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.