An interactive novella based on a real-life tragedy that calls to mind the choose-your-own-adventure books from years past.
Genre: Adventure, Visual-Novel
Developer: Expressive Gamestudio
Publisher: Cogaming Rising
Release date: 4 Oct, 2019
Lie In My Heart describes itself as “an expressive game”. It is far more accurate to call it an act of catharsis. It is a visual novella constructed by a person reaching for relief; a father and husband struggling to cope with the fallout from a real-life tragedy, tormented by the decisions they made, and maybe the ones they couldn’t see.
The World Health Organization and the National Alliance on Mental Illness say that one in four people suffers from some sort of mental illness. That means that nearly everyone knows someone who struggles with a mental disorder, whether they realize it or not.
Mental disorders impact lives in a number of different ways. They reach beyond the affected person suffering from the disorder and touch everyone around them. Lie In My Heart is a story about a mental disorder and the impact it had on several people’s lives. But it’s also a story about so much more. It’s a retrospective about decision-making and coming to terms with one’s choices.
Gameplay & Graphics
Lie In My Heart is an ultra-lightweight “game” counterbalanced by very heavy subject matter. It is a game in only the thinnest, surface-level sense. It’s really much more of a slightly-interactive graphic novella.
It tells the story of Sébastien and Marie, their young son Théo, and subsequent suicide that impacted their lives. The story unfolds more or less like a book, one page after another, using still images and shifting text. But it is not entirely passive in its presentation. There are a few instances where the user is required to interact with the screens in order to advance the story.
For the majority of the time, the reader will use the mouse to simply to click through text. However, occasionally, in certain instances, the mouse can also be used to investigate, or interact with, the various props displayed. Hovering over a particular item can turn the cursor into an “eye”, for instance, and clicking will reveal some specific text related to that object. It’s a simple, but effective way to physically engage the reader beyond rudimentary page-turning.
The primary game play mechanic revolves around choice, or at least the illusion thereof. The player isn’t so much making a choice as they are trying to accurately guess what Sébastien’s choices were at the time. As events play out in the story, the user will occasionally be presented with two or three responses to choose from for a particular scene. The game keeps track of these choices and later informs the reader how many of their selections matched, or deviated, from the author’s.
The choices themselves are often inadequate for the situation being portrayed, and I found myself continually frustrated by the narrow scope of the available responses.
For instance, early in the game a reporter arrives on the scene of the suicide to question the author, who was present outside his ex-wife’s residence, talking (and sometimes perhaps shouting, depending on your previous choices) through the door. Two responses are provided to this situation, and I found neither of them acceptable.
The first response reads, “I will never answer his questions; he has nothing to do here!” This response reflects a primary emotion of anger and essentially relies on a state of mind I could not access, especially in a moment of grief (for the death of my child’s mother) and worry (for my son, who is now at school/daycare and needs to be attended to).
The second response reads, “I better answer his questions quickly, if I don’t want him to spread rumors.” I found this response particularly troubling, especially since it was the only other option available. Who, at a time like this, is concerned about rumors? This man is a professional reporter. He’s there to do a job. We’re dealing with a traumatic moment that involves grief and worry. Are rumors really the primary concern here, at a moment when one person is dead and a child needs attending? A multitude of other responses floated through my mind, and none of them involved such a self-centered concern.
The narrow scope of the responses tell us something about the author, but they also reveal the trouble with trying to build a question/response game like this. Humans come in a wide variety, and our ethnicity, culture, religions, education levels, political affiliations, gender identities and sexual orientations all factor into the myriad of responses we are capable of making at any given time.
This fact is highlighted in this particular exchange. The author and his family are French. Perhaps reporters are a very distrusted profession in France? In which case the response may seem perfectly normal to a French reader, but to an American, like me, it seems absurd.
It’s important to understand that, even in their inadequacy, these choices are superficial, at best. They barely impact the current scene, and they have no effect on the larger, overarching narrative. The story cannot be changed, because it’s Sébastien’s story and not our own. Players accustomed to role-playing games where choices can shape future events and completely alter the outcome of the narrative will find no such mechanics here.
