By Abigail Henkin
Signs of the Sojourner uses its deck-building structure as a jumping off point for creating a procedural rhetoric that encourages empathetic, compassionate communication. Players can only succeed in conversations–and therefore receive the items they need to complete goals and the information to unlock new paths–by forming matches with characters. In order to form a match, players have to recognize the right-hand symbol of the other character and mirror it. In order to set up a subsequent match, the player must introduce a new symbol that corresponds to the kinds of symbols the character they are talking to is likely to have. There can only be a match when characters listen to each other and recognize their partner’s conversation style. And in order to do this, players need to intentionally build a deck suited to the characters they want to talk to.
Deck-building games originated with Dominion, a game in which players add cards to their decks and try to gather victory points. Dominion is a competitive multiplayer game. It spawned numerous other deck-building games, some competitive and some collaborative. Signs of the Sojourner is a more collaborative one. In most conversations, both participants want a positive result, but may be constrained by cards in such a way that they cannot reach it. Unlike many other deck-building games, including Dominion, Signs of the Sojourner limits how many cards can be kept in a deck. It also forces players to switch out a card at the end of each conversation, with the new card mimicking an attribute of the conversational style of the character to which the player just spoke. In game, this is described as gaining experience and forgetting old memories. Characters literally rub off on Rhea (the playable character), so that their conversational style and identity shift based on the people they meet. Conversations, whether positive or negative, are incorporated into Rhea’s personality in a way similar to how in a bildungsroman, “only by stringing together ‘experiences’ does one build a personality” (Moretti 48).
To maximize the number of successful conversations, players eventually need to choose certain conversational traits (symbols) for Rhea to specialize in. This is another procedural rhetoric: it’s impossible to connect to everyone, and it’s okay to prioritize certain people that you want to build relationships with. Characters in different regions of the map tend to have different styles of speaking. For example, characters further east tend to be more industrious and direct. This can disincentivize players from travelling to different regions in which the speaking styles may be radically different, and players might not have the right cards for successful conversations. Adopting a different conversation style may also make it harder to connect with characters back in Bartow, who tend to be empathetic and diplomatic. Many of us noted that our conversations with Elias, our childhood best friend, became more strained as we acquired more diverse cards that made matches with him more difficult. We also noticed that talking with him often forced us to take cards that were weaker than the ones we had acquired through traveling (although according to the Wiki, he is the only player who can provide Accommodate cards, one of the most useful). We felt like we were drifting away from him. On the other hand, characters like Nadine who also traveled tended to diversify their cards more, like us, over the course of the game. The cataclysm introduces a new set of symbols, the distressed ones. When Rhea acquires several of them, it can make it harder for them to talk to characters who don’t feel similarly distressed. It seemed odd to us that the orange “empathetic” symbol couldn’t match with distress. According to the game’s logic, only people who actually share distress can relate to each other.
The card effects mimic conversational styles in clever ways, furthering the impression that the game mechanics are a good imitation of conversations. It makes sense that “Clarify” would allow you to go back into an earlier part of a conversation, and that it usually has a positive effect, and that “Chatter” would allow you to place two cards. We liked using the “Chatter” card to quickly advance conversations, although it seemed a bit in tension with the procedural rhetoric of empathetic listening being necessary for a conversation’s success. Still, as the game’s Wiki notes, playing “Chatter” is not always advantageous, since “Chatter” chains cannot lead to accords and may use up matching cards, forcing the player to draw less useful cards. The Wiki also emphasizes the power of “Accommodation” cards, even claiming that “a run can be accomplished while succeeding at over 90% of all conversations by working towards a deck filled entirely with Accommodate cards” (although it does not provide evidence for this claim). This privileging of “Accomodation” fits with the procedural rhetoric that encourages empathetic listening.
