Sethian: The Hurts and Horrors of Misunderstanding
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In Sethian, you are a lonely archaeologist exploring an old space colony which was mysteriously abandoned. Your search uncovers a computer — the last speaker of the language of the people who lived here. Sethian is a puzzle game, and the Sethianese language is the riddle at the heart of it.
When you first load the game, you are brought face to (inter)face with its only character, the Sethianese computer. Their pitch black screen is filled with crisp white symbols which convey no meaning to you at all. It’s oddly beautiful. A prompt tells you how to access the Journal, a collection of handwritten notes which narrates the story. A brief diary entry at the beginning lets you know where you are, who you might be, and suggests a question to ask the computer.
All puzzle games are about mystery in one way or another, and Sethian knows this very well. The first interaction you have with the computer — that is, seeing them for the first time — is totally enthralling. Everything in the game, from the alien setting to the gentle synth music which you’ll notice only after it’s been playing for about five minutes; from the interface to the Sethianese language itself, all have been carefully built to make you wonder what it all means.
It’s worth looking at these points in more detail. Sethianese is a top-to-bottom and right-to-left language, similar to traditional Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. The writing system is ‘logographic’, which means that its symbols denote whole words or concepts, rather than sounds. Again, this is similar to Chinese, which the game’s website explicitly mentions as the main inspiration. But unlike the languages from which Sethianese draws its influence — unlike any human language in fact — its symbols are geometric. Straight lines, concentric circles, inscribed squares, skeletal polyhedra and perfect arcing parabolae. Mathematical shapes have commonly been used in science fiction to suggest the unusual and intriguing, à la 2001: A Space Odyssey’s iconic Monolith. There, as here, flawless geometry is so bewitching precisely because it is so inhuman. So artificial. (I’ve often wondered how early humans even discovered circles. They appear so infrequently in nature that it’s hard to understand where we got the idea from.) Ironically, it’s the perfectly universal, universally perfect nature of geometry which makes it so good as an everywhere-foreign language.
The computer itself adds to the intrigue. Naturally quite different from a human computer, the buttons have to be clicked individually with the mouse, reminiscent of a time in life when using a QWERTY keyboard was new and difficult. It’s decidedly maladroit, but even that, in a way, does its part to make the setting more gripping. More time spent typing means more time to contemplate, after all.
Sethian’s gameplay follows a simple rinse-and-repeat form. The player checks the Journal, works out what question to ask the computer next, diligently types it in, and then goes to consult the Journal again. This cycle is done a total of 26 times to get the main ending. There’s little substance to this routine because every question that you ask the computer is given to you word-for-word, often already helpfully translated into Sethianese in your PRIMA-guide-cum-Journal. This comparison is unfair, but only from the point of view of the strategy guide. The Journal is a necessary tool to play Sethian at all: without it you’d be left staring at the computer screen for all eternity.
This contradiction, between Sethian’s premise, the meticulous care with which it was crafted, and the monotone flavor of its execution, is fascinating to me. Effectively reproducing given solutions in the interface is tedious and yet satisfying in a way that any book lover will recognize — it’s the same relaxed attentiveness you have when reading a story you already know by heart. The simple pleasure of doing without really thinking. In this way Sethian isn’t puzzling, not really, because the only problems it contains are those that exist by circumstance. If the archaeologist had arrived several centuries prior, or had their linguist friends with them, there would be no mystery at all. Only in this moment post-civilization, by this happenstance, when Sethian (the planet) is meaningless and removed from the context only its people can provide, does Sethian (the game) have any meaning at all.
A puzzle is in many ways a game played between creator and solver, hiding solutions in such a way that you have to expend effort to find them. But if puzzles are a matter of hiding things from view, and solutions the means to uncover them, then Sethian is a puzzle that obscures in the same way that a cloud eclipses the Sun. The only solution you need is patience.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the number of symbols the computer has — 100 in all, plus 6 items of punctuation. Of these 100 words, you only ever find out the meaning of 45; not only that, they’re all unlocked simultaneously once you’ve asked the computer seven scripted questions and gained access to the Journal’s dictionary. This is when the game’s puzzle could be said to have ended. This difference between Sethian’s implied scope and its actual substance is what initially niggled me. But the more I thought about it, the more I questioned this disappointment and what it represented from my perspective as a player and participant in the narrative.
When one is disappointed by something, it feels like it’s something done to you. You have been disappointed and someone is responsible for it — they have let your expectations down. Disappointment is often a misery mired in miscommunication, misinterpretation, misunderstanding. Confronted with disappointment, it’s important to try and understand why. What is the difference between expectation and the reality of the situation? Why does this difference exist? Who has responsibility for this difference? And most importantly of all: is it a bad thing?
