This is the forty-sixth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Once more, the random number generators have spat out a selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It’s Lingotopia by Tristan Dahl, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Explore a city and learn a real language

That’s right: we are about to learn a new language through the power of indie games.

Lingotopia is a small exploratory adventure game designed to teach players a new language. It supports Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, German, Japanese, Russan and Spanish, but there are also community translations included for twenty more languages, including Basque, Norwegian, Sranan Tongo, and even Esperanto. I think that only the official languages are voiced, and players must speak one of them (the community languages can only be learned, they can’t be used as the base game language) but it’s still an impressive offering. I decided to make things hard for myself by trying to learn Mandarin Chinese, the second most spoken language on Earth after English, but which is notoriously difficult for English speakers to learn. Lingotopia supports both Chinese script as well as Romanized Chinese, and I opted for the latter since I thought it would be easier to learn words that way.

That decided, I was dropped into Lingotopia’s world. My character, a young person of unclear gender (the game’s site clarifies that she is a girl) seems to have washed ashore in a shipwreck, and does not speak the local language. Fortunately, a local girl in a pink dress seems happy to help, leading our protagonist away from the beach and into the city, to talk with various residents and try to find a way home.

This city was an unexpected delight. Rendered using simple geometry with flat shading or textures that emulate flat shading, it’s a lively an interesting place, bustling with people and animals who are all happy to converse in Chinese (or whatever language you select). Aqueducts run across the city, high above the narrow streets where clotheslines hang between buildings and the locals wander on foot or with small carts. Bridges arc over the river, with wide boats passing beneath, and there are distinct neighborhoods, from the tall fancy buildings up in the hilly part of the city to the dirty slums near the docks. The weather changes, with high windsx or rain, or even snow which leaves a white carpet on roofs and other surfaces. Most of the time there is only ambient sound, birds chirping and people bustling past, but there are street musicians scattered around who add some music to the city.

The protagonist isn’t in a particular hurry, sauntering along at a relaxed pace, but I didn’t mind because taking in all the sights of this city is kind of the point. Camera controls are slightly awkward, since there’s an onscreen cursor (which is too small) used to click on people or points of interest, so the camera only rotates when the cursor is moved towards the edges of the screen (walking around is done with the standard WASD keys). The camera is limited to a mostly overhead view, but I got used to this quickly and didn’t mind the controls too much.

Players are free to wander wherever they please, but the young guide is insistent about leading the way, always trekking to the next resident who’s ready to talk. Along the way, players may click on signs to learn about grammar or different scripts, or on any objects with blue outlines in order to learn the word for them, but words learned this way are seldom used later. The bulk of the language learning comes from conversations, in which a resident’s words are both spoken aloud (by a native speaker) and displayed as text. Players must then try to guess the meaning of a specific word in their statement, usually with a choice of three options. Sometimes, visual clues are given for the meaning of a word, and on rare occasions players must actually answer a resident’s question. This is followed by an ominous “they will remember this” message.

I found it wasn’t too hard to guess the meanings of words given the limited choices and grammatical context, but I don’t think I got very far in learning Mandarin. In most conversations I only recognized one or two words in the sentence, and only from the Romanized writing which I had trouble matching to the spoken sounds (helpfully, players can replay the spoken part as many times as they like). I felt I only had the smallest inkling of a few basic words and grammar rules by the time I’d managed to get passage on a ship heading back home.

At this point, Lingotopia gives players the option to restart with all of the vocabulary they’ve learned so far (which is collected in a menu that can be viewed at any time when walking around), and perhaps repeated runs through would start to make more sense. Since I didn’t have too much time to spend with Lingotopia, I decided to start over with Russian instead, a language I’ve studied but haven’t tried speaking in a long time. I remembered enough to get the gist of most conversations, and learned that only a few actually relate to the protagonist’s predicament. Most are people talking about their own lives and relationships, acting as ways to introduce commonly used words for family members, work, hobbies and passions. These are the same words that would be taught in an introductory language class, but the framing story and explorable city are an interesting way to deliver the lessons.

Of course, the best way to learn a language is to speak it and write it oneself, so in this sense Lingotopia rewards players only as much as they are willing to put in effort. Talk out loud along with the game, repeat the adventure a few times to practice words and get a better understanding of what people are saying, and it could be a nice starting point for learning another language. “Completing” Lingotopia is simply a matter of going through all of the conversations by trailing along after the bouncy guide, and I don’t think it matters whether players correctly guess the meanings of words. If you really want to learn, you’ll want to pay close attention and try playing through a few times at least. But even if you’re not that bothered about learning, Lingotopia offers a beautiful city to explore full of colorful creatures who jaunt and bob around through the streets, and is enjoyable for that alone. Worth a look. If you missed it in the bundle, Lingotopia is sold for a minimum price of $15.

That’s 46 down, and only 1695 to go!