I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, the latest game from indie publisher Finji, developed by Northway Games, is a pleasant Game. It looks good, sounds good, features cute characters that are kind to each other, and it’s so kind to the player that you’ll walk right through it – for better or worse. This is a game where word count and rich presentation are a feat to behold, surpassing any text-based story game we’ve played in a long time. Nintendo Life’s interview with developer Sarah Northway after the Steam demo was released gave some insight into the passion that drives the game, and playing it on Switch certainly confirms that.
At its heart, Exocolonist is an interactive piece of fiction in the most traditional Twine style of choose-your-own-adventure gameplay. The core of the story experience is reading concise flavor text and then choosing an option for how your character acts. This is neatly adorned with light third-person exploration and an enjoyable card game mechanic, breathing text and maintaining momentum.
The story features a future where a group of humans have cooperated enough to send a peaceful mission into outer space to colonize a new planet. Everyone is super cool about it, kind and charming, with a modern understanding of gender identity and a post-capitalist, vegan utopian response to every problem in the universe. Your character is born aboard the first colonizing spaceship, reaches the colony at the age of ten, and comes of age over the next ten years of the game’s narrative, pampered, at first, in this lovely, pleasant micro-society.
The military involvement in this mission is only a small “security” team, there only to keep the peace. Although they are a small team, everything is already so peaceful that they have to occupy their time by building sports facilities. And of course, in this guy-free fantasy future, the sport everyone plays is literally called “sportsball,” and seems to involve both a badminton net and a striped hoop that looks like soft-play quidditch. Beautiful.
The humanities here are taught, valued, and provide a strong pathway to career success and social status. In class, after doodling instead of writing an essay about how much we love our friends, we were presented with our first card challenge. “Some challenges can’t be won,” we are told, which causes us a lot of nervousness, “…but you still get a reward for doing your best. Phew! Hammering the message home, our father moaned: “I I think there are many ways to learn, and school is just one of them. And to put the icing on the icing on top of an already very, very beautiful cake: there are the hoverboards.
In a coming-of-age story, this utter innocence is a brilliant start. Things get serious pretty quickly, with a fabulous opportunity for a stark contrast to the early game. However, the gravity of the story never quite beats. Besides the characters are all nice to each other, the game is too courteous to the player. The apparent danger is usually overcome without difficulty, and when our choices seemed to have gone wrong, the consequences simply evaporated. An injured hand that the text told us looked bad, for example, was immediately forgotten and life went on. While exploring, we ignored a warning that “You should go home soon” – with no consequences. While history is poised to inflict severe destruction, the world has simply been kind to us at every turn.
For at least the first few hours of the game, card battles were so easy that we could just throw down any cards and a literal “WIN” button would light up. Even if it wasn’t, we could “PUSH THROUGH” and still win for a small cost to our stress stat. This frictionless level of difficulty rather undermines the purchase of imaginative and beautifully illustrated buffs, unfortunately. There’s an option for tougher card battles – which is badly needed, as the default calibration is wildly overly generous – but the lack of narrative danger still looms large, even with that option enabled. And if even that all sounds too scary, don’t worry: For trickier players, worried the touchscreen will give them a blister, you can skip card challenges altogether in favor of an automated draw. .
However, the card mechanics are still fun, thanks in part to the colorful cards and touchscreen touch interaction. Demonstrating once again just how thorough the cuteness of this game is, the artist of each card is credited to their face. Smooth gameplay is one thing, though, and an inherent respect throughout the game is surely a good thing – large, in-depth content warnings and a selection of pronouns remaining available at all times, for example – but a story should be go out to look for you with its emotion, its excitement, its humor – or Something. We yearned for the game to hit us with something, to kick us.
However, as a weakness, “too nice” is like something you would confess in a job interview. Generosity of spirit in gameplay and story seeps through every pore of the game. We always felt that Exocolonist respected our time. So much love, care, passion and hard work clearly went into every inch of it that it truly deserved every moment we gave it. With an attentive and curious approach, exploring details and supporting the most interactive activities, even our first game took around 15 hours – and we were quickly forced to start our second. With so many paths to take, friendships with NPCs to cultivate, romantic opportunities to pursue (with unrealistic levels of success in our experience…), if this world captures your imagination, you will reap incredible rewards.
Everything about I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is pleasant, from its looks to its sounds to its writing – nice, if not a flaw. As a plot, it makes sense that the utopian vision of the exocolonists is very beautiful, with its impeccable inclusiveness and anti-capitalist teachings, but at some point, if things are going to become a pear of life or death, kindness should really give. Overall the game lacks teeth, but with so much love and kindness oozing from all facets of it, it is, at the same time, impossible not to love.