Chants of Sennaar is speaking my language

Do you like puzzle games? Does figuring out a strange language sound like it might be fun? Then you should check out Chants of Sennaar!

The other day, we finished playing the short, indie puzzle adventure, Chants of Sennaar. We had a lovely experience with the game, and I think a lot of my friends would enjoy it, too.

Chants of Sennaar takes place in a tower, in which each section of the tower speaks a different language. Yes, this is very much like the Tower of Babel. And religion does indeed play a significant role in the game. You play as a silent character who wakes up in the bottom of the tower. Before long, you encounter a closed door with a lever next to it. There are two strange symbols next to the lever, and when you pull the lever, the door opens. Hmm… do those symbols mean “Open” and “Close”, I wonder?

As you go, each new symbol will be recorded in an in-game notebook. You’ll also be able to note down your guess as to the meaning of that symbol. Every so often, you’ll unlock a page in your journal, in which you’ll be presented with three or four drawings, with a space for a symbol next to each. If you can fill in the correct symbols, those will be validated, and you’ll be told the precise translation for that sign.

That’s the central mechanism of the game: encounter new symbols, guess at their meaning, try to solve puzzles using your understanding of the language. Eventually, you’ll encounter a second (and more, though I won’t spoil how many) language with more advanced syntax, and you’ll have to translate from one language to the other.

The above description sounds fairly mechanical. But the game wraps all this up in such an appealing and tasteful package. The art style and sound design are both fairly minimalist, but both really serve the game well. Even though everything is done in a very geometric and simple 3D art style, many small choices makes each section stand out. Each section has a particular colour scheme that underlines something about the people inhabiting that section, just like particular types of décor and furniture repeat in each area. There are a lot of wide angles, and the game will very often add little charming touches to otherwise sparse screens – like little cats, lizards or birds in the foreground, while the unnamed protagonist roams around in the background. The music, similarly, is very simple, but used very effectively. Towards the end, I noticed a very Pavlovian response to a little jingle that plays every time we solved a puzzle in the game.

I do have a few quibbles with the game. First and foremost, it can be very tricky to navigate. That’s particularly true when you have to backtrack. Where was that place again? There is no map to help you navigate, and you can very easily get turned around. That can cause you to miss parts of the game – as we were trying to finish the game, we realized that we had missed certain areas of the game that would have allowed us to validate certain words. In at least one other case, the fact that we had missed looking at a particular display case meant we hadn’t been given the option to validate four words. This was a minor annoyance, but an annoyance, nonetheless.

Speaking of annoyances, the game has a couple of stealth or speed sections. Unfortunately, the controls aren’t all that precise, which sometimes made those sections more frustrating than challenging.

Those are minor things, however. Overall, I was impressed by the qualities of the game. It’s an engaging puzzle, without being too challenging, and it manages to build an interesting and engaging world with some very basic tools. If any of the above sounds interesting to you, I recommend taking a look at Chants of Sennaar.

Why you should listen to Serial Season Three

The podcast, Serial, just launched their third season this week after a pretty long radio silence (pun kinda intended). I’ve been wondering why they weren’t releasing another season, because the first two seasons were very successful. For me too – I devoured both seasons when they came out, though I liked the second a bit less than the first.

Now it turns out that they had translated their success into time: They’ve spent more than a year researching for this new season. And it’s probably their most ambitious yet. Continue reading Why you should listen to Serial Season Three

Why Bioshock Infinite stayed on my drive for three and a half years

Three and a half years ago, I installed Bioshock Infinite and started playing it. And today, finally, I finished it.

I remember starting it up. A lot of my friends had been raving about the different games in the Bioshock series, and that had lead my to pick up a Humble Bundle including all three Bioshock games, plus a bunch of other stuff. I don’t exactly remember what made me pick up Infinite instead of Bioshock 1, but I think it had to do with the fact that it was the newest one, and also a standalone title, meaning the plot of the previous games wouldn’t be spoiled.

I remember the feeling of sitting down to play and being completely engrossed. Not the first time, I think – the opening, as I remember it, was a bit slow, and I was unsure what I was supposed to be doing. My interest was piqued, however, and once the game got going, it sunk its claws into me. When I played, I was totally carried away. I would start up the game to play for half an hour or so, and look up again two hours later. At the same time, the game would leave me spent. Some games – building games, in particular – can also carry me away, but I will leave them with my head buzzing, eager to go back and continue. Not so with Bioshock.

