Sep 8, 2023 - Technology

The hero of this new video game is a translator

Video game screenshot of a robed character talking to another who has two speech bubbles filled with untranslated glyphs above their head

Chants of Sennaar. Screenshot: Rundisc/Focus Entertainment

One of the most interesting video games of the year is Chants of Sennaar, a nonviolent adventure about the virtues of translating fictional languages.

Why it matters: The unusual and ambitious game comes from a small French team that in 2019 became enthralled with the idea of using a game to show how differing languages can divide and yet also connect people.

Details: In Chants, players control a robed hero who climbs the floors of a fictional tower, in which each level is populated by a distinct culture whose people speak in their own languages, all represented by word balloons containing initially untranslated glyphs.

  • The hero's in-game notebook automatically fills with each new glyph, as the player is challenged to identify their meaning.
  • Clues are everywhere: on signs and maps, in a surprise in-game riff on old mobile hit Flappy Bird, and as part of puzzles players must solve. For example, early in the game, players encounter a character who stands near some gates and barks two glyphs at a time. Observant players will soon realize that the glyphs that vary must mean "open" and "close."
  • Gradual comprehension allows players to help characters in distress, connect divided peoples and unlock doors to ascend the game's alternate Tower of Babel. Sometimes, the player has to sneak around, but unlike most games, they never have to fight to succeed.
Video game screenshot of a notebook containing drawings next to columns of glyphs that need to be translated
Chants of Sennaar. Screenshot: Rundisc/Focus Entertainment

What they're saying: "Through our game, we aim to spotlight a different type of hero — the diplomat, the translator," the game's lead developers, Julien Moya and Thomas Panuel, told Axios in a joint email statement.

  • "These individuals don't solve problems with violence or courage but with empathy, listening and open-mindedness.
  • "They seek to strengthen commonalities rather than exacerbate differences. In today's world, such individuals are more crucial than ever."

Between the lines: Moya and Panuel, both based in Toulouse, France, founded their studio, Rundisc, in 2018 and began developing Chants of Sennaar in 2019.

  • Chants was initially focused on stealth and infiltration gameplay, but Moya became interested in language-based gameplay after experiencing the 2019 archaeological game Heaven's Vault. The pictographic languages in 1980s French computer game Captain Blood were also inspirations, the developers say.
  • Rundisc is tiny. Chants was mostly made by Moya, Panuel and three freelancers, the developers say. Only Moya, the game's art director, works at the studio full-time.
  • "Given our modest size, we understand that competing with industry giants isn't realistic, so we rely on resourcefulness and a quest for originality — both artistically, in terms of storytelling, and gameplay," the developers noted to Axios.

Be smart: As players decode the Chants' languages, they'll find subtle differences (how each culture makes a noun plural, for example) and some troubling ones (how one culture uses a reverent word to describe the people on one floor of the tower, while another uses a pejorative word for that same group).

  • But most of the words the cultures use line up. Everyone's got their own word for "door" or to say "hello."
  • The discovery of linguistic commonalities is the point, the developers say.
  • Their game requires a player and a hero who puts in the effort to figure out how these languages overlap. "Success comes through taking a step back, understanding, through subtle linguistic nuances, that these diverse people are perhaps closer than one might think."

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