By: Noah Baxter
In early October I saw a trailer for an upcoming, enigmatic adventure game “Girl with a Heart of”. I didn’t really know what to make of it at the time. At first I was jumping for joy, hailing Alexei Andreev as a god amongst men and revving up my engine to play a deeply intriguing masterpiece. But minutes later, the engine was off and the keys had been thrown far away. While I didn’t want to deny an innovative Indie title, I was made ambivalent by the fact that it looked, well… boring. Slow gameplay, walls of text and an amateur aesthetic had all made my decision for me: this was not my kind of game.
Cut to November, present day, where I’m sitting behind my keyboard on an overcast Auckland morning. Groggy and bleary-eyed with a steaming coffee by my side, I’ve managed to find those keys and start up a copy of Girl with a Heart of. At this point I think something along the lines of “This is going to put me back to sleep”, but I half-heartedly proceed. Hours later, my coffee sits cold and untouched. As unexpected as it was, Girl with a Heart of had proven itself to be almost everything it claimed to be: fascinating, complex, challenging, and most of all, completely captivating.
Social Minefield Simulator
Of course, the promises that Girl with a Heart of keeps are the ones that had piqued my interest in the first place. The part of me that lends my heart and support to Indie developers certainly wasn’t let down, and I will unabashedly say that I was blown away.
The first thing that made me fall in love with this game was the way it asked me to play it. The protagonist, an eleven-year-old girl named Raven, takes part in a narrative that progresses at the player’s own pace. As Raven you navigate Underfoot, a tiered underground city that has recently been besieged by the army of Light. Underfoot is the home to a society of the Dark, and as a member of this society, Raven must seek out the help and knowledge of its inhabitants in order to survive.
The better part of the game focuses on this as a sort of mechanic, very quickly involving you in a long string of fetch-quests. Here I worried that my early assumptions were correct; there would be little to challenge or excite me as I play. It didn’t take long before I realised this was not the case. The gameplay itself isn’t centered on the to-and-fro nature of the plot, but rather the intricacies of communication. You are driven to find out more about Raven and her place in the turmoil, not through puzzles or action but through the relationships she makes and the conversations that take place. During these conversations, you are confronted with choices that influence the whole game. From other characters’ reactions to the overall flow of the story, everything is determined by how you interact with the people of Underfoot.
It doesn’t sound much like a game at this point, does it? In a way, it doesn’t really play like one either. There are no specific “win” conditions that I can put my finger on short of playing from start to end, and no matter what outcome you receive it’s hard to judge how many “correct” choices you made. Most of the variables in the plot aren’t straightforward at all, and decisions that seem natural can actually be detrimental as they play out. Because rationality and logic don’t always lead to success, there is a difficulty curve almost entirely based around the complexity of human relationships, and it is brilliant. As you pick and choose what you want Raven to discuss, reveal, skirt around and lie about, you take part in creating a unique and, above all, profound story.
Again this is fantastic, but there was one frustration I had with the way you control it all. Because you are playing as an existing character rather than a nameless heroine, there is an inherent communication barrier to work around. Even when I played the game set on thinking like a young girl, there was a blurred line somewhere that kept shifting my perception. Try as I might, I could never quite stick to playing as a character trying to define herself or playing as myself trying to make the best decisions possible.
I first noticed this issue when I started feeling at ends with Raven’s speech options. Even for a privately educated girl in a fantasy world, many of the options felt far too grown up for me to believably select. This created distance between me and Raven, and I found that it started to shape how I played the game. In one instance, I answered a tricky question the way I imagined a young girl might and was then called an ignoramus. When I followed it up with what I would have chosen personally, I was told I obviously haven’t thought the situation through. It turned out I was being set up for a simple probability exercise which was made overly complicated for no particular reason. It was odd; in a way I felt enlightened by the deep discussion, but at the same time I felt like I was being treated like an idiot.
This, along with some other moments where thoughtful choices lead only to an assault of rhetoric, left me unsure of how I should balance my responses.
Girl with a Plot Device
It is without a doubt that the main focus of Girl with a Heart of is its story. No matter how you play the game, you will be left in awe as the tale unfolds.
