For the past five years, I’ve been chasing the high I felt the first time I played Return of the Obra Dinn. Lucas Pope’s hit deduction game is unlike anything I’ve ever played, making me feel like a total genius in ways few other games have. The puzzler tasks players with exploring a pirate ship full of dead bodies and piecing together who everyone is and what happened to them. It feels impossible at first due to how little information you have, but finds ingenious ways to lead players to the correct solutions through context clues. No game since has nailed that winning design philosophy in the same way … but Chants of Sennaar may be the game to finally do it.
Developed by Rundisc, Chants of Sannaar is a puzzle-adventure game set to launch on September 5. The unique indie takes some notes from Obra Dinn’s playbook, but in a very different context. Rather than identifying bodies, the myth of Babel-inspired story has players decoding entire languages. They’ll have to deduce the meaning of foreign symbols in order to navigate the world and communicate with its inhabitants. It sounds daunting, but you’ll be surprised by how naturally those solutions come.
After going hands-on with a 45-minute demo at this year’s Tribeca Fest, Chants of Sennaar instantly became one of my most anticipated games of 2023’s stacked back half. It’s a clever puzzle premise that’s already changing the way I think about other languages, as well as my capacity to grasp their basics with a little extra brain power.
Chants of Sennaar takes place in and around a mysterious tower in the desert. At first, I didn’t know anything about my surroundings, and that’s because there’s not a word of English to explain the background. The inhabitants only speak and write in fictional languages made up of unfamiliar symbols. Characters only speak to me in a series of symbols, and they’re written down on signs I can’t read. All I can do at first is copy them down in my handy notebook.
I very quickly learn how to start deducing the meaning of those symbols. In my first puzzle, I find a lever sitting next to a closed door. There’s a plaque next to the lever with sets of two symbols at both the up and down positions. I notice that the same symbol appears at the end of each set, which gets the wheels spinning. “Maybe that word means ‘lever,” I think to myself, “and these other two are ‘up’ and ‘down’ respectively.” I jot down my guesses in my notebook and continue to the next room.
When I get there, I come across a character on the other side of a waterway. He begins talking to me in symbols, and I assume he’s telling me how to solve a puzzle in the room so he can get past some flooded walkways. That’s when I notice the symbol I had marked as “lever” appearing in his speech bubbles. Whenever players write down a guess for a word’s meaning, it’ll appear above that symbol anytime they come across it. “Lever” didn’t really make sense in this context though, so I doubled back. There were some doors in this room, which I could open and close to change the flow of water. Perhaps those symbols I saw actually meant “open door” or “close door” instead.
Much like Return of the Obra Dinn, Chants of Sennaar has a validation system to make sure players don’t get lost for too long. After seeing a few symbols, my characters jots down a few images in their notebook. One is of a door, while the others indicate that door opening or closing. When I match the corresponding symbols to those images, all my guesses are validated and the game confirms what those symbols mean permanently. As I deduced, “open,” “close,” and “door” were correct.
That’s the core loop in Chants of Sennaar, and it gets much more complex as it goes. Later, I find murals depicting the history of the tower. I use those images to figure out the words for “villager” and “warrior,” as well as some verbs I can pick up from the images. I even figure out some rules for syntax, deducing how pluralization works in the language. All of that comes naturally to me thanks to well-designed, puzzle-like gameplay.
The slice I played teases an even larger scope than that. When I’m flashed forward to a little bit later in the demo, I find a sign that actually contains two languages on it. The lines appear to say the same thing, so I start looking for similarities in the two sentence structures. By doing that, I’m able to match up a few words I understand from one language and figure out what they are in the other. It’s just one of the many ways I saw context clues dished out over 45 minutes, setting the stage for multifaceted puzzling experience.
I’m eager to see how it all plays out in the final game, as I wonder how tricky it might be to juggle multiple languages at once. However, I thought that solving just one would be a daunting task before I started, and I was able to piece it together with little trouble. I’m confident that I can get it done with some critical thinking, and that’s thanks to strong design that’s already made me feel like a linguistic genius.
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