Discuss communism, feminism and everything in-between on a 70’s Italian road trip.
PC Release: September 20, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Part of what makes many indie games so fascinating is their novel settings. From the remotest corners of Wyoming (Firewatch) to the deepest depths of the ocean (Abzu), indie games go places that many big-budget games refuse to touch. Of course, in rejecting these intriguing settings, big-budget games forsake the novelty that has made indie games the saving grace of the gaming industry for so long. Today’s game, Wheels of Aurelia, continues the indie emphasis on novelty, with a setting never before explored in video games and with plenty of deep subject matter to boot.
Wheels of Aurelia is a top-down driving adventure game that was released just last fall. The game is set in 1972 Italy, a time and place video games rarely visit (even separately), with period-appropriate subject matter and an interesting take on narrative structure. Players assume the role of Lella, a young Italian woman who abhors authority of any kind, as she tours Italy’s west coast in her sports car. She’s destined to meet all sorts of interesting characters along the way. Whom she meets (and under what circumstances), is up to the player to decide.
Wheels of Aurelia is an exotic blend of top-down racing and choice-based adventure gameplay. Lella can take off to any number of locations in her car, and where she chooses to go influences who she might bump into. Her sidekick in these adventures is a shy young woman named Olga, who seems desperate to get to France for reasons she keeps to herself. Together, the two women encounter all sorts of odd characters while discussing life and society in post-fascist Italy. Players divide their time between keeping an eye on the road and choosing Lella’s responses to conversation a la Mass Effect.
Wheels of Aurelia seems quite ambitious from the get-go, intent on discussing a time period that few remember and a segment of Italian history that everyone’s forgotten about. Though the driving is the most immediate gameplay in Wheels of Aurelia, it’s just a means to an end. The “end” is the fascinating conversations about 70’s Italian history, culture and issues of the time. Because 1970’s Italy is rarely discussed, especially on the American side of the pond, these conversations are almost guaranteed some level of novelty.
As for what sparks these conversations, well, it depends. Lella and Olga might pick up a suspected Mafia member on the road, catalyzing a chat about fascism’s crackdown on organized crime. Other times they might happen upon a snooty priest, whose backwards attitudes about women’s rights catalyze no shortage of feminist commentary from the protagonists. Players use the keyboard to drive along the road and pick their next destination at the end of the vignette. Each playthrough of Wheels of Aurelia is quite short, clocking in at 30-40 minutes, but there are a ton of branching story lines to explore.
Despite being broken up into short playthroughs, Wheels of Aurelia contains a ton of interesting subject matter. Conversations come and go along with the player’s roadster, but this game is a lesson on fascism, communism, feminism, religion, life, God, death, sex, booze, and all manner of other stuff. It is a pixelated vignette of each of these things and their place in 1970’s Italy, a setting that, again, is seldom explored in most media these days. Finding and absorbing all of this subject matter is the main, aha, driving force behind Wheels of Aurelia.
Well, that and the dialogue between the two women at the heart of the story. Lella and Olga could hardly be more opposite. The former is a hard-hearted pseudo-punk who escaped the confines of obligation for freedom on the road, while the latter is much shyer and still finding her place in the world. The dialogue is consistently well-written and free of spelling errors, which is an obvious plus. It’s also a very progressive portrayal of female video game characters, without the submissive sexualization ravaging this industry like a plague.
Unfortunately for Wheels of Aurelia, the game’s character development is stunted by the short length of its playthroughs. A half-hour isn’t a whole lot of time to know somebody, and it feels like Lella has scarcely had time to develop before the storyline is over and we’re back at the menu screen. It’s a shame, because while the rogue heiress is a bit of a trope, Lella manages to scratch its surface with a clear-eyed, punk rock attitude. Not nearly enough of which is made available in each playthrough.
The other problem with Wheels of Aurelia is that while the individual conversations are interesting, they’re usually pretty disjointed. Lella and Olga will be driving along, discussing the ethics of abortion, when suddenly Lella shouts that there’s a neo-fascist in that other car and it’s time to go chase them! What on earth is that in apropos of? It only leaves the progression of the storyline feeling forced.
Earlier in this review, the driving in Wheels of Aurelia was described as a means to an end, and that’s also true in a gameplay sense. Players use their keys to gently steer the car along the road. There’s no in-game penalty for reckless driving; bumping into guide rails or other cars might provoke a sharp response from Olga, but that’s it. This renders the in-game races and other events a bit… useless. Car breakdowns make for many a memorable tale (Planes, Trains & Automobiles, for a start) but they’re omitted from both the narrative and the laws of physics in Wheels of Aurelia. Luckily, Lella’s car handles well and the driving controls are tight.
The final word on Wheels of Aurelia‘s branching paths is if they’re short, at least they’re diverse. They can produce a wide variety of endings; anything from Lella and Olga actually going to France, to Lella getting chased by cops, to Olga being all sorts of not what she seems. Some of these can feel a bit random thanks to the disjointed conversations, but the variety plus the aforementioned conversation subject matter provides plenty of impetus for seeking them out.
The last two pieces of Wheels of Aurelia‘s retro-European vibe are its art and music. The former is a series of brightly colored Italian set pieces that, while beautiful, have only basic textures and no anti-aliasing. The game world and its objects are clearly defined, but the lack of AA combined with the rough textures can make the game look a bit hazy. No amount of fiddling around in the game’s moderately sized options menu seems to provide a fix.
If Wheels of Aurelia‘s visuals are a mixed bag, the music is absolutely delightful. It’s a broad collection of Italian punk rock that will make any fan of the genre beam. Sure, the lyrics are in Italian, but the musicianship is great. As an added bonus, the game’s entire soundtrack has been made available for free, so definitely pick that up alongside the game.
For all of the flaws afforded by Wheels of Aurelia‘s simplistic gameplay and poor narrative transitions (and there’s a few few of them), the game’s novel setting and complicated subject matter still make it a win. The delivery needs some work, but the game remains a critical examination of life and attitudes in 70’s Europe- a time when World War II was still fairly recent, and when Italy was still in the throes of a political identity crisis. All of that is interesting on its own, but becomes even more fascinating when examined through the lens of an ardent feminist out to oppose all of Italy’s patriarchal moors. Not just for the sake of opposition, but because her sense of self depends on it. Her freedom depends on it.
This examination of attitudes and history is also more interesting against the backdrop of 70’s Italy, a setting that no video game has explored before and that is under-discussed even in most history coursework. It’s a truly novel setting, which doesn’t necessarily excuse Wheel of Aurelia‘s flaws, but definitely makes them worth suffering through.
Wheels of Aurelia is an interesting little gem. It’s a gem that could stand some polishing, especially in regards to gameplay, but its subject matter is deeply interesting and its characters are memorable despite only getting so much screen time. Gamers who are into history and critical examinations of issues both contemporary and eternal should pick this one up. Driving enthusiasts might get a bit bored, but hey; look at that sunny Italian coastline. And look at that chance to see video games dive headfirst into taboo subject matter.
You can buy Wheels of Aurelia here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.