During the process of learning a language there is a key moment in which you notice that you have really managed to assimilate it: when you start to think in a different language and stop translating from your mother tongue; Mental ping-pong gives way to a more or less continuous flow of ideas. Then comes the fun part: when different languages start mixing in your head and you start exchanging words, forgetting the one you need in the language you’re speaking in, or when you feel like you could point out an idea better in another language. Both the richness of thoughts and the difficulties in bringing together different ideas that knowledge of various languages provides is at the center of the second game from the French studio Rundisc.
Chants of Sennaar puts us in the shoes of an outsider trying to make his way through a Tower of Babel whose inhabitants are separated by both physical and linguistic barriers. Without the slightest notion of any of these languages, we will have to decipher each of these languages based on ideograms to ascend floor by floor in search of a purpose that will take time to fully understand.
Each level of the Tower has its own language, which we discover through small interactions with its inhabitants, encounters with its texts and solving puzzles. At this point, Rundisc’s game stands out for the great variety of tests it subjects us to: navigation through labyrinths, decoding, use of disguises; all of them with clues about how each language works. There are also some stealth parts but they are quite simplified; We can only move through coverage and it is more a matter of getting the timing right than being especially precise.
The center of the experience is therefore in learning languages; The main character only has a notebook to solve the puzzle that each language becomes. Every time we hear a new word, he will record it in his notebook, being able to add as a note our assumption of what it really means. In this part of the process it is quite reminiscent of Heaven’s Vault, another great game that turned learning a language into a mystery to solve. If he manages to capture the same word on several occasions, our avatar will end up making a drawing of the concepts that, interpreting the context, he understands are being repeated in the conversations (for example, our first words will be “open”, “close” and “door”). By matching the ideograms with the different drawings we can reveal their meaning but only if we get an entire page right, a system in the style of Return of the Obra Dinn or The Case of the Golden Idol to prevent us from throwing random answers.
The rhythm management that Rundisc demonstrates is great throughout; The cadence with which he releases new words to us as we explore the world and solve puzzles always keeps us attentive to what is happening in each level without becoming overwhelming. It always leaves us some window open to solve the characters that we are not able to solve, rewarding a certain backtracking to go over the texts again with the extra information that we have obtained and making us feel at all times like geniuses for solving each page (despite the amount of breadcrumbs that have been left for us so that we don’t get completely lost).
Chants of Sennaar is not content with us understanding the characters, but on many occasions throws us syntactic curveballs or asks us to know how to write as well as read to show that we really understand how they work. It turns each language into its own puzzle, brilliantly relating the progress through each level with the rest of the puzzles; We will need to speak the language fluently to understand what each puzzle asks of us, but we will also have to solve puzzles to obtain new ideograms, in a satisfying loop that will always have us pulling some thread to continue.
This learning process allows us to better understand each of the population groups. Each civilization has unique concepts that other groups do not handle and at the same time shows us how the greater the physical and social distance, the greater the linguistic separation. The game wants us to pay as much attention to each inhabitant and their behavior as we do to the puzzles themselves. The way in which different people dress or organize themselves gives us keys to understanding their peculiarities and the functioning of their society, giving us clues to the diversity that has appeared as a result of separation.
Crucially, the game does not end with the creation of some kind of “lingua franca” that brings all languages together, but rather celebrates the diversity of each language. The section prior to the conclusion proposes us to translate between all languages to achieve understanding between the different groups, testing our understanding of the syntactic particularities of each language and the translation of concepts to the different vocabularies. It is a simple but powerful way to convey that languages can separate us, but they also have unique values of our culture that are worth preserving and sharing.
To finish off the set we have a colorful cel-shading visual section that is reminiscent in its execution of the recent Sable, both with the common reference of the comic artist Moebius. At an architectural level it moves skillfully between numerous references; We can see elements of brutalism, classical Arab architecture and even postmodernism that is reminiscent of the work of Ricardo Bofill; On many occasions we will feel that we could be in the Red Wall of Calpe or Walden 7.
Chants of Sennaar manages to convey its message effectively by brilliantly combining its story, its mechanics and the content of the puzzles. Every discovery feels like a triumph, every word deciphered means a greater understanding of its world, and every moment we spend in the Tower brings us closer to each of its inhabitants. I’m sure each CoS language would have their own way of defining the awesomeness of this game and each would have their own nuances.