Impressions: Else Heart.Break()

The entire time I’ve spent with Else Heart.Break() [official site] I’ve had two concurrent thoughts:

– I think this game is probably extraordinary
– I am not having any fun playing this game

Don’t let the apparently simplistic screenshots fool you. This is an enormous, astonishingly complex game. After the first scene, you’re in a huge city, entirely open to you, explored from a third-person angle and played like a point and click adventure. You can go anywhere, talk to anyone, pick up lots of things, hang out in bars, go dancing in clubs, snoop in people’s apartments, and apparently, I’m assured, hack computers and the game itself.

I’ve, after hours of playing, yet to hack anything. I’ve yet to be presented with the opportunity to hack anything. I have, however, sold a lot of cans of soda to strangers.

I’ve also sworn approximately nineteen thousand times at one of the most infuriatingly awful cameras I’ve ever seen in a game.

The freedom is remarkable, and especially so in a game that has opted for a deliberately retro style (there’s a combination of pixels and a late-90s vibe) and an antiquated adventure-like interface. You really can occupy hours pottering around, trying doors, finding squats, nicking floppy discs from people’s apartments and sticking them in computers to see what’s on them, chatting to neighbours, riding the tram, dancing in a nightclub, or sitting down for a coffee in the local café.

The odd thing is, while you can spend hours doing this, your character will have taken days. For seemingly no sensible reason, the game’s time moves at sixty times reality, a minute ticking by for every second. This means, in an infuriatingly Sims-like way, menial tasks take the better part of an hour. Getting out of bed, clearing some space in your inventory (and for some ridiculous reason, there’s no storage in your character’s permanent room, so you have to place extra items individually on clear spots on the floor), heading downstairs and out the door, takes you half the morning. And, when your character eventually gets tired if he’s up too long, well, that’s really tiresome.

There’s some notion of reason for it – different things happen at different times in the town. So if you want to meet people at the nightclub, you’ll obviously need to be there at night. Shops aren’t open at 3am, and certain people appear to follow routines – all really exciting stuff. But what I would give for a simple “wait” mechanic, rather than have time fly by at such an idiotic pace.

Then came the soda sales. The story is that your character, an apparently teenage boy, is offered a job on this island town as a rep selling a bubbly beverage. This, I had assumed, meant he’d be attempting to sell it in bulk to local establishments. It is, in fact, wandering around trying to sell it by the can to people in the streets at $2 a go. I’m not convinced that’s the most effective way to go about selling fizzy drinks. But sell it you are told to do, with about fifty percent of the people you speak to proffering you a few bucks for the unpleasant contents.

And that’s as far as I’ve got. I know something else is about to happen, but I’ve lost the will to find it. I’ve lost the will to find anything. The layout of the town is maddening, broken up into segments linked by multiple exits on the edges – but with a rotating camera and no sense of North, you have to frustratingly guess where you are (or ask strangers, if they’re willing to tell you), then open the in-game paper map and attempt to orientate yourself by the confusion of canals and tramlines, and then hope you’ve guessed it all right. Sometimes there are signposts – more often there are not. And then comes the camera.

It’s so poor. At the very start of the game, in a cut-scene, the camera swings around a circle and the walls of the building pop in and out of existence to afford a good view. Hurrah! I thought. But no, that’s for then. For the bulk of the game, walls go nowhere, and the camera – for reasons I can only assign to pure vindictiveness – won’t sit where you leave it. It swings back to an assigned point, almost always behind an obstruction. This is made more maddening by the option to reverse the X axis to something sensible, but the Y axis is left permanently back to front, all contributing to a miserable chore of trying to see anything at any point.

Not knowing where I’m going, having an obscenely silly amount of time to go there in, and not being able to see myself going there, is all I could really take. Which is devastating, because I was really interested to see where it was all going.

I’m sure there’s so much cleverness to be found in here. While I’m not a fan of this current rush of games that appear to think what an audience really wants is to learn to code games (oh the narcissism), Else Heart.Break() has created a world that’s complex and interesting enough to merit such extravagance. But I just haven’t found it.

I was asked to meet someone, somewhere. I forget who it was, and exactly where it was. Conversations disappear with the popping of their speech bubbles, tasks are not collated anywhere, locations are not marked on maps, and having gotten horribly lost, struggled to find my way home, spoken to many others, slept on a bed in a metal container and had a weird dream about a girl then somehow woken up in my hotel bed, days have gone by and I’ve no way of retrieving the forgotten information.

