Wayward Strand is the work of Ghost Pattern, a self-described "game development collaboration" sprouting out of the Melbourne scene. As such, this latest game of theirs is a pastiche of sorts of different local creators, including the minds behind Heavenly Bodies (the lads made the models for this title too). "We set our story in Australia because all of us working on the game have a connection to that place," said Marigold Bartlett (@GhostTownGoldie), "we read a lot of short fiction and realized just how effective it is to set a story in a place that an author is connected to, and the influence that has is immense."
This sense of grounding the game in a particular location shines through, particularly when it comes to the sensibilities of storytelling employed. Wayward Strand wants to tell a uniquely local story, and it seeks to recreate the feeling of the landscape of 1970s Australia. Marigold mentioned that the Ghost Pattern crew had watched High Tide together too, and that it was a big inspiration. "It's a story about intergenerational relationships that really captures the sense of isolation in Australian media," she explained, "we wanted to bring that same coastal and rural Australian vibe to Wayward Strand."
However, it's not historical accuracy that her and Jason Bakker (@jason_bakker), another Wayward Strand team member, think is the key to portraying the 70s. Anyone familiar with Australian history will likely be aware that the particular time was rife with social change. The first refugees, a scandal-ridden government, and ongoing poor treatment of indigenous people - all of those are part of the landscape that informs the broader setting of Wayward Strand, but Jason is firm that they're wanting to focus on those issues in a way that is "responsible, without distracting from the game."
He was quick to clarify that this didn't mean that Ghost Pattern was glossing over historical unpleasantness in its worldbuilding. "We think that consultation is very important in developing games like this, and we've been consulting with the local Land Council as part of our process," he said. "We would like other developers to do this also," Marigold chimed in, referring to how Wayward Strand has had the opportunity to talk to the communities of the region and to incorporate that research and consultation into the game's story. "It's about reflecting the feel and the vibe of the time whilst also being respectful in our depiction."
The fact that the title also deals with an underutilized narrative - Australian aged care - makes it doubly unique in terms of its approach to environmental storytelling on top of the care taken around representation. "The engine underneath the main story is a bunch of concurrent narratives," Jason notes, gesturing expansively when pressed on how this plays into the game's mechanics. "You're transplanted into a living world as Casey (the protagonist), and the people in it are doing things regardless of what you do," is the answer.
This means that while you're wandering the halls of the airborne hospital that is the setpiece of Wayward Strand, characters around you will be living their own lives. They're not marionettes waiting to be interacted with: you'll have to pick and choose which stories you want to be a part of, while the rest will go on as if they never met you, well, because they haven't. This makes the stories that you do have the privilege of exploring more impactful, almost; against its aged care backdrop, where the implication is that time is precious, your decisions have inescapable weight.
That being said, it's not all doom and gloom. Marigold mentions that while the team behind the game wants to ensure that their game is realistic, "it's not about graphic fidelity but about the human element of telling stories." She talks about the live, interactive story-telling approach that one experiences as a part of theatrical performances like Sleep No More - a famous New York installation where actors act out their own scripts concurrently in different rooms across a hotel. The tapestry of the story in Sleep No More evolves as patrons move from room to room, but one can't possibly experience every little narrative thread in one single visit, nor should they.
In that sense, the hotel becomes a living, breathing character of its own, each room containing a different motivation or clue, the building itself made of multitudes. The Ghost Pattern team appears to have transplanted this philosophy to their game, aspiring to a narrative experience that captures that same desire of wanting to know, and to be involved, in the tales of others. There's something intensely personal about Wayward Strand, as relaxing as its art style and homely setting can be, and its focus on creating a uniquely recognizable world as part of the storytelling process makes it one of the most immersive titles that we've seen this year.