Exocolonist Character Design

Sarah Northway: When I started Exocolonist, I had only a vague idea what I wanted its characters to look like. I knew the setting: a small colony ship leaves earth in the late 21st century, spends 20 years in space, then lands on an uninhabited alien planet.

I grew up with Star Trek, but I didn’t want a Utopian society with all its problems solved, or the Enterprise with its clean uniforms and military discipline. I wanted pioneers, free thinkers, explorers, refugees, taken from all over the world with different cultures and ideas. What they have in common is their desire to get the hell away from Earth’s problems and start over.

And their children: born in space, augmented with stolen genetech, sheltered from the strict society of Earth and outfitted by textile replicators (probably also stolen). What would they look like? How would they dress?

My original map sprites for the dateable characters

I started with color scheme. Every location has a color (Geoponics = green, Command = blue, Garrison = red, etc), and every character is associated with a location. Cal’s in green because he wants to be a farmer. Marz in blue because she wants to run things. Soldiers wear uniforms (red) and explorers have environmental suits with strips of safety orange.

Exocolonist’s Pinterest mood board with some Harajuku and anime kid style

Still Sarah Northway: In a colony of 100 open-minded people from different backgrounds, there’d be less pressure to fit in. So I thought about how I’d have dressed as a teen if I could have done anything. It was… a lot. My design doc listed everything from face tattoos and AR glasses to colorful dreadlocks and beads. It touched on cyberpunk, burning man, scene kids and hippie culture. And I imagined a mix of newly printed nylon and plastics, plus worn and patched old fabric (the textile replicators are slow and break down).

Then I threw everything out the window because I couldn’t draw characters worth a damn and this was never going to work if I did the art myself.

Enter Mei…

Meilee Chao: I was so stunned to be approached by Sarah about Exocolonist that it took several conversations to realize that I was being invited as the character artist and not just the character designer. I really couldn’t believe my luck that I could be designing characters for my favorite genre of games, new as I was to the game development scene.

The game concept sounded right up my alley as a player, but in spite of my excitement and desire to draw kissable characters I had initial concerns about the world and my ability to vibe with the prompt. The genre of sci-fi is something as unexplored to me as the planet of Vertumna is for the colony. A little cyberpunk here and there is about as far as I dabbled in that particular direction before I start wandering back towards the comforts of modern fantasy and JRPG impracticality.

boots ‘n straps ‘n boots ‘n straps ‘n…

However, after going through the wonderfully-colorful design documents and moodboards, I was quickly finding that the initial concepts for the Exo characters were different than the deep space, mechanical concept art I’m frequently intimidated by on ArtStation. After pouring over the documents and collections and taking my own notes, I started my own moodboard that could bridge the gap between what I responded to and the beautiful mass of ideas I was given.

Before long, the Pinterst I pulled together could be described as a holosexual, leather-queer’s dream with a splash of disgruntled visual kei. The avant garde nature of the images formed its own futuristic nature while it overlapped just enough with my comfort zone that I could see a cast taking shape in my mind’s eye. I was down for it.

A few pins from Mei’s moodboard

A few tentative concepts later, styles and conventions started coming together quickly. With each set of concepts, the colony’s society began to focus into something unique and still functional for the setting. Blessedly, Sarah responded so well to the quirkiness of the concepts and encouraged me to go even weirder if it suited me.

I feel my inexperience with classic and contemporary sci-fi, in the end, was more of an asset to the process than a handicap. The spectrum of prompts provided were a great road map for the game, and allowed myself and my experiences to draw more inspiration from other genres and my personal favorite design features. It allowed me to delve deeper into the Exocolonist lore without ideas from other pop series with me. Additionally, using my talented and tasteful friends as a target audience helped validate the designs of the dateables by using aesthetics that appealed to them. It’s one thing if I want to date them, but I’d love for the cast to be appealing to all sorts of tastes.

I think the best part of this whole experience is creating a cast that the dev finds both lovable and hot. Nothing is more rewarding than that. I love these characters to bits, and I hope they get many smooches from future players of Exocolonist!

Growing Up in Exocolonist

When you get down to it, the point of I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is to grow up.

It’s how you win the game, or, depending on your goals, how you lose it. The game starts shortly after your 10th birthday. The colony ship you’ve lived on your whole life has finally landed and you step out to breathe real air for the first time.

It ends on your 20th birthday, or earlier if you’re less fortunate. When this happens, The question is not just what have you accomplished but who have you become?

You age 10 with your parents

Many games ask this question. Particularly RPGs, but really anything involving stats or leveling or equipment is fundamentally about becoming something more than you were. Exocolonist isn’t just about picking one path and excelling at it, but about discovering all the different paths and ways to grow up on a strange and dangerous alien planet.

Every choice you make in Exocolonist advances time by one week. On the planet Vertumna there are 4 (very long) weeks per season, and 5 seasons per year.

Seasons: Quiet, Pollen, Dust, Wet, and Glow

The name Vertumna comes from the Roman god Vertumnus; the god of seasons, change, and growth. His name comes from the Latin verb vertere – “to change” – which is the root of words like diverge, weird, universe, and wormhole.

See? I thought about it.

Marz and Cal age 10-13, 14-16, 17-20

In Exocolonist, you won’t be the only one who ages over the course of the game. Your childhood friends (or not-so-friends) from the ship will grow and change along with you. Anemone, Cal, Tammy, Marz, Dys and his sister Tangent. Their own dramas play out over those 10 years whether you witness them or not. Your involvement may change the course of their lives for better or worse, but you won’t have time to befriend everyone.

This is how it usually goes with dating sims. Yes, you can hook up with a bunch of different people. But finding every ending won’t be that trivial. There are disasters to prevent (or cause), mysteries to unravel, and a large number of career paths to follow. Your skills factor into these, so which activities you spend your time on are as important as the decisions you’ll make.

Rebuild 3 has some very difficult to get events, and Exocolonist will too.

In the tradition of Rebuild 3, there will be a hard to get “good” ending that requires not just the right balance of skills and “right place, right time”, but the combined knowledge of many past lives.

Because each time you reach age 20 and start a new game, you’ll remember certain things that happened before. In the code I call these memories “groundhogs”, a reference to everyone’s favorite bill Murray movie. They manifest as premonitions or memories of things that will happen… or at least could happen if you don’t act to change them.

More on this to come!

Exocolonist as a painting

Background by Sarah Webb, characters by Meilee Chao and Lindsay Ishihiro

The art of Exocolonist has been getting so much positive feedback! Folks dig it.

It’s been a long road. When I started this game I had the audacious idea that I’d do the art myself. I amassed a considerable Pinterest mood board, collecting any picture that felt like part of the Exocolonist art puzzle. I went through a phase of thinking it might look like a campy pulp fiction cover crossed with child’s finger painting (but with glitter!).

My Pinterest mood board featured Captain Venture, Hundertwasser, and Bjork

I spent weeks trying to find a style that I could do quickly with my limited abilities, but as the project grew and the idea of dateable characters became a must-have, I realized I didn’t have the skills to draw characters you could fall in love with (or be remotely attracted to). Plus it would have added more time to an already long development schedule. But some of the creatures were cool.

My original art style tests

I decided it’d be best to find someone who already worked in the style I was looking for, whatever that was. I went hunting. I found Sarah Webb at the VanCAF comic fest where she was showing Kochab. I loved her environments, her casual but undeniably living line work, and her rich color schemes. I’d never seen anyone who could make snow so colorful.

Sarah soon joined on to work on the concept art and help find a style that was both hers and Exocolonists’.

Sarah Webb’s concept art for Quiet season

I loved that Sarah did some of her work with pencil and watercolor, and other times it was completely digital, and hard to tell the difference. This was the look I wanted, both for the fullscreen illustrations and the environments on the area maps where you run around between events. Sarah shared her Photoshop brushes and techniques for getting that look.

Next Meilee Chao came on to design and illustrate our characters (more on them in future posts) and has also done a fantastic job adapting the concept art to a waving, breathing alien jungle. It’s like talking a stroll through a watercolor painting.