The concrete background that everything spawns from is intriguing in itself. Early in the game, Raven discovers that there is something special about her heart, something that makes her a vital set piece in Underfoot’s line of defence. It’s this eponymous heart that offers the gameplay some much needed variety, mixing up the never-ending fetch-quest of the main plot with some clever RPG elements. As you play, you have the option to imbue Raven’s heart with special essences to improve certain abilities. In general the process felt somewhat unnecessary, but it still provided an interesting break from the monotony. The same goes for the combat system that appears later in the game, which felt as though it was forced just to stir things up. I couldn’t help but feel that both of these elements could have been more effective had they been puzzle-based or geared solely towards defence.
Other than these mechanics, the rest of the narrative comes across with the conversations I mentioned earlier. The story itself almost takes a back seat to several characters who tell it, like a lovable, shy blacksmith and a tactless old magician. Within the time it takes for the plot pieces to come together, you’ve taken part in an immense number of interactions between these people and those they know. I must admit, I was disappointed when I reached the end of the story. Not just because the ending itself is abrupt and anticlimactic which is a huge shame, but because once the game is over you have to say goodbye to characters who feel like close friends.
There are however some extra story elements that cushion this blow, like an account of the planet’s interesting science and a history book that seems to borrow from the “Chronicles of Riddick” (you’ll know it when you see it). All in all, the story never leaves you without something interesting to ponder.
Of Enlightenment and Symbolism
There are some absolutely incredible moments to be witnessed when playingGirl with a Heart of. There is only so much that I can discuss here without giving too much away, and I would never forgive myself for spoiling such masterful storytelling. Nonetheless, I’ll try to describe some of my favourite experiences from the game.
In Girl with a Heart of, Raven has an incredibly beautiful relationship with her mother. There are moments when I truly felt for them both, and I found myself avoiding subjects and accepting gaps in the story rather than say anything that could make her dear mum sad. I’ll gladly admit that when Raven gives her mother a loving hug or drags her out of bed to spend a heartfelt moment with her, I get a little teary-eyed. Heck, even just reminiscing on it now I can feel the waterworks starting up.
Next to relationships, one of the important messages of the game is that of recursive self-improvement. There is a particular moment of clarity that comes during the game, where you realise that Raven’s experience so far has enabled her to overcome any obstacle. From a player’s point of view, it almost feels like a Deus Ex Machina, but as I fed it through my mind over and over again it began to make perfect sense. When I continued mulling it over I realised there were even cryptic allusions right from the beginning of the game that I was being pointed in this direction from the get-go. Suffice to say, it left me speechless.
My jaw was left agape at how sacrifice was presented to Raven in the game. There were two moments that had my heart leaping and my mouth spouting relieved profanity, leaving me overcome with emotion. The first came from an accidental death that I felt real guilt and anguish over. My mind was racing, fear gripped me as the consequences began to present themselves. I felt I had ruined everything I had attained up until that point, a feeling that only subsided when I came to terms with the mistakes I had made. A similar moment appeared later in the game, only I had to make a conscious decision about what sacrifices to make. It was incredibly difficult, not just for me as a player, but as a human being. I can’t even remember the last time something in real life made me as distraught as these events did in Girl with a Heart of.
It should also be safe to mention how deep the concept of trust and faith runs within the game. Certain characters leave themselves open to doubt and judgement, and the head-trip that comes with this is mind-boggling. In one particular scene, I had a powerful realisation that the character I was speaking with was exempt from any sense of morality and discovering where my feelings lay after that was no easy task.There is so much more I would love to discuss regarding these profound moments, but alas, I‘ll settle for stressing that these moments are worth observing, analysing and truly understanding for yourself.
You could hang this game in a gallery, if only it looked the part
I will praise Girl with a Heart of until the day I die, but there some aspects of it I still regard with reservation. One thing that never changed was my opinion of the unappealing art direction, which only grew to be more justified as the game ran its course. From the instant I saw the opening menu, I knew I would have my differences with the aesthetic. I’d tease it about its font choice and aspect ratio, and it’d tease me by showing flashes of brilliance and then taking them away. Thankfully it wasn’t that bad; the in-game aspect ratio was fine and the flashes of brilliance were more common than I initially hoped for. I’m still a little raw though, as this was the one aspect of the game that didn’t live up to its description. I can’t call something I see as bland and lifeless, “beautiful”, nor can I call it “unique” when I feel it’s similar to Matt Dabrowski’s “Between Heaven and Hell” (which featured simplified, filtered art to make up for an admitted lack of talent).