This is a familiar feeling for queer people in particular — since so much of our self-identity comes from individual queer experience, the incongruence between lived queerness and queerness in heterogenized media is all the more striking. But queer disappointment is genuine, and the culprits (for they are culprits) more culpable. We are living, loving, fucking proof of this inequity. This difference exists because of heteronormative supremacy. This difference lies at the feet of hetero-patriarchy, and the life and suffering of every queer individual is testament to our conviction that yes, this is a bad thing. It’s often called ‘baiting’ without really appreciating the violence this implies. But queer-baiting is as dangerous to us as a bait hook to a fish. It exists as a pretext; a preface to a short, sharp tug.
Misleading players in attempts to pursue philosophical questions is as cheap as it comes. The revelation that You Were Hallucinating the Whole Time is just, it’s just bad writing and it’s bad design. These games doesn’t say anything about your morality, or anything at all, because they have been engineered to enforce the very behaviours which they claim to want to criticize. It’s not surprising to me that the people who seem to enjoy these trivial statements dressed up as philosophical dialectics are by-and-large straight white men — real social conflict being something so alien to them, something they are so invested in preserving, that they have to artificially recreate it through deception in order to feel like they’re talking about anything deep. It’s artifice in the truest sense of the word. Sethian is better because it understands that questions are as important as the answers we give to them. It’s why all player action in the game is in the form of asking — the moment we give the computer an answer to a question is the moment that all agency is taken from us. The interesting questions in Sethian are the ones it chooses not to make explicit. Sethianese doesn’t distinguish between computers and other intelligent life-forms, but the implications of this are completely unexamined. Machine sentience is in essence a priori: the topic isn’t given an airing because the intelligence of the computer is a logical necessity of Sethian’s world. Questions in art often act as statements: by asking a question one proposes that the topic can even be questioned in the first place.
The misunderstandings I had from Sethian are not negative because they aren’t necessarily constructed. Sethian fundamentally believes and is invested in its own intrigue, a level of innocence which can’t be claimed by the likes of other, more notable offenders. The game generates mystery so effectively that in hindsight it’s not surprising when it doesn’t quite live up to itself. The conflict here is between what I believed the game to be, and what it actually is; the difference exists because of the game’s design in part, and my own wilful misunderstandings. And is it a bad thing?
It wasn’t until I unpacked my own feelings of disappointment that I realized the greater significance that they carried, that I realized what makes Sethian so fascinating to me. Your point of view in Sethian is from that of the player character — but not in the usual sense. In another game you’d expect a camera to give the POV of a person looking at a computer screen, but in Sethian there is only a computer screen. That is to say, when you boot the game, your computer, the one you are playing on, becomes for a while the strange alien computer, and you the player become the archaeologist who must communicate with it. It’s a subtle difference, but there is a literal universe of distance between the two. As such, the feelings of the player become a lot more significant when the barrier between them and the player character is removed.
In this strange space between our world and that of the game, we the player journey to Sethian for entertainment, in eager anticipation of a gripping riddle to solve. But the riddle here is an entire culture, a language, an extinct people. Sethian and its language are alien and mysterious to us, but this belies that same fact which colonialists in the 18th and 19th centuries found it so easy to forget: an unfamiliar culture is another person’s reality, and can’t be consumed, swallowed and digested. It doesn’t exist for entertainment. As much as the game seeks to conflate the player and the player character, this indissoluble disconnect between their motives can’t be overstated.
The unresolvable mysteries that Sethian presents have much greater significance seen this way. They act as a bulwark, a haven against our own internalized imperialist. Discovery, that old colonialist dream, has long been a horror enacted upon against those whom become ‘discovered’. But now the people of Sethian are long gone, their culture and language forever inscrutable, and it is in this sense that they are safe from us and our terrible Inquisition.
Enlightenment is a very old idea, portrayed and idealized in many forms. Science fiction is no exception, for somewhat understandable reasons — in an imagined future where incredible advances in science and technology are often presupposed, a sense of wonder, mystery, and discovery must increasingly be derived from appeals to more abstract, semi-spiritualistic concepts.
