PEGBRJE: Super Win The Game and Signs of the Sojourner
Super Win The Game is a retro platforming extravaganza made by Minor Key Studios, a duo indie dev team from Texas and is the sequel to their freeware game You Have to Win the Game. You take control of ‘the Wayfarer’, a child with a backwards baseball cap as they attempt to uncover the mysteries of the world while restoring balance to the force- well ok maybe not that. The Wayfarer needs to find and restore the king’s heart with the help of these spooky Arcadians who talk a lot and survive the hardships of the world.
SWTG plays on the heartstrings of the arcade-style nostalgia updated for modern audiences to enjoy. The artificial CRT screen inside the monitor for monitor-ception, the fuzzy graphical fidelity and occasional scanlines, and a plethora of bit-tune tracks to fit the dozens of areas one can find themselves in. Moving from section to section pans the screen across to represent the days when smooth transitions weren’t possible due to drawing limitations, and directions are given via static signs that ultimately only give location information. The map only gives the section data and where areas connect in the form of squares, and if there is something important or collectable it shows up as a red dot in the centre of the map section.
Unfortunately, just like many old titles, this is a platformer, which I’ve realized many moons ago that I cannot escape their influence. Thankfully, it’s very forgiving, so even I was able to play it. The previously mentioned ‘updated for modern audiences’ part is centred around the use of the bell checkpoint system. These bells, once run by jumping at them, create an automatic checkpoint at that location, so death returns the Wayfarer to that bell. What makes them different is their quantity — they are everywhere. Any tough puzzle coming up? Bell. Traversing the open world and need to cross a bridge? Bell on both sides. Death in SWTG is not meant to be a massive pain that requires quarters like in the arcade days, but the result of messing up a sequence in the current room. The only thing lost on death is time, and if players are anything like myself that isn’t really a bother. What this allows is for players that don’t trust their platforming skills the constant ability to try again after every failure without having to traverse most of the area to get back. Those skillful enough to rarely die will barely notice these bells, but more than likely appreciate them when they die the once or twice.
SWTG’s biggest divergence from a traditional platformer is in its open world approach to its world and level design. Leaving a town gives a massive open map, where players can run around and are only interrupted by entering towns, areas of interest or bridges, where the game returns to the side scrolling 2D platformer. It’s almost daunting at first, with the only direction given is the hints by the fortune tellers and the Arcadians. Players can end up exploring entire regions of the map without realizing that they have yet to progress far enough to acquire the items needed to finish off those regions. Items found are passive upgrades to the player, allowing them to traverse through electricity or activate the see-through platforms that cannot be used yet. Regions don’t explicitly tell players that they cannot go through, but instead blockade them from continuing without a specific power up. Case and point, I explored the entire snow area without realizing I couldn’t actually finish anything there because I didn’t have the item to double jump. Tragic.
It’s this blend of 2D side scrolling platforming and open world exploration that keeps me playing SWTG, even after I got super frustrated from above’s exploration. The world is simple and blunt, but compelling enough to keep me wondering what I could find while out in the wilderness. For those that enjoy more of a challenge, it does offer speed running modes and randomized seeds, so the worlds can be both faster AND completely random. My only fear is that the final boss is the Key Lenders, as I refuse to disclose the number of keys I’ve borrowed and not returned. If you are looking for a retro platformer that gives you free reign to explore while also giving a hub world of teleportation to the regions you’ve discovered, give Super Win The Game a try. If you’re still uncertain, the game ‘You Have to Win the Game’ is free, and can be grabbed on Steam and will give you the feel of how Super Win plays out.
Signs of the Sojourner is a narrative deck building game (we’ll get to it, trust me) made by Echodog, a small indie team out of Los Angeles. Players assume the role as an unnamed protagonist who, after their mother dies, takes over the role of joining the caravan to visit local towns in a desert wasteland environment. The protagonist meets different folks along at each town, interacting with them via the main gameplay of talking with cards (we’re getting there) and can receive items for their efforts. The game unfolds with various interactions, as other characters state their desires and you have to choose whether or not you have the time to fulfill them. The more one travels, the more it becomes difficult to interact with people due to fatigue, so understanding your limits is another important tool.
