I realised I Was a Teenage Exocolonist wasn’t like other visual novels when it shocked me with a senseless death that I could fix with the most basic of video game affordances: I reloaded a save. That may seem normal, except that the option to save the NPC’s life didn’t appear until after I reloaded, helpfully highlighted with a swirly purple wormhole icon. It was the first clue something extraordinary was going on here with the game’s story.
This game plays with time, second chances and second lives in intriguing ways. It’s like a combination of Steven Universe and The Good Place tossed into an Edge of Tomorrow-brand blender. Northway Games’s I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is made of verdant worlds within worlds and lives within lives: a babushka doll of a visual novel that somehow has the scope of a big-budget RPG, à la Baldur’s Gate 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition, for less than half the price.
The conceit is written on the tin. You begin play as the child of colonists fleeing Earth to a habitable planet in a distant star system. After some travails with a wormhole and a rough landing, you play out the next decade of your character’s life on a strange, sometimes hostile, alien world until they turn 20 – their gender is yours to decide and can be changed over the course of a single playthrough if you choose.
The game and its early story are all very earnest and sometimes fuzzily pastel and saccharine – except, of course, when senseless death strikes out of nowhere – and it can seem a bit dodgem car in how it denies you the rougher edges of a difficult existence out on the edge of everything.
But I realised this was intentional. The game excels at re-creating the experience of growing up, to the point where it will stealthily elicit tears. If it seems to be shielding you, it’s because your loving parents are protecting you, and your perspective is forced to a narrower aperture because of it. As you play with your friends and frenemies – rich, fully realised characters with vivid personalities of their own – there are echoes of shows such as Derry Girls in the deft portrayal of absurdly low-stakes teenage drama against a background of important, bombastic events. And it is through those relationships that you truly unravel the mysteries of this planet – and the mysteries within yourself.
Your relationships are the game’s heart. You advance through seasons and years by choosing how, and with whom, to spend your time. Do you go to school? Do you volunteer at the administrative office or perhaps the creche? Or do you help your mum in the botany dome? These choices shape your skills as well as your relationships. Other kids you spend time with can alter your destiny as they become besties and rivals and even lovers – after you turn 18, of course. The frisson of all these interactions, combined with the dangers of a world that treats humans like an invading virus, makes you all grow up fast.
Every character is a diamond I wish I could commit to print, but I’ll focus on my favourite. Tangent, the scientist, is a hyper-rationalist trans girl desperately trying – for reasons both calculated and personal – to prove she can save humanity, even as she struggles to hold onto her own. Her story alone merits many columns of prose and represents an adept portrayal of a young trans woman tormented by the immense weight of her responsibility to the colony she’s still growing up in.
In a time when trans children are under attack by powerful adults in legislatures on both sides of the Pacific, Tangent’s story is quietly powerful. Hers is a tale where being trans is not central to her identity; rather, transition merely removed an obstacle on her path to becoming a genetic scientist who dreamt of making the new world into a garden – or hell, if you make the wrong choices as her friend and confidant. That, by itself, captures a trans story in very real dimensions as, above all, a messily human story.
I lack the space to write in detail about the other main characters, so I’ll simply say the other stories you’ll encounter are just as rich and thoughtfully written. Stories of grief learnt all too young, stories of power lust, of militarism, of anomie that can turn to violence or liberation, of earnestness, of maternal warmth, of masculinity worth admiring, and so much else besides.
The way Exocolonist makes reloading saves and starting new games diegetic is its very soul, and I won’t spoil the exact reason for that. Suffice to say, it is the game, and it is your character’s journey. It’s bold for a developer to suggest that the player needs to invest more than one complete playthrough in the game in order to fully experience it, but Exocolonist earns that.
It comes at a cost, however. A single playthrough can be long – 12 hours, on average. For some, that’s table stakes. For others, it’s an investment. For any player, it’ll be a taster. Truly experiencing the game demands more, and it’s hard to blame anyone for dropping off before they hit the 35-60 hours necessary to achieve 100 per cent completion and to experience every corner of the game’s exhaustively painted story.
While a single playthrough is a rich experience, it can leave you with an incomplete perspective. Other game reviewers have published errors-of-fact about Exocolonist because they didn’t reach certain storylines – notably, one accused the game of failing to address the colonialism in its title and argued it portrayed the planet’s native life as implacably evil. The exact opposite is true. Indeed, the game asks painful questions and denies you easy answers about all of this; and just wait till you meet the avatar of the planet themselves. But that plot is gated behind choices and skill-checks that you can evade for an entire, otherwise-satisfying playthrough.
Then there’s the card-game mechanic that underlies the skill challenges: it can be frustratingly random, even as it has a certain elegance. Bonus items you collect can even the odds but it still frequently feels like an impediment to the story. The system is, nevertheless, clever: your skill cards are “memories” that you can “forget” in order to collect better ones. There’s a brilliant idea here about how our memories power us forward in life and how we forget who we were to become the people we need to be, but it gets lost behind random number generators.
Still, this game is a queer sci-fi epic without peer. I highlighted Tangent: you’ll find your own characters to fall in love with, relate to, see too much of yourself in and weep for, as unexpected memories of your own teenage years surge back. You will remember, in the words of the game’s theme song, the child you were.
In the end, the game bears you ceaselessly back to your own past, when you were an exocolonist on Earth. For what else is a teen?
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is available on Steam.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "Teen spirit".
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