This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Wandersong casts players as a silly, lovable bard who aims to make the world a better place through song. Singing is the only way to interact with the people and puzzles of Wandersong, tasking players with using their voice to improve the lives of those they meet.
Gamasutra had a chat with Greg Lobanov, developer of the Excellence in Narrative-nominated Wandersong, to talk about how a US-wide bike trip inspired the game's touching story, how clever characters could guide a narrative, and the power of finding a grain of positivity when all seems lost.
The voices behind the music
I’m Greg Lobanov, and I created/directed Wandersong with the help of Em Halberstadt (who did audio) and Gordon McGladdery (who did music).
I used to make card games and board games with markers and paper when I was a little kid. When I was a medium kid, I discovered GameMaker and started making dinky little games. Now I’m a big kid, but I’m still using GameMaker to make dinky games.
A game of songs inspired by singing on the road
I had the idea for the main character when I was singing in the car while careening down a highway. The larger story was loosely inspired by my experience living on my bicycle and riding across the USA in 2014 and 2015. What made it all click was when I came up with the music wheel interface though... I wanted to try turning a controller into an expressive musical instrument.
On exploring the healing power of music
It really was an honest expression of how I was feeling after my bike trip. I was seeing stories like Steven Universe that explored similar themes, but really started to notice the lack of those kinds of stories in games. So, when I set out to make a game with a story myself, it felt irresponsible to do anything that contributed more to the regular pile of violence and negativity.
On the tools to make Wandersong
GameMaker Studio!!! Art was in Photoshop, audio was in Reaper and music was Ableton. I made a fairly robust level editor and audio logic editor that ran inside the game as well.
Creating opportunities to solve problems through singing
The music mechanic really opened a lot more doors than it closed. It was incredibly fun to come up with new situations and interactions that you’d have with singing :) We built the game up piece by piece, completely designed around the main mechanic, and tried to keep it surprising and make people laugh.
Sometimes it was hard to design the story so that the player felt like they had a relevant role when all they could do was sing. But that friction naturally became a really interesting ingredient in the story itself.
Letting characters guide their narrative
I really love making characters. I had a lot of fun giving everyone a unique-feeling voice and personality, and I tried to stay sensitive to what they wanted to do and how they would react to things the player could do. I call it “following through” -- sometimes as I was writing a random NPC, I’d realize they would want to have a pivotal role in the story, and the entire plot would change direction. Everything in the game is very sensitive and honest to what the characters want, so I think that really helps them feel real and like they have a footprint in the story.
Creating a visual style to be tweaked
Most games are built out of repeated tiles, props and assets, but Wandersong is all about individual expression and unique situations. I wanted to draw every single screen from scratch, so you could feel even the most subtle emotional variations from scene to scene. With that in mind, I carefully designed the visual style of the game to make it as easy as possible to create new assets. :^) The color design was built into my level editor, so I could focus on the colors and hone in on the feeling of each screen too.
An art style to encourage players to express themselves
The game is constantly asking the player to play with music and express themselves, so it’s really important that they remain in an open and playful mood. The visual style is fast and loose and fun and goofy, and I think that helps make a space where that’s possible. If the game felt beautiful or like it was taking itself too seriously, I think it would feel intimidating to try to play with. Instead the rough and uneven quality kind of feels like it’s saying, “have fun and just try!” That closely reflects how we felt making it, too.
Finding a grain of positivity with Wandersong
I wanted to make a happy game for sad people. A lot of people are suffering right now, and it’s really not enough to say “chin up, it’s not that bad.” The story had to understand how hard it is, and how horrible the world can feel, and then help find a grain of positive truth inside of that. Optimism through understanding, rather than ignorance.