The Wayward Story, by Cristmo Ibarra
(I beta tested this game)
The Wayward Story lives up to its title – this is a narrative-driven piece of IF that wends through a bunch of different characters, settings, times, and even genres. There is an overall structure that unifies the whole, but ultimately I think it plays its cards a little too close to the vest. Players who do the work to make the puzzle pieces fit will experience a satisfying click, but I can’t help wishing TWS did a little more to invite the needed effort.
It’s tough to talk about the game without going into a little bit of detail on at least the structure of the game, so expect some light spoilers from here on out (I’ll still spoiler-block anything major). Briefly, there are three major types of scenes: first, there’s the core thread of the game, which follows an isolated loner who falls asleep while watching TV and then finds themselves in a strange, dark castle. Then while exploring, he’s drawn into three scenes, each set in a different genre of escapist fiction (post-apocalyptic, fantasy, Indiana Jones-style adventure) – these are the gamiest parts of the piece. And finally there are a series of vignettes set in the real world, at varying points in time and with different viewpoint characters.
There are a variety of linkages between all these different parts, some of which are clearer than others, and working through them is where the real meat of the game lies, since there aren’t really challenges or puzzles in the traditional sense. In each of the three genre-y scenes, you’re given a single clear task or direction, but it’s simple enough to follow directions to reach the end. However, each of them also has an optional alternate path. In retrospect it’s clear these are moral choices, and the game responds accordingly, but one of my quibbles with TWS is that some of them are very easy to overlook (the one in the post-apocalyptic scenario is straightforward enough, but the desert one requires what may be a tricky leak of logic, and whether or not you even notice that there’s a choice at all in the fantasy vignette turns on whether you explore off the beaten path when there’s reason not to do so).
There’s nothing wrong with hiding some pieces of a story, but here I think there are a few design decisions that compound the risks that some players will miss out on what’s really going on. First, depending on what choices you make in the three game-y scenes, you appear to either get different real-world vignettes, or none at all. Second, there’s a fake-out that I think is too effective (after you reach the end, the game appears to restart – you need to keep playing and see what’s changed to get to the real ending, but there aren’t immediate indications that this is intended and not a bug so it’d be easy to assume you’ve reached the end and it’s time to quit). If a player starts out poking around and get to some of the harder-to-find bits, I think they’re more likely to be hooked and keep exploring to try to fully understand what’s happening – but if they don’t, I’m not sure they’d even notice that there’s stuff they’re missing.
This is a shame because there’s a lot to like here. The writing isn’t overwrought, but it conveys the main character’s isolation effectively through some simple but smart tricks: for example, the apartment where the game begins has its furniture described with each piece broken out on its own line, and called out as being empty, or standing alone. Effort is made to make sure the narrative voice is distinct for each of the various characters, and while this sometimes leads to overcorrection – I found the tone in the first vignette, where you play as Jack, a bit over-the-top – in general it works. Different scenes also use color to create or shift the mood, which I found worked well for me, as well as helping make the structure clearer. The text is close to typo-free, and the parser is implemented well as far as I can tell, though again, as a beta tester, that’s hard for me to really assess. Overall TWS is very much worth playing – it just takes a little bit of work to get to what’s good about it.