This past January, Taiwanese game studio Team9 released the RPG ‘Word Game’ on Steam. While Chinese gamers have lauded it as an innovative, moving title, the game is destined to remain obscure to non-Chinese-speaking gamers around the world for one simple reason: it is untranslatable.
In Word Game you control 我 (I/me) and navigate a world composed entirely of Chinese characters—literally. The game’s concept is illustrated quite well with the very first puzzle, seen below.
Text narration appears telling us that we’re in a dark room, with no obvious way out. The text at the bottom reads, ‘If only there were a door’ (要是哪裡有扇門就好了). Controlling 我, we walk toward the word for door, 門, and open it, thus exiting the room.
A few of Word Game’s simpler puzzles like this could feasibly be translated into any language. Sure, it wouldn’t be as elegant, since the word ‘door’ in English doesn’t have the pictographic quality of 門, but it would still be pretty clever. Word Game, however, gets much more complex than this tutorial task.
Later in the game, 我 acquires a magical helmet that lets them take apart and combine different characters, as seen below.
Here we have a river, as indicated by a snaking column of 河, the Chinese character for river. 我 encounters a cute little bird, 鳥, by the river and, using the magical helmet, combines 我 with 鳥 to create 鵝, the character for goose. Goose-me easily crosses the river and then separates again to continue their adventure.
Another one of 我’s items is a sword, with which they can slash Chinese characters out of existence.
In this area we are faced with endlessly replicating slimes (denoted by the character 史), as explained by the on-screen text, 史萊姆不斷冒出 (Slimes are constantly emerging). By using our sword, we can get rid of the character 斷 in this sentence, which changes its meaning to ‘Slimes are not emerging.’ The meta-textual magic of our sword makes this new sentence reality, and the slimes instantly stop propagating.
我’s third item is a pair of gloves with which they can push and rearrange characters.
In this scene, we’re approached by a bloodthirsty bandit who says, 可要你好看啦！ which means something like, ‘You’re done for!’ By rearranging the characters 看 and 你, however, the bandit’s sentence is changed to mean, ‘I have high hopes for you!’ to which 我 replies wholesomely, ‘I’ll keep trying my best!’ and continues on their way.
Word Game also benefits from the fact that, unlike in English where each word is a different length, Chinese characters are all one uniform size. Team9 took advantage of this to create vivid environments using only Chinese text.
Here we have a tavern enclosed by walls (墻), with patrons (客) sitting at tables (桌), and a bartender named 八 behind a bar (台)! Along the walls we can see two doors (門) too.
Many Chinese characters in Word Game are fully animated. The word for fire, 火, which is often used for torches, for instance, smokes and shimmers with heat, while the bottom part of 我 moves like feet while they are walking.
In this scene, 我 acquires their sword (composed of golden 聖, the character for ‘sacred’) at an altar (祭壇).
And here we have the snake monster, 蛇, making its appearance.
All throughout, Word Game leverages unique aspects of the Chinese language, such as its abundance of homophones (words that sound the same) and polysemantic words (words that have multiple meanings). Some puzzles require interpreting sentences not just horizontally but vertically, which was how Chinese was traditionally written. Many others are only possible because Chinese nouns do not have cases (such as the difference between ‘they’ and ‘them’ in English), gender, or plural forms, and Chinese verbs do not need to be conjugated.
Some notoriously difficult-to-translate games like Ace Attorney with its punny dialogue and Chinese cultivation sims with their abundant cultural references can still be more-or-less faithfully translated, but the way Word Game plays with text and ties Chinese characters into the gameplay makes it, in my mind, a truly untranslatable game.