Where the Heart Strings Pull
Where the Heart Leads is a surreal narrative story through the lens of one man’s past, present, and future, along with all the decisions of his lifetime. This, often emotional, story strikes a powerful chord that reverberates and is a fantastic piece on one person’s actions and their lasting consequences.
The game begins with a strange sinkhole appearing in front of the Anderson rural residence within the town of Carthage. Whit Anderson, the father of the family, quickly needs to figure out a way to rescue the family dog, who unfortunately is very close to completely falling into the hole. After the brief setup, you’re quickly thrown into the bottom of the crevice, and unnaturally brought into an adventure of your past, present, and future.
Happily, the story of Where the Heart Leads kept subverting my expectations every time I thought I figured out the ‘hook’. First, I was mildly annoyed that the story wasn’t what I expected, but I quickly changed and continued to be amazed by its story and themes. The overarching theme about family – all the good, bad, and unresolved – was written so wonderfully and deliberately, that it’s hard to believe that there are dozens of unique endings to this game. What I experienced felt honest, personal, and deeply impactful.
Following the family theme, there’s a small moment in the game that mentions seemingly insignificant decisions can have powerful consequences for years and decades, which mirrors the flow of the game. While you’re experiencing the world of Whit, starting as a child and progressing through his life, you immediately see those reverberating consequences. What you thought was one innocuous conversation, explodes into a disaster of monumental tragedy (or monumental joy). Trying to push against the waves of consequences also showcased it’s difficulty throughout Where the Heart Leads, similar to some of our personal experiences throughout life.
With all this narrative focus and cascading options, there was a LOT of reading. I needed to take some game breaks throughout this eight-hour adventure because my eyes were simply getting tired. However, that does not diminish the fact that the writing was on an incredibly elevated level, honest responses and all. Even the camera angles as you’re creating the conversations and traversing the environments gave a focused layout that pulled me into my reading. Happily, there was also an update that allows players to increase font size to help with reading everything, which was helpful (though the largest font could still be larger).
Throughout this adventure, as Whit Anderson, you are the only character that is designed like a typical person – all other characters that you interact with are human silhouettes, but instead of being black, they almost resemble a reflected sky. At first, this was very jarring, but luckily, after a few minutes, it became nothing out of place. In fact, it felt like a story-driven choice, bringing back the notion that Whit is experiencing his past, present, and future in a surreal and mostly unexplained nature. The environment, conversely, is full of color, vibrancy, and beauty. The cell-shaded-esque design was fun to explore and didn’t seem out of place. This, paired with the subdued score and audio details, kept the ease of small town living alive.
With all this, the main form of gameplay goes back to the choices that ultimately craft your story. Though it felt that much of the writing was following a linear path, each decision came with it’s own pile of problems, further cascading the effects. Though it did feel like the story lagged a bit midway through, the process of getting there did not. I did find it a bit annoying that much of the conversations or outcomes that were needed to progress the story were essentially ‘go back and forth between two people’ or ‘go over here and press x to inexplicably complete a task’ – one of the few shortcomings to this game by Armature Studio.
Overall: 9.0 out of 10
Where the Heart Leads is a wonderful sleeper hit in the works. The powerful story, choice options, and artistic style makes it a game worth experiencing. Even as I’m writing this, I keep thinking of the choices I made and wondering how I could have changed some of the outcomes. The final few moments of the game continue the emotional journey and all I want to do is find more people to play this so we can talk about it and compare notes.
A copy was provided by the publishers for the purposes of this review on PlayStation 5 via backwards compatibility.
A version of this review is also posted on Six One Indie.