Xenolanguage at Big Bad Con 2018

I’ve been excited about this game for a while. I signed up to play it with Hakan back at GoPlayNW about 3 months earlier, but the game had to be scrapped because he couldn’t make it to the con.

What is Xenolanguage?

Xenolanuage is a game about a game set five minutes in the future and we've just made first contact […] you are a linguist tasked with deciphering an alien language. As you gain fluency, you begin to see the world differently. The game inspired by Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (aka the story that the movie Arrival was based on). It’s also written by Thorny Games, the duo Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu, who are the geniuses behind Dialect and Sign, other amazing game that play with language. (I’ve written about Dialect before here and here.)

Xenolanguage was on the Big Bad Con 2018 roster, and it was one of my #1 draft picks.

The beautiful Thorny Games logo.

The beautiful Thorny Games logo.

How does it play?

The facilitator was Hakan, and the players included Patrick, Joe, Scott, and myself. First off: great table. Everyone was excited, motivated and actively listening and participating, which is a hallmark of most tables I’ve been in at Big Bad Con.

Unlike the Arrival movie (and the story it’s based on, I’m guessing) where there is a single protagonist, in this game we play a group of characters working together as a team, trying to decipher the alien language. Each character has some reasons for being called there… a biologist, a linguist, a mathematician, and so on. Each comes with a bit of a background, but you can navigate and customize that background easily enough, and create a few bonds with some of your partner player characters.

Much like Dialect, the game looks like it can be played GM-less, although we had Hakan leading us through play as an impartial, non-player facilitator. The components of play include scenario documents that can be followed as a group, as opposed to needing a game master making decisions for the aliens, or deciding how the humans tasking us with this mission react to our decisions.

A centerpiece for the game is a pseudo-Ouija board that lays out in the center. It’s basically a clear plastic window, which lays on top of a variety of discs with strange markings on them. The game starts with just a few, which is the alien language you are trying to decipher. Over the course of the game, we teach the aliens some of our human concepts, and so additional words are chosen by the players to be added into this mix. Although everyone has their authority to choose the concept they wish to inject (from a hand of existing, basic words), the group discusses these decisions, so this game can make for some fun collaboration, and attempts at optimizing our communication with the aliens.

We went through a series of scenes and communications. There is an order of play here, which I really enjoyed. Some aspects of the game involved story game bullshit (one of my true loves), where we each got to have little vignettes or role playing scenes about our characters individually, or interacting, around being called to action, highlighting personalities, and other events around the situation. There were cards involved which had story prompts that helped guide the story and play.

There were also game moments which involved us getting together as a team to chat with the aliens. Sending the message involved all of us touching the “lens” on the Ouija-style board, and going from symbol to symbol, in an attempt to convey concepts or questions to the aliens. What is absolutely fantastic is how the response from the aliens works. It is not the facilitator’s responsibility to communicate for them, or some random prompt deck. No, it’s all of us basically playing something like Ouija, where we each have a finger guiding the lens, and see where it takes us. A few symbols later, and we have our alien response.

This sounds extremely random, and in a sense it is, because the game and game designers have very little to no control over the outcome of these communications! But, it felt planned and organic, and the story was anything but random.

I shouldn’t forget to mention that Hakan was also playing some background audio tracks during the alien communication scene, and this was very immersive, and helped elevate the situation.

Some other fascinating elements were some of the strange physical and mental side-effects that may affect the characters in the story, but not necessarily the same types of effects you’d expect if you’ve read the story or seen the movie. This adds an element of the fantastic, and allows even more creative interpretation into what is happened, above and beyond the interpretation already required for alien communication.

We pretty much played the full 4 hours, and I recall that we didn’t have time to play through all the phases normally in the game (I think there was supposed to be three cycles of play, but we ended up doing two?). But, that didn’t prevent us from being able to wrap up the story nicely with great epilogues and a satisfying conclusion.

The Pros

This game gave a lot of leeway for us to create the story we wanted to tell. It didn’t feel like we were just rehashing the movie, although there were similar touchstones and themes. That said, I can see using the game to tell different stories as well, like that time the Goblins and the Dwarves first met. Or those adults trying to teach us 2-year olds how to talk.

What was most striking to me, however, was that it mechanized and allowed us to experience that sense of search and discovery around the message. That feeling you have when watching the movie and are trying to interpret, and finally find out, what these aliens are trying to tell us. There was something just fantastic about what it was able to evoke all this, and not in a single one-off type way, but instead in a form factor that allows this to be explored in different ways, with different groups, each time you play.

The Cons

I’m concerned that the game won’t be easily portable to online play, and doing a lot of play in that space in the last two years, it’s an important concern for me. But I don’t think it’s impossible to make it work. I used to think Jenga towers couldn’t be emulated for online play, but there have been ways to emulate the combination of uncertainty and control with the increasingly rising tension in that specific case. Why not here? It was feedback I gave Hakan.

Our developing Ouija board

Our developing Ouija board

The gaming table

The gaming table