Which also meant it isn’t a game I would fire up to relax for a little while. Which, again, meant that there would be long pauses between play-sessions. And so, while I’ve played the game for 16 hours, according to Steam, those hours were spread out over a long, long time.

That is not a slight to the game, though. It’s not that I didn’t want to play the game. As a matter of fact, every time I’ve been short on space on my harddrive, I’ve opened up Steam to find games to uninstall, sorted them all by size – and skipped the first one on the list, because Bioshock Infinite wasn’t going anywhere till I had finished it.

And why is that? What kept me coming back to this game?

Get them, Mr. DeWitt!

Bioshock Infinite is, at its core, a first person shooter (FPS), albeit with a bit of exploration and a whole lot of storytelling built in.

In the game, you play Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who is hired to go find the girl, Elizabeth, who is kept somewhere in Columbia, a theocratic city state floating in the sky. As Mr. DeWitt, you will be using all kinds of olde timey guns to fight a series of enemies, from revolutionaries with guns over zealots with swords to huge, mechanised robots with gatling guns, wings, and the faces of American Founding Fathers.

You can only carry two guns at a time, making it essential to choose the right guns for the job at hand. You can carry ammo for all the guns, though, and it will not only be beneficial, but necessary to switch your arsenal ever so often.

Luckily, you can supplement your guns with “vigors” – magical powers that allow you to convert enemies into allies for a while, summon ravens to hack at the eyes of your foes, or maybe make them hang powerless from the air for a while.

The battles are often very clearly structured. You’ll have an arena with a certain number of enemies that must be cleared before you can continue. As the game wears on, you get more and more tactical options – like latching on to rails in the air, allowing you to move rapidly, and even jump down onto foes to damage them. Eventually, you’ll also be able to summon different elements into being, like cover, friendly automata or supplies of health or weapons. The catch is that only one can exist at a time, making it an important tactical decision.

This part of the game I enjoyed, though I’m not sure if it’s the height of what you can do with FPS. I played at the normal difficulty setting, and it seems designed to provide engaging action that is also accessible to relative beginners.

Rain fire on the Sodom Below!

Where the game really started to get my blood going was in the mood of the game. From the opening, the game keeps hitting you with the vibe that something is not quite right. Mr DeWitt’s employers seem rather weird and peculiar, while DeWitt seems an unlikely hero – it’s clear from the beginning that he’s not exactly lily white. Then, as DeWitt arrives in the pristine city of Columbia, emerging through a baptismal scene to a popular festival, you quickly get the feeling that Columbia hides an ugly side beneath the veneer – and sure enough, the veneer quickly cracks, and the filth comes pouring out.

The mood is enforced in myriad ways. The soundscape is excellently done, contrasting early jazz and blues with more sombre and ominous tracks. Even the two little chords that signal the end of a fight are disharmonious and unresolved, indicating that though danger may be over for now, tings are not at all well.

The visual side follows along nicely. In the later stages of the game, as you are traversing abandoned asylums and automata-workshops with patriot-heads and half-finished killing machines, you keep expecting to be assaulted at any moment, and my heart was frequently in my throat as I traversed the twisted corridors of the game’s levels.

The Lamb and the False Prophet

I already mentioned how Booker DeWitt seems to have a rather troubled moral character. And he is just one – granted, the main – of a whole cast of interesting characters. Like the mysterious and aloof Luteces, a brother and sister who show up all over the place to make snarky and enigmatic comments. Or the profet and leader of Columbia, Zachary Comstock, full of fire and brimstone, and just stinking of hypocrisy and fanticism.

The most important character, apart from DeWitt, is Elizabeth, the young woman DeWitt has been sent to fetch. For most of the game, she accompanies DeWitt on his journey. Beyond just making her very charming and endearing, the game uses a number of tricks to make you like Elizabeth. She will do a host of neat things for you when she’s accompanying you. She can open locks for you with lockpicks you find around the levels of the game. She will find things for you – coins out of combat, health, ammo and “Salt” (power for vigors) in combat. And if you die while she’s with you, you will see her fighting with syringes and other medical supplies to get you on your feet again, instead of just starting you over from the last checkpoint.

