Sometimes it takes just the right pitch to realize that a video game could be for you. When I first heard about the game ‘I Was a Teenage Exocolonist,” the conversation was pretty focused on the title as a visual novel and adolescent life sim. I like visual novels but I hated being a teenager, and this description of the game as a simulation game on an alien planet had me thinking that this was essentially just space Stardew Valley with puberty. And while I’m sure somebody wants that, it certainly isn’t for me. But then I read an article by IGN’s Reb Valentine that highlighted aspects of the game I hadn’t heard about before – specifically, that I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is a deckbuilder and RPG where the choices you make in character determine your stats as well as the cards in your deck. Now that sounds like something I could appreciate, so I decided to take the leap and see if being a teen exocolonist was right for me.
The premise of this game begins on a spaceship flying towards the planet Vertumna. On the ship are a number of human colonists from Earth. They’re fleeing a world of environmental disaster and conflict (hmmmmmm) to try and make better lives on an alien planet. You play a ten year old child on the spaceship who, after passing through the wormhole to Vertumna, begins having strange visions that come to pass. Your goal is to live life on the planet, make decisions that influence the success and survival of the colony, and learn the truth about the strange visions and dreams that plague your young mind. It’s a premise ripe for the sort of time-jumping shenanigans that many visual novels I have played implement, implied by the words “wake up” in a node at the beginning of what appears to be a timeline when you first start the game.
You don’t play a set character in Exocolonist – the character’s name, appearance, pronouns, and personality are all features for you to define. Gender expression, gender identity, and sex are all distinct factors which allows for a lot of customization; the pronoun customization in particular is the most thorough I have ever seen, with the ability to manually enter exactly what pronouns you want to be used in a number of specific contexts. There are some details consistent about you regardless of your choices: the identity of your parents and your age (10 at the beginning of the game) foremost among them.
Some of the details you decide at character creation influence your skills and relationships, two key mechanics in the game that are worth discussing not only for their significance to the game but also because they connect back to the deckbuilding gameplay as well. Each child on the ship has a genetic modification, and the modification that you choose helps to determine some of your starting stats. I for example chose the “Absorbent Brain” mod, which enhanced my character’s reasoning skill. Had I chosen instead “Calm Demeanor” or “Super Strength,” I would have gotten a different stat boost. But that choice didn’t just define my stats – it defined my cards.
Cards in Teenage Exocolonist have three broad types: physical (red), mental (blue), and social (yellow). Each of these three categories are connected to four skills. For example, mental (my specialty) has within it reasoning, organization, engineering, and biology. As you excel in these skills, you’ll generally get cards or perks of that color to incorporate into your deck. In the case of the modifications, you also get a card that specifically represents that mod and has an effect based on it. The Absorbent Brain card has a low value (0) but has a bonus effect of giving you extra skill points when you when a mental challenge using that card. We’ll dig more into challenges soon – for now, it’s important to understand that decisions about who your character is directly influence the cards they can play.
This isn’t just true about their skills or their personality. Characters are also defined by their relationships, and at the beginning of the game you get to choose your childhood friend. Your childhood friend isn’t locked in as your bestie or anything like that, but they do influence your starting cards – the memories you have with them are special even if their presence in your life wanes over time. In my case, I chose Marz as my childhood friend, which gave me more social cards including a particularly potent one with a value of (5) but that costs in-game currency to play. Once you’ve chosen your mod and your best friend, you’ve essentially defined the specializations of your starting deck. Whether you move away from it lean into the specialties you started with is up to you as you play.
The last thing I want to get into before we talk about how the cards challenges work is the basic structure of the game. Vertumna has 13 months split into five seasons, four with three distinct months and one season with only a single month. When a year passes, your character ages up. The game is quite clear that the game will end when you reach twenty years old. Since you’re starting at ten, you are essentially playing through your character’s entire teenage life – the transition into teenagery from childhood and the transition from a teen into a young adult. Each month you can walk around the colony and talk to people and then choose your activity for that month. That activity will have story scenes and gameplay for you to engage, and then the clock ticks over to the next month. 13 months of actions for 10 years – this gives the game a clear structure that allows you to see how your character is growing and changing over time.
The activities in the colony are related to your character’s various skills, and the variety increases as your stats increase and as you age up. Playing sportsball with your friends (yes, that is what it’s called) will increase certain physical traits, while going to school increases different mental or social traits depending on what classes you take. In my run I focused on biology and engineering (which both improve reasoning as well), which eventually unlocked new opportunities for me in geoponics, which is where the colony researches and grows food (this is also where your character’s parents both work). Activities as well as story events can cause your character stress, and when you’re too stressed out to do anything, you need to rest. Resting restores your stress meter and gives you the opportunity to let go of a memory – in other words, remove a card from your deck. The two cards you can choose from are randomly selected, but generally you want to try to get rid of cards that have low values with worthless effects so that you increase the likelihood that you will draw your more powerful cards during challenges.
