Signs of the Sojourner
Signs of the Sojourner is an innovative narrative card game about building relationships across a rich and colorful landscape. Unlike the focus on competition typically found in most card games, in Signs of the Sojourner each card game is a collaborative dialogue, in which you attempt to navigate the miscommunications and misunderstandings that can make relationships so unpredictable. We spoke with some of the team behind the game, starting with the game’s designer Dyala Kattan-Wright...
Pixel Primers: Signs of the Sojourner’s approach to the card game genre really sets itself apart. How did you develop the ideas behind the game?
Dyala: The concept started as exploring how to represent the player's character and conversations with gameplay that wasn't just skill checks and dialogue trees. The original pitch to the team was "Your deck is your character," which of course could be taken a million different ways. But using cards and deckbuilding to represent conversations felt like a great fit in that it also matched the idea that people don't always have perfect control over interpersonal interactions. Jokes land wrong, you're too tired to engage, a well-meaning comment is misunderstood. The random nature of drawing cards fits this well, where even if your deck/character contains the capacity for great empathy or shrewd negotiating, those things aren't necessarily always available to you in every situation, or if they are they don't always land as intended with the other party.
PP: I think conversation is definitely an activity I’d love to see more designers find new ways to approach in their games. Could you tell us a little more about how the game interprets communication, and how this was designed?
Dyala: We experimented with quite a few approaches before landing on the mechanic in Signs of the Sojourner, but with all of them we wanted to capture the feeling of your character really growing and changing through your experiences and interactions. We also wanted to tackle some of the ambiguities of conversation and communication that dialogue trees rarely manage to capture. This meant abstracting a lot of it into the cards and losing some elements that dialogue trees do well, but the trade-off helped us explore the uncertainty that can come with meeting new people, visiting new places, and being unfamiliar with local language or concerns. I think we've all had conversations where, despite best intentions, it just didn't go well. I'd say it really began to shine once we coupled it with the idea of traveling and returning home, meeting people with different perspectives, changing (or not), and seeing that reflected in your hometown and previously established relationships.
PP: The card system seems like it would have been a challenging thing to balance and refine. Did the system go through any major changes?
Dyala: Definitely! We prototyped quite a few ideas before settling on this more abstract representation of conversation and expressing character. Earlier iterations included more strategy-oriented card mechanics, like you might expect from Hearthstone or Slay the Spire, or framing each conversation more as a puzzle to solve. While some elements carried through, those iterations fell short in that players got really focused on "winning" each conversation, wanting to optimize their decks, or approaching it as something to solve rather than a conversation and relationship to explore and collaborate with the NPC. It was important to us that conversations did not all feel like battles to win. We wanted players to develop their deck/character based on which aspects of the world and characters spoke to them, setting goals around pursuing relationships or learning more about a community, rather than aiming to min/max a deck that could "win" all encounters.
PP: The game has a very distinct sense of place, both in the visual influences you’ve drawn from and also in the sense of culture you get as you visit the game’s settlements. How did the world of the game develop?
Dyala: We started developing the world right alongside all the core mechanic iterations. While the direction changed somewhat as the mechanics changed, quite a few of our overarching goals and concepts carried through. We wanted to explore issues of climate change, wealth inequality, and other modern issues, but at the same time maintain an optimistic tone--not to the extent that it's a cartoon world with no worries, but embracing how even in extreme hardship people and communities can come together and support each other. From those initial conversations about issues that were important to us and brainstorming how different towns might look and function, Holly, our artist, took those fairly loose concepts and ran with them in terms of defining the visual style. Of course, defining and writing the characters in each location really brought them to life, which greatly informed the musical themes for each place as well.
Holly Rothrock is Signs of the Sojourner’s artist.
PP: How did you develop the art style for the game, and where did you look for inspiration?
Holly: When we started development, I really wanted to create a style that people would see and say "I've never seen something like this before". In my mind, visual appeal came second to rawness, earnestness, and un-refinement. I would've rather had an "ugly" game (sorry Zach and Dyala) than a game that looked like someone else's. Reading this back to myself, it sounds very snobby! I think because I have a Fine Arts degree, I put a lot of pressure on myself to create art using this one ideal.
With that context in mind, I tried to find most of my inspiration from anywhere but games. My first mood board for SotS consisted of a lot of fashion photography. The first few mockups were made with a million Photoshop filters over, what I assume are, Japanese indie band posters. I wrote a blog post about a trip Dyala and I took to the LACMA to see textiles and ceramics. It probably shows more than I'd like, but I'm also a huge fan of the artist Guy Pascal Vallez.
PP: The game conveys a sense of place and culture really effectively, and so much of this comes through in the art. Could you tell us a little more about the visual design of the places and people in the world?
Holly: Thank you! It makes me really happy that you think so. So it's really just concept art 101, but I designed the first set of demo locations and characters simultaneously to make sure they were as different from one another as possible. I started with a few ideas about what a near-future world would look like, such as "what if an entire town was one giant earthship?" I thought a location that was a field of saffron flowers was provocative. Dyala really wanted a flooded city. Then I filled in the holes. If Tosende was purple, then Pachenco should be red, Desert Oasis should be blue, and so on. If one location was open and expansive, another should feel enclosed and intimate. I made the first few characters with the same broad strokes too, Elias was small so Samuel was big. Ramir was sharp so Nadine was curved. This stage of ideation is almost like solving a sudoku and takes a lot of brain power.