It’s all rather cheap tricks, but they work: you sorely miss her on the occasions when she is not with you. And as a player, you quickly start to wonder what exactly everybody wants with her.

Constants and variables

But of course, things aren’t simple. Your mission gets derailed, and soon, you find out that things are far more convoluted and complicated than you thought. Soon, the ethical nature of the white (?) lies you tell Elizabeth to get her to come with you seem trivial next to the dizzying scope of the story that is being unfolded.

I won’t spoil too much, as I’ll (spoiler) end this review by recommending that you play the game. I will say, though, that questions of determination, necessity, identity, the nature of time, and of many worlds will feature heavily. The word “quantum” may feature (I don’t actually remember if it does).

And it all ends in … well, it will all be complicated. I won’t say whether the end is happy or not, mostly because I don’t really know. It ends where it has to end. Which, to my mind, is wonderful.

Look, so many video games end happily. It makes sense: a game is not just a story. As a matter of fact, the story is so often secondary to the game. And a game wants resolution, and progress, and rewards. If you are a hero, you want to be victorious. You want to feel good at the end.

Not that this is the first game to have a less-than happy ending. Take Diablo, way back when – the ending of Diablo, while not unhappy per se, was not at all a glorious victory.

But Bioshock Infinite seems to be built to tell this story. I get the impression that this game began with an idea for a story, and the game moulded to tell that story.

And the story they wanted to tell was bold. Explaining this story in a film, or in a book, would have been daunting. They decided to do it in an action game, where the complicated, often philosophical, ideas are interrupted every few minutes by another blood-pumping action scene. And it works.

Which brings me to my main criticism of the game: In a game about choices, decisions, and possibilities, about the tension between constants and variables – you as a player never makes a choice that influences the story. You just follow the linear path laid down by the designers.

But you know what. I can live with that.

Bring us the girl, and your debt will be erased

Like I hinted earlier, I really liked this game. It’s one that has stayed with me for three and a half years, and I’ve been glad every time I’ve returned to it.

I don’t think it’s a perfect game, not by any stretch. But it’s a beautiful game, full of tension and characters and great writing. If you like games that tell good stories, I’d encourage you to check it out.

[ACRP] Onwards, to the Ashen Stars

Previously, I’ve talked a bit about our short campaign of Ashen Stars. In this post, I’ll be diving into a few more details about the game book, though it won’t be my own musings entirely.

This autumn, I started recording a podcast about roleplaying games with three other Danish roleplayers – Morten Greis, Oliver Nøglebæk and Nis Baggesen. The podcast is called Lænestolsrollspil, which is Danish for Arm Chair Roleplaying – because we are sitting around a mike talking about a roleplaying book that we’ve read, but not necessarily played (though in practice, we choose books we have an interest in, which usually means at least one of us has played it).

We launched three weeks ago, and our first episode was on Ashen Stars. I’ve been debating what to do with it since. I want to write about our podcast here. Now, I have reason to believe that a great many of my readers are Danes. For that reason, I don’t want to just rehash everything we say in the podcast – I’d rather you go here and listen to the podcast.

I made this blog in English, though, so that it would also be accessible to foreigners, and so I’d like to give a taste of what we talk about in the podcast.

And so, below I’ll try to give a brief overview of Ashen Stars, including some of the main points from the podcast.

What is Ashen Stars?

Ashen Stars is a space opera investigation game by Robin D. Laws. To put it crudely, take a world a bit like Star Trek or Babylon 5, add in a crew and a ship like in Firefly, but turn them into investigators, and make it a police procedural instead of a Western.

The rules, meanwhile, are an iteration of the GUMSHOE system of rules. GUMSHOE was developed by Laws as a way to make investigation without the risk of stalling due to poor dice rolling. In character creation, you divvy up all the different investigative skills, so that all of them are represented in the crew. If you have a skill, you get the associated clue, but you can sometimes spend a point from that skill to gain a benefit.

The other skills, including the more action-oriented ones involved in fighting and flying a spacecraft, have a separate budget of points. When you roll one of these, the GM chooses a difficulty (without telling you), then you select a number of points to spend from your skill and add a d6 to that. If you roll equal to or higher than the difficulty, you succeed.

