A year after the launch of video game director Ken Levine Bioshock Infinite, his studio, Irrational Games, has effectively closed its doors. The video game industry tends to be a disaster like this. Big hits, bigger collapses, very thin windows to financial survival.
Only Levine and a handful of coworkers would remain, while dozens of their coworkers suddenly found themselves out of work. A month after the shutdown, Levine attended the 2014 Game Developers Conference, where he gave an hour-long presentation on his nascent follow-up project. This was not a game, a fact that he pointed out with a smile, suggesting that a journalist would misrepresent him. The project would be an experiment testing Levine’s grand hypothesis: fundamental changes in the way we tell stories could make each player’s experience unique.
Or, to put it another way, video game stories won’t have to follow the same linear narrative structure of most of the movies, TVs, books, and other static media that came before them.
Levine set a rough framework for video games to tell procedurally generated stories. Rather than following paths predetermined by the game’s creator, players and games would collaborate on the story together, each reacting to the other’s choices. Imagine a Dungeon Master running a D&D campaign, but instead of a human directing your tabletop adventure, an artificial intelligence (or hell of a spreadsheet) would answer your choices.
After the speech, Levine and his company fell relatively quiet. In 2017, what was left of Irrational Games was renamed Ghost Story Games. The team has presumably picked Narrative Legos ever since, though there haven’t been any announcements, let alone any significant 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 nothing to do with Levine or Ghost Story Games. It also didn’t have the same financial backing from a mega-publisher. His studio had never even shipped a game.
Wild myth was created by Worldwalker Games, a small independent group from Austin, Texas. Their website claims they have a combined 20 years of experience in the industry, which sounds like a lot until you consider that number to average just over three years for each of their six full-time employees.
The game combines two genres: visual novel and tactical RPG. You create a trio of budding heroes and launch them on a modest quest across a map divided into towns, mountains, valleys, caves, lakes, and oceans. As you enter an area, the game features a splash of story in comic book panels, occasionally pausing to offer you directions to take the conversations. Depending on your choices, you can be rewarded, punished, or something in between. For example, at the start of an adventure, one of my characters – subject to bad choices – touched a cursed gem, causing the purple gem to embed in its orbit. But as the game progressed, the violent boulder began to invade her body, making her a bit slower, but also turning her arms into deadly polished blades.
She made great use of her new death appendages in the brawls of the game – until her death. She was one of many to fall under the blade of a Lovecraftian ghoul or demonic automaton in later adventures, and those who survived couldn’t outrun the biggest killer of all: time. The characters age, sometimes associating with other adventurers or strangers they meet along the way, even giving birth to future adventurers who will continue 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 stray away from the game’s cute art direction and simplistic action. The figures look like paper dolls, jumping through grid villages, caves and enemy territory. They take cover by simply standing behind furniture and attack by wobbling in place. It takes a little imagination, that you meet him halfway.
But if you do, there’s more depth here than it looks. Decisions made in the story have a huge impact on combat, and vice versa. One of my spellcasters, for example, spent his journey mastering his relationship with nature, turning rocks and bushes on every map into missiles and deadly traps. And through an encounter in the dark of night, they have acquired mysterious abilities through some kind of divine touch of the cosmos.
All of the individual pieces – the comic book footage, the trotting map, the crawling dungeon – flatter each other, so my decisions whether it’s where we travel next or who risks their life against one. particularly scary boss, have created a ripple effect. through my history.
That a small team has created such a stunning work of art, which goes far beyond studios with budgets and teams 10 times or even 100 times the size, is a miracle. But maybe it is because of this scale that this game could happen. This is what happens when a team has to prioritize every decision. No fancy entertainment. No animated cutscenes. No expectation of financial success to please shareholders.
And with little experience in an industry known for burnout, abuse, and creative malaise, the creators of Wild myth lacked the historic baggage of peers who have spent their careers hearing the words, “Sounds cool, maybe next time.”
My only hope is that this game continues to find the audiences 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 be gone a year later. Because the only thing more exciting than Wild myth is what its creators will do next.