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Chants of Sennaar: the Myth of Babel reimagined

A fresh game concept with ancient inspirations

This September, Rundisc will release their sophomore effort, Chants of Sennaar, a stealthy, language-based puzzle game published by Focus Entertainment. The game may be dipping into new territory as far as puzzle logic and themes are concerned. As original as this game may be, a famous and heavily referenced myth inspired its world.

In Chants of Sennaar, you play a newcomer to a giant, maze-like tower. In each section of the tower, you meet a distinct population of people with their own language and culture. It’s your job to learn their ways and attempt to bring them all back together. To really appreciate the goal of the game, it’s important to know what inspired it. The creators of the game sat down during the Tribeca festival to talk about their intentions and inspirations. Both referenced the tower of Babel.

Ancient, epic… historical?

The tower of Babel is one of the oldest stories in human history. It’s most popularly traced back to the book of Genesis in the Bible. The story posits that after the great flood (Noah & the ark), a new civilization journeyed west. In a flat plot of land named Shinar, humanity came together in one city, and all spoke one language. Yes, Shinar does sound extremely close to Sennaar! Most commonly, this place has come to be known as Babylon.

In this new place, the people built a tower that “stretched to the heavens.” Some say this was to avoid dying in another global flood. Others say it was to prove that humanity doesn’t need God. In any case, the tower made God angry, even worried about the limits of human potential. God responded, “Let us go down and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Before long, the city fell to ruin and the tower was partially dismantled. The rest supposedly fell beneath the sands of what is today, modern Iraq.

The ancient city of Babylon is, in fact, an historical city first founded around 2300 BCE, in Mesopotamia. The city stood, fell, and was rebuilt a number of times. It was often seen as a jewel or prize of a city, and was often a point of contention. The tower of Babel, however, is thought by some scholars to be itself based on a specific structure. It is sometimes associated with Etemenanki, which was a ‘ziggurat’ or pyramid-like stone temple. Etemenanki was a tribute to the Mesopotamian god Marduck, and might be the inspiration for the tower of Babel. There is little historical evidence of such a tower at the time described in Genesis. Chants of the past fall silent upon modern ears, eh?

A symbol soaked in metaphor

The tower of Babel, at its foundation, is surprisingly similar to the myth of Icarus, flying too close to the sun. The tower would be the wax wings, and humanity itself, the collective Icarus. This is some pretty deep stuff, and Chants of Sennaar trudges forward where many games fear to tread. Usually, the nuances of broken communication, large-scale social ambition, and hubris are left to hefty books and heady cinema. However, you’ll often find references to Babel in places you wouldn’t expect.

Jurassic Park actually makes for a great tower of Babel. The park scientists lean into their own hubris. Bringing back dinosaurs flies in the face of ‘God’s natural order,’ so the dinosaurs eat the scientists. The conflict in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi masterpiece Arrival may be even closer to Chants of Sennaar. In the film, it’s easier to learn a complex alien language than to get countries to collaborate. In fact, the protagonist must learn the former to do the latter. This example is actually closer to the aims of Chants of Sennaar than most references in video games.

As the protagonist in Chants of Sennaar, your mind is your primary weapon. Your goal is to learn the language of each tribe, as well as their cultural nuances. Then, get them to collaborate with each other, and restore the tower to its former glory. With all of the above in mind, it’s a gargantuan task, potentially akin to defying the lord himself. Conflicting right? It would seem on the surface that wanting everyone to be able to communicate is a no brainer. Perhaps the creators will reveal more more about the conflict in Chants of Sennaar before they release it.

Towering adventures

Chants of Sennaar unknown area with people in red.

One of the most iconic games of all time, DOOM, includes a tower of Babel that you fight your way up, ending in a boss fight with the Cyberdemon. There’s a game called Let it Die that includes a ‘Tower of Barbs’ in direct reference to the tower of Babel. There’s even a section in Barbie Explorer (yes, seriously), that lets you explore the ruins of Babylon.

In most games, when communication breaks down, that’s when you start shooting… and that’s when the metaphor tends to die. For most towers of babel in games, the reference is about as deep as the name. Think, Carmen Sandiego: World Detective’s tower of “babble.” Get it? Think, the Final Fantasy IV Tower of Babel, and the giant mecha you fight in correlation. Chants of Sennaar is not likely to have such digressions into violence. Communication is the entire point.

Language art

Chants of Sennaar. Mote area with a person across the water. Speech bubbles with strange symbols.

The languages in Chants of Sennaar are more simple than real languages. However, the puzzles and phrases you’ll have to learn aren’t a walk in the park. With references this deep, it’s fair to expect a genuine challenge. The very nature of the game encourages the player to exercise empathy and use their wit. The goal is not to outsmart and defeat enemies so much as understand and effectively communicate with them. The Idea is so pure. It’s no surprise that a bible story inspired the game.

The thematic material of Chants of Sennaar is in a league of its own when compared to others that draw upon the myth of Babel. It’s more akin to a movie or a great allegory. Only time will tell if this ingenious concept translates to a fun playing experience. What’s clear is that Rundisc has put an immense amount of thought into the conception of this game.

Chants of Sennaar will release September 5, 2023 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC. We’re excited! Are you? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!

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