To that is added a system of story generation. Each character has a Drive, which is something that makes them want to go out into space. To this is added an “arc”, that is, a personal story the player wants their character to live through.

Skills: An economy of abundance

A lot of the game is tied up in the point spending economy. Unfortunately, that part doesn’t seem as smooth as we would have liked. When we played it, we never had to think about spending points from our investigative abilities. Can I spend? Sure, I will. I have so many abilities, and so many points, it’s not that likely I’ll run out of spends, unless the GM really wants me to. Then he’ll focus on one or two of my abilities, but that would be a somewhat dickish move.

I’m also not a fan of the way all the investigative skills get partitioned out among the players. It means we can get all clues merely by having the right guy show up on the scene. I think I would prefer having us decide which skills we feel fit our characters. If we’re missing some skills – well, then we’d better get creative and learn to do without.

One final comment on the skills: I find them a bit difficult to get a grip on. I think this is where the space opera setting interferes with the investigation. What, for instance, can you do with an “Energy Signatures” skill? Or how about “Industrial Design”? These skills make perfect sense in the setting, but they are difficult for me as a player or GM to understand intuitively.

Stories: Planets and cases and arcs, oh my

The book gives some pretty good advice on telling stories. Introducing story arcs work well to distribute spotlight. Meanwhile, the chapter on creating worlds for cases is pretty good, helping the GM create very distinctive planets for their cases. It would have been nice to have some advice for GMs on turning their cases into a cohesive whole – an “arc” for the whole campaign, and maybe mechanics or guidelines for tying up a season, changing arcs and Drives, and changing direction of the campaign.

While the book does pretty well on the big picture stuff, it seems there is very little advise on how to actually run the game. It tells you how to make core clues, but how do you use them in play?

Setting: the gritty reboot

The setting of the game is a rehash of other space opera shows, with a few peculiarities of its own thrown in. It frames itself as the gritty reboot of a hopeful sci-fi show, set after the near-collapse of the great galactic Fede… Combine.

Mostly it works well, but in the podcast, we object to a few things. One major thing is the major gimmick of the game: there was a big war, but nobody remembers it. Why? Nobody knows, and it’s difficult to even think about it. Ah, so this much be a central part of the game? Nah, not really. It seems to be primarily a way to have it not be about the war. But it seems weird, and not all that elegant. You’re putting a huge plot right in front of the players, but then telling them: “But that’s not what our story is going to be about.” Why not? Why not just say that the Mohilar were defeated, or retreated, or something? The amnesia is such a huge thing, it’s almost impossible to get around.

…but do you like it?

To conclude, I’ll say what I said in the podcast: I like the idea of Ashen Stars much more than I like the actual rules. The races seem interesting, the universe is mostly good, and being crews of freelance investigators is a great way of framing an investigative adventuring party. But the implementation is often inelegant, and frustrating, because it doesn’t really help me do the investigative stories I would like to do. It’s a pity, but that sees to be the long and the short of it.

The next episode of the podcast is already up. In it, we look at something completely different: In a Wicked Age by D. Vincent Baker.

22 December: Gregor MacGregor

Even as a young man, Gregor MacGregor seems to have been obsessed with appearances.
Even as a young man, Gregor MacGregor seems to have been obsessed with appearances.

Name: Gregor MacGregor

Tagline: A Scotsman who, after a stint in the Napoleonic Wars, went off to South America to join the wars of independence.

Claim to Fame: Perpetrating several plots to enrich himself at the cost of others, including twice selling off land in a non-existent province. Continue reading 22 December: Gregor MacGregor

20 December: Carsten Niebuhr

Carsten Niebuhr dressed and ate like the natives of the countries he passed through - as opposed to his travelling companions, who most likely tried to hold on to European sensibilities.
Carsten Niebuhr dressed and ate like the natives of the countries he passed through – as opposed to his travelling companions, who most likely tried to hold on to European sensibilities.

Name: Carsten Niebuhr

Tagline: As a young man with a knack for cartography, Niebuhr was selected for the Danish king’s expedition to the “Arabia Felix”. After his travelling companions died in the early stages of the trip, he travelled alone throughout the Middle East, returning to give the world a much better understanding of the Arabian Peninsula.