And man! Because wow, that last paragraph! That sounds amazing! Weird dreams, strange happenings, unresolved mysteries, such freedom! But the game’s core story needs to be followed, and I’ve now no idea what the next step was.

So yes, I’ve very clearly failed at this game. And this game has clearly failed me. But I’m utterly convinced that my experience will not be shared by many others. I am certain there’s something extraordinary in here. It seems I’m not the person to find it.

36 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Alfy says:

    “– I think this game is probably extraordinary
    – I am not having any fun playing this game”

    Only on RPS can you read such an intro! And it works: I clicked almost instantly. Best quality click bait ever. :)

  2. jaylittle says:

    Honestly: Your loss. Find a hacking device and this game will REALLY start to shine. You literally have no idea what you are missing.

    That having been said, the game starts off slow and it doesn’t hold your hand. There is no in game journal (though once you get a hacking device you could build and maintain your own in game journal). There are no quest markers. Hell you can’t even see your current position on the map of the city. Still – there is a masterful game here. Keep going. Find a hacking device. Only then will you understand.

    • Premium User Badge

      John Walker says:

      I think there is a line that can be crossed between “not holding your hand” and “being cumbersome to play”. This definitely crossed that line for me.

      • rabbit says:

        was gunna say – am v tired of the “x doesn’t hold your hand” apologism

      • LexW1 says:

        Indeed, that seems to have become an increasingly tired and very macho way of saying the game is only for Real Men(TM), not “kiddies”. I tend to love the sort of games that “don’t hold your hand”, but equally, hearing people claim that has started making my skin crawl.

        What’s particularly sad is that all this sort of thing (i.e. literally no way to even find out what’s going on) really achieves is:

        1) Putting people off the game who might like it.

        or

        2) Forcing us back to the ’80s and ’90s way of dealing with this shit, which is to constantly be pausing the game and writing stuff down, drawing our own maps and so on, which I have found is not anywhere near as much fun, at 37, as it was when I was 11.

        Certainly you can avoid making me felt like I’m being lead through a game, yet also give me an ability to keep track of what’s going on beyond requiring pencil and paper.

    • noodlecake says:

      That sounds like a lot of interesting concepts wrapped in bad design to me. I was definitely going to buy this till I read the review. I don’t want games to be this much of a chore. I’m very forgetful. I have to rely on journals and quest markers to know what’s going on. I’m not a savant. I’m a reasonably intelligent, creative artist who has a propensisty to day dream and get lost in the real world and have to ask for directions fifteen times before I can find my friend’s house I’ve been to 5 times before.

      The aesthetic here is gorgeous, and I want to experience it, but it sounds like even with the most amount of effort I will fail to get anything out of this.

      • Premium User Badge

        John Walker says:

        Hello, my twin.

      • Gnoupi says:

        Also, taking pauses in playing a particular game because hello real life and having no memory makes this kind of game a no-go for me.
        If I don’t have a “Previously, on this game” when I come back, or at the very least a clear journal/quest log, I simply won’t be able to come back to it and have to start it all over again.

      • noodlecake says:

        I totally cracked and bought it anyway. :P It just looks to pretty to pass up.

      • neoncat says:

        Hrmm… maybe this is a game I should just watch on YouTube. I sure do that a lot these days. >_<

      • Premium User Badge

        Phasma Felis says:

        I actually really like the idea of a game that doesn’t remember things for you and expects you to take notes, a la the old Ultima games. I miss games that make you take notes.

        These days, though, with automatic notes being the norm, it does seem polite to make it clear from the outset that you’re expected to do that, so you don’t accidentally miss stuff. And it sounds like that wasn’t the only problem, anyway.

        • LexW1 says:

          I thought I missed that too.

          Then I played a few games where I found myself having to take notes (particularly some older ones thanks to GOG), and guess what? I found that actually I totally didn’t miss it.

          So I dunno, you may want to go back and play some of those games again, and see just how much you really miss it. Good Old Games stands ready to help (I think you get Savage Empires and Martian Dreams for free, even).

    • LionsPhil says:

      There is no in game journal (though once you get a hacking device you could build and maintain your own in game journal).

      Oh great, it’s Perpetually Unfinished Open Source: The Game™. Pull requests welcome!

