A few hours into Armature Studio’s narrative adventure game Where the Heart Leads, protagonist Whit Anderson is trying to wrangle his two kids Kate and Alex up from a playdate with their uncle Sege. Kate asks Whit if he can help them build a treehouse in a forest just off the side of their hometown of Carthage City. Whit makes up a few excuses before Kate, having heard her parents talking about making ends meet, and says she heard her mother say her father needed more work.
“So, this is work, right?”
After having already occupied Whit’s life for a few hours at this point, there was something pure but tragic in the young Kate’s inability to distinguish between the act of doing something and the actual “work” that is having a job you do in exchange for money. It’s a moment that stuck with me because Where the Heart Leads is a trip through various moments of its protagonist’s life and how capitalism has a chokehold on all of it.
The points where we jump through the timeline of Whit’s life, from childhood onward, are all about big decisions. Who will he marry? How will his life change when he has children? How can he convince his brother to stop viewing every job and project the two work on as part of their freelance construction business as a possible artistic endeavor? This is a man who’s gone through his entire life pushed by his father toward capitalist ideals, while his brother, much to the detriment of his early life, aspired to be an artist unbound by traditions their father attempted to force upon them.
It manifests in ways such as when Sege would leave his father’s side when he asked for help during work, and it was my choice as Whit to support his free spirit, or attempt to crush it. Or at the very least, bring it down to the ground and explain how, despite his pure intentions, this is the way the world works.
Whit’s life, and the scenes we focus on in Where the Heart Leads, are full of hardship. But it’s the kind of mundane hardship every middle-class person goes through. Jobs come and go, the stress of raising a family reaches its peak, and someone’s gotta rein in Uncle Sege and his use of scrap to create massive sculptures the children will no doubt climb on. But in the background of Whit pulling himself up from his bootstraps is the knowledge that both he and Rene have safety nets in their parents. Whit’s father’s capitalist ideals come to fruition, and he has a prospering business by his son’s adult years. So our “everyman” is never without options. Even when a landlord proves to be an absolute bastard and evicts the family, they have land to move to and enough goodwill within the community to start a new business themselves.
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Every time I bounced around Whit’s life, I saw flashes of the story it wanted to tell. As I was balancing home life, Sege was trying to vibe his way through a slump, falling back on his family when his artistic career wasn’t going well. Much of dealing with Sege’s story is built on tempering his vision when we had a job to do for the city. No, we can’t embellish while rebuilding a gas station damaged in a storm. We have clients here, and they don’t want us doing something beyond what they asked for the sake of our artistic integrity. So I had multiple moments throughout Where the Heart Leads where I was giving up my artistic license to serve a client who was paying me to do a particular job. That is the nature of the gig. Is it gratifying in the same way creating sculptures placed around the town is? No. But it’s the job we signed up for, and it’s the job we’re being paid to do.
Focusing on moments where it comes down to being creatively fulfilled or being lucrative, or even what is best for a community or what is best for you personally, Where the Heart Leads is about what it means to be beholden to others. Whether willingly or by way of societal pressure, that can wear away at someone’s soul over time. But Whit and his family had safety nets under them at all times, and the game even calls attention to this with a scene between him and his father later in the game, where he admits he believes in the way he raised his sons, even if it was to the detriment of their creativity and their relationship with him.
Most of Where the Heart Leads’ best moments come from its latter half, where the adventure game’s choices between gratification or feeding the capitalist machine all lead to new developments for the Anderson family. I found those conclusions satisfying and moving where applicable, but I can’t help but feel frustrated by how the entire thing is framed. We talk about “self-made” people who start their own businesses without the help of anyone, but those stories often omit the luxury of a wealthy support network, and in a way, that’s what I ended up feeling most about Whit Anderson’s story. He and his family go on to accomplish great things, but the struggles they went through to get there ring hollow for me, as Whit was rarely handed a decision that was anything more than a calculated risk. It’s a supercut of a family playing a rigged game, all on the backs of a system the game portrays as fair.
Where the Heart Leads often feels like a moving and compelling meditation on how the decisions we make define who we are and the sum of what we leave behind. But so often it’s framed in a way that makes it feel like it’s raising questions it already knows the answer to. This doesn’t necessarily make its message any less meaningful on paper, but it does make me feel like the answer to all its conundrums about personal fulfillment are best answered by “feed the machine like your dad said first. Then hopefully one day your passion will find profit, too.” And in that context, the choices I made never felt as hard as they might have been had Whit actually been a self-made success, rather than someone following the script the capitalist hellscape had written for him and his rich father before him.