Indietail – HARTS ISLAND

You’re instantly there… on Hart’s Island. Home to millions of corpses. Corpses of the unknown, the unidentified, the poor and the sick, dead bodies found somewhere or people too poor to get a private funeral. Among them, an actor called Luck Miller.

Developer: ben lunato
Publisher: ben lunato
Genres: Walking Simulator, Adventure, Narration
Release Date: June 1st, 2020
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC
Copy was provided by the dev(s).

In today’s Indietail, we’re taking a look at HARTS ISLAND by ben lunato, a one-hour long narrative experience bringing us to this small island where millions are buried.

The narrator on some tape explains to us what kind of people are resting here. We march forward and walk along in the black and white area only to stumble across the next eye-catcher and a next narrating tape. I feel like I’ve entered some kind of exhibition. Some experimental play where artists are showing off their art and where you walk around from place to place while some weird music with only a few tunes here and there is playing in the background. You hear these tapes in different places but you won’t understand anything until the end of the exhibition… if at all. You have to think with the story and make it work until you at last get to puzzle it together… again, if at all.

During the short experience, we get to find out about this actor and his work. We get to hear several tapes from different auditions (I guess?) and we listen to these tapes inside of differently shaped buildings at different places and possibly different times.

I feel like I could talk and talk about this game but it would probably ruin the experience. This game has its strong points and its flaws. There is little to no direction as to where to go. There are areas that you can explore on your own until the tape is over. There are plot points that get revealed over time but if I speak too much of it, I’d end up spoiling it all, I guess.

So, I guess I’ll just cut to the chase?

Harts Island features a minimalistic approach to story-telling as it gives you little to nothing to orientate yourself within this black and white world: You’ve got sounds and eye-catchers, which I personally found rather interesting and quite cool in a way.

The game gives you little to no direction. There is no hand-holding, no tutorial. HARTS ISLAND just shows you where to go in the same way art exhibitions lure people in. You get to see these art pieces or experiences in different rooms and you walk around from room to room and later on come to a conclusion about the whole exhibition. You hardly know anything until you get to see it… You don’t walk somewhere because there was some big pointy arrow or some narrator that told you to do exactly that. You just go where you think is the right direction or you come back to a point at a later point in time.

And then there’s obviously the unique art style, featuring black and white as the only “colours” in a sketch-like presentation. It’s not too special. It may resemble some streams of impressionism in a way or maybe you could just consider it “minimalistic” but overall, it’s really just sketchy. Apart from that, there’s the soundtrack that either features a soft melody or that encases us in a very ominous and threatening manner with dark and monotone tunes. Obviously, the soundtrack may be the best part about the whole presentation as well as the way the story is presented but the game still has a bunch of flaws.

You have no menu and get thrown into the game, just like that, upon start. When you hit “E” or “Escape”, you get to the pause-menu, featuring “resume”, “settings” and “quit”. I would have loved to stop while playing the game and starting it up at a later point in time. I would have loved to have more options regarding saves or even other settings. I can’t turn subtitles on or off. I can’t change the language. I cannot turn the volume up or down. If you are not hearing that well, you’re gonna love this game with its own settings that you cannot change at all.

And then there are some issues with the game design.

To progress you either have to reach certain points or turn around or listen to a tape for a fixed amount of time… but it never is consistent. Sometimes I would have loved to explore more. I would have loved to see how much love got put into this world and how much more there is to the map. I would have wanted to return to the tape and pressed a button to continue.

In other places, you wait and wait for the tape to end since it earlier helped you out, but there is nothing to do here. You are wasting time. The game doesn’t do anything. Then you leave the building and get teleported away in an instance. Hell, sometimes you can even miss the point of interest completely and just walk around the move without progressing at all. I would have loved if the way the game does things would be consistent with just one way of progress. A tape that you listen to to get to the next area or to get through the “chapter”. Something like that.

And then there are some issues with the world and certain ledges and objects. The game is meant to be a walking simulator of sorts and yet there are a bunch of areas that you can’t access due to invisible walls while you can get stuck in other areas that have nothing to offer but do not feature invisible walls at all. I know that I said that I hate invisible walls but personally I really would have loved to not get stuck in some hole somewhere among floating rocks and inside of some draw bridge under the water’s surface. I would have loved to see more of the game but inconsistencies like that are a bit bothering for the whole experience. Getting stuck somewhere and having to restart the whole game and reply everything up to that point is annoying at most. It’s not “intentional game-design”.

And last but not least, the story. While it’s interesting at the beginning as you wanna see what happens… it… uh… I didn’t like it. No spoilers here. I might turn this into its own post later on with spoilers and everything.

So, to sum it all up: Would I recommend HARTS ISLAND?

In short, no. I wouldn’t.

It’s an interesting experience that is playing with concepts like a sketch-ish art style and structures in the world that could resemble something deep and meaningful… but every interpretation that I could deliver on it would be just a stretch and meaningless. In the end, I’d end up speculating more than I’d actually be able to analyse the game, the story, the art and the sound.

The gameplay is interesting at first but gets frustrating once you get stuck once or twice. There are quite a few spots where you can get stuck, so that’s a big bummer, and even when you get past that and end up playing through it the game doesn’t actually provide all that much value either, resulting in a bit of a letdown at last. The story is not that rewarding and alas, I just can’t recommend it.

I hope you enjoyed this review! Thanks a lot to ben lunato for providing me with a few keys for this game.

Cheers!