Have You Played… Else Heart.Break()?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

There are plenty of game cities I’d like to visit. The bars and shops of Mass Effect’s Citadel remind me of a huge, strange airport. The Imperial City of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a part-majestic, part-ruinous jewel in a cosmopolitan world that consistently burps magic. But I wouldn’t necessarily want to live in these places. They’re dangerous. The city of Dorisburg in Else Heart.Break(), however. That’s a place I’d at least spend a year or two.

Part of this is just down to the colour, the bright lights of the not-that-big city. As a game, you’ll either adore the open world long enough to discover the ability to hack everything from cream buns to trash cans (and then you’ll adore doing that too). Or you’ll get understandably annoyed at the lack of direction. I hope you’re the former. There’s a machine-like quality to Dorisburg. Everyone goes about their business as time wears on. You can waste whole days on arrival trying to find beer for a homeless guy outside your hotel and failing to sell fizzy pop to strangers waiting for trams. But even those strangers have their own loops, their own little NPC routines. It makes the city feel alive, but not so chaotic that you can’t figure out where your workmate will be at 2am (on the bench in the plaza outside the club).

The game underneath all this is half point ‘n’ click adventure and half a scholastic lesson in basic programming. There’s shady government agencies, hacker collectives, banks, cafés, shoe shops, parties, concerts, casinos and an ethereal, digital network that you can tap into with any computer, a network that will “slurp” you from one place to another, if you have the skillz.

When I was little, I wanted to live in Pokémon, because that world was interesting and strange and just the right amount of dangerous. Else Heart.Break() made me feel the same way, seventeen years later. I’m supposed to be a grown-up. But I just want to take the boat to Dorisburg and live in a rubbish hotel where I can hack the ashtrays.

19 Comments

  1. Treners says:

    Unfortunately, I am well and truly the “annoyed by the lack of direction” camp. I heard these amazing stories of people hacking everything in really cool ways, but got frustrated and quit after 2 hours wandering around, finding the odd floppy disk and finding the main character dull.

    Edit- just gone back to read John’s impressions and “-this game is probably extraordinary
    -I am not having any fun playing this game” absolutely sums it up for me. A game can be as complex as it likes but give me something early to latch on to, to WANT to persevere and get into that complexity. Hell, Dwarf Fortress accomplishes that better than this.

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      MajorLag says:

      That’s exactly how I felt when I played Else. Fortunately for me, it was New Year’s Eve 2015. This meant I had the two things necessary to deal with the problem: Time, and scotch.

  2. Laurentius says:

    I am in Brandan corner, this game has many things that could be done better but openess and directionless is awsome for me, I dream I could see more of it in other games. I was super delightd discovering city, places, characters on my own.

    • Slazia says:

      I hope you forgot to add ‘s rather than to capitalize the ‘c’ from corner.

  3. Tei says:

    I played else.break and enjoyed my time there, but it was weird for reasons different than maybe no-programmers may have.

    One of the first things I did was dump all rooms, all objects in all rooms and all the position of all the characters in the game. I use to have that data in Sublime Text… so I knew and probably visited the ending of the game and various ending related shit since the very soon.

    I tried to turn a credit card into a weapon (a zapper), but was frustrated when the framework of the game did not quite allowed that.

    So the game framework was open enough to let me skip all the content, but not open enough to allow me to do things that made sense to me. I was somewhat confused and somewhat frustrated.

    In a way, none of this make sense. If you really want to explore the power fantasy of being a hacker, it cost nothing to learn tutorials to write interesting AI engines in node.js. Or you can buy some hardware to have a pet computer to hack for 20$. A real one, with python, node.js, bash, git, rsync, wget, curl, nmap… I don’t think hacking games “work” because the real thing is accessible for anyone with a real interest.

    Else.break has a lot of charm, and I can recommend it. Until somebody invent the perfect hackers game.

    • Slazia says:

      I made the perfect hacking game; unfortunately, some kid hacked my PC and deleted all the code.

  4. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Yes, finally played this a month ago and really loved it. Personally really appreciated the open ended-ness of it, the way you could ignore your job and spend all night in a club getting invited to after parties and secret club nights by a girl you fancy but then you meet her boyfriend and… it’s a really great ‘young person’ simulator. And then you discover the secret underground hacking club and it really gets awesome. The whole thing just felt like a real world so although all these scenarios are scripted and bound to be uncovered at some point, they felt like your own story. Really good game. If anything it was too long, I never did see it through to the end. 20 hours was enough.

  5. skeletortoise says:

    Sadly I have to live in the latter camp, at least for now. I started it up a few weeks ago and when I was about two hours into it and as clueless as when I first started it, I checked out. It’s not that I can’t imagine getting into it, it’s just that I have so little time, and what time I do have is never in more than maybe 90 minute blocks, that I can’t get motivated to take on much more than a 10 hour game. The sad thing is that I don’t really see that changing anywhere in the future, so I wonder if I’ll ever play a big ol RPG again.

