It’s been a year since I Was a Teenage Exocolonist launched, and just over six years since I started working on it. We’re doing a Q&A soon but to be honest, I couldn’t remember answers to questions like “how did you come up with the characters”. However, thanks to the magic of version control, I can travel back in time to August 2017 and read through my original design document to see what the heck I was thinking.
Some of the answers may surprise you. Maybe even upset you!
Like an explorer sifting through the glass sands of the Western Wresting Ridge for remnants of a previous civilization, I skimmed through 60 pages of notes, scraps, rants and ideas, trying to remember how it all began. Here’s what I found.
Early character design – spoilers incoming!
It seems the central dateable Strato characters were invented all at once one day, after listing possible skills and jobs. I named them as if they were archetype classes from Rebuild 3: “the fighter”, “the scientist”, “the politician”. Some things changed, but so much stayed the same.
(Cleaned up a teeny bit.) I wrote that hastily, and possibly late at night or on my phone, and you might be able to guess who all those characters became (including the “kind of dumb girl”, I’m sorry). Obviously they all got far more fleshed out over the next five years, especially once co-writer Lindsay joined the team.
Using archetypes for the different directions the player’s own life could go in was a good decision, but I came to regret defining their race/appearance so quickly and relying on tropes (vengeful soldier, cold scientist, simple farmer). We appreciate our sensitivity readers for helping us identify these early issues, and inspiring us to dig deeper into each character and bring forward what made them unique.
I’m surprised I was thinking about romance this early! There’s also a longer description of Marz’s love life, and yes the people mentioned above became Rex, Utopia and Lum. We removed teens having crushes on or dating young adults for legal/bizdev/yuck reasons, and they barely even consider the existence of sex before age 17, as unrealistic as that may be.
We all agree not to think about Sym’s actual age (20,000 years give or take?).
Another treasure trove of old design notes was my original spreadsheet of characters, places, skills, jobs, events, and endings. There were many more adult characters circa November 2017:
Some of them are still mentioned in passing during events, but were never given art. Most were cut so we could focus on the teen characters, plus one adult council member for each department.
The player’s sister Vestibule and several younger kids were cut when we steered the game away from a Handmaid’s Tale-esque story involving forced childbearing to populate the new planet. It was too heavy, and it was more fun to instead try to make gender (and race, and sexuality) as inconsequential as possible in the utopian world of Vertumna.
Gameplay changes from early prototypes
I found notes outlining the main plot of the game, which didn’t change as much as I thought, but originally you were going to move to a new colony every year and design it yourself as part of a base-building feature. There was also a farming mechanic, colony defense minigame, and a lot more contact with Earth. Most of this was cut to focus on the narrative and characters.
Running around on 3d maps almost got cut from the game too, and it was a difficult decision to keep since it added over a year of development time. But it feels so good to walk around and feel Vertumna surrounding you! And it helps to set Exocolonist apart from other visual novels.
The card game was a late addition, and it took years to settle on a design for it. Ironically, it seems I had the seed of the idea back in 2017 but dismissed it as silly and forgot all about it:
There was so, so, so much more in there, many other random ideas and notes that only I could understand. Gradually, over years, I edited and pared this document down to only things that would go into the game.
Naming I Was a Teenage Exocolonist
Colin tells me we were on a hike with our friend Justin when I finally decided on the name I Was a Teenage Exocolonist.
The prototype codename was Princess of Mars, after the 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs book I’ve never read, but which has inspired everything from Indiana Jones to Avatar. Initially the vibe for Exo was going to be more swashbuckling and pulp and a little less trauma. Also “Princess” for “Princess Maker” which was a major inspiration.
I’ll leave you now with a section of the original doc regarding names: