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How I Was a Teenage Exocolonist built a better content warning system

A deep warning system with lots of options

a character with blue hair in a very pink world Image: Northway Games/Finji
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is a game about growing up on an alien planet — from age 10 to later teenage years. It’s about discovering and surviving in a new world called Vertumna, and part of that means exploring darker areas of life on the planet and, well, life in general. Developer Northway Games did not want to shy away from any of these more complicated themes, whether that’s death and dying, sex, abuse, or large-scale traumatic events. It also wanted players to be aware of what was coming.

Coming from a fandom background, I Was a Teenage Exocolonist writer and cartoonist Lindsay Ishihiro is used to content warnings; in fan communities, detailed content warnings are typically more normalized. There are also more mainstream examples like Does the Dog Die?, a community-run site that started by tracking dogs in movies but has expanded to crowdsource details on other triggers in media, too. With the go-ahead from Northway Games founder Sarah Northway, Ishihiro took inspiration from the game’s visual and gameplay language — it’s a visual novel with point-and-click elements — to build out a content warning system that felt like a choose-your-own-adventure game.

The content warning system is accessible right on I Was a Teenage Exocolonist’s main page, and there’s also a reminder when you hit play — a reminder to check that page if you need to.

i was a teenage exocolonist content warning page Image: Northway Games/Finji via Polygon

“We’ll tell you right at the beginning, ‘Here are the major content warnings,’” Ishihiro said. “And then give the choice. If any of these are related to something that’s your trigger, click on the button and get lightly spoiled.”

If you’re sensitive to, say, eye trauma, Ishihiro said, you’d click on the button that’s labeled body horror and see if it’s listed there. The idea is that players will be able to read more about what to expect with regard to specific potential triggers without spoiling other elements of the game. The content warning system goes deeper from there, with options for further, more detailed explanations.

The death content warning tag is one of those options where there are different levels to dig through. The first level of the tag references the fact that characters in the game can die in many ways — and some of them can’t be saved. But there’s another option there for people who need to know more. “You can click through to another level where it just straight up tells you everything,” Ishihiro said. It’s full-on spoilers, with a detailed list of which characters die and how.

“This was really important to us because we’ve seen, in the indie sphere, a lot of games be unexpectedly dark and it having a knockback effect on their audiences,” Ishihiro said. “We’re not perfect, but we can at least try to get ahead of some of it. What else can you do but try?”

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is out now on Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC.