Friday, May 17, 2024

Some Thoughts About Xenolanguage and "Story of Your Life"

A while ago (timely as ever), I got to hang out with Layla and play a session of Xenolanguage. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter, in no particular order. (Her thoughts are over here)

Xenolanguage is a roleplaying game where you take on the roles of the research team sent to investigate the Mysterious Alien Vessel. It's Arrival the storygame. You make your characters, set up your relationships, and go around the table step by step drawing prompts from the deck and playing through the various encounters.

It's Arrival: the Game. It couldn't pretend to be anything else if it tried.

It's not a puzzle game, that should definitely be said up front. I didn't know what I was getting into with this besides the pitch, but I had thought that there would be some sort of puzzle element or decipherment going on: this is not the case at all. There's no meaning to the symbols for you to discover; what you get instead is some prompts to guide players towards "what do you feel that this symbol is?"

This was fine for a while, but by the end of the (~3.5 hour) game, it felt pretty hollow. Since you're stuck on the path set by the pre-ordained plot, there's only so much forward action you can take, and when on reaching the end it felt like it didn't really matter. My character ended up spearheading a theory that the alien ship was a damaged probe spitting back junk data without any meaning to it at all, because that's kinda how I felt towards the end of the game. Maybe that means it succeeded, I don't know.

Granted, I have a pretty particular way of engaging with these topics (hard science fan with enough knowledge of linguistics to be dangerous), but I do feel that playing things so close to Arrival (in all ways except the actual linguistics) hurt it overall. It's a game about aliens and language, technically, but it is really more of a game about 4-5 characters and their relationships: the aliens are entirely incidental.

It was still fun to hang out with friends, and it certainly worked well enough as a game about characters and their relationships for the most part, but I left it feeling "that was a nice afternoon" rather than "that was a good game."


"Story of Your Life" is a short story by Ted Chiang, which I just finished reading (several months after writing the above segment). It is, as one likely already knows, the progenitor of Arrival, and thus the ancestor of Xenolanguage.


It seems appropriate that a story about language has got translation issues.

Villanueve did a great job with the visuals, and I prefer them in the film to the story. The story is better at delivering its themes, but ran into the issue of the delivery method not playing well with film as a medium. I am saddened that my copy of "Story of Your Life and Others" has ARRIVAL on the front cover, with your obligatory "now a major motion picture" slapped on it.

Now for whatever flubs the film committed in adaptation, Xenolanguage looks a whole lot worse in comparison to the segment I wrote a month and a half ago. It sacrificed having an actual central idea (the story is centered on figuring out how the Heptopods interpret time, and what that means for the character who can write in their language, interlaced with what that means for the narrator and her relationship with her daughter) for just evoking the aesthetics of the movie, and the end result is just empty. Not a revelation, I called it hollow just up the page, but in light of what was lost in the double translation of story to film to game it feels vaguely insulting and somewhat cynical. Loaded phrase but that's what my gut is calling it. Like the insides were scooped out, the chassis was put in a (much too big) box, and there wasn't any new substance added to the inside or out. Everything to make it work is put on the players, and maybe that works for the dedicated improv crowd, but in the practical world it needs more scaffolding than we got.


  1. Talking about games?! On this blog?! It's more likely than you think!

  2. Your thoughts remind me of thoughts on that game where you play old ladies solving a cozy murder mystery...and the murderer ends up being whoever you decide it is. And of a DM (I forget who) who commented that once the players realized his sewer level was entirely randomly generated an evening of fun degenerated into an evening of disappointment.

    I think a lot of players come for something larger than themselves - and the game needs to be able to generate that without relying entirely on the players to do so.

    1. For sure: structured vs unstructured play is a huge deal, and it's always weird when something that is being marketed and sold as the former decides it wants to be the latter. I can just daydream on my own!

  3. TBH I still think Stories of Your Life is Chiang's most overrated story--it's good, but Division by Zero and the Tower of Babel one knock it into a cocked hat.

    1. Definitely agreed: Tower of Babel was an absolute killer.