Claim to Fame: Literally writing the book on the “Happy Arabia”.

Carsten Niebuhr was born in 1733, Niebuhr was originally planning to become a surveyor, but attended university instead. He caught the eye of an academic, who recommended him as a participant for the Danish king Frederick V’s Danish Arabia Expedition.

The expedition set sail in January 1761, sailing first to Marseilles and Malta, before going to Istanbul and Alexandria. After arriving in Egypt, the expedition went to Cairo and to Sinai. Then they crossed the Red Sea and entered Mocha.

And this is where the story turns a bit bleak. Cause this is where the first member of the expedition died on May 25th, 1763. A month and a half, the next member died on the way to Sana, the capital of Yemen. After an audience with the Imam of Yemen, the remains of the expedition set off to sea towards Bombay. On the 29th and 30th of August, two more members of the expedition died at sea. And finally, shortly after the ship landed in Bombay, the second-to-last member of the expedition died.

Niebuhr was a cartographer and surveyor, and prepared maps of the places he visited. This one is of Yemen.

Which left Niebuhr all alone. He spent 14 months in Bombay, before travelling home by land, visiting many countries and cities on his way.

On his way, Niebuhr spoke to many, many of the local people he met. Not only that, he dressed like them, ate with them, and integrated himself with them to a large extent.

And of course he brought home notes and samples of all kinds of things. Apparently, his drawings were essential to cracking the old Cuneiform script, and he is considered one of the founding fathers of Assyriology.

I would posit that he can also be considered a founding father of ethnography. He was a keen observer of people, and understood to describe them more or less on their own terms.

How would I use him: Niebuhr is a stellar example of an explorer. He goes around, meets people, has adventures, and reports it all to his home. Use him as a mold for a fantasy game about bold adventurers – or maybe try moving him into space.

The whole expedition also offers a great opportunity for a story of intrigue and politics on an expedition. There was a lot of drama connected with the beginning of the expedition, which I don’t have time to go into – and while it’s not such a mystery why so many of Niebuhr’s travelling companions died (they were ill adjusted to the climate, and didn’t have resistance to the many tropical diseases they encountered), it would be easy to make a mystery out of their deaths.

There is also a great case to be made for using Niebuhr as a precursor. In the Cthulhu game, he is the one who wrote the tome on the weird rituals of certain cults. Or maybe something followed him home, hidden in some object sent home to Copenhagen … getting ready to awaken …

19 December: Erich Mielke

Mielke in 1976, almost 20 years into his tenure as head of Stasi. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0522-177 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Mielke in 1976, almost 20 years into his tenure as head of Stasi. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0522-177 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Name: Erich Fritz Emil Mielke

Tagline: Joining the communists at an early age, Erich rose in the hierarchy of the newly formed GDR.

Claim to Fame: Head of the East German secret police (Stasi) throughout most of its existence and one of the fathers of the Berlin Wall. Continue reading 19 December: Erich Mielke

18 December: Artemisia of Halicarnassus

Artemisia ruled her city on behalf of her son.
Artemisia ruled her city on behalf of her son.

Name: Artemisia I of Halicarnassus

Tagline: Warrior Queen of the Greek city-state of Halicarnassus, satrap (Persian governor) of the satrapy of Caria, fought for the Persians against the Greeks during the second Persian invasion of Greece, 480 BC.

Claim to Fame: Artemisia of Halicarnassus was the only Persian naval commander to come out of the disastrous battle of Salamis with both life and honour largely intact. She was also the only Persian commander in the invasion to give the Persian King Xerxes honest advice rather than flattery. Continue reading 18 December: Artemisia of Halicarnassus

17 December: Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen

You can almost see this guy's duplicitous nature shining from his eyes.
You can almost see this guy’s duplicitous nature shining from his eyes.

Name: Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen, nicknamed ‘The Professor of Cunning.’

Tagline: played a father and son against each other in a regicidal drama.

Claim to fame: Pahlen is a source of inspiration for weasels everywhere. A combination of duplicity and luck led him nearly unscathed through the murder of Russian Emperor Paul and the accession of Alexander. Continue reading 17 December: Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen