The Fall of Asemia

by B.J. Best profile


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Signs and symbols, May 12, 2022
by EJ

The Fall of Asemia is a game about language, or a game about history and culture and the fact that these are necessarily mediated through language, which is something that can be lost. I suspect Asemia’s name comes from Greek: the negative prefix a- and the root sema, or “sign,” as in semantikos, “significance,” whence the English word “semantic.”

Asemia is not without signs, and those signs are not without meaning, but those signs are no longer legible to most people in the world in which the game takes place. The PC is charged with translating them, but seems unsatisfied with her ability to do so. Translation is always a challenge, but beyond that, the protagonist seems to be dragged down by the weight of the responsibility of serving as a conduit for the lost voices of the Asemians. Or perhaps not – we only see her in a few brief exchanges in between the translated journal entries that make up the bulk of the game, and though her stress and feelings of inadequacy are clear, the reasons for them are open to interpretation. But I did feel like there was a lot going on in between the lines.

The game is mainly played by clicking on glyphs to change them and reading the journal entries that result. The glyphs are lovely, aesthetically, and I was impressed by the fact that those of the five Asemian journal-writers managed to look like the same language in different handwriting, while those of the soldier of the invading force were immediately recognizable as a different language. I did find it somewhat hard to remember which glyphs I had chosen before and which I hadn’t, and I’m not entirely sure whether the texts I saw were sometimes quite similar because I was accidentally selecting glyphs I’d already seen or because changing glyphs doesn’t necessarily change sentences in the way I initially assumed it did.

I also have to admit that it bothers me a little that, although the conceit is that the player character is translating the glyphs, what the player is doing seems not to be interpreting, but rather changing the source text. Unless we’re supposed to take it that the player character has fragments that she’s trying to arrange in the correct order? Regardless, I would have liked a little more clear connection between what I was doing in the game and what the PC was supposed to be doing in-universe.

Regardless, the translated texts convey the Asemians’ sense of loss and displacement with painful clarity. They are often poetic (“The strange vowels of this province flood my mouth like chewing on leather. Someone has painted the sky a different color”), and even the blunter and more straightforward passages, mostly courtesy of a child diarist, sometimes contain surprising and effective imagery (“I don't even know the name of this town, but the clouds here make me want to punch them in the face”). The banal brutality of the invaders is also starkly apparent; one passage, after talking about mass executions, concludes with a complaint about the music tastes of the original residents of the writer’s stolen apartment (“The records are mostly jazz. Who likes jazz?”).

Ultimately, despite my complaints about the relationship of the interactivity to the narrative, I did find The Fall of Asemia to be an intriguing and memorable experience, and though the short length of the game meant that its exploration of the intertwining of language, culture, and history did not have room to be very in-depth, it was well-executed.