Create conversations from the card game mechanics in Signs of the Sojourner
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
Signs of the traveler is a conversation card game where the player explores a new world and meets the people there. However, there is no going back on what you are saying, so players will need to think it over before they speak.
Gamasutra spoke with the Echodog Games team about the title nominated for Excellence in Design, learning what thoughts were used to turn the conversation into a card game, creating a narrative that pursuing regardless of how your chats went and capturing the finality that occurs when the words come out of your mouth when you’re talking to someone.
Hi! We are Dyala Kattan-Wright, Holly Rothrock and Zach Vinless, respectively designer, artist and programmer.
Kattan-Wright: After a design internship and a QA gig, I started working on MMOs at Nickelodeon for several years. I eventually moved into mobile games, where I met Holly and Zach. A few years later, we got back together for our first independent project!
Rothrock: After graduating from Fine Arts, I started my first industry job at an educational game company, 1st Playable Productions. I took a break and did some animation work for a while, but the games kept calling me back! I met Zach and Dyala making mobile games. Eventually I left this company for a contract with Giant Sparrow to help complete What remains of Edith Finch. Then I worked on a multitude of other contracts until I started working at WayForward. I really enjoyed WF, but Dyala’s indie call to action was too good to pass up!
Kattan-Wright: I’ve been thinking for a while about ways to explore conversations in games that don’t rely on dialogue trees, or “dialogue as gameplay”. Eventually, I landed on cards and deckbuilding as a way to represent your character rather than your fighting abilities and the like. The lack of perfect control over which cards you could draw and be able to play seemed to fit well with the lack of perfect control you have over your emotional state and how others understand you or interpret what you do and say.
The themes of traveling and finding or returning home, for me, began with looking at my own family history as refugees and then immigrants. Once the three of us immersed ourselves in it, however, we found a lot of common experiences in our own lives of travel for education or work, both of moving to new cities and countries and of having to adapt and then return home after being changed by those experiences. And finally, we also wanted to establish a framework that would allow us to at least briefly explore other issues that were important to us without blowing up the scope of our control.
Signs of the traveler was built in Unity and we used Inkle’s Ink scripting language for all game writing. Holly used Photoshop, and of course things like Google, Git and other free programs like realtimeboard (now Miro I believe) for the remote whiteboard.
Much of the idea came from wanting to explore conversation and social mechanics outside of dialogue trees, especially in a context that isn’t about defeating enemies. In part that meant a game where there is no defeat, where systems encourage you to reflect on your own experiences, and which has high stakes that aren’t about the threat of death.
We’ve gotten a lot of responses from people surprised that the game is emotionally difficult, but our hope is that as they play, people will consider who they want to connect with, and how and why, rather than the equivalent of rushing through. each branch in a dialogue tree. Not always getting what you want or having conversations the way you planned can be frustrating, but that’s also how life and social interactions work. Of course, another aspect is to keep encouraging that, to expose yourself and take those kinds of risks, to try to figure out where other people are coming from.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was finding a way to make the conversations collaborative, or at least not antagonistic. Which isn’t to say we wanted to avoid conflict, but rather find a system that could ideally handle different types of conversations without reducing them to a redesigned or similar combat system. Understanding the basic mechanics that actually look like a conversation, even if they don’t literally model conversations, took a long time and a lot of iterations. Part of the challenge was also balancing the complexity of the systems and the narrative and how they interacted, and how it all communicated in the user interface.
Rothrock: The visual style of the game was a journey for sure! I wanted it to be something that people look at and say, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I’m primarily a 2D artist, so I got into pushing the flatness of the art, which played into the higher concept of the protagonist using old cards and notes left for them. I also love the intimacy of a hand-drawn aesthetic.
It started out very ornamental and had to be reduced considerably over the course of iterations, as did our gameplay. The game is half dialogue, half cards, all UI. I didn’t want it to feel like that, however. It had to be as natural and relaxed as a conversation, but as captivating and engaging as… conversation. I also hoped that the imperfect lines of the drawings would evoke the simultaneous feelings of unawareness and recognition one might experience when traveling to a new place.
In a game about conversations and connecting with people, it made sense to us that you had to live with your decisions, including mistakes or miscommunication. The idea that you don’t win or lose conversations – that basically that’s not really how most conversations work – would be undermined if we literally made you lose and try bad conversations again. The cumulative effect of your conversations and relationships on how your character and deck develop is crucial to the overall experience.
So a good thing about the abstract nature of the way the card game is played is that most of the time players will make their own associations without us having to explicitly refer to something that is. ‘they had done previously or to answer all possible outcomes of the cards. and the state of the game. There was of course. A lot of conversations have alternate lines depending on how previous conversations went or other things the player may have done.
We tried to balance large-scale scenarios with fairly stand-alone scenarios, the latter helping in terms of managing the potentially huge possibility space. There were, however, a lot of ideas that we had to dismiss, both for the scope and for the fact that one wonders what impact they would actually have. For example, an early version had the results directly influenced by which symbols were played the most, rather than just looking at overall concordance or mismatch.
There are also some areas that I would have liked to explore more if we had had more time and resources. For example, there are certain conversations that you might want to deliberately have because you don’t agree with the feelings the other person is sharing, but I’m not sure this was understood in all of them. cases. It might have been interesting to explore how disagreement by concordance vs discordance could suggest very different narratives and relationships. Needless to say, however, there was already an awful lot to deal with both in terms of design and writing without piling on all the possible “what if” mechanics. Save them for another game!
We hope players find relevant experiences in the game, whether it’s reflecting on their own travels or just social interactions in general. Be open to new experiences, take risks, and remember that a conversation is never just what you say to someone!
This game, winner of the IGF 2021, is presented as part of the ceremony of the Festival of independent games. You can watch the ceremony from 4:30 p.m. PT (7:30 a.m. ET) on Wednesday, July 21 through GDC 2021.