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I was a Teenage Exocolonist is a game from Northway Games that came out in 2022, a year when I am more and more feeling like media production did something weird to affect me, personally, deliberately. It launched on Basically Everything, including macOS and Linux, which speaks to a desire to include people in this big sprawling game that Wikipedia calls an RPG, that the Steam copy calls a Narrative RPG and which I keep thinking of as a dating sim.
[pops, neutral expression]
In this game, you’re going to play a character that starts out as a ten year old on a colony ship, which then lands and explores the story of a human colony on an alien world, for the first time in history. You follow the character across a sequence of years, confronting challenges, learning about who you are and who you want to be, developing experiences with other people, which you will save and slot into a deck of cards you then use to overcome challenges later. This is a game I find incredibly exciting and I like playing and I like enjoying is experiences it offers me and that’s great. Especially if you know me and my personal challenges grappling with playing and enjoying visual novels.
When I say it’s a ‘visual novel’ or ‘dating sim’ I want to do that in a way that properly puts respect on the term. Because I think it’s very reasonable to describe I Was A Teenage Exocolonist as being in the same genre as Roommates, in the same way that Wolfenstein 3D and Battlefield 1941 are games in the same genre. There’s a lot of fundamental ideas that are lined up, but one of them has access to a lot more different ways to express their ideas.
There’s a pre-emptive sneer in the critical space around visual novels and dating sims. When Dokidoki Literature Club was The Topic, there were a lot of people like me, who don’t play many games in the genre, talking about one game that was doing something remarkable that they hadn’t seen before, and used that to suggest this game elevated the form. I found this discourse tiresome, because the game didn’t really do anything that surprised me, which was I think a byproduct of my being aware that it wasn’t doing anything new in the genre. That whole period made me cautious about talking too decisively, too seriously, about what the game genre does or has in it, because what I’m mostly aware of is the things I don’t know about. Ahah, people muse, what about these interesting ideas of a game that tells you it doesn’t want to play with you? Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that something new? All while ignoring that the game is very much not doing that, and also, that this is something games have been doing for decades in that genre.
I’m not saying I’m a better critic than people who were impressed by Dokidoki Literature Club mind you.
(Maybe a little)
Point is, that it’s very possible to describe IWATE as a visual novel and dating sim and have that feel like I’m presenting it in the wrong way. I could just as much try and call it a deck builder, or a life simulator, or yes, a roleplaying game and those wouldn’t be wrong ways to describe it otherwise. Thing is, why NOT describe it as a dating sim? It’s a game where the mechanics of romances and relationships are front-and-centre, with room for players to explore them, and it seems to me that they’re as important as any amount of shooting Geth is to Mass Effect. If you want to define ‘dating sim’ and ‘visual novel’ down to the point where this game can’t be included you’re kind of paring down what those genres can even be in a way that’s deliberately designed to exclude almost every form of those games that doesn’t fit a very narrow band. Basically, it’s saying ‘these things are boring because anything that isn’t boring isn’t one of them, definitionally.’
And if you know me, you know how much I don’t tend to buy definitional arguments when it comes to game experiences.
IWATE is a dating sim.
It’s a really, really good one.
It’s a visual novel.
It’s a really, really long one.
I am not a big reader, as may surprise those of you who see the amount of words I put out or the books I have to engage with for my study. I do not, typically speaking, like reading a lot, and it’s partly because I need to do A LOT of reading. My reading is compulsory and it’s slow and it’s difficult. When I don’t have to read – not BOOKS at least – I do kinda try and do that instead for my leisure time.
There’s a lot of reading in IWATE. It is honestly so vast a reading task that I do not feel confident – a mere twenty four hours of playing through the game – being confident about what is or is not in the text. I can’t say that there’s not some plot spur or some specific idea that I personally wouldn’t like, because there’s just so much of it. And what’s more, as a game, any given play through is going to show you just one particular version of it.
