I started Wandersong shortly after completing Marvel’s Spider-Man. Going from a big-budget AAA console-exclusive title to a small, independent game was a jarring play experience for me to say the least, but the lighthearted tone of the game’s opening and the charmingly incessant optimism of The Bard endeared me to what I expected to be a brief, entertaining, and relatively simple game. About three hours in, however, I had the sinking feeling that the game was losing my interest. The journey was supposed to stretch on for at least double what I had played so far, and I just couldn’t see how the simple gameplay and straightforward narrative could hold up an experience of that size without becoming repetitive and dull. Then I got to the end of the third act and Wandersong showed its true colors.
**Light spoilers ahead**
I won’t go into specific story details here, but suffice to say that the end of the third act throws a number of revelations at the player. You are introduced to a foil character who pursues the same goal as you in a more traditionally “heroic” manner, and the nature of your quest is revealed to be something very different than what you were previously told. These changes upend The Bard’s previously unflappable optimism, forcing him to reevaluate his place in the world.
While The Bard started the game as a likable, friendly character, it was this moment that connected me to him. Up to this point he had been able to smile his way through pretty much any obstacle, but the lack of any true setbacks made it hard to relate to his quest. After this massive slap to the face, the stakes became much more personal. Watching him struggle to find renewed motivation and fight for the happiness that had once seemed so natural gave depth to his actions and made me eager to see his journey through to completion. No longer directed by outside forces, The Bard’s choices alone would propel him into the unknown.
As a result of this change, the rest of the game was able to introduce and meditate on much more complex and compelling themes. How do we put ourselves back together after learning that everything we believed was a lie? Why do people fight each other when there’s no logical reason to do so? Is it worth taking the hard path because it’s right, even when there’s an easier way to accomplish your goal? These questions are raised at various points in the story and the game’s length allows each one to be treated with the care and depth necessary to make them resonate while not feeling overly cliché.
Until the moment described above, there had been little sign of this complexity, which makes sense in retrospect. The introduction to this wacky and zany world is very much occupied with illustrating typical video game tropes and putting a humorous twist on them. The opening hours must lull players into a sense of comfortability with how this particularly quirky world works. Then the game proceeds to deconstruct these tropes and starts truly meditating on the nature of heroism and goodness. Video game tropes continue to pop up and offer succinct satire, but they’re given significantly more thematic weight by the narrative’s new context. The story turns from a tongue-in-cheek adventure to a very earnest portrayal of people who are just trying to do the right thing even though the whole world and the very mechanics of the universe are against them.
We’re getting into the holiday release season and that means that many of the most anticipated titles of the year will be dropping in quick succession. Pretty soon just about every kind of gamer will have their hands full with multiplayer shooters, massive open worlds, or raucous party games. In light of this, it seems difficult to suggest that a small indie title with a lot of jank and even more heart should take priority over the latest and greatest technological marvels. Yet that is exactly why I feel the need to do so.
Wandersong is the kind of game that everyone should play at least once. It rejects easy answers in favor of more complex questions, it presents characters that feel like real people with deep inner lives, and its world is invitingly zany yet eerily reminiscent of our own. This game entertained, surprised, and humbled me. Beneath its surface of silly humor, simple mechanics, and straightforward storytelling is a deeply thoughtful reflection on how our actions affect the world around us. Wandersong reminds us that the change we want to see in the world starts with individual acts of empathy and compassion towards one another. That is how we improve the world, by working hard and working together.