This Fantastic Sci-Fi RPG Explores the Impact of Politics on Kids

Growing Up in a Political Landscape

As a child, I never paid much attention to politics. I dismissed it as boring adult stuff and instead focused on games and edgy humor. Little did I know that the tense political climate of the late 1990s and 2000s was quietly shaping my views. While I may not have fully understood the War on Terror when it began, my perspectives were influenced by it. Thanks to then-president George W. Bush, I developed an anti-war stance and a distrust of authority. If I had simply embraced American nationalism during my teenage years, my beliefs could have been very different today.

The newly released indie game, “I Was a Teenage Exocolonist,” perfectly captures this experience. Developed by Northway Games, this narrative RPG takes players on a journey as a child survivor in a colony, attempting to colonize an alien planet. The game covers 10 years of the character’s life, from age 10 to 20, as players navigate the political turmoil of the colony.

The game doesn’t aim to reinforce players’ existing beliefs with an obvious anti-capitalist critique. Instead, it focuses on exploring how a political landscape shapes a child during their formative years. This is achieved through a thoughtful combination of RPG and deck-building systems that reflect how children absorb every little detail around them, even when we think they’re not paying attention.

The Journey of Growing Up

“I Was a Teenage Exocolonist” begins with a crucial setup. A spaceship carrying humans embarks on a 20-year journey to find a new life on another planet due to Earth’s environmental collapse. The main character is born on board, and players have the opportunity to customize their identity. While players can select a few personality traits upfront that influence their stats, they start as a blank slate when the humans land on an alien planet called Vertumna. Over the next 20 years, players guide their character through the challenges of growing up.

The game employs several intelligent systems to achieve this. At its core, it is a true RPG with various stats to develop, such as empathy, perception, and biology. The gameplay revolves around progressing one month at a time, with each month offering a choice of activities that boost specific stats. At the age of 10, options are limited, ranging from playing “sportsball” with friends to taking classes to improve mental skills. However, each activity also increases the character’s stress level, necessitating periodic rest to recharge. As a player’s stats increase, more options become available, broadening their horizons.

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A player meets an alien creature with a horn in I Was a Teenage Exocolonist.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The addictive gameplay loop is reminiscent of Persona’s social link system. The game acknowledges upfront that players won’t be able to fully maximize every option by the time the character reaches age 20, prompting players to carefully consider who they want their character to become. Through experimentation, I found myself gravitating towards a bolder child who was unafraid to explore beyond the confines of the colony. Dialogue choices also influence stats and friendship with other kids in town, and romance becomes an option as the character grows older.

What’s truly remarkable is how I could genuinely feel my character’s gradual growth, not just through abstract RPG numbers. At the beginning of the game, I played as a sweet child who followed their parents’ instructions and trusted authority figures. Everyone seemed well-intentioned, so I had no reason to question them. However, by the time I turned 20, things had radically changed. When my biologist parents revealed a serious food shortage that they had hidden from the colony, my trust in the adults around me eroded. The game cleverly portrayed this shift through the UI’s loyalty versus rebellion bar, which moved further and further to the right as I personally began questioning the structures of power that I had previously embraced.

By the end of the game, my once-naïve 10-year-old, who loved sports, had transformed into a courageous 20-year-old who respected nature and understood that those in power aren’t always right. Through my character’s eyes, I could see my own journey.

Memories as a Deck of Cards

The game’s deck-building mechanics add another layer to the experience. Each activity is played out as a quick card game, challenging players to reach a specific number goal by strategically placing cards from their hand in the correct order. Every card represents a physical manifestation of a memory. For example, the memory of the character’s first crawl might be depicted as a strength card with a zero value, while the memory of eating cotton candy for the first time is worth 2. As the character interacts with the world, their deck grows larger, with more complex memories and interactions being added. A traumatic encounter with a shadowy stranger, for instance, grants a high-value card that adds 10 stress when played.

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A player lays down cards in I Was a Teenage Exocolonist.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cards, like memories, can be both a blessing and a burden. The game doesn’t encourage players to curate a perfectly synergized deck. Instead, it reflects the realities of growing up and living with the baggage of past experiences. While players have the option to delete a memory from time to time during resting periods, similar to how many of our earliest memories are lost, by the end of the game, they are likely to have accumulated numerous complicated cards that can make it harder to focus in the later stages.

This mechanic brilliantly captures the feeling of growing up. Everything in “I Was a Teenage Exocolonist” becomes a juggling act influenced by puberty. Players are constantly bombarded with information, and each piece of it becomes a tangible part of the character, shaping their ability to navigate the world. Success lies in learning to live with this educational overload and mentally organizing it. Turning a stream of memories into a functional deck is key to developing a resilient individual who can overcome life’s unpredictable challenges.

Navigating the Limits of Choice

As the game’s title suggests, “I Was a Teenage Exocolonist” delves into the complex topic of colonization. Humans arrive on a new planet, consume its resources, and clash with its wildlife. It’s evident which side of the political spectrum the game’s creators lean toward. However, the game doesn’t impose its beliefs on players. Instead, it empowers players to decide how their character responds to the political environment.

Like many choice-driven games, this places “I Was a Teenage Exocolonist” in a delicate position. When players have control over the narrative, some level of authorial intent is inevitably relinquished. The game cannot take a definitive stance on capitalism if it wants to provide players with the option to embrace it. With multiple endings, over 800 unique story events, and a narrative structure that encourages replayability, extracting a universal truth without compromising the premise becomes a challenge.

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The game is aware of these limitations, and that’s where its strength lies. Rather than attempting to make a grand political statement, its primary focus is on exploring how politics shape a child’s development. How does a lack of trust in authority figures affect one’s perception? How does blind allegiance to nationalism cloud judgment later in life? Although the game’s beliefs may seem naive at times, it reminds us that we are always looking at the world through the eyes of a still-developing child. This is further emphasized by characters responding to situations with snarky meme-speak rather than lofty monologues.

In one particularly impactful scene, I was tasked with tutoring a younger child who asked what happened to the Earth. Despite the directive to lie and conceal the truth about human responsibility for the planet’s destruction, I chose rebellion and told the truth. I didn’t witness the consequences of that choice, but I recognized it as a pivotal moment in that child’s life, reminiscent of similar moments in my own journey.

“I Was a Teenage Exocolonist” understands that people’s perspectives are molded by their surroundings. Instead of lecturing players, it encourages empathy and patience for those who are trying to untangle deeply ingrained beliefs. As I reflect on my own teenage years and cringe at my edgelord phase, I ultimately take pride in how I navigated the cards life dealt me while growing up.

To experience “I Was a Teenage Exocolonist,” you can find the game on Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, and PC.

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