From the lyrics in a song, to the words in a poem or a book, we humans tend to look at these stories and find ourselves within them. Our own experiences, memories and emotions fill in the blanks as we take a form of ownership over them. Attaching our own meaning to the media we consume is nothing new. As I played guteFabrik’s Where is my Heart? I began to look ever inwardly as the game unfolded. Beneath its unassuming visual style and understated soundtrack lies a wealth of sentiment.
To label the Playstation Minis game Where is My Heart a platform-based puzzle title is doing the title a disservice. The sheer emotion that permeates the game cannot be conveyed in simple descriptors of the basic mechanics, but only in what the player feels in that moment, what they take from the game and process is what makes this a special experience.
Where is My Heart plays out as a familiar 2d puzzle/platformer with an inspired twist. A family of three monsters (mother, father and son) are lost in the woods and looking to find their way home. The player must switch between each of the characters’ unique abilities to collect the hearts on each level and reach the goal. The real distinctiveness comes in how the levels are displayed, with each area appearing in split comic-book panel styling. The style of the familiar and beautiful being distorted helps the player to experience the same feeling of confusion and misdirection as the characters clearly feel. The variety of locales are a joy to explore and gaze upon, but still the player must find their bearings in these levels through planning, trial and error, and sometimes sheer luck. Much like in life, being lost in a beautiful location soon loses its charm when the angst of trying to find a way home sets in.
The family of three monsters that form the playable cast convey such huge characterisation from so few pixels. Just as the pain and joy are so hauntingly and charmingly displayed in young Link’s face in The Wind Waker, guteFabrik have produced a similar evocative tone in this pastel coloured world.
The orange mother’s despondency, the black father’s irritation and dissatisfaction, and the brown son in the middle of the two most powerful characters in his life, trying to be the glue that keeps the unit together are all richly delivered to the player. In between levels there are fleeting glimpses into each character’s thoughts through a couple of sentences of text. These texts have a hugely powerful influence on the player’s perception of each.
One particular piece of text stopped me in my tracks. As the melancholic mother stood at the screen above the text “I love my child, it is the only reason I’m around”. I began to question the relationship between the three, why is her only reason for living her son? I began to ponder her depression, keeping going if only to see her son succeed, and dissatisfaction in her own lot in life. Within a matter of seconds I had fleshed out this character even further in my head.
As it turns out, the game is based on a very specific incident in the life of guteFabrik’s Bernie Schulenburg:
“A sunday hike, which he went on with his mom and his dad. They got lost in a forest and confronted with this problem they came to face each other’s negative personality traits. Bernie’s father showed his anxiety and this made him switch to ‘bossy mode’. Bernie’s mom responded to this as she always did: She turned to lamenting about her life and existence as she had been doing for the 25 past years of her partnership. Bernie on his side fell into his well known patterns of regret, remorse and disconnectedness. Here there were three hurt children-at-heart, not understanding nor able to break out of their predicament.”
This emotional minefield the player must navigate the characters through is highlighted in minute details throughout the game. For example when carelessly jumping her son off the wrong platform to his death, I noticed the mother weep for a second until I respawned. Her only reason for carrying on gone, her grief is displayed in such a short window yet so powerfully.
Each character has a chance to change however, as is evident in the upgrades that can be attained. The most intriguing is the Rainbow Spirit form that the mother can take. Her frown becomes a broad smile and (as mothers so often have the ability to do so in our lives) she can make sense of the world. Countless times I have sought out my mother’s advice when troubled and she has pieced together the solution to a problem I couldn’t figure out alone. Through rotating the comic panels that comprise each level, the mother clears a path for her husband and child to take.
Sound plays a key role in the emotional immersion into Where is my Heart? Sound effects from the natural world and the digital help to create a sense of the familiar and unfamiliar merging into one distinctive backing track. The music on the title/pause screen is especially mellow, and one that almost urges self reflection and cycling through memories on the player’s part.
guteFabrik have created an experience that is challenging and evocative, it can also become a deeply personal encounter that can have players pondering their own family and the roles that each member fulfills. As a Playstation Minis title Where is My Heart far exceeds its miniature status and is a title that can stand proudly next to the Pixel Junk series as a triumph of artistic design meeting good, solid gameplay.
Where is My Heart is currently free to PS+ subscribers, go get it!