This is where it feels like Lie In My Heart, as a “game”, falls down a bit. I found myself, quite often, desiring responses that didn’t exist. I wanted to be able to make choices that would dramatically affect the narrative, allowing for particular parts of the story to be changed, but the game doesn’t offer such deeper mechanics. The lack of any choices that affect the narrative might be one of the most telling aspects of the game.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Sébastien. He comes to learn that his wife, Marie, suffers from bipolar disorder. This, naturally, complicates their marriage and contributes, to a certain degree, to the tragedy that befalls their family.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) estimates that between 25% and 50% of all people suffering from bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their lives, and that as many as 20% of those people will succeed. Marie, unfortunately, becomes one such statistic.
The bias inherent in Sébastien’s telling of the tale is evident throughout the story. Fortunately, Sébastien acknowledges this fact at one point, showing some degree of self-awareness. He understands that his choices contributed, greatly, to the events that followed. The existence of Lie In My Heart serves as Sébastien’s way of coping. But there is danger in such a public display of catharsis: Sébastien’s own choices are sure to be scrutinized by a public eager to pass judgment, and one wonders if this “game” was a wise choice itself, especially in light of professional alternatives.
About halfway through the novella, the story takes a sharp and dramatic turn. Sébastien reveals that he engaged in an affair with Lilith, a married woman much younger than him, who used to be one of his students. He prefaces this revelation by submitting to the audience that he had never before cheated on his wife, as if that’s somehow supposed to absolve him in some way. If your sympathy toward Sébastien wavers after learning about this affair, be certain you are in good company.
It was about this time in the story that it became apparent that the choices the player is presented with matter very little; they have no real impact on the story, which makes selecting them feel fruitless and empty. The game’s description on Steam asks the questions, “Would you make the same choices I made? Would you feel the same regret?”
I explored this possibility with a save game, reloading and trying to make different “choices”, and could find no path through the narrative that would avoid the act of infidelity. That is a choice I clearly would never have made, were I truly in Sébastien’s shoes. The regret that follows would be something I would never have to know. The game fails to make the infidelity the real choice that it is, possibly because it is so critical to the true story that occurred, but also because perhaps Sébastien failed to acknowledge that it ever was a choice. And maybe that’s a tragedy too.
Sébastien seems willing to accept some amount of blame for the events that transpired – but it’s unclear how much is guilt, and how much was due to getting a taste of his own medicine. Sébastien learns later on that Lilith was engaged in an affair with another man while she was also having an affair with Sébastien. This, naturally, causes trust issues between the two lovers, something that will probably come as no surprise to any reader.
Being in a relationship is something that requires a great deal of empathy and commitment. This is true of any relationship, regardless of the presence of mental disease. At various times in the telling of the story, Sébastien comes across as a man lacking either empathy, commitment, or both. In the aftermath, he does seem somewhat tormented by his own choices. He openly wonders if there was more that he could have done to prevent his wife’s suicide.
The answer, after consuming the whole novella, is most assuredly “yes”.
Music & Sound
There is quite a bit of music in the game, which works well to give some body to the thin mechanics. All of the selected music, both professional and custom, seems appropriate for each of the scenes they accompany.
On a personal note: the game closes with a quote from Dream Theater’s “Learning to Live”, a progressive-rock band that, if one doesn’t travel in progressive-rock or metal circles, can be forgiven for not knowing. I confess to being a lifelong Dream Theater fan, and this tune is my favorite from their catalog. I tried not to allow its inclusion to influence my opinion of this title in any way. But I can say, it was an unexpected touch, and seemed appropriate.
It would be interesting to know what Sébastien thinks he learned from all of this, and if he could do things all over again, what, exactly, he might change.
I cannot recommend Lie In My Heart, as either a game or a story. It’s heavy, sorrowful, and reduces complex possibilities down to inadequate binary choices. It asks questions like, “How would you react to your child’s mother ending her own life?”, and then doesn’t provide the reader with enough responses and narrative pathways to adequately answer such questions. This is intentional, of course, because the game wants you to respond as if you were Sébastien, seeing the world and its events only through the narrow lens that he sees.
