Else Heartbreak is one of the most interesting Steam games I've played in ages. It also refuses to hold your hand.
Else Heartbreak is a new Steam hacker adventure about a young man named Sebastian making his way in a surprisingly hip backwater town. Its first five hours had me hearkening back to the first Shenmue -- and not entirely in a good way. I was just sort of tossed into this city -- which Sebastian moved to for his first big job as a not-quite-adult -- and saddled with a series of nebulous objectives. Start your job somehow! Find the dude! Find the girl! Wish the game offered any sort of log or means of tracking objectives!
Before long, I was stumbling around town, asking everyone I encountered, "Do you know so-and-so? Do you know where they are?" It was, "Have you seen any sailors?" all over again. It doesn't help that the city is tough to navigate, especially with a map so bare that I'm surprised it hasn't been arrested for violating obscenity laws. Oh, and the clock is always ticking and Sebastian keeps needing to "sleep" and I'm either rushing to get somewhere at a certain time or waiting to rush to get somewhere at a certain time.
I really like it. Else Heartbreak's city is (relatively) small, yet absurdly detail-rich. This feels like an authentic place with its own culture and customs, and -- at times -- it feels almost indifferent to my presence. I'm not important (yet). I'm just some kid fresh out of proverbial diapers, desperately kicking to peddle my first bike sans training wheels.
Slowly but surely, I've been making friends by going to parties. One time I'd made plans with a girl named Pixie to meet up at this one club and then go to The Hippest Party In Town, but I ended up running into her beforehand while we were both out running errands, and she was like, "Hey, wanna just go now?" I got weirdly excited about that moment, because it felt so organic, almost unscripted. The city feels alive, is what I'm saying, and that even extends into main story objectives.
Speaking of Pixie, my meeting with her was the most realistically awkward, "We just met at a party and dang you're pretty hah time for small talk I guess" conversation I've ever encountered in a game. Observe:
And then the game once again turned my expectations of story-based video game on their head by making it seem like I really needed to find Pixie at her mysterious place of work, which I dutifully did after obsessively inquiring around town and literally following in her footsteps.
Finally, I caught up to her. Mission accomplished, right? Time for my reward. Except that Pixie was pissed.
She'd asked for privacy on this issue repeatedly, but instead of taking a hint, I stalked her. The bizarre thing is, I didn't even realise I was making Sebastian behave like a stalker until Pixie pointed it out. Previously, my mindset had been, "VIDEO GAME. OBJECTIVE. COMPLETE BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY TO PROGRESS PLOT." But yeah, I was kind of definitely being a digs-through-people's-dumpsters-to-build-glorious-monuments-out-of-their-hair-and-toenails-level creepazoid. This after Pixie had let Sebastian stay at her place because I made him drink too much and pass out -- like an idiot -- and she'd been super cool about it.
Again though, Else Heartbreak captures the feeling of being That Young Person (Who Is Totally Lost And Compensating All Over The Goddamn Place) like no game I've played before. There are even dialogue options that let you lie about yourself -- not for any big story reason, but because you're really not very impressive. Sometimes the game can be frustrating in a sit-around-waiting-for-paint-to-dry kind of way, but it's so damn relatable. I sure as hell know that in real life I've gotten utterly lost in big cities and creeped girls out when I didn't mean to and gotten waaaaaay too drunk because the only way to deal with social anxiety is an alcohol flood of Biblical proportions.
While Else Heartbreak, so far, contains its fair share of mundane chores, the game itself is not a chore. There's something rewarding about learning this place and befriending its inhabitants -- going from outsider pariah to guy people are excited to see around town or at parties. I'm starting to understand the city itself, too. In other games, I'd hardly be paying attention to landmarks and whatnot, instead keeping my eyes glued to a GPS-style minimap. In Else Heartbreak, I have to remember that the shoe store is the place with the giant yellow sign in the burrows, or that the kooky computer dude lives next to the radio tower. Else Heartbreak's city isn't just a place. It's also a character.
Oh, you might remember that I called the game a "hacker adventure" earlier. That's because there's totally hacking, and it's actually really neat. It just took me the better part of four hours to get to. On one hand, that gave me time to appreciate all these other elements of the game, but on the other, the central hook of the whole damn thing was out of the picture for four snarfing hours. I was just trudging around running errands, occasionally getting glimpses of other characters hacking into random objects with this crazy rainbow effect. "I want to do that!" I thought to myself. "When will I finally get to do that?"
So far, it's been worth the wait, though I still have tons more to learn -- and I really wish said learning could've been integrated into the game's early hours. But, I mean, I hacked a cup of coffee to make super coffee.
SCREW SLEEP FOREVER I HAVE SEEN OBLIVION AND STOMPED ON GOD'S BEARD HEY IS THAT A SQUIRREL.
This after I'd accidentally kept Sebastian up all night. It was this perfect moment. I was like, "Oh no, I can't sleep now and today's gonna be... wait. What if I... ? Holy poops, it worked!"
I also added a "trippy" value to a cigarette. I still have no idea what I did. Eventually I'll be able to hack doors and other large objects.
Else Heartbreak's programming is damn close to the real thing, though -- with values, variables, and compiling rooted in real code. I'm only scratching the surface at this point, and I'm no expert programmer. I still have no idea what to do when presented with this, for instance:
Still, I feel like I'm slowly turning Sebastian into somebody who doesn't totally suck. He's making friends, figuring out the city, and learning a valuable, empowering skill. The process has been at times frustrating and even boring, but the overall arc? Really satisfying, and disarmingly real.