It’s a criticism that you often hear leveled at open world games: that NPCs don’t feel like they have their own lives. We get bored sometimes and follow an NPC to see what they get up to, watching as they complete the same patrol route, blurt out the same dialogue to another NPC, and then loop back home again. And that’s if we’re lucky. Ryan Reynolds and Free Guy based an entire movie off of the limitation.
You can imagine Wayward Strand’s designers gathered around a whiteboard, the words “How can we make NPCs seem believable?” written across the top and double-underlined. It feels like Wayward Strand’s reason for being: what would a game be like if the characters had their own, completely believable and varied lives, and you were the one who was superfluous? How could you construct a game around watching and following these characters?
Ta-da! You have Wayward Strand, a narrative adventure game that never quite shakes off the feeling that it’s an experiment, rather than a fully functioning game. But, as with most experiments, it’s fascinating to experience, even though we can’t see it catching on. At least, not in the way it’s delivered.
Don’t get us wrong: there’s a lot to love about Wayward Strand. From the moment you step onto the cable car at the start of the game, it’s clear that there’s a hugely effective art style at play. We got some Raymond Briggs flashbacks, as certain environments reminded us of When the Wind Blows. The music, while a touch too repeated, is lilting and lovely, a delicate marriage with the pencilled line-art.
And the characters are etched brilliantly. Too often in narrative media, the characters feel like they are written by the same person, all a singular voice. But here, the characters are almost different species, some loquacious and others mute, some nosy and others private. They butt up against each other, causing conflicts as the introverted and extroverted try to live in the same confined space. It sounds like a soap opera, but it’s more a bubbling pot of repressions.
Lest we forget, Wayward Strand also tackles topics that most games avoid. Most of the characters are geriatric, as the airship is a floating care home, which isn’t something that marketing managers look for when they focus test their games. It’s refreshing to spend so much time with the older generation within a game, and they are not there to be exploited or derided. You succeed in Wayward Strand by listening, helping and learning from them. Ageism is tossed out of the porthole, and it only shows how many stories are waiting by the wayside simply because we want to focus on young heroes doing adventurous things.
Wayward Strand is very much a carefully constructed artifact, beautiful to look at and listen to, with characters and dialogue that are rich enough for a novella. Yet we struggled to enjoy it, and eventually the craftsmanship wasn’t enough of a scaffold to hold a recommendation.
Part of the problem is the story, which – appropriately for an airship tethered to the ground – feels like it should go somewhere, but doesn’t. We don’t want to ruin Wayward Strand, as much of the momentum comes from the expectation of where it goes, but there is a sense of anticlimax here. We sense that the writers wanted to emulate some of the feelings that Waiting for Godot generated, but it mostly just left us deflated.
But the largest hole is the central conceit, the reason that we suspect Wayward Strand exists. It has got a simple pitch: the characters are going to perform a play for you, wandering from room to room and developing (or unravelling) relationships. All you have to do is watch, choosing to either loiter in the corridors and listen without getting involved, or make your presence known and enter the room. That choice is surrounded by a larger choice of where in the airship to be at a given time. You are constantly moving about the hospital airship, trying to figure out where the action is happening, or anticipating it based on some clues given in dialogue.
It’s a fantastic idea on paper, but whether in the execution or the theory itself, it didn’t engage us.
No objectives are given in Wayward Strand, so you’re creating mysteries for yourself. Who are the two VIPs that are planning to arrive on the Sunday, the day that you leave the airship? Why was the previous nurse, Joni, sacked? Who was Mr Falk, the last patient to die? But these mysteries – outside of a couple – are lightweight gossip, and can’t sustain a plot. We simply didn’t care enough about solving them: neither the stories or their solutions were interesting enough.
Developers Ghost Pattern do a superb job of making the actions of its cast feel natural. Rarely do they repeat dialogue, or ignore that you, the main character, are there. There must be some invisible but wonderful coding here that makes everything seamless. But the mask does fall occasionally, and at critical points. One character asked us to deliver an essential piece of news to another character, but that character didn’t even register it as a dialogue option. We were due to meet another character for an interview, but they would only chitchat when we arrived. Older characters are clearly abandoned or misused, but you can’t tell anyone. You’re powerless.
And that’s the fundamental flaw of Wayward Strand, and it’s going to take some working out for any future game that attempts the same hypothesis. A game that has a living, believable cast of characters can easily leave you, the main character, feeling like a third wheel. Characters do or say things and you are eager to interject, help, get them items or run for another character. But in most instances we felt like a simple voyeur, a fly on the wall, with all of the agency and input that implies. Items in the room looked interesting. Topics of conversation popped into our head. People would benefit being in the same room as another. But, most of the time, you can do nothing about them.
I am so glad that Wayward Strand exists. It’s an experiment that needed to happen: a world of characters who have their own stories, and could happily exist without your intervention at all. And developers Ghost Pattern have gone all in, investing them with character, natural dialogue and picture-book art.
But what Wayward Strand’s experiment has shown is that being the voyeur, as you watch characters live and bump against each other, needs to be coupled with some interaction of its own. Seeing stories develop is an invitation: you want to get involved. But that’s exactly what you can’t do. Wayward Strand has you on the outside, looking in, and we found our attention wavering as we were shaking the bars that held us back.
You can buy Wayward Strand from the Xbox Store