There’s two, hopefully universal, experiences from my childhood that go some way in capturing the essence of else Heart.Break(). Family holidays to one of Britain’s interchangeable seaside towns. The warm yet crisp beaches, the scramble of seagulls, the mass of old men wearing vests. Quaint memories that could exist from any time period. The almost disconcerting pleasantness of it all. Mix that with youthful daydreams, Matrix-like fantasies of magically obtaining expert knowledge of whatever field is necessary at the time. The ability, if sweeties were running low, to magic up a million pounds to spend on the pick-n-mix. Developer Erik Svedäng has created a halcyon world for you to explore, a world where everyone chats in clipped niceties. And in this world he’s given us all the tools to break down the code of life and fulfill our every desire.
It works by simplifying the building blocks of life into a few taut lines of code. Nearly every object is hackable, every piece of the environment susceptible to be re-wired by your portable computer. The depth of what you can do is something I’m barely even able to describe here, it’s something I’ve yet to understand all the intricacies of. I only discovered that the game was tracking a ‘smelliness’ metre by, on a whim, hacking the margarita a friend had given me – I then rewrote the code to boost my level of charisma. A long excursion to uncover the mayor’s corruption had left me tired, so I hacked my cigarettes to give me a much-needed punch of energy. This is just the very basics. After several hours of experimentation, I was performing script-parkour through the unknowable dense landscape of else Heart.Break().
A large chunk of the game exists to teach you its baby’s-first version of computer-wizardry, and even then what you’re faced with is daunting. Pages of foreign lines – imagine being dumped on a Kuwait motorway and having to find your way home by reading untranslated road signs. It’s testament to the ingenuity of the mechanics that I didn’t give up in frustration at the first sight of something which required more than a simple copy/paste.
There’s limitless scope to what you’re given the keys to, and it’s all in service to solving free-flowing puzzles. The outline of a task is to be filled in however the player sees fit. A door blocking your path? Hack yourself a skeleton key that loops through every possible lock-combination until it reaches what you need. That sense of discovery, the accomplishment you get from typing out complex configurations that rocket your bank account full of unearned money is dizzying. I feel faint.
So why am I having to force myself into playing onwards?
I’m given the same feeling from watching a medicinal foreign film to become more cultured. There’s obviously something there, a grandness that post-graduates write dissertations on. But there’s also beauty in Indiana Jones, and I don’t have to squint through cryptic subtitles to get to it. For many of you reading, the above couple of paragraphs must have filled you with an immediate, wallet loosening, joy. But for people, like myself, who chose the path of a useless arts degree, the nourishment inherent in else Heart.Break() is going to be lost on hours of faffing around in the shallowest part of the pool. The contrarian praise something like Dark Souls gets for its lack of hand-holding doesn’t apply here – you’re given the barest of hints at the endless permutations open to you. I spent half my valuable inventory slots lugging text books to get me to the next story segment.
You’re dumped onto an independent little island, tasked with selling cans of fizzy drinks. From there the narrative unfolds through thread bare conversations and enough random chances to fill a Paul Auster novel. The plot just kind of happens around you: happening to be recommended a certain club, happening to meet an enigmatic woman, happening to stumble into a rebellious hacking collective who wants to destroy the dystopian forces at work. Little snatches that happen to you, rather than as a result of your actions. For all intents and purposes, else Heart.Break() is an open world, but realistically there’s very little to do but follow the nudges characters give you. This illusion of choice is most apparent in the dialogue options: a few bubbles which all run along varying degrees of blandly nice. There’s nothing but a straight path to follow.
There’s hints of something interesting. Earnest coming-of-age stories are rarely handled by videogames. Nor is any realistic characterisation of oh-so-cool twenty-something urbanites attempted. But what’s here is a dashed away first draft. The story is undercooked, the characters are undercooked, the setting is undercooked. I had flash backs to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a nerdy young man seduced into, and overwhelmed by, a terrorist group because he fancies one of its members. But instead I spend hours boringly following a boring girl because I’m told that I totally love her after one brief encounter. I actually spent hours wandering confused because I re-loaded my save after inadvertently ‘stalking’ this woman I had no interest in. The mirage of choice made me believe I had made a mistake. I hadn’t; I was pushed into acting on some bizarre urges.
Your first few hours traversing this island-state will be in awe. The art direction achieves all its goals perfectly. It has the look of a hallucinogenic Tintin cartoon, with all the gentlemanly weirdness that the comparison implies. The closest link I can think of is a more vividly colourful sequel to Little Big Adventure – a very European take on early 3D gaming. The areas you’ll explore are cramped, but never messy with detail. The structure of the island itself wonderfully captures the essence of moving to a new city. Passing through alleyways that you hope lead you home, forging your own short cuts as the landmarks become more clear to you. After a while you’ll begin to notice the boarded up shop windows, the abandoned apartments strewn with broken bottles and narcotics. The texture of satellite towns where there’s nothing to do but drink and commit minor acts of vandalism.
Else Heart.Break() is blazingly modern in design, antiquated in execution. I could dribble out another thousand words about minor niggles. A frustrating camera which is seemingly shy about showing you the action, glitches where my character will ask questions before he has any understanding of what he’s asking about, a clock which moves a lot faster than the slow-paced gameplay should allow. But a simple description of the hacking should give you an idea of whether this is for you. Regardless of the many disappointments (and my own limitations), there’s an enduring depth here that skillful hands will draw a lot from.
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