The Wild at Heart Review
It is difficult to talk about The Wild at Heart without referring to a long list of other media. Broadly, The Wild at Heart is a take on Nintendo’s Pikmin games, with a semi-open-world environment that progressively unlocks for the player in a manner similar to Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO video games. The art design feels like Disney’s Gravity Falls mixed with Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods, set in a slightly less ominous version of Over the Garden Wall’s teapot-punk fairy tale woods. The male lead is a boy who has lost his mother. The female lead is spunky and probably has superpowers. It’s charming and occasionally clever, but as a whole it all just feels kind of familiar.
If you choose to dive in—and don’t get me wrong, you can expect one or two dozen hours of perfectly satisfying environmental puzzle solving if you do—you’ll initially play the role of Wake, a boy probably around the age of Zipper from Gravity Falls who looks a bit like he has cat eyes but doesn’t actually. Wake is looking for a way to get away from a father who spends all his time in front of the television after the death of Wake’s mother. Just outside his back garden, Wake stumbles into a world overseen by a bearded man who doesn’t remember his own name and calls himself Grey Coat (even though his coat isn’t grey. He had another coat once, I’m sure).
Grey Coat introduces Wake to creatures called spritelings who live in this particular magical wood, and can be enlisted to help Wake fight monsters, gather magical items, and open paths to explore new areas. Eventually, Wake will discover five different kinds of spriteling, each with its own talents and weaknesses. He’ll find his friend Kirby (the one who is probably magic, or at least everyone keeps saying so), and he’ll meet up with Grey Coat’s colleagues, the Greenshields, who help protect the woods from the Never, even though the woods are also kind of a prison actually.
Just set dressing
If that sounds a bit haphazard, don’t worry about it too much. The story and lore in The Wild at Heart are incidental, seasoning rather than substantial. The game itself is much more concerned with crafting hidden corners for the player to uncover, and creating a series of tantalising but clearly signaled roadblocks in front of the pathways that Wake and Kirby aren’t allowed to explore just yet. There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction in finally collecting enough spritelings to move that boulder Wake has been running past for the last several hours, or in collecting the right kind of spriteling to clear the dark magic surrounding a treasure chest or that broken piano the man with the tea kettle on his head has been looking for.
All of which is to say that if The Wild at Heart dances on the line of leaning on its various art and narrative influences so hard, that it ends up being derivative rather than a clever assemblage, its puzzles and maps satisfying enough and its non-puzzle elements sufficiently insubstantial that it mostly gets away with it. Not all games are stories, and if The Wild at Heart’s art design is more of a mood board than an original statement, it has plenty of company as such in the world of video games.
It is a bit weird perhaps. You can look in just the right place, and listen to the rumblings about how the Deep Woods are a prison and not a paradise, and think about the spritelings that follow Wake and Kirby so closely and acquiesce to their every command, even if it means walking into poison or being crushed to death by a rock monster. The spritelings, after all, are not alone in being asked to act as instrumental beings: means to accomplish Wake and Kirby’s goals rather than individuals with desires and personalities of their own. It isn’t really The Wild at Heart’s fault that it positions the spritelings as almost mechanical objects that can be broken and rebuilt, one every bit as good as another. The spritelings are basically Pikmin, right? And maybe the choice to show their spirits floating away as wisps when they “die” is a bit troubling, but Wake and Kirby can always just make more.
At the same time, Wake and Kirby are really instrumental characters themselves, acting more for the player’s enjoyment than as a result of their own innate desires. It’s a bit ridiculous to even talk about the desires of video game characters, isn’t it? A video game isn’t a movie or a novel, where the characters, once put into motion, move forward without regard to the audience’s immediate preferences, and even if their agency is fictional it is generally expected to be internally consistent and compelling. It isn’t really a big deal for the video games medium to tell its consumers that their desires are the most important thing possible, right?
It’s not a big deal if our magical imaginary worlds are really prisons. We can just make new ones, with a different combination of references next time. That’s the heart of The Wild at Heart, after all.