Decipher an alien language in Sethian

Alien linguistics thriller Arrival is a beezer movie, according to my internet mates, but I still haven’t been able to see it. Once again videogames come to the rescue. Sethian [official site] is a text adventure where the text is all unrecognisable shapes and symbols – an alien computer that needs to be translated and understood. It came out last month but got buried in the annual November AAAvalanche. But like heroic rescue workers, we have found it again.

As a future archaeologist, you are investigating the remains of an alien race from the planet Sethian. But the natty PC you’ve uncovered only speaks the old tongue. Luckily you’ve got a handy journal with some notes and reference materials to introduce you to the basics, as well as some of the alien world’s literature. And while it looks from these screens like they all spoke Traditional Wingdings, the language seems to be a bit more complicated than that. Here’s what developer Grant Kuning has to say about it:

“Unlike in other games, Sethianese is a more earnest attempt at creating a fictitious language, using its own unique grammar and vocabulary rather than simply substituting words and letters one-for-one with English. The game’s language borrows elements from Chinese, American Sign Language, and other real world languages, in addition to some features which have no real world counterpart.

“Those who comprehend the game’s language will find peace, but only those who master its world will truly see the end of Sethian.”

Well then. That sounds like a challenge. I’m still learning how to speak Spanish without accidentally insulting everyone I speak to, but I’m sure there’s time to become fluent in an ancient extraterrestrial tongue as well.

You can get Sethian on itch.io for $5 or on Steam for £3.99/$4.99. If you want to know more about how it operates, there’s a bunch of the game’s intentions on its old Kickstarter, which was successfully funded in June last year.

From this site

22 Comments

  1. gwop_the_derailer says:

    Intriguing!

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    Dios says:

    I think there’s a general lack of games where the main objective is that you have to figure out how the game/gameworld works. This certainly looks intriguing!

    • burth says:

      You’re so right, I love those kind of games (bought this one immediately btw, thanks RPS). I rarely recommend this, because it is a very odd one, but you might want to check out Starseed Pilgrim if you haven’t heard of it. Figuring out the rules of that world was one of my best gaming experiences ever.

      • mujie says:

        Are there any more like that?

        • and its man says:

          There’s also the 90s-ambient-techno-ish Mirrormoon EP by Santa Ragione, and the amazing experience of being left alone with its quiet, enigmatic cockpit.
          link to mirrormoongame.com

        • newton says:

          +1 to Starseed Pilgrim, a masterpiece. Also, the recently released and not-only-gorgeous-but-actually-quite-superb Dark Train.

        • burth says:

          One of my favourites is FJORDS, which you can find here. RPS also wrote about it.”

          A large part of The Witness is figuring out the rules of the world and its puzzles, although you’re not thrown into the deep end quite as much there.

          Other than that, I will always recommend Antichamber to anyone interested in weird puzzle games. I can also second Mirrormoon, although that one was maybe a bit too far on the weird side and not enough on the satisfying one for me.

          • and its man says:

            I gotta try FJORDS, thanks !

            There’s something that makes me want to mention Verde Station here.
            Can’t say much about it without spoiling, but basically you’re on a space station for a one-year solo mission, it is advertised as a game about details, and it’s catchy-ly subtitled “Welcome to solitude”.
            It is a much more narrative one, but I have fond memories of how it got me to wrinkle my brow.

  3. Jenuall says:

    Just one question, what the heck does “Beezer” mean?

    • Kolbex says:

      Don’t even try to keep up with the Uking slang, man.

    • Haplo says:

      Yeah, no idea and I thought I was pretty good at this sort of slang. I’m assuming it’s much like Australian slang, in which case it probably means:

      1) Great, good, brilliant

      2) Miserable, terrible, avoid at all costs

      3) A disturbing sexual act

      4) A threat

      Depending on the context.

    • mOrs says:

      I deduced from the film in question, “Arrival”, that it must mean something along the lines of brilliant.

