Do you ever wish you could redo the big decisions made in your life, even just out of curiosity? Let’s be honest – not even Doc from Back to the Future screaming at us at the top of his lungs not to mess with the past would stop us.
Thankfully, Armature Studio is here to help with Where the Heart Leads, a butterfly effect story adventure that allows us to explore this fantasy situation throughout our protagonist’s life with each choice affecting narrative paths, characters and even the design of the levels.
You are in control of Whit, our protagonist, who falls down a huge sinkhole on a fateful night and soon starts to relive his life infront of you, with the game asking you to navigate the difficult and formative decisions that shaped his life. He is a down-to-earth, run-of-the-mill guy without a particular calling in life – the perfect candidate for some sweeping changes.
Fans of narrative games will notice influences from Life is Strange and Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, for its gameplay and character interaction respectively, but these are not just ‘borrowed’ features from similar genre-games, quite the opposite, in fact, they feel improved upon and better implemented than in the aforementioned critically acclaimed games.
With a melancholic soundtrack and beautiful cartoon visuals setting the mood, Where the Heart Leads combines a mundane country setting with the surreal context of Whit’s situation and feels much like a dream-like state, shifting around the environments in a manner where you can’t quite be sure if its real-life or imaginary.
What is immediately obvious though is how grounded and relatable it is, grabbing your attention and never relenting. Sure, you are living someone else’s life, but the sheer number of moral choices available start to echo your own personality, and the issues that come up – the pressure to be the best father possible to your children or child to your parents and how to navigate fractures in your family – all hit the same emotional chords as they do in real life. At times uplifting and others heart-breaking Where the Heart Leads provides a tremendous interactive human drama on a scale rarely seen in video games.
A lot of what makes it feel different is not in its breadth of choice, but is due to its pacing. Normally, an atmospheric story-game with minimal gameplay draws out its most atmospheric sections for greater emotional effect, but can on occasion, slow down the proceedings to a crawl and adversely affect the experience. Where the Heart Leads, on the other hand, manages to foster its emotional sentiment while maintaining its pace, allowing you to while away the hours without becoming bored.
Furthermore, the game does a great job building the characters and narrative naturally. This isn’t just a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ game of twenty questions, the sense of realism and the developer’s quoted amount of ‘thousands’ of decisions make it feel like a life that could have gone in any direction, not just the one subscribed by the developer. I attempted to maintain a healthy equilibrium of happy wife, kids and family by sacrificing all personal opportunities to further theirs, and was so satisfying when Whit reminisced about one of my successful decisions as I felt like I had actually helped someone dear to me achieve something rather important. Funnily enough, I may have ended up being too willing to let others expand their horizons with characters making mistakes that I could have informed them better on with better advice. But like in life it’s only natural to cheer on your family regardless of the consequences.
All it takes is a couple of different decisions and the direction of the town and/or people can be completely changed, as well as your experience of it as access to certain areas are tied to these decisions.
Take one example where Sege, Whit’s eccentric and perpetually poor artist brother miraculously has two options to sell some of his artworks. One option would give him more cash but would also see him disheartened as the works are dismantled in front of him, and the other displays them across town, potentially to the chagrin (or pleasure) of residents. Then Sege needs to find himself a place to live. Does he move into the loft apartment downtown with ample space for his art while potentially bankrupting Whit and family who need to cover part of the rent or does he continue to live cordoned off from society in a trailer on Whit’s wife’s spare land?
It’s quite hard to describe how epic it felt to be the maker of this heartfelt emotional rollercoaster, with each of these decisions feeling grounded but also very meaningful due to the connection you feel with the characters.
Call the publisher ’cause we’ve run out of superlatives! This stunning story sets a new standard for choice-based adventures with incredible depth both in the number of lateral branching choices, but also in its realistic storytelling and characters. There are some areas that could have been improved or added, such as voice-acting, but as they fall on the side of ‘would have been nice’ rather than ‘necessary’ it’s hard not to call this an almost perfect game, one that has made an indelible impression on me and one that I won’t be putting down for quite some time.