Armature Studio’s Where the Heart Leads is a dense narrative game, with an apparent 600,000 words of dialogue and tons of decisions to make throughout the game. That word count is neither a positive or negative, however: it gives players the chance to craft their own story, yet drags along unnecessarily at times.
Playing as Whit Anderson, the story begins when a sinkhole forms on the ground of the Anderson family farm. When the family dog falls into said sinkhole, Whit follows and manages to save the dog, but he falls further down and begins a dream-like transition where he relives his life at various moments, beginning from his high school years. Decisions, however small they may be, could lead down a very different path further down Whit’s life. Unlike other narrative games, where your choices masquerade what is eventually a fairly linear storyline, Where the Heart Leads actually fleshes out, at times, somewhat compelling through-lines on the subplots based on your choices, leading to a dozen endings. The beauty of the varying paths lie in the story-telling medium, where those hundreds of thousands of words come together to be the main driving force in moving the plot forward. When there are so many dialogue possibilities, it’s easy to be able to offer a multitude of storylines and endings that the player can truly craft a story that is theirs.
However, that also leads to one of the issues I had with Where the Heart Leads: there may be 600,000 words for dialogue, but on so many occasions, it felt like 400,000 words would’ve had the same effect. For every critical decision, there is a lot of mundane, seemingly insignificant information that you have to trudge through. On top of the conversations, there are also notes and other pieces of information and Whit’s thoughts in the journal that you can choose to pore through that would help you to make more informed choices; I did, and found the same issues.
What would have made the reading more palatable is if the story was compelling enough throughout, but a story about a family man in the midwest was not exactly the hook that draws me in to find out more about Whit’s life and relationships. It’s not far removed from my own life, which is probably just as boring and mundane, so playing a game about making choices that essentially reflects the banality of my everyday life isn’t quite the escape I want videogames to be. I can choose to narc on my brother (or not) in my teenage years, or select my preferred drink on a date night with my wife in my adult life—these aren’t decisions I made in my own life, but choices that can be made in-game. Not exactly edge-of-your-seat decisions to make, are they?
The water-painted, minimalist polygon aesthetic has visual appeal, and stands out enough to pull you away from reading lines and lines of mundane text. It’s somewhat of a more vibrant, colourful take on the design stylings of Inside, and often I found myself taking a moment at the start of a new scene to appreciate the art design implemented in this game. The isometric angle, combined with the diorama design, provides a tilt-shift photography feel, as if you’re looking into a model village centralized around one particular citizen.
The tricky aspect about making a 2D game look 3D is often the limitation of a lack of camera control that hinders the player, and this holds true for Where the Heart Leads. Without the ability to change camera angles (other than panning), it created interactions that are finicky, and forces players to find just the right spot to place Whit in order to initiate conversations or interactions with the environment. In open spaces, this was less common, but when you are required to be at a precise spot in more enclosed spaces, there is very little margin of error.
At ten to twelve hours, Where the Heart Leads fleshes out each character and their traits effectively, building relationships with Whit in an intimate manner. At times, however, I wished the developers had cut an hour or two out to benefit the pacing of the story—there were moments where I felt like reading through interactions between Whit and secondary characters were unnecessary, much like eating beef jerky with a knife and fork: tedious, and tough to chew through and digest.
All other characters, including Whit’s family, are all presented in translucent, dream-like polygons in the characters’ silhouettes. You could argue that this further reinforces the concept of a dream-like state that Whit has fallen into, akin to how our brains don’t form faces on people we know in dreams. Still, it was a strange decision for the developers to make, since the entries in Whit’s journal have faces of said characters plastered all over his notes in his interactions with these people, so I can’t quite comprehend the need to remove the characters, other than for rendering purposes. The effect it had on me, conversely, was a detachment from the characters the story tried so hard to build upon.
At times, Where the Heart Leads crafts an interesting narrative on the complexities of family relationships, and how the decisions one makes can have consequences. I enjoyed the plots between Whit and his immediate family members, and the possibilities his decisions can create that might benefit everyone—but much like real life, the game also reinforces the concept that you can’t please everyone, and the story plays out as such. But being inundated with other characters that I felt I had to talk to, and text that felt needlessly drawn out, evolved the dialogue-heavy game from a customised narrative into a bit of a chore. Where the Heart Leads is a game with its pros and cons, so it’s hard for me to veer my review of this game from middling.
Where the Heart Leads
Developer: Armature Studio
Publisher: Armature Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
Release date: 13 July 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.