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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Wandersong, a Groundbreaking Musical Video Game, Is One of 2018's Best

One of my favorite games of 2018 was Wandersong*, and I wanted to write something about it for a while, but wow was it difficult to come up with something that didn’t just devolve into gushing praise.

*note: I played the Nintendo Switch version, but it’s also available on PlayStation 4 and PC/Mac via Steam.

Not that gushing praise wouldn’t be merited; the game is beautiful in every capacity, and the team of Greg Lobanov (creator), A Shell in the Pit (music), and Em Halberstadt (sound) deserves all of the compliments. Everything clicked with me. The game looks beautiful, with a strong art direction full of bold colors and a look that brings to mind construction paper and Paper Mario. The writing and story is fantastic, and full of probably my favorite cast of characters I’ve seen; even random townspeople stick in the mind, and the main cast are all incredibly endearing. And man oh man, the music.

I mean, the game is called Wandersong, so of course the music had to be good. But it really is something else. The soundtrack is, naturally, amazing, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since even before I finished the game. It’s loaded with memorable tunes, and so many are tied to key moments in the game that instantly call them to mind when you here them. It’s a perfect synergy.

It’s more than that, though; everything in the game revolves around music, from the biggest story themes to the smallest game mechanics. It’s a level of focus that many games don’t have, especially games in the rhythm/music genre. Every action in the game more complicated than basic moving in a 2D space (basically left/right/jump) is undertaken using the singing wheel that serves as the game’s main mechanic. Puzzles to cross large gaps or scale large heights? Casting magic spells? Dialogue with non-player characters? Encounters with large monsters? Every one of them, you use the wheel to get the Bard to sing, and the Bard’s music in turn interacts with the game environment in some way to meet the challenge.

I find this amazingly cool in a bunch of ways. At the basic video game level, it makes for an incredibly tight toolset for the player to learn and generally creates an incredibly versatile gameplay verb to use. Everything tying back to one element like that helps keep the story’s gameplay and theme tight, leads to some creative puzzle design as the developer explores all the different ways they can play with the verb, and generally makes the player feel smart as they figure out all the ways in works in-game with minimal prompting, since there are only so many things you can try to sing to or at before putting the pieces you have together properly.

But it also means that the game essentially creates an instrument for the player to learn and use, just like they would a piano, or a guitar, or their voice. It’s a fun little burst of creativity, and I definitely got distracted several times trying to get the Bard to belt out random snippets of songs that I had stuck in my head.

The game even encourages you to do embrace this creativity in a variety of ways. Several challenges within the game ask you to compose a melody for other characters to play back to you. Other times, during some of the game’s key song performances, the window to hit notes is very generous, allowing you to play around with tempo, alter the rhythm, or even add extra notes to embellish the musical line. And while some answers you can give to options in-game require you to sing your response, you soon realize that the developer intentionally left this ability to start singing in for almost every line of dialogue. There’s almost nothing to stop you from making the Bard sing every sentence like it’s a musical, and it’s amazing! There’s basically no barrier separating the music, story, and gameplay.

When I made that realization, it got me thinking about Wandersong’s relation to other rhythm games and the musical genre overall. There’s a lot of ways that the interactivity of video games can bring new experiences to people, and Wandersong allowing players to essentially star in a partly-player-generated musical is something that is pretty close to unmatched right now. There’s definitely nothing that can do it at this level of mass accessibility, at the very least.

The musical comparison is interesting in another way as well. Musical theater, in its earlier days, started with scripts and songs, but the two frequently didn’t mesh well. There would be plays that would occasionally be interrupted for musical numbers, but the numbers themselves were sort of incidental to the rest of the production. What is sometimes called the integrated musical, with songs serving narrative purpose like we think of today, had to be developed over time (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! from 1943 is frequently credited as their start).

In a lot of ways, Wandersong feels like a similar leap forward for video games. I’ve tried for weeks now to think of another game that combines the full triple threat of gameplay, story, and song like this, and there are a lot that have two, but never all three at once. Some will have songs that ask the player to mimic playing an instrument or create rhythms or something, but the story is frequently unrelated to those segments, usually being told through cutscenes without gameplay. It gives the feel of a series of music videos a person gets to play that are loosely threaded together to get from one to the next.

Other games with a focus on generating music make the entire game playable, but it frequently comes with a much lighter or more ambient story. The creation of music is an experience, and it can be a pleasant one, but the story ends up as more of an experience as well, rather than a more concrete narrative to follow. That’s not to say that games that do these things can’t be good in their own right, just that it’s a lot of things to juggle and that combining them so tightly and naturally is not easy! I might be forgetting something, since there are a ton of games and I can’t play everything, but I’ve never played something as robust in all regards as Wandersong, which is what especially makes it feel like a musical.

Wandersong is the type of game that makes me excited about video games as a medium. It’s pretty to watch, or listen to, or follow along to, and all of that would make it a stellar work of art in its own right. But there’s more to it than that; it feels new and exciting, like we haven’t seen anything like it before. The way it’s told, with the specific gameplay and style, feels like it could be the basis for a game genre in and of itself, with an infinite number of unique stories that could be told this way (Wandersong itself cycles through a number of different genres, with each chapter dipping its toes into different narrative and gameplay tropes, and showing just how much room there is left to play around with in this space). Games that are both this good and this revolutionary don’t come around often, and it’s part of what made Wandersong one of my favorite games of 2018.

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