Defining Ourselves With Language in Signs of the Sojourner
When talking about what it’s like to play a game it’s useful to identify the verbs it offers the player. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of games use the verbs jump, shoot, and slash primarily, if not exclusively, but this verb-oriented analysis of games centers the interactivity of the game and the ways players engage with the game world and its inhabitants.
While a great many games explore the potential of alternative verbs - like the delightful Beyond Eyes where your character’s lack of sight teaches you to use the uncommon verbs listen and feel your surroundings to progress, there’s a reason for the ubiquity of jump/shoot/slash verbs in games. They’re immediate actions, they’re instantly recognizable, and they all have impactful consequences that align with male gamer fantasies of freedom, power, and glory. Video games are very good at this - perhaps it would be better to say they’re very practiced at this, with tens of thousands of developers around the world becoming increasingly effective at modeling these verbs. One could say as an industry we’ve perfected Mario’s jump, Valorant’s headshot, and Dark Souls’ parry and riposte.
But there’s another common game verb that we struggle to make impactful - talk.
Interactive and non-interactive dialog has been part of games since the beginning, with text adventures blowing up the early PC gaming scene. The ability to type a command or phrase with natural language has always been a powerful idea. Anyone can swing a sword around, after all, but to convince a troll to leave its bridge is a special victory indeed.
The limitations of contemporary text engines left a lot to be desired, however, and most speech in gaming’s history has been handled with a variation on dialogue trees, a set number of branching choices in what your character can say and the pre-programmed responses from the target of your speech. Unlike traditional non-interactive cut-scenes, dialogue options let players choose what their character will say, either focusing on specific lines of questioning or letting them choose what tone or emotion to convey, shaping the demeanor of the character they are role-playing.
It’s a functional system, and allows for more expressive role-playing than a simple cut-scene, but while it completes the strict requirements of the verb talk, this isn’t how humans actually dialogue with one another. It’s more akin to giving an actor a choice of which lines to speak, not letting them engage in conversation with another human.
Why Do We Talk To Each Other?
At the best of times, speech in games is combative and binary. Your character is trying to achieve an objective and is met with a challenge. Perhaps you, the player, pick the “correct” dialogue option to achieve this goal, or some secondary attribute (like a ‘Charisma score’) influences the outcome - but you either succeed or fail to overcome this obstacle - perhaps talking someone out of a heinous act, gaining access to information or restricted space, or demoralizing an opponent in preparation for the inevitable shooting and slashing.
Even games that devote entire systems to dialogue, like the excellent card-based roguelike Griftlands by Klei Entertainment, uses its dialogue as a form of combat - an adversarial exercise where one will is triumphing over another.
These might be a few ways humans use language, but they simulate the power dynamics of relationships, not actual conversation. The verbs at play are bluff, deceive, and diplomatize. Not converse or connect.
Signs of the Sojourner is a game about how we actually use language and how important language is in defining who we are.
Mechanics of Language
I’ll give only the briefest of primers - you and your best friend Elias are young adult orphans desperately trying to save your late mother’s curios shop in a small town on the border of civilization. To find interesting objects to sell in the store you travel from town to town fighting monsters, saving princesses, slaying dragons, enacting colonialization on presumed empty lands and…. No, no, that’s all wrong... This is just a game about talking to people.
And it’s the most interesting game I’ve played this year.
As you play and meet more and more characters, you develop a deck of conversation cards. You alternate placing these cards with your collocutor, one side of the card connecting with the prior card and setting up a connection for the next card. By the way, I use the term “collocutor” because there are no opponents in this game. There is conflict, sure, but every single encounter is about two humans engaging in a collaborative act of understanding. The victory condition is always two people learning to understand each other better through dialogue.
See, in most games, understanding is binary. When Commander Shepard speaks, everyone understands exactly what is being said. I don’t mean that there isn’t a language barrier (there never is) - I mean there is never confusion or misinterpretation about what his intent is.
Signs of the Sojourner dives headfirst into the muddiness of human communication. If you’re older than about one year old, you’ve probably noticed that communication is really hard. You can speak the exact same language as someone - even use the same words and phrases, but you just can’t connect.
This is the core of the game - connection is hard, building relationships is harder, maintaining those relationships over time and through struggles and great change is… well, no one keeps every friend they’ve ever made.
This challenge of connection manifests in every facet of the game’s design. Each card has two symbols aligning with the start and end of your turn in the natural back and forth cadence of conversation. The symbols themselves represent different approaches you take to the conversation, such as “emphatic”, “diplomatic”, and “curious”. If you’re speaking with someone with a deck full of “compassionate” cards, you won’t get far talking to them with “thoughtful” cards. To them you come across aloof and uncaring. So the key to successful understanding is speaking to people with ideas they relate to, not just with words they understand.
The trouble is your deck is a set size. You’ll never have the diversity of ideas that will make sense to every person you encounter out in the world. You’re going to encounter people you just don’t have the ability to connect with. And that doesn’t mean a game over or demoralizing defeat - it just means a missed connection, a missed chance to understand another person better.
