Everything that’s interesting about Wheels of Aurelia [official site] sounds brilliant. It’s a “narrative driving” game in which you steer a sports car down the coast of Italy in the 1970s, while simultaneously steering the game’s punkish lead Lella in conversation with her passengers. I’ve been playing its beta.
I’ve longed for a game like this. I like travelling and find the steady pace of a driving game – as opposed to a racing game – can be relaxing. On many long, late night drives across central Europe in Euro Truck Simulator, or around the cramped urban spaces of City Car Driving, I’ve longed for a travel companion, a hitchhiker, a sign of some humanity to keep me company on the road.
Aurelia is full of that humanity. Lella’s journey begins with Olga by her side, another woman looking for a quick exit from Italy for reasons initially unknown. As you talk, you might discover those reasons, or you might not. You might instead talk about the politics of ’70s Italy, or get involved in a street race in which you can lose your car, or ditch Olga entirely in favour of a new travel companion.
Your dialogue choices as Lella feel characterful, but the game seems more interested at hinting at depths than excavating them. I found my imagination doing the work the writing wasn’t, filling in the blanks of backstory to offer context for judgemental remarks or probing dialogue options.
Each session with the game will only take you 15 minutes or so from beginning to end, which means it’s tempting, each time you finish, to start over again and to take the road untravelled next time around. That refers to the conversations, but it’s also literal: different routes along the coast lead you to different towns and so different characters, experiences and endings.
That desire to return is helped by the game looking so beautiful. It’s drawn from a fixed, isometric perspective that renders everything as dinky, Micro Machines-style toys, but the brilliant white buildings, perfectly blue ocean and punctuating green trees make travelling across its pocket landscapes feel like tourism. It seems a valid choice not to talk at all, instead deciding to break the companionable silence only when one of the character’s spots something notable out the window.
The game appeals to me on almost every level, then. Like many road trips however, it’s in the transition from concept to reality that the game gets a little lost.
Use a gamepad and you control both driving and conversation with the left analogue stick, with left and right steering while up and down cycles through what you’d like to say. This creates an awkward tension when it comes to where you spend your attention. Dialogue choices are on a timer and, if you don’t make a decision every few seconds, you’ll say nothing, potentially casting narrative threads into the abyss. Focus on talking and as a result drive sloppily however, and you won’t be punished – the game keeps you on the road, and collisions barely slow you down – but it makes the experience feel sloppy, as if you are disrupting the character’s integrity by driving, unnoticed, like a dolt.
It’s tempting to suggest that there should be an auto-pilot mode to allow you to focus on the characters, which are clearly the game’s core, but that idea seems unsatisfying, too. Instead I wish that there was more opportunity for characterful expression through your driving style. I have experienced one instance where one character appeared to respond in an interstitial cutscene to the quality of my driving, but I want more. I want moment-to-moment dialogue that changes according to your driving style. I want to define or discover whether Lella is the sort to speed or to keep to her lane.
Aurelia is good enough that I want to embody its characters and its world more, but right now it’s split between the two lanes of driving and narrative. They need to merge.
I say “right now” because Aurelia is not yet finished. Its beta can be bought for $5 (around £3) from the game’s site, and it’s been greenlit for eventual arrival on Steam in the near future. I look forward to getting back on the road.