find a bug phrase or idiom that would do the job in Polish, so I had to work around it.

Empires of the Undergrowth includes a challenging level where you get to be a spider at Christmas time. To make it even more interesting, the narrator constantly quotes a bunch of Christmas movies and songs.

The level is fun and difficult, and so was the translation. The client did provide us with the list of references, but that was only half of the job. Finding their counterparts in Polish wasn’t that easy.

At one point the narrator quotes Die Hard: “Welcome to the party, pal”. You’d think that finding the scene in an already translated movie should be enough. I thought so too, until I realized that there are 6 different Polish translations of this one movie.

Another challenging reference was A Muppet Christmas Carol and “And after all, there’s only one more wave ’til Christmas!” because— even though the movie was translated—the song itself was not.

Formica Fusca vs. Black Ant (Scientific vs. Common Names)

One of the biggest challenges of any project involving terminology that’s deeply rooted in entomology, zoology, or any other scientific field is… naming things.

For Empires of the Undergrowth, the challenge was naming all the creatures. I had to find the correct name for the correct bug, then make sure that it actually is the same bug, and then… you guessed it, check and confirm the name.

Even if you are 90% sure you got the correct name, you still might be wrong. It happened to me at the start of the project.

The Black ant, a common ant that I was completely convinced I translated correctly, turned out to be a bit trickier. It doesn’t directly translate into Polish with the word “black” in its name.

Then there are some species that don’t even have common names in the target language. This game references quite a lot of creatures that aren’t native to Poland, which made me wonder what to do with them.

There are a few solutions to a problem like this:

  • leaving the scientific name everywhere as-is;
  • creating a name, following the rules of the target language’s names for other bugs of the same family;
  • directly translating the name mentioned in the source language.

Unfortunately, none of these solutions are perfect, and in this case the client has the final say. What do they want to do?

The Spiny Devil Katydid - Isn't He Cute?

The Spiny Devil Katydid was my arch nemesis. Its name does not exist in Polish, and Google searches were not giving me any results. I wasn’t even able to find any pictures while searching for it in my native language. In the end, after talking to the client, I invented a name based on other katydids and nicknamed the little devil Pasikonik Kolczasty.

The Level of Difficulty (Game Specific Language)

Last but not least, a challenge in its own right: video game lingo.

This includes concepts and terms that are known to all gamers, phrases that are universal regardless of language, and terminology that doesn’t translate well but requires a translation nevertheless. Things as straightforward as difficulty levels can sometimes provide a challenge because of the target language’s vocabulary and phrasing.

Resources in the game were another challenge. For example, in the real world, “Royal Jelly” is honey bee secretion, but in Empires of the Undergrowth it’s a substance made by ants. The name Royal Jelly is neutral enough in English, but in Polish it is called “Bee’s Milk”. Therefore, the direct term translation is out of the question. Should I go with “ant’s milk”, “ant jelly” or the literal “royal jelly”?

What if two specific terms in the game, “improvements” and “upgrades”, translate to the same word in the target language and synonyms don’t work either? What about tools? Actions? Even though I’ve been a gamer most of my life, this still required lots of research.

Ant Infestation

My brain has been infested by ants (and other crawly thingies) for weeks now!

This project is as fun to work on as it is challenging. It constantly makes me think outside the box and research stuff that probably should be left alone.

I’ve seen plenty of spiders and scorpions and other things that might make your skin crawl, all for the fun of figuring out the name of, for example, the alligator back scorpion.

Also, while trying to find the Polish name for bullet ants, I learned that the reason for their name is that their sting hurts as if you got shot with a gun.

If you’re wondering: yes, there is a video of Coyote Peterson getting purposely stung by this type of ant and, on the scale of most painful insect stings, the bullet ant is second only to the executioner wasp. Admit it: you want to watch, right?

empires of the undergrowth czech
The Bullet Ant: Image Courtesy of Alex Wild

To wrap things up like a spidery meal, there were so many things that made this project challenging. Language structure and grammar are some of the main issues. Translating and navigating 7 cases is not easy, especially if you add code to the equation.

As if that wasn’t enough, navigating idioms and references and making sure they hit the spot was also a brain burner.

Still, nothing was more difficult than translating the ants’ names: do I use a Latin or common name?

It would have definitely made things easier if the client had used scientific names throughout the game, but then it wouldn’t be as fun to translate!

In any case, I hope you’re enjoying playing Empires of the Undergrowth as much as I’m having fun translating it!

back to top