It's hard to understate just how important language is. It's used to express love, confusion, anger, and sometimes even used to prove a point. Imagine how hard this sentence would be to read fi ti saw sdrawkcab? Vokabulantis, the new co-op game from Morten Søndergaard, Kong Orange, and Wired Fly, attempts to add a stop-motion style to a moving story about language and, if its Kickstarter is anything to go by, they’ve started on the right animated foot.
After some predictably ironic technical difficulties, I spoke to Esben Kjær Ravn from Kong Orange about Vokabulantis’ inception and the high stakes of crowdfunding. His role as a game designer allows him to get into the nitty-gritty of how the game functions, but his compassion in speaking about the game gave me a lot more than that.
Vokabulantis - How Do You Communicate If You Can't Speak?
The characters in Vokabulantis are missing mouths, but this doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. To express yourself is to do more than just vocalize. When asking about the challenges that come with this style, Ravn spoke very highly of the animation team Wired Fly, who they’re working with on this project. Their work on projects such as Shaun The Sheep has given them knowledge with expressing emotions without vocals. Even just small sounds or movements can say more than a sentence, in the right context.
“It’s expression, through and through,” Ravn said. “That being said, we also want the mechanics to reflect the emotional journey that the characters are going through. When the characters are happy…. The game design should be working so that you feel joy.” From my time speaking to Ravn, the emotional connection to this work was very clear. He wants the player to really feel something.
Ravn spoke of his influences in older animation but also modern games like the aforementioned Little Nightmares 2 and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. There are two main aspects to what makes these work so well. They both have enchanting environment held up by something strange and sinister. Pure fascination will keep you going as you play. The second aspect is the unique way they control. Brothers gives you an emotional and physical connection to who you play. You don't just play a character, you become part of their journey as they march forward to their conclusion.
Vokabulantis - Connecting to What You Play
Connecting to what you play is incredibly important in connecting with its central message. Brothers does this so well, and Ravn astutely pointed that out. This connected to their previous game, Felix the Reaper, in a different way. The macabre juxtaposition between death and dancing makes its tone and message ring through much harder than it might otherwise.
Ravn expresses the desire for a magnetism with the two main characters that makes you want them together. Through co-op, your desire to see the other player and to see them succeed is a part of that meta-conversation. You investigate the rules of language in-game and connect through actions outside of it. You are an extension of your character, and it is an extension of you. Ravn talked about the recently released Little Nightmares 2 and its ineffable quality to make you want to exist in that world for a moment, despite all its scares. Vokabulantis isn’t aiming to be scary, but there is a certain tension that the pretty world exists despite of.
“We leaned into the lightness and colorful and lush atmosphere of Miyazaki. Embracing niceness and welcomeness. We hope that our cynicism, by nature, tendencies juxtapose this danger down below,” Ravn said.
Vokabulantis seems to be a game that deals in dichotomies. It attempts to blur lines to achieve something deeper than the light surface. Sometimes, getting caught up in the semantics of this allows you to miss the bigger themes at their core. Inspired by lead writer Morten Søndergaard’s Word Pharmacy, Vokabulantis is about dealing with relationships and struggles when language only gets in your way.
Its focus on the arbitrary lines of language and the way we draw them is more of a device to something greater. “You could argue that language is the source material we draw the world from rather than being in your face,” Ravn said. They clarified that Vokabulantis is not a game intended to teach you the semantics of the word but something that grasps with the relationships that spring from them.
Although language is incredibly important to the foundation of Vokabulantis, it appears to be a smokescreen for something more intentional, something more tender. Language is a device to get across emotions, a way of writing a feature, a new avenue to see what people think and feel. If the trailers and my conversation with Ravn are anything to go by, I’m sure I’ll feel a lot about it at its potential launch in 2024.
Vokabulantis has been successfully funded on Kickstarter, and you can find it here.