UPDATE June 6: We are on Steam Greenlight! It's really important that everyone vote!
Long ago, a great and prosperous colony drifted among the far-flung stars of the galaxy. Founded by the savage and treacherous Daedens, it was built on the soil of a terrestrial jewel, with oceans of water and an atmosphere rich with oxygen, still untouched by civilization due to its isolation. But civilization was not brought to the planet, rather, it was the planet that civilized the Daedens. For in time, a new people was born of the colonists, who forfeited the vicious arms of their ancestors for stately wealth.
But as they grew in wealth, prestige, and power, so too were they met with greater threats, both at home and abroad. Rebellion after rebellion, war after war, the colony fell into decline, and in the chaos that ensued, the warp gate that connected it with the rest of civilized space was destroyed, consigning what remained of that planet to the pirates of the deep void. Soon, the echoes of their broadcasts through space grew thin, and people spoke of that colony only as of a memory.
That colony was called...
In Sethian, you play as an archaeologist from thousands of years in the future, exploring a distant colony, which has been abandoned for centuries. In the ruins, you discover a functional computer, which operates in the native language. The core gameplay of Sethian consists in deciphering and studying this language, and using it to communicate with the computer, to find out what happened to the colony.
If anything, Sethian is a puzzle game, where the puzzles involve interpreting and utilizing the game's language in order to uncover the mysteries of the planet. But Sethian is not a game of decryption--the game uses its own language, unrelated to English, which must be translated by the player.
The game's language is based heavily off of Chinese, which I've been studying for about three years, but also draws on the quirks of other languages, such as American Sign Language.
Chinese isn't written with an alphabet. Instead, it uses a complex system of symbols, originally meant to represent the meanings of words rather than their pronunciations, but has developed over the course of millennia into a system which blends meaning with homophones, with each symbol representing a single syllable, not necessarily a single word.
Likewise, the game's language does not use an alphabet. Instead, it uses a series of 100 unique symbols to represent each of the language's 100 roots. These function as words on their own, but also combine to form new words. Here's an example: you know what a foot is, you know what a ball is, and together they make a new word, football. Here's another: "no" + "where" = "nowhere". Now here's an example in Chinese: 酒 means alcohol, and 杯 means cup, but a 酒杯 is a wine glass. This kind of thing is actually even more common in Chinese than it is in English.
The symbols of the game's language draw on ancient geometry. This decision was inspired by Carl Sagan, who worked on the plaques of Pioneers 10 and 11, as well as the Voyager Golden Record. Sagan wanted a message that could be understood by aliens, so he included mathematical and scientific information which would be recognized by all intelligent life in the universe - with some deciphering, of course. All symbols shown in the trailer come from Euclid's Elements (except the Pythagorean Theorem, for which I used a different proof), but later we'll see symbols that draw on Platonic solids, conics, calculus, and even non-Euclidean geometry.
One hundred symbols might seem like a lot to learn, but you'll have a trusty, easy-to-access dictionary in-game to refresh your memory whenever you need it. No need to flip through every time you want to check it: simply right-clicking on any symbol will take you to its dictionary page.
"I don't think 100 is too many, I think it's not enough! How can you possibly make an entire language that only uses 100 roots?"
That's easy: by not talking about everything.
In English, we can talk about so many things. We can talk about concrete things, like the groceries and clothes, and we can talk about abstract things, like love and death. We can talk about philosophy and experience. We can talk about complex hypothetical situations, and the consequences of our suppositions. And there are a lot of things we can talk about which neither you nor I have ever thought to talk about before with anyone.
But the game's language doesn't need that degree of breadth and versatility. In the game, you'll need to learn how to talk about history and politics, but you won't need to know how to talk about your first love, or what you had for breakfast this morning. This kind of simplicity makes the language easier to master for the player, and easier to program for me. It's part of what makes this game feasible as a personal project. Its scope is limited.
"I got D's in high school Spanish! How could I ever learn a language for a game, let alone enjoy it?"
One of my strongest focuses in designing this game is to make a smooth and simple tutorial, which never asks the player to learn too much at once, or asks the player to ride around with training wheels all day before getting down and dirty with the real game. I honestly believe that a lot of people graduate from school thinking they're no good at languages when really they just weren't taught right. If you're interesting in learning languages, I will be able to teach you mine.
