The idea, I suspect, is to play through Wayward Strand
two, three, four times or more, and on each replay to follow different story threads, filling in more detail of the events that transpire while you spend three days aboard an airship hospital tethered off the coast of Victoria.
For me, though, I like the thought of preserving my single playthrough as a kind of canon. To know that when I reflect on my time with Wayward Strand that this one particular set of events happened, that some of those threads were left hanging, and if I missed something then, well, that's just how life is.
Wayward Strand is indeed something of a slice of life. When that phrase comes up in the context of videogames, it's typically applied to games that depict mundane, everyday activities. Often these are essentially chores, dressed up and gamified as objectives, even quests.
But Wayward Strand isn't like that. It has no goals, no objectives, no checklists of tasks, certainly no quests or any particular measure of progress or success. It's a slice of life game that lets you explore its compact environs at your leisure and gives you permission to dwell in the quiet moments, to find yourself at a loss for direction or something to say, maybe even a little bored. And that's perfectly okay.
Fourteen-year-old Casey Beaumaris is an aspiring journalist tagging along with her mother, a nurse at the abovementioned hospital in the sky. With the school holidays drawing to a close, and the hospital a little short-staffed, Casey's mum asks her daughter to help out during her weekend shift.
Helping, for a teenager with no medical training and with a mother too overworked to provide explicit instruction, is harder than anticipated. Each day, Casey finds herself wandering the three floors of the airship, poking her head into the handful of rooms on each, and… well, passing the time as best she can.
"Casey's youth and nascent reporter's instinct brings a naivety that allows her to ask what might otherwise be awkward questions...”
There are patients to talk to, elderly men and women with a range of unspecified ailments. Casey can ask them about certain personal belongings in their rooms, or enquire as to why they're in hospital or what their lives were like before they arrived on the airship, or often just pass the time with small-talk. Casey's youth and nascent reporter's instinct brings a naivety that allows her to ask what might otherwise be awkward questions.
Each patient is wonderfully brought to life through vivid character art, consistent voice performances (it's especially heartwarming to hear so many broad and diverse Australian accents in one video game), and simple animations that sketch just enough detail into all the right places. From Ida's grandmotherly goodwill to Mr Avery's lettered pretention, the cast are uniformly interesting, credible and memorable, their tones and mannerisms lingering in the memory once you've stepped away. Their stories aren't as grim as you might anticipate. Of course, mortality casts a long shadow over many conversations, but there are equally plentiful moments of humour.
"There's a particular joy to be felt in the times when Casey thought she was just minding her own business and suddenly events descend upon her...”
Time passes always, regardless of whether you're catching the lift down to the cafeteria for lunch or stopping by Tomi's room to check if the watering can with which she tends to her plants needs refilling. Every character has their scripted schedule for the day and will go about their business accordingly, meaning events will play out across the airship even if Casey is not there to witness them.
As the minutes go by, you'll enter scenes part-way through, leave them before they're resolved, and even miss them entirely. Even though the clock is always ticking, there's no pressure here. Rather, the opposite, and there's a particular joy to be felt in the times when Casey thought she was just minding her own business and suddenly events descend upon her. As one character joked when the room abruptly and unexpectedly filled with people for various reasons, "What is this, Swanston and Bourke?".
"Ostensibly, she's taking notes to produce an article on her experience for the school newspaper. But it doubles as a diegetic guide...”
Casey maintains a notebook, as every journalist–aspiring or otherwise–should, in which she writes down her observations of the dozen or so main characters she meets on the airship. Ostensibly, she's taking notes to produce an article on her experience for the school newspaper. But it doubles as a diegetic guide, the game's only gesture towards any sort of progression framework, to refresh your memory of each person and ever-so-subtly suggest where you might find more of someone's personal story. It's the lightest of touches.
Wayward Strand is a delicate piece of work, as its title might imply. Despite the flight of fancy proposed by the very idea of an airship hospital, it's a remarkably unassuming game–not literally down-to-earth, but certainly grounded in its portrayal of lives nearing their end and one just beginning, and the common hopes, dreams and fears that connect all those lives together.