The road trip formula is one which so often lurches into laddish bravado, laden with fast cars and machismo; ‘journeys of discovery’ that are big on the journey but light on any discovery. Wheels of Aurelia is a road trip game which could not diverge farther from those stale and uninteresting trappings, being a narrative-driven game with one of those most intriguing, nuanced and well-realised game narratives in recent memory.
Coming from Milan-based indie studio Santa Ragione, Aurelia follows protagonist Lella—the namesake of the female Formula One driver Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi, whom she cites as an inspiration—and her passenger Olga, whom she meets in a disco.
Through a shared need to escape Rome—getting away from ‘La Dolce Vita’, as Lella puts it—Lella and Olga resolve to drive to France across the beautiful, sweeping Via Aurelia on the western coast of Italy.
What follows is a game that describes itself as “half racing, half interactive fiction” but actually leans very heavily towards the latter. During your travels, various dialogue options will come up as you chat with Olga or any other passenger acquired over the course of your journey. This forms the bulk of Aurelia’s gameplay.
The driving is more than simply an afterthought, however. Aurelia’s narrative is open-ended, with decision-making and multiple endings that are predominantly controlled by where Lella drives as opposed to what she says.Driving has a relaxed simplicity to it, as you control only the speed and, when a junction presents itself, which routes to follow. Crashing into the sides of the road or other vehicles has no consequences outside of races—and even then, they’re so easy that occasional speed losses shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance. This may be a disappointment for those who are enticed more by the prospect of racing rather than narrative, but the hands-off approach works to highlight the dialogue and story-telling, both of which are outstanding.
Conversations are handled in the form of contained dialogue trees with two options for how to respond, not including the ever-present option of silence. After seeing multiple endings, what is most striking is how many facets of Lella’s personality are explored with this system. Italy in the late 70s is a tumultuous time, and Lella’s grapples with the social and political ramifications of what is going on around her not only build a brilliant main character but also help ground the player in the context surrounding the story.
Let’s stay on that historical context for just a moment. It is clear that the Italian studio have an intimate relationship with the era and are subsequently able to relay a historically literate telling. While displaying a great nostalgic fondness for the vibrancy and buzz of the ‘roaring 70s’, Aurelia nonetheless manages to paint a picture of a city profoundly divided and on the brink.In this manner, Aurelia serves as something of an historical document but doesn’t feel exclusive to those who know very little about the time (take this from one whose shameful ignorance over such matters was brought keenly into focus over the course of the playthrough). This is done by avoiding explanatory blurbs in favour of fantastic, well-rounded characters who each have their own perspective and their own experiences. One playthrough will not only alter the course of Lella’s journey but will also touch upon the lives of those around her.
Not only is Aurelia’s story unerringly relevant to its historical context, its writing is also unwaveringly bold and willing to tackle hugely important issues—abortion, neo-fascism, the distinction between ‘guerilla’ and ‘terrorist’—in a manner which is always naturalistic and never forced.
Even the flow of the dialogue is well-measured, with pauses saying more than pages of dialogue would in other games.
What else does Aurelia have to offer? For one thing, a marvellous soundtrack which may be the funkiest damn thing I’ve heard in a long, long time. The in-game radio blares out a selection of great tracks, but it’s the end credits that boasts the best tune of the lot. A gloriously rhythmic and up-tempo piece, as an addendum to each playthrough, it works wonderfully.
The aesthetic, too, is spot-on. The hand-drawn character illustrations are great, their small details acting as a great counterpoint to the minimalist pastel landscapes as they roll by—bold and impressive, much like the rest of the game.Still, Aurelia isn’t without its problems; how it handles replayability is a major one.
One playthrough from beginning to end will take roughly fifteen minutes, dependent on the route you take and the contempt you hold for the rules of the road. Any longevity comes from the fact that Aurelia boasts sixteen separate endings. The issue that presents itself is that getting these endings often requires very minute changes—avoiding a hitch-hiker here or parting ways with a passenger there—which mean that all gameplay leading up to that point is just a re-run of what you’ve already seen.
The variable dialogue is to some extent able to mix things up, but after just a few do-overs things can begin to get very repetitive.
Not to mention actually finding these endings in the first place, which can be a tricky feat, with little to no hints of which changes will have an effect on the conclusion. This often leads to the same ending being achieved by mistake while seeking out something different.
Those who do achieve every ending would likely find that the process, while immensely rewarding, comes with an undue amount of frustration. (As of writing, I have yet to find a number of endings for the reasons previously mentioned.) This acts as an unfortunate barrier to something which warrants exhaustive playing.
To offer a more trifling criticism, there are a few typos scattered here and there in the dialogue. They’re never enough to take you out of the narrative, but nonetheless it’s an issue that should have been addressed by the point of full release.
But it would be remiss to end on a negative for this review of a very, very special game. Wheels of Aurelia is a narrative triumph, with dialogue that has more to say than the vast majority of games would ever dare. It has an acute social and political awareness, it has an intimate knowledge of its west Italian setting and it knows to play to its strengths by keeping the driving secondary, never letting the road overwhelm the trip. And what a trip it is.