Wandersong Post-Mortem: Creator Greg Lobanov Discusses How His 2018 Game Inspires Optimism
With Wandersong coming to the PS4, DualShockers had a long discussion with Director Greg Lobanov about the themes and development of the game.
Optimism is becoming a scarce commodity. The year 2018 was particularly one rife with internal anxieties, external fears, and existential dread. As that year progressed, I kept thinking about a talk I saw in person one year ago—it was Waypoint’s Austin Walker at the NYU Game Center, about where video games belong in a time of strife. “Games cannot save us,” was his quite realistic thesis statement. While I’m still inclined to agree, I have to talk about Wandersong.
If you’ve read the bulk of my work for DualShockers, you may understand how much this game means to me. It’s a musical adventure game that deconstructs the narrative tropes of the hero’s journey quite expertly, all while focusing on the theme of happiness through its Bard protagonist. In my review of the game, I glowed over its writing, art style, and its ability to make me smile. It’s a game that captivated many, so much so that it gained IGF nominations, and even confused a Steam algorithm into thinking that it couldn’t be real.
DualShockers spoke with creator Greg Lobanov, with discussions ranging from the creative process of the game’s development to the external fears and anxieties that led to the game’s conception. With Wandersong arriving on the PlayStation 4 and becoming available to another audience, it’s about time for everyone to hear some of the stories behind the game.
[Editors note: This article contains spoilers for Wandersong.]
So where did it all begin? With the news at its most dire, I asked Lobanov whether or not Wandersong could have existed in a vacuum. “When I first started the game in late 2015 it was on the tail end of GamerGate, and the game very much at the time felt like kind of a reaction to that. Everyone was still feeling really depressed and low out of that and there was this general feeling of distrust among people.”
With that external fear in mind, part of what helped to inspire the game’s conception was a personal (and physical) journey. “I had just been on a bike trip for months. I rode across America and I had this really awesome reawakening—a really positive life change where I have this renewed sense of just love for humanity and connection to strangers. Just this feeling of being optimistic is really powerful and you can do so much with that feeling that most people are actually really good, even people you don’t expect to be.”
Lobanov wanted the game to be “honest” and “positive,” while acknowledging that the two may be in intense contention. “I felt a lot of friction between the reality of the world that I was living in and this game that I was trying to make,” he said. “It felt really hard to be honest in a time when everyone is really depressed, and we said we’d like to make somebody happy instead. That was always the heart of every decision.”
With every creative decision came the input of three team members: Lobanov, Gordon McGladdery on music, and Em Halberstadt on sound. There was no strict flow of commands or any concrete rules on how the process would commence—McGladdery and Halberstadt would often throw suggestions and funny images and ideas to Lobanov, trying to get each other to laugh. “Wouldn’t it be really fun if you could sing to this thing?” “Wouldn’t it be really funny if the Bard makes this face and then makes this sound?”
All of this was in service of provoking certain feelings within the player. “There’s always a bigger picture in our mind of, ‘well, how does the player feel?'” Lobanov told me. “How does this make the player feel? How did the character feel during this part? How does music and sound support that? How does the gameplay support that? How’s the writing support that, how the animation support that?” As the Bard goes through an emotional journey, so too does the player.
Regarding any content or concepts that may have been unused or unfinished, Lobanov elaborated on how he approaches development. “So compared to a lot of my peers, the way that I work is a little bit different in that I think usually people have a really big idea and then they start subtracting to kind of find what their game is. I tend to work a lot more additively.” Even when ideas may not work—the dungeon that featured spinning gears being an example of a difficult level—they would evolve into something that worked into the game. As Lobanov sums up, “I only throw out bad stuff.”
One surprising fact to me was that the Bard’s ability to dance with a button press and hold, whether while walking, jumping, or even in a dialogue scene, was a late addition to Wandersong. As Lobanov straight up says, “It literally does nothing.” Yet, he continues, “I think it is maybe the most important thing” in the game.
“Wandersong is definitely about a lot of things but I think the dances really are just another thing that really perfectly encapsulates what this is really about. It’s a game about being ‘not the hero’ and about being a ‘not powerful,’ ‘not useful’ person and the dances are just meaningless self-expression. They don’t do anything in the game. They don’t further the plot in any way. They’re literally just ways to be silly and this game is so much about how important that is and how not important the stuff that’s ‘mandatory’ actually is.”