Again though, even with my misgivings, it wasn’t all that bad. While the art itself was nothing to behold, the actual design was pretty impressive. As I walked Raven through the streets and bazaars of Underfoot, I really got the feeling that she was in a world of Darkness rather than Light. Even though there isn’t a huge amount to explore, each level of the city has its own feel that really drives home the structure of the world.
There are also a handful of brief but incredibly symbolic scenes within the confines of Underfoot. I sadly didn’t enjoy them as much as I might have if they weren’t let down by the design flaws, but they still moved me a lot. I should also confess that later, I was irked when these symbols were blatantly explained as though someone had just condescendingly slapped me across the face. Nevertheless, they were great fun to wrap my head around before, during and after they were given away.
My last gripe with the game comes from its lack of replayability. I’d love to award it extra points for having so many hidden endings, but the truth of the matter is that I gave up long before I reached a satisfying conclusion. In all, I played through Girl with a Heart of 3 times for a total of 7 hours. It would have been closer to 6 had I not encountered a game-breaking bug that set me back to the start of the game, but even that extra experience didn’t make me feel like I was getting any closer to the end I was hoping for. I even made a backup of an end-game save file just to choose a different dialogue option at one point, but this lead me to yet another unimpressive conclusion. I’m certainly impressed by how many ways there are to end the game, but for me that feeling is lost when I consider how arduous reaching them all would be.
For the most part, each subsequent playthrough after the first is largely composed of skipped text and realisations that subtract from the overall magic of the game. After attempting to stress-test what changes I could make to the story itself, I started to feel rather apathetic towards the whole concept. Playing through the whole game without hugging my mother, having nobody take notice of my disregard for magical conduct and being forced to imbue my heart rather than just choosing to (and thus realising exactly how arbitrary it is) sucked a lot of the fun out of the overall gameplay. By the time I had reached the end of my third play, everything I was doing felt like a grind. This really wasn’t helped by the fact that the ambient music, which is really quite nice actually, cuts out if you’ve been on any one screen for too long. Silence, coupled with a mind-numbing chore, does not make for a happy gamer.
Still, I have to give credit where credit’s due. With so many dialogue options to use and/or omit, Raven’s tale can be relived again and again for anybody with the patience for it.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Even with the faults considered, I have a compelling need to promote this game. Girl with a Heart of is one of the most fantastic experimental gaming experiences I have ever had, and for those who don’t know me, that means it has to compete with a lot of contenders.
For just under $6, I would consider it a travesty if this game isn’t picked up by everybody with an internet connection. Alexei Andreev’s team of friends, family and contractors have made something that I really believe will withstand the test of time.
Being developed on a short time frame with a shoestring budget, Girl with a Heart of does suffer from its fair share of problems. But even with these in mind, it’s a game that triumphs in what it set out to do. As the debut of Andreev’s Bent Spoon Games, Girl with a Heart of precedes what I hope will be a long line of games that promise to “make you think, make you learn, and make you better as a human being”. In that respect, this game is a huge success.
Targeted at all ages from 13 and upwards, Girl with a Heart of makes a name for itself as a moving tale of humanity, relationships and truth. My only wish is that I had paid it more attention in its earlier days, so I urge you now: don’t fall into the same trap I did. If you can spare the time and a handful of dollars, make sure to chalk Girl with a Heart of up on your wishlist.
Girl with a Heart of Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 7 Hours
- Widescreen – Yes
- 5.1 – No
- Demo – No
- Control Scheme – Keyboard and mouse.
- Availability – Official Site
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Bugs – Quitting in the middle of a plot-crucial event stopped me from being able to advance, had to restart the game.
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Also be sure to read our interview with the developer, Alexi Andreev.