Wayward Strand interview: achievements reward "secrets and failures"

Heidi Nicholas - August 6th 2022

The airborne hospital of Wayward Strand brings with it a story-rich adventure when it launches in September. We reached out to developer Ghost Pattern to learn more.

Wayward Strand looks to offer an absorbing, many-layered story when it launches for Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One in September, and we had a lot of questions to ask about it, with developer Ghost Pattern’s art director Goldie Bartlett and writer Georgia Symons having been kind enough to answer them all.

What is Wayward Strand?

Wayward Strand is a story-rich adventure game which will have us exploring an airborne hospital. It’s developed and published by Ghost Pattern.

When does Wayward Strand launch?

Wayward Strand launches for Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One on September 15th.

What’s it about?

We play as Casey Beaumaris in the summer of 1978. Casey’s mum has asked her to help out for the weekend at the airborne hospital where she works, and Casey agrees, thinking it’ll be a good opportunity to write an article for her school paper. The hospital is full of its own stories, meanwhile; that of the staff, who are awaiting the arrival of an “important official,” while, according to the Wayward Strand Steam page, the patients will “react to grief, or deal with active trauma.” Casey will be exploring the hospital, and talking to and learning about its patients.

The game is set across one long weekend, and we wondered whether setting the game with a time limit like this resulted in any difficulties. “On the contrary, we needed to limit the time to a few days, and like all of those brilliant movies and novels set on trains, ships, small islands etc. the limitation of having it take place in one setting helped us too,” Bartlett and Symons explain. “If you open the door and say that the environment or world we're focusing on is unlimited, or even multi-location, you've suddenly got way too many variables. With a hospital, we have a nice routine for the staff to try to follow. We have patients, with their rooms and their friendships and adversities, and they're not driven to go anywhere — although some may want to. In a similar way, the time limit helped us,” they continue. “I can't go into it in too much detail, but the staff are all busy and excited in preparation for an important government official to visit on the third day. Other things are building to events on the third day. Some storylines too, carefully written, are not resolved during your time there on purpose. I think it has made me feel as if I want more, sometimes, but so have a lot of short trips in my life. We lean into realism as much as possible with Wayward Strand… just not like… ultra HD 'wow, I can see each wrinkle' realism. More like human experience, neorealism.”

What’s the gameplay like?

One of the key ideas behind Wayward Strand is that its world and its characters won’t wait for you, but will live out their lives and stories in real time. As Casey, who can explore throughout the hospital, we will need to choose which stories we want to follow, as each character has their own timeline. “Every character on board the ship will be going about their day in the in-game 'real time',” Bartlett and Symons begin. “For example if a character has an appointment at 1pm on the second day, then that appointment will only happen then. If a character drops a bag of oranges at 10am on day three, they'll always drop that bag of oranges at 10am on day three. But, by that design, if a character is going to have an explosive argument on day three, you might be able to help settle the argument before it starts by having conversations on day one or two — or you might simply be able to understand what they're upset about if you've been with them over the previous days. Characters also warm up to you,” they add. “If you only meet someone on the third day, it's unlikely that they'd be very open with you, whereas if you spend lots of time with a particular person you'll have more of a rapport with them.” This got us thinking about Wayward Strand’s replayability — it seems as though there will always be something else to discover, and we’re told that “every playthrough gives you the opportunity to discover something you didn’t see previously — what you missed the first time, you might see the second, third, or fifth time around.”

This also led us to ask how, with so many playthroughs, how the dev team went about avoiding any feeling of repetition. “Mostly through the amount of content there is, and how eclectic and thoroughly written each character is from one another,” Bartlett and Symons explain. “We recently wrapped up recording all of the voice-over for the game and it's something like 25,000 lines of dialogue. I'm not sure how many playthroughs you'd need to do if you wanted to hear every single one but it'd be easily over several hundred. I don't expect any one player to ever hear all of the lines of the game, or find all of the scenes, and so on,” they add. “The game has been designed to feel really great if you choose to play through just once, and come away with your own story of Wayward Strand, or to play again and again to uncover more of the secrets on board, and to have a better immersion with the cast and world.”

