Witch Strandings: Strange Times in the Forest

Do you remember that scene from Back to the Future when Marvin, the lead vocalist and guitar player of Marvin Berry and the Starlighters frees Marty McFly from the trunk of his car, badly cutting his guitar playing hand in the process? Do you remember that McFly then filled in for him at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance to make sure his parents fell in love and so that he wouldn’t create a time paradox and cease to exist? Remember how after Earth Angel, Marty did an insane rendition of Johnny B. Goode that left the Starlighters stunned and the attendees of the dance shocked and bewildered? What did he say after he finished the song, and gazed upon the crowd who was slowly contemplating a walk out or perhaps even a riot? “Guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…but your kids are gonna love it”.

That very long explanation of the ending of Back to the Future does have a point. I recently sat down and played Witch Strandings by developer and overall weirdness connoisseur Xalavier Nelson. I’ve covered some of his other work, like An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, or Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. He was also part of the first Dread X Collection with his entry Mr. Bucket Told Me To. What I’m saying is he’s no stranger to outlandish ideas, or games with names that are entirely too long. It sounds ridiculously pretentious, but he makes experiences, not games. So sitting down with Witch Strandings I didn’t know what to expect. His output is eclectic, hard to pin down. No two projects are alike. He might make weird games, but they’re never the same brand of weird twice.

Witch Strandings is Operation by way of Dwarf Fortress and Death Stranding. That’s certainly a sentence. This is where that ol’ Marty McFly quote comes in: Guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet….”. I’ve never been ready for a game by Nelson, but there is a strong contingent out there who relishes in the weird. It is not illegal to make art for art’s sake. To be successful is a metric you decide when you create. “Marketable”, in the context of indie could mean a billion different things. Groups of people try to put labels on everything. They form communities to provide a signifier for art that doesn’t fit an established niche. I found myself doing it when playing Witch Strandings. I sat in a discord call, streaming the game to DreadXP Head of Production Ted Hentschke and DreadXP Studio Artist Cleveland Mosher.

“It’s like…cozy”, I had said while playing the game. “A bit wholesome. Really zen. One of those chill-type games”. I made many remarks like that as I moved through the strange grid forest of Witch Strandings. To give you some insight: In Witch Strandings, you play as a small spirit controlled entirely with your mouse. You are in a large grid forest, and its heart is dying. You need to make the forest better by providing its denizens with what they ask for each day. You bring them medicine, or food, or cold compresses, and by helping them you heal the forest. You can also rebuild old structures to use as fast travel points and if that sounds familiar then you’ve played Death Stranding. Nelson has expressed interest in a “strand-type game” and Witch Strandings definitely shows that. The rub of the whole thing is some of the tiles on the grid are dangerous. They can catch your mouse and you have to make an actual, physical effort to free it. Brambles will catch you, slow you down. Hex tiles will lock your cursor in place while you valiantly pull against them.

It’s neat, but esoteric. It’s not perfect. No game is that I know of other than like…The Evil Within 2. It is messy but it’s full of love. Often I find myself playing the same games over and over; Vampire Survivors, Raft, Valheim. These games are comfortable and expansive, and don’t much challenge the way I play a game. If there is anything to be said about Witch Strandings, it’s that it is different. How different is up to interpretation. You might sit down and be immediately turned off by the look, the feel, the awesome bumping soundtrack; or, you might feel welcome in this expansive forest. The great thing about games is that they can feel different for everyone. So as always, I’m not telling you to play Witch Strandings. I’m also not telling you to not play it. The correct thing to do is in your heart, much like the forest where Witch Strandings takes place. You can see how you like it yourself HERE.