Down the street from my childhood home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, there was an empty plot of land to the left of a three-way intersection. Whenever my friends and I passed by it with someone not from the area we’d remark, “I heard they’re building a Wendy’s there.” We’d laugh as the outsider gave us a confused look.
“Oh cool,” they might have said back.
We didn’t know what was going to happen to that plot of land, it was just a stupid joke birthed out of boredom one day, most likely in a basement, as we played games. But, between the lines, something else was happening: a gesture toward belonging, a way of saying we knew this place like the back of our thumbs.
So much is left on the cutting room floor when I think about the ways we communicate with one another. An impressionist painting gives an idea of the subject’s nature, without trying to be a perfect reflection of reality—and language does the same. Echodog’s Signs of the Sojourner is interested in that liminal space we all navigate when trying to connect with one another.
Signs of the Sojourner is a game about the difficulties of navigating your relationship with your hometown—and the people within it—when venturing off and experiencing different ways of life. You play as an unnamed protagonist (only referred to as “You”) whose mother passed away before the game opened. She not only left you behind, but also a general store that helped sustain the lives of many in the town of Bartow. Your mother traveled around the world with a caravan collecting trade goods to sell in the shop, allowing Bartow residents to get needed supplies and commerce from travelers passing through. With your mother gone, it’s now your turn to take hold of the reins and travel with the caravan to keep the shop afloat. Elias, your childhood best friend, watches over the shop while you’re off gallivanting with the caravan.
I’ve lived in 6 states over the course of my life, and in my adulthood, I left Michigan to go off to graduate school in Ohio. It was a choice that, at the time, felt natural, needed, inevitable. For me, leaving my life and the people behind felt much easier than sticking around. That says a lot about me, and nothing about them. It wasn’t until I moved across the country to Seattle for another master’s degree (don’t ask me why) that I began to appreciate who I am and where I’m from.
The main gameplay loop riffs on deck-builder mechanics where you slowly create a “deck” of cards that you utilize in encounters with the lively cast of characters you meet at the various locations you visit on the road. Each card in your deck is composed of symbols that represent different approaches to communicating: empathetic, distress, diplomatic, direct, and so on.
At all times, you hold a hand of 5 randomized cards from your deck. In order to “win” the encounters you try to match your cards with whoever you’re talking to. Each conversation unfolds like a multi-round match, and at the conclusion of each round, the conversation will progress forward (or not) depending on if you successfully make a matching sequence.
Playing the wrong card in Signs feels bad, like in a conversation where you know you’ve said the wrong thing. Characters will become agitated or confused or upset with you. Having successful conversations can provide you with needed trade goods for the shop back home, or even hints at the life your mother lived on the road. But successful conversations also just feel good.
The game’s characters feel alive with complex backstories that make you want to succeed and treat them kindly. This is complicated by a mechanic called fatigue. The longer you’re out on the road during each trip, the more fatigue cards are added to your deck. Fatigue can’t be matched, in turn, making it harder to communicate with others.
In Bartow, all the residents primarily speak in empathetic and diplomatic ways (represented by a green triangle and orange circle) but as you travel to new locations you’ll encounter new symbols and modes of communicating. With each successful conversation you have, you get to trade a card from your deck with one from theirs. As your worldview expands, your hometown lingo disappears from your deck making it harder to communicate with people back home.
During my first weekend in Seattle, I got a taste of what one local perceived of Michigan. As I watched my groceries slide down the conveyor belt, the dark-haired cashier checking them off one by one, she asked, “how’s your day going?”
In (what I learned to be) typical midwestern fashion, I struck up small talk in ways that aren’t as natural for some people out here. I told her that I’d just moved here from Grand Rapids, Michigan, “it’s a few hours away from Detroit,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said, “so like, the ghetto. Well, welcome to the U-District, it’s basically the Seattle ghetto.” I was awestruck. Not only was she dead wrong on both accounts, but it was crazy to even hear that uttered from a complete stranger.
The conversation ended abruptly after that, I packed up my things and hustled out of the store. Now, most folks out here aren’t like that, but I say this because conversations in Signs of the Sojourner can have that same level of unpredictability. As is the case in real life, communicating is a tightrope dance where we never truly know what someone else is thinking: we’re all throwing darts, and hoping they hit the mark.
Returning home is where I found the magic of Signs of the Sojourner come to life. Over the course of a playthrough you’ll venture to and from Bartow a total of 5 times. During those trips, I came across all sorts of characters from a sentient robot battling against its programming, to feuding brothers from a family of picklers, to a homeless man searching for a place to call home, to a dog named Thunder, who was happy to see me no matter what. These are just a few examples of the plethora of people you come across in Signs’ vibrant world.
For a long while, I too, rebuked the midwest. I didn’t want it to be a place I identified with; this was partially because I have New Yorker parents who never wanted to be associated with their stint in Michigan. But I also felt detached from the land. I thought Michigan didn’t matter to me, that I wouldn’t miss it. I was wrong.
Now that I’m closer to 30 than 20, I’ve begun to realize that the places and people that built me are more than specters I can leave behind in closets and floorboards. The person I am, the person I will be, the person I hope to be? They’re all influenced by who and where I’ve been.
And that’s okay.
I saw myself the most in a character called Ramir. He’s also from Bartow, but has been on the road for longer than you. He constantly talks about how he’s glad he left. At one point he says, “Some places shouldn’t be relived. They activate a bunch of old, dormant memories better left dead.”
Ramir’s arch softens when he eventually decides to return home. The tough exterior begins to crack as he sees how his home has changed after an earthquake. When I went to talk to him he said, “It’s weird to be back in a place I’ve spent all my time avoiding…y’know? There used to be a house here.” It’s emotional payoffs like this one that make the game shine.
On one of my final trips back to Bartow, I was struck by this description of my return, “On the way back into town you hit a giant pothole that you swear wasn’t there before…was it? Weeks have a funny way of making the familiar feel just a little less so.”
I’m brought back to the last time I was in Grand Rapids. The day feels rainy, whether it was or not. I sit in the passenger seat of my friend’s car; we drive around the city. It’d been a long time since I last visited and everything feels different and the same all at once. We drive out to that three-way intersection, but it’s not here anymore. It’s a curving monstrosity that’s not quite a highway, but something else where cars go in directions that don’t quite make sense.
I feel out of place at this moment. Something so inconsequential is suddenly gaining an incredible weight. As we idle in the car at a red light, my friend’s finger taps along to some pop-punk on the radio. He says, “I hear they’re building a Wendy’s there,” his finger pointing to the same vacant plot of land.
We laugh. For a moment, what isn’t there is back again, and I’m okay.