Wandersong is the kind of game indie developers dream of making. Between the childlike hand-drawn art style, a story about a young person learning to find their place in a world of chaos, and a simple yet effective gameplay mechanic, the game ticks all the boxes of ‘auteur indie project’. Despite this tight adherence to genre norms, however, it isn’t just a good game, but an incomparable – and almost indescribable – emotional and narrative experience.
Birthed from the mind of Greg Lobanov, Wandersong began life as a successful Kickstarter project in 2014. It’s an adventure/puzzle game set in a world of quirky characters, but the best way to consider it for those whose eyes glaze over at this typical list of genres and features is ‘Guitar Hero meets LocoRoco set in the world of Adventure Time’.
The game tells the story of the Bard, who must collect, and sing, a series of excerpts from the 'Earthsong’ in order to save the world from its prophesised demise. Along the way he’ll meet a boatload of supporting characters, including Miriam, the bard’s reluctant companion, to various towns, parties, and families in all sorts of predicaments.
To condense a ten-hour narrative-heavy game into a quick sentence doesn’t even begin to do justice to the story being told, nor the charming characters met along the way or the fantastical world created – but perhaps that’s for the best. Wandersong is a game best represented not by the oversimplified facts and figures that detail its content, but the emotional resonance it manages to evoke.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the simple and almost childish presentation of the game, it constructs the most fantastic and immersive fictional dream. The poignant ebb and flow of the Bard’s optimism from the events that occur, his rousing determination to complete his task, and the heartfelt relationships he creates with many characters, all conspire to create an incredibly warming and affecting experience for the player. At times, the game brings up philosophical and existential ideas – not as actual talking points in the game, as many indie game are wont to clumsily do, but instead as mere ideas, which are alluded to in basic terms but linger on the player’s mind far beyond that moment.
The choice of the word ‘indescribable’ in the introduction to this review was no mistake. The game is a magical experience, but as is often the case with immersive experiences as such, it can be hard to describe, or even understand, what was so touching about it.
Holding each level together is the game’s single mechanic – singing. When holding down the mouse button, a ring of eight different coloured blocks appears around the Bard, each one corresponding with a different note on the heptatonic scale. When the mouse is dragged to a block, the Bard will sing its corresponding note, and the world will interact in different circumstantial ways. Figuring out how to use this scale to influence the world to progress in each level, combined with some light platforming, is the entirety of the game.
It sounds like such a simple mechanic would run out of different operations very quickly, but one of the most impressive aspects to Wandersong is that Lobanov is constantly presenting new and imaginative puzzles to test players’ understanding of the mechanics. The puzzles are always fresh and exciting, and all but one or two are incredibly intuitive and exciting to work out. If there is one headache in the gameplay, however, it’s the platforming aspects – the jumping controls simply aren’t tight enough, and the Bard isn’t weighty enough, for them to work. Since there are quite a few platforming sections, this problem occurs throughout.
Of course, for a game in which singing is the main mechanic, the music is a crucial component. Appropriately, the music of the game is fantastic. The soundtrack isn’t just cutesy and sweet, but brings a whole new level of immersion and meaning to the levels. In the many sequences in which the Bard is providing, or being accompanied by, the music, it always finds a way to explore the emotive tensions of the scene.
For example, early on in the game, the Bard is required to bring several musicians together to perform a concert. The ‘final boss’ song of the sequence, in which all the players play alongside the Bard, has musical elements that refer to and represent the personal stories of these musicians. The fact that the song is also beautiful is just the cherry on the cake of such a wonderful and climactic moment. Select songs from the soundtrack are available on Spotify by A Shell In The Pit, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
Whilst singing as a means to save the world sounds like the kind of kitsch idea best left to kids’ cartoons and reality TV, in reality Wandersong finds a way to craft the premise into a hugely compelling story – not one that uses the music simply as a gameplay mechanic or character trait, but an integral part of the plot and the themes it elicits.
You can order Wandersong from the Humble Store.