Release Date: 20/08/2016
Played On: PC
Available On: PC / PS4 / XBO
Time Played: 1h 53m
Progress: Unlocked about 5 endings
Developer: Santa Ragione
Publisher: Santa Ragione

Do we enjoy short narrative games with innovate methods of story-telling? By now it should be obvious that a game like Wheels Of Aurelia, with an interesting premise and unique gameplay, is right up my alley. Sure it's a small, short indie game that was released to little fanfare, but it's a game that exemplifies how unique telling a story while driving a car can be.

The game follows Lella as she begins a road trip to leave 1970s Italy, which has become a hive of political unrest and revolution. Lella drives the famous "Via Aurelia", meeting people along the way and having conversations that are both whimsical and dark.

Mechanically, the game is basic and tasks you only with driving a car and selecting from dialogue choices. The driving is often fairly automatic as your vehicle will turn corners and maintain its pace without any input from the player. This minimal requirement for input allows you to focus on the dialogue more intimately and make informed choices as the scenery passes by. 

The road your on meanders throughout the country and offers some branching paths along the way. The player can take direct control of the car by turning left and right, and speeding up to overtake or race other vehicles. Sometimes it’s necessary to take the wheel as there are characters who challenge you to races, and the only way to win is to drive as fast as you can through the busy streets.

Characters are a main focus of Wheels Of Aurelia, as you begin by enlisting Olga, a woman you meet at a club on the way out of town. Throughout the journey you can stop to pick up hitch-hikers, or meet new friends in towns that might join you for a spell.

The real meat of the game is found in the dialogue between Lella and these characters, as they discuss everything from sport to politics and terrorism. There are multiple responses for Lella to choose from, so the player must juggle reading lines of dialogue and watching the road. This is especially tense during the race sequences where characters will continue conversations as you're hurtling past cars and skidding around corners. It's a stark contrast to the auto-pilot cruising through the streets, perusing dialogue with leisure.

Thankfully the story is an interesting one that hints at the important issues of the era. I must admit that I know very little about 1970s Italy, but there are some universal themes that come through along with the local focus. Lella and Olga are both independent women of the 70s and finding their freedom in a world that's still coming to grips with the idea of equal rights. Neo-Fascists and Communists have taken sides and it's clear that tensions are thick in the air. 

Lella has her own past with a story to tell that comes out in a few key conversations. Although the same could be said for all the characters I encountered in my multiple playthroughs. Wheels Of Aurelia is built to be repeatedly played, with dialogue choices and driving being the catalyst for changes in the narrative's direction.

Some choices are obvious, like how driving through a certain town will always result in a race with an unsavoury character. If you beat him you get his car, but what if you missed that exit and drove past the town to avoid the race altogether? The map is simple, but large enough to feel like you're really missing something if you don't take a path that's open. Thankfully each playthrough only takes about 15 minutes, so it's inevitable that you'll have a chance to try all the options you want to find.

I was happily surprised to find that in one particular section, my driving skill had an impact on how the story unfolded. Until this happened I was unaware of any penalty for driving too erratically and had little concern for bashing into other cars or the barriers at the side of the road. Suddenly discovering that I had been driving too dangerously made me immediately want to replay that section carefully, just to see what would change.

Games always like to present their choices as important systems that will dramatically change the game, even though we know that's rarely the case. Wheels Of Aurelia feels like an obvious branching tree of plot points, but not all decisions are obvious and there are branches you can't even see until you stumble onto them.

This is a narrative that's told in an interesting and unique way, as the dialogue system plays off against driving the car. It's why I consider it an example of how video games are able to tell a story in a way that no other medium can. With mechanics and story tugging at your attention, the game is able to pace itself beautifully by raising and lowering its demands on you to deliver important story beats and gameplay.

Another important aspect to remember is the overall presentation, which is simplistic and colourful. There's a bright optimism in all the game's visuals, bolstered by an up-tempo soundtrack that plays on the car radio and propels the journey forward.

Wheels Of Aurelia is a tiny gem of a game that offers a unique insight into an era that I suspect many of us know little about. It offers a unique form of story-telling tied to gameplay that is worth experiencing for yourself. It's not the longest game in the world, but it's a fun, energetic story, told with an appreciation for interactive devices that only this medium can deliver.

I can't get the theme song out of my head.

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