Pat plays – and understands – his first game in French. His world is now a different place.
Every language learner remembers their first novel. I’ve been chipping away at French for the last five years, and finally got myself to a level capable of handling a book this March. It was L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus, as it was for many French ‘A’ level students due to the simplicity of its vocabulary. This unforgettable milestone is as significant as it is in your first language (Five on a Treasure Island, for the record: I was six or seven years old). It represents the traversal of many, apparently endless plateaus, and the chest-bursting excitement you feel as you turn the final page is one of having finally made it.
It seems odd to me now that I never considered playing a game in French to be as important, but that changed recently thanks to an Xbox Live quirk. I live in France, and decided to move my account to home soil when I set up my Xbox One, but, for some reason I still can’t fathom, you aren’t allowed to simultaneously have a French Xbox Live address and your Xbox One UI in English. This infuriated me in 2013, as my French wasn’t good enough to even navigate the console properly, but after playing Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition in French I’m as glad as I was to be done with Monsieur Camus. It was a transformative experience.
Microsoft’s insistence on keeping address and language locked together meant I downloaded the French version of Tomb Raider this month from Games With Gold. I had to play it for work (I’m writing the VG247 guide for Rise in November, and I needed to catch up), so I shrugged and decided to accept it a test of my French level. And off I went.
I struggled at first. The opening sections passed with no subtitles before I realised any were even included. Subtitles are a vital tool when learning a language, and most students have them turned on by default when watching TV. Being able to see syllables unpicks the words when spoken at natural speed. Tomb Raider’s a stressful game. People are dying. There’s a lot of shouting and swearing. Character exposition happens at breakneck pace, usually with stuff exploding on the side-lines, so without subtitles you’re screwed unless you’re fluent. I’m not. Also, game characters move their mouths like goldfish, so the non-native trick of lip-reading is out the window. It’s difficult even with subtitles, but nigh on impossible without. Once on, though, the multi-coloured text at the base of the screen illuminated the plot. Understanding became easier.
Another aid came in the form itself. The language used in most games is relatively basic. Repetition is rife. Orders like “follow this,” “find that” and “go to a location” are commonplace, and the names of gear and characters are endlessly regurgitated. This does happen in books, but it’s usually less pronounced. A game like Tomb Raider does have a high level of speech, but written content is delivered in small, manageable chunks. I quickly learned that the French word for “ice axe” is piolet, for example. This is amazing. I would probably never have come across piolet in normal, day-to-day conversation (unless I happened to be jabbering to a committed communist parent while waiting for my kids in the playground), so playing in French quickly taught me new vocabulary. Other phrases and words I learned included:
- Tir à la tête – Headshot! This appeared on the screen loads, seeing as I’m so amazing.
- Bordel de merde – Literally, “brothel of shit”. This is like saying, “For fuck’s sake,” or, “Fucking hell,” in English. I may have missed it, but hopefully Tomb Raider included, “Putain de bordel de merde,” which means, “Holy fucking shit,” or “Jesus fucking Christ.” Video games: teaching you the best French swearing. (Thanks, @Toinereynolds!)
- Esquiver – To dodge. I found this interesting because I always use eviter, which means “to avoid,” as a catch-all verb in this situation. Esquiver is concerned with physically getting out of the way. This word was also new to my wife, who’s in the final year of a masters degree in French and German translation at the moment, illustrating how valuable situational context can be to even advanced language students.
I was making a decent fist of keeping up with the dialogue later in the game, but it wasn’t only chatter that forced me to improve. When you’re playing something like Tomb Raider, you have to understand certain text or you’re simply not going to be able to succeed. While Tomb Raider’s a pure-breed action title, it contains RPG elements such as leveling guns and skills. If you can’t read the words, you can’t upgrade your gear correctly. Getting stuck on a particular fight and need to increase the rate of fire on your shotgun? Then you’d better not upgrade the barrel.
This probably isn’t game-breaking to a skilled player, but failure to understand some of the puzzles may be. Not every progression clue is visual. Lara, for example, blathers to herself constantly, essentially telling you how to get on. Certain sections require understanding. Having a highlighted lozenge on the other side of a wall is all well and good, but it isn’t going to help you reach it. If you’re playing outside your mother tongue, this style of content forces you to pay attention and decipher the language. It sharpens your appreciation of the game itself. You have to look, absorb and completely comprehend, not just couch-potato and mindlessly slap at the controller.
This focus teaches you just how much effort and attention to detail goes into the words involved in this type of game. All the voice-acting in the French version of Tomb Raider was recorded by native speakers and is as professional as anything you’d get from the original adventure. It was brilliant, frankly. Playing in French has been a revelation, and I’ll definitely continue with Rise. If I’m going to spend 10-15 hours thumping through some single-player, I may as well learn some vocab while I’m at it.
But the benefits of playing in a different language extend beyond the mere mechanics of words and sentences. Your cultural understanding upgrades as the game rolls on, and then there’s the obvious personal achievement. I did it. I completed and understood my first French game, and I learned how valuable play can be as a language learning tool. Lara Croft is now French to me. Et franchement, je suis ravi de ça.