Chants of Sennaar by Rundisc is a visually striking and deeply interesting decoding puzzler that lets you wander much more than it tries to hold your hand, and encourages the stumbling curiosity of interpretation. It offers a humble model of language, translation, and the perils of basic miscommunication, and – most importantly – it’s fun as hell.
Games that feature words or language as the core gameplay aren’t new at all – the Hamtaro games are quite genuinely two of my favorites from my own childhood, to give a slightly ridiculous example – but Chants of Sennaar takes it to the next logical step, elevating the form of language gameplay to the function of linguistics, and weaves a touching story of connection out of it.
You play as a traveler who wakes up in a tower, encountering cultures you aren’t familiar with and languages you have no fluency in. The key to unraveling the mystery of where you are, who these people are and what they’re about is simple and practical: observe, listen, and learn. There are five levels of this tower to traverse, five languages to decode through a creative spectrum of puzzles and little social situations, and a journal with which to record, guess at, and eventually solve all of the language runes you find.
I won’t get too much into the plot (though there will be obvious hints about rune meanings) because it’s definitely a game worth checking out, but the settings alone are both rich and deliberate in color, design, and tone. Every level of the tower represents its own community with its own distinct culture. From the airy, golden-hour temple grounds of the Devotees, to the dark and severe towering fortress of the Warriors, each area is crafted with gorgeous technique and intention, resulting in what feels like a natural connection between the visuals and the vibes and values of the different peoples. It’s also just really nice to look at – the vibrant tones and smooth clarity of ombre palettes in some of these areas should be a benchmark for something.
The music too, is atmospheric above all else – something you can listen to drone on in the background as you run and point and click for hours. Composer Thomas Brunet brings a distinct tone to every level’s score that – like the visuals – connect intimately with the overall vibe. There are emotional swells, tense beats, and diegetic moments that bring subtle attention to the world and story.
Context is probably the most prominent tool to use as you navigate conversations and writings, and one of the main obstacles I had to overcome was to assume less and stop overthinking. Grant me this indulgence: there’s a philosophy of ordinary language, in which often “the meanings of words reside in their ordinary uses” as Wittgenstein says (though not exactly ruminating on word puzzles with that one). Still, not placing myself in the most likely context – sometimes the mundane, as people go about their lives, but other times in the realistic circumstances of the world – caught me up more often than not. It took me way too long to figure out that a certain rune meant “idiot” because of my outsider perspective and slow creep to understanding this easy-going culture was more cheeky and bold to mask an underbelly of unrest.
Even moving away from my own personal notions of structure and anticipating a familiar speaking pattern was a breakthrough point in translating these runes – as much as you’re connecting these languages to your own native tongue as the player, you’re made to do so by being planted firmly in the linguistic rules of each group of people. Even plurality is handled differently on each level – sometimes two runes in a row, sometimes it’s a rune preceding a noun, sometimes proceeding. Sometimes a question is granted by context, sometimes informed by runes capping the beginning and end of a statement. Near the start of the game, when I encountered my first fully translated sentence spoken by someone – like two hours into the game, help me – I was delighted to find that sentence structure changed and became more cohesive as I unlocked more runes, eventually becoming normal conversation. There’s not only the reward of understanding, but the satisfaction of fluency.
For each group of people, you discover 36 runes that make up the entirety of that area’s vocabulary, which is an obvious limitation by the virtue of it being a video game, but there’s something to be said about the way the values and culture of a group of people are conveyed by which words are offered in this defined set. Along with the obvious pronouns, locations, certain verbs and adjectives that are going to be consistent with the themes of the world and story, there are things and ideas particular to each sect. Devotees, followers of God, value their plants and faith, and seek a way to ascend; Warriors value their weapons and protection of these people they deem Chosen Ones, more common ideals and the physical world around them; Bards would of course value theater and music, and stronger emotions about their place in the tower and the powers that hold them there; Scientists seem naturally curious and sympathetic, their runes are a mixture of numbers and elements with concerns about others in the tower.
Some runes serve as the threads between these groups of people, who have been cut off from one another thoroughly enough and long enough for the story of their great separation to be depicted on murals, signs, and writings throughout each level. Music is one of the great unifiers, especially later on when you’re able to start translating conversations between the different groups.
Naturally, word puzzles are going to inherently involve the intricacies of language, but Chants of Sennaar makes those intricacies part of the game itself, especially with its use of multiple languages, often more than one at the same time, and the bleed between. By virtue of that, translation becomes a key part of the story, and it’s handled with a measure of thoughtfulness that reflects the care imbued within everything else.
I think that the languages could have easily ended up being one-for-one reflections of one another, separate but direct renderings of the exact same word with equal contexts, easily so, but totally unrealistic. Italian medievalist Umberto Eco maintained that “translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures” and in fact, that’s what makes real translation an art. In Chants of Sennaar, the connections between each language is informed by personality and history, their strengths and weaknesses, the abstract relationship they have to one another. In every level of the tower there are machines that serve as waypoints and messaging devices, and several conversations are available to translate, once you have the words for them. And all of these conversations uncover the misunderstandings between these different people and the missed opportunities for connection.
One of these conversations in particular made me realize something about the relationship between the Devotees and Warriors – the most obviously contentious among the groups in the tower – that I hadn’t noticed before: the Warriors’ rune for “impure” referenced the Devotees directly. In all references of the “impure ones” they were cast out and driven away and indeed, they were locked out at the bottom of the temple, forbidden from ascending. In translating this conversation, it seemed the Warriors despised them for a perceived lack of music-making, which may be the reason why to the Warriors, the Bards are steadfastly and fervently referred to as “Chosen Ones” while the Bards resent them for keeping them contained. It’s a mess of misconceptions that you untangle, as bids for help finally become heard, desire for companionship and brotherhood and freedom become realized, and you help the Devotee inform the Warrior that, no actually, they do make music! And the doors that have been closed for so long open, and the stagnant interactions between these groups of people once again flow freely.
Along with a lovely message and excellent execution, Chants of Sennaar is fun and a little addicting. The puzzles are interesting and challenging, and once you get the ball rolling, scribbling a page with runes and then filling up a section of your notebook with translations is really satisfying. I honestly wanted to learn more about these people with their cool designs and mysterious aspirations. Like I mentioned at the top, I more or less had to stumble into my first round of translations after a couple hours, but once you get a few, context clues will do a lot of the heavy lifting, and there are a lot of environmental pieces that help with the basics. There are some sneaking portions which feel a little out of place, but still fit with the story being told, so I can’t complain too much.
Overall, it’s contemplative and sweet and sublime and beautiful. Everything else aside, the use of language is way more than expected and absolutely welcomed. I tried out Chants of Sennaar on a whim, and it’s easily one of my favorite titles of the year.
Once again with Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I think about the Babel myth, as loosely and as poignantly it inspires, and these half-truths. Certainly language played a part in separating these people from one another, but it also reunites them. By the end, the player has reconnected the people of the tower through a common language, but everyone else, now freely moving between homes and cultures, maintains the identity of their own language. Communication still prevails easily in the new light of clarified intention and resolved conflict, bonding between shared interests and how they can help one another.
I think about how God can also mean Duty, and can also mean Beauty, and Transformation, and then Creation. I also think about how there will always be a way to say hello or ask for help or say thank you regardless of the language. Games like Chants of Sennaar give me a lot to think about.