Just like in real life.
It’s uncanny how well the game conveys this - if you fail to “understand” your collocutor because your hand doesn’t contain a matching card, they’ll make a comment about how you’re “getting the wrong idea”, but if they fail to understand, possibly because you’ve carelessly played a card they simply can’t respond to, they’ll usually blame themselves, just like we’re prone to do. After all, if we don’t understand what someone is telling us we must just be an idiot, right?
And understanding is all that matters in this game. While fascinating in their own right, and well worth more discussion, the characters and story faded into the background as I became increasingly enamored with what the mechanics of the game have to say about language and how we construct our identity with it.
Signs of the Sojourner says some very clever things about communication with its card game mechanics. In addition to standard cards with an opening and closing symbol, some cards have special modifiers. One of the first you encounter will be the accommodate card which simply replays whichever card was played prior. This is the conversational equivalent of rephrasing what was said just enough to pass as a continuation of the discussion. We’ve all been in that office setting where you throw out a “Oh yeah, there are way too many video subscription services now!” moments after Karen complained about having to sign up to Amazon Prime to watch Little Fires Everywhere.
Another special card is clarify, which allows a card to be played retroactively in the conversation. Everyone's been in the position where they've had to back-peddle a seemingly benign comment to turn back the conversational clock and avoid engaging in the deeply problematic direction the discourse is heading.
These, and many other special card modifiers give you more tools in your conversational tool-belt, and just like how real-world conversational skills develop and mature over time, so does your deck, never growing, but diversifying.
But not all cards in your deck are helpful. As you travel the region you will unavoidably pick up fatigue cards. Mixed into your hand during conversations, fatigue cards have no symbols - using them will always result in misunderstanding. Just like in life, fatigue takes up mental space, choking out your ideas and limiting your language options.
Even more thematically nuanced are grief cards. For reasons like poverty, broken relationships, and sudden natural disasters, many characters you encounter hold grief cards, representing the challenges tying up their emotions and cognition. However, unlike fatigue cards, grief cards can be played against - but only by other grief cards.
Only the grieving can relate to the grieving.
(Except dogs. A dog’s love matches all card symbols.)
Importantly, after every discussion you have the option of taking a new card from your counterpart’s deck - an opportunity to learn and adapt to the people you spend time with (though not the dogs, sadly). This means you have the option of taking a grief card for yourself.
When you encounter a real person in grief you have a choice of whether or not to help carry that grief. It means connecting with them on a deeper level, maybe a level they really need in their time of pain, but it means adding a grief card to your deck and leaving another card behind. Humans can only carry so much in their hearts and minds. Picking something up means putting something down.
And as you wander further and further from your hometown, each trip stretching you a little further, encountering slightly stranger people and slightly stranger ideas, you have a choice - do you adapt your deck so you can connect with these people on your journey?
During my first time through this game I tried desperately to build a “perfect” deck. I wanted to connect with everyone, hear all their stories, help them through all their hard times… I swapped cards constantly, an ever-shifting montage of ideas borrowed and quickly forgotten. I met many incredible people on these journeys.
But then I would come home. And my lifelong best friend would greet me. I would have a deck full of fatigue, strange ideas, and other people’s grief. I had forgotten how to talk to my best friend and all he could say is how much I had changed.
I left the small town I grew up in after high school to make my way in the big city. The utmost of cliches, I was a big fish entering the ocean, and the enormity of its depth shook me.
I chose to hold tightly to the values I had, the limitations I committed to, inflexibly. I kept my words the same and so held onto the same ideas. Language became a prison and human interaction was a painful exercise of missed connections and uncertain intentions.
I held my deck of cards close to me and kept the world and its people alien and distant. The people I claimed to care about had no choice but to relate to me through those ideas and that language, never having room to contribute their own.
And grief - my own and the grief I carried for others - locked my language in place, unable to adapt, unable to mature. I didn’t know who I was and so I feared how new language would change me, and that I might return home a stranger to my friends and to myself.
Ending the Discussion
Signs of the Sojourner is about deciding who you want to be and making the best relationships you can as that person.
Do you stay close to the familiar and deepen the relationships you have?
Do you explore far and wide, adopting new language, ideas and values, making friends and seeing things you never dreamt possible?
Do you accept the grief of others to show them compassion, even if it means giving up a small part of yourself?
Do you do what I did? Do you fear the unknown so deeply your language becomes inert and a burden on those most important to you?
Or do you decide who you want to be and choose your language from there?
One Last Thought
There are many endings to Signs of the Sojourner, but the first time I completed the game you could say I failed - my mother’s shop shuttered. But Elias and I moved on into the future together, our friendship surviving the turmoil of maturity and social change.
The story picks up 10 years later for one last conversation with Elias. He talks the same way - reading the text on screen you’d hardly notice he wasn’t the same little kid anymore. But his deck has changed.
Instead of a simple deck with only compassion cards, he’s adopted a wider, mature deck of language, with a range of ideas. He’s grown up, had his own adventures, learned who he was, and built his values around that.
And I’m going to do the same.