But this is not how humans work. We each apply our own morals and ethics to situations we’re presented with, even fictional ones, and we make our own response based on those biases. There is nothing interesting about being confined to the small, narrow set of responses that another human being views their world through. In fact, it’s fairly aggravating, because we can often see another path that the author doesn’t see, and we’re frustrated that it’s not a viable option to pursue.
In a way, Lie In My Heart is hamstrung by its own desire to stick to a narrative that is based on true events, and to stick to the responses that only Sébastien can see. One wonders what a game with truly branching narratives might look and feel like.
As a game, it’s not entertaining, and no aspect of it is enjoyable. The mechanics it possesses are razor-thin and not technically interesting.
As a story, it elicits few emotions other than sadness and despair. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for its main character, especially after the revelations of infidelity. That the events portrayed within the story are true only makes it more dismal.
I would advise skipping this title. Lie In My Heart appears simultaneously as a public cry for help and as an offering of forgiveness. One just hopes that the people at the center of the story can find the help, healing, and solace they seek.
We offered Sébastien the opportunity to provide his feedback on this review. Here is his response:
The intent of the game was to explore the way it was possible to deal with biography in the videogame form. The game was made as a play experiences that give players the opportunity to take someone’s place in order to explore personal psychological and social issues, as well as moral and ethical dilemmas and their consequences. Just like in movies or novels, I don’t consider a game should necessarily be fun or entertaining, the goal here is more to touch the players with other kind of emotions, such as sadness. The goal was first and foremost to make players think about the subjects it addresses while touching/disturbing them (and the review shows it worked pretty well on this point). What is interesting about games is that they could make you think about the choices you make or could have made (and once again the review shows the game reaches its goal on this aspect). So of course, it means creating some restricted choices to put the player on a track of established events. Nevertheless, I don’t agree with the reviewers when he says that you can’t have different ways of reacting to the situations and that your decisions won’t affect the overall narrative. In fact, the way the game works is that your actions will not have immediate consequences but long term consequences on the story. Saving and reloading a given moment won’t change the following sequence (but maybe the reviewer could have tried not only to reload on some points but to make the whole game once again). For example, you do have a “happy” end which changes the overall meaning of the story. But some ends are more difficult to find than others (this is a design choice), just like in real life (for example, few players will find the happy end and I don’t recommend to try to find it on the first run, just make the choices you think you would have made).
One last thing which feels wrong in the review is the way the reviewer established if a choice was adequate, interesting or not. He is using his own moral point of view and believes to judge the game and do not necessarily try to adopt an other point of view. For example he has a problem with the “infidelity” topic. In fact you can avoid infidelity in the game ; well of course if you have a very large and broad concept of infidelity you could see all the possibilities as infidelity. But that is not the point. It should be possible in a game to explore this kind of problems of relationship without having a bad review, otherwise let’s put into the trash a lot of complicated love story you see in the movies or books, even in broad audience movies such as The Titanic… Take this sentence: “It’s difficult to feel sympathy for its main character, especially after the revelations of infidelity. That the events portrayed within the story are true only makes it more dismal.” It clearly shows that this game review is strongly oriented by a moral point of view on the story.
The same thing applies for example to his comment on the difference on French and American culture and on the ways you could react toward the reporter. Unfortunately for the reviewer, precisely at this moment, the reporter is a caricature of Wayne Gale, the reporter in the movie Natural Born Killer by Oliver Stone (so yes you could be American and have a negative point of view on SOME kind of journalists, the one who are fascinated by death and gossips, but hopefully yes they are not all like that, in France just like in the US). Of course, you can’t offer all the possible choices a player would want, given all the different possible beliefs, cultures, convictions of the players. So that is why in the game, you can mainly choose between three attitudes (so not so binary) : empathy, anger or a more neutral approach, which is already a large panel of reactions. And you could apply different values to your decisions. In the way you explain the death of his mother to your child for example. But of course, because it is a also a take on the biographical form in videogames, some answers had to be restricted to make some part of the story more dramatic (and maybe to make a point you have to close some paths, having too much freedom is not always valuable). A game will always be a balance between constraints and freedom. And in the end here, what you will have is a mix between real life and fiction, something half-real (to quote ludologist Jesper Jull), and that is what a game is. So you invite you to have a look at it and see what you think of the overall experience.