Where the Heart Is – Constrained Storytelling

The problem with storytelling in games is that most stories are either very specific, or totally ambiguous. There’s something to be said about all types of storytelling, emergent, environmental or cinematic. With Where the Heart is, we wanted to tell a story with the minimal resources we had. Like I learned at Brooke Maggs’ Narrative Design talk at GCAP ’16, working within your limitations forces creative solutions. We didn’t have a particular story to tell with this game, because I felt it would distract from our game’s intended meaning – that home is what you make it. We wanted to employ emergent techniques for the player to tell their own story as they make use of our systems.

The first step in this was to establish a timeline for the events in the player’s life. We felt there were 4 distinct stages that we could use as touchstones: teenage years in your parent’s house, moving into a tiny flat for uni, an apartment for your career, and your retirement home. The differences between these areas were the external environment, the architecture, and the objects within them.

Teenage Years In Your Your Parents’ House

This area doubles as a tutorial and a natural way to start the player off. In the beginning area, the player has very few objects in their possession, and you see all they have in the beginning areas. You can also see the movie posters on the walls – these are the formative movie interests of the character which develop over the course of the game. The player’s possessions are cheap as well – their bed is wooden and kinda rubbish, their desk has CD racks (and who uses CDs anymore??), and their books mostly consist of academic novels with a few interests here and there. The room itself is actually modelled off my room back home in Townsville, down to the incandescent lights, wall colourings, and the foliage outside the window. My house has been around since I moved in there in 2001 (and probably many years prior) so I thought it is a great place to start the narrative from.

Moving Into a Tiny Flat For Uni

This stage is where I am now, living with two people in a small but homely flat for my uni days (and maybe longer). I own a lot more stuff now than before, but much of what I own is derived from the stuff I owned when I was younger. With what money I have, I have the bare essentials, but they aren’t flashy. The in-game flat is derived mostly from one of my friends’ studio apartments. It’s cheap, but gets the job done. His flat has nothing interesting out of the windows, but is quite small and cozy in its own way. The colour scheme, however, is ripped straight from my own flat – which is a cheap building that’s been around for decades, which you see in its walls, tiles and carpets.

Would You Like an Apartment With Your Career?

The apartment is more of a dream of mine. However many years it takes (in the game, it’s 9 from now) I will eventually have the money and stability for a nice apartment. This apartment looks over the rest of the city, towering over much of the low-cost flats or residential homes in the area. The apartment is derived from an apartment I inspected in Fortitude Valley. It didn’t have the space we needed when wondering about renewing our lease, but it did have a few cool designs that I adapted, such as the separate kitchen that is still connected to the living room, the bedroom layout, and the use of wide windows. Its colour scheme is derives from a luxury apartment with its splash of bright colours mixed with dark browns and bright whites. You will notice that the player has many many more possessions in this apartment compared to previously, and those possessions occasionally use different materials, like how the dining table has a glass top, or the computer has a different colour scheme. There are more books and more posters to accompany, as the player continues to follow their interests. The bed changes to a nicer looking double bed, the player now owns a massive flat-screen TV and TV stand, and the player has pot plants to spice up their house.


The final stage is retirement. The home itself is between the other residential houses, and its design takes cues from the second house and my grandma’s retirement flat. It’s slightly bigger but still small for the single flat that it is. The retirement home has many of the same possessions that the Apartment has, since these items are still worth keeping, even items like the bookshelves and furniture. The colour scheme takes cues from some retirement home ads I’ve seen online, with warm pinks and splotches of red. The movie posters and books still carry over to this new flat, because the retirement home is the last place the player will move in to, and they can’t progress past there.

Did it all work?

Because we only had a relatively small team of artists (and not all of them worked on 3D models or posters) we couldn’t take advantage of any bespoke story assets when constructing Where the Heart Is’ narrative. We also didn’t want any forced narrative to obscure the game’s core, that home is what you make it. Our narrative approach lead to the final product, but even at the exhibition, people asked why the character was still alone in the final stretch of the game. An addition that we didn’t have time to add is packing up the house you made prior to moving to the next house. I feel like a packing mechanic would have emphasised the connection that the player has to the items they own; what they don’t pack won’t stay with them. We also didn’t have the opportunity to use colour correction to emphasise how the mood of the room changes as we unpack our stuff. We intended to start with a cold blue colour, that transitioned to warm reds when the player moves all of the objects in each level. Perhaps there is no perfect way for the player to tell their own story through emergent storytelling, but I think our final product lends itself best to what we want the player to take away from Where the Heart Is.


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