Like in an archetypical bildungsroman, Rhea moves from a pre-modern world (Bartow) to a larger, more modernized surrounding world. As they travel, they encounter not only more urban settings, but technologies like railroads and humanoid robots. With these industrialized technologies come industrialized problems, like the Rilkers’ cruel treatment of the robots eventually leading to a strike in Tosende Canals. (The antagonistic Rilkers are mentioned several times in Signs of a Sojourner and were enemies of Rhea’s mother, but from the Wiki it does not seem like Rhea ever directly encounters them.) Different endings complete the process of Rhea’s identity formation in more or less satisfying ways. In one ending, Rhea fails to convince the caravan to continue coming to Bartow, leading to the town’s abandonment. This seems like it would be a “bad” ending: the player/Rhea did not complete their goal. However, this ending is not framed negatively. Rhea and Elias move to Aldhurst, where they run a more successful business. This arc seems fitting for a bildungsroman. It is a happy ending, in which Rhea has incorporated their trials into their development and found stability in their new life. In contrast, the supposed “good” ending, seems to be less satisfying. Bartow is stable, but there is still a restlessness to Rhea as other characters encourage them not to get stuck in the town. In a third ending, Rhea starts a revolution in Old Marae, cementing a new identity as a revolutionary.
One constraint that Signs of the Sojourner puts on its conversations is the Fatigue cards, which accumulate as Rhea takes longer trips between towns. These cards, which mismatch on both sides, are never useful to play and make it less likely to get more valuable cards. There is a maximum time constraint on Rhea’s trips (50 days), but these cards provide another constraint: accumulating too many forces the trip to end. These cards mean that trips need to be chosen thoughtfully and that exploring specific regions is easier than travelling across the map. They also have a procedural rhetoric: it is harder to communicate well when you are tired. Fatigue cards can make it even harder to connect with Elias after longer trips, further distancing Rhea and him. There are some ways to get rid of Fatigue cards, including interactions with Thunder. Still, we found them to be a frustrating and perhaps overbearing constraint on gameplay. Perhaps having less of them could have had a similar effect but allowed players to have more interactions before having to return to Bartow. Another suggestion that came up in class was to reduce the hand size as the journey progressed instead of diluting it with the fatigue cards. Our frustration with the fatigue cards raised a larger question of how to balance a game that uses its mechanics as heavily for storytelling as Signs of the Sojourner. Most of us agreed we were invested in the deck-building gameplay only in so far as it let us explore the larger narrative.
And explore does feel like the right verb–as Jenkins discusses, this is a story that’s told over space. Characters are tied to specific spaces, although they, like Rhea, may migrate as time passes. The depth to which we know certain characters may change depending on our route. I deviated from the caravan as early as my second trip, so I didn’t meet Lars, the farmer from Tosunde Canals, until he relocated to Aldhurst after the cataclysm. At that point, he didn’t want to talk to me (I didn’t have the right cards to match with him, but he was grumpy anyway). I didn’t understand his backstory or why he was so distrustful of other humans (if you meet him earlier, you learn this is because he lived among robots at Tosunde Canals and rarely interacted with humans). As Jenkins discusses, although Signs of the Sojourner progresses literally, much of what Rhea comes to learn is about the past, including about their mother. There’s a depth to the story world through its history. The game progression is also grounded in time. Each trip has 50 days and events happen at specific times. You can miss certain interactions if you miss characters on certain trips. And you can strengthen or weaken relationships depending on if you visit or skip. I missed Pachenco on my fourth trip and came back on my fifth to find the Marques blaming me for Tomas’ leaving (even though Tomas and I were on good terms).
Through its deck-building mechanics, Signs of the Sojourner persuades players of the power of conversation and that they should use it compassionately. While it may not be beneficial for every conversation to have a positive result (like when you catch Lil’Basilio trying to steal from you if you fail a conversation with him), the majority of the time the game processes encourage connection. Positive conversations are the only way to acquire objects and learn useful information. The game processes also suggest that identity formation comes from these kinds of connections and the people we choose to relate to. The game’s processes reveal how socialization develops identity.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. The MIT Press, 2007.
Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. The MIT Press, 2004, pp. 118-130.
Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. Verso, 1987.