Talking to people is easy in video games: you find someone, press a button, and cycle through dialogue options (if there even are dialogue options) until there’s nothing left to say. Almost everyone seems to have a spare word for the player, and if they don’t, the talk button tends not to work in the first place. At worst, video game conversations ask you to pick what seems like the best option to progress, by threat or by flattery or perhaps by however many points you’ve dumped into a stat called something like “speech” or “charisma.”
In Signs of the Sojourner, nothing is quite so simple. Developer Echodog Games presents the conversation process as a game where two characters take turns matching cards. The cards, which have symbols on both ends and must be matched accordingly in a left-to-right chain, determine your character’s otherwise unseen responses. Match a complete sequence and the person you’re talking to will respond positively with a white speech balloon, while a mismatch will lead to a “discordant” response in a black balloon. By abstracting human speech in this way, the game actually conveys the complex dance of conversation better than the most detailed dialogue trees.
The Long Road
Reaching a certain number of either concordant or discordant responses in Signs of the Sojourner determines the conversation’s overall outcome, which affects your character’s chosen occupation as a traveling trader. In the game’s dusty, derelict world, you travel from one settlement to the next in search of items to stock your late mother’s store. Much of the text is brief, accompanied by simple, pleasing characters that might fit neatly into a children’s picture book if they weren’t otherwise so concerned with labor issues. Conversation-wise, you mostly need to have a good relationship with these suppliers; sometimes they’ll send you home with a jar of roasted crickets anyway, but a discordant conversation might mean you never even catch sight of the good stuff.
Though the symbol matching seems basic at first, Signs of the Sojourner soon piles on a variety of complicating mechanics. Matching four of the same symbol in a row creates an “accord,” which lets you power through a single mismatch as though you’ve formed a certain rapport with a person, able to make the little jabs and in-jokes that might alienate someone else. Many of the cards have their own abilities, like the “chatter” card that lets you play another card immediately or “accommodate,” which duplicates the symbols of the previous card.
This all comes in handy when you factor in that, depending on where they live, people only tend to have two card symbols in their decks, perhaps more if they’ve moved around; a character named Ramir, for example, picks up some cards with the square “direct and forceful” symbol once he travels to the city. Skillful use of accords and card abilities can get you through a conversation with someone whose symbols don’t always match up neatly with yours.
By providing less concrete information about your responses than most other games, Signs of the Sojourner is able to convey so much more. The cards get across your words as well as the more intangible variables of conversation: tone, body language, overall vibe. A concordant conversation means you’ve clicked just fine with somebody, whereas discordant means they’re picking up on your hesitation, your fatigue, or your irritation.
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Meant to Be
The result is almost therapeutic: sometimes social exchanges just aren’t going to work out, no matter what. Matches depend not just on the composition of your deck but what cards you’ve both been lucky enough to draw on a turn. And the ways to mitigate mismatches are limited; your deck only has so much space, and if you spread yourself too thin with too many symbols or specialize with too few, you risk total alienation upon traveling to certain areas. I didn’t manage to have a single productive conversation with one headstrong young punk in the city and that disconnect felt appropriate, particularly once I met his older, easier-to-talk-to brother.
The game is careful to avoid the language of failure, rewarding you with the choice of a new card after each conversation no matter how it turns out. In some cases, you might seem better off having a discordant exchange with certain people, like the wandering thief or the snooty patron of the arts who keeps giving the nice old lady at the licorice store a hard time. But a noticeable binary still remains, in the literal black-or-white responses accompanied by pass/fail sound effects. Failure in Signs of the Sojourner still feels like failure, and beyond the sense of freedom in realizing it’s not always your fault, there’s a lingering feeling that you’re missing out on the more illuminating “good” responses when you’re stuck with the more dismissive “bad” ones.
Of course, that’s also true to life. People don’t spill their histories to you just because they’re pissed off (though if you’ve ever worked in customer service, you’ll know that some certainly do anyway). The world of Signs of the Sojourner is founded on relationships, and as a result, much of it feels tenuous and uncertain, with precious supplies or information hanging by a conversational thread that’s important and arbitrary all at once. Your journey changes you, changes the way you talk and the habits you pick up along the way. And when you let people down or they let you down, the devastation feels appropriate — after all, we’re all we’ve got.