Indie puzzler Chants of Sennaar is full of so many words, none of which the player can understand when the game starts. That’s because all of Chants of Sennaar’s languages are themselves the game’s puzzles, encouraging the player to become an amateur translator to progress.
What begins as a simple task quickly turns into something much more complicated as more languages, cultures, and styles of speaking reveal themselves. Chants of Sennaar uses this core mechanic to great effect, turning an enthralling logic puzzle into a lesson on how the structure of spoken and written language impacts culture. It’s an ingenious trick that makes for one of the most surprising, and satisfying, indies of the year.
Before the player meets another character, they are first confronted with a simple door and a lever that unlocks it. Next to the door is a sign with symbols denoting how the door works. This clues the player into how the core translation mechanic works. Identify symbols and what their translations mean. Eventually, you will be able to match symbols to a drawing on your in-game journal to verify the symbol's meaning. What starts as three symbols quickly turns into over twenty within the opening hour, and that’s just the game’s first language.
The satisfaction of completing a translation and finally being able to understand what a character is saying or what a sign says is delightful, but Chants of Sennaar’s player gratification grows to be more complicated as the puzzles themselves also get more complex.
Once more than one language is at play solutions require more creative thinking. Players can link symbols between languages that they believe mean the same thing to work out translations in a Rosetta Stone-style manner. The more intricate societies in the game have equally intricate language that encourages the player to start thinking about sentence structure, punctuation, and even how jokes are told in order to come up with translations. I was eventually able to solve some translations by realizing one language’s verbs were always denoted with a horizontal line as part of the symbol.
Chants of Sennaar accomplishes what few great puzzle games do by encouraging players to do more than master an in-game mechanic but to use their own logical thinking to solve abstract problems. In many ways, Chants of Sennaar feels like the best puzzle game since Return of the Obra Dinn because of this.
But once players manage to translate a majority of the game’s symbol a second wave of understanding hits. Each language puzzle is a vessel for well-designed-building and storytelling. Slowly the player understands that the focus on language surrounds a story about how these groups have fallen out of communication, and how their inability to communicate isn’t only because of their difference in languages.
One particularly memorable moment that illustrates this is when they realize the xenophobic warrior class’s symbol for their neighbors means “impure.” Realizations like this that paint a picture of the game’s overarching narrative make retracing your steps through Chants of Sennaar worthwhile.
In a year packed full of incredible AAA and indie releases, Chants of Sennaar is a sleeper hit that you shouldn’t miss.