I’ve always been a fan of narrative-driven games: I sunk my teeth into point and click adventures in my youth, and used to preach about how video games can tell stories that movies and TV can’t. I still believe that, for the most part, video games can tell a story in a more personal way than other media, since you’re in the control or directing the action in some way, even if it’s a rudimentary binary choice. Where the Heart Leads is a narrative-drive game that tells a personal story about on man’s life and what led him to where he is now, told in a dream-like, surreal way.
Where the Heart Leads is a narrative driven adventure game played from an isometric perspective. There is a catastrophe on a farm which ends up with the family dog falling into a huge sinkhole. You take control of the father, Whit, who tries to save the dog—but ends up falling into the sinkhole himself. What ensues is a trippy sequence of dreamlike experiences where Whit recounts moments in his life, dealing with past mistakes and wrestling with regrets. As someone who went into Where the Heart Leads with no foreknowledge, I was kind of hooked on the family tragedy angle—maybe a family coping with a worldwide event–but it’s more about Whit’s spiritual journey. The problem with that, however, is that I hardly felt any connection to Whit and his life.
Most of the gameplay of Where the Heart Leads consists of you controlling Whit as you walk around and interact with objects, and have conversations with people. It’s a little like exploring Whit’s memories, or reliving his life, except people are crystalline or glass transparent facsimiles of their real selves, which I assumed meant that whatever Whit was experiencing, wasn’t really happening. During these dreamy sequences Whit goes through mundane life stuff: arguing with siblings, dealing with parents, and even coping with tragedy. You make decisions in conversations, usually binary choices of “this” or “that” that ultimately feel inconsequential. I didn’t have time to do a playthrough of alternate choices, but I didn’t need to, because every time I made a choice the result was a sort of ambiguous mix of the two.
Conversations and memories are stored in a journal that you can reference if needed. It’s handy to keep track of all of the characters in Where the Heart Leads, especially because most people are crystalline entities, and not opaque creatures of flesh and blood—which, I get it, but it’s a weird design choice that actually makes it hard to connect to these characters. And connecting with these characters is, arguably, one of the only reasons to keep playing Where the Heart Leads. But even then, playing through the game feels like it’s unfocused—sometimes it’s hard to even know where to go, or what to do next, like I was just meandering through Whit’s recollections hoping to get to the next story beat.
Production-wise, Where the Heart Leads is a mixed bag. I’m not a fan of its dreary soundtrack, nor of its strange visuals. It’s not exactly low poly, but it doesn’t look great. It doesn’t help that the view is so far out that it’s even hard to read character’s text sometimes—which is the only way they communicate, since there is no acted dialogue. Where the Heart Leads also leans on the surreal a bit much, and to its detriment: there were times I would get lost, or decide not to go down a dead end only to discover that was the path I should have taken because that dead end is the one that whisks me to the next memory.
I didn’t much care for Where the Heart Leads. It had a ton of potential, but I never felt hooked. The story never compelled me to keep going, and I forced myself just for this review. It goes for poignancy and deep meaning but loses itself in long dialogue and what feels like pointless exploration gameplay that gives you few clues on how to progress. I’m sure there are those out there that will like Where the Heart Leads for its slow pace and haunting feeling, but I was happy to be done with it.
Where the Heart Leads is available now for PlayStation 4 and 5.
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