One way in which Wandersong tackles the hero’s journey is by challenging the tropes that the Bard and other characters are told to conform to. As Lobanov said, the Bard is a “not powerful, not useful” character who isn’t the traditional hero, yet approaches the potentially world-ending conflict at large in their own way. It’s a form of player choice—perhaps meaningless on the surface, but thematically it fits: “It’s just another way for you to express yourself and show your own personality in the game.”
The ability to dance is one of the more self-aware parts of Wandersong, but where that meta-ness culminated to me was a late-game sequence set in the town that houses a factory. This comes after a chapter where the Bard is essentially sidelined by a more “traditional” and brutal hero named Audrey. The Bard, deeply depressed, returns home to a town that is polluted by a factory that produces perhaps the creepiest “smiling” dolls ever. It was a memorable chapter of the game, one that I wasn’t expecting—the game that was trying to make me happy had an entire story portion on what being happy really means.
When I asked Lobanov about my thoughts on how this part of the game was about “artificial happiness,” he seemed to concur. “I definitely think that you’ve identified well that theme of artificial happiness and that chapter conflates that with industrialization and capitalism and mobile gaming and a bunch of stuff. I know for me personally, I was not in a good mood when I did that part, and I think that definitely came through.”
Once the Bard is depressed, the rest of the game changes to reflect that. The dancing is less spry, and the constant smile on their face is more neutral if it isn’t completely a frown. And on the wider scale, the town is bleak, dark, and filled with smoke, with unrest and disillusionment from its inhabitants. “To really tell the story of the Bard being depressed, it really felt like there was so much stuff that had to go into it to really evoke that.” But as depression is different for every person, so is every player’s interpretation. “I don’t want to sit and explain the act because I think there’s a lot of ways you could come at it and I actually really enjoy seeing how other people interpreted it.”
Speaking of Audrey, perhaps the most shocking (no pun intended) part of the narrative is around the halfway point, where the player takes control of this hero, lightning sword and all. It’s a brief but very distinct part of the game that focuses entirely on combat. Dissatisfied with the state of the intro during development, Lobanov took a different direction by having the Bard struggle to carry a sword in the opening—the traditional “Hero” character then became Audrey.
Discussing the sequence where the character plays as Audrey, Lobanov shared: “That part was really, really fun to make, I have to say it was probably the most amount of work for the least amount of ‘gameplay.’ I thoroughly redesigned and reprogrammed and rebuilt everything for those 10 minutes.” A technical feat for the project for sure, but one that had a larger thematic purpose in contrasting the Bard and Audrey.
“Games are a reflection of the universe. The universe is kind of a big system and the way that you have you live your life and what you value as a person and what you do every day and what your personal goals are. You need to find the game that you live in, right? Different people occupy different realities and the way that I wanted to show that in Wandersong was that I think different people in [the game] are actually just playing a different game.” With that in mind, I was curious on what other media and stories that contain heroes inspired Lobanov.
What spurred my curiosity was a moment during the “pirate” chapter of the story. Upon landing on a central hub island, I encountered a character that I was absolutely sure was just Link from The Legend of Zelda. While Lobanov didn’t confirm that explicit connection, he did reveal some inspirations that I didn’t expect:
“There were some stories that inspired me. [Webcomic and series] Homestuck was actually was a really big one and also, and to some extent Undertale where they don’t really talk about heroes, they talk about violence and pacifism, but all of the stories have really cool kind of meta-conversations about the hero’s journey. I really think that Wandersong stands apart from all of the above because the way that we approach it is really different.”
The theme of the Bard not being the “Hero” or any sort of “chosen one” with a prophecy was a story element that I was excited about. Personally, it reminded me much of Ryan Gosling’s protagonist in Blade Runner 2049, though, at the time of this interview, Lobanov hadn’t seen it. Instead, he cited a different blockbuster, one that came out near the end of the game’s development.
“This is not an inspiration, but I do think that it’s really notable how the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, they actually really talked about [heroes] in a way that I thought was really cool. I was at the tail end of making Wandersong when I saw that movie and I know that a lot of people reacted to that movie really, really differently. I have to say that I really was intrigued by how close actually a lot of it felt to the way Wandersong wanted to talk about some of the same ideas.” Not every “hero” is “destined” for greatness the same way heroes are.
The evolving dynamic between the naive and enthusiastic Bard and their grumpy witch companion Miriam was one of the most compelling aspects of Wandersong to me, so I couldn’t resist asking Greg Lobanov if he had his own personal Miriam. “Miriam is definitely not just one person. Every character comes from a mix of real people and myself. So, Miriam is real. There’s not one real-life Miriam I could say.” Likewise, “I think there’s tons of Audrey’s out there.”
