"An experiment in deconstructing an MMO."
"An incomplete, creatively bankrupt vacuum."
"I would start out swimmingvon (sic) land i though (sic) i was a majestic potato i loved it and i fell through the floor and clipped through every stair and rock i thought it was hilarious i love this game."
The game in question is Wander, a combat-free MMO for PlayStation 4 and PC with an average user score of 2.2 on Metacritic. It is, according to a couple of YouTube Let's Players, the worst game of this generation. Search for it on the video-sharing site and you'll find a plethora of clips showcasing debilitating graphical bugs, incredibly awkward communication and generally lamenting how entirely broken the game is.
But that's not the whole story. Wander is the brainchild of travel-crazy Australian Loki Davison, and he, alongside a small team, is in no mood to give up on the game. Just like the globetrotting expeditions that have inspired it, Davison is going to continue putting one foot in front of the other until he finds the path to Wander's redemption.
Wander is, if absolutely nothing else, a refreshing and brave concept, an MMO centred on Journey-like, non-verbal communication between players using a runic language called Rozhda, shape shifting (you begin as a tree!) and a luscious open world full of natural wonders.
"I wanted to create a game that was soothing and calming, and allowed you to interact with players in a positive environment," Davison says, recalling his isolated childhood and his first thrill of large-scale digital interaction. "That was with Ancient Anguish, a text-based MUD, the precursor to MMOs. It was amazing, we could all be different things and explore and do stuff together." There have been plenty of games built to chill rather than thrill, including Proteus, Dear Esther and Gone Home, but while we all have a favourite ambience-sim, few if any have been attempted on the scale of Wander.
While it's out there in the wild, it's still early days for Wander, and improvements are incoming. But how can any game, and its developers, possibly keep going after such a negative reception at launch? Making a game is a huge undertaking and an impressive commitment, and it's surely every developer's nightmare to see the brutally succinct "Mostly Negative" Steam review summary appear beneath their latest creation. Just how do you pick yourself back up?
I dunno, it looks pretty good in this official trailer
"The great antidote is to read from the players who love it. One player bought Wander by accident and they have now spent 270 hours in it. It's also amazing and beautiful to see fan art and blogs dedicated to Wander." Thank goodness for small mercies, then – but what of the larger issue? When a journalist like Jim Sterling, with a massive profile and a shit-load of Twitter followers, calls your new game "creatively bankrupt" and "boring as fuck", that sends ripples throughout the wider community. (You can watch his video review of the game here.)
"Wander isn't for everyone, and I understand that," continues a seemingly sanguine Davison, who to his credit refuses to become defensive and accepts responsibility. "We had some nasty bugs at launch that I didn't find before releasing it – I should have worked out a way to test it better."
Anyone with a public-facing persona has dealt with trolls at some point, and it's easier said than done shrugging that off. "Myself and the whole team have invested themselves in the game, so it's hard not to take some of the feedback personally."
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However, some gamers are more forgiving, and even a lot of the unfavourable reviews on Steam ameliorate the down-thumb with high praise for the team's ambition and community-minded approach. One review in particular sums up the feeling: "The Wander team is painfully kind, works tirelessly with the community and is full of creative potential." It's a kind of booby prize moral sentiment echoed in many other user critiques.
That creative potential is rooted in Davison's dreams of a beautiful environment that encouraged the serendipitous sense of shared discovery of his mountain treks, where "players didn't just trash talk newbs, but shared experiences and skills... Where I can ride on air currents, then meet someone who wants to skydive from my back instead of leap from the roof and silently kill me with a knife." So, Wander is also a subtle indictment of the over-abundance of games that enforce twitch reflex aggression as the only form of interaction, but unfortunately one that hasn't mapped out a core gameplay loop to lure players away from the bloody alternatives.
Davison recounts an episode, when discussing with a friend what he loved about online multiplayer games, the satisfaction of "working as a team to accomplish a common goal". His friend asked why so much time is spent in these games shooting and stabbing other people. "After that I realised I could do something," Davison recalls, "something to play before bed, to remind me that no matter what the news told me that day, other people are actually pretty awesome."
Oh, dear, maybe not so good
Equating the digital enjoyment of a bit of the old ultraviolence with the humanity of the players engaging with it is something the mainstream media has been swift to spotlight in the past, usually when there's any kind of real-life violence that can be tenuously connected to a gaming background. But Wander is a reaction of the positive persuasion, a welcome diversion from the attitude that violence on screen can engender it in the player, and also sad proof that great intentions and inspirations from the real world don't necessarily translate into hands on pads. And Wander will need to bridge that gap, rapidly, if it wants to avoid being consigned to video game history as a trippy but unplayable druid-sim.
Of course, no MMO has a perfect launch, and Wander's only got a full team of three working on it. "It's great that people confuse us with a big-budget studio," Davison says sardonically, and he's on the case. "I'm fixing up the issues, then listening to what players want and [getting] them into the game, quickly." If you're keen, there's a public Wander roadmap on Trello wherein anyone can vote on the game's real, immediate future. Pre- and post-release crunch is still not a reality that every consumer understands.
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"I'm not pulling 18-hour days every day any more," Loki recounts. Even developers have to live, and stay sane. With ambitions to keep adding stuff "a long way into the future", one can only hope that such a maligned but, underneath all the brokenness, brave game can retain enough of a player base to blossom, like the player-controlled tree avatar, into maturity.
It's clearly easy for people to turn Wander into a straw-tree argument against deconstructing the murder-craft of typical MMORPGs, but Davison's team and their debut game clearly have a spark that shines through the low-poly dirt. If they can survive and emerge stronger, who knows what this game will become or what its follow-up might accomplish. In the meantime it seems, at least, that not all who Wander are lost.
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