A text where there are multiple versions that you’re expected to experience in multiple different iterations is a hypertext. Some pre-digital hypertexts include things like ambigrams, sentences that change meaning when read backwards, or mystery novels. It’s not a new thing, it’s just a thing we needed terms for when we started talking about videogames, and then realised that, once again, videogames were connecting to a longer, greater culture of engagement with art.
Point is, that IWATE is an extremely hypertextual game; it’s full of different choices and ways to engage with its problems, and I think it shaped my experience of the game trying to imagine what it might be doing or might be about to do. I thought it was really interesting, and I didn’t want to just list to you, hey, here’s stuff I cared about in this game, in a way that meant when you played the game (because I think odds are good you will like this game). Part of what I liked about IWATE’s experience was the way that the game I engaged with in the beginning wound up presenting totally reasonable changes to my expectations. Basically, stuff I thought I’d care about in ten years when I was ten, I did not care about the same way – my relationships were shaped by randomness and circumstances and I wound up feeling entangled in a story in a way I wouldn’t have chosen to be.
This enmeshing is really interesting and I know when I loop back through this story, I’m going to do it without these changes being unexpected. It’s going to change how I relate to things in this game, and for that reason… I kind of don’t want to show you too much about what’s in the game. Hence this video being full of slow pans across promotional art and uh, me.
But I don’t want this to just come across as a sort of token effort of a video, I don’t want you to look at this and come away with ‘wow, IWATE is a big game and Talen hasn’t played all of it yet, because that would take ages.’ What I want to talk about instead, and what I keep thinking about as I play IWATE is the work of one Roger Caillois.
<intro to Caillois>
Roger Caillois or ROGER KY-LOIS for those of you who’ve only ever read his name rather than heard it said aloud, was a French intellectual whose career started out before World War 2 and kept on publishing until he died in 1978 and then, because he was influential and wrote a lot of stuff that’s still being translated and published, kept publishing until 2006, which is pretty good running for a dead guy. If you want to frame him as positively as possible, Caillois was part of an academic tradition that sought to involve as many people as possible from as many different places, and founded the academic journal Southern Cross, which helped introduce authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Victoria Ocampo to French-speaking audiences. If you want to be a little less charitable, he was an advocate for western oppressive and exploitative colonialism as a necessary good to correct the failings of all other cultures that existed at a level of civilisational quality below the level of white western Europeans.
What can one say, of course, but yikes.
I could spend a lot of time talking about different criticisms of Caillois from the funny (he hated clowns) to the vague (he was very good at intellectualising what was ultimately only his personal experience and generalising that out) to the deeply damaging (he didn’t respect women or nonwhite people at all). But instead I want to talk about one of his most well-known contributions to academic culture, with the proper framing up front so you know full well that these ideas did come from someone who needs to be considered with a degree of scrutiny. He’s responsible for the book Man Play and Games, which is probably? his most influential book.
In Man Play and Games, Caillois describes a lot of ideas. He talks about the idea of cultures’ destiny, reflected in their games, and about the distinction between types of play as expressive or rules structured – a paradigm of ludic play, versus paidic play. Then he describes a model of game classification, for considering different games not based on the components that are in them, or their length or size or form or outcomes, but instead about what experience motivates people to play them. And I want to talk about this model, because I think it can be a great way to look at IWATE, a game that can offer you everything.
First up, the summary: Caillois considers games to be broken into four basic motivating factors, reasons people play them, things they play them for. They are agon, alea, ilinx and mimicry.
Agon refers to competitive overcoming of obstacles. Agonic games are games where difficulty are important, games where you’re meant to be able to test your skill. You might recognise good examples of agonic games such as the Indian game chaturanga or the Japanese game go, games with a lot of open information and correct forms of play building around strategic windows. You might recognise it, but Caillois didn’t – he didn’t think Asian games produced meaningful examples of Agonic play.