So. The deck building. The part that makes this all a little… interesting.
Conversations in Signs of the Sojourner aren’t done in the traditional ‘choices matter’ style, as the protagonist is completely mute — at least to the players. Instead, the player and the character involve themselves in a narrative game similar to dominos. You have a collection of cards given at the start with two symbols on them: the left and the right. Each player takes a turn placing a card down, and matching the left to the right of the previous, and so on and so forth. The sequence ends when you run out of spaces on the board and successfully gain a white square point, while failure rewards you with a black square point. Both lead to a conversation depending on if it was a successful engagement or not. After every conversation, you alter your deck by 1 card from a selection of the other character’s deck to diversify your conversation skills, and continue onwards.
This system can only be described by the roller coaster of emotions that I experienced while utilizing it. I’ll admit that a few conversations in I was ready to throw in the towel out of sheer frustration — some characters couldn’t be conversed with successfully because they had symbols you didn’t even know existed. Other times conversations would be going well, and then the computer-controlled player would throw one card in and ruin everything, causing a downward spiral that couldn’t be saved and ultimately lead in the black squares all disappearing leading to a failure. Another conversation would be ruined by the draw of your cards, leaving you wondering why you suddenly couldn’t speak properly. I felt like I had no agency nor control of how the outcome of conversations would go, and it made me more than a little mad at times.
I can’t tell you when it clicked and the roller coaster became fun again. Perhaps it was when I realized that this was, weirdly enough, more realistic than any branching narrative system that involved strict decision making. You can’t control what people respond to your words or actions with, only what you can bring to the table when they do. The back and forth of placing cards felt like a dance of two strangers, both trying their best to use their skillset and understanding to keep the motion going but sometimes ultimately know they cannot. You want the other person to understand you so that the items can be achieved or the knowledge can be given, but sometimes that’s outside of their ability to do so. The only thing the protagonist can walk away with is the experience of talking with that person in the form of one of their cards.
Conversations went from feeling out of control to a strategic method of finding ways to keep it flowing to my advantage, as manipulative as that may sound. What they had to say went from an irritating interruption to interesting world building. I became invested again in the struggles the protagonist had with proving themselves to the caravan and finding out more about their mother while trying to help their hometown stay afloat. The deckbuilding became smoother and my own playstyle more refined as I gathered cards that could assist me in talking with specific people, and then dropped later on if newer mechanics came up. I felt in control again, even if I really wasn’t.
There are still aspects that I have barely touched, from the fatigue system adding fluke cards to the deck to the exploration and discovery of new paths via conversation. Yet it’s the deck building that will be the focal point for me, as I will state with utter confidence that this game has the most unique narrative design I have ever seen. I’ve yet to come across a game that can convey it’s message with an unorthodox system, yet somehow captures the essence of real life conversation making better than any decision making tree. It’s brilliance is in how it makes players realize that they cannot just interact with everyone and expect to succeed, and instead must fail to understand others. There’s even a line in the game that essentially states that ‘you can’t understand everyone’. The choices one makes helps them to build life experience, and in turn grow as a person and gain the ability to converse with more people. Who would’ve thought a deck building game could do all that.
If you are a fan of innovative gameplay systems, please try out Signs of the Sojourner. It’s creative approach could open the door to dozens of different narrative mechanics to improve on the tried and true systems we already know. For fans of narrative games about growing up that don’t explicitly tell you much at the beginning, SotS is also a standout as the protagonist explores their own mother’s past and figures out the world. I still can’t state that I enjoyed every moment, but I can say that it definitely pulled off it’s unique system better than any other.
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