There is something to how a game describes itself. A “2-D interactive narrative” straddles the ‘is this a game or not?’ fence, encouraging the player (reader? participant?) to develop their ideas about both. I see Bent Spoon Games’ Girl with a Heart of within the history of games drawing upon the aesthetic and mechanics of 90s adventure games. It mixes nostalgia with trope flipping, dialogue trees, fetch quests, a world governed by the elements made fresh by practicing philosophy and describing a world where darkness isn’t evil. As well, there aren’t many games that you play as a young girl in a mature situation. Girl with a Heart of is simple and honest in its intent to be engaging, with a title that acknowledges your role in completing it. The aesthetics follow this mentality: brief music pieces accompany characters and scenery changes as if recalling a memory, and visual details highlight the verisimilitude of this fantasy location.
The contention that exists between the character dramas and the exercise of philosophical rationality sets this adventure apart from others. Girl with a Heart of places the player in a crisis similar to many other games, but provides choices different in nature. Typically, a player would be thinking about which weapons and abilities to fight and enemy with or the nuances of strategy in battle. The progression of Girl with a Heart of doesn’t focus on the combat that you do prepare for, but what values you take to save the world. The player learns a few lessons in rationality, boiling decisions down to numbers, but also interacts with a cast of characters that inspire you with their personal problems. Reinforced by separating the experience into days, the player watches the progression of the mental states of those around them. Struggling with morals is the main part of the game, and the ending of your quest rests on what moral decision you arrive at. While there does seem to be a ‘right’ answer, Girl with a Heart of finds meaning in the process of deciding what to do, not necessarily in choice itself.
This leads to my main criticism of Girl with the Heart of. While the game had me question myself, it handled choices much like mainstream games. Playing through multiple times to get different endings, I found many choices yielded very similar results. It would work if the nuances built upon each other, but ultimately the characters came to the same conclusions and acted the same way. I feel if a game provides a player with choices, there should be meaning behind the results that necessitate those choices. I didn’t find extra perspective playing the game multiple times, much like other games, and felt I should be rewarded with discovering new things by taking a different path from my prior playthroughs. The choices at the end are the most important because they influence what kind of ending the player gets more than anything else does. Furthermore, these endings are anti-climatic text explanations of your protagonist’s future that offer little incentive to play another round.
Interpreting Girl with a Heart of as a game or just an interactive narrative can complicate things. It does have some stats, fighting sequences, and the usual trappings of a certain niche of games, but I’m not sure what the goal was other than to complete the story. This goes for all games that associate the success state with the story—because you can say the same for other mediums. For books and movies, the goal is to finish them. While you do a lot more in adventure games and RPGs, the success state is the same. Girl with a Heart of exposes this complication without answering for it. It relies on the conventions of story heavy video game genres, but doesn’t address why those genres are much less of a force in contemporary gaming than they were in the 90s. There’s research, talk, and general musings on how to involve narrative elements through interactivity that remain unused, so I wonder why Bent Spoon Games chose such a retro method to explore the complex issue that it wants to handle.
In a time of multiple remakes of the same game and HD updates to classics, it’s nice to have a contemporary example of what we loved about in an era that we probably won’t recreate. However, the game doesn’t reflect on the fall of the adventure genre and suffers from the same issues as previous titles of this sort. Girl with a Heart of ponders what an interactive narrative is as opposed to a game and how to exercise philosophy no matter what medium it is, but it forgets that we’ve moved on from the tools it currently uses.