Choose your own misadventure
You ever read one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? You know, the ones that had you flipping to pages in a jumbled-up fashion so you could have a story that was unique to you and based on your own decisions. If you were lucky, you could even find a few that had actual combat systems in them, forcing you to roll dice to do damage or duck out of the way.
Thinking about these while playing Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest posed a strange question to me, one far more philosophical than I initially thought I’d get from such an experience: What is a video game?
Those books aren’t video games, obviously. You need some kind of… video for that. So then what constitutes video? Is it just some small movement or animation? Is it just the fact that it exists on a screen even though it doesn’t need the screen? All these riddles began to spring up in my head while I played Heart of the Forest and while as interesting as it was to muse on these ideas, they’re not what the game wanted me to be doing.
Heart of the Forest is a heavily text-based roleplaying game that’s more about telling a story than actually playing a video game. The interactive elements are very limited, restricted to selecting dialogue options and selecting where to go next on a map, which I think happens three times throughout the game’s brief run time.
The big draw for this game is that it’s set in the Werewolf: The Apocalypse universe and given how disappointing that other Werewolf game was, fans were probably hoping for something a little better. Yet while the writing is often better than Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood, there’s really not a great deal of substance to the game.
The most mechanically complex it becomes is the inclusion of three meters which gauge your Fury, Willpower and Health at the top of the screen which needs to be managed. Depending on how full these are, you can unlock different pieces of writing. “Pieces of writing” might sound like a strange turn of phrase for the purposes of describing a video game and yet you must understand, that’s 95% of Heart of the Forest.
The comparison to the Choose Your Own Adventure novel before wasn’t just for fun, as this game gives off that energy like no other I’ve played. Mainly because you’re really just reading the story, which is admittedly accompanied by some flashy art that goes from being genuinely creative to character portraits juxtaposed onto a forest background. One then has to hope that if you’re reading the video game that the writing is at least good and the narrative compelling and while the first is often a mixed bag the overall story just… fell unbelievably flat for me.
While the moment-to-moment writing can go between genuinely compelling prose to a gratuitous repetition of information we’ve already heard (I get it, when they turn into wolves the bones break and reset. You don’t need to say that exact line every time it happens), the story just ends as it gets off running. Perhaps that’s the way I played the game, as this is the sort of experience that wants you to play through it multiple times.
Maia, the protagonist, had just accepted her role as a werewolf, chosen a tribe and pack (the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining The World of Darkness universe it’s pulling from) and then the game just… stopped. There was a protest against some loggers, I chose to negotiate because that was the kind of alignment the game said I fitted into and then the loggers left town because the negotiations went well.
This isn’t to say you can’t make visual novel style games engaging or enjoyable but there needs to be something more than just selecting a dialogue option.
One has to imagine that if I had elected to go for a more violent approach the ending would be far more explosive and exciting and yet when I went to replay it, I discovered that there wasn’t a chapter select. You need to sit through all the long, drawn out opening segments to get back into the good stuff.
Maybe some people are willing to sit through that but when the core experience is “read”, there are more exciting games to spend time with. It’s a pity because there are some genuinely cool characters in the mix here, with some excellently diverse representation. Yet none of them ever feel all that important; most characters exist to throw exposition at you and then ask you to make a decision. They’re wooden and hollow; you could remove several side-characters from the game and the actual story wouldn’t change a beat.
I really wanted to like Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest. I enjoy role-playing games that place a greater emphasis on the story and yet I also want those games to be just that: A game. Sure, there’s interactive elements to Heart of the Forest but it never feels fun nor does it feel engaging. Not all games need to be fun but I at least expect them to make a point if that’s the direction they’ve taken.
This is a game that could be ripped from a screen and dumped into a book and the experience would largely be exactly the same, except you probably wouldn’t get the occasional wolf howl sound effect.
Last Updated: February 25, 2021