It will take you 4 minutes to read this review.
Hollywood has mined classic literature since it was first established, so it’s interesting that video games have, relatively speaking, only rarely tapped those same sources. However, French developer La Belle Games has done exactly that with their gorgeous watercolour debut adventure The Wanderer: Frankenstein’s Creature. There are essentially three ways to adapt one medium into another: slavish adherence, spiritual faithfulness, or throwing everything away and keeping a few names. Fortunately, The Wanderer takes the second path in its story-driven take on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, to mostly positive results.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is one of the seminal works of classic horror fiction. Young Victor Frankenstein discovers the key to creating life and reanimates a creature from base human components. So enraptured is he by his task that he doesn’t realize the magnitude of what he’s doing. It’s only when the creature arises that Frankenstein sees him as a horrendous imitation of life and abandons him. The majority of the book is spent with Doctor Frankenstein himself as he deals with the repercussions of his actions. However, there is one lengthy section where the creature returns to relate his troubled story to his creator, having experienced harsh treatment at the hands of humanity since being left on his own. It’s this particular section that The Wanderer focuses its narrative attention on, placing players in control of the monstrous creature who doesn’t want to be a monster.
The developers have gone for a very artistic approach to their adaptation of Mary Shelley’s work. Right from the beginning, senses are heightened and yet incomplete. As the creature awakens in the laboratory in which he was revived, everything is white. Clicking to move about in this dream-like light gradually reveals his surroundings, from which he wanders into the wilderness. The initial stages of the story see the creature experiencing things for the first time. Flowers are encountered that add colour to the world. In fact, all throughout the game the painted backgrounds become more vibrant and cheery during moments of joy for the creature, and the musical score – employing a variety of instruments from strings, to piano, to woodwinds and even voices – soars triumphantly in crescendo to lift the heart.
Of course, anyone who’s read the book knows that things don’t continue to go well for the creature. His appearance is a ghastly mockery of man, driving humans to hate and persecute him. In short order, the creature enters a village where he plays ball with a few young children (a scene that does not occur in the book but feels natural in his journey here). The adult villagers are less than impressed and try to run him out of town – with pitchforks and flaming torches, no less. It’s these moments of despair for the hapless protagonist that The Wanderer represents quite literally, leaching all colour from the scenes and plunging them into darkness. As the previously uplifting music gives way to discordant strings as well, the whole effect is very unsettling.
After the creature escapes the town, he enters more fully into his journey of self-discovery. This personal quest takes him across a variety of different environments, several of them seen at different times of the year. From the simple cottage of the De Laceys from the book, through vertiginous mountain peaks, statuary gardens, cemeteries, and even to an almost Mardi Gras-inspired island, you’ll get to see some remarkable places. You’ll even pay a visit to Frankenstein’s lab at one point, although unfortunately Victor is nowhere to be found.
The game’s visual presentation is certainly its strongest suit. In addition to the beautiful watercolour backgrounds, various animated effects have been included to add life to the surroundings. Throughout the journey the creature is only ever seen as a mass of dark gray limbs and a featureless face, dressed in a tattered white cloak. His movements are not the shuffling, stiff-legged affair popularized in movies, but rather agile as he moves in a bounding motion that matches descriptions from the actual book. This world that he’s only discovering for the first time has quite a bit of (natural) life in it with numerous animals, crowds, and individual people moving around. Even when he’s left on his own, the scenes feel animated as camera pans and zooms are employed to show more or less of his surroundings in his travels.
The Wanderer’s writing is suitably evocative of Mary Shelley’s book. There are no voices on offer, with lines of text appearing as non-skippable subtitles. Most of the story is narrated from the point of view of the creature himself – again representative of the source material and how he relates his tale of woe to Frankenstein. The only exceptions to this are the few times he gets to speak with other human beings. During the creature’s wanderings, he goes through scenes both from the original novel and new ones designed specifically for the game. It says much that the new elements fit well with the creature’s overall account as he tries to fit into this cruel, unaccepting world.
Inevitably there will be those who miss important elements from Shelley’s work that have been excised from the game. For example, sweet Safie, the Arabian who through her own tutelage in learning a new language is the source of the creature’s gathering of the same knowledge, does not make an appearance at all. Instead, the protagonist steals an encyclopedia and learns to read and speak from that. Even so, the sacrifice of moments such as these need to be weighed against the medium in which the story is presented: the creature learning a language from another’s lessons works well in prose, but I can only imagine it being rather drawn-out and tedious in a game.
The biggest omission is the complete lack of Dr. Frankenstein. While he’s mentioned a couple of times, he never once makes an appearance. I’d really recommend reading the novel before playing the game, not only because it’s a brilliant work that differs greatly from most modern media interpretations over the years, but because the few times Victor’s spoken about may not make complete sense without the original context. In that regard, the adaptation isn’t fully successful. I was also disappointed at not meeting Frankenstein simply because the encounter is such a key moment in the book.
With the lack of the good doctor here for narrative resolution, the developers have used their own imaginations to provide an ending. The Wanderer incorporates a degree of choice-based gameplay, for the most part presenting the option to either be a murderous fiend or more forgiving of the humans that wrong him. I played the game through twice, with each run taking about two hours. In one instance I stuck to playing the benevolent creature, which resulted in a completely unexpected, multilayered meta ending. It’s written well and will likely appeal to those who like to dissect the motives and intentions of authors in their works. For my own personal preferences, I was left rather cold by it as it reminded me I was just playing a game. For my second run through I embraced the creature’s savage instincts and left a trail of bodies and destruction in my wake, to which there’s no elevated philosophical ending, just an ongoing path of devastation as the game fades to black and the credits roll.
I really appreciated having these choices to make, and regardless of which option I chose, I felt it was reflective of some aspect of the creature from the book. I just wish the game had provided a proper free save system instead of a single checkpoint autosave. There were several moments on both the light and dark paths that I would have preferred to record my progress in order to try other options. There may well be additional variations on the endings I experienced, but as the bulk of the game is mostly the same I wasn’t particularly compelled to seek them out after two complete times through.
Outside of the choice-based gameplay there’s not a lot of meat to the interactive parts, as there are times when The Wanderer seems to forget to be a game. Most challenges are fairly simple and appear in the form of minigames. When enjoying colours for the first time, for example, the creature touches a tree that causes a series of six differently coloured flowers to light up in a pattern around it. Put simply, it’s a Simon game where you then have to touch each of the flowers in the same order. At other times the creature has to play music, which is done in a rhythm-based Guitar Hero / Rock Band sort of way, with notes flowing across the screen that must be clicked on at the right times. Still other tasks involve simply moving through the environment from one hotspot to another or maneuvering in such a way as to knock a ball to children or into certain obstacles. It’s all very simplistic, though at least these bits try to be relevant to where the creature is at in his journey.
The Wanderer: Frankenstein’s Creature is remarkably faithful to the spirit of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, even when it deviates and introduces new scenes or omits existing ones. It’s a beautiful game to just look at and listen to, and its decision-based dynamics feel authentic to the creature’s development through heartbreaking hardships, whichever option is chosen. Gameplay could have used a bit of bolstering and there are a few story points that may be confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the source material, but if you’re a fan of Frankenstein or are interested in seeing a representation that closely follows the original, this game deftly illustrates the creature’s journey of self-discovery, for better and for worse.