I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is a wickedly addicting visual novel with beautiful art, charming characters, fantastic music, and an intriguing plot. As a narrative RPG with dozens of endings and ten romanceable characters, it naturally has a lot of replay value. But its time loop mechanic means that you get to avoid repeating certain quest chains or dialogue lines. You can also save characters who die, if you can figure out how to in time. The initial mad rush to save everyone, and the way they reacted when I told them about my past lives, gave me the rare experience of feeling like Rintaro Okabe from Steins;Gate.
You gain stats and relationship points with monthly activities. In order to succeed at monthly activities, you use cards collected throughout the game to match the goal number. These cards are your memories, with more “major” memories having a bigger number.
While the game mechanics itself are extremely fun, and it never gets old trying to unlock all the endings, it should be said that I Was a Teenage Exocolonist isn’t for everyone. I do not mean this in the sense that it has content that’s too disturbing. In fact, Northway surfaces a full list of content warnings at the main menu (including spoilers!), so folks who are worried about that sort of thing can stay informed.
Perhaps a picture would be a bit more illustrative. Check the gallery below for a few screenshots of the dialog. That said, if you want to go in completely clean, keep scrolling.
Depending on how “online” you are, this style of dialog and character writing can come across as either pleasantly familiar or “a bit much”. As a veteran of Tumblr in its heyday, I personally do not mind it! And as far as messaging goes, a lot of I Was a Teenage Exocolonist‘s themes speak to me. The game takes place in a future and culture that’s grown apart from the one we have on Earth. While the setting paints a bleak picture of galactic survival, it also presents a hopeful one in terms of the society, particularly in terms of tolerance and diversity. Characters come in all different sizes, races, gender identities, and sexual orientations. One character has a pair of gay dads and another seems to have a polycule for his parents.
In I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, your player character is part of the second generation of space colonists. Your parents’ generation left Earth (and all of its troubles and conflicts) behind to start a new life. You and your friends were born on the spaceship Stratospheric, and when you are ten years old, you land on the planet Vertumna. The goal of this game is to reach the age of 20. In the decade you play, you can level up all sorts of skills and relationships. You can also perform jobs to help the colony. Some endings will stop the game before 20, but you’d have to jump through hoops to encounter that abrupt an interruption.
It can get a bit predictable at times, even for someone like me who’s steeped in this sort of language. I felt bad at how quickly I could predict what sort of archetype a character would turn out to be like before the game confirmed it through dialog or storytelling. Of course Nomi-Nomi, the quirky anime lover who talks in a hyperactive way, uses they/them pronouns (and they do). Of course Tang, the scientist who talks at length about how gross and ineffective the human body is, is transgender (and she is). The game includes pretty much all of the representation you can think of.
This is a good problem to have, though. The character writing is excellent and thoughtful. You all start around ten years old and end the game around twenty. Characters’ relationships change over time, as do their personalities. Anemone and Cal in the beginning are completely different people at the end. This evolution even applies to your internal monologue. When you are eleven, the writing feels like you are reading a children’s book. But the prose slowly shifts to a more sophisticated tone as you get older. Because everyone is so different in their politics and values, you will likely always find yourself against at least two characters as you argue for what the Strato colony needs. Everyone has their own idea of what is best for the colony’s future.
As a quick note before we move onto the next section, I would like to say that I have not completed all the routes in the game yet. So this is based on my experiences thus far. For reference, I have completed four different lives. However, these are things I have noticed for the majority of my playthroughs, so I believe that you would have to really go out of your way to see something different.
It happens more often than it should, but if there’s one pitfall that accompanies Exocolonist‘s commitment to its ideals, it’s that it gets a bit too “Lisa Simpson” in its storytelling. In spots, characters start to talk less like people and more like drafts for a social studies dissertation. All characters exist as narrative or thematic tools — this is basic fiction-writing. But the downside of this approach is that it can come across unnatural and in extremely unsubtle ways. It happens so much in the fan fiction scene, that I am very confident that I could construct a profile for the writer of I was a Teenage Exocolonist just from what I’ve read in the dialog and narrative.
Honestly, I get the impulse. As a writer myself, sometimes I really want to hammer things home in a way that no one could misinterpret. But this happens even for things that could do with a more subtle hand. In learning the history of the Stratospheric, I realized that they were pretty much a cult. The vague triumph I felt when I read between the lines and saw what the author meant faded instantly when Solana (what I named my protagonist) could blurt out “So, they’re basically a cult?!” The way the characters and narrative sometimes signposts its politics takes away from the fun of critically analyzing the work.
The game borders on “preachy.” Characters monologue at length about views that people playing this probably already agree with. I certainly agree with them. It is like an echo chamber of morals. And to only present a compelling argument for one side can be a problem when you write a story so focused on social issues. An example of this is in its portrayal of vegetarianism. Most characters are vegetarian because they ate soy on the Stratospheric, which makes sense. But Vertumna’s soil is poor for farming. In a cooking event, Aunt Anne suggests eating meat. Tammy reacts with almost childish horror, and the game nudges you to negotiate for a vegetarian option. This is because that option nets you the best card.
It is incredibly easy to be anti-fascist and take the more eco-socialist route when the “enemies” are almost cartoonishly one-dimensional. You and your pacifist farmer friend watch Vace and his soldiers roast an animal alive for consumption. Humans are inherently “evil” for inserting themselves into the established ecosystem, and no one raises a compelling argument against that. I never felt challenged in my views or morals, and the game never attempts to challenge them anyway. While it’s true that some views don’t need to be visibly opposed to be powerful, the game is affirming to the point of feeling coddling and almost sanitized. Vertumna is a utopia of acceptance and diversity, but its story doesn’t have a lot of space for players who don’t share all its values. Perhaps the cult backstory for the Stratospheric is more relevant than it seems at first glance.
Once again I should stress that I haven’t seen all 29 endings. So I could definitely have missed something on my path through. Your ending animation changes depending on if you save your parents and who you date, as well as which characters you maxed out friendship with. There’s much more to be seen of I Was a Teenage Exocolonist than what I experienced for this playtest.
As of the time of writing, I’ve played the game for almost 22 hours. I once even spent the whole day playing it, skipping meals because I was so invested (Do not do this!), and I still feel like there are endless possibilities for me to uncover. Like a space colonist eager to discover the mysteries of a distant planet, I can’t wait until the next time I can experience a new life.
I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC. This playtest is based on a PC version code provided by the publisher.