12 . 12 . 2023

Chants of Senaar


Language and grammar are not my strong suit, which is something I probably shouldn’t admit to as a writer. Chants of Senaar highlighted that weakness of mine, and brought me back to basics. Chants of Senaar is a language puzzle game – your goal is to learn the languages of a foreign society by total immersion, deciphering what glyphs equate to what concept. You do this 5 times over as you ascend the echelons of the tower. As you go, you’ll have the opportunity to connect cultures by translating each culture’s language. Thankfully, there’s only about 40 glyphs per language, so the conversations and signs you’ll decipher won’t be complex conversations. Even so, the designers do a lot with a little, building out the lore of the world and telling an intriguing story with these simple but powerful concepts.

You explore through an isometric view for most of the game, and can take out your notepad at any time to scribble out your thoughts. Screenshot.

Chants of Senaar is well-paced – you only discover a few glyphs at a time, after which you’re given the opportunity to solve their meaning. You’re rarely in the position where you have 20 undeciphered glyphs and no clues as to what goes where. Slowly meting out glyphs and their meanings helps the game not get too frustrating, as not knowing the language would gate you out of progressing further. Conversations are repeatable, so there’s no chance of missing a clue. 

What’s much more of a slog are the stealth sections of the game. Some of the cultures in Senaar don’t take kindly to your investigations, and will cast you out of the area for intruding. The game doesn’t send you back far thankfully, but even generous checkpoints can’t make a poorly implemented mechanic fun. The stealth sections are only a small portion of the game, so it has minimal impact on the experience as a whole, but it does still sour the experience. 

On the left of your notebook are concepts your character has gleaned, and on the right are the letters you’ve seen so far. White bubbles are solved & black are unsolved, but you can input what you think something is in the black bubble – it will only be solved when it’s slotted correctly in the notebook though. Screenshot.

The developers stated that The Tower of Babel was the inspiration for this game, which is clear – you’re in a tower where all peoples speak a different language, and there are hints early on that God is at the top of this tower. Unlike Babel, the Tower of Senaar still stands, and all who want to attempt the ascent are welcome to try. It’s not an attempt to be equal with God, but a pilgrimage to discovering God. Taking the element of pride out of the story of the Tower of Babel flips the original moral on its head. 

With Senaar I was struck by the desire for communion that comes with experiencing this artificial language barrier. When you’re a foreigner in a foreign land, your foremost want is to understand and be understood. It reminded me of the liturgical reason for using Latin – so that no matter where you are in the world, you could go to a Mass and comprehend what is happening. This is what it means to be catholic; to be universal. Not to be all things to all people, but to be one to all people. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a game about communication connects to communion. The act of dialogue is an attempt to make oneself known to the other, and to know the other in turn. Senaar  shows a tower divided, where the cultures no longer know anything but superstition about the other peoples. In learning about them you can teach others what you’ve learned. Ultimately the game is about reuniting a people divided by tribalism and misinformation.

Throughout the game you’ll be given side-by-side comparisons of an old langauge and the new language for that echelon. Solved words are in bold. Screenshot.

Senaar also tackles the issue of escapism; one of the five cultures in the Tower has shut themselves off. In a sci-fi twist, this culture is overly absorbed in its virtual reality. I understand the message it’s trying to say – cultures can be divided by external causes, but internal causes like withdrawing in can be just as dangerous for society. Man is a social animal, but the temptation to individualism when society is broken can be all too real. But, as Mother Teresa once said: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” When we’re daunted by a broken society and just want to escape, that is when it’s most important to remain, delve in, and help one another. Still, I’m expounding on more than what’s really in the game. In all honesty it feels a bit tacked on, much like the rest of the ending. I’ll be discussing that next paragraph. 

 I was disappointed by the end of the journey. The entity the Devotees call “God” is seemingly a computer program, who’s been restrained by a different computer program named EXILE – EXILE separated each of the cultures from each other and doesn’t want them to reconnect. It sort of seems like a false parallel to God in the Tower of Babel – the languages are confused and people are now divided. But the motivations remain unclear for EXILE. It claims to be protecting the Tower, but if you get the bad ending by ascending before solving the Anchorite’s problems, you somehow kill everyone in the tower? EXILE is preventing you from seeing “God”, but we are never given any reason why. Mechanically the game also shifts in the last section – now instead of learning the language by inference, you play a matching game on a tablet. I didn’t solve a single one on purpose – I lucked myself into translating the final language by following a simple strategy. It really lessened the payoff.

Hidden throughout the Tower are tablets where two of the cultures are attempting to communicate. If you act as a translator for them, good things will happen. Screenshot.

Despite my disappointment with the final section of the game, Chants of Senaar still had a decent message, albeit a confused one. If it had stuck the landing, we could have been having a much more fruitful discussion about what it all means.

Scoring: 73%

Art: 8/10
Music: 7.5/10
Story & Writing: 6/10
Gameplay: 7/10
Design: 8/10

Morality & Parental Warnings: Content-wise, Chants of Senaar is a very safe game to play. The ESRB indicates there is mild language (get it?), but I don’t recall anything beyond one culture having the word for “idiot”. There is a monster in between two sections of the Tower, which might be scary for younger children. But if your kid gets that far in the game, give MENSA a call. Overall, the content of the game is safe. The messages are generally fine – the messaging around God is a bit confusing, but really only one culture calls the entity at the top of the Tower that. The vagueness of the lore overall makes it tough to discern if there are any broader messages. Ironic. But the story’s message of reestablishing communion in society is laudable.

About Matt "PBnJ" Palardy

Video-game lover since I first jumped around in Super Mario 64. Tolkien nerd and music enthusiast to boot. Hope you enjoy long rants about miniscule details!