Mother Tongue

by Nell Raban

Slice of life
2020

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A moment of connection through a language lesson, December 9, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Mother Tongue is a small thing, but oh, it does a lot with its fleeting play-time, boasting a grounded take on issues of identity, family, and assimilation, a surprisingly effective incorporation of puzzles, and great attention to detail. The blurb tells the whole story: you play a young Filipina/o (if the gender of the protagonist is fixed, I didnít catch it) whoís exchanging some quotidian texts with their mom, when the conversation turns into an impromptu Tagalog lesson.

For all that this is a very short game, thereís a lot going on here. I havenít directly experienced the issues Mother Tongue depicts, but my wife is Iranian-American and weíve had lots of conversations about what Farsi means to her, how sheís treated differently from her folks because she doesnít have an accent, and what weíd do about languages when and if we have kids. And while Iím a white guy, both my sets of great-grandparents came to the U.S. speaking something other than English but, bowing to the contemporary models for immigrant assimilation, didnít want their kids to retain those languages, which is something Iíve spent a fair bit of time thinking about.

So hopefully Iím not completely off-base when I say that pretty much everything the protagonist and their mom say to each other (or, for the options I didnít take, consider saying to each other) rings really true Ė the challenges of holding on to a home language, the push and pull between being in touch with oneís cultural identity and getting the advantages American culture bestows on those who ďassimilateĒ, the feeling that food is maybe the only connection one has with oneís ancestorsÖ itís all really well sketched out, with only a few sentences here and there and without any heavy-handed didacticism. The attention to detail is impressive, too Ė it was only towards the end that I realized that the protagonist speaks all in lower-case, whereas the mother uses capitalization, emoji, and proper punctuation (including putting periods at the ends of her texts!)

Critically, the characters get to be characters, rather than just functioning as mouthpieces for these issues. The protagonist, at least as I played them, is a rather overenthusiastic person who canít help but explain the plot of the CRPG Morrowind to their indulgent mom (reading this bit made me cringe a little as I remembered similarly babbling to my mother about how cool it was going to be when you could play nonhuman paladins in 3rd Edition D&D). And the mom is cheerful, unpushy, and clearly relishes the chance to play teacher.

I also found the language-quiz segments really fun, surprisingly so if Iím honest. Four or five times, the mother will ask you ďhow do you think you say X in Tagalog?Ē and offer you two choices; after the first one or two, these require thinking about what youíve learned to date, and seeing how she structures her sentences. This kind of inductive learning mirrors how we actually gain languages, and made me feel like I was actually learning a little about Tagalog as I went (Iím proud that I got a perfect rating without any do-overs!) Mother Tongue isnít the kind of thing I go into looking for an especially game-y or puzzle-y experience, but it wound up scratching that itch nonetheless.

If I were to cast about for critiques, I suppose I could list two or three bits of dialogue that are a little on the nose (thereís an exchange where the protagonist can tell their mom ďitís clear you care a lot and I appreciate that!Ē). But given how easy itíd be to write a version of this game thatís all Hallmark-channel schmaltz, those very few infelicities are more than forgivable, and donít do anything to undermine a really satisfying, well-observed vignette.