      • 9of9 says:

        Can you also use the hacking device to build a better camera system? O.O

    • Shuck says:

      A game should hold your hand, at least until it gets to the interesting bits; it can be difficult after that point. If it’s making it hard to get to the interesting core of the game, if one can easily get stuck going around in circles repeating boring nonsense, then that’s bad design, really. Or at least hostile design.

  3. thristhart says:

    I totally agree with you and I love this game.

    I spent hours trying to find a hacking device and advance the game. I was getting very frustrated with it, but I was incredibly interested in the ways the game was frustrating me, if that makes sense. The game stubbornly refused to hold my hand in a way that was FASCINATING! And also awful.

    For the record, there’s a PDF “guide” available that walks you through stuff, if you ever want to see how the game ticks and don’t want to fight it: link to github.com

    FYI, the ability to “wait” and speed up time is actually there, it’s just locked behind hacking. You can hack a cigarette to make it function like MGSV’s Phantom Cigar.

    • Oozo says:

      Serious question: Was the “take a smoke to advance time”-mechanic done by Metal Gear before it was done in Deadly Premonition? I know that you could use cigars to rend lasers visible, but was that time-bending aspect there as well?

      Also, is there any reason at all why else heartbreak()‘s internal clock has to run that fast? I know that it could drive me mad, and it seems to be all the stranger a decision when there’s a perfectly valid (albeit, strangely, hidden) mechanism to advance time, anyway…

      • thristhart says:

        Nah, the previous metal gears didn’t have that mechanic, so Deadly Premonition definitely did it first. I haven’t played Deadly Premonition so I just used the reference point that I’m familiar with.

  4. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    ” I am certain there’s something extraordinary in here. It seems I’m not the person to find it.”

    I love your honesty, John. I’m so very intrigued but I’m also afraid I’m not the person to find it either. My sense of direction in real life is terrible, so I can already imagine my frustration in the game. Still, I know I’ll eventually get this and give it a shot.

  5. BradleyUffner says:

    I had a similar starting experience, but after I (finally) found a hacking device one of the first things I hacked sent me to some kind of debug room. There I found a device that gave me the power to immediately bypass nearly every puzzle in the game. It felt way too powerful and way too easy to find. The game still intrigues me, but now that I got the I’ve lost all motivation to carry on.

  6. noodlecake says:

    Does anybody think they will address these issues, or even see them as issues at all?

    I think the points raised here will be sticking points for a lot of people that will alienate them from the game.

    If the game were re-released with a less frustrating camera and some kind of quest marker system then it would be an absolute certain buy from me, even if it turned out to still not be all that fun as a game.

    Maybe I will contact them about it, as I’ve been excited about this for a good while! Not in an entitled “Change this game for me now you disgraceful shitheads! I’m never buying one of your games. Suck my dick!!” kind of a way, because that attitude seriously fucks me right off, but just as someone who would like to play it but wouldn’t enjoy it in it’s current state.

    It ties in very well with the sculptural work I’ve currently working on and will be good research for my course. :)

  7. ClumZy says:

    It’s quite funny, I can clearly see your point in the review, but I didn’t have the same experience at all.

    Even during the first part of the game where you don’t have a hacking device. I tried to interact with the game as if I was Seb ( main character ), so if I had some free time, I’d go to the café, or Bar Yvonne. If I was looking for someone I’d ask around. And I also had a notebook on my desk.
    So while some may find this type of story telling tedious, I actually found it really immersive.
    And the soundtrack is brilliant, which helped even more :)

  8. tehfish says:

    “This is made more maddening by the option to reverse the X axis to something sensible, but the Y axis is left permanently back to front”

    I take it from this that the camera Y axis is reversed and hard coded? Ugh, instant deal breaker for me :( I cannot stand inverted axis controls.

  9. Zantium says:

    I almost gave up on the game between hours 3 a 6, after that I’d found a hacking device and the story picked up a bit. It’s always slow though and not really in a relaxing way, certainly not in a fun way.

    There are great moments in the game, but certainly early on (is 6 hours early?) they are few and far between as the game is filled with busy work and to-ing and fro-ing. Later on this disappears completely, but the dynamic nature of the world means that some people will have a better, more straightforward experience than others.

    The criticism is absolutely valid and at the same time, there is a unique and extraordinary game underneath trying to get out.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Its a shame when games come out like that. One can only imagine how much more enjoyable the game might have been had those niggles been resolved.

  10. AnTREXon says:

    I’d have to agree, I tried for hours to like this and spent months waiting for this (being able to hack in the game using actual coding sounds awesome), but it’s just too contrived and too complex/unrefined for its own good.