Alea refers to games of chance, where your best choices are going to be consigned to the whims of fate. Caillois liked to connect this to his existing ideas of the sacred and divine, like there’s some part of people that just wants to give up offerings, but we don’t need that here, not really. I just think Aleatic games are games where players need a random, chance-based element, because they are looking for that feeling of getting lucky.
Ilinx refers to games of vertigo, of the voluptuous panic of a loss of control of the senses. This is your games where you’re losing the ability to perceive and experience things correctly. If you’re having a hard time thinking of games of ilinx, then think about things you see little kids doing: Spinning on the spot, rolling down hills, swinging on ropes. Or maybe that’s monkeys. Caillois argued that adult games of ilinx didn’t exist until the invention of the roller coaster. I argue that this means nobody invited Caillois to any really good parties. Drinking games, playing videogames while stoned, these are ilinx experiences, and you play in part to enjoy that experience of not being in control of your experiences and perception.
Then there’s Mimicry, which refers to games about being or pretending to be another person. These are games of simulation, of recreated experiences, which you may recognise from almost every videogame you’ve ever played in the past twenty years, since these days it’s very common for videogames to include some kind of character for you to inhabit as an agent. But most keenly you’ll see this stuff in play experiences like roleplaying games or life simulators.
And then there’s a secret, fifth thing.
Now, Caillois believed that games were fundamentally games of these traits. Chess is an agonic game, because it’s played for a winner and a loser with open information and people are trying to get better at it. If you’re not doing that you’re not playing chess. Which betrays one of the ways Caillois’ thinking was kinda bent at odd angles to mine. I don’t think games are agonic, I think you play games in agonic ways. There are absolutely people who play Chess in ways that aren’t agonic, they’re thinking about some other way to play, they’re looking at rules systems and aiming for a particular vibe, a joke to pull, or whatever. Chess is not agonic, it’s just we culturally, assert that chess should be treated as if it is only agonic.
And it’s that distinction – that you can use these tools to experience games in different ways – that brings me to IWATE.
IWATE is a game of Agon. There’s a lot of reading to do but at its beating heart is a resolution system that operates as a good-faith puzzle game where you spend time getting yourself the best puzzle pieces that are meant to function together in as optimal a way as you can. Your cards are known to you – you can refine them with currency and you can amplify them with stats you build up through carefully chosen processes. The game pieces are not random and do not ask of you to guess what they do in any given interaction. If you want to, you can math out layers upon layers of game strategy, and optimal play involves correct routing and correct execution. It can even be unlocked into a harder mode so that you need to do this to push through the game’s challenges. While losing isn’t the end of the story, you can always, always approach problems with a mindset that this is somehow winnable. It competes with you, it defies you, and it keeps escalating and demands you escalate with it. And then when you feel like you’ve failed, you can loop back through and do it all again, harder, and armed with more knowledge.
IWATE is an game of Alea. There is a constant presence of gambling in the game, where sometimes all you can do is consign your fate to the cards presented to you. You are going to accumulate cards (if you don’t try and stop it) and that means you’re going to wind up over the course of the story naturally building up a collection of memories that are at the very least, unreliable or weird or don’t fit together well, and the ways to approach and experience as much of the game as is possible mean you’re going to wind up believing in the heart of the cards and stacking a lot of Ls when they don’t come through for you. This is setting aside the social elements of the game too – there are a lot of things that have a chance to just go wrong because the game is unpredictable in a lot of deliberate ways. Keeps you on your toes. You need to capitalise on random respawns and lucky encounters because you won’t always get the best versions of things you want. You need to be at least a little bit lucky.
