Have You Played… Sethian?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

In Sethian you find an alien computer and, as an archeologist of such things, you must decipher the language of its ancient users. It’s a very clever piece of interactive fiction that I happily recommend despite a glaring central problem, which was summed up perfectly by a comment on my original review:

“You’re essentially trying to talk about philosophy with a chatbot,” it said, “while possessing the linguistic ability of a toddler.”

That’s because you have to type things in using the computer’s interface to discover new words and meanings – many of which are automatically written down for you in a journal. It can be frustrating at times. Interrogating a parser even in English is difficult enough, never mind doing so in an extraterrestrial tongue.

But there’s much to adore about the world-building in this two-hour puzzle of words. It takes features from human languages and mixes them together. Almost all words can be nouns or verbs, questions require a symbol to be understood as such, and so on. On top of that the scholars in your journal squabble over meanings, leaving certain phrases ambiguous. Is the computer asking you politely to “please go” somewhere? Or maybe it’s just giving you a terse command to simply “go” somewhere, right now.

It has its faults, and isn’t as deep as it initially seems (many of the symbols don’t have translations included – they’re just there) but it was released in a busy November and didn’t receive as much attention as it deserves. If you’re looking for a cross between Her Story and the movie Arrival, it’s only a handful of bucks.


  1. Shiloh says:

    Yep – played it, sort of enjoyed it but was puzzled by the ending I got. On further (internet) examination, it turns out there are a number of different endings, but I couldn’t really be arsed to play through it again to find out what they were.


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    MajorLag says:

    Yeah, I was really into the concept of Sethian, which coincidentally was almost identical to one of my own never-attempted game ideas. Sadly it fell short in a lot of ways, the worst of which is the way it just outright gives you translations and tells you what to write for a lot of it. Then, just as you’re being left to your own devices and a large section of your notebook opens up, ostensibly so you can fill in definitions, it ends. I think I found exactly one symbol* that the game never defined for me and neither did my magic notebook, and that’s a shame. I think a big part of the game should been working out those undefined symbols to understand what is going on, asking the computer for confirmation by writing true/false questions using those symbols, diving down rabbit holes of definitions and elaborations, that sort of thing.

    The game fell way short of its ambition, but I still think it was a worthwhile experience. If nothing else, I think I will still remember the Sethianese symbols for “I don’t understand” on my deathbed.

    *from the context, I believe it was “program” or “duty”.

    • Amazon_warrior says:

      Agreed. I was hoping that it was going to be much more of a “decipher this language” puzzle box than it ended up being – and based on bits of the dev’s blog, that was a conscious choice based on feedback that suggested that many people were spooked by the language aspect. I confess it took me longer than 2 hours to finish, but that was partly because I got “stuck” at a point where I *thought* I needed to correctly phrase a question, whereas the game *actually* just wanted me to input “Why?” It felt like it couldn’t quite decide whether I was having a conversation with an intelligent Other or exploring the parameters of a program. Still, definitely don’t regret giving it a punt!

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