    The soda selling non sense is also probably one of the worst “starter quests” ive ever seen in any game

  11. shinygerbil says:

    I’ve had a similar negative-but-positive experience with this game. It’s great, but there are so many issues.

    -The setting is lovely, but you can’t really look at it properly half the time without the camera disappearing behind something
    -The characters are lovely, but if you don’t have something to say to them (and even often when you do have something you really want to talk to them about) they just won’t say much of anything when you talk to them.
    -The hacking is lovely, once you finally get to it. Nothing much wrong with this aspect of the game, though I’d have liked the ability to move the cursor with a mouse.
    The story is…patchy? Sometimes all the characters will just stop responding to you at all because the game is waiting for you to do a thing or find a thing. It’s fine to have the freedom to just potter around, discovering things at your own pace but occasionally it’s just plain directionless.

    On the first day, it took me so long to get to the hotel and get myself sorted out that I didn’t get to sleep until 4am. Thus I woke up gone midday on the next day, was told that some guy was looking for me, and spent the entire day failing to find this guy. I ended up in Bar Yvonne so I did somewhat manage to advance the story, but contrary to what a lot of people have been saying, I’ve actually felt pretty rushed about and wished I could slow down time. “We’re meeting there at 7?! But it’s 3 already! It’ll take me 2 hours just to figure out where to go on the map..!”

    It was 5 days before I eventually found the soda rep, who told me they’d fired me for not showing enough drive.

    Once I eventually found the hacking stuff, the game exploded – despite its flaws it’s all I’ve been thinking about these past few days. Oh, for the ability to right-click on something and just…hack it… It’s a thing of wonder, especially when you find a random code snippet somewhere performing even a mundane task and you realise, “Oh, I didn’t think of that!” and your life is suddenly 10 times easier and more fun.

    Highly recommended, but get someone to help you advance the story first. I’ve already had one friend on Steam asking for a few hints as to just what to do other than sell soda!

    • noodlecake says:

      I just luckily stumbled on stuff really quickly. Bumped into the right people just by chance, did the right things and ended up stumbling on stuff without even meaning to. I could imagine that might not happen for some people and I was probably lucky, but I haven’t really had any frustration being lost or confused. Mainly just been exploring vague leads and ending up in the right place fairly quickly. I’m finding it really lovely!

  12. noodlecake says:

    Having bought this earlier today I’m enjoying myself. I haven’t been playing it very long, but at the moment the aesthetic and the music and the fact that everyone in the world seems to be trundling around doing their own thing are enough to engage me.

    I feel like I would enjoy it even more if I hadn’t decided to give up smoking weed, as this kind of passive experience with pretty music and visuals is exactly the kind of thing stoned me would enjoy playing the most.

  13. tanith says:

    That game sounds interesting, in a way. I still want to do some hacking. I’m capable of programming and I’m just curious what you can do in this game but some of the things you listed…

    The lack of a journal is sort of a deal breaker. I cannot play very often, maybe every other weekend at best and if there is no way for me to look up what I did last time and what I still have to do… sorry, but I don’t have the time to start the game all over again every time I play.
    The dialogue system seems also really weird. And these are all deliberate design decisions. This is really sad. :(

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      I can understand being annoyed that it wasn’t made clear that you’d need to, but now that you know there’s not an auto-journal, what’s stopping you from using the latest in pencil-on-paper technology? Or alt-tabbing to Wordpad, if that’s your preference.

      • Zantium says:

        Just on that, copy and paste works from the game “most” of the time so you can copy code snippets out of the game into your desired app, I like OneNote for it’s flexibility. Pasting into the game works fine.

        No alt-tabbing crashes so it’s also solid on that side.

        I completed the game last night, overall I enjoyed parts of the game and the experience would have been much better without the filler/padding/time-wasting.
        I do think it was worth the price paid for it and it has to be commended for being something different at least.

      • Ergates_Antius says:

        It’s 2015, what’s stopping the game from including at least a basic journal? Why add an an unnecessary layer of chore to your game?

  14. turbinedivinity says:

    This looks like a modern Brataccus, right down to the word balloons and the weird tasks and the THIS GAME DOESNT WORK QUITE RIGHT VIBE, so of course I have to buy it and try it out, for the days of yore where there was no internet to turn to when you got completely baffled by the weird import game.

    I’ll be over here with my Atari ST