Exploring the hospital and chatting to its residents will be key to the gameplay of Wayward Strand. “The thing about Wayward Strand is that we went into this early on knowing that we were exploring what it felt like to be 14, in a place full of not only adults but also much, much older people,” they explain. “How much agency would you really have? Obviously we wanted to write and create something where the player has something interesting to do all the time, which we have achieved through creating an extremely deep and carefully balanced cast of fleshed-out characters, events and relationships. There's a ton of storytelling techniques used in the script — that's another key influence on our game, short stories — to create something that people kind of get hooked into, interested in knowing 'but what happens next?'. With the multiple storylines all playing out at once, it means you'll never have the same playthrough twice,” Bartlett and Symons add. “I think we worked out that you'd need to play the game at the very least 12 times to maybe get to see each of the main stories happening in Wayward Strand while you're visiting — and that's just at a base surface level, without all of the details. So, yes, exploring and chatting, but also tracking threads in your notebook, trying different approaches with characters to see whether a warm relationship helps, or if it's favourable to have them not know you at all... those sorts of things.”

Casey’s notebook, then, will be key. She’ll use it to record important information, and we can use it to flesh out the stories we discover. “Casey's notebook is there for her and you to help you keep track of all of the topics and pieces of information you're learning. You can't win or lose Wayward Strand, but you can get to know and understand it, and the notebook will definitely help you with that,” Bartlett and Symons explain.

What’s the world like?

Wayward Strand is set in the 70s — the summer of 1978 to be exact — and Bartlett and Symons explain that there are several reasons for this choice, saying the 70s are “a bit of a missing era in Australian history as told through media — games, yes of course, but also even film and novels. So much was happening though — lots of good changes but lots of bad things too, and it kind of gets brushed over. The other reason,” they continue, “was that most of our cast are 65+, so thinking about having them grow up throughout the 20th century meant there were tons of ways we could build the lives of these characters based on bigger historical beats that we had studied in school.”

Wayward Strand is set aboard an airborne hospital — this seemed like a fascinating choice, so we asked Bartlett and Symons to tell us more about it. “A hospital is a great setting for a story. It's both a highly pragmatic and highly emotional place; It needs to be an efficient and well-scheduled workplace, but there are also so many moments where people's feelings and desires can throw a spanner into the orderly coordination,” they explain. “It's also a transient setting, meaning characters have a good excuse to come and go. Setting it in a hospital felt like an opportunity, really, because we could create a busy, varied cast with different roles and personalities which would balance across the space of the weekend you're visiting. Stories that happen in hospitals can be very short for some characters, or longer for others. Opportunity really feels like the right word!” Then there’s the idea of healthcare, which they add “is also a fascinating theme to us… my dad was a hospital architect and my mother was the head of several ER departments throughout her career as an emergency nurse and so I had a long list of stories from these settings. People on the team all had some level of exposure to or experience of hospitals, whether that was them spending time there or knowing someone close who had been through it — or even generally, we, like everyone else, had been exposed to the idea and nature of what care is.” Bartlett and Symons add that “there's also lots of questions and debate about aged care in Australia, and likely all over the world, as the baby boomer generation are getting older now. So in a nutshell, a hospital was a dynamic set for an ensemble cast to be set loose in, which offered rich themes and topics to dig into.” As for the big question — why is it airborne? — “That gets uncovered a bit during the game.”

And what will this hospital actually be like to explore? “So, firstly, you'll be able to walk Casey around the hospital as it bustles around you. You can access most of the place straight away, but there are some areas which you need to work out how to get into. As you walk close to a patient room, for example, you'll get the option to enter the room if they're alone in there, and you can have a many, many branched conversation with them which references the things you’ve already seen or heard,” they explain. “If someone else happens to pop in while you're there, for example a nurse, or another patient, then they'll come in and include you in the conversation too.” You can even eavesdrop on rooms, and, as Bartlett and Symons point out, “patients and staff might speak more candidly without you in the space. You can also visit or eavesdrop on the cafeteria tables, various offices and breakrooms, and some other places, it's quite a big ship. There's also a cool feature where Casey can follow a character around, so she could follow a nurse while they do the rounds, or tag along with a character who is on a bit of a mission.” If you don’t feel like any of that, you could also just choose to have Casey sit and read for the entire three days — “but I don't think her Mum would appreciate that very much,” they add.

