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Wayward Strand Review

Take flight on an emotional journey

Australian-made Wayward Strand has finally debuted on PC, Switch, Xbox and PlayStation this September. Over its six years of development, the talented team at Ghost Pattern has refined and polished their immersive-theatre-inspired game, which Australian gamers like myself have had the pleasure to closely follow. It comes as no surprise then to say that Ghost Pattern has accomplished something fresh and unique with Wayward Strand through its combination of storytelling, departure from traditional player agency and an unlikely but compelling cast of characters.

Set on an airborne hospital in 1978, Wayward Strand follows 14-year-old Casey, an awkward yet intrepid journalist, who joins her mother for three days of work over the summer holidays. Assigned to the elderly ward, Casey is tasked with getting to know the patients and your job as the player is to interact with them through dialogue while exploring the airborne hospital and uncovering the many narrative paths and secrets that Wayward Strand has to offer.

Unlike typical narrative or visual novel games that revolve around the main character and their actions, Wayward Strand actively decentralises the player. The patients you visit are on their own timeline. They will eat lunch when they want, speak to other patients in their own time and will go about their everyday life with or without you there. The ups and downs of the patient’s character arcs will proceed regardless of your presence, which fundamentally changes the way you interact with the game. Typically, video games create engagement through competition-, challenge- or win-state-based game mechanics, however Wayward Strand has removed any agency a player might have. Instead, the mechanics at your disposal all link back to observation, reflection and participation.

Casey arguing with her mum

Casey can explore the airborne hospital like a small open world. She can follow, visit, listen in, or talk to all the patients and nurses immediately after the player gains control. However, Casey’s only objective is to get to know the patients; the player has no immediate goals, nor anything to accomplish. So, how does Wayward Strand generate engagement? Well, Ghost Pattern has done a masterful job at curating storylines.

The cast of characters in Wayward Strand are eccentric, complex and almost entirely made up of the elderly. This is one of the reasons why Wayward Strand sets itself apart from other narrative games, because, at its core, it’s an exploration of elderly life. How do the elderly reconcile with death? How do they adjust to living seemingly without purpose? How do they find friends or lovers later in life? How do they manage dementia, pain or limited mobility?

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Wayward Strand is often bittersweet and sad. It carries a tone of nostalgia as you remember past loved ones and their little habits or their struggles. However, at the same time, there is a light-heartedness to the game, because it also explores the mundane. You can share a cup of tea with Ida or water the plants for Tomi. You can listen to one of Esther’s paranoid rants or sit quietly with Mr. Pruess while he watches the sunset. Wayward Strand doesn’t create scenarios for player entertainment, instead it leans into the subtle and ordinary because that’s how life is. And what’s more is that the team from Ghost Pattern have drawn on personal experiences and consultations to create these undeniably realistic characters.

Emotional moment between Mr Pruess and Dr Bouchard

Similarly, Casey undergoes her own character arc throughout the game. Just as the cast of elderly are questioning their place in the world and wrangling with their mortality, Casey feels just as unsettled. She has to battle against the expectations of her middle-class working mum, and even wider than that her want to be a creative in a labour-focused Australia. But while these stressors are constant, time is still ticking on, and Casey finds solace being present with the elderly who are also uprooted by their current position in society.

These stories, while impactful on their own, are elevated by how the player can interact with them. Described by Ghost Pattern as ‘simultaneous storytelling,’ Wayward Strand features multiple events happening at the same time. As Casey, the player has to choose who to interact with and when, which ultimately allows players to engage with storylines they find the most intriguing while also hearing snippets of others that might compel them to play again. With only three days to explore the many threads of the airborne hospital, players will find that there’s not enough time for everything, but luckily, unlike life, they will be able to play again.

And the game is worth playing again. Because if you’re lucky enough to catch the characters at the climax of their own story arcs then you get to experience Wayward Strand at its best. At these points, just for a moment, the turning of everyday life stops and the characters reflect on past decisions or memories, and the preciousness of life really sinks in. Most notably, Dr Bouchard and Mr Pruess’ conversation at the end of Day 2 was both gut-wrenching and melancholic – the two of them sitting side by side, reflecting on death, and wielding the last of their power to get their needs met.

Wayward Strand raises interesting questions on agency. We witness characters who often appear purposeless and powerless to the environment around them, many of whom are reaching the end of their life and have no family left or any future to perceive. In parallel we play as Casey, who is powerless to make any meaningful change in other people’s lives at the young age of 14. But even deeper than that is our lack of agency as players, where we can only observe and give comfort to the characters around us, without being able to affect the outcome.

Casey sitting in Ted’s room

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And yet, despite all of that, Wayward Strand still manages to find delight and beauty in the moment. This can be attributed to Ghost Pattern’s stellar dialogue and artistic direction. Casey has the option to learn about the lives of everyone onboard the airship through dialogue, and sometimes it leads to profound realisations like Mr Preuss escaping the war or Dr Bouchard’s prognosis, but most of the time it’s how the patient is feeling in the moment or a memory they recall. And sometimes the less a character says, the more it means. The short pauses between their lines, the sudden clamming up if you breach a certain topic, or even Casey’s own awkward teenage replies; the voice actors have done a wonderful job at conveying personality and feelings through the short bursts of dialogue.

And then there are the moments of silence, where you sit with the patient saying nothing at all and savouring the minutes with them. Wayward Strand leads you into these blissful moments with the calming melody in the backdrop and the picturesque scene in front of you. Tomi’s room was the one I spent sitting in the most, because of the luscious greenery and lighting that brought her room to life. Your interactions with Tomi herself are extremely limited by design, but her space nevertheless speaks volumes.

It is through the many circumstantial exchanges between Casey and the patients that breathes warmth into Wayward Strand. Ghost Pattern is masterful at encouraging players to take their time by using the wistful art and slow dialogue. And perhaps the fundamental lesson of Wayward Strand is that there is more to life than being productive or having a goal to achieve, because being in the moment is all that we truly have.

So, you like plants?

Final Thoughts

By taking many cues from interactive theatre, Ghost Pattern has created a thoughtful and engaging narrative experience, one that showcases the endless potential of Australian game developers. Wayward Strand questions the meaning of life through the mundane and asks players to stop and just be with the characters in the world for just a few hours. By limiting player agency and experimenting with multiple parallel narratives, Wayward Strand questions the importance of control in video games and offers a delightful alternative to its traditional structure.

Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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Wayward Strand Review
Life isn’t a race
With its eccentric elderly cast, intricate themes, unique agency mechanics and narrative structure, Wayward Strand is a compelling experience that reels you in and leaves you wanting to call your grandma.
The Good
In-depth and complex narratives and characters
Interesting narrative structure and mechanics
Beautiful artistic and musical direction
Is a unique and fresh perspective on video games
Dialogue that will make you cry
The Bad
Some minor bugs/freezes in the audio and dialogue that can take you out of the immersion
9.5
Bloody Ripper
  • Ghost Pattern
  • Ghost Pattern
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / Switch / PC
  • September 15, 2022

Wayward Strand Review
Life isn’t a race
With its eccentric elderly cast, intricate themes, unique agency mechanics and narrative structure, Wayward Strand is a compelling experience that reels you in and leaves you wanting to call your grandma.
The Good
In-depth and complex narratives and characters
Interesting narrative structure and mechanics
Beautiful artistic and musical direction
Is a unique and fresh perspective on video games
Dialogue that will make you cry
The Bad
Some minor bugs/freezes in the audio and dialogue that can take you out of the immersion
9.5
Bloody Ripper
Written By Chantelle McColl

Chantelle McColl is a writer based in Melbourne, Narrm, who specialises in video games and analysing how they convey memorable narratives and experiences. Dabbling in indie genres like platformers, Metroidvanias and all games story-rich, Chantelle is always on the lookout for the next experimental game. You can find her work on Checkpoint Gaming, Byteside, ScreenHub Australia and on Twitter.

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