Project Proposal: Babel Video Game


Summary: My project will draw from the novel Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany to create a prototype video game called that explores how programming and communication shape reality and individuality.

1. Background on Babel-17 Original Text.

Babel-17 is set in a war-torn universe. The Invaders and The Alliance have been fighting for an indeterminable amount of time, for reasons that no one seems to remember. The Invaders are increasingly on the winning side, having developed a powerful weapon: the language of Babel-17.

When a person uses (meaning speaks or thinks in) Babel-17, they obtain a heightened sense of patterns and strategy that gives them a nearly undefeatable military advantage. This comes at the cost of self-identity: there is no singular pronoun “I” or concept of self in the language. This has huge implications for the reality and identity of people using the language. As Rydra Wong, Delany’s protagonist, asks “If there’s no word for it, how do you think about it?” (Delany 203). Rydra later describes how “The lack of an ‘I’ precludes any self-critical process. In fact it cuts out any awareness of the symbolic process at all—which is the way we distinguish between reality and our expression of reality” (Delany 388). Babelers (my own term for people using the Babel language) operate without fear or concern for self. The language essentially turns them into robots or puppets, carrying out Invader missions. Put another way: Babel programs humans in the same way that codes program computers. In the text, it is described as having some similarity to “ancient, twentieth-century languages—artificial languages that were used to program computers, designed especially for machines” (359). It also bears some resemblance to The Force in Star Wars in that it grants the user heightened spatial awareness and power.

The threat of Babel-17 offers commentary on the importance of maintaining selfhood in the time Delany was writing. As scholar Ria Cheyne argues: “Rather than evolving out of earlier languages, as natural languages do, an artificial language is a deliberate construct designed at a particular time for a particular purpose ” (386). Babel-17 was published in 1966, during the height of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. Throughout the 1960s, riots, marches, and protests challenged the American status quo and disrupted the primarily white-male establishment. Delany brings this setting into Babel-17, describing a world of broken windows, looting, and violence. The elite live in comfort, while the lower classes are starved: a clear allusion to the economic and racial disparities of the 1960s. Scholar Gregory E. Rutledge comments: “Some of Delany’s futurist fiction novels written in the Black Power era are steeped in Black nationalism… Babel-17 (1968) is such a novel, for it shared prevailing Black revolutionary ideology and self-definition fervor shaping the Black community” (128).

The text presents self-definition as essential to liberation. As the character Butcher puts it after relearning the concept of self: “I was no I before, but now there is a reason to stay free. I will not be caught again…Because I am…and you are” (Delany 297). The text seems to argue that having a self to preserve is an essential ingredient of humanity and freedom, both in Delany’s fictional and real world.

The text also presents an interesting reflection on reality related to using an enemy’s weapons against them: mastering the language of the oppressor to gain power. Instead of killing or lobotomizing all Babelers, Rydra argues, “The way you fix your computer isn’t to hack out half the wires. You correct the language, introduce the missing elements and compensate for ambiguities” (Delany 391). The book ends with Rydra and the Butcher doing exactly that: transforming Babel-17 into a still powerful, but more liberated language that allows for self identity.

Interestingly, Delany spends little time describing the Invaders and their objectives. Rydra’s poetry is beloved on both sides of the war, which suggests that the Invaders might not be as foreign or different as often believed. Near the end of the book, Delany subtly reveals that Invaders think of the Alliance in the same way the Alliance thinks of them: “Alliance in Babel-17 translates literally into English as: one-who-has-invaded” (Delany 389).

Delany also comments on gender dynamics and women’s empowerment through the strong character of Rydra. She possesses more skill and intelligence than any of her male peers, and differs greatly from bland or sideshow female characters in other literature written in the 1960s. She is also granted romantic feelings and agency.


2. Babel: The Video Game

My game will bring the themes and social commentary discussed above into a near-future terrestrial setting, so that users will consider the impact of programming and communication in their own concepts of self and reality. The game will also tie into contemporary discourse on technology and cyborgs, as Babel is essentially a computer program for humans. The game will encourage users to consider how technology programs us to think about ourselves and others. I want to weave in themes of gender and racial/ethnic dynamics through the various scenarios, and challenge a white American perspective. Some of this will be achieved through the character of Chima (my game’s equivalent of Rydra), cosmetisurgerical enhancements (which transform a human’s appearances and abilities), and the game setting.

