It all began with a bike trip across United States.
Three years, a Kickstarter campaign, and over $21,000 in donations later, Wandersong is finally out into the world. Billed as a musical adventure game, it borrows heavily from the artistic and thematic stylings of cartoons like Steven Universe and Over the Garden Wall to craft a story about saving a dying world through positivity, acceptance, and, most importantly, songs. After all, what more can you expect from a game where the primary way you interact with your environment is through singing.
I spoke with the developer behind the project, Greg Lobanov, about the influence and inspiration behind such a unique game. It all started with a bike trip in 2014, 5,000 miles across the United States for over five months.
“I slept outside, faced harsh conditions and made friends with a lot of different people in a lot of different places. For me, it was a lesson in what one can accomplish with optimism and a reassurance in the goodness of humanity,” Lobanov wrote of the excursion on Wandersong’s Kickstarter.
And at the end of it all, he knew he had to create a game that captured the spirit of his trip. His first few attempts stuck too literally to the bike ride itself, simply reconstructing the experience without really reflecting how it felt to be there, pedaling across America, totally dependent equal parts on the weather and the kindness of strangers you pass. But after a lot of experimentation, he fell upon an idea that would blossom into Wandersong.
“What if we made a game controller like a musical instrument?” he asked himself. Armed with that idea and what would become a defining element of the game – the rainbow wheel to denote different pitches with directional input – a story began to unfold around his work.
“So kind of embedded in that first decision there already was kind of that connection between direction and color and pitch,” he said in an interview for Into the Spine. “And that actually ended up being really important too because it’s what makes the game totally accessible for all kinds of people. So even if you’re deaf or your color blind, like you always know what to do in the game because direction is also a component in the puzzle. … When you’re singing a note, you’re not just like singing a note, you’re making this particular sound and it means this color and it means this direction and we can do all kinds of stuff with that. (It’s a) really easy way to communicate with a player.”
While Lobanov had always been interested in spinning tales within the games he created, a previous Kickstarter experience left a sour taste in his mouth. Though a JRPG he was working on in 2012 garnered enough interest to raise $2,000 (the most he’d ever made off a video game in his life at that time), interest after its release flatlined, as did its commercial prospects.
“I kinda was like, oh, spending all this time (and) putting my soul into this huge, giant adventure game doesn’t really make sense. Because I have to pay rent and stuff,” Lobanov said.
After that failure, he turned to smaller, more experimental games to build up his technical expertise until he could make a narrative adventure of his own. Under the moniker Dumb and Fat Games, he created titles like the mobile action game Pollushot and the puzzle game Perfection.
“Most of the games after that were like a lot more kind of design focused, but they were also, for me, really good exercises to kind of learn what I thought made a good game and how to do that. And then Wandersong was like, okay, I feel like I know how to make a pretty good game now. So let me try to like come full circle and see if I can marry that with like this thing I’ve really been wanting to do, which is just to tell really sweet stories.”
But this experience proved invaluable as he began development on Wandersong. As the only developer behind this project as well as previous ones, he came in knowing he had to focus the game’s scope and create a solid technical foundation that would allow him to easily manipulate and build up the game’s world as he developed it more fully.
Having already completed multiple projects in Game Maker, he knew the first thing he had to do was create a level editor. This made it easy to add in the game’s many colorful assets, as he could simply draw them into the game, adding tags for collision and behaviors afterward automatically based on its designation. He decided early on, too, that the animation would have a choppy, jaunty feel, limiting the number of frames required for each new one added. This combination of decisions made the game’s art endlessly customizable and easy to manipulate, critical for a one-man development team.
And it proved doubly essential as art became, he wrote on his developer blog, both the biggest challenge and opportunity of making Wandersong.
“I wanted to make a game that I really was like proud of how it looked and I wanted to do it myself, so I had to just be better than I was to actually accomplish that, because I haven’t been that good … it wasn’t like having the vision, it was also being able to execute it at a level that I was happy with,” he said.
Because Wandersong’s art, he explained, was the heavy lifter for the game’s themes. Throughout its populated areas, no single character gets repeated; each has a name, unique animations, and their own non-repeating dialogue. They also respond to your actions, whether or not you choose to serenade them spontaneously or jump around their home, as if they were living in the game rather than serving as backdrops for your grand adventure.
“I wanted [each person] to have its own character and feel alive and like a real thing, you know, like I wanted it to have a conversation with the player. It’s not just like, a bunch of game mechanics and decision tree nodes. It’s like this living thing with the personality that you’re kind of talking to you that’s alive and wants to say something. … Like there’s a big theme about just kind of respecting people’s individuality and kind of understanding different kinds of personalities, and that I think I really wanted to reflect”.
Lobanov’s desire to celebrate individuality and represent positivity and acceptance in his game is understandable given the time when he began development. After his life-changing bike trip, he returned to the ire of Gamergate raging at full force. And while the positivity of Wandersong wasn’t an answer to these events, its message only grew in importance as it receded and even angrier cesspools took its place in the public’s focus.
“I do feel like this game just got more and more relevant … We really need to think about empathy and appreciating one another more. And now there’s something really dark going on here. And over the course of making the game like that, that circumstance obviously just got bigger and way worse than I ever imagined,” he explained.
“I think more and more I did realize the importance of that big message of love and respect and you know, loving one another and all of this kind of stuff that I think is a really important message more than ever. (…) I think people are in need of it.”
And if playtesters responses are any indication, Lobanov was right about this need. Several began crying as they played, overwhelmed by the loud message of positivity and acceptance. Their most common response?
“… like I’ve been waiting for this game for so long and maybe I didn’t even know it. But now that I’ve seen it, it’s like this is for me, this is like finding a game that’s the one that I had been waiting for,” he said.
Wandersong is available now on Nintendo Switch and Steam.