Wayward Strand is all knobbly knees and inquisitiveness. As 14-year-old Casey wanders the halls of a floating hospital under strict instructions from her mother to be "helpful", she immerses herself in the stories of its inhabitants. Peeking around doorways, eavesdropping in the canteen, and settling down on the edge of a bed to listen to their tales of childhood and death in equal measure is pretty special, particularly in the way your time in this place plays out.
In the first few minutes you're given a nurse's watch, and the time ticks away in the corner of your screen as you wander the halls. As you'd imagine for a place where time is marked by meals, pills, and various treatments, it doesn't really matter that Casey is there at all - it's all going to continue regardless. And yet, you can't help but wander from room to room to see what conversation you'll have next. You're a welcome interruption to the status quo for most, but some will be irked by your questions and even just your presence, so balancing that is key to really getting to know each of them.
The writing is brilliant, as the innocence of youth meshes with the candidness of old age. Both are a little rude in their own way, but there are so many lovely moments to discover - and I'd more than recommend multiple playthroughs because it's easy to get lost in one conversation and entirely miss another. There was one moment when I'd decided to take the stairs down to chat with my favorite lady, Ida, and I realized just too late that a really interesting conversation was going on at the nurse's station about one particular story thread I'd been following.
That's the beauty of Wayward Strand - it feels real. If you get chatting with one resident, you may never overhear a conversation elsewhere between a nurse and a patient, or whispery gossip between two residents. The clock ticks away and time moves on without you because it's a place bound by its own routines. There's no agenda beyond just interacting with the people on the airship, so who you chose to talk to and when will influence how your experience with Wayward Strand plays out. Heck, you could just pick a cosy corner and read your book the entire time if you really want to - it's not the best decision, but it is an option.
Everything in Wayward Strand is a decision. Who to speak to and when, which direction to take the conversations, and sometimes whether to just sit and exist with each person to see if anything happens. It wasn't until deep into the second day with the residents that sometimes just sitting there can trigger new conversations and deeper connections. Your notebook is a wonderful tool too, with Casey taking copious notes on the residents, what she hears, and overhears too. Certain times will be jotted down in there to help you demarcate your day, whether it's someone's dinner at 3pm, or them being wheeled somewhere special that you might want to drop by for. But, again, it's up to you.
Whatever you do in Wayward Strand it's all about the conversations. I grew very attached to this cast of elders in the four hours the game takes to run through - and it's a testament to developer Ghost Pattern that I immediately started it again to see what I'd missed. It's a touching, soft soap opera.
Wayward Strand is out now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch.