Exocolonist’s Original Design Docs

August has been Vertumnalia fest on the Finji Discord, featuring a talent showcase of fanart, fiction and food, and culminating in a live art stream and developer Q&A today (August 25th) at noon PT!

(My Exosona, or what I would look like if I was in the game world, a gift from our artist Mei! I never wrote myself in as an actual character, but it’s a hidden asset in the game files)

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!

Themes: Kids should think about the future before they are adults. Politics matter. Colonialism sucks. Parents aren’t always right – distrust authority.

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.

Wolf children
Destined to love
Oregon trail
Princess maker

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.

Growing up in Exocolonist
The fighter, energetic and normal. Red haired freckled woman does what’s told, seems to dislike female gender norms. If you don’t date her, she’ll get an overbearing boyfriend. He’s a rival. Energetic and excitable when she has a task, doesn’t care much about pro or anti alien politics…? Or maybe dislikes aliens only because they’ve killed her friends and she wants revenge.

The scientist, jaded woman wants to help cure earth problems, thinks bigger than the rest but always too busy working on it, can help her cure earth at the cost of this planet. Hard to date because busy. No rival. Long blonde hair held back in a ponytail, Asian features. Future person. Would probably would throw aliens under the bus to help earth.

The explorer, dreamer man hates people and secretly loves aliens. Leaves the camp a lot, befriend for alternate (non skill) way to meet and get in good with aliens. Sometimes depressed. Dates secret alien if you don’t date him. Dark short hair, sad pale face.

The politician, woman hates aliens misses earth. But earth is dead to her and she wants to recreate it only better. Dates the head construction team guy then dumps him for the head gatherer, then dumps him for another politician if you don’t date her. She’s confident and sexy and likes to sex. Straight dark brown hair, dark skin.

The farmer, manly worker, idealist man likes aliens and alien plants but frustrated by tech and politics and war, just wants to work hard and live happily in peace and compromise. Dates a kind of dumb girl if you don’t date him. Dad figure. Curly brown hair and brown skin. Might be religious, Muslim?

The mysterious alien man who is really no/all genders. Hangs with explorer and may date if you don’t date either one. Important part of the good ending, though in many runs you will never meet him because it’s a secret. Aliens are alien looking but this one appears as a tall lanky pale man with long black hair which maybe isn’t really hair. He’s trying to look human, like the explorer specifically.

All can fall in love with you regardless of gender.

(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.

Dys’ theme song is Smith’s How Soon is Now.

If you date Mars, you do a lot of making out while you should be working.

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?).

What if aliens aren’t biological, they are data? an indigenous culture, or an ancient weapon? both?

Forgotten characters

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

really seems like it needs a minigame where you run around the jungle finding stuff. or maybe the whole thing needs to be like harvest moon style. how hard is that really….

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.

Enjoying Glow Season with Dys

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:

incorporate poker, yatzhee type stuff?
this is getting VERY random…

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:

Long name like Voices of a Distant Star
or Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind
maybe a phrase like Thomas was Alone or She dreamt in neon
should have some word like Child or Youth in it?

growing up
coming of age
what sprouts from alien soil
emerging from our chrysalises
i was a teenage exocolonist
same old problems on a whole new planet
growing up on Vertumna-82d
ten earth years on Vertumna
a decade on Vertumna
the stuffed up mouse who couldn’t see the stars
faraway high
faraway home
beyond the horizon
beyond the heliosphere
in the twinkling of a binary star
children of earth colony Vertumna
colonization of a new world
children of a new world
children of a distant planet
children of the planet Vertumna
Growing up on Vertumna
My life on the planet Vertumna
Your life on the planet Vertumna
Life as a child of the planet Vertumna
where the trees breathe
growing up exocolonist
my life as an exocolonist on the planet Vertumna
Life on Vertumna
Vertumna: Earth’s first exocolony
How we came to Vertumna
we came to settle Vertumna
building Vertumna
what happened at Vertumna colony
we didn’t mean for this to happen
it wasn’t supposed to be this way
how we escaped the earth
we came to find a home
on the soil of this planet
face down in the alien mud

Help us pick a plushie!

Would you like a real-life squeezable Cal? A huggable squiggly Vriki? We’re still in the early planning phases but we’d like to bring an Exocolonist character into the world as a stuffed toy.

The burning question is… which one??

Don’t think of this as a “which is your favorite Exo character” quiz; think of it as “who would look coolest as a teddy bear version of themselves” or maybe “what would I be the least embarrassed to put on my bedroom shelves”?

Yes, Vace is on the list. For some reason.

Here is the Google Forms survey

Also! There is a small Patch #4 coming soon to Steam, and now up on the testing beta branch. Deets are in the Discord!

Exocolonist Merch

If you’ve seen me in the last year, I was probably wearing some sort of Exocolonist merch.

Between finishing Exocolonist and waiting for it to come out, I entertained myself by making basically an entire wardrobe of test pieces. They didn’t all work out… well honestly most did not! One of them is currently for sale in the Official Finji Store, which is the limited edition Hawaiian shirt Mei designed. Colin and I both love the pink version:

Sarah and Colin wearing Mei's pink Hawaiian shirts at GDC 2023
Sarah and Colin wearing Mei’s pink Hawaiian shirts at GDC 2023,
where Exocolonist was in the IGF!

Also in the Official Finji Store, we now have stickers, pinnies, and a t-shirt with design by Eduardo (in both regular and crop top versions). Mei designed the stickers and pin and they are the cuuuuuutest.

