What would be a good way to get people interested in Esperanto and help them learn the language? This is a question as old as the language itself and there is no shortage of proposals. We’re all familiar with Duolingo’s “gamified” system of learning and I’ve heard people dreaming of a role-playing game set in an Esperanto speaking world where the player gradually learns vocabulary from their surroundings. I thought this was a great idea but just wishful thinking, surely it would cost too much and no developer would be interested?
Imagine my surprise when I found out that a developer was in fact interested. The Expression: Amrilato is an anime computer game where the main character gets transported to an Esperanto speaking world and players are gradually taught Esperanto as they play. Esperanto isn’t just a background feature, it is a core part of the game players must engage with to progress. Interestingly, the game is aimed at anime fans, not specifically Esperantists and all the news and discussion about the game has taken place in the wider anime community. It was originally developed in Japanese by SukeraSparo (whose name is the Esperanto words for sugar and Sparidae, a type of fish) and translated into English by MangaGamer.
As you can imagine, I am very excited about this and contacted the developers to find out more.
(This interview was conducted for Libera Folio, however the developers requested to answer the questions in English. This is the original English version of the interview, the Esperanto translation can be read here.)
Please introduce yourself, who are you and what is your role in developing the game?
MH: Michael Hogan, English translator for The Expression: Amrilato.
TJ: Tania Jensen, editor for The Expression: Amrilato’s English localization.
CD: I am Craig Donson, one of two programmers of the English localized version of The Expression: Amrilato for MangaGamer. This is my third project with the company and the second to be marketed on major computer game platforms.
How would you describe The Expression: Amrilato?
MH: The Expression: Amrilato is the story of a teenaged Japanese girl named Rin who finds herself transported to an alternate universe where Esperanto (called ‘Juliamo’ in the game) is the predominant language. A young girl named Ruka encounters Rin on the street and takes her under her wing.
TJ: Ruka helps Rin as she works to adapt to her circumstances, learn the language, and find a way to get back home. Through the course of the game, the two grow close and a romance starts to develop. The Expression: Amrilato is partially educational—the player gets to learn Juliamo alongside Rin, which adds an immersive quality to the game.
CD: The Expression: Amrilato is a visual novel, an interactive story with decision branches occasionally presented to the player. It is the English localization of Kotonoha Amrilato, which was released on 25 August 2017 by SukeraSparo as their debut product. This English version was created in Ren’Py, a visual novel engine designed for Windows, macOS, and Linux in all locales, in contrast to the original Japanese, Windows-only release.
The Expression: Amrilato tells the story of a Japanese high school student named Rin. While coming home from school, she is suddenly transported into a world that resembles her own, with two major differences: the sky is pink at all hours of the day, and its inhabitants speak a language she does not recognize. This language is Juliamo, which is based on Esperanto.
Rin is entirely unsuccessful in communicating with the denizens of this uncanny world, save one girl named Ruka who, by chance, has a working knowledge of the Japanese language and a desire to help. They are able to communicate in Japanese, though minimally, and Ruka takes her into her home. Throughout the course of the story, Ruka teaches Rin the Juliamo language as Rin searches for a way to return to her world, and through their struggles to communicate to each other, a relationship develops between them.
Why was Esperanto chosen as the language for the game?
MH: I would speculate the game designers probably chose to focus on Esperanto because it was originally created to facilitate communication between people with different native languages. The fact that this game is now being translated into multiple languages is a sign of Esperanto’s success.
TJ: Part of the draw of The Expression: Amrilato is being able to learn as the main character does; a language that, by its very design, is meant to be used by people around the world seems a perfect choice for that.
CD: Esperanto is a language constructed from elements of Indo-European languages, but it has little in common with the Japanese language. Because the grammar and vocabulary differ greatly from that of Japanese, a Japanese player may have more difficulty in learning the fundamentals of Esperanto than one who speaks a language from which Esperanto is derived, such as English. The closest reference a Japanese player is likely to have is English, but as Rin immediately discovers upon her entry into the Juliamo-speaking world, even this is often insufficient to determine meaning, unless their knowledge of English is more than rudimentary.
