Making a Silent Protagonist Speak: Thoughts on Signs of the Sojourner

As a game journalist, I often find myself hands-on with games in genres I hadn’t previously thought about; Signs of the Sojourner seems to fall under that umbrella of unusual- and fascinating- experiences.

Signs of the Sojourner is a story-focused single-player trading card game; the game’s premise is that you live in a country that’s fallen upon hard times, and like your mother before you, you join a caravan of trucks that transports goods around to trade. Back in the little town you come from is your shop- the goods you pick up on your journeys get deposited here- it’s necessary to keep your shop operational in order for your little town of Bartow to remain a stop on the caravan’s journeys.

There’s a purity to be found in Sojourner’s deceptively simple gameplay- there are really just two modes of play- choosing which town to visit next, and the conversational card game that takes place in each location. Most narratively focused games, in my experience, tend not to pay quite so much attention to the systems by which you communicate with other characters- often, you’re presented with a few choices as to what you’ll say, and then the other characters in the game will respond.

In Signs of the Sojourner, you don’t really have that sort of control over what’s said. When speaking with characters, you’re playing as a silent, unnamed protagonist who, from your perspective, never says anything. This sort of thing isn’t at all new to video games; what makes SotS so special, however, is that instead of picking choices off a dialogue tree like you would in a Choose Your Own Adventure, you’re playing cards that correspond to conversational elements that reflect the personalities of each character you encounter.

To put it a bit more simply, your best friend in the game, Elias, is both empathetic and logical. When he talks to you, he’ll be playing those sorts of cards- you have to play cards that link his words with yours. Each trait is represented by a symbol on either side of any given card- so if Elias plays a card that’s an orange circle- empathy- on both sides, you just need a card with empathy on its left side. But, there’s a catch: Elias needs to be able to match whatever’s on the right side of the card that you play. So if you play a card with a logical right side, but Elias can’t match it, that’s a strike against the conversation. If a conversation has enough mismatches, it ends before you accomplish anything.

At the end of every conversation- no matter how it went- you must discard one of the cards from your own deck while gaining one from whoever it was you were speaking with. Everybody you speak with rubs off on you- and this changes the way that your character interacts with others. This struck me as an incredibly creative way to handle in-game dialogue, because generally, when I think about branching dialogue as it relates to changing character, I’m thinking in much more strict narrative terms- if you say one thing, then you can’t say another, or if you start pushing your character in a certain direction, certain bits of dialogue and choices would just be lopped off and grayed out. Here, though, your silent protagonist is given depth by what sort of conversations they can have in the first place.
In a way, it’s an extended metaphor for your character’s growth, because you’re not just picking up traits- you lose them, too. You change as a person, all without saying a word.

I’d love to see more games integrate a similar approach- not necessarily ripping off the system from SotS entirely, but building on it. Imagine a game where your speaking protagonist doesn’t just develop relationships with others, but needs ongoing work on their personality and the way they present themselves in order to accomplish their goals.

One thing I especially appreciate about Signs of the Sojourner is the freedom that it offers you, the player- while your goals and how to accomplish them is relatively clear-cut and straightforward, how you go about doing things is up to you. At some point in my own playthrough, I accidentally separated myself from my caravan. I drove to one town, they drove to another- but the game didn’t go out of its way to punish me for it, and I wound up seeing sights I might have otherwise missed- in fact, sticking closely with the game’s main “quest line”- if you could call it that- is a surefire way to miss stuff. I appreciate that there’s a calendar which shows you upcoming events, and the game gives you an idea of how long it takes to get between towns, so if you separate from your caravan, you can still meet back up with it- this is easier said than done.

Probably the most striking part of the freedom the game affords happens in this one brief part of the game where I realized that I needed to perform poorly in a conversation in order to protect a character. While it was clear what the moral and right thing to do was in the case, it wasn’t immediately obvious from a gameplay perspective. I do wish that SotS had a few more segments like that one, since it was so memorable, and I felt the game wasn’t holding my hand.

Signs of the Sojourner is relatively short; you can finish it in the space of an afternoon- but for its length, it’s really quite satisfying. I’m not so much of the mind that a game should be judged by its length, but by what it does in however long it takes you to play, and from start to finish, Signs of the Sojourner had me hooked. I loved the game’s world and characters- it almost seemed post-post-apocalyptic- that is to say, whatever catastrophe made the world a mess had long since passed and everybody’s trying to live their lives as normally as they can. There are half broken-down robots trying to perform menial tasks while making sense of their own existence, pickle merchants with family problems, fish smugglers, starving artists- the characters are all memorable and unique.

While many of the characters were funny, they also had surprising depth; while the characters had jokes, it didn’t seem like anybody’s presence was a joke.

I do wish that Signs of the Sojourner had a New Game Plus mode that saved your progress, because there were some areas I hadn’t explored and characters I hadn’t really had the chance to have great conversations with- the ability to keep exploring after the game’s end would be great- unfortunately if I want to continue exploring the routes I uncovered and keep talking to the characters I’ve met after the game’s maximum five sojourns, I need to start over.

On the whole, I had a great time with Signs of the Sojourner and I would like to see more games set in its world- and I also hope that other game designers take note of how the game handles relationships. Signs of the Sojourner is available for Mac and Windows.

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