Chants of Sennaar and being an American abroad

Mi scusi

Chants of Sennaar and being an American abroad

Last year, I went to Italy knowing next to no Italian. This wouldn't have been a problem in Rome, where catering to Americans was, it seemed, par for the course. But in Umbria, while there were still people who spoke English, it became less common, so it seemed prudent to try to learn at least a few words. Moreover, I didn't want to be an American asshat who didn't even try to speak the language. So I learned a couple phrases for shopping, mostly for ordering espresso, and I got by. Barely. Sort of.

Chants of Sennaar gave me that same feeling.

Your task in the horrible-to-type Chants of Sennaar (how many Ns, and how many Rs?) is to muddle your way through four locations where you don't know a lick of the language. It's a puzzle game where the puzzle is to figure out what different glyphs mean via context clues. You keep a notebook where you can make guesses as to the meaning of each glyph, which the game will confirm once you've placed them correctly into a notebook alongside sketches of objects and concepts, a derivation of the "get three correct to confirm" mechanic of Return of the Obra Dinn.

Your general goal is to move through each area, gradually learning each language by interacting with the people who use it, figuring out nouns, pronouns, and verbs, then piecing them together. Over time, you discover an overarching goal of helping all those people speak to each other, having eventually mastered all their distinct, non-interoperable languages. The story is loosely based on the fable of the Tower of Babel, with an emphasis on loosely. I won't spoil the ultimate narrative beats for you, because I did find them satisfying, but safe to say if you're a Bible aficionado, this is not that.

Instead, I found it to be an American traveling abroad simulator.

Moving through the world as an American tourist, even given a general and well-earned distaste for us in some locales, is to experience the world bending over backward to make you feel comfortable. There's an inherent worldwide privilege conveyed by an accident of birth, and there's no getting around it. Sure, we might pretend to be Canadian sometimes to get around thorny geopolitical resonances, but on the whole, we are welcomed with open arms, even if we amble into a shop knowing nothing of the language or culture.

This is the position thrust upon the player from the very beginning of Chants of Sennaar.

Despite being a hooded weirdo who crawls out of a coffin and speaks zero of the language, people are awfully nice to you. You don't even know hello and goodbye, yet, still, random people are trying to help you get where you're going. Sure, there are a few folks who are annoyed by your presence, but the overwhelming sense you get is that people are there to help you.

Slowly, through the kindness of strangers, you put together the first language, glyph by glyph. Suddenly, you understand. You can speak the language! Garbled nonsense dialogue is now translated to English on screen, making intelligible what was once illegible, and you begin to navigate the world with ease. But you only understand because people let you understand. You only navigate the world with ease because they let you navigate it at all.

Chants of Sennaar is a game about language, of course, but it's also a game about the privileged acquisition of language. Your status as an outsider goes largely unchallenged in this fiction, your ignorance never seen as insult, your otherness never viewed as Otherness. You are permitted to be unknowing, which is not a thing to be taken lightly.

To be an American abroad is to be given the benefit of the doubt. To be a foreigner in America, however, is often to be treated as an idiot, or worse, an outright threat. I couldn't help but imagine how different Chants of Sennaar would be if the player's status as an outsider were more problematized. Sure, you're not allowed to enter certain parts of a military base without wearing military garb, but that would be true in your country of origin. And yes, now and again someone will poke a little fun at you, but that never grows into outright hostility. What if, instead of patiently repeating themselves to you, NPCs suddenly grew quiet and distant the more you interacted with them? What if there was a mechanic by which you could test their patience for an outsider? What if there were characters telling others not to speak to you?

Well, for one thing, it wouldn't be as fun, and it would certainly be much more challenging, perhaps dauntingly so. To be clear, I don't actually want Chants of Sennaar to be that kind of game mechanically. It wouldn't work. Language acquisition, even boiled down to this level of simplicity, takes time, repetition, and practice. A game about language needs dialogue in the way a game about music needs notes.

But as I moved through Sennaar's environs, I found myself flashing back to a certain cafe in central Italy, where it was easier to tell someone I was from New York and not New Jersey. Americano was americano, no matter how you cut it. What did it matter? I'm just grateful folks let me garble through what I barely knew. Because whether you're ordering a cappuccino, asking whether you can pay by card, or connecting a group of disparate cultures as a kind of language messiah, we only get better at communicating via communicating. We can only speak with each other if we speak to each other.

And maybe that's the lesson behind Chants of Sennaar, in the end. Speak, listen. Then speak again.