Why do you miss when my baby kisses me?
Where the Heart Leads, from Armature Studios, is a narrative focused adventure following the life and trials of Whit Anderson, a stereotypical married man with the 2.4 children and pet dog. Tragedy strikes one night when a storm results in the formation of a massive sinkhole in the garden which takes the family dog as its first victim. Whit embarks on a rescue mission using a homemade pully connected to a bathtub, however after managing to save the dog he plummets to its depths. As he reaches rock bottom, both literally and metaphorically, Whit begins to reflect on the decisions made over the course of his relatively short existence that have led to him this predicament.
The game transports you back to Whit’s teenage years, living and working on the family farm, to begin examining the important relationships in Whit’s life and the key moments within these. There are many branching paths in relation to each relationship and therefore it is likely that each player’s journey will differ as you would expect from this genre, however some situations are predetermined as you know from the prologue that Whit is married to Rene and they have two children Kate and Alex.
The early chapters of the game introduce the key characters and provide initial insight into Whit’s relationship with them. These include Whit’s parents Aldwyn and Sofia, his brother Sege and his at that time girlfriend and neighbour (and future wife) Rene.
This section of the game is incredibly well written, and the characters really come to life. I found myself right there with Whit, in his shoes, considering every interaction and feeling every emotion, being that awkward teenager who couldn’t express himself, whether that be by being honest with his parents around the behaviour of his brother or the epic fails whilst trying to flirt with Rene – we’ve all been there!
Armature really found the sweet spot, every situation that you face you understand. None of these are “out there”, they are completely normal run-of-the-mill dilemmas that you can instantly connect with, and for me, this is why this story shines. I wasn’t making these decisions for Whit; I was making them for me and considering how I felt when I had faced similar situations in my life.
There are points where it makes it clear that you are making a significant decision that impacts the rest of the story – the camera pans out, the suspenseful music kicks and the options are staring at you. Sometimes these decisions are easy, but there were times I just sat and stared at the screen for ten minutes unsure about which way to go. The fact I found myself in that situation says it all.
The middle portion of the story deals with that period where the innocence of youth has faded, and reality is really starting to bite. The focus shifts from developing relationships to maintaining and utilising them in order to provide for your family.
Whit is trying to be the best husband, father and brother he can through the guise of a struggling artist who can’t find regular work with. The decisions here tend to hit hard as they are centred around choosing between the safe option and following your dreams.
It was at this point I started to find some frustrations in the game. There were numerous situations where I was presented with the same situation and choices repeatedly, particularly in relation to Whit’s brother Sege and choosing between whether he should remain creative or get a proper job.
My main gripe at this stage was the pacing. The opening sections of the game flowed perfectly, however in this middle part it was a grind at points, you were wandering around the environments time after time doing slightly different tasks for what felt like no real purpose and on numerous occasions it felt like you were nearing the natural end of the section and another meaningless situation emerged. I’m not sure if this was intended to be a metaphor for life with the early years flying by, middle-age dragging and the end coming before you know it, but all it made me want to do was rush through the latter decisions because I was bored.
There is a shift in viewpoint two thirds of the way through when the game jumps to the future and the impact of the decisions Whit has made determines fortunes of the key characters. This section has the potential to be significantly different for each player based on the branching paths that they have taken.
The pacing is better, and you have a clear path to follow as the predicaments that each character unfold before you.
The final section sends you further into the future and presents the ultimate fate of the main characters, again on an individual basis. These are dealt with incredibly authentically and the consequences of Whit’s impact on their lives continues to be evident.
After the conclusion of each of the character arcs, the story flips back to the present day as you discover if Whit manages to make it out of the sink hole, and indeed whether he emerges as the same man who fell in.
In terms of gameplay,let’s be honest here, there isn’t much. Your role as the player is to explore the environments, interact with NPCs and make decisions – there isn’t much more to it, but there doesn’t have to be. The characters and relationships are so well developed and relatable and this is what you care about; there is no yearning for the odd puzzle, or to find hidden collectibles (although you do collect various artefacts mainly in the form of pictures and letters as you go).
The game is beautiful with striking, vibrant environments to be explored and a lovely soundtrack excellently layered on top. The character models are also incredibly intelligent – as the story focused on the memories and projections of Whit, he is the only character in the game who you can see, all other characters simply shaded silhouettes that roam the environments.
“I have played a few narrative focused games of late, but none that have such a profound impact on me. “
You are defining what kind of man Whit Anderson is and whilst doing so I developed an attachment to each character and cared about the impact I was having on them and vice versa, considering the potential consequences of almost every choice I had to make. It made me compare each of these situations with ones I have faced in my own life, considering the impact the things I may have said or did have had on others and reflecting on the choices that I have made. Very few (if any) games have ever had this impact on me, illustrating what a great job Armature have done here. Although there were a few frustrations along the way, this is a game that I believe people should experience whilst doing a little soul searching and getting some free therapy along the way!