A year after video game director Ken Levine launched BioShock Infinite, his studio, Irrational Games, effectively closed. The video game industry tends to be a disaster like that. Big successes, bigger collapses, razor-thin windows for financial survival.
Only Levine and a handful of collaborators would remain, while dozens of their co-workers were suddenly without a job. A month after the closure, Levine attended the 2014 Game Developers Conference, where he gave an hour-long presentation on his nascent follow-up project. It wasn’t a game, a fact he emphasized with a grin, suggesting that some reporter would misrepresent him. The project would be an experiment testing Levine’s grand hypothesis: Fundamental changes to how we tell stories could make every player’s experience unique.
Or, to put it another way, video game stories will no longer have to follow the same linear narrative structure of most film, television, books, and other static media that came before it.
Levine laid out a rough framework for video games to tell procedurally generated stories. Rather than following paths predetermined by the game maker, players and games would collaborate on story together, each reacting to the other’s choices. Imagine a Dungeon Master running a D&D campaign, but instead of a human steering your tabletop adventure, an artificial intelligence (or one hell of a spreadsheet) would respond to your choices.
After the speech, Levine and company went relatively quiet. In 2017, what remained of Irrational Games rebranded as Ghost Story Games. The team has been, presumably, picking at narrative Legos ever since, though there have been no announcements, let alone any meaningful previews, interviews, or leaks.
Then, in June of this year, with little fanfare, a brilliant “narrative Legos”-style game debuted on Steam. But it had no connection to Levine or Ghost Story Games. Nor did it have similar financial support from a mega-publisher. Its studio had never even shipped a game.
Wildermyth had been created by Worldwalker Games, a tiny independent outfit in Austin, Texas. Its website claims they have a combined 20 years of prior industry experience, which sounds like a lot until you consider that number averages to a little more than three years from each of its six full-time employees.
The game combines two genres: visual novel and tactical RPG. You create a trio of aspiring heroes and set them on a modest quest across a map divided into towns, mountains, valleys, caves, lakes, and oceans. When you enter an area, the game present a splash of story in comic book panels, pausing now and then to offer you some directions to take the conversations. Depending on your choices, you may be rewarded, punished, or something in between. For example, early in one adventure, one of my characters — prone to bad choices — touched a cursed jewel, causing the purple gem to embed itself in her eye socket. But as the game progressed, the violent rock began to take over her body, making her a little slower, but also turning her arms into lethal polished blades.
She made great use of her new death appendages in the game’s brawls – until she died. She was one of many to fall to the blade of some lovecraftian ghoul or demonic automaton in later adventures, and those who survived couldn’t outrun the greatest killer of all: time. Characters age, sometimes partnering with their fellow adventurers or strangers they meet along the way, even giving birth to future adventurers who will carry on the story, until their family line is extinguished by a series of bad strategic choices in a battle with who-knows-what.
The lethality of the narrative might surprise you if you’re going off the game’s cute art direction and simplistic action. Characters look like paper dolls, hopping across gridded villages, caverns, and enemy territory. They take cover by simply standing behind furniture and dish out attacks by sort of wobbling in place. It demands some imagination, that you meet it halfway.
But if you commit, there’s more depth here than meets the eye. Decisions made in the story have a huge impact on combat, and vice versa. One of my spellcasters, for example, spent their journey mastering their relationship with nature, turning stones and bushes across each map into missiles and deathtraps. And thanks to an encounter in the dark of night, they gained mysterious abilities from some sort of divine touch of the cosmos.
All of the individual pieces — the comic book sequences, the map trotting, the dungeon crawling — flatter one another, so that my decisions, whether as to where we travel next or who risks their life against a particularly scary boss, created a ripple effect across my story.
That a small team created such an astonishing work of art, one that reaches so much further than studios with budgets and teams 10 times or even 100 times their size, is a miracle. But perhaps it’s because of this scale that this game could happen. This is what happens when a team has to prioritize every decision. No fancy animations. No animated cut-scenes. No expectations for financial success to please shareholders.
And with little experience in an industry notorious for burnout, abuse, and creative malaise, the creators of Wildermyth lacked the historical baggage of peers who’ve spent their careers hearing the words, “That sounds cool — maybe next time.”
My only hope is that this game continues to find the audience it deserves. I don’t want this to be another story of a critically acclaimed game appearing in the world, only for the studio to disappear a year later. Because the only thing more exciting than Wildermyth is what its creators will do next.