Generations take to the air in new Australian-made digital adventure game

Generations take to the air in new Australian-made digital adventure game

A new Australian digital game set on an airship that hovers above a mythical Bass Coast has been designed to help young players develop empathy, social skills and intergenerational relationships.

The immersive role-playing game is representative of a new generation of Australian digital games by diverse designers for diverse players.

airship in sky above bass coast lookout

Wayward Strand is set on an airship that floats above the Bass Coast in Gippsland, Victoria.(Supplied: Ghost Pattern)

Starring the voice talents of veteran film and TV luminaries Michael Caton and Anne Charleston and designed for PlayStation, XBox, Nintendo and PC, Wayward Strand was nominated for five Freeplay Independent Games Festival Awards this week, taking out the award for Best Narrative. 

“It’s a really modern style of video game design, which is sort of ‘story first’ rather than any complicated controls,” art director Marigold Bartlett said.

“It’s a new way of interactive storytelling dealing with ensemble casts.

“We worked really hard to make it as accessible as possible to people who might not have played [digital] games before.”

Produced by Melbourne-based studio Ghost Pattern, with a core team of seven working on the project for seven years, the game was financed with help from Film Victoria’s Digital Games fund.

Featuring recognisable vistas of Victoria’s spectacular Bass Coast in its animated backdrops, the game was also made in consultation with the Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation.

Wayward Strand lookout

The Bass Coast, South Gippsland and Wilsons Promontory inspired the spectacular setting of Wayward Strand.(Supplied: Ghost Pattern )

“It’s just a heartfelt, poetic little piece,” Ms Bartlett said.

“In a way it’s a love letter to the Bass Coast and to Australia, built through stories that have been taught to us through our grandparents and our parents.”

The getting of empathy 

Set in 1978, the game invites players to take on the role of 14-year-old avatar Casey Beaumaris who, while on school holidays, has accompanied her mother to work on an airborne hospital ship which floats above the Bass Coast.

Casey’s mother, who is the head nurse of the aged care facility, tasks Casey with making conversations and forming relationships with the elderly residents.

Within the world of Wayward Strand, the stories of over a dozen eclectic characters unfold around Casey in real time.

While she roams freely about the Zeppelin-styled airship, Casey chooses which staff and residents she wants to interact with. 

Wayward Strand Bedroom

Teenager Casey must develop her curiosity and social skills to connect with elderly residents in Wayward Strand.(Supplied: Ghost Pattern)

She learns about the lives of the characters, who each have their own desires, goals and imaginations, while moving at their own pace, in their own simultaneous timeline.

“All of the characters on board the ship are walking around to their own schedules,” Ms Bartlett said.

“So if you are on the third deck having a conversation with a particular patient, there is going to be stuff happening on the other decks that you are missing.

“You get a unique version of the story depending on where you are at any given time during your play through.”

Some of the characters are charming, some eccentric and some are rude, sharing news with each other, arguing, joking, gossiping and chatting with Casey as she approaches them.

With the aim of writing an article about her adventures for the school newspaper, Casey keeps track of events and information in her notebook.

She unlocks new backstories, details, locations, revelations and resolutions, while making new discoveries and piecing together mysteries.

“One of the core themes is the getting of empathy, so your having all these intergenerational relationships,” Ms Bartlett said.

“We were hoping when we designed this to have a game that could be played between grandparents and grandchildren, that might incite conversation about intergenerational care.”

frame from game featuring Casey and nurse visiting patient

Wayward Strand has been nominated for numerous awards for its innovative design and storytelling.(Supplied: Ghost Pattern)

Games for everyone

Since the first computer games were developed in the 1950s, digital game play has expanded to encompass a broad definition of interactive user experiences, including the development of social connections.

Once belittled as the domain of bored dexterous teenage boys seeking target practice, digital games now span everything from puzzles, to educational training exercises, to immersive multiplayer worlds and virtual AI realities, which place the player at the centre of an unfolding narrative scenario.

Jennifer Lade, a senior lecturer in game design at RMIT since 2005, said there has been a cultural shift in game design, with more collaborative, diverse teams catering to all ages and demographics — such as young children and seniors.     

“Melbourne has developed an international reputation for producing independent, or ‘indie’, games that have been developed by small teams and reached global audiences,” she said, citing Untitled Goose Game, the Frog Detective series and Heavenly Bodies as examples.

“Indie games are typically more experimental in their approach to the stories they tell and reflect contemporary culture and the diversity of those who make and play games.”

Dr Lade said such games can provide a great bridge between generations, creating a common interest and helping to develop technical proficiency.

“In selecting games to share, consideration can be given to how long it takes to complete the game, the complexity of the rules and the player skills that are required,” she said.

Women designers time to shine  

Dr Lade said women were bringing new perspectives to all areas of game development including programming and character design, as female audiences continued to expand across the globe.

“From the hyper-sexualised characters such as the early days of Lara Croft we can now play as the annoying goose in the Untitled Goose game, or the quirky inhabitants of the aged care airship in Wayward Strand,” she said.

Art director Marigold Bartlett said the multi-linear narrative style of Wayward Strand was influenced by the interactive theatre piece Sleep No More, the late 1990s adventure game The Last Express, and the graphic novel Building Stories, by Chris Ware.

Ms Bartlett, who has a passion for drawing, cartoons and visual art, said she was introduced to gaming from a young age by her three older brothers.

Being raised on computers naturally led her to exploring digital art, and eventually studying game design at RMIT University in 2012.

“Turns out that game design is a really interesting field with a lot of opportunity to express your creativity,” she said.

Having designed the game’s cartoon aesthetic, Ms Bartlett insisted that every frame in Wayward Strand be crafted with the intricate detail of an illustrated children’s book.

“There’s not a lot of women in this industry. We’re under 20 per cent of the industry in Australia, but it’s growing,” she said, noting Wayward Strand’s development team was comprised of over 50 per cent women.

Casey chating with nurse at nurse station

Navigating the decks of the airship, Casey interacts with nursing staff to write an article for her school newspaper.(Supplied: Ghost Pattern )

With the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade predicting that the global digital games industry will be worth $294 billion in 2024, Ms Bartlett believes an exciting era lies ahead for game development in Australia.

“I’m hoping that Wayward Strand and all of the other amazing Australian indie games that are being made at the moment are going to provide a bit of a doorway for people who might not have previously been into games, to come in,” she said.

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