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.

Sarah Northway – My Time as a VR Artist

This was originally posted on the Oculus blog for International Women’s day in March 2019.

At 17, I applied for my first ever tech job with the words “jack of all trades” at the top of my resume. I figured this was a good thing; it meant I was flexible and good at everything I did. Employers, unsurprisingly, saw it as a mark of aimlessness, and a career adviser told me to pick one thing and focus on it.

I chose my greatest love, programming, and in the fullness of time I got pretty decent at it. But I wanted more: to invent, craft systems, write, illustrate and design graphics. So after 10 years as a coder, I quit and went indie.

Sunlight in the tropics made me squint... worth it!
Sunlight in the tropics made me squint… worth it!

My husband Colin and I spent 5 years traveling the world and making our own small independent games. My first game Rebuild was hugely successful, and solo: I’d done all the design, writing, code, and art myself. It was a flat 2d game of course, because I wouldn’t touch 3d models with a 10 foot pole. I’d taken stabs at all the software – 3DS Max, Maya, Blender, ZBrush – and bounced off each one. I couldn’t get my head around the camera angles; I’d wreck things in the Z axis while working in the X and Y. Watching professionals, I felt I’d need years just to memorize all the hotkeys required to use those tools effectively. I swore I’d never make a 3d game.

Until… VR.

Tilt Brush to be exact. I tried a private demo, waving my arms around to paint great huge solid lines of light. I was completely taken by the medium. My husband was too, and we immediately switched gears and teamed up with Radial Games to write Fantastic Contraption VR, a puzzle game where you grab and snap tinker-toy-like pieces together to make lifesized vehicles. It used those same large arm movements we found so neat in Tilt Brush.

Don Piano by Sarah Northway, Tilt Brush + Audio, 2017
Don Piano by Sarah Northway, Tilt Brush + Audio, 2017

I stayed deeply into Tilt Brush. Some of the early sample art packaged with it was mine. And I’m not – well, I had never considered myself to be an artist. I just found it so incredibly intuitive and easy to use. If you want to draw a line from here to there, you just… move your arm from here to there. Nothing like the frustrations I’d had with traditional 3d modeling software.

I wondered if I could make art assets for a VR game inside VR, and the answer was oh yes you can!

Trees made in Gravity Sketch
Trees made in Gravity Sketch

After some experimenting with tools like Medium, Quill, and MasterpieceVR, I discovered Gravity Sketch, and used it to make a little (unreleased) game about gardening on an alien planet. I modeled while sitting cross-legged on my bed, scaling and rotating the object in front of me as I tweaked it, leaning over it to see details, scaling it up to get a sense of how it would feel in the game. The hand motions in Gravity Sketch are so natural, and the basic functions – draw, move, rotate, copy, undo, all mapped to a different button to make creation flow so effortlessly.

I’ve seen the future of 3d modeling, and this is it.

Made in Gravity Sketch
Made in Gravity Sketch

Along the way Colin and I found ourselves in the VR community, and time and again we were intrigued by the incredible art being created. Like Cabbibo’s liquid iridescent creatures made from math, Liz Edward’s paintings which become your whole world when you step into them, or Sean Tann’s interactive rainbow experiments.

VR is a new artistic medium, and the artists experimenting it are wonderfully unbounded in their ideas. We wanted to help connect these artists and share their creations with the world, which is what brought us to create The Museum of Other Realities.

MOR lobby featuring Fruit Tree by Sarah Northway, Gravity Sketch, 2017.
MOR lobby featuring Fruit Tree by Sarah Northway, Gravity Sketch, 2017.

Initially, the MOR was a series of self-enclosed art experiences by a variety of VR-centric artists, joined together via a lobby area with entrances to each one. Entirely digital, the lobby was styled as a traditional brick-and-mortar art gallery with neutral white walls and smaller pieces of art on pedestals.

We thought it’d be neat to make the lobby area multiplayer, so visitors could get that legit museum vibe while watching strangers come and go, or chatting with friends before and after the experiences. The MOR – still in early alpha – began holding monthly “release” parties where all the artists logged on from their respective VR rigs to check out the new exhibit and connect with each other.

MOR multiplayer featuring dresses by Anand Duncan
MOR multiplayer featuring dresses by Anand Duncan

Gradually, the separate experiences fell away and the lobby took over the entire project. Today the MOR (still in alpha) contains nearly 100 works from 30 artists. There are full-room art pieces which move and flow around you, interactive dance halls with ribbons of color, tiny dioramas you can teleport down into, a bar and cocktails you can clink, mysterious floating alien jellyfish, motion captured musicians, photogrammetry villages, wearable dresses, roaring dinosaurs, laughing skeletons, spaceships, and at least a couple Sarah Northway originals, made in Tilt Brush.

I have since moved on to my next thing, but Colin and a growing team are still working on the Museum of Other Realities – beta version now available. If you are a VR artist and want to be involved, please get in touch!