The first part of the game will establish the setting in a near-future urban area in southern Africa. The Alliance will be comprised of the continents of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. The Invaders will be the Western countries of North America and Europe. Russia will be the equivalent of the Shadow Ship in the text: an entity that is loosely aligned with the Alliance, but pirates Alliance ships for resources when needed.

The objective of the game is to crack Babel-17 and use it against the Invaders while preserving individual identity in a limited amount of time

[TBD]. Users experience the game through the perspective of Chima, a poet with sharp linguistic abilities who is widely considered the voice of her time (very loosely based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). Fighting for the Alliance, the user will be presented with several scenarios in which they must choose between strategic gain and preservation of self identity. Users loose the game if they loose all sense of self.

The game will present users with a series of scenarios in which they must decide when and how much Babel to use, based on cost-benefit analysis. (side note: when Babel is used, screen obtains blue tint and actions slow down as sensory cues). For example: a user can choose to maintain use of personal pronouns, but are punished by loosing a battle when they do. Conversely, when users use Babel, they win battles, but begin to loose their individuality and begin to be co-opted by the Invaders, undermining the user’s objective.

Every time a user uses Babel, they loose a certain amount of self depending on the amount used and need to spend credits on anti-nausea medicine and anti-depressants to counter the effects of the language on Chima. Credits are earned through side scenarios of wrestling matches or gambling (both based on scenes in the text). Alternatively, users can write a poem to counteract the negative effects of Babel (users will actually have to write an original poem of some kind). This preserves the user’s identity, but costs them valuable time in cracking Babel and using it against the Invaders.

There will also be side characters such as Hackers (Invaders that defected, and not present in Delany’s original text), that can hack Babelers for short periods of time, [TBD]. Hackers can also program people to come back to life (this is based on scenes in the original text). This draws partially from our class discussions of human-machine relationships and the television show Humans in which humanoid synths can be programmed for various purposes. There will also be discussion of the line between science and magic, programming and spells.

The only way to defeat the Invaders is to use Babel against them. This requires users to master the language but not be controlled by it (and allegory to human relationship to technology and programming). Users must also reprogram Babelers by teaching them the words and concepts of “I” and “you.” This is drawn from Delany’s powerful scene in which Rydra teaches the Butcher how to think of himself as an individual.

-sketch out scenarios, each slightly different, with progressing use of Babel. What does each scene achieve? Possibly one scene with psychiatrist, one in battle, one face to face with Babeler (like scene with Butcher).

-sketch out other characters, including Babelers, crew, Invaders, psychiatrist

-fill out structure sketch

-find imagery






Chima (Rydra equivalent): a poet thought of as the voice of her time, some mild telepathic abilities and sharp awareness. User experiences game as Chima.

Psychiatrist: (more info TBD)

General: (more info TBD)

Crew: (more info TBD)

Butcher: (more info TBD)



Chima and crew are sent on series of 3 missions by the Alliance government to understand and defeat Babel. In each scenario, user chooses level of Babel to use.


Babel level 1:

Benefit: slightly increased strategic ability, but still easily defeated in combat by Invaders

Cost: mild nausea


Babel level 2:

Benefit: highly enhanced strategic and combat ability

Cost: nausea, confusion of identity


Babel level 3:

Benefit: highly enhanced military ability, and ability to infiltrate and manipulate/program enemy minds and battle plans. increased metabolic rate, helps the user stay warm in outer space.

user feels as though they are moving in slow motion

Cost: crippling nausea and depression after engagement, inability to think of self, or act in self-interest



Every time a user uses Babel, they need to spend a 1-3 credits (depending on level) on anti-nausea medicine and anti-depressants. This limits the amount of Babel that can be used. The cumulative amount of Babel used also informs state of user in Part Three.

Alternatively, users can write a poem to counter act the negative effects of Babel. But this costs the user time.



Credits are obtained by fighting battles in Transport Town or gambling in Casino, which can also involve using Babel to manipulate games and see strategic trends and opportunities (gambling credits to potentially win more credits). [TBD]

Credits can also be used to obtain permanent Cosmetisurgerical enhancements, such as silver horns, metal tail or wings, or spurs (each has an advantage).




Chima must loose and then regain part of herself to further the cause, understand and sympathize with Babelers. User then presented with scenarios for changing Babel, converting Babelers or killing/lobotomizing them. Alternative “loosing” ending in which Chima is lost to Babel, and the Invaders win and convert everyone to Babel.





Cheyne, Ria. “Created Languages in Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 35.3 (2008): 386-403.