When learning a new language, there are four main skills you're working on developing: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. However, the game's language is only experienced in text, chopping the skills you need to master in half. You're not learning any weird sounds or trying to understand people who talk too fast.
Further, the game is specifically designed to be easier to learn than a real language. Natural languages develop quirks and irregularities, borrowing vocabulary and grammatical structures from other languages, and evolving through generations of speakers. By making something up, I can create a language that plays by all its own rules, and keep those rules short and sweet.
The gameplay in Sethian is simple and minimalistic. With gameplay, I feel the best way to explain is often "show don't tell", so I've recorded a short video to give you an idea. This is the first of several videos I'll be recording throughout the campaign, so stay tuned!
UPDATE May 15: Video #2!
Update May 24: Video #3!
An Open World
The game is designed with a kind of open world philosophy in mind. To be specific, I want the player to have several challenges, in the form of "topics", available to pursue at any one time, in the same way that a player in a conventional open world game has several places they can go at any one time, with things to do in each of them.
More importantly, I want to stimulate a feeling that the game has a vast, deep world, which is both interesting and rewarding to explore. Naturally, a game has to tell you what your goals are, and so you will be given hints, however clear or vague, about what you're supposed to do next - or more precisely, what you're supposed to ask about. But I want the player also to feel like other, less obvious questions are worth asking.
My primary influence here is Morrowind. I loved how the landscape was littered with caves and dungeons, which subtly told their own stories, whether they were hideouts for slavers, Daedra worshippers, or worse. Once in a while, you could come across something really amazing out of idle curiosity, and suddenly the whole world was worth combing over. I want to bring that feeling to my game, and translate that design philosophy to what I'm doing here.
My name is Grant Kuning, and I'm the one-man team behind Sethian. I'm a programmer who likes linguistics and learning new things. I've always played video games, and I've been making them for as long as I've been programming. This is my first that I want to share with the world.
A lot of Kickstarter campaigns will announce the experience of their team in the games industry, but my experience is a little different. Actually, what I bring to the table is my experience teaching English as a foreign language. When I graduated from college, I decided I wasn't ready to be a desk jockey, so I went to China, and taught English while I was there to put food on the table. I moved on after a few semesters, but I learned how to teach myself, and teach others. I want to share the experience of learning a language, as I understand it: Language is a vessel for culture, and by absorbing language, you absorb the cultural attitudes and assumptions of its speakers. You experience a new way of thinking.
I understand that not being able to point to big budget AAA games with my name on it like other Kickstarter developers will shake the confidence of prospective backers. In recognition of that, I am trying to be as humble as is financially possible in what I ask of my supporters. But moreover, to increase the confidence of prospective backers, I will attempt to post daily updates throughout this campaign discussing the game in detail, as well as video updates which will show as much of the game in its current, early alpha state as I can, giving a comprehensive walkthrough.
I want to finance this game personally, but I just don't have enough to keep myself afloat. Right now, I'm planning to finish this game by the end of the year, and while my personal savings could probably take me that far, they won't cover licensing fees, or legal consultation. They won't be enough to hire artists, and on my budget, even Steam's Greenlight submission fee is nothing to sneeze at. The amount I'm asking for is less than how much I intend to personally invest in this project.
But ultimately, this Kickstarter campaign is asking the question, "Do people want to play this game?" "Is this something people want me to make?" "If I throw all my money at this thing, will I get a return on that, or will I wind up on the streets?" If you want me to move forward with this project, let me know with your support.
Because I'm doing this on a super tight budget, I can't send out anything physical. Manufacturing costs money, and shipping costs money. Offering stuff like that means I need to raise more money. But more importantly, it would mean dealing with more factors. This is a huge learning experience for me, and I need it to be as smooth and simple as possible. That means limiting the number of things for me to focus on.
To make up for it, I've tried to offer great, cheap rewards. If you don't have much to give, that's fine, you can still get the game with no strings attached for just a few bucks. But if this is the game you've been waiting for all your life, I'm more than happy to get the community involved in the creative aspects of the game, and I've tried to keep those rewards quite a bit cheaper than similar rewards for other projects.
Everyone who gives at least $5 will be named in the game's credits, and all rewards are cumulative. That means if you pay $10, you also get the $5 reward, if you spend $25, you also get the $10 reward and the $5 reward, and so on.
