While wandering the Himalayas, a fellow traveler told Loki Davidson about a frozen waterfall.
After visiting the wonder himself, Davidson related his experience to another wandered, passing along directions on how to get there. This simple act was the seed that would eventually blossom into the core concept of Davidson's video game.
Davidson grew up in rural Australia. In his late teens, it lost its charm, so he packed a bag and left.
Davidson, the lead developer behind indie game Wander, spent much of his life after graduating from college doing just that. After growing up on a farm in "the middle of nowhere, Australia," Davidson said he made it his life goal to escape, to find somewhere more exciting. After moving to a larger city and working a few jobs there, he decided to dream bigger: Why not go out and see the rest of the world?
"I went to university in Germany and explored there," Davidson told Polygon. "I traveled around Germany a lot, went back to places I wanted to see again that I had just had little tastes of. But then one day I decided to just leave the job I was working at the time and move to Korea."
When it became clear that Davidson and Korea didn't click, he hopped a ferry to Russia. He took a train into the middle of the country, go off and looked for a job. He spent some time in Siberia, wandered up to the Arctic, down to Turkey, through the Himalayas, into Uzbekistan ... Just Davidson, his guitar and a few harmonicas.
After a few years on the road, Davidson realized he didn't want to travel anymore. Back in Melbourne, Davidson got a "random job," as he called it, and purchased a large double bass with his first paycheck.
"I wanted to settle and be in one place," he said. "I wanted to make a nest. And I wanted to make a game."
Davidson had his heart set on a multiplayer game, but didn't want a game that was competitive or violent. Driven by his experiences playing multiplayer games as a child and his interactions with other travelers during his year wandering, Davidson came up with the idea for Wander.
The team behind Wander describes it as a "non-combat MMO." Players are set down within a lust rainforest sprinkled with ancient stone ruins, groves of shivering trees, glittering shorelines and several more mysterious areas such as a floating island. Each player becomes an inhabitant of this untainted landscape, taking the role of a shapeshifting creature that can take the form of a walking tree, a sea creature, a griffin and more.
"All developers have experiences that were important to them that they want to communicate," he said. "I had two things. One, the things I experienced when I was exploring and wandering away, just walking through the Himalayas and meeting different people who showed me different things. That's the collaborative exploration idea. The other idea was just simply meeting other people and chatting with them."
Davidson wanted to create an in-game environment that encouraged players to seek out one another and promote teamwork. In Wander, there is no UI — players unravel the story by following context clues within the environment. Davidson wanted his game to be cooperative but without using destruction as a motivation for teaming up. Wander instead focuses on building an atmosphere that will pique players' curiosity — and then leaves them to find their own way, and each other.
"I want players to share things they have discovered that others player haven't," he said. "There are no maps in Wander, either, no dot saying 'you are here.' You have to navigate on your own and share with others how to get to different places.
"I also wanted to show that not everyone on the internet is horrible," he added. "Online players can be lovely, and I wanted to encourage an environment where people can be lovely to each other."
As for Wander's non-human participants, Davidson's reasoning has much to do with the current state of video game protagonists.
"I think it's frustrating that in a medium where we can easily explore what it's like to be different things, we don't."
"I am a white European-sort-of male, and there are lots of games where I can play as that," he said. "I think it's frustrating that in a medium where we can easily explore what it's like to be different things, we don't.
"I like realism-y focusing first-person and third-person games and I haven't played many where you're a sea creature, you never get to be a sea creature," he added. "Even when there's some of that, they are all still very humanoid. I wanted something where you can explore the basic concept, the artistic goal, of how we see the world and how we interact with other people by being something else.
"I also wanted to have players, instead of being in the rainforest, be a part of the rainforest," he added. "I wanted to make it obvious when you start the game that you're part of it and you're meant to be in it, and I want that to change how you see it, that sense of belonging and being the right thing in the right place."
When players first wake up in Wander, they will find themselves as sentient, mobile trees — an Oren, in the game's terms. Through exploration players will uncover their shapeshifter nature and the narrative will focus on the cultural norms that form in a population where everyone is a shapeshifter. There will be no shooting and no mission structure to guide players along. Rather, players will listen for soft singing — provided by four real-lofe opera singers - that will lead them to stones and secret areas that will slowly unfurl details about the world.
This lack of direction sounds like there's no point to Wander, but that's part of what Davidson is getting at. The "point" is less about completing objectives and earning rewards, and more about taking your time to discover a place that, in knowing it, is its own reward.
"You never go to beautiful areas and think, 'This would be so much better if it was exploding.'"
"I enjoy a lot of shooting games, my favorite game is STALKER," Davidson explained. "But my favorite thing about them is the amazing atmosphere. I love how they make mornings in STALKER. Mornings in stalker are beautiful, it's atmospheric storytelling.
"I wanted a multiplayer game that had that soothing, calming thing," he added. "The interaction in multiplayer games, say in World of Tanks, results in beautiful and interesting team play between classes, but it's really focused on how can we kill those other dudes. How can we make those other tanks explode, and are you doing your part to help them explode? I think that kind game encourages a very big type of mentality and competitiveness. I was very keen to remove any ways things could get competitive and violent in Wander."
Wander encourages players to interact on a deeper level without focusing on killing or destroying things. There is a place for soothing, atmospheric titles without the kind of frantic tension that comes with games like shooters, and Davidson has taken that idea to the extreme with Wander.
"When I was walking in the Arctic or on the Silk Road I didn't think, 'Man this would be so much more awesome if I was shooting stuff.' You never go to beautiful areas and think, 'This would be so much better if it was exploding.' Soothing, calming, relaxing, interacting with other players — I wanted that experience of sharing beautiful, happy experiences that aren't challenging but rather evocative."
Wander is available to play now in alpha form, with an early 2015 launch planned for PlayStation 4 and Windows PC.