Wot I Think: Wheels Of Aurelia

A driving game about conversations. It sounds perfect, like the hitchhiker American Truck Simulator mod that I wish somebody would make. When Graham wrote about Wheels of Aurelia [official site] late last year, I added it to the long list of games that I absolutely had to play. I hoped that I’d be able to see past the elements that he criticised, but now that I’ve seen most (if not all) of what Aurelia has to offer, I feel more like a passenger than a driver.

I don’t mind being a passenger. It’s a pleasant experience to watch the world of Aurelia roll by, beautiful as it is, and the conversations you can have along the way are sometimes witty, often enlightening and almost always engaging. But throughout all of this, I’m not supposed to be the passenger; I’m supposed to be the driver and Aurelia doesn’t convince me that my hand is on the wheel.

Set in the 1970s, Wheels of Aurelia follows the road tripping of a young woman searching for meaning and adventure in a politically fraught decade. The name refers to the Aurelian Way, a Roman road built on the route now occupied by Strada Statale 1. For the game’s purposes, it takes you down a stretch of Italy’s western coast. You have some choice as to the specific stops you make, and the byways you travel, but this isn’t an open world game, despite the open nature of the road.

Instead, it’s a series of encounters, based around the slight deviations in route and the passengers you choose to pick up along the way. You begin the game with a companion and will find new ones as you travel, and these open up branching conversations. Those conversations, rather than the driving, are the main source of interactions – you can choose a response to each statement or question, guiding talk that ranges from religion and politics and pop/youth culture.

This has been an educational game for me. Not in the sense that it’s making me do a pop quiz about Italian geography or history after every conversation, but in that its stories are within a time and place that I don’t know a lot about. I like the idea of games as documents, shedding light on events, people and places, and allowing exploration and observation of them. I think that’s how Aurelia works, at its best, providing a gentle tour of thoughts and feelings that feel authentically of a period and a place that most people haven’t lived through or in.

It’s to Aurelia’s credit that the conversations feel natural for the most part, moving along gently with occasional spikes of conflict and discomfort. Even though you’re likely to find yourself locking horns with a priest, there’s little in the way of diatribes or didactic lectures. Despite the possibility of illegal street racing or other illicit shenanigans, the game mostly trundles along at a steady rate; calm and contemplative rather than rebellious and headlong. That’s not to say it doesn’t bubble over from time to time, and there’s a sense of frustrated youth revving engines against both past and future right at its heart, but the presentation is sublime and serene.

As I restarted the game for the umpteenth time, however, I realised that the sense of being a passenger ran a little too deep. It was as if I’d been shifted to the backseat, left to listen to the people up front talking about things that I didn’t fully understand. Each playthrough is tiny, lasting quarter an hour or half at most, and the variation is mostly related to the conversations you’ll unlock, though these and the route you take lead to one of sixteen endings.

To get around the potential difficulties involved when navigating conversation menus and roads at the same time, Aurelia has an autopilot of sorts. Essentially, like Geralt on Roach, you’ll stick to the road if you stay at steady pace and don’t attempt to steer. When you reach junctions, or see potential places to stop, you’ll need to take manual control, which is as simple as pushing a button to turn in that direction. You can drive like a drunkard if you want to, though you don’t have a great deal of control over your speed, but you’ll spend most of your time concentrating on the words rather than the roads.

That leads to a disconnect between the car moving through the scenery and the conversations that are happening. It began to feel like a backdrop very quickly, that lovely coastline, and eventually it barely seemed to matter at all.

I played Virginia earlier this week and that’s a game with very few choices at all, and nothing like the player-driven conversations that are Aurelia’s centrepiece. In Virginia, I felt connected to the story though; the act of observing and reacting made me feel a part of every scene. On these roads, I felt distant and passive.

If you think that sense of overhearing and being carried along on short journeys that are mostly gentle and occasionally provocative sounds worthwhile, you’ll most likely find a lot to like here. For all of its charms and thoughtful dialogues, Aurelia feels flimsy and light though. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I had hoped that it’d provide more to chew on and digest.