“Okay but what is a challenge?!” Most monthly activities will involve one or more challenges for your character to complete. This is where your cards come in. A typical challenge will give you a target number to try to meet. You draw a hand of five cards and have five slots to play cards in. In the most basic terms, your goal is to order the cards in your hand such that you get a value equal to or above the goal number of the challenge. Some challenges are more complicated and have three phases where you can play three, then four, then five cards in order to try and bust a much bigger target number over multiple rounds. When you meet the target number for a challenge, you complete the activity well. That means more skill points earned towards your stats and possibly more kudos (reputation-based currency, AKA “money”) as well. Failing a challenge doesn’t stop the game from moving forward – it just means your month’s activities aren’t as beneficial as they could have been.
So how do you figure out the optimal way to play your cards? Thankfully a lot of the rules of the card mechanics will be quite familiar to anyone who has played a few different card games in real life. Cards are worth the value listed on the face of the card, but you can also accumulate points for playing them in specific combinations. Putting cards of the same suit (physical, mental, social) together, playing multiple cards with the same value, or playing the cards in ascending order from left to right (a straight) are all moves that score you extra points. So the trick is figuring out which moves in your hand are going to be the most beneficial – do I make two pairs by color or do I break apart my suits in favor of getting a straight? Depending on the value of the cards involved as well as any special conditions on the board related to the challenges, the answer may differ from hand to hand.
There are factors beyond your cards that can influence challenge outcomes. Your character has gear slots that can be filled with items that give passive bonuses. These can be as simple as adding +1 to your total, or as specific as increasing the value of certain suits or certain types of plays (like a straight or a pair). You also have consumables that can be picked up walking around the colony or purchased with kudos. Some consumables just give a flat bonus while others may have more unique effects, such as changing the suit on a card. Cards themselves may have effects that interact with these in different ways, too. Some cards change the value of other cards or are immune to having their own value changed. One of my most powerful cards is the Genius Intellect card, which has a starting value of (5) but gains an additional (5) if played during a mental challenge. Finally, the challenges themselves may have specific conditions that make things easier or more difficult for you. A certain slot on the board may increase the value of the card played there or change its suit to match the challenge. Or you could end up with a place on the board that randomly chooses one of your cards to be played there, removing some of your control over the placement of your cards.
Now one thing we haven’t talked about in detail yet is how to get new cards. We know how to establish the kinds of cards you start with, but how does that selection grow and change over time? During many months of the game, you’ll have events which take place and give you the opportunity to make choices about how to handle a situation or how to spend your time. These decisions become memories which are preserved as cards in your deck. Often, your stats will lock you out of certain choices, so having good stats in a particular category increases the likelihood you’ll have a lot of cards of that color. In my case, I have a ton of mental (blue) cards due to my high ranks in the various mental skills. As you rank up skills, specific characters in the environment will be able to give you new cards by participating in activities with them. My character has made strong relationships with Tangent, a young aspiring scientist, as well as Cal, who loves biology, because of having high enough stats to participate in high-level activities with them. Not that you have to have good stats to be friends with a character – their relationship points are tracked independently, and you also unlock events with a character by reaching certain friendship thresholds. These relationship events give you cards too, and this can often be a useful tool for getting cards distinct from the normal colors you have access to. My friendship with Cal for example has given me some physical (red) cards I wouldn’t otherwise have, and my friendship with Marz has done similar for social (yellow).
This, then, is the life of a teenage exocolonist. Each month you go around to speak with your friends and family and potentially participate in special events with them, based on your stats and friendship rankings. You then choose an activity to participate in or, if you’re too stressed, take the month off to rest. If you’re doing an activity, you’ll enjoy a brief scene and then take on a card challenge. The memories, skills, and friendships you have built constitute the cards in your deck, which you order in specific combinations in order to achieve high scores to beat the target number of the challenge. Succeeding in these activities then maximizes the rewards you receive. After that, the month rolls over. When a whole year is completed, you get a breakdown of the results of your previous year, showing the memories you made, the friendships you grew, and the skills you learned along the way.
There’s definitely more to discuss with I Was a Teenage Exocolonist – I’ve not even really touched on the visual novel aspects at all! – but I want to save that for a future article when I have gotten deeper into the game. So far I’ve been enjoying the experience and I am curious to learn more about the story and characters. I’m particularly curious how the activities you choose influence the story outcomes – the game cryptically gives you points to stats that are intentionally hidden from you like the amount of food the colony possesses or the defenses of the colony, so there’s a part of me bracing to find out that my character’s life might get cut short because of the choices I’ve made up to this point in the game. As much as the game already has going on, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what it has to offer, and that to me is deeply exciting.
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