Last weekend Wholesome Games showed off their 2022 Wholesome Direct, a digital event showing off a number of indie titles with themes of inclusivity, creativity, and kindness. In a world where Summer Games Fest mostly consisted of gritty, brown military shooters, the color and variety of the Wholesome Direct was a welcome breath of fresh air. Plenty of the games had demos for folks to enjoy, so I decided to check out a few of them while they were available to see if there were any gems I wanted to keep my eye on. The first one I tried out was a little game called Tracks of Thought, a card battle game where the battles are conversations with your fellow passengers on a mysterious train.
You play as a ladybug who just got onto the train in question. Your name and pronouns are yours to define (options are he/him, she/her, they/them) right from the beginning, but that’s not all you determine about your character. However, instead of going through character creation at the beginning, character creation happens in real time as you make decisions on the train. During your dialogue with passengers, you’ll often have options where you make a decision about what to say. The first choice comes from an old man who jokes that what’s left of his life is flying by – you can either tease him and confirm he’s old or reassure him that he still has plenty of life left. That first choice begins the process of setting your personality, which you will cement during your other conversations around the train as you continue to make choices. Your ultimate goal is to explore the train and learn the truth about some strange happenings upon it.
The overworld of Tracks of Thought is made up of individual train cars, only one of which is available in the demo. The perspective is side-on, so you can walk left and right and either towards or away from the camera as you move around the car. Occasionally you’ll find objects in the environment to interact with, picking them up and adding them into your inventory. When you select an object from your inventory and then talk to a person, you’ll try to give them that object or at least show it to them. To progress some conversations, giving the person the right thing is a necessity. In this sense the overworld of Tracks of Thought plays similarly to any point and click adventure game: find the right stuff to move dialogue along so you can progress the game.
In terms of tone, Tracks of Thought definitely fits the Wholesome Games vibe: the dialogue is funny and charming, with plenty of moments putting a smirk on my face during the demo. From the tyrannical child whose kingdom is the floor of the train car to the overwhelmed staff member who can’t stand the fake pockets on her shorts, interactions are brief but convey a lot of personality in short bursts. There’s also a bit of humor in the more practical gameplay elements, such as picking up a half-eaten lollipop off of the floor and getting a classic video game style notification that says “You Got Floor Candy!” When you get into combat, the card descriptions have flavor text that helps to reinforce their mechanical effects but that also might elicit a chuckle or two. I got a good laugh out of the “Himbo Energy” card, which read “Play dumb and profit, you beautiful prick.” Glorious.
After solving a small series of puzzles and choosing some dialogue options in order to establish what your character is like, you are introduced to their polar opposite. According to promotional materials for the game, there are seven different companions you can meet based on how your personality turns out as a result of your choices. In my first run I met a ladybug with a quirky, chaotic personality; during my second run my companion was a nerdy bug in a wheelchair with a service animal. The differences between the two characters I met during my time were vast, and I imagine the other five are probably unique in their own ways too. No matter who you meet, a clash between your opposite personalities puts you directly into conflict. It’s time for a card battle!
Combat in Tracks of Thought is emotional, not physical, and it’s technically a cooperative effort: your goal is to fill the progress bar without either you or your peer losing all of your mental health points. The problem is, you can’t control the peer’s actions and chances are good that at least at the start of a conflict, they are not going to be making moves that contribute to the progress bar or have any kind of benefit for the discussion. So if you’re supposed to be working together but one party is hostile, how do you resolve a conflict? Let’s dig into the card mechanics a bit more.
The conversations are turn based, with your character acting first and then the peer taking their turn. During a turn, you can play either two or three cards. The first card is an approach – how are you going about the conversation? The four approaches are direct, creative, sensitive, and logic. You have a limited number of uses of any given approach based on how aligned your personality is with it – this also determines which approaches do and don’t work for your character when used by the peer. In my first run my character was quite direct and appreciated direct approaches from the peer, while my second try gave me a lot more creative cards to work with. When you play a useful approach, it gives mental health to your peer, helping to keep them in the game and give them resources to play their own cards, as many actions cost health.
Your second card is an action, a specific move you make that often directly influences your health, the peer’s health, or the progress bar. What actions are available to you varies based on your personality, and each turn you draw a different set. The best actions give all positive benefits, like the creative card for out of the box thinking which grants you both health and progress. Some actions cost a resource in order to replenish another one, such as the direct action of taking the high road, which sacrifices some of your mental health for the sake of progress. There are also cards that are just completely bad; guilt tripping your peer cuts down both their health and progress, to the benefit of no one. You yourself should never play such cards, but sometimes your opponent might. That’s why cards that can stun peers for a turn can be valuable – it prevents the other person from doing something that might actually erode your health and progress.
The third optional card is a bonus action. Bonus cards have a limited number of uses during a conflict but generally give bigger bonuses than standard actions. Some bonuses stun the peer based on their approach, or reward you with health or progress based on what stats you or your peer have. Other bonuses may give a useful boost after some time has passed; over my two games, I saw one for +2 progress after 2 rounds and one for +4 health after 2 rounds. The bonuses are limited but potent, and I imagine in later conflicts managing them carefully would be significant. For this introductory match, I found it valuable to play them early and often.
This, then, is the rhythm of conflict: you choose an approach as well as an action and possibly a bonus action, and then the final results of your turn are calculated. Who gained health? Was progress made? Once your turn resolves, the peer gets their turn and plays cards on the exact same terms. After each player has a turn, that constitutes a round, and the next round begins with your turn again. Sometimes your peer will take actions that are helpful, such as boosting their own health or yours, or even contributing to the progress meter! But they’ll also sometimes make harmful moves that subtract from the progress meter or lower health for one or both of you. Working around those issues and choosing the best move to work towards a solution is the key to successful communication. Just like in real life, the most effective communication happens when you understand both your needs and the needs of the other person and work together to find the best path forward with what tools you have available.
If you’re trying the demo for yourself, I fully recommend that you do a full run of the demo at least twice and experiment with different answers. My first playthrough I didn’t quite *get* what Tracks of Thought was doing. The game doesn’t give you notifications about what’s happening with your personality as you go – you don’t see “ah yes, you just became more logical” after you say something to another person. And because your personality determines your cards, you also can’t manage your deck (at least in the demo) or see what kinds of cards are available to you because of the way you are behaving. The best way to fully understand the impact of your decisions is to have a point of comparison and see how making different choices builds your character in a different way. I actually had a much better time the second time making choices that were intentionally opposite of my original run – the character I built that time had cards I enjoyed more, and I really liked the companion I ended up with as a result.
Tracks of Thought’s demo shows off a neat little game that is working with some interesting ideas and promises a lot of replayability. Having different cards at your disposal depending on how you interact with the characters on the train as well as unlocking different companions is a neat concept, and while the min-maxer in me does wish that I could see more details about the gameplay impact of my decisions, learning that organically through an additional playthrough was fun and didn’t take a significant amount of time. The card-based conflict provides a fun challenge and the quirky characters and funny card text work together to create a pleasant atmosphere throughout the game. If you’re a fan of card games or adventure games and like the premise of your choices molding both your conversation options and the deck of cards at your disposal, Tracks of Thought seems like it will be worth checking out. If you’d like to join me in wishlisting the game on Steam or check out the demo yourself, here’s the link to the game’s Steam page.