UPDATE June 6: We're funded now, and a lot has changed over the course of this campaign. A lot of people have reached out to me to ask to work on this project, and it looks like this game will have a very affordable original soundtrack, plus a handwritten journal. As such, there's no longer any point in asking for extra money for those things. Therefore, I've decided to change my stretch goals. The only one I really want to push for now is new game+ mode, which I've dropped from a $20,000 goal to a $12,000 goal. We can do it!
$12,000: New Game+
In terms of gameplay, one idea I've been interested in implementing from the beginning, but wasn't sure I'd be able to, is a new game plus mode. This is a mode where the player would start from the beginning, but skip the tutorial, having already learned the language. The game would shift in focus from challenges in language use to a sort of battle of wits with the computer. I'm afraid I'll only be free to implement this if I'm relieved of artistic responsibilities.
Risks and challenges
I anticipate that a lot of potential backers will be concerned first and foremost with my lack of experience in the industry, which I respect. However, I don't want anyone to doubt me as a programmer - not because I'm a great programmer, but rather because this project simply doesn't need a great programmer. It doesn't have or need a big in-house engine. It's simple enough that it doesn't need to be highly optimized - even an ancient computer will be able to run it. The challenges to my skills here are creative, not technical.
However, there are other concerns regarding my lack of experience which are absolutely valid. Questions of, "Do I know how to handle a budget?" "Do I know how to plan a project long-term?" and,"Do I understand the less glamorous aspects of game development, such as the legal problems that can arise?" These questions all deserve serious, well-thought-out responses.
But the short answer - the humble answer - is no, because I haven't done this before. I'm learning as I go. The best answer I can give in general is that my strategy is to prepare to learn quickly, and early. How? By publishing my plans and progress frequently and consistently. By reaching out to the community for advice and criticism, and being humble in the face of that criticism. That's how I've learned as much as I have already, and that's how I intend to learn enough to take me the rest of the way.
Those are the major difficulties, but there are other challenges worth mentioning. I'm not as concerned about these issues, but I expect they will be brought up before the campaign is finished.
One problem arises from recursion. Without getting too technical, recursion is a feature of all languages that allows us to form an infinite number of unique, grammatically correct sentences. Thankfully, however, I don't need an infinite amount of code to handle all that, anymore than you need to hear a specific sentence before you can say it yourself. The infinite variety of sentences we're able to form arises out of a finite vocabulary, and a finite grammatical rule set.
It's also worth noting that not all infinities are equal. Consider the numbers between 1 and 2. You have 1.1, 1.01, 1.001, and so on. Now consider the numbers between 1 and 3. While that set of numbers is also infinite, surely it is a greater set of numbers. Likewise, while in theory, an infinite number of grammatical sentences could be formed in the game's language, that set of sentences is much more manageable to program for than the set of sentences that could be produced in English, or any other natural language. And of course, not every question is interesting. Many questions will have generic, uninteresting answers by necessity. For comparison, you could probably give a much more interesting answer to the question of "What are you doing with your life right now?" than "What do you think about the price of trout in Thailand?" (Although surely in certain situations the answer to the latter could be more interesting than the answer to the former.)
I've also been asked about the difficulty of making a language, but honestly, there's not much to it - at least for this project. The game's language is essentially Chinese with a hat on. I've tried to make a language before, and that involved some pretty intense research, identifying major world languages and comparing the phonetic inventories of about 40 of them. But this project mostly goes off of stuff I already know.
My last concern that I think is worth mentioning here is issues of design, from a big picture standpoint. I mean planning out the player's progress through the game, and the player's experience of the game as a whole. In a way, I imagine this happening a lot like an RPG. You see, in RPGs, maybe JRPGs especially, developers can plan out your progress because they know how leveled up you're going to need to be to overcome the next challenge, and they know how much XP you've been gaining off the last few enemies you've had to fight, so they can sort of chart your progress. I'm imagining something sort of analogous in my game with mastery of vocabulary and grammatical structures, but it'll take some pretty solid planning which just hasn't been filled out yet. My remedy for this is thorough testing, but I'm not sure the current beta release will give me enough information to get it quite right. I might consider doing the beta earlier, or if I can afford it, extend development. No game was so good that it couldn't have benefited from a little more time in development.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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