Just the term "PlayStation Mini" seems to be a running gag among some people, as games under the Mini umbrella appear to be regarded, sweepingly, with puzzling derision or plain indifference. That never made sense to me, especially in today’s climate rife with cheap, bite-sized iOS and Android games, but, admittedly, I had never picked up a game under the Mini moniker.
After playing Where-is-my-Heart?, I’m even more bemused. Either people -- myself included -- have been missing out on a lot of amazing games by flippantly disregarding Minis, or this game is just really, really good, and an exception to the rule.
Where-is-my-Heart? (PlayStation Minis)
Developer: Die Gute Fabrik
Publisher: Die Gute Fabrik
Released: November 22, 2011
Where-is-my-Heart? is something of an allegory for Die Gute Fabrik designer Bernhard Schulenburg’s stressful childhood experience of getting lost in the woods with his parents while on a hike. It’s both a personal and poignant rumination on the family’s relationship, represented in the game by three different characters, a family of monsters who must work in tandem to find their way home. Where-is-my-Heart? is original in its catalyst and similarly original in its gameplay, but anyone scoffing at the idea of another pretentious, pixel-art-boasting art-house game is doing themselves a disservice, as gameplay takes precedence in what is one of the most surprisingly delightful experiences I’ve had this year.
The main diversion in the design from traditional 2D platforming is a complex one. The game is separated into chapters, each of which consists of one "stage" that exists in only one screen; that is, there is no scrolling of the screen to expose more of the environment. While the reined in scope might hint at simplicity, stages are complicated by being fragmented into panels of various sizes which are not oriented in a congruous manner.
The result of this unique design is a game that is appropriately disorienting, which cleverly serves a dual purpose in creating challenging, interesting gameplay as well as furthering the narrative undertones. The sense of being lost comes through poignantly in the game, as it’s frequently difficult to get your bearings and remember where you are. The disparate, seemingly arbitrarily arranged bits of stage are a prime example of how a smartly designed mechanic can be integral to every portion of a game, which is absolutely refreshing to see amidst this season’s blockbusters and spectacle.
Navigating a confusing array of panels isn’t the only challenge Where-is-my-Heart? produces, however. As mentioned, your goal in each stage is to successfully guide all three monsters to safety, often making the game more parts puzzler than platformer, more parts Portal than Mario. The monsters can stand atop each other’s heads to reach otherwise inaccessible bits of the stage at times, but that only gets them so far. Adding to the complexity, each monster has an alternate form they can change into by standing on certain blocks.
The brown monster changes into Antler Ancestor, who sidesteps the present reality and enters an alternate version of stages called “the Land of the Fireflies.” Though alone, he is able to double jump, and representations of the grey and orange monsters hover around him (much like fireflies). When he changes back into Brown, Grey and Orange end up wherever their firefly avatars were in that alternate world. The grey monster changes into the Bat King, at which point new platforms or paths appear and become available for him to use.
Perhaps the most interesting transformation of the bunch, the orange monster changes into the Rainbow Spirit (of True Sorrow), who is able to rotate the entire mass of panels 90 degrees at a time. While that isn’t helpful in and of itself, as changing the orientation doesn’t change the relation between panels, the Rainbow Spirit can jump and then shift panels while it remains in the same spot, effectively allowing travel between disconnected panels.
The game can be a definite head scratcher at times, as you figure out how to manage and effectively use all of your monsters and find ways to get all three of them to the end of the stage -- and the disorienting nature of the stages doesn’t do your mind any favors.
It sort of reminds me of a more complex version of the riddles where you have to cross a river with a sheep, cabbage, and wolf (or some variation of), but can only take one across at a time so you have to figure out how to do it without any of the things eating the other. Of course, a lot of stages can ultimately be solved by a lot of trial and error, as you can sometimes haphazardly fling yourself about and hope to end up where you need to be. That actually makes a bit of sense, though, as part of getting yourself un-lost in reality hinges on a bit of luck and a bit of aimlessly wandering around until you find something to tell you you’re on the right track.
Levels also have hearts scattered around them, which add to an overall tally throughout the game. If a character dies at any point, though lives are unlimited, that death nets you one black heart, which will cancel out one collectible pink heart. Thankfully, it doesn’t ever go into negative points, because I died an absurd number of times on some stages to the point where I might’ve ended up with an overall negative score. I don’t know whether or not collecting every pink heart leads to anything special, but, if nothing else, it adds some replay value to anyone who wants to test their platforming skills and try to complete the game without dying.
Because I’ve been going on about the unique, complex, and multifaceted, game design, I’ve yet to mention that the game is absolutely adorable, which you’ve undoubtedly gathered by the screenshots up to this point. In addition to the cute character design, I love the undersaturated pastels, which, while still colorful, help set the mood of the game. Similarly, the sound design, though minimalistic and more ambient, is aurally consistent and fitting with the tone.
The only real negative thing I have to say about Where-is-my-Heart? is that the load screens that punctuate the chapters pass by a little too quickly. Yes. The loads are too short. I know it’s ridiculous, but each screen that introduces a new chapter has some interesting bits of text and other things and I actually couldn’t catch all of a couple because of how quickly it went to the next stage.
Where-is-my-Heart? is deceptively cute, because behind its adorable facade is a complex game. It's well designed, which you know because you can’t see the seams, yet, given all the working parts, you know that every piece of the game is part of an intricate, balanced relationship. What’s more, the experience that the gameplay creates subtly, inexplicitly facilitates the sparse, minimalistic narrative bits.