Playing Wayward Strand is like controlling a detailed clockwork. It reminds me of that cuckoo clock where every hour a tiny door opens to reveal two mechanical dolls that come together and kiss a little. This is essentially how Wayward Strand works, but on a larger scale. The characters are set to a strict routine, following predetermined paths and schedules that are often invisible to you. They welcome intervention – friendly chatter or help – but whether you are around or not, they will go about their business anyway. The world keeps spinning and all that.
It’s a fun way to capture the passage of time, and in Wayward Strand how you choose to spend that time is very important in a game that’s not waiting for you.
In Wayward Strand, you play as fourteen-year-old Casey, who spends her last summer vacation at her mom’s job, an air hospital tethered to the shores of their small town in Australia. Casey’s mom asked her to go into each patient room and spend some time with them, helping them if they needed anything and otherwise just keeping them company. Interactions with the residents of the hospice begin with polite small talk, but over the course of three days, you will soon be searching for stories, tales, and gossip about this airy nursing home.
Casey is a bit of a nervous teenager, but that doesn’t stop old people from chatting to you, and the game does a great job of conveying honesty that blesses us in old age about what people think of you). Some of them are as sweet as tea with four sugars, but they can often be a little rough, a little blunt, go on and on about their passions and have absolutely no shame in telling you that the spirits are trying to contact them through the TV. It’s amazing how authentic they are, and when casual small talk eventually blossoms into true friendship, you’ll get to know their stories, their exciting past, who they’ve lost, and why they’re on the airship. Get ready to receive a box of warm fluffies.
Through your growing friendship, it soon becomes clear that Wayward Strand tells not one overarching story, but many small ones. They all evolve in real time and you can interact with them however you want. You are free to roam the airship every day, talking to anyone and checking out the storylines that pique your curiosity. For a hospital filled with elderly people, there is a lot of activity, and being part of the ship’s life and gossip is part of the fun. Who built the hospital and why? Why did the nurse suddenly quit last week? Who is this mysterious guest who dropped in two days later?
I love I don’t get much gossip, and these pocket puzzles have fueled me throughout my time with Wayward Strand, and it turns out the characters love it too. By putting together the tidbits you’ve heard from different snippets of conversations, you’ll be able to keep up with the game’s various stories. It feels like you’re in an episode of Neighbours, but if all the characters retired to a flying nursing home.
“Because everyone has their own schedule, it often feels like you’re trying to control a giant machine of moving parts.”
You also have the ability to be incredibly curious, which is another thing I thrive on. You can peek into rooms, eavesdrop on conversations, and “accidentally” eavesdrop on phone conversations. You will often see two people chatting with several speech bubbles above their heads and you need to get closer to hear what they are actually saying. Because everyone has their own schedule, it often feels like you’re trying to control a giant machine of moving parts. One day I was hanging out with Ida in her room (a sweet, gentle soul with flawless grandma vibes) when I saw a group of nurses who began to gather around the front desk – a very unusual occurrence in a busy hospice. Realizing that I might have missed some main drama I quickly ended my conversation and rushed to eavesdrop. Sorry Ida, you can tell me about your knitting another time, my sense of drama was fluttering.
On the first playthrough (and I recommend multiple playthroughs) you can’t plan for these moments, but instead of getting some serious FOMO, it makes the airborne hospital feel alive and active. It also quickly becomes apparent that you’re missing some important details – after all, you can’t be everywhere at the same time – but more and more is revealed with each playthrough. It could be a branch of someone’s story that you missed the first time, or an entire plot thread that alludes to you completely. Everything is so tightly scheduled that you can spend all three days without interacting with anyone at all, but simply listening to the activity around you.
The only thing that worries me is the lack of manual save, which means that you will need to play each in-game day at a time in order for your progress to be saved. For those who like to play games in short bursts, this isn’t ideal, but it’s by no means devastating as it takes just over an hour to play each day and the game lasts around 4 hours from start to finish. It looks like the game takes its role of stopping anyone pretty seriously.
Wayward Strand knows not to abuse his hospitality, and I left feeling completely refreshed. Spending a couple of hours navigating corridors, patient rooms and the insides of airships in real time is a fun mechanic that goes hand in hand with the game’s broader themes of time passing, youth and aging. Making up a story from details found in conversations and overheard snippets of dialogue is a great storytelling tool, and while you can play it once and be satisfied, I recommend multiple playthroughs to really get to know all it has to offer. After several of my playthroughs, I really felt like I had pieced together a larger whole, and I really felt like I finally understood the beating heart at the center of this clockwork.