Earlier I mentioned that my lack of knowledge or personal experience of the area and the decade may have something to do with my detachment. It’s worth nothing that on my first trip, I picked up a guy who talked in circles and didn’t seem to hear anything that I said. Before long, he made reference to the psychiatric hospital at Volterra. I’ve been there, and it seemed a remarkable coincidence to hear it mentioned.

That was my favourite moment. I imagine that if I had memories or feelings about other places and events mentioned, I might be far more attached to these particular tales. I love being exposed to new places and histories, but the distancing of Aurelia’s structure had me looking for a way to get closer; that brush with the familiar pulled me right in for a moment and I wanted more of the same.

Wheels of Aurelia is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux, and is available direct from the developer, through Steam and through itch.io.

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9 Comments

  1. Kefren says:

    How do they drive with no arms?

  2. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    I insta-bought and played this game as soon as it’s been officially available. Just seen one ending so far, I count on playing more during the weekend.
    I absolutely understand why you felt that way, Adam. I – do – have a connection to the time and the place: I wasn’t around yet, but my parents lived through that time and were very politically involved. This game resonated in me so deeply that I basically roleplayed my mum, impenitent chain smoking, knowledge of French and old school feminism included. I couldn’t sneak a bit of Catholic guilt in Lella’s communism that would have made the roleplay perfect, but hey.
    The thing is, even before I read the review, while I was playing I kept thinking how lost a foreigner would have felt while he was bombarded by the rapid fire references to actual events of the time: it’s perfect for me and I would have hated a tourist guide approach but, honestly, you’re not releasing a movie for the local market. It’s a videogame and you’re supposed to communicate with a LOT of people. For each me there are hundreds or thousands of Adams that will rightfully feel lost.

    Anyway. Here’s a bit of Wikipedia-level of context for anyone who is interested in the game:
    – The ruling party is “Democrazia Cristiana”, an explicitly Catholic party that has been in power since the fall of Fascism, with a constellation of minor parties more or less allied. On the other side you have the Communists (Italy had one of the largest and most powerful Communist parties of the entire democratic West) who are pretty much the constant opposition. Outside of the official Communist party (which had direct ties with Moscow), a few minor extra-extra-extra left wing “revolutionaries” and some extra-parliamentary groups who feel that the official stance of the party is too bourgeois.
    – The Church is very present in politics. It’s still true to this day and, as it’s expected in a country that hosts the Vatican, the Catholic Church is an omnipresent and fairly intrusive “guest” in the public debate. This is even truer in ’78, when the Church is in a (semi-implicit) alliance with the ruling party. Many policies and civil rights will be implemented with years of delay, compared to other countries in Europe, including divorce and the right to abortion.
    – Aldo Moro (who, by sheer coincidence, has been celebrated just today for the 100 years since his birth) is a secular Catholic who has, in the past, proposed a few compromises with the Socialists and even to include some participation of the Communist Party in the government. During the events of the game, he’s been kidnapped by a Communist terrorist group called “Le Brigate Rosse” (the red brigades). He will be found dead in a few days in the trunk of a car. Details of his kidnapping and murder are still unclear.
    – Yeah, political terrorism from both sides (including some attacks caused by the secret services on the civilian population) is very much a thing during these days. The official Communist stance towards the red terrorist groups is shamefully ambiguous (“they’re comrades who are making a mistake”).
    – The Festival of Sanremo is the biggest musical event of the year, celebrating (a certain kind of) Italian music. It’s shit. At the time it was basically revered as some kind of religious event. The media insist on treating it as such to this day.

    This is all very superficial information, mind you, just what you would need to not feel to much like a “passenger”in the context of the game. Do NOT take any of this as the complete picture.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to eat some pasta, don my golden crucifix, lubricate my chest hair and say something VERY LOUDLY and gesturing A LOT to the Englishmen who dabbled with stereotype jokes in the comments (which actually were pretty brilliant, in case your irony detector doesn’t pick that up).

    • Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

      Holy sh…That’s a wall of text and a half. Sorry. I saved half the comment in a text file when I went out, pasted it and kept writing. I didn’t realize just how massive my comment was becoming.

      • wraithgr says:

        It was a great comment and I enjoyed reading it, thanks for making the effort! A surprising amount resonates with Greece from the early 70s so I might end up giving this a whirl at some point…

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      StevenP says:

      No need to apologize for the length, thanks for the explanation.

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