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    teije says:

    Interesting, will pick this up. As a kid used to love writing out different alphabets real or imagined, and trying to read texts in those languages.

    Good times in the pre-Internet age…

  5. Emeraude says:

    This game definitely speaks my language.

    I’m so on for this.

  6. Chuckaluphagus says:

    I’m a translator already (my profession) — I can’t figure out whether I’ll love this game or whether it’ll annoy me to no end.

    • indigochill says:

      Now you must try it and report back on whether it passes the professional translator test!

  7. MisterFurious says:

    “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine”

  8. Yglorba says:

    Reminds me of the UPCOM system in Captain Blood.

  9. RaunakS says:

    Oh man I had apparently kickstarted this and completely forgot about it. I even have a key waiting. This looks absolutely grand and I can’t wait to play it!

    Also, I don’t there had ever been a game that has deep dived this hard into language deciphering.

  10. OddBit says:

    I’m sorry to say, this game just isn’t very good; in fact, it’s downright frustrating. I’m sorry to say it not just because I really wanted to enjoy it, but also because I’m hoping to release a somewhat unusual game myself down the track, and I dread reading comments like this about it.

    I don’t doubt that Grant Kuning had an interesting concept in mind at the outset, or that he’s put a great deal of time and love into this project, but unfortunately I feel that this game will very quickly feel familiar to anyone who’s banged their head against the wall of “guess-the-verb” in a poorly-written text adventure or IF piece.

    On the surface, Yglorba’s comparison to Captain Blood’s UPCOM system appears to be very apt. But although I’ve never taken the time to finish Captain Blood, my interactions with its inhabitants through UPCOM did feel like the program was trying as much as possible to “understand” my input, and to respond with something helpful, or at least entertaining. But in Sethian, the input phrases really feel like they’re simply overly-long passwords to unlock the next step of the story.

    For instance, at one point I found that asking the in-game equivalent of “Empires are/can be free?” yielded the response, “I don’t understand”, even though the in-game notebook said this was what I needed to ask (more on this later). Consulting a walkthrough let me know that I actually had to ask, “Empires are/can be free? I don’t understand.” in order to get the correct response, which worked.

    I mentioned a moment ago that the notebook entry told me what to ask; most of the game follows the pattern of: look at notebook, read next question to input, input question, see response and unlock next notebook entry which also gives a complete translation of the response, repeat. Early on, the notebook simply tells you explicitly which symbols to enter in which order, then it progresses to carefully-phrased English-language questions that are easy to translate, and finally to very slightly more abstract questions in English. As Grant has said that he has experience in teaching English as a foreign language, it comes as little surprise that this is a pretty well-established format for teaching someone a language when you have a teacher on hand to read your work and offer corrections. But here we only have a computer which says, “I don’t understand,” unless you formulate precisely the question it has been scripted to expect.

    There is no ambiguity to be pondered over or resolved in the unknown language, or rather we are never given a chance to consider it, because every response given by the computer is given a complete translation in the notebook, automatically. I soon gave up bothering to try deciphering the responses on my own, or even looking at the scribbled “translation notes” in the notebook preceeding the complete translation, because doing so would only confuse me as to how to proceed. This is because, despite the feigned lack of conviction in the player character’s translations, they are the only way which the text may be translated if you want to have a chance of finishing the game.

    Which I have not. Despite throwing in the towel and resorting to following a walkthrough step-by-step, I am still stuck near the end and unable to progress. After having mercifully told me pretty much exactly what to enter at every step of the way up to this point, the notebook abruptly shrugged its metaphorical shoulders and left me without a clue to go on, and according to the walkthrough I’m using, I should be able to enter “almost any grammatically correct query” and receive a single, repeating response from the computer, after which one of two further questions can be entered (the multiple endings). However, despite entering dozens of queries, the only responses I get are, “I don’t know,” or the occasional, “I have nothing more to say on this matter.” Which is kind of how I’m feeling at the moment.