Wormhole design crop top by Ed, from the Finji Store
Hopeye Pinny Arcade pin in situ on my denim jacket, also from the Finji Store

Physical Card Game

Another merch item I was keen to make was a real, in-your-hands, physical card game. I imagined we’d use these as business cards and give them out at events like PAX, with the idea that if you collected enough you could play a micro-game to try to make the highest-scoring hand just like in Exocolonist.

They have the same names and art as in the game and feature some of our amazing 100 card artists, but I had to tweak the values and rules a little to be playable on a tabletop.

Exocolonist physical card game, from The Game Crafter
Winning hand for a sample game:
⭐ flush of 3 (red)
⭐⭐ 4 of a kind (1s)

Alpha version (left) versus 1.0 (right)

It was worth doing, because dang, this little game turned out to be fun! Colin and I took prototypes to events so we could playtest it with friends. The rules are simpler than the actual game, because adding up a lot of little numbers is more easily done by a computer than in your head. Instead, you need to arrange five cards from your hand of seven to earn bonuses from a list. For example a pair is worth ⭐, or having all cards of the same color is worth ⭐⭐.

You win if you can get three stars, which is almost always possible, but sometimes pretty hard. We play a multiplayer variant where we both draw a hand and try to find the best score, then swap and see if we can find a better one.

It’s 52 beautiful cards in an adorable little tin box, available made-on-demand at The Game Crafter.

“Secret” Unreleased Merch

Now I’ll let you in on a secret! Once the Hawaiian shirts sell out, if you’re still desperate to get your hands on one, you may still be able to get one printed on demand from the source at ArtsCow. Some of my unshipped experiments are in there too!

Velvet jacket with pattern by Madeline Berger (environment artist on Chicory!) from Artscow
Chiffron dress featuring screenshots from the game also from ArtsCow

I also have a couple designs up on HugePOD, another place that offers on demand all-over prints. These shops print the art onto flat fabric first, then cut and sew like they normally would. It’s a neat process that means they can have hundreds of styles to choose from, although they do take extra time to ship because they have to make them after you order.

Though most of these designs will never go beyond my own wardrobe, it was so much fun to do. Let me tell you, it’s a bit addictive (and way easier than you’d think) to design your own clothes!

Me layering Exo clothes. I made over 20 different test designs
Mei, Colin and I at PAX West 2022, wearing various Exo duds

Awards Season for Exocolonist!

Big news – I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is a finalist for Excellence in Narrative at the IGF (Independent Games Festival) (plus an honorable mention for Visual Arts!)

Not only that, our game has also been nominated for Best Narrative in the GDCA (Game Developers Choice Awards – these are the Oscars of video games)

AND we’re a finalist for the Social Impact Award in the GDCAs.

These are the big ones; the awards that devs (speaking of myself here) spend their entire career working towards. It is an incredible honor to be nominated.

The IGF also features an audience award, so jump in and cast your vote here!

Since our narrative design is getting so much attention, here’s an article I wrote for gamedeveloper.com about The Narrative Octopus of I Was a Teenage Exocolonist. If you’d like to play around with Exo’s custom scripting language yourself, I’ve made a rough version of Exoscript open source on Github.

Earlier we had the honor to be nominated for Best Storytelling in the 2022 Golden Joystick Awards, Games For Impact at The Game Awards (their most misguided category according to Kotaku), Best Playstation Game of the Year in the PLAY Magazine Awards. Back in 2020 I Was a Teenage Exocolonist won the IndieCade award for Procedural Design. And honestly? I’m cool with our nomination for “most pretentious indie game” in 4chan’s Vidya Gaem awards. That’s how you know you’ve really made it.

Since I am linking links, Northway Games has been in the IGF before: Incredipede for Visual Art in 2013, and Fantastic Contraption VR for Nuovo in 2016, and Deep Under the Sky had an honorable mention for Audio in 2015. But this is the first time one of my games has made it, and I am on cloud nine!

Exocolonist Cosplay

Anemone cosplay by Ellie Amber, directed/edited by LAYER013Photography

For I Was a Teenage Exocolonist’s release, we partnered with some phenomenally talented cosplayers, including the amazing Ellie Amber featured here dressed as adult Anemone. I was absolutely bowled over with how much creativity and attention to detail went into these costumes.

Seriously, so beautiful!! Check out Ellie’s making-of process videos on Instagram:

Anemone cosplay by ellie.amber
Pauldrons shaping

Pauldrons painting

Wig trimming and styling

Boot details



Final product!

Ellie also created a PDF of cut-and-sew patterns for the costume and accessories, right down to Anemone’s scale-armored skin flakes:

Anemone cosplay patterns
Anemone cosplay patterns by Ellie Amber

And there are so many others! This was organized by our friends at Finji and ICO, so each new cosplay post was a delightful surprise to me and the Exo team. Seeing our characters out in the real world is so magical! Many of these creators also posted creation process videos, so scroll through their feeds for more instructions/techniques/mindblowing gorgeousness.

Behold, more Exocolonist cosplay:

Clémentine also made (and sent us!!) this gorgeous bobber fruit used in the above video:

Bobber Fruit by Clémentine Gelly
Bobber Fruit by Clémentine Gelly (@arborealkey)
@hiyartist About the game #iwasateenageexocolonist cosplay #utopiacharacter #cosplaycinematic #cinematics #naturalezaincreible ♬ sonido original – Eva Lara

@kirapika.cos I LOVE the game ! Go check out this game here : https://bit.ly/kirapika-Exocolonist ! #ad #Exocolonist #ExoInspired #cosplay ♬ som original – ~{Fairy Sky}~