Sojourner takes players on a decidedly retro JRPG adventure, having them embark on a lighthearted adventure where they’ll deal with turn-based combat, questing, and pixelated villains. Drawing heavily from aspects of classic JRPGs, but with a gentle mocking tone, the game is a display of affection for the genre’s past that’s informed by modern design.
Siliconera caught up with Sojourner’s developer to learn more about the games that inspired the developer’s teasing, learning more about how they tweaked classic design for a current audience, and how they created their own game when they felt few others would.
What made you want to poke fun at the RPG genre with Sojourner? Why make a silly take on RPGs?
Michael Squirrel, developer of Sojourner – Despite the Dragon Quest-inspired visual aesthetic, the game’s themes and tone are most inspired by Earthbound, particularly Mother 3. There is something about the wacky antics of Mother 3 that make that game incredibly charming and endearing, and I wanted to replicate that in my own style. There’s a more obscure game as well, Magi-Nation, which released on the Game Boy Color, that did a really excellent job of balancing modern humor with a serious story, and I was further inspired by that game’s tone. In addition, I’m an amateur performer with a background in improv, and I just love to be silly and laugh, so I wanted to incorporate that side of myself into how I wrote the game.
Lastly, I knew the game’s story was going to be extremely simple – virtually identical to the barebones story of Dragon Quest 1 – and that meant I needed to add or change something to make the game impactful and more than just a generic clone. Injecting the story with warmth and a sense of humor felt like the right way to go. The only other choice would be to go the Final Fantasy 6 route, where the characters are so great and the story so profound and dramatic that you stop thinking about the fact that these are pixelated, big-headed characters carrying out the story. Because when you have these bouncy, saturated retro visuals, it can be hard to take a game seriously. The only two options that could work for a retro RPG, in my opinion, were either comedy or high drama, and I wanted to write a comedy.
What sorts of things did you want to tease the genre about in the game?
RPGs like this really aren’t made anymore, which is a shame. The latest couple I can think of are I Am Setsuna and Bravely Second. Seriously, it’s hard to think of any current, big-budget JRPGs like this. I knew I was making a game in an already-dead medium, and that meant relying on nostalgia and fun references to keep the player engaged. This genre just does not wow people anymore. I personally love the gameplay of classic RPGs, and still play them often, so I was perfectly fine making a game that had nearly identical gameplay, but I had to have fun with it and mock every trope. Nothing was ever off the table. If I liked a joke I came up with, I put it in the game. It’s lovingly irreverent, if that even makes sense.
Why do you feel we find fun in joking about about certain aspects of RPGs, but still love to play them?
The typical tropes are so consistent across every popular RPG that it’s hard not to laugh at them. For example, every main character has only one of their parents, while their other parent is just nonexistent for the entire game and never mentioned. We’ve seen it a million times, like in Chrono Trigger, and if there’s an exception, it’s because the other parent is basically Darth Vader, the villain. If it’s not a parent, it’s a sibling, like Cecil and Golbez in Final Fantasy IV. There are a ton of tropes like this, which can be very dramatic or useful on their own, but are so overdone that many RPGs become predictable. It’s just fun to laugh at how predictable these games are while still enjoying the story.
What drew you to let players choose classes/monster allies to make up their party? Why open this up for players, and what do you feel it added to the game?
Gameplay is always the most important thing in a game. In a combat-heavy game like Sojourner, there needed to be plenty of variety for the player to be able to have the most fun. I’m a big fan of character-creation and creating your own party – it was one of my favorite parts of Dragon Quest 3. A big part of Sojourner is the feeling of discovery. You are constantly finding treasure and secret areas and random sidequests everywhere you go, and as you keep playing the game and doing more combat every step of the way, you learn which character classes you like and dislike, and what kind of party you want to have.
You can also look at games like Final Fantasy V, where there are a zillion classes to choose from, and that’s the primary feature of the whole game. I personally feel that game went overboard to the point of not being fun, but I liked the spirit of it, and so in Sojourner there are a healthy 10 classes available to choose, 6 monsters you can recruit in the game, and there’s even a secret character. There is also a class-change system to really widen the possibilities of what your characters can do. It just adds complexity and layers to the game’s combat, which is its main feature, and all the possibilities for experimentation increases the fun.
How much work was it to add silly flavor text for many of the attacks and monsters in the game? What are some of your favorite goofy powers from the game?
It was work, for sure. Whenever I felt finished with the game, I kept thinking either, "This game isn’t funny enough" or "This game isn’t heartwarming enough" and I continually revisited the script, whether in or out of combat, to try to add extra oomph and joy into it. My favorite skill is probably "Comforting Hug" which is a useful defense-boost for the party. There is a cat-like enemy called Liono, and it can do a thunder-element attack on the group, and while doing so shouts "Hooo!", which is an obvious Thundercats reference. Every single enemy has at least one unique skill that makes some kind of silly joke or reference. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the game never stops trying to give you a good time.
Given how the game is a lighthearted homage to the classic RPG, what drew you to allow players to shut off random encounters? Why add that feature to the game?
It’s an essential modernization feature. When you go back and play classic RPGs today, they can feel nearly unplayable due to things like a high-encounter rate, low amount of EXP gained, etc. It’s been a common experience for me to go back to RPGs from my childhood only to put up with the slog of grinding and poorly-balanced combat. It sucks. Yes, combat is the main focus of most RPGs, but that is why it’s so important for the combat to be fun. I wanted to give players plenty of ways to play the game at their own pace so that the experience never stopped being fun.
In Sojourner, exploration is a really big part of the game too, so I wanted players who cared more about that to be able to have at it. If you want to explore a dungeon or the overworld without having to worry about fighting lots of enemies, go right ahead. It’s especially useful if you are at a level far beyond the enemies of the area, and you aren’t really becoming any stronger fighting those enemies anymore.
As the developer, it’s literally my job to do everything I can to help players have the most enjoyable experience. At first, I merely had a low encounter rate, made sure the enemies gave plenty of EXP, and created a very-affordable "repel" item for the game’s shop. Then I remembered that when Final Fantasy IX came out on Steam, Square Enix added a feature to it where you could disable the random encounters entirely, and I thought, "What a great idea," so I added that to my game as well. Combat is the main feature, but if there’s an excess of it, the game becomes boring.
What do you feel draws players to these classic RPG experiences now?
For me, personally, it’s because the genre is dead. I still love the SNES RPGs of my youth, and I want more of them to get made, but they just aren’t getting made. When I started working on Sojourner, it was a year or two after games like Dragon Quest VII and VIII had already been released for 3DS in Japan, but still had no sign of coming to the USA (of course, they eventually did come out, and even the upcoming Dragon Quest 11 has been confirmed to be coming west now).
If you look at Sojourner‘s influences, the most recent one was probably Mother 3, a 2006 Game Boy Advance game. That’s a pretty old source of inspiration and goes to show how long it’s been since we’ve gotten a JRPG like this. Back in the SNES era, this type of game was a dime a dozen, but many of them haven’t aged well or maybe weren’t actually very good to begin with. There can never be enough good RPGs in the world, and I had the ability to make one, so I did.