IWATE is a game of ilinx. Oh sure the game doesn’t reach in through your USB port and get you high, and there’s no playing with proprioception that you might get from a VR game or, try to scramble your brains through nonsexual sissy hypno like 1995’s Zoop — [annoyed]what do you mean I’m the only person who remembers Zoop? — but the character you play is constantly being thrown through a series of experiences that are about a sudden and panicking loss of control. The helplessness of being a child in a truly alien space aside, there are numerous encounters in the story that are about an immediate and wholehearted loss of control over your own body regardless of what the rules say. And your character does kinda get high a few times, as their consciousness is expanded by other’s actions. This is a really interesting thing to consider, because the game’s only recourse to make you experience this ilinx is not to deprive you of agency or information, but to instead instil in you what it feels like to feel this way, with metaphor and simile.
IWATE is a game of mimicry. It’s a life simulator game, where you get to settle into the identity of this kiddo in space who is going to go through the weirdest thing in their life (so far). You’re going to choose what they prioritise, who they prioritise, what they do with their limited time as a child and what those priorities mean for you. Are you a planner? Do you have set goals? Or do you just handle what comes your way? How well do you stick to the plan if you have one? Do you think you can stick to it even when confronted with an ugly, unpleasant choice? What, and who, and how do you care about things? Not just the character but you, as that character?
Why, that’s Astrid Ensslin’s music!
Yeah, so the history of games studies is a lot of white dudes in privileged positions deciding hey, you know, games are pretty much like this and not connected to anything else, and then women, queers, and people of colour (and queer women of colour) showing up afterwards to say hey, no, actually, people’s material conditions do matter here. In Caillois’ model, he conceived of those four reasons people might engage with a game, but that is missing a category that Ensslin describes in Literary Gaming: Rhythmos.
Rhythmos is engaging with a game because of the pure intersection of its rules as systems. It’s the kind of people who find the way that game behaviour all slots together neatly satisfying, the people who like finishing their turns with no leftover points, or pare a speedrun down to its minimum frames. Rhythmos is the play experience of liking the interaction of rules in interlocking systems for their own beneficial form. Rhythmos is using all eight letters on your first turn in Scrabble and it is ghost-running a Dishonored level without using any stun darts. Rhythmos cares about the things that can be done in the rules and the ways those executions can be done perfectly…
And IWATE is a game of Rhythmos, because of just how everything in its vast sprawling spread of interactions beckons to you with the idea of a perfect run. You can tell there are choices to be made, you can see there are places you waste investment and overflow and if you can just talk to everyone in the right order, if you can approach this system in the right way, map out the right direction next time, you should be able to unlock all these things and hit this goal and successfully make the whole thing fit together like a puzzle box of numbers.
Thing is, IWATE has a lot of different reasons to want to engage with it. You can approach it in a lot of different ways. Some of those ways are going to be incredibly engaging. I know I found it got its hooks in me hard and I had to literally assign myself homework with a post-it note on my desk to make sure I didn’t just open it up and vaporise a second day on it.
And there’s something else that’s covertly missing from IWATE.
See, growing up, you are going to have decisions about yourself, about your priorities, that you’re going to make and things that are going to change. You might find, like I did, at some point, that one of the people you assume is just as good as everyone else needs to get hit with a brick. Something that IWATE has space for and doesn’t do is a grapple with your own sexuality or gender, too. At any point in IWATE you can decide you want to try out some new pronouns, a new appearance, just pivot your slider over to the side and things are different now.
It’s interesting because it’s a reminder that for all there are things about your character that are a little bit defined, bumpers you bounce against on the way to your end of the story, they are also details that the game leaves entirely up to you to express. You get to choose if that’s a thing you want your exocolonist to do during the story. There is a room for where you play, where there are rules, but also there is a space for individual expression
It’s this space that Caillois – who died shortly after the first videogames were being made – describes:
This latitutde of the player, this margin accorded to his action is essential to the game and partly explains the pleasure which it excites. It is equally accountable for the remarkable and meaningful uses of the word ‘play,’ such as are reflected in such expressions as the playing of a performer or the play of a gear, to designate in one case the personal style of an interpreter, in the other the range of movement of the parts of a machine.Roger Caillois, Man Play and Games, page 8
IWATE is an amazing game.
And it wants you to play with it.