Signs of the Sojourner is a conversational deck-building game by the small indie studio Echodog, currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo and featuring writing by the excellent Kevin Snow. A polished, substantial demo is available on itch.io.
In short: I saw Kevin Snow’s pitch about this game and thought, neat, any game with Kevin’s writing is worth a look. Then I paid a couple dollars to download the demo from itch — you can of course get it for free, but it seemed polite. Then I played the demo through from start to finish, twice, getting significantly different experiences in the two playthroughs.
When I got to the end of the second play, I was having so much fun that I really felt quite sulky about the fact that this was just a demo and that I can’t play the full game until later.
Since I really want the full game to exist in maximum glory, I backed it and then came over here to tell you about why it’s cool. And as I wrote up this post, I needed a few more screenshots and wound up replaying almost all of the alpha for a third time because I was still having fun and discovering some new things about how the mechanics worked.
When I heard this described as a conversational deck-building game, I was intrigued but not sure what to expect. The two areas of closest adjacent work I can think of are the narrative deck-building projects built in StoryNexus and the conversational mechanics explored by Tea-Powered Games, especially in their forthcoming Elemental Flow. But this works a bit differently from either of those.
The essential concept is a sort of game of dominos. Your partner plays a card that has one or more output symbols; you need to follow that with a card with a matching input symbol.
Each conversation needs a certain number of positive interactions, represented by the white squares in the upper right area of the conversation status bar, in order to succeed.
If a conversation goes poorly and one partner isn’t able to match the other’s move, your partner will say something defensive, aggressive, or apologetic. The black squares represent the number of these missteps that the conversation can endure, a sort of shared pool of hit points for the dialogue.
Conversations that accumulate too many failures end without you gaining everything you might have gained from that character — trade goods, information, or a temporary travel companion.
At the end of every conversation, whether it went well or badly, you have a mandatory gain/trash mechanic: you must choose one of your existing deck to get rid of — and you can’t use this opportunity to trash junk cards, about which more in a minute — but you also must pick up a new card that you saw your conversation partner use.
Since your initial deck includes five each of two types of card, at first you’re just using this opportunity to diversify your range of options. But you’re also upgrading: some cards feature some kind of wild-card matching or confer an extra effect when played. These mechanics are mostly narratively meaningful: “observe” lets you see your partner’s hand, making it easier to lead cards that they’ll be able to successfully follow; “clarify” lets you play a card into the middle of the sequence rather than at the end, buying time if you can’t play on the final card. I’m especially excited to try the “elaborate” card I found near the end of the game.
The one piece of this that didn’t come through for me quite as strongly in play is the meaning of the symbols themselves, which Echodog describe thus:
At the end of a conversation sequence, the outcome of the conversation depends on which symbol has been played most during the interaction, but it wasn’t generally clear to me, even on two playthroughs, what difference that made; and typically I was just trying to diversify my hand to match as well as possible, rather than, say, trying to maximize my holdings in empathy.
Even if you aren’t picking up the assigned meanings for the symbols, though, character differences do come through in the mechanics very clearly because your various conversation partners are holding very different decks. You start the game with a lot of circle-circle and circle-triangle cards; your childhood friend Elias has a lot of circle-circle and triangle-circle cards. That means it’s extremely easy to get into patterns with him, either continuous streams of circles or oscillation between circles and triangles.
And, initially, you’re not so well equipped to deal with other characters. But as you adjust your deck to be more generally useful, you may actually find that your changing style of behavior makes your discussions with Elias just a bit less smooth than before, an abstract representation of how we grow apart from people. And he has less growth to offer you, too: when you talk to him, you can only ever “learn” pretty basic cards from him, so after a while, he might be making your deck just a little worse.
He never really becomes hard to talk to — there’s usually a way through, and he’s more forgiving of mistakes than most other characters — and there are usually other rewards for talking to him that make it worth the minor hit to your deck quality. But even the slight change of that relationship is an intriguing thing to see arising naturally from the mechanic.
Meanwhile, other character personalities come through different arrangements of the mechanic. Some characters are really one-note, sticking strongly to a particular symbol and not being interested in others. Some are touchy, tolerating fewer bad interactions before they leave. Some are more easily pleased, considering three turns of chat to be a “success” rather than requiring five.
All these encounters are set on a map that gradually opens out, allowing you to visit different trading environments. As in 80 Days, conversation reveals new locations to visit, and new locations contain new people to talk to.
Conversation mechanics tie back to the map via more than just the unlocks, though. For one thing, people in distant towns talk in a different way — at any rate, they have cards with different symbols you may not have seen before — capturing the feeling that you might be out of your depth or just not know what to say about local concerns if you’re far outside your own context.
Tiredness and comfort are also beautifully carried over into the deck mechanics. The longer you travel, especially if you take long journeys in certain parts of the map, the more you accrue junk “fatigue” cards in your deck. They match nothing, cluttering up your hand and making it less likely that you’ll have a way to make the conversation progress successfully. The only way to get rid of them is to return home for a rest.
And there’s one particular character in the alpha who’s especially likely to unavoidably pounce on you as soon as you get home from a long journey, demanding a difficult dialogue just when you’re least equipped to handle it. Both times I played this scene, the conversation broke down, because though I was trying my best to be constructive, I just didn’t have the resources right then.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a conversation game represent this effect, and it resonated with me so much. I love talking to people, but when I’m really tired, it becomes substantially harder for me — harder to think what I want to say next, harder to project energy and emotional warmth, harder to interpret social cues from people I don’t already know well.
For a couple years of GDC, I got annoyed with myself because I found networking parties rough going. Then a friend pointed out to me what should have been obvious. I’ve learned a lot of ways of masking and compensating, but I am a massive introvert. Social time drains me, even if I’m truly enjoying it. And 10 PM in a loud room after fourteen hours of other social and intellectual demands is pretty much the worst possible context to expect myself to be sparkly at strangers. I stopped trying to force myself to spend hours at a loud party every night and came up with some other strategies for getting to talk to people that would work better for me.
I feel really seen by this conversation mechanic, is what I’m saying here.
It’s not all mechanics of frustration, though. Partway through the alpha, you get a dog, Thunder. You can have conversation encounters with Thunder, too — but all Thunder’s cards are rainbow pawprint cards that match with everything. It doesn’t matter what you say to Thunder; he will always love you.
There’s a lot the conversation mechanic also doesn’t do, in significant difference from most conversational games:
- portray the protagonist’s speech verbatim at all: we never see a literal representation of anything “you” say
- allow you to steer to particular topics. Characters want to talk about what they want to talk about, and that will either succeed or fail, but you can’t redirect their course
- offer you explicit choices where you’re choosing whether or not to do someone a favor or answer a question
- represent your skills as stats or traits. Everything you’re able to do is represented by the contents of your deck and how you choose to play it
I’m also not entirely sure yet how much statefulness there is in your relationships with other characters; I think I’d need to play beyond the scope of an alpha to find that out.
Anyway. There’s even more I could say here, and I’ve already rattled on quite a long time: about how I like the art style, and how the UI feels very friendly and smooth, and how the setting confronts a climate-changed future but without implying total despair; about how it offers success and failure but in a very gentle way with lots of grades of partial success or interesting consequence to failure, so that you never feel kicked or bullied by the game.
It’s really a generous-spirited and observant piece and I cannot wait for there to be a lot more of it to play.