I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, the latest game from indie publisher Finji, developed by Northway Games, is a nice game. It looks nice, sounds nice, features nice characters being nice to one another, and is so nice to the player that you’ll breeze right through it – for better or worse. This is a game where the sheer word count and richness of presentation are a feat to behold, outstripping any text-based story game we’ve played in a long time. Nintendo Life’s interview with developer Sarah Northway following the release of the Steam demo gave a hint of the passion driving the game, and playing it on Switch certainly bears that out.
At its heart, Exocolonist is a piece of interactive fiction in the most traditional, choose-your-own-adventure, Twine-game style. The bulk of the story experience consists of reading concise flavour text, then picking an option for how your character acts. This is ornamented neatly with lightweight third-person exploration and an enjoyable card game mechanic, allowing a breather from the text and keeping momentum up.
The story presents a future where a group of humans has cooperated well enough to send a peaceful mission into outer space to colonise a new planet. Everyone’s super chill about it, nice and lovely, with a modern understanding of gender identity and a right-on, post-capitalist, vegan utopian answer to every problem in the universe. Your character is born aboard the first colonising spaceship, reaches the colony aged ten, and comes of age over the subsequent ten years of the game’s narrative, coddled, at first, in this nice, nice micro-society.
The military involvement in this mission is just a small “security” team, there only to keep the peace. Despite being a small team, everything’s so peaceful already that they have to fill their time by building sports facilities. And of course, in this fantasy non-dude-bro future, the sport everyone plays is literally called “sportsball”, and appears to involve both a badminton net and a stripy hoop that looks like soft-play quidditch. Very nice.
The humanities here are taught, valued, and are a sound route to professional success and societal status. In class, after doodling instead of writing an essay on how much we love our friends, we were presented with our first card challenge. “Some challenges can’t be won,” it is explained, causing us a great deal of nervousness, “…but you still get a reward for doing your best.“ Phew! Hammering the message home, our dad whimpers, “I think there are lots of different ways to learn, and school is just one of them.“ How nice! And to put the icing on top of the cherry on top of an already very, very nice cake: there are hoverboards.
In a coming-of-age story, this utter innocence is a brilliant start. Things get serious pretty fast, with a fabulous opportunity for a dire contrast with the early game. However, the severity of the story beats never quite lands. Apart from the characters all being nice to one another, the game is overly courteous to the player. Apparent jeopardy is usually overcome straightforwardly, and when our choices did seem to have gone badly wrong, the consequences just evaporated. An injured hand that the text told us looked bad, for instance, was immediately forgotten and life went on. Out exploring, we ignored a warning that “You should go home soon” – with no consequences whatsoever. While the story is ready to dish out severe destruction, the world just went easy on us at every turn.
For at least the first several hours of the game, card battles were so easy that we could just throw any cards down and a literal “WIN” button would light up. Even when it didn’t, we could “PUSH THROUGH” and just win anyway for a small cost of our stress stat. This frictionless difficulty level rather undermines the purchasing of imaginative and beautifully illustrated buffs, sadly. There’s an option for harder card battles – which is definitely needed, as the default calibration is crazily over-generous – but the lack of narrative jeopardy again rears its head even with this option on. And if even this all sounds too scary, don’t worry: for the very most delicate of gamers, concerned that the touchscreen might give them a blister, you can skip card challenges altogether in favour of an automated coin toss.
The card mechanics are still fun, however, partly down to the colourfully drawn cards and the tactile interaction of the touchscreen. Demonstrating once again just how thoroughgoing the niceness of this game is, the artist of every single card is credited on its face. Gentle gameplay is one thing, though, and an inherent respect throughout the game is surely a good thing — prominent and thorough content warnings and pronoun selection remaining available at any time, for example — but a story should be out to get you with its emotion, its excitement, its humour – or something. We were yearning for the game to hit us with something, to give us a kick.
However, as a weakness, “too nice” is like something you’d confess to at a job interview. The generosity of spirit in the gameplay and story seeps through every pore of the game. We always felt like Exocolonist was respecting our time. So much love, care, passion, and hard work has clearly gone into every inch of it that it really earned every moment we gave it. With an attentive and curious approach, lapping up the details and taking on the most interactive activities, even just our first playthrough took about 15 hours – and we were quickly compelled to start our second. With so many paths to take, NPC friendships to cultivate, romantic opportunities to pursue (with unrealistic levels of success in our experience…), if this world captures your imagination, you’ll get incredible mileage out of it.
Every single thing about I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is nice, from its appearance to its sounds to its writing – nice, even, to a fault. As a plot device, it makes sense that the utopian vision of the Exocolonists is all very lovely, with its impeccable inclusivity and anti-capitalist teachings, but at some point, if things are going to go life-or-death pear-shaped, the niceness really ought to give. Overall, the game lacks bite, but with so much love and niceness oozing from every facet of it, it is, by the same token, impossible to dislike.