When I was a child getting into video games, I would turn them on, and I would see these combinations of characters that I wasn´t familiar with. English is not my primary language, and I didn’t know more than a handful of English words. It also happened when playing games in other languages because it was the only way I could play them. I couldn’t understand the text, but I somehow played them. After a few tries, I would learn a couple of words/characters just by context and repetition. I would fill in the gaps with guesses, waiting for that friend who might know the language to tell me if I was right. Maybe you had similar childhood experiences. And what does that have to do with Chants of Sennaar? Everything.
Explore, Decode, Learn, Connect. That is how the French indie game studio Rundisc_ defines their game, Chants of Sennaar. The game is described as an adventure/puzzle with a setting inspired by the biblical tower of Babel. On each floor of this tower, you will encounter different groups that speak different languages, and as a stranger who just woke up in that tower, your task is to decipher the symbols of those languages to progress.
But that doesn’t quite sell it, does it? Bear with me, because Chants of Sennaar is more than that.
In Chants of Sennaar, everything, from NPCs and clues to the environment and shops, is written in the language of the floor you are on. With context and repetition, you grasp what those symbols stand for. Here’s how the core game loop works: You have a dictionary for each of the languages that unveils symbols as you become exposed to them. If you talk to an NPC for the first time, everything the NPC says will be in symbols, and each symbol will appear as a new entry in your dictionary. After exploring and being exposed several times to the same symbol, a series of figures appears, and you need to link the figures with the symbols to find their meaning.
You might think you’ve got the hang of it, and then you go to another floor with a new and refreshing dictionary to unveil. The languages can differ quite a lot grammatically, and trust me, that can become quite a mental challenge when you are translating from one language to another.
The game took me about 10 hours to complete 100%, and I want more. Chants of Sennaar excels in environmental storytelling, with each floor housing a unique group of people, each with its own mythology surrounding the enigmatic tower. As you progress, you gradually unveil the interconnectedness of it all. By the time you finish, you are left with the feeling you are the smartest player in the world. And also leaves you with big questions and takeaways, how language can shape our view of the world, and how, at the end of the day, is just a matter of taking our time to understand each other. Without a doubt, Chants of Sennaar is one of the best puzzle games I ever played.
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Platforms: PC; Nintendo Switch; Xbox; Playstation
Release Date: September 2023
Genres: adventure puzzle
Picture Credits: Screenshots from Chants of Sennaar (Rundisc 2023), taken by the author
Disclosure: This article was written by Gustavo Moreira Kares. Nonetheless, the OpenAI ChatGPT was used for grammar and use of comma checking.
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