Life is a series of small, but crucial decisions, Where the Heart Leads reminds us. It’s an ambitious examination of choice and will probably reverberate even after multiple play-throughs.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Armature Studio
Publisher: Armature Studio
Release date: July 13th, 2021
Price: $24.99 via digital download
Availability: PlayStation Store
Note: In the interest of keeping things spoiler-free, some aspects of this review will be strategically ambiguous.
When interactive fiction offers opportunities for decision-making, the results can be disappointing. Too often, these games can feel like little more than digital adaptations of a “Choose Your Adventure” book. Play frequently feels like a series of choices and corresponding consequences which feel far more like branching computer code than the development of a person in real life.
Sure, these can be fascinating doses of escapism, but they rarely inspire reflection into our own lives.
Multiple Play-throughs are Mandatory
Often, the PlayStation 4 release of Where the Heart Leads can feel invigoratingly organic. But in order to truly appreciate the experience, you’ll have to play through the ten-hour story multiple times. Different decisions might open up new glimpses of interaction between characters, signaling a shift in relationships. Other times, a poignant moment that was previously seen is lost forever. These missed opportunities, known by players but not by the game’s characters, can be truly heartfelt.
Having grown up in a place that looks very little like Heart’s rural Americana setting, I was initially afraid that I wouldn’t identify with the characters. But peer past the surface details, and there’s a universality to the multi-generational interactions. And honestly, the small-town context helps to keep the size of the cast manageable.
Decisions That Affect Relationships and Even the Landscapes
You’ll first meet the game’s lead Whitey “Whit” Anderson in a surreal situation when a giant sinkhole opens up outside of his farmhouse. The noise generated by the event propels the family dog, Casey, to investigate. But the Golden Retriever accidently falls unto a platform just below the surface. Immediately, Whit, his wife Rene, and their two children, are forced into action.
Inevitably, your actions plunge Whit into the cavernous abyss, where he’ll revisit influential moments in his life during his attempt to ascend back to the surface. Sporadically, you’ll even have glimpses into the future than hasn’t happened yet.
Interactions with Whit’s parents, brother, childhood sweetheart and townsfolk sidestep much of the usual cause-and-effect storytelling of most games. Yes, you’ll open up or close off cinematic sequences. But more importantly, these will have a long-lasting affect on Whit and his relationships with those around him. Games often offer gratifying character arcs, but rarely are players given the autonomy to shape these trajectories.
One of the Best Interactive Examples of the Butterfly Effect
What’s especially mesmerizing is how influential many of your decisions can be. Some choices have a physical consequence, and it’s possible to radically change the architecture of the game world by giving characters a bit of vocational motivation. Occasionally, you’ll pick up mementos, like a letter from your family. These can be wildly divergent in tone depending on your decisions, demonstrating just how malleable the storyline is. There have been plenty of games that have attempted to simulate the butterfly effect. None have accomplished this as well as Where the Heart Leads.
But like a jutting iceberg, there’s far more beneath the surface. Witnessing the variance of relationships is the key reason why Heart requires replay. Exploring these alternate realities will undoubtedly produce moments of wistfulness like few games can muster. Chances are, you’ll be reflecting on your own missed opportunities, regrets, and life decisions. You’ll encounter some tough choices but each seems to contribute to Whit’s character and sway the interactions you’ll have.
Exhilarating Ambition With a Few Blemishes
While Heart’s storyline allows for a wide swatch of experiences, it’s not without issue. Occasionally, the tensions are a bit too obvious, with Whit and his brother Sege embodying the opposition between commerce and art. To a lesser extent, I was a bit disappointed that Where the Heart Leads resisted a depiction of a working class abandoned by the system. While Whit and his wife can experience economic hardship, parents are persistently there to bail them out of trouble. While the game offers at least a dozen endings, I longed to see more of the hardship faced by so many Americans.
Others may find faults with Heart’s play. Frequently, you’ll follow trails of shadowy representations of characters. Although the mechanic pushes the story along, it can be a tedious task. The game opts not to offer any voice work, which undoubtedly saved resources from the purportedly 600,000-word script. It also forces players to use their imaginations for each character’s voice, endowing a literary feel. But at times, you might wish for spoken dialog, especially when more than two people are interacting.
Largely, many of the transgressions are forgivable. It’s difficult to imagine if Heart would have had the same impact as a two-dimensional visual novel. Instead, navigating through dreamlike forests and an emergent smalltown provides a sense of place and scale that other mediums might struggle with. An expressive score, punctuated by the occasional strains of a Wurlitzer Organ helps solidify the context adding a soothing timber to scenes.
If you’re interested in joining Whit’s journey, you’ll want to go in with as little information as possible. Sure, this seems like a counter-intuitive away to approach consumer product. But Where the Heart Leads is closer to arthouse film than a pulse-hastening action title. It’s a wonderfully contemplative experience that’s without peer. Gaming needs more experiences like this.
Where the Heart Leads was played on PlayStation 5
with review code provided by the publisher.