I added a wave shader, particles, fog, and depth blur to the 2d sprites in Pollen season

We haven’t shied away from the colors pink and purple in this game, even though I’ve been known to personally reject them as “too girly” in my own life and wardrobe. Exocolonist isn’t meant to appeal only to women; I just think it’s a cool and underused palette. It also fits the science: most plants on the planet Vertumna photosynthesize using a red pigment instead of a green one.

I’ll talk about other aspects of the art – the characters, creatures, 3d elements, and UI – in future posts. For now I’ll leave you with our newest team member Eduardo Vargas’ event backgrounds. Sarah Webb has moved on to other projects, but Ed is doing a fantastic job matching her style!

Background illustrator needed!

Update: We’ve received a surprising number of submissions from many many talented artists! I’m going to shut this down while we go through them all. Thanks everyone for spreading the word!

Exocolonist is looking for an illustrator for contract work. Mainly to work on the background art for dialog scenes. Sarah Webb started us off with plenty of amazing concept art, as well as part of the backgrounds we need. We were sad to see her go – you can follow her exciting new work at Cartoon Network here!

So we are looking to match an existing style:

Beautiful, right? I love these sooooo much.

There are another 20-30 illustrations left to do (more if we have to redraw the existing ones). This might be something like 3-6 months of full time work, or up to a year part time, working remotely.

Update: I’ll let you know when we have new background art to show!

Inspirations for Exocolonist

It’s been a year since I announced I’m working on I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, and may be another year yet before you can play it. But it’s about time I tell you a little more about it… starting with what inspired me to make it in the first place.

Let me tell you about my favorite Japanese game series, Princess Maker:

Princess maker 1
Princess maker, Gainax, 1991

I’ve gushed about these games before. I admit it – I’m obsessed with them.

You play the adopted parent of a girl who could grow up to be anything – not just a princess, though that’s a traditional goal. You manage her time, scheduling her school or work or leisure activities every month.

Babysitting in PM2

Babysitting in PM2
Babysitting and magic training in Princess Maker 2

It’s a life sim game, and though it seems like every franchise from Assassin’s Creed to GTA is part life simulator now, there’s something especially charming to raising a character with skills like Temperament and Decorum and Housework, who might never touch a weapon or have an adventure in her life and might grow up to be a farmer or an innkeeper.

And that’s just fine.

Princess Maker 3
Princess Maker 3 endings

Yeah… your little girl could also become a sexy sorceress or a prostitute. Or marry you, her own father. Titillating! Sexist!! But in other ways open minded, empowering, and empathetic, especially in the later games in the series.

I used fan patches and clumsy auto-translation software to play the Princess Maker games (which are now on Steam, although the official translations aren’t great). I ate up games inspired by them like Cute Knight and Long Live the Queen from the distinguished Georgina Bensley (Hanako Games).

Emotions matter in Long Live the Queen
Emotions are key in Long Live the Queen by Hanako Games

There’s been a spate of magical-boarding-school inspired ones, including Magical Diary (also Hanako – with a sequel coming soon), Academagia, and Littlewitch Romanesque, which are interesting because I prototyped something similar myself in 2008 (then made Rebuild 1 instead).

More recently I’ve been playing the painfully true-to-life Chinese Parents which adds a factor of emotional abuse the child must endure as they study for exams.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dad
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dad…
Not you too Mom!
Not you too Mom!

What I love about these games isn’t the fantasy of actually being a parent (no thanks!). It’s the idea of living a life in a small span of time, and seeing how it turns out, then doing it again.

I can trace my love of life sims back further, past The Sims and the Creatures games and the original Tamagotchi, to a funny Sierra game called Jones in the Fast Lane from the early 90s. It was loosely based on board games like the Game of Life: you go to school, get a job, eat fast food and try to acquire stuff in the cynical modern world. The CD version had hilarious voice acting from the Sierra staff that is forever ingrained in my head.

Jones in the Fast lane, Sierra, 1990

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist has its roots in simulated life games like these. It has other elements too: visual novel, collectible card game… but in the Exocolonist code the main character class file is named ‘Princess.cs’ as a nod to Princess Maker and these other games.