Girl with a Heart of is a thought-provoking experiment in interactive storytelling, though it’s not without flaws
Girl With a Heart Of is described as “an experimental interactive narrative,” and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not so much a game as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” with more serious philosophical undertones, laid atop a unique fantasy backdrop, hand-drawn art and a rich soundtrack. But its good ideas are undermined by some rather glaring flaws in execution that keep it from being a true standout despite its unique nature.
It’s tricky to say very much about Girl With a Heart Of without spoiling the plot, and plot is what this game is all about. At its heart, it’s a rumination on the nature of choices and consequences, and how even decisions which seem unassailably “right” can have far-reaching repercussions that go way beyond the original intent. You can forget about running, jumping or blowing things up; this is a game that’s meant to be savored, considered and then mulled over some more, both while you’re playing and after the fact, when the fate of a town and perhaps even an entire world have been sealed by your choices.
Girl With a Heart Of follows six days in the life of Raven, an 11-year-old girl who lives in the underground city of Underfoot. Raven’s people, the “Dark” race, are locked in a vicious war with the forces of Light, and the game begins in the immediate aftermath of an attack which has left her father dead, her mother wounded and the town’s defenses in tatters. Amidst the chaos and destruction, Raven learns something truly astounding: her heart was magically replaced at birth with an artificial heart that could give her the power to end the war between Dark and Light forever.
It’s an intriguing setup, and the writing does a good job of giving it the appropriate heft. The characters, at least what we see of them, are fairly flat archetypes, but the dialog flows naturally and, just as in real life, will sometimes take you to unexpected places. The soft, hand-painted visuals give the game a bit of a fairy-tale feel, reinforced by the exceptionally good music, despite the dark matter at hand – no pun intended.
But there are problems, too, serious enough to potentially throw off all but the most dedicated interactive fiction fans. First and foremost is the text size, which is simply way too small if you’re play Girl With a Heart Of on a mobile device. Font sizes are adjustable, but choices range from “hard to read” to “speck of dust on the hood of your car,” a problem compounded by the use of purple text on a black background. Reading it is tricky, but what’s even worse is trying to select a line of dialog, written in tiny letters, that’s sandwiched between two other lines of dialog that you specifically want to avoid. I’m not packing big, fat sausage fingers by any stretch of the imagination, but more than twice my conversations headed off in unwanted directions because I accidentally chose a wrong response, and since there are no do-overs, frustration levels can get high in a hurry.
In one area of the game, having the font size set to maximum, which is really the only practical way to play on a standard-sized mobile, actually forces menu choices off the screen, and the only way to get past it is to return to the main menu, reduce the font size and then resume the game. There are also a few grammatical errors, and while the music is lovely, each track plays only once when you enter an area and then stops, leaving long stretches of silence in its wake.
The developers say that Girl With a Heart Of is meant to be played multiple times in order to experience its various outcomes, which are determined by the choices you make, lies you tell, secrets you keep, and other such decisions that under normal circumstances would seem entirely mundane. The nature of the game means that its impact is inevitably lessened by the secrets you learn over the course of the story, but for those who enjoy it, it would likely be a worthwhile effort that could result in several hours of total gameplay, depending on how quickly you crash through subsequent playthroughs.
Between the interface issues and the unusual approach to gameplay, I can’t bring myself to give Girl With a Heart Of a full-on recommendation. I can say, however, that gamers with a taste for the latter will almost certainly be willing to put up with the former. It’s not the most fun you’ll ever have with a video game, but if you can look past the rough edges you may find yourself drawn surprisingly deeply into a thought-provoking tale, thoughtfully told.