Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sunday: Converse With Monsters In Linguistic Game Tôtem
Tôtem begins with you, a human, alone in the woods. Before you is a large computer monitor, and as you approach it, so too are you approached by one of several beings. The creatures range in size from gigantic to mountainous. You are tasked with communicating with them, using their own alien tongue. If you’re a smooth talker, you’ll get them to leave in peace and maybe learn a thing or two. If not, you die.
It’s not unusual for a horror game to feature an opponent of massive size and threatening stature. Indeed, it’s probably something a horror game has more often than not. But generally, you deal with said opponent by either hiding in a box or fighting with a shotgun. After all, what other options do you usually have? Fight and/or flight are the two most basic and obvious means of dealing with a terror. But by no means are they the only ones.
Running from a creature is scary. The feeling is different when you need to talk things through. In the style of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, your job is to communicate with these beings across a seemingly insurmountable inter-species barrier. Frankly, I feel much more at ease confronting enemies in games with a flamethrower, because that’s familiar. That’s not an option for you in Tôtem. You need wits, composure, and most importantly, empathy.
Non-Wanky Game Recap:
The gameplay of Tôtem is all about managing the large communication console in front of your character. There are three beings for you to talk to (plus a secret creature, whom I was not able to access), each of which has a unique personality (in one case, two) and unique means of communication. The creature before you flashes a symbol or makes a gesture or sound. You have to figure out what’s being said and select an appropriate response.
Thankfully, someone else has already done the legwork for you and figured out what some of their words mean, otherwise the game would literally be impossible except for maybe a linguistics PhD. There’s a translation key easily accessible in the pause menu at any time and you will be using it constantly. Even with this, however, Tôtem is very challenging.
There’s stress enough while you’re running away from a goblin or ghoul. That feeling is doubled when you’re standing before them and must have a discussion. Tôtem is unique in that it is one of the few horror games that requires some significant thought in order to accomplish the tasks. Much more so than the typical putting a lion statuette in the lion-statuette-slot, and stuff like that.
The fear of being crunched by a creature is ever present. But so too is the awe. Rather than sprinting away, getting sporadic glimpses, Tôtem lets you gaze upon the gigantic creature at your leisure. And as they progress, they only get more impressive and awe-inspiring. You have to figure out their mindset, and understand them on a deeper level if you want to properly communicate. It is a fascinating process, and even though it is obviously a video game, made with the intention of being beaten, I did feel like I was the Dr. from Arrival accomplishing an amazing feat of communication.
There isn’t much going on in Tôtem. You are given the traditional first person walking sim controls, but there’s not much walking being done. All you have is the console and the creature, and I’m sure some people** will be disappointed to find that there are no hidden notes about said creatures or other places to go.
**Not me though.
How To Fix It:
In my opinion, don’t. Tôtem is a perfectly complete game. The fact that it is brief makes the experience that much more enjoyable. Not all games need lore or context. Sometimes you just talk to a godlike creature named Cow who has a gear for a head and that’s ok.
Finding new solutions to old problems is part of what makes indie horror games so fresh. Of all the means a player is given to deal with opponents, few horror games give you the option of dialogue. Tôtem has a unique method of approaching un-unique terrors, in the process giving the player an entirely new experience. Not only do you have to decipher the being’s words, but also their wants and intentions. Unlike most horror, where you shoot the thing until it dies or leaves, in Tôtem you are given the opportunity to leave as equals. Or at the very least, not squished like a bug.
You can purchase Tôtem for $5 on itch.io by clicking here.