PEGBRJE: Wheels of Aurelia and Wide Ocean Big Jacket
Time for some good old fashion trips for some good old fashion feels.
Wheels of Aurelia is a visual novel experience created by Santa Ragione, an Italian indie team based out of Milan who has quite an extensive repertoire of games under their belt. You take the wheel as Lella, an Italian feminist in the late 70s driving to a night club to find somebody to get away with. This someone is Olga, and both are on the Via Aurelia, a famous Italian highway, to get to France for differing reasons. As the player, you are in charge of driving AND deciding your interactions, either by talking to Olga or picking up hitchhikers and dropping them off on their preferred destinations. Where you end up is up to you and your decisions, with the only absolute being that you keep moving forward.
Where Wheels of Aurelia differs from most visual novels is in this duality of decision making. Lella does make decisions in conversation, either through silence or verbal confirmations, but is also in charge of making decisions for where the car goes. Multiple times there are exits that she can take which can greatly alter her journey, just like someone riding the highway. Picking up hitchhikers gives new conversation options and dialogue, and also new motivations to leave the Via Aurelia to drop them off at their destination — or you can miss the exit and drop them off at the next town to their chagrin. Because there is no enter button to choose which dialogue choice you go with, all of them are timed and only reset when changed to another one. The entire game can be played with only the arrow keys if you don’t wish to speed up past hitchhikers. This creates a sense of tension in the player as they are trying to focus on the road (although the car will generally follow the road with little exception) and focus on the conversations Lella is trying to have.
What ties this game together is its brilliant use of aesthetic and history. The soundtrack, done by Nicolò Sala and Gipsy Studio is a fusion of rock and funk that kept my head bopping and my immersion secured. The art style reminded me of those early 80s Italian cartoons that were featured in some of my history classes during the cold war, flat and cartoonish yet stylized and clean. This is all done to set the tone of a historic piece to submerge you in a late 70s Italy where the Anarchy movements have just begun and political divides are all the rage. If you are not up to date on your late 70s/early 80s Italian history, Wheels of Aurelia does a great job in giving a ‘wheelspedia’ where they give blurbs on historic events mentioned by the cast, usually with citations from Wikipedia. All to assist you in the immersion of this alternate history.
Granted, calling it ‘alternate history’ feels somewhat incorrect for this context. Alternate history invokes ideas and themes more in line with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, where a newly created character is dropped into history and alters large points in history, or is credited with causing said events. Yet this also is not a history game either, as we are following a fictional character. So I’d rather consider it a historic representational game, where you follow the life of someone who didn’t exist in this time period, yet with no prior knowledge one could believe that they could’ve. They don’t necessarily alter the course of history on a large scale, but instead give a window into the possible life of such one character and establish an idea for the audience.
I’ll be upfront in saying that I adored this game from the moment I started it. While it doesn’t necessarily deal with a lot of these themes in a deep and meaningful way, it felt like a fresh take on visual novels as a whole. Not only did my decisions in conversations matter, but where I went and who I picked up altered how the game played out. Coupled with the soundtrack, and I was so excited as I drove along Via Aurelia to see what would happen next. It’s a short game, so if you are looking to go back in time and visit Italy during this quarantine, I’d highly recommend playing Wheels of Aurelia, especially if you enjoy visual novels. There isn’t much in the way of ‘substance’ in the traditional way, but it gives the atmosphere of a roadtrip with the hopes of discovering something more with every traveler you find.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket is another narrative experience made by Turnfollow, a duo indie team, and published by Tender Claw. In it you experience the camping trip of Brad and Cloanne, regular campers accompanied by Cloanne’s niece Mord and her friend/boyfriend Ben. The entire trip is shown from the point of view of all four of them as Mord and Ben explore their first camping trip together as a couple and learn more about Brad and Cloanne. The trip only lasts the weekend, and they head back home at the end.
It’s a different experience to the previous title played today, but the idea of controlling the flow of the narrative is still the same. During different scenes, who you interact with first can decide the rest of the interaction, even changing what you can interact with later or what you interact with first. There’s not much else to do besides explore the campgrounds and enjoy the banter, but it is the banter that makes this game so good.
The writing in this game is, for lack of better term, fantastic. Mord talks fast and loose, unabashedly asking questions that remind me of the few times I willingly interacted with 12 year olds. She approaches subjects that she knows nothing about with juvenile delight, regardless of how nervous Cloanne or Brad seem to be. Ben is the complete opposite yet is still believably teenager-ish, talking in technical terms and excessive phrases yet not really knowing when to stop or read the conversation. Brad tries his best to converse with his niece-in-law but more often than not flounders for words and gets numerous cases of ‘foot in mouth’ and Cloanne is just trying to enjoy a vacation. It all feels so natural and real, an awkward exchange between 2 different generations of people that are trying their best to connect, between the inexperienced duo unsure of what to expect and the older duo unsure of what to say.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket doubles as a hilarious trip about camping and the nothingness that occurs, and a heartfelt coming of age story between somewhat estranged family members trying to reconnect in the middle of the woods. It is criminally short, just as the title above is, yet there seem to be multiple possibilities that I will have to go back and change my decisions to see what happens.
Both games give the feeling of escaping, and in a time where we actually cannot escape our homes, perhaps taking an hour to become absorbed in a camping trip might be the best way to spend some time. If this sounds like an adventure you need, give Wide Ocean Big Jacket a try.
Links, as always, are below.
Wheels of Aurelia
Wheels of Aurelia is a narrative road trip game set in the roaring Italian 70s. Half racing game, half interactive…