2022 was filled with incredible games, from God of War Ragnarok to Elden Ring to Midnight Suns and so on. Yet for me one of the stand-outs was a rather small independent title: I Was A Teenage Exocolonist. The game takes a look at the standard visual novel tropes and expectations, perfects them, then turns it into something brand new.
A bit of context for you: I Was A Teenage Exocolonist is a combination of a visual novel with a card-based puzzler. Your life events and your day-to-day activities are played out in the form of a card game, where you have to solve a specific puzzle in order to progress and thus increase your skills (of which there’s a massive range of, from biology to empathy to how good you are with animals). There’s multiple different endings, multiple different love interests, and above all else, the ability to be whoever you want to be.
The twist that makes it different to most other visual novels out there is that the game works similar to a roguelike. You WILL die, at various different points in the story depending on the choices that you make, and within the story this is explained as a cosmic event that keeps you in a loop. There’s characters that will die in the story during your first run that you can save in future runs because both you as the player, and the character you’re playing as, remember what happened in previous lives. Once you’ve played multiple times, this heavily streamlines the game to the point that you can literally say to characters “Hey I know your secret” and they respond in shock and awe. Yet despite this being amazing, it’s not what I adore about I Was A Teenage Exocolonist.
I Was A Teenage Exocolonist never talks down to you. It’s acutely aware of what it is, what it wants to be, and it sticks to that design ethos throughout the entire game. None of this is more apparent than in the initial character creation. You have your usual choices, with elements such as your best friend and your best latent skill, but you also get to adjust what your appearance will be later in life. For most games, this is where it would end, but I Was A Teenage Exocolonist is different. Throughout the entire game you can constantly change not only your pronouns, but whether you want a feminine, androgynous or a masculine appearance, and it’s all treated as normal within this world (as it should, given this is such a far-flung world that we’ve managed to master cross-galaxy travel ala Star Trek and The Orville).
What’s extremely interesting about the world of I Was A Teenage Exocolonist is that some of these characters aren’t good people. Far from it, in fact. There’s characters that are openly fascists, abusers, people with bad morals that will show that to you throughout the story. Yet they treat your gender and pronouns with respect, without insult and without drawing attention to them. It’s almost like Star Trek in that respect, in that the world of I Was A Teenage Exocolonist is a post-gender, post-sexuality world that doesn’t care about what you are and who you love. I’ve never seen a game treat gender so brilliantly, and it’s so lovely to see in 2022 amid a gaming scene that is so heavily skewed towards massive stories, massive open-worlds and cinematic experiences to have a game this small do what they simply don’t do.
Take a massive game series like Bioware’s Mass Effect. The series contains three of my favourite games ever made. Your character, Commander Shepard, is the main thrust behind the entire story, the reason that everything actually happens. They form relationships with characters, friendships, romances, rivalries, and it’s all down to your choices throughout the course of the games. They even carry over to other games in the series! Yet once you set your appearance into stone, and once you decide on your gender, you can’t change that. You’re stuck with the Shepard you start with, and in a world so technologically advanced as Mass Effect it feels… weird. It could be to do with the fact that the game was released in 2008, and Exocolonist was released in 2022, but even Star Trek was making massive strides in representation back in the 60s such as Lieutenant Uhurua, one of the first major black female roles on TV.
The regressive state of the mid 2000s in America is also likely a heavy contributing factor, along with the fact that you’re military in Mass Effect. It is worth noting the existence of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a United States Military Policy that was still in effect when Mass Effect released, which prohibited any non-heterosexual individual from discussing their partners while in active service, which might have fed into how the game presents gender (especially given how the attitude towards simple non-heterosexual relationships was, they were taking a risk simply portraying them). Regardless of your initial choices at the start of the game, you are an ex-soldier, and there’s a certain vision of the military from the general populace, especially at the time, that doesn’t allow for self-expression at all.
I Was A Teenage Exocolonist makes the strides to allow you to be fluid, making it feel like you’re actually living in a future that has advanced a great deal in terms of not only scientific developments, but also in the way that society treats the marginalised and how it understands both the concept of gender and sexuality.
I Was A Teenage Exocolonist is an absolute masterclass in representation, one that never doubts itself and never backs down. It’s quite rare to see something like it, something that allows your identity to be in constant flux. Change everything you want on the fly, your gender, your sexuality, your pronouns, who you are at your core. It understands that all of this change is incredibly important to roleplaying a character, and it does so perfectly. There’s a reason I keep talking about it as one of my favourite games of the entirety of 2022, and why it’s a game I’m not going to shut up about for a long time to come.