(UPDATE 08/15/2019: Wanderlust: Travel Stories has been delayed; this story has been updated to reflect the new release date.)
It’s only within the last few years that I started traveling for work, and I’ve never had the chance to go backpacking across Europe or spend days bussing around Thailand. Wanderlust: Travel Stories, a narrative game coming to Windows PC (via Steam) and iOS on Sept. 26 for $19.99, is likely the closest thing I’ll have to that experience without spending a few thousand dollars and booking time off.
My time with the game’s demo chapter was both relaxing and a little stressful, as Wanderlust captures more than just the tourist experience of traveling on a ferry or floating on a hotel pool. It also highlights some of the little stresses and friction that come from traveling to a new place with a purpose in mind.
Wanderlust is a text adventure-style game illustrated with photography. The story branches depending on the player’s choice in ways that are often small and mundane, but feel true to the spirit of being in a strange place among new people. Where do I stay? What clothes do I wear? Who do I talk to, and how do I respond to them? Should I stay in and relax, or decide to burn the last of my energy on exploring the neighborhood of my hotel?
Not only does the player have to make choices, they must manage practical restrictions too. Stress, fatigue, and money are all ever-present concerns that change the options on the table. I have an emotional state as well that changes as I explore the world. Am I a cynic? Do I go just for tourist fun? Am I sad that I failed to “find myself?” All of these emotional states can show up, and affect what choices I make in the moment and what I prioritize next.
The end product will have a script that runs over 300,000 words, and it’s impossible to see everything in one go. The environments often have a variety of options, but there are only so many hours in a day. Do I check out a local cooking course in the Bangkok slums, or go to an upscale mall to try and find some beautiful fashion? Do I go with the safe, tourist-y options, or try to find something more “authentic?” Am I here for fun, or to find myself? I can’t do everything, but that restriction is part of the reality of travel, and it makes the experiences I do choose feel more interesting and novel.
Developer Different Tales describes Wanderlust as belonging to “the emotive genre of ‘slow gaming,’” and that’s a good descriptor. In the game’s press release, Different Tales says that its collective of developers have worked on a variety of projects, ranging from “fantasy franchises with a cult following” to “critically acclaimed products about killing people.” The studio was founded by The Witcher head story designer Artur Ganszyniec and project lead Jacek Brzeziński (The Witcher, Hitman, Dying Light); Wanderlust is Different Tales’ debut game.
It’s fascinating to see developers with such broad resumes on elaborate projects focus on something smaller. Even though Wanderlust doesn’t cover as much ground, and it only offers text and imagery, the game still manages to feel dense. It’s tough to capture the bustling chaos of a new city, the heat and stress of travel, and the novelty of pushing yourself to try something new without actually doing those things, but the presentation of Wanderlust, and its frequency of choices, manages to come close.
Because I so often travel for work, sometimes the best look I get of a city is being in the back of a taxi, traveling through a new place and watching the people and attractions from afar. It’s pleasant, comfortable, and air conditioned, even if it’s distant. Wanderlust is like a compromise between that detached view from afar and the actual nitty gritty of exploring a city; dust, sweat, sore feet, and all. It’s also much cheaper than actually picking up and taking off to a whole new country, so that’s nice.
Wanderlust: Travel Stories will release on Sept. 26, 2019.