Then I started adding threads. One of the most enjoyable parts of development for me is to be able to create visual threads throughout games for people to find. It probably goes without saying that I'm a big advocate for visual story-telling. I'd wager most artists are! It seems a bit counter-intuitive when you're trying to make these very individualized characters and places, but giving multiple characters similar freckles, tattoos, clothing, etc. gives the world depth. I bet there's a quote out there about how multiples of something always create more meaning. I could also tie characteristics to locations. Not only can characteristics better inform the specifics of a location, this step makes the world feel more interconnected. A value I hold in game development is representation. I didn't want a diverse cast in looks only, I wanted their hometowns and histories to be just as varied. I tried to imagine what a near-future inhabitant would look like with doughnut cities, bustling wetlands, and gentrified one-horse towns. And in some way,I wanted everyone that played the game to be able to see a little of themselves reflected.
PP: It’s interesting how much of the game is represented visually, including conversation and social dynamics. How did you develop the game’s visual language and UI?
Holly: Creating the look and layout of the UI was almost the exact opposite of the processes I used to create the style of the world. I have a very hard time bringing myself to stray from UI and UX convention because much of it already has a ton of research to back it up. Unless the point of a game is about pushing the boundaries of UI, reinventing that wheel is an almost guaranteed descent into madness.
I actually subtracted a lot from the UI. There used to be so much more detail, noise rather. I kept reminding myself that the UI was the vehicle for the game's message, not the focal point. Once I landed on the high concept of making the UI look like notes left behind by your mother or scraps a person might normally collect from their travels, I forced myself not to think too much about it again. When you're pressured to use every bit of your small amount of in-game art as opportunities to reinforce something else in the game, it's definitely hard to exercise restraint.
Steve Pardo is Signs of the Sojourner’s composer.
PP: What were the starting points you had initially, and how did you begin translating that into a soundtrack?
Steve: Initially, the team at Echodog shared a ton of art concepts, story briefs, and game design documents with us, informing a palette of melodic, harmonic, cultural, and orchestration guidelines we defined early on before I wrote anything. I was sincerely touched by the game mechanic itself, as well as the premise for the character story and beautiful environments and art design. We shared a lot of musical reference material with each other, a wide range of folk, jazz, African, and orchestral chamber musics.
Once we agreed on some initial tonal concepts, such as earthy-folk-acoustic instrumentation with an experimental and textural backdrop, I set out to score a gameplay trailer, which also served as a test-bed for the main theme. Luckily for us, our early conversations proved successful, as that initial piece ended up as our official main theme on the final soundtrack with barely any compositional edits having been made afterwards. That assignment really helped me understand what universe the game's cultures, conflicts, and technologies reside in, and provided guidelines as to how the soundtrack was to evolve as the player ventures out into the unknown.
PP: The soundtrack does a great job of communicating the personalities of the different settlements that you visit. Could you talk us through your creative process in composing the music for some of these locations?
Steve: Every song is essentially a town theme, and given the sense of the conflicts and environments found within each would determine how I would approach composing for each. For example, seeing as Bartow is the main character’s home world, I set out to compose something familiar, simple, singable, and organic. I approached composing for that one as I would a folk song, strumming guitar chords and humming a melody, recording a draft onto my iPhone's Voice Memos app, as many songwriters are wont to do. I find that this method is quite an authentic way to ensure that any composition intending to be thematic has a singable and memorable quality.
Steve: Seeing as the environment and backstory for Hara hints at darkness and desolation, I actually began writing Hara with an electric bass. It begins with a very simple chord progression and melody, evolving into various textures and woodwind instrumentation, giving it slight lift and hopefulness that is characteristic of the melancholy nature of the main story and it’s through-line
Steve: For more of the driving and percussive songs, such as Anka and Bukam Boro, I started with finding a groove that felt appropriate for the town. Anka is a metropolis, a bustling and vibrant city, so I approached it by treating it with a twisted and groovy jazz ensemble performing a driving odd-meter jam. Bukam Boro is off-the-beaten-path and filled with eccentric characters, so the band is a little smaller performing a folk-funk guitar-driven tune.
PP: What’s been the most rewarding thing about working on the game?
Dyala: Having such a supportive and enthusiastic community come together around the game has been incredible. Getting the community involved fairly early on was a new experience for all of us, but so rewarding--from general encouragement during the long haul of development, to all the thoughtful feedback that helped us focus on what features were really most important. I love seeing which characters really speak to people and how folks interpret a pretty abstract conversation mechanic into very specific exchanges.
Steve: Honestly, the entire experience and opportunity was rewarding! Absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had so far in my professional career. It was win-win: being able to provide context and culture to the game’s environments and characters, while at the same time being gifted the time and opportunity to execute on a musical vision I don’t think I’ve yet had the space to execute on. It was as if I was being provided the opportunity to make an “album" that I would have wanted to make anyway! And I’d be remiss to mention that getting a chance to collaborate with some of my favorite musicians out there, like Mike Baggetta, Jon Estes, Liz Estes, Jeremiah Barcus, among many other talented music friends, was a pure joy.
Holly: This is a difficult question! There were lots of rewarding parts about making SotS, like seeing people's reactions while playing and eating tons of delivery Thai food. I think the most rewarding thing for me was seeing the final product. I wish I could think of a more elegant way to put it! A lot of creatives dream about what they would do if they could make something truly their own. It's exciting and terrifying at the same time. There's that Mark Twain quote, “It's better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.” Creating the visuals for SotS was me opening my mouth and, for better or worse, I sang that karaoke song all the way to the end.
Signs of the Sojourner is available now on PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch