To say that Where the Heart Leads tells the story of a man named Whit Anderson wouldn’t be quite right. Rather, it tells the story of the telling—spreading Whit’s life out, like a sheaf of papers, shuffling through its bends and margins. “It’s strange to think about all the little choices that got me here,” he says. “What if I’d done things differently?” It’s a fair question, one of those idle, road-not-taken musings; but I have to say, given that Whit has just plummeted into a sinkhole, he need only ponder the big choice of the last ten minutes: Should he really have attempted to lower himself into the abyss, with a bathtub and a winch, to rescue the stranded family dog?
After an eerily long drop, he doesn’t hit the bottom. He just stops. You may, at this point, have detected the ripe smell of symbolism. This sinkhole is less a phenomenon of geology than of psychology—of the shifting bedrock of regret that grinds softly under our days, waiting, perhaps, to give way. It also belongs to a fine tradition of cavities that fiction has thrown our way, the better to tip us out into Wonderland, say, or take us to an isle that time forgot. Disembarking from the bath, Whit finds debris that reminds him of his past, and of his part in shaping the lives around him, for good or ill. Rather than concentrate on the business of escape, he falls again, this time into reverie: a journey to the centre of his worth.
The scenes of Whit’s past, starting on the farmstead of his childhood, are shown to us from a high angle, which we can swivel, but not by much; it’s as if the camera had been wedged into the crook of a tree branch. We can zoom in a little, but not so far as to give us a good look at any faces. Not that it would help: the other characters are presented as silhouettes, through which gust storm clouds of static. This seems a strange decision. Granted, Where the Heart Leads is Whit’s story, and the other characters are tuned into focus by his emotional antenna, but by rendering the figures in his life as ciphers, do you not deny the player the impact, vivid and physical, that they had on Whit? Surely the last thing you want to think of, when it comes to his wife, Rene, or his brother, Sege—both of whom represent not just “all the little choices” but the major channels that have changed his life—is white noise?
Where the Heart Leads is all talk. You move Whit around each area, stopping to chat and, occasionally, to interact with the environment. It is, in effect, a point-and-click adventure game, only with the puzzles and the plot stripped back. Such is life, I suppose. You could describe the adventure as being dialogue-driven, but that would cause two problems. First, it isn’t much of an adventure; we follow Whit as he fumbles through adolescence, helping Rene (then his high school sweetheart) deal with the pressures of life, and jump forward to their early married life, in the town of Carthage, and so on. Second, though the game is drowning in dialogue, it isn’t exactly driven by it. True to life, much of it is steeped in mundane troubles—a broken tractor, ailing school grades—but you wonder, even as larger problems loom over the Andersons, why we ought to care that much. In short, there is plenty of click here, but what’s the point?
The developer is Armature Studio, which has a fine history of porting games to handheld platforms, and whose best original game is Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate, a spin-off for the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS. That game flattened Gotham City with a side-on view and flattered its subject with cutscenes styled after comic-book panels: still images, lashed with rain and layered with fine-tuned shadows. In each artistic choice, something already latent in Rocksteady’s series was drawn out. In its perspective, the Metroidvania architecture of Arkham Asylum was pulled, along with its hero, into the foreground; just as those still, drifting vignettes stoked our imagination of movement, casting off the heft of 3-D graphics and returning to the quickened grace of the page. The developers at Armature evidently loved those Batman games, and Arkham Origins Blackgate was less the logical conclusion of that love than an intriguing distillation of it. It was where their hearts led them.
How unfortunate, then, that, untethered from the leash of a licensed tie-in, Armature’s new game seems bogged down by its own vision. To be fair, that vision does bear impressive flickers. At the Anderson farm, and on the fringes of Carthage, the trees and bushes never cease to shiver, while the people seem unruffled by any wind; it’s as though nature alone is moved, either to excitement or fear, at what lies ahead, and even the warmest scenes are blown through with foreboding. Plus, there are, apparently, thousands of available outcomes for the narrative, an impressive feat of planning as much as writing. The drawback of this approach is that it is inherently undramatic. As in Detroit: Become Human, which gave you the opportunity to replay each scene, and even shoved a flowchart of choices under your nose, we begin to see our hero’s life as a line—darting and looping instead of living. He becomes less than human. I would much rather have followed the Andersons on a fixed path, free of swerves and second-guesses, but seeing them clearly, even if it ends in a sinkhole.
Developer: Armature Studio
Publisher: Armature Studio
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4
Release Date: July 13, 2021
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