It was a calm day. Our hero, Nyxa, found herself ahead of her comrades on their journey Northward, so she took a moment to rest. Then it happened. A tortoise arose from behind a shimmering waterfall. It spoke to her. “Was this a dream”, she wondered, as the tortoise informed Nyxa that she was one of the chosen guardians of the world. Going against her gut, Nyxa decided to entertain the old reptile instead of cutting it off to point out how ridiculous the notion of a chosen guardian was. After the creature finished, she snarkily replied, “do I have to be a turtle too?” to which the tortoise answered, “your form is negotiable”.
As suddenly as it had appeared, the tortoise vanished as one of Nyxa’s associates, Varlia, entered the clearing. Nyxa groggily arose to greet her, only for Varlia to ask, “did I catch you sleeping?” “Was it all a dream?” Nyxa thought, until Varlia pointed out the talisman now wrapped around her waist. Its pattern was unmistakable – it mirrored the tortoise she’d just spoken to. Perhaps this business of the world guardians wasn’t so ridiculous after all.
What I just shared transpired during my most recent playthrough of Wildermyth. I’ve wanted to write about this game for months, but every time I review what I’ve written I’m dissatisfied. I have a somewhat tumultuous relationship with role-playing games, so I found the myriad of small changes it makes refreshing in a sea of suffocatingly similar experiences. As such, I had a tendency to focus on what Wildermyth was not instead of what it was, and that kind of approach doesn’t do the game justice. It’s fantastic in its own right, and I’d even go as far as calling it the best role-playing experience of the year that no one has heard of. That said, here’s Wildermyth and why I found it so gosh darn enjoyable.
As you may have surmised, Wildermyth is a role-playing game that was released earlier this year after a stint in Steam Early Access. It sticks close to the tabletop roots of the genre, but takes advantage of procedural elements as a core part of the experience. While procedural generation is an often overused and off-putting buzzword, Wildermyth smartly utilizes this randomization for both mechanical and storytelling purposes. In this way, the game is able to create unique, collaborative character and story moments in the same way as traditional tabletop play. This translation of collaborative storytelling into a digital space sits at the heart of why I think Wildermyth is such a compelling experience.
Instead of featuring scripted characters or a character creator where the player has full control, Wildermyth randomly generates each of your party members. This provides each character with a brief backstory, appearance, and personality. While players have the option to make minor tweaks to their initial party, this creation process feels akin to filling in a character sheet while rolling some dice before starting a tabletop RPG. In this way, Wildermyth and the player are creating characters instead of avatars and that’s a key distinction.
Because each cast member in Wildermyth isn’t simply an avatar for the player, they are able to act, speak, and think on their own terms. This helps in maintaining consistency so the character and their actions remain believable within the context of the story and the world. However, Wildermyth will regularly consult the player for their input to keep them engaged. During key moments, two to three options will appear alongside the characters responsible for executing them. They’ll also include a snippet of dialogue, or internal monologue, so the player has a sense of what the option represents without divulging the actual outcome.
Perhaps a smelly hermit crawled out of some bushes and made your band of heroes an offering. The naïve mage of your party is willing to take the hermit’s offer at face value, but the warrior is staring daggers at the crusty old fool, and would sooner shove a blade through his torso then trust him. How do you choose to resolve this? Do you agree with your mage and trust the hermit, or do you let your hot-headed warrior cut him down? The decision and direction the story will take ultimately falls on the player.
However, some decisions have much wider effects on your individual characters. As an example, I’d like to bring up a spellcaster from my first campaign: Maya Tum. She was a total goof who constantly got herself into trouble. One time, while my band of heroes was travelling through an enemy infested cave, she fell behind the group and tripped over her feet in the dark. Unfortunately, she was close to a ledge and proceeded to tumble downward into the depths of the cavern.
When Maya finally hit rock bottom, she collected herself and noticed a nearby altar with a glimmering stone at its centre. Obviously she wasn’t going to leave something so valuable behind, so she moseyed on over and tried to free the gem from the altar. Her initial efforts proved unsuccessful, but with a little more force and a twist of the wrist, the gem popped free. Unfortunately, Maya was so successful at dislodging the gem that it flew right for her eye and lodged itself firmly in her skull, permanently crippling her.
Maya let out a shriek of pain, which informed her separated comrades to her location, but also alerted every critter in the cavern of her presence. Luckily, her friends reached her first, took stock of the situation, and the group fought their way to safety through hordes of carapace and mandibles.
Through what transpired, Maya’s defined characteristics were guiding her actions and decisions. As the player, my sole decision was to influence whether or not Maya would continue trying to dislodge the gem, or cut her losses to look for the group. While Maya may have been responsible for the setup, I was ultimately responsible for partially blinding her.
While I thought I’d partially blinded Maya, Wildermyth had other ideas. The stone which now resided in Maya’s skull was magically infused, as it would turn out, and acted as a replacement eye. This was revealed to me shortly after the cavern debacle when Maya was speaking of her eye (in the third person) while it guided her to a giant eagle’s nest. Apparently neither of us had learned our lesson from last time, so Maya raided the nest and barely managed to escape the mother’s talons with a stolen egg.
Now, I’m going to let you glimpse behind the curtain for a second to make a point. The event where Maya’s eye became magically infused and the follow-up event where it guided her to an eagle’s nest didn’t have anything to do with one another. I know this because in a future campaign one of my heroes whose name I can’t recall rolled the same eagle’s nest event. It’s precisely because I was able to make a connection between the two events that they were memorable.
Wildermyth doesn’t just invite the player to contribute to storytelling through their decisions – it also asks them to use their imagination. The human brain is remarkably good at finding patterns and creating associations between information. Knowing this, Wildermyth’s developers smartly wrote the bulk of the scenarios, dialogue, and story beats in a way where the player can piece together several smaller events into a larger story. This is supported by the consistent actions of each character, so each subsequent event falls nicely into place instead of feeling completely disconnected.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that my decision had an impact on gameplay, which helped further reinforce the storytelling. As Maya aged (yes, characters age), parts of her body turned to stone, thanks to her eye, which provided new positive and negative attributes. As one might imagine, being partially made of stone reduced her agility, but it greatly increased her fortitude. Furthermore, her arm took on a blade like appearance which allowed her to strike enemies with powerful stone elemental attacks. While originally a frail spellcaster, Maya evolved into a powerful frontline battlemage, responsible for cleaving through hordes of gorgons throughout my first campaign.
While I don’t remember every detail of that first campaign, my vivid memories of Maya are a testament to Wildermyth’s storytelling abilities. It doesn’t have an authored narrative, but it has something that I believe is far more powerful. It has the ability to collaborate with the player to create and tell stories with a personalized touch. This made my time with characters like Maya and Nyxa far more memorable than a hundred stories starring Nathan Drake, or Lara Croft.
And that, that is what makes Wildermyth special. The game has an ability to involve the player in the storytelling process such that a bunch of procedurally generated events, characters, and scenarios feel like an authored story instead of a bunch of disparate events. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the few times I’ve participated in or observed tabletop RPGs. These games thrive on their ability to use the imagination of all players involved, and the Dungeon Master, to create unique characters and stories that stick with them long after they’ve finished playing. While many other videogames have tried to emulate this aspect of role-playing, I’m of the belief that Wildermyth does the best job of translating it to the digital space.
Go play Wildermyth.