WHEN I attended PAX Australia back in 2019, I came across a wholesome looking indie title known as Wayward Strand. It was clear that the game was still well and truly a work in progress, but its promise of an interactive narrative set on an airborne Hospital in Australia had me intrigued enough to follow its development. Almost three years on from meeting the game at PAX, Wayward Strand has finally released, packing a unique story that is yours to shape.
Set in 1978 on the coast of Victoria, Australia, Wayward Strand sees you assume the role of Casey Beaumaris, a teenager and aspiring journalist who writes for her school newspaper. Despite her wishes to spend her school holidays journaling away, Casey is tasked by her mother to assist her at the hospital she works at, which is hosted on a distinctive aircraft that hovers on the coast.
Casey’s task is a simple one, to converse with the patients on the ship to keep them company throughout her 3 day visit. Casey, as the budding journalist she is, also seeks to jot down information she gathers from interactions with patients and staff, as she aims to write a piece for the paper once back at school.
In terms of story, the way in which you experience it will be shaped almost entirely by how you play. The characters present on the ship don’t wait around for you to visit them, they follow their schedule and have their only stories and interactions with other characters play out regardless of if you’re present or not.
This non-linear approach to storytelling makes the hospital and its inhabitants feel well and truly alive. You can bump into characters as they’re heading off to get lunch or as they’re having a deep and meaningful conversation with another person. You can even be extra sneaky and listen in at the door of the patient’s room, getting front row seats to drama and information you may have otherwise missed.
What I found so impressive about Wayward Strand was its ability to dangle the carrot of interesting interaction consistently, to the point where although I could be sad for few seconds about missing some juicy details elsewhere, that worry quickly dissipated as I found a conversation or interaction that was equally if not more interesting.
Although there are given dialogue options to pick from, which you can use to prod the denizens of the flying Hospital for info on themselves, fellow residents and the airship at large, some of the most poignant and interesting conversations come when simply sitting in silence.
Just sitting and letting some time go by can see the patients open up to you in ways that the optional dialogue doesn’t always allow, which again made the characters of Wayward Strand feel like real people that are constantly thinking, as opposed to NPC’s that simply only reply to dialogue prompts.
I was able to get one of the patients, who is struggling with cancer and was initially apprehensive to converse with me, to open up a bit more by doing exactly what I mentioned. While I can’t be certain that I wouldn’t have gotten this information through dialogue in future exchanges anyway, that moment was very poignant and powerful for me. This wasn’t the only instance either.
The cast of characters in Wayward Strand are not only interesting to interact with and packed full with intriguing information and stories to tell, but they’re also well voice acted. While not all characters are Australian, those who are have authentic Aussie accents provided by Australian actors ranging from icons such as Michael Caton of The Castle fame, to relative newcomer Nancy Curtis, who voices protagonist Casey Beaumaris.
The game also looks visually pretty, exhibiting a vibrantly colourful and cartoony aesthetic. Characters and the environment are rendered in 3D, however the game largely takes place as a side scroller, as you navigate your way around the hospital.
When it comes to gameplay, all you really do throughout Wayward Strand is spend the 3 in-game days interacting with the staff and patients of the hospital, learning about their lives, their relationships with others on the ship, and information about things such as the history of the airborne ship and the hospital. The hospital has various people situated across its three stories, and it’s up to you to find characters and/or story developments that interest you.
Each day’s time passes at a consistent rate, meaning that progression throughout the day isn’t dependent on scripted story moments. If for whatever reason you decided to sit with a single patient for a whole day, nothing is stopping you from doing that if you wish. At the end of each day, you reunite with your mother, for what are some of the few forced interactions throughout Wayward Strand.
Conversing with people and garnering information from them will see Casey jot notes down in her trusty notebook, which you can use to piece together characters, as well as use it as a tool to decide which character’s storylines interest you the most.
My first playthrough had me trying my best to put time into each patient when possible, while also checking in on the staff as well. I found myself gravitating towards the characters that seem to dislike me or push me away, however I also spent plenty of time checking on characters that liked me such as Ida and Mr Avery.
On my second playthrough, I felt a strong desire to see how things would play out if I completely disregarded mother’s orders to keep the patient’s company and just sat on my backside throughout the three day period. Other than the odd encounter which was triggered when the occasional character would walk by, I was able to get through the game without hardly having spoken to anyone. Even during the few short conversations I had in this playthrough, I was still able to hear stories and information that wasn’t privy to me in what I thought to be a fairly thorough first playthrough, and I anticipate a fair few more run-throughs of the experience will be required to see it all.
While I’ve had a lot of fun prying into the lives of the patients and staff in Wayward Strand, I’d be lying if I said things were perfect.
Wayward Strand’s non-linear approach to storytelling makes it a game reliant on multiple playthroughs, which is fine of course, however I do wish the way it was handled was better. Having the ability to fast forward time on subsequent playthroughs would be a great way to incentivise playing through the game not only one or two more, but perhaps even more. In its current state however, it feels far too slow, and I fear that many may drop off after a playthrough or two as a result.
Performance wise, I encountered my fair share of bugs and weird behaviour throughout my multiple playthroughs, varying from relatively harmless to immersion breaking.
Objects such as books when held by characters would sometimes awkwardly float in front of them, and characters nonchalantly seem to clip through one another on a fairly regular basis. The clipping is fine for the most part, but it can lead to some laughable atmosphere killing moments, such as when I had Casey sitting at her mother’s desk interviewing a hospital staff member, only for her mother to not only rudely interrupt the interview, but also sit back down at her chair which cause both characters to essentially merge into one.
Dialogue also appeared out of sync with the dialogue in some instances, and interacting with the elevator always seemed to result in a weird moment where it would take me to a different floor, open up, close again and then finally open up and set me free on my way.
There was also an instance where I’d figured out how to order food at lunch time on my own, ordering a delicious bowl of cream of corn soup that quickly vanished, when a character noticed me and began to show me how to order food. Thankfully, I was able to get another bowl of soup, but I do fear my initial bowl has been lost in the void.
Even though most of these bugs weren’t enormous issues, their existence does somewhat scuff the otherwise strong sense of atmosphere that is provided.
Your mileage with Wayward Strand will largely hinge on your willingness to play through what is ostensibly a choose your own narrative game. If you need substantial gameplay, and don’t enjoy visual novel games or other narrative over gameplay experiences, Wayward Strand probably isn’t a journey you should be taking. If you love games where the narrative is paramount, then I would recommend checking Wayward Strand out. It’s visually pretty, it’s full of interesting well voiced characters with stories to tell, its soundtrack is so damn relaxing and peaceful, and its strong sense of atmosphere will keep you entrenched in its world for the most part, apart from the occasional bug here and there.
Written by: @GrumpyGoron