When the player is prompted to ask the computer “Where are the people?”, it diligently replies “They have Ascended.” Enlightenment in the form of Ascension plays a key role in the plot, in that it is the fate of the Sethian people, and is paralleled by the process we undergo in learning how to interact with the computer. What’s interesting to me is that Sethian’s enlightenment, both in the case of the lonely archaeologist and their extirpated predecessors, never quite leaves the realm of more traditional science fiction. In order to learn the Sethianese language the archaeologist (and the player) has to interface with ancient technology; in order to be free, the Sethian people must Ascend, eventually by technological means. If Sethian is about enlightenment at all, then it is about about obtaining it through technology. By removing the concept from the realm of thought or spirituality alone, this has the effect of enhancing the strange, alien feeling that talk of enlightenment often provokes. The game puts the suspicion many of us have for technology to good use by merging with it the creepy mystery of transcending one’s self. But for me, this wasn’t the most important part of Sethian’s slow creeping horror.
Broad social change, freedom, enlightenment: all these things are so often painted in such sweeping strokes that those of us marginalized in some way always seem to fall through the cracks. In the scramble for a better life, it’s the people who are already vulnerable who get stood on first. When the topic came up in Sethian I instinctively felt that something was amiss, that I was caught up in something fundamentally dangerous; the same feeling I get when TERFs talk about gender equality. Oscar Wilde once wrote that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is hardly worth glancing at”. But the problem always seems to be in drawing Utopia at all. Utopia, enlightenment, ‘ascension’—often these abstract ideals have to be couched in some widely understood (or endured) system of values, because often they bear little relation to normative experiences of the here-and-now. And historically, ‘universal’ value systems are precisely those things from which so many of us are excluded.
Sethian unsettled me not because of what it suggested, but because of past knowledge that I brought to the game. I’m so used to my cynicism towards intent in art going against its intentions that playing a game in which this suspicion gives me better insight into the world was a unique experience. But then this is why the horrific truth of Sethian disappointed me so: it’s a reality that I experience every day on Earth. I don’t need philosophy to tell me I’m ‘incomplete’ — straight society already does that.
It’s painfully unusual to have this kind of apprehension be proven right. Validating the wariness of the marginalized means recognizing the pain that inspires it. Almost unfailingly the exact opposite happens — marginalized groups portrayed as unfairly mistrustful, parochial and insular. Another people’s history, and their suffering, is all too tempting to dismiss as having relevance only ‘in the past’ when reparation would be inconvenient to a hegemony.
Just as the archaeologist discovers that they might not escape the fate of the Sethian people, so too is it true that we cannot place ourselves outside of their history, free from its influence. Sethian turns our invasive curiosity to a snare, for to be enlightened here is to realize that this world isn’t for us. The only way to emerge with our selves intact is to leave it behind. The Sethianese language, like all language, has power, even lost in time and removed from context. And but so we see all too late the rotting planet for what it really is: something that should be left well alone.
In the end, Sethian is a small atmospheric game made by one person, Grant Kuning. Its premise is neat and simple, its execution engaging, if somewhat flawed, and its intentions, if it has any, are literally so obscure as to be hidden behind an entire conlang. It’s a work of craft, construction, contradiction. I like it a lot. It’s hard not to worry that I’m projecting my own desire for ‘depth’ onto something which fundamentally has none. Then again, just as the computer is the only means by which the Sethianese language can continue to be understood, so too is our own experience of art the only way it can be said to have meaning to us.
And in any case, the compulsive need to understand, to be able to pick an idea off the page and keep it for ourselves — is that not an entitlement we should be wary of? There’s a difference between actively engaging with something, and an entitled desire for understanding only within terms with which we are already comfortable (which is why I’m wary of trying to ‘explain’ my gender to people any more). À la Schulman, the former is a conflict without abuse, and the latter is an abuse which comes from our desire to live without conflict. There’s a difference between an understanding of the world within systems and narratives which are prescribed by society, and creating new meanings for ourselves in spite of those systems and narratives. To identify the two is to misunderstand, or to fail to understand them both, and perhaps this is the real danger that Sethian can teach us.
When the computer says “you do not understand”, it’s a scathing warning, one that I’ve wanted to give so many people in my life. Your questions, your actions — they are weighed in the balance and found wanting. In the end, the archaeologist can embrace or reject the fate of the Sethian people, but they can never understand it fully without coming to terms with the consequences of their presumptions. We must all face the hurts and horrors of our misunderstandings.
Sethian gave me thoughts I didn’t have before. I came to it expecting a compelling linguistic puzzle game that would challenge my reasoning skills. And in having this disappointed, I ended up appreciating it a whole lot more; once I gave up trying to exert my own influences on the game, to get what I thought I wanted out of it, I was finally able to listen to the subtle messages it was giving. In being let down I understood, perhaps, that the meaning I derived from the experience of playing imparted more to me than anything its creator could have imagined.