Narrative adventures are complicated beasts at times. Where The Heart Leads is no different, hovering precariously between game and novel, a walking simulator with a few extra steps.
Our story begins with Whit Anderson, family man, artist, inventive builder. A massive storm hits his homestead and the family dog falls into a deep sinkhole. Ever the inventor, Whit attaches a bathtub to a winch and descends to rescue his dog. What follows is a surreal slideshow of dreamlike sequences and memories intertwined.
We’re never explicitly told what it is we’re witnessing. The game’s official page on the Playstation website says that Whit has emerged into a strange realm where his past, present and future manifest like dreams. That’s certainly a less depressing idea than my initial assumption – that Whit was injured horribly in the fall and we’re watching his life flash before his eyes. I like that much of Where The Heart Leads is left to interpretation, though. It’s closer to cinema than gaming, wearing certain influences proudly on its sleeve.
The films of David Lynch and Wes Anderson are both stated as influences, and while that’s certainly true, I also picked up on similarities to movies like Big Fish, Forrest Gump and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Deeply personal and relatable moments between characters, wrapped up in dreamlike, fantastical memories of times gone by. A recurring theme of Whit’s story, no matter which decision you make, is the construction of his sculptures.
Even the tame options are wildly exaggerated, often dominating a scene with spirals of twisted metal. This really works with Where The Heart Leads’ watercolour aesthetic, contrasting sharply with the vivid colour palette and bringing the world to life. The areas you explore are familiar and fantastical, dotted with intense bursts of believable detail and warm creativity.
As you proceed through Whit’s memories, occasionally returning to what we assume is the real world, you’ll make key choices that impact how the end plays out. Lots of little things can change; but all the big decisions seem to be concentrated right at the end. The game promises dozens of endings, but I’ve only seen one – it was satisfying and bittersweet, and felt like a genuine payoff for the time I’d spent with Where The Heart Leads’ cast.
But despite what was a very thorough and thoughtful experience, I’m not sure I’d ever want to play it again, and this is where my feelings about Where The Heart Leads become kinda complicated. It’s well written, it’s beautiful, but it’s altogether too long for me to sit through all the written dialogue again just for the gorgeous big moments. For all the things that might change, I know the vast majority of it would remain the same, and that’s just not a time investment I want to make.
So, yes, it can be dull and tedious from time to time. But so can life, right? And what is Where The Heart Leads if not a portrayal of life? If you’re a fan of personal stories with tons of heart and creativity, it’s well worth persisting with the game’s narrative. It takes a lot of turns – some expected, some not so much – but it’s genuinely so hard to deny the amount of passion Armature have poured into this game.
Where The Heart Leads overall thoughts
Where The Heart Leads is a beautifully presented novel in interactive form, and a marvellous display of creativity. The writing (if muddied with an avalanche of typos) is quality, portraying a wide range of characters with expertise. Watching the city of Carthage shift and evolve as the story moves forward is an incredible experience, energised by inspiration from some of the most respected filmmakers of our time.
The experience probably runs a little bit too long. Replaying Where The Heart Leads feels like it would be a dirge of skipping through text bubbles as quickly as possible, and probably not soaking in the world’s atmosphere in the magical way you do the first time around. It’s wonder and emotional investment that carries you through some of the game’s dull spells, and neither of those factors will be quite as strong on a second playthrough.
Where The Heart Leads is a piece of art, and as such it is flawed. It has technical errors – typos, the odd visual bug (although these have been keenly patched out as they emerge). It rambles in places, taking far too long altogether to get to the point. But it is also thoughtful, intelligent, and represents a stunning meeting of narrative and visual artwork. Even if you only play it once, Where The Heart Leads is worth your time.