When Lobanov described to me how he and his creative partners would exchange funny ideas and lines to each other, my mind landed back on the factory chapter, which featured a mail woman character who shared numerous puns—accompanied by a slide whistle. “That mail lady that you named was actually a Kickstarter backer character. … I asked [her], ‘okay, what are you like?’ And she’s like, ‘Uh, well I don’t know. I’m just a nice person and I like puns,’ and that was all that I needed.”
But anyone who knows me well (and my feelings on gender identity) can probably guess how I was fixated by the character of Ash, who like the Bard, is identified with they/them pronouns. It’s something I clarified with Lobanov through Twitter sometime before our interview.
— Greg “Wandersong is OUT NOW” Lobanov (@theBanov) October 14, 2018
“With Ash, it’s not very explicit. We never included that stuff to go, ‘hey, this person’s non-binary!’ We want to make a game that was very inclusive and had all kinds of people in it and I think definitely the game really reflects just the kind of people that I know in my life,” Greg told me. “I know lots of non-binary people and honestly just felt really natural to include them in the world of this game. Not even as, oh, well I’ve got to check that mark off. It just seemed really normal. That character especially, just the way that they were conceived—yeah, they just were a non-binary person. It’s not the most important thing in their life. It’s just a fact about them.”
Wandersong has been out since the end of September, and since then, an outpouring of love and enthusiasm for the game and its characters has reached Lobanov. It only takes a quick scroll through the game’s Twitter account to see a number of fanart pieces and cosplay photos inspired by the Bard, Miriam, Audrey, and the many other characters and moments. Some of Lobanov’s favorite fan creations come from the game’s song wheel, and how players were able to have a bit of fun with it.
“Some people have been editing together some stuff—one player performed a song [with the song wheel] that’s actually in the game, which I thought was really cool because most of the stuff that people create in the game is famous. So that was really special. My favorite right now is someone playing the theme from Gurren Lagann—they added in the backing track, and they made the Bard start dabbing at the end. It made me laugh so hard. It’s so funny.”
And this outpour has meant a lot to Lobanov: “We’ve had so, so much just overwhelming positivity directed us about this game. It feels really, really special to be in the center of a lot of people have some game that resonated really deeply, and gave them a reason to smile when they didn’t feel like they had any or just got them through a really hard time in their life.” In fact, the game garnered so many positive reviews on Steam that it arose some “suspicious activity” alerts on the online marketplace. Just like the Bard, the Wandersong Twitter account saw the glass as half-full.
Please don’t take this to mean that Valve is working against small games! Many games that are far less successful than us have been verified. And it’s good to take precaution to protect buyers from scams.
we’re just so good it’s statistically improbable that we’re real 🤷
— WANDERSONG (out now!!!) (@Wandersong_game) January 8, 2019
Lobanov didn’t have too much to add during a recent email exchange with DualShockers, only saying “I thought our user reviews were so good that Valve didn’t believe we existed, which is honestly hilarious. Then we found out it was just a bug… I’m glad it was just funny and didn’t impact our game in any real (visibility) way, but I guess it’s a reminder that developers are living by the rules of an algorithm and we have to stay on our toes.”
So what’s next for Greg Lobanov? As mentioned, Wandersong is coming to PS4 on January 22, and Lobanov is quite excited to bring the game to a new userbase. “Sony has a long history of moving, artful games like Katamari, Shadow of the Colossus, and recent partnerships with titles like Night in the Woods… Wandersong is very inspired by titles like these and it feels really special to join them on PlayStation. Also, the controller lights up in rainbow colors and makes sounds when you play Wandersong on PS4, something made possible by the strange majesty of the Dualshock. And of course, I’m excited for more players to discover and enjoy Wandersong!”
Lobanov is now working on a game currently called Drawdog, enthusiastically sharing several gameplay GIFs on Twitter featuring, well, a drawing dog. In that same email exchange, Lobanov didn’t budge when I asked for any details on the project. “So many things that I want to [share], but right now I think it’s best to keep details scarce! People are way more excited than I expected. We hope to share something playable this year, so please look forward to that!”
So yes, video games may not save society—they may not even save the individual. But Wandersong to me, more so than almost any piece of media I experienced in 2018, taught me about what escapism truly is. It isn’t simply an entryway to a world to help us avoid our problems. Instead, escapism is all about learning how to confront them head-on.
The world sucks, life is unfair, and you’ll be told that you cannot do what you want to do. But take a lesson from the Bard—even in the toughest of times, keep your head up, smile, and do what’s right for yourself, even if it means dancing at the most inappropriate at times.