High above an Australian city in 1978 hovers a stationary airship that’s been converted into a hospital. Inside this floating medical facility are several mysteries to be uncovered that everyone aboard is trying to figure out, including its patients and a young girl named Casey. Conversing with the hospital’s zany and eccentric patients is the key to uncovering these mysteries. These conversations help Wayward Strand shine as an interactive storybook experience.
It’s Friday in January, and 14-year-old Casey Beaumaris is on holiday from school. Her mother is the head nurse of the hospital and has decided to take Casey with her to work over the weekend. As the game starts, it doesn’t waste any time letting you know it will be a cozy game. You’ll be greeted by a soft acoustic guitar at the menu screen, accompanied by an art style that feels like it came straight out of a children’s illustrated book.
When you arrive at the hospital via cable car, your mother initially tasks Casey with spending time with patients. Casey, being a teenager, isn’t too thrilled with the idea. She would rather read her books. The game introduces its dialogue mechanics early on by having Casey choose her motives for talking with patients. It could be that she’s writing an article because she’s a journalist or wants to help her mother.
Your initial conversations with patients may seem pretty surface level. Some are excited to have someone to listen to them, while others may be hesitant. Casey herself is shy around the patients but slowly opens up to them as the game progresses.
Wayward Strand puts a spin on the dialogue choice mechanic by not allowing the player to talk to patients until no more dialogue options are left. Patients may have a reason to get up and leave their room to end the conversation, or a nurse may come in and ask you to leave so they can receive care.
Listening to the game’s characters can be extremely important
Casey will periodically take notes in her journal during her conversations with characters over the course of three days. The journal is categorized by each character, making it easy to refresh yourself on what you’ve learned about them. You may not even need to talk directly with characters to obtain information. Peeking into rooms or listening to conversations from afar is another way to learn what’s happening. Do this at your own risk, as some characters may call you out for eavesdropping.
The player can also be rewarded by remaining silent. Just like in real life, these patients will eventually want to fill any silence. There may be an option to “hang out for a while,” where Casey will sit across from the patient in silence, and after a few game minutes, the patient may spark a conversation and share things you would never have thought. It’s difficult to know whether that silence will be rewarded, so you may sit in awkward silence for a while, thinking something will happen, and then it never does.
Another element of the dialogue mechanic is its connection to the game’s clock. Some patients will only be available to talk with at certain times of the day, and missing those windows could lead to conversations never had. Some characters may hint that certain events will happen at a specific time. This makes the game clock in the corner of the HUD a key element of the game. Seven real-world seconds equals about one in-game minute. As you travel across the 3-floor hospital, you’ll see patients roaming around and doing different actions. These little things make the hospital airship feel like an active world.
As you visit more and more with each patient, they share more information about the hospital and its other patients. You’ll learn that the origins of the airship and its history before being converted into a hospital are unknown. One patient passes away, and the nature of their passing is hinted at as not necessarily being natural. Because Wayward Strand often presents itself as a cozy and relaxing game, there are points in the game where you feel it could take a hard turn in the vein of Doki Doki Literature Club.
The more you put into Wayward Strand, the more you get out of it
Because of these mechanics, Wayward Strand is what you make it. You can learn as much or as little about the game’s secrets as you’d like. Not being able to uncover everything in one playthrough gives the game immense replay value. Luckily playthroughs shouldn’t take you longer than a few hours.
Wayward Strand’s superb writing helps build its characters’ unique personalities and distinguish them from each other. I found myself getting excited to chat with certain patients at the start of the day and find out what they had been up to since we last talked. It’s interesting to see how these characters interact with each other because you get to see the many dynamics aboard the airship. A lot of what you hear from characters can be brought up with other characters in conversation. Creating these branching and overlapping narratives successfully is no small feat, and Wayward Strand achieves that. Stellar voiceover work helps bring this thoughtful writing to life as well. Wayward Strand’s voice actors showed their range by being able to emotionally react to different scenarios of the game based on their decisions.
Wayward Strand is not without its shortcomings. Being the first game developed by Melbourne-based Ghost Pattern, it is rough around the edges in some regards. Characters will often clip through walls or each other, which looks a little goofy sometimes. Characters cycle through their dialogue automatically with no option to manually press a button to advance their speech. This sometimes leads to characters inadvertently layering their voice lines over each other. Additionally, character animations aren’t always smooth and are reminiscent of clunky animations from the original Sims game on PC. (Note: The reviewer was playing a review copy on the Nintendo Switch)
These shortcomings don’t take away from the story that Wayward Strand is trying to tell. Many of the patients in the floating hospital are senior citizens, a sometimes forgotten demographic. You’ll find that these patients enjoy the company of someone who will listen to them. Their many years of lived experiences lend themselves well to a game where the main objective is to converse and learn information. For several patients, they know this will be the place where they die. As the player, you can help them and make their final days easier.
Wayward Strand is a game about making connections. Casey learns a lot about the world and herself through the many conversations with the airship hospital’s patients. The game’s unique dialogue and game clock mechanics help build a cohesive world aboard the ship. Even though it may be rough around the edges in some technical aspects, Wayward Strand succeeds as being a vessel to tell the stories of a diverse group of elders.