  6. Cipherpunk says:

    I feel like I’m one of the lucky people who persisted through this game’s awkward introduction (twice because my save file was recently lost). I know what people mean when they call it directionless but I always felt like it was done on purpose. I’ve never played a game before where the core gameplay felt like a deeply nested secret. You had to want it. If you weren’t getting hooked by what was presented, the game just let you leave. “Enjoy being a soda salesman,” it would seem to say. It really inspired me to take my programming to the next level and I will always treasure else Heart.Break() for that.

  7. sillythings says:

    Bounced off of it hard, sadly.

    Because man, the visuals are amazing and really unique and I wish the style would be reused for a slightly more accessible gameplay. I especially loved all the detail in the environment, and how cramped some streets and rooms would be. It made all the places feel very real and lived in, something that not many games get right. It also felt distinctly European and somewhat nostalgic.

  8. Mi-24 says:

    it’s == you monsters

  9. zarniwoop says:

    I am so saddened by this post.

    I love the game and got about 15-20 hours in, having struggled through the first couple of hours. And then I moved house and had some crazy months at work. Managed to keep the savegames, but by the time I got back I realised I have no clue where exactly in the game I am or what I was supposed to do next. Can’t even seem to find a decent walkthrough that will help orient me. There is no real journal or record of conversations so the game doesn’t really help me.

    I really really do not want to play through again from the beginning. Anyone got a walkthrough link that deals with the mid/endgame?

  10. yhancik says:

    I have played and it need to play more of it. I loved Dorisburg and I miss it. Few games manage to give me that sense of “place”. It reminded a bit of the joy I had exploring Shenmue’s Yokosuka. Maybe because they’re both filled with charming characters and useless activities ;)

    I really didn’t get into that love story, though.

  11. Zantium says:

    I really enjoyed it, or rather I enjoyed being in Dorisburg. It was also difficult, frustrating and puzzling for a while and very easy to accidentally miss the things that would help you or progress the story. I wasted several hours bumbling around having missed something important early on.

    It sorely needed some form of journal, even one you put manual notes in. You could make your own of course, but I was half way through before I discovered that.

    The second half of the game was when it really opened up.

    • Louis Mayall says:

      Yeah I so agree, I appreciate the intent but I ended up missing so much stuff that I ended up bouncing off even though i loved so much about it. I also got crazily stressed by having to the swift passing of time and being scared of missing appointments. I don’t need that game! It just needed a teensy bit more hand-holding and direction and I would’ve adored it.

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    Angstsmurf says:

    I played this when it was released (and liked it a lot), but didn’t realize until now that the soda salesman gig is a reference to the Steve Jobs quote. Pretty obvious in retrospect.

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    MajorLag says:

    Else is a weird game. I can only really describe my experience with it as surreal. Is it worth playing? I dunno, honestly. It’s a tough call.

    See, Else has a pretty coherent atmosphere at the beginning. The city really does feel like a real place. But the conceit of the game is that it is about hacking the world around you, and that’s where it all falls down. It can take forever to find a modifier, even though you are introduced to their existence in the first minutes of the game. I personally found it frustrating wandering directionless for hours until I stumbled upon one.

    Once you have a modifier, the game is broken completely. I suppose that’s to be expected, but it really isn’t very fun and doesn’t feel at all like a game. It feels like a hacking sandbox with bits of game stapled to it awkwardly.

    Let me give an example: In order to finish the game, you have to find this guy who has gone missing. Ok, fair enough. Since you’ve spent some time pwning the shit out of everything already, you know how to locate him easily, and you know at least 5 ways to get yourself to his location. So you go there, and… nothing happens. He stands around like a dope being completely non-interactive.

    See, you’ve failed to hit the trigger that progresses the plot through a cutscene, and without that cutscene having been played you can’t interact with numbnuts. The cutscene basically just tells you where he is, and since you’re master of the goddamned universe by this point that’s redundant information. But the cutscene is required.

    How did you not trigger it, you may ask? It’s simple, and I’m going to spoil it for you because it took me a lot longer than it should have to find the answer: You need to go to sleep. Why is that a problem? You’re a fucking demigod. You can travel through powerlines and rewire doors to turn your favorite room into a TARDIS, you haven’t needed sleep for in-game weeks.

    There’s a lot of that sort of thing in Else. You are given the power to completely break the game, and rather than acknowledge that, the game tries to force you down a sequence of events like you’re just some schmuck. In once instance, when you go to a certain place, an NPC tases you. That’s the way the script is written, and that’s what will happen. You can erase the taser from existence, you can make yourself immune to stunning, you can try whatever you want, but you getting tased is in the script so it’s going to goddamn happen no matter what.

    Still, approached with the right frame of mind, and a long period of nothing-better-to-do, and possibly a bottle of scotch, it’s enjoyable.

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    Sam Collett says:

    Just testing