We also wondered how the Wayward Strand team settled on the game’s distinctive art style. “It has changed a lot over the development,” Bartlett and Symons begin. “Originally it was going to look more like a 3D game, where we had a ton of cameras and every 'shot' was super carefully composed. Some of those early tests look stunning! But, with the main mechanic of the characters all doing their own thing all the time, I think we thought that limiting how much of the world the player could see at once wasn't the best idea.” This is how the team decided to shift “towards a side-on 2D setup. It's still all built in 3D, but I wanted it to have the aesthetic of a children's book. To be honest, a lot of the time I tried to imagine a parent or older sibling playing this game with their child or younger sibling, like storytime. I wanted every room and hallway and so on to have lots of interesting things for the child to look at, if they couldn't read, for example. That was always my favourite part of being read to as a kid, being able to soak up the illustrations while someone else read to me. I'm really glad that the game is fully voiced now, so that any players who can hear can also let their eyes have a look around while the scene they're in is read out for them.”

Any news on the Wayward Strand achievements?

We don’t have the Wayward Strand achievements yet, but Bartlett and Symons have given us an idea of the design process behind the game’s achievements. “Initially, our team struggled with the idea of adding achievements to the game,” they begin. “So much of our game is about care, and so the game's design is very de-gamified. We didn't want to motivate caring by making quests or giving badges — we wanted players to perform acts of care for our characters without seeking reward. So we were very careful in our approach to achievements.” As a result, they confirm that “there are no completionist achievements (‘you spent a whole day with this person!’) and no achievements for doing a good job (‘you pushed that patient's wheelchair so good!’) We still wanted the achievements to feel fun, and to serve a function that wasn't served elsewhere in the game. In the end,” they explain, “we feel we have two main kinds of achievement in the game: secrets and failures.” Intriguingly, “secrets are where a player witnesses a scene or finds something out that would be very uncommon to find. Think of these like Easter eggs. And failures are just that — there are times in the game where you might get something wrong, forget to do something, or even have a little moment of rebellion. We thought it was in line with the de-gamified ethos of the whole game to reward those failures.”

This idea of “de-gamifying” Wayward Strand seems to be key, and Bartlett and Symons add that we shouldn’t expect achievements tied to multiple playthroughs. “We know that this game is inherently re-playable, for people who like to play that way. But again, we're not interested in having people grind through our game to get the 'you played 1000 times' achievement. If you only want to play it once, just play it once! But we suspect that most players will want to go again pretty soon after they finish, to spend more time in our world and get to know their new friends a little better on each playthrough.”

So, out of all this, what are they most excited for players to experience? “It depends on the player,” they begin. “I think devs and coders will respect the simultaneous stories mechanic, because that is a huge achievement, as well as some of our audio and artistic achievements. I think people who love narrative games will be absolutely thrilled with Wayward Strand. I think players who might have never played a game before will feel welcomed by Wayward Strand, and little brothers and sisters will love playing it with their older siblings. I'm excited that people might play this with their own grandparents.” For all its content, Wayward Strand isn’t a game to race through — “I can't wait for people to slow down, and play Wayward Strand almost as if they're curling up with a wonderful book,” they continue. “As art director, too, I'm pretty excited to just share how gorgeous it is… but yeah, it's all extremely great and for a small self-published team — we couldn't be prouder of this achievement whether it sells one million copies or one. So overall I think I'm excited for players to experience this really beautiful game made with so much love and research and care, and to see if they enjoy it. I’m also excited to meet the players who attempt to see it all, because I will probably know them for the next 80 years.”

So, what do you think? Will you be exploring the airborne hospital when Wayward Strand launches in September? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Track My Progress in Wayward Strand