Wayward Strand, an interactive narrative game by Melbourne studio Ghost Pattern, asks you to approach it with curiosity, both for the characters you meet, and for the game itself.
It’s the end of January 1978, and you’re placed in the shoes of 14-year-old Casey Beaumaris, an aspiring journalist who’s coming to help her mother in the aged care ward of a strange hospital. Casey’s mother is the head nurse of this hospital, and it just so happens to be a floating airship situated above a regional Victorian town.
You, as Casey, spend your first three days on the airship getting to know the lively cast of residents and staff, all while working on an article for the school newspaper, and taking notes on every bit of information you find.
The staff don’t give Casey set tasks, and neither does Wayward Strand. But your curiosity is certainly rewarded by the payoff of learning each and every character’s story as you explore the three-level ward. In the process of doing so, the world continues to move on around you, and threads of the story don’t wait around to be caught.
Residents chat amongst themselves, the nurses rush around attending to everyone, and your watch keeps ticking along towards the end of your time at the hospital. The sheer quantity of interweaving stories occurring within the hospital means that you’re unable to hear, see, and do everything all in one playthrough. With each distinct character playing host to their own three-hour-long journey, it’s possible to have a completely different experience of Wayward Strand each time you play the game.
But despite the slight imperative the ticking clock creates, I found that I stumbled upon some of the best and most heartfelt moments by simply waiting in silence with one of the six elderly characters that reside in the hospital. The game rewards your patience and compassion. In these contemplative, quiet spaces, residents open up to share intimate details about their lives before the hospital. They’re small details perhaps in the grand scheme of things, but in the world of Wayward Strand, these pieces of information are made to feel important.
As the characters begin to share more with you, it becomes clear just how nuanced each of them is. Elderly characters in games are often relegated to tropes; the grouchy old man or the kindly grandmother. Wayward Strand bucks this trend and presents people who have lived full lives before they came to reside on the airship, each with their own desires, fears and dreams. Their stories are approached with gentle compassion and exposition that feels wholly authentic, to the point that I felt I truly knew these people in real life. The connections built with each of them over such a short timeframe made saying goodbye at the end feel bittersweet, as you yearn for more time with them. But, the clock ticks on.
A key part of bringing this authenticity to each of the characters is the fantastic vocal performances that truly transport you to rural Victoria in the late 1970s. Moments of joy and humour, to more sombre story beats, are all carried by believable emotions and distinctly real voices.
The acting is paired with a wonderful soundscape that also feels distinctly Australian – from the moment you start up the game, the sounds of local songbirds ground Wayward Strand in a sense of Australiana. While the music occasionally begins to feel monotonous as each day nears its end, it works in tracking both the highs and lows of events perfectly, without taking away from the moment.
Accompanying the wonderful sound design of the game is the beautiful art direction. The opening image of the airship on the coast is breathtaking, and really sets the scene for the world you’re about to step into. The dollhouse-like design of the airship is also beautiful and bright, with each resident’s room feeling unique.
Even the minor details in each room tell a story, and orient you well within this place, at this exact time; a Happy New Year 1978 postcard is pinned to the nurses’ station, and Tomi’s room springs to life with greenery. It felt like each time I returned to any part of the airship, despite the modest overall size of the space, there was something new to take in and consider just what it might say about its owner.
Wayward Strand also manages to delicately navigate some particularly tough topics with well-written dialogue. One particular patient, Dr Bouchard, receives terrible news about her prognosis and spends a majority of the game fighting for the right to die with dignity in her own home, rather than at the hospital. Hushed conversations behind closed doors and drawn blinds reveal varying attitudes to her request, echoing many conversations that continue to be held in medical institutions today.
Tomi’s story is perhaps one of the most intriguing, and has been approached with a respect and sensitivity that feels like it can only come from ample consultation and research. She has suspected dementia and is non-verbal, however, is given just as much respect and agency as all of the other characters, with her own rich interior world and life that can be uncovered throughout the course of the game.
There’s also a commentary on the level of care that elderly patients receive, and the lack of trust some medical professionals have in their patients’ intuition. While these circumstances are typical of the time period, Wayward Strand also touches on the unfortunate realities of aged care in a country that, in 2021, heard a damning royal commission into the sector.
Read: Growing up and growing old in Wayward Strand
Wayward Strand provides a near-constant stream of information to take in, although admittedly, there were some small moments where I was unsure of what to do. At one point, the majority of the residents were either asleep or had closed doors, and I’d exhausted the current options with those that were awake. While this did leave me wandering the halls aimlessly for a brief time, it ultimately felt like this added to the overall feeling that you really are Casey; wanting to help, but unsure how.
One of the first characters you meet, Ida, says that Casey’s experience in the hospital is much like the life of an older person; piecing things together as best you can. As you wander the halls of Wayward Strand’s hospital, you too piece together little fragments of entire lives lived into a rich, heartfelt story that will leave you re-entering reality with a renewed sense of curiosity.
Five stars: ★★★★★
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Developer: Ghost Pattern
Publisher: Ghost Pattern
Release Date: 15 September 2022
The PC version of Wayward Strand was provided and played for the purposes of this review.