I’ll never forget my first road trip.
It was 1978, a year of social and political upheaval in Italy. I was driving from Pisa to Rome, or possibly Rome to Pisa, either to stop a neo-fascist terrorist or to take a girl I met in a disco to get an abortion in France, which of course was complicated by the fact that I was the daughter of a politically connected aristocratic family who had been kidnapped a couple of years earlier, and paparazzi were always on my tail.
At least, that was my first play-though of Wheels of Aurelia. In subsequent drives of the not-officially-released computer game, I also somehow won a Ferrari in a race to Siena, picked up a lot of sketchy hitchhikers, and was chased by the police or possibly more kidnappers, either of which may also have been fascists (at least it’s an ethos). In this game’s narrative, forks are taken not only by turning left or right, but by the things you choose to talk about — or not talk about — with your passengers. It is, at its heart, a choose-your-own-adventure game, a work of interactive fiction set in a Sega Genesis cartridge that never existed.
The aesthetic of Wheels of Aurelia is distinctly thrown-back. Polygonal scenery of a clichéd Italian countryside slips by a winding road, and the controls — by mouse or keyboard — are imprecise but forgiving. Overcorrections and collisions result in squealing tires and a puff of dust, but never death and destruction (though we suspect that’s one possible ending). Acceleration is handled via the space bar, though the pace is more Lambretta than Lamborghini.
It is, at its heart, a choose-your-own-adventure game, a work of interactive fiction set in a Sega Genesis cartridge that never existed.
Driving is only half the game. While you’re busy sort of steering with one set of controls, your other hand is tasked with keeping the conversation going by choosing lines of dialog that question passengers, express political views or keep the topics light, reveal your past or do your best to hide it. As a game, it’s awkward (though still in beta), but it manages to capture the feeling of a spur-of-the-moment highway adventure, when a missed exit or a too-honest admission can mean a turn for the worse. The soundtrack’s songs, as well as the culture and politics presented, are based on reality, but 1978 Italy is a far country, even for Italians.
Wheels of Aurelia is also good at driving home how hard it is to drive and read simultaneously, which may make it of some value to driver’s education classes. You can buy the beta version for any platform for only $4.99, and upgrade to the release version for free when the time comes.
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