Witch Strandings, a new ‘strand game’ from indie designer Xalavier Nelson Jr. has been revealed, and in advance of the reveal, Xalavier sat down with VGC to discuss the game, the strand genre and comparisons to Hideo Kojima‘s Death Stranding.
Published by Modern Wolf and developed by Strange Scaffold, creators of acclaimed games such as Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator and An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, the game’s Steam page was revealed following an ARG which saw players attempt to solve cryptic clues.
The description for the solved Steam page reads: “Witch Strandings dials into the emerging genre of physical transportation. A digital forest that extends beyond the boundaries of your screen, in an all-new Strand-type game.”
Controlling a ball of light, the player must make their way through a dark forest, adapting to harsh environments along the way.
Speaking to VGC, Nelson explained that he initially didn’t intend to make a ‘strand game’, a term coined by Hideo Kojima to describe the social features behind 2019’s Death Stranding, but when it was brought up in a meeting that that was precisely what the team was doing, it took the experienced developer by surprise.
“It was a horrific surprise, and then a delightful one,” Nelson told VGC. “We realised as we were talking through the mechanics as a team. And I don’t remember who said it, but someone said, ‘Wait, are we making a strand type game?’ and there was like dead silence in the chat for like 30 seconds, then you can see a bunch of ‘several people are typing’ notifications.
“It all made sense to up the principles of what I believe a strand game are, which is nurturing. That’s the ultimate point of the of everything you do in that genre, you’re nurturing a community or individuals within it, transportation, which is how you nurture these things, and physicality, which is sort of the glue binding and all together.
“All those were the key pieces of this thing we were making. And once we identified that, and got over the sheer visceral horror, that we had built a strand type game, in 2D by accident, we were able to really lean in and embrace both the ways we are similar to and also differ from one what I believe to be a genuinely new genre space for games.”
A strand game, as defined by Death Stranding designer Hideo Kojima, is a game in which your goals are achieved via social interactions, and it’s through those interactions that the game world changes, or is preserved in some way. The genre first emerged with Death Stranding, a game which saw players attempt to reconnect the United States.
We asked Nelson why he felt that the genre has been mostly unexplored since its emergence and in the wake of the popularity of Death Stranding.
“It’s the interesting situation of coming into a genre space that I’m sure is going to be explored more. But being in an early entry that is already so divergent. So it’s a privilege. There’s a lot of learning experimentation that’s come from that, that’s already impacted.
“It’s going to be fascinating to see how people continue to approach this because one thing I would consider kind of fundamental to our idea of the strand type genre is restraint and creative intent. This is not a genre that particularly benefits from throwing more money or a unique setting or just additional polish at it”.
Witch Strandings is also keen to explore the player’s relationship with control methods. Xalavier laments the fact that despite games being so expansive and broader than ever, there’s been a homogeny in the design of controllers.
“Modern controllers have around 19 inputs and that setup is becoming standardised in nearly every element of the industry. Even the Nintendo Switch, with Nintendo being, in many ways, this great innovator that’s always divergent and sort of breaking off from the pack.
“The same people who made the Nintendo Wii and the GameCube fucking controller put out something that is what we now consider normal. In the process of walking down the track of what we consider normal, we’re not just enabling certain things like games to have greater portability than ever, but we are actively locking off certain experiences.”
He added: “Do you remember playing a game from like the sixth-generation on the Game Cube or the original Xbox or PS2, and as much as it sucked that you couldn’t play with your friends, there was something very special and strange about those controllers and engaging with those worlds in a very specific way.
“I feel like this thing [unique control that only video games can do is being sanded down over time. It shouldn’t always be used, but as a tool in our toolkit to be used sometimes.
“I love the idea of bringing back this concept of, for lack of a better term exclusive experiences again. I worked on a Playdate game with Sweet Baby, you’re using a little console that has just four little directional buttons, B, A and a crank. And building something that is uniquely adapted to that world makes the thing that you’re engaging with the Playdate or the computer mouse feel more special as a result of having a focus on it.”
In our 3/5 review of the Playdate, we called it a “quirky and fun handheld with plenty of potential”. The handheld which was developed by Panic costs almost as much as a Nintendo Switch Lite, but that hasn’t stopped it from selling out.
Nelson concludes: “I’m really excited to bring back that sense of magic to something that is so mundane at this point. Because all of our devices do everything. And that means that they’re special for nothing.”