It is my belief that this unique challenge for Japanese audiences was a primary motivation for the creation of The Expression: Amrilato. Though Esperanto is the most widely-spoken constructed language, it has little presence in mainstream entertainment. The scarcity of Esperanto-focused media, combined with the increased difficulty for Japanese audiences to gain proficiency in Esperanto compared to western audiences, creates a heightened sense of novelty for the Japanese market. The simultaneous desires of Rin to learn Juliamo and Ruka to learn Japanese, alongside their burgeoning feelings for one another, form the unique premise of the story. The familiarity of both teenage romance and isekai stories (where characters are unwillingly spirited away to an alternate universe) for Japanese audiences facilitates the educational intent of the Esperanto elements that permeate the story.
How much Esperanto will someone learn from the game?
TJ: I think that they will be able to get a good grasp of the basics: grammar, sentence structure, and a start to their personal lexicon. The built-in drills and quizzes also allow players to check and reinforce their knowledge.
MH: Because Esperanto is a constructed language, it follows a very regular structure, so as players learn the basic rules, they should be able to start acquiring the language fairly quickly.
CD: The Expression: Amrilato was created with assistance from the Japanese Esperanto Institute (JEI). Although Juliamo is a language with fictional elements, it is tightly analogous to Esperanto as it exists in the real world, which allows the game to serve as an introduction to Esperanto. It must be emphasized that for the sake of the narrative, several changes were made to this version of the language, particularly its fictional alphabet and some liberties with grammatical rules and vocabulary. However, these changes are few in number, so Juliamo is largely identical to Esperanto.
At multiple points in the narrative, Rin takes lessons on the fundamentals of the Juliamo language, which have direct parallels to Esperanto. On-screen aids are shown during these lessons for the benefit of the player. These are accompanied by interactive quiz segments, where Rin’s—and by extension, the player’s—knowledge of the language is directly tested. Quiz subjects include numbers, sentence structure, common phrases, and parts of the human body. These lessons can be retaken at any time outside of the story from a study mode in the main menu. A small dictionary is also included and contains a selection of Esperanto words and example sentences, many of which are not used in the story itself.
The Juliamo alphabet contains letters that superficially resemble the Latin characters that Esperanto uses, a point that Rin takes note of when she learns about it. An option is available to revert the Juliamo script shown in dialogue text to Esperanto letters, which will make the learning process easier for the player. If the player chooses, the quiz segments can be skipped so that they may focus on the story, with the option to take the quizzes and the associated lesson reviews at any time. After the player completes the story, translations for all Juliamo dialogue become available, which provides incentive to play through the story multiple times.
The two main characters are lesbians, does the game have a positive message about LGBT people?
TJ: Yes, absolutely! The relationship in The Expression: Amrilato is portrayed as normal and healthy, and gives Rin and Ruka’s romantic development the careful time, attention, and respect that is often seen in stories about heterosexual couples. I would definitely recommend this game to anyone looking for more LGBT media.
MH: Although the two main characters are both girls who develop a romantic attraction for one another, I hesitate to call them “lesbians,” since no mention is ever made of their sexual preferences in general; only their feelings toward one another. Their relationship is portrayed as normal as any other relationship, and no special attention is called to the fact that they both happen to be girls.
CD: One of the primary themes of The Expression: Amrilato is the ability of romantic relationships to develop in spite of language barriers. The name “Juliamo” has multiple meanings—it is a portmanteau of the words “juli” and “amo.” “Juli” has a very similar pronunciation to “yuri,” the Japanese name for a literary genre involving romance between women, and the word “amo” is Esperanto for “love.” (A second meaning is revealed in the story itself, which will be left for players to discover.)
The relationship between Rin and Ruka is not questioned or otherwise treated as extraordinary—no attention is called to their gender by any character or the narration, nor is any attempt made to conceal their relationship. From the storytelling to the name of the language, all elements of the story create a comprehensive, positive message about relationships in unusual circumstances through its focus on a romance between two adolescent girls that becomes overtly intimate as the story progresses.
It seems that love plays an important role in the story, is it also an erotic story?
CD: There are no erotic elements in The Expression: Amrilato.
TJ: I wouldn’t say it’s erotic, no. The story depicts the blossoming love between two young girls who are also still discovering themselves, so the emphasis is more on romance than eroticism.
MH: Although some romantic physicality is portrayed during the story, I wouldn’t describe any part of it as “erotic.” None of the game’s content is overtly sexual beyond the description of the main characters’ physical attraction.
TJ: It’s all from a fairly innocent, inexperienced perspective, though. It’s quite charming.