else Heart.Break () is a singular gaming experience, a fascinating twist on the point-and-click adventure that allows the player to take on the role of programmer as the game progresses. The main character, aimless and young Sebastian, moves to a strange city called Dorisburg to take a vague job as a soda salesman. He walks in a door that leads to the wrong room and meets a woman named Pixie at a bar who invites him to a party. He drinks with a homeless man on a bench. He may do many things, depending on what the player would like him to do and what places the player would like to take him in the open-ended city. And, eventually, he’ll rewrite the in-game reality itself.
While it may seem vague at first, the main plot forms around Sebastian after a bit of exploring. The focus of the game coalesces around Pixie (who Sebastian is of course gaga over), her hacktivist friends, and their attempts to take down the insidious Ministry that controls Dorisburg and all of its technology. And in else Heart.Break (), controlling technology is tantamount to controlling reality. It’s Pixie and her friends who introduce Sebastian to the most interesting and challenging aspect of the game, the Ministry’s greatest weapon: the coding system.
else Heart.Break () does a great job of sucking you in to its strange science-fiction world and making you feel at home. It’s almost like moving to a new city, in a way: finding your way around, making friends and going along with their insane plans, feeling out the inherent dangers and obstacles in your path, learning new skills and a new way of life. The way Dorisburg lives around you on its own independent schedule really brings to life the importance of how you use Sebastian’s time and what decisions you have him make. The structure of the story, too, draws you deeper in to this fictional world. What starts off as a story of an aimless young man turns into a cyberpunk espionage thriller where reality itself is suspect.
And no cyberpunk story is complete without its own fun twist on modern reality and modern technology - in this case, the in-game coding system. The coding system allows you to hack into many in-game objects and rewrite their programming. Of course computers and electronic devices can be hacked to complete objectives or for personal gain, but using a special device Sebastian can also hack everyday objects like coffee and cigarettes, birds and turtles, cinnamon buns and doorways. Through various tutorial disks and conversations you’ll begin to learn the game’s programming language Sprak, which serves as the clever medium through which ‘puzzles’ are solved and inconveniences are circumvented.
It takes a few tries and false starts to get the feel of the coding system, and honestly I’ve not perfected my skills yet, but there’s a logic to how programming for various objects and effects are laid out. Really, the key is to experiment, trying things out and discovering what’s possible in this little world we’re presented. Beer can be made more intoxicating while boosting your powers of charisma (something I wish happened in real life), doors can be hacked to transport you across the building or across town (also something I wish happened in real life), coffee can be turned into a wonder drink that disperses your need for sleep and makes time literally move faster (you get the idea). And the puzzle problems innate to the main plot quests are all quite clever.
The idea of being able to hack into reality fits in to the generally surreal tone and feel of else Heart.Break (). The game has a wonderful lo-fi grimness to it that sits next to moments of multicolor beauty in perfect juxtaposition. Walking around Dorisburg and figuring out what you need to do, or what you want to do for that matter, feels incredibly like walking around a strange city for the first time. You’ll find it’s easy to get turned around at first, but getting lost and finding your way is part of the fun. After a while you’ll start to recognize landmarks and even specific NPCs walking around, like your hobo friend or those distinct men dressed in dark suits. Being forced to find your way around this virtual city makes Dorisburg and its denizens feel that much more like a real place, which is both cool and eerie.
The aesthetics are great as well and very purposefully done. We’re talking lo-fi, pretty much early PS2 graphics here, but employed in a beautiful way. Character’s have just enough detail to make them memorable, environments are nicely laid out with the right amount of clutter to lend them some realness, and there’s just something about the way color is employed that makes everything look dim but brilliant at the same time. Music and sound effects are minimal, a decision that pushes the hyper-real feel of the game.
All in all else Heart.Break () is a unique and challenging gaming experience that invites the player to take a turn on the other side of the program, all the while introducing us to an ambiguous world not so different than our own. Sebastian stands in for every young man or woman who moves to a new place and has to find where they belong in this new structure, a structure which exists independently of them. And the brilliant coding system, while challenging, is a welcome twist on traditional gameplay that opens up a staggering number of options to the player. This is an experience not to be missed.