Review by MrLipid
Heaven: the Game
Developer Genesis Works LLC
Publisher Genesis Works LLC
Released September 2009
Available for PC
Time Played All the way to heaven
Verdict: 2/5 Rotten Egg
As the fellow who reviewed the pair of games in the Wild Divine series, it seems only fitting that I take on (and offer my take on) Heaven. After all, both Wild Divine and Heaven make claims about improving the spirituality of their players, whether through Wild Divine‘s bio-feedback or through whatever it is that Heaven has to offer. Step this way to go to Heaven.
J.B.S. Haldane, British geneticist and evolutionary biologist, summed up the challenge facing anyone attempting to make sense of the universe: “…my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Or, to put it another way, we don’t have the imaginative chops to understand this place we call home.
So we make do with the imaginative chops we have. And, not surprisingly, the places we imagine look a whole lot like the world we live in. Oh, they may be bigger and grander and shinier, but we still recognize streets as streets and stairways as stairways and take comfort in the fact that other worlds, when you get right down to it, aren’t all that different from our own.
How convenient and reassuring and familiar and, if you’re the sort who hopes there will be something new beyond the next curve in the road, dull.
The folks behind Wild Divine‘s contribution to this challenge is to give players tools to adjust their response to this world, starting with the physical and gradually using the physical to explain the spiritual. The future will take care of itself if players attend to themselves now. As for the afterlife, who knows? Years after playing Wild Divine, I find myself falling into the breathing patterns taught by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Dean Ornish and watching my blood pressure go down. And feeling calm.
Of course, all that Eastern stuff doesn’t much matter once I stop breathing. I won’t be thinking much about my response to this world when I am reduced to ash and scattered to the wind. So what do I imagine lies ahead for me as my physical form returns to earth as fertilizer for next season’s flowers?
Not what I found in Heaven the Game.
Now it’s probably an impossible task to create, in game form, the experience of a sacred process that millions of people expect to go through as part of their faith. The number of ways that such a game could place a foot wrong is easily greater than the number of stars in the sky. Daunting odds.
So let us count the ways that Heaven works…and doesn’t.
Starting with Heaven‘s technology lets the game put some points on the board immediately. Heaven looks great. Heaven knits together 4.25 GB of Bink files to produce a series of stunning, fully immersive (look up, look down, look all around) landscapes. Of course, since you’re essentially standing in the middle of a sphere (or node), getting around consists of jumping from sphere to sphere and it doesn’t take long for that to get old, especially when the same landscape must be traversed repeatedly. (See Darkness Within.) And it must be. The lesson here appears to be that one would be wise to wear comfortable shoes in the afterlife.
The stunning visuals reflect (and I do mean reflect — most of Heaven appears to be polished gold with chrome or crystals for accents) the vision of, quoting the website, “World Class concept artists [sic] Stephan Martiniere (who) spearheaded the awsome [sic] task of concepting out the look of the game. His unique ability to pull magical concepts out [of] the air proved to be stunning.”
I think the less said about pulling magical concepts out [of] wherever, the better. Otherwise folks might wonder if this is just a pastiche of reliable Maxfield Parrish effects with a sprinkling of classic ’50’s sci-fi magazine covers. That is, when they are not trying to remember if they’ve ever been in a house with a marble spiral staircase accessorized with a pink shag rug.
More technology. Game installed without a hiccup. However, even after dumping 4.25 GB of Bink files on my system, the game insisted that the DVD remain in the drive during play. Annoying.
The usual technical specs are not listed on the game’s DVD or DVD case nor are they completely listed on the game’s numerous and difficult to navigate (excess of Flash) website pages. I am assuming the CPU requirements are low because most of the game consists of playing Bink files. The listing suggests the game will play on Vista and then says that the game needs at least 128 MB of RAM. I would bet that not many Vista boxes in this world run on 128 MB of RAM. I could be wrong. I’m open to being corrected.
But enough about the technology. What’s the story of Heaven?
In a setting reminiscent of the original Richard Donner Superman, a young boy named Joshua is standing alone on the prairie and think-talking to the grave of his grandmother and his grandmother, cozy in her coffin, is think-talking back. He grips a tiny rocketship and vows to go to the moon. For some reason, as the scene continues, big flakes of gray ash begin to fall. And are ignored.
Twenty years later, Joshua’s space shuttle has flown into a field of asteroids. Bad (as in fatal) move. A voice not unlike SHODAN’s informs him that things are going south in a big way. The voice, and the creaking of the ship as it is slowly ground up by asteroids, had me eyeing my copy of System Shock. But back to work.
Had Joshua been less concerned about dying and more curious about the adventure that awaits him, he could have turned on the monitor to his right as he faces the rear of the ship and looked at series of brief clips of what he would encounter in Heaven, including an escort of angels.
Rather than going through the likely-to-leave-a-stain process of dying, Joshua is rushed to Heaven intact by Archangel Michael, who, at 60 feet tall, weighs in at 100 tons. (That’s what the website says.) Michael is assisted by a bevy of less awesome angels who, at a mere 21 feet tall and 7 tons each, seem like GI Joes flying in close formation around him.
Joshua, who never speaks a word as an adult, awakens to a vision in white who has raised a lot of controversy. Although supposedly Joshua’s grandmother, the one whose grave he was think-talking to a couple scenes ago, the vision looks for all the world (?) like a seven foot tall Showgirl Barbie in high-heeled boots, tightly fitted pushup bustier and lots of lace and laces. (One evangelist was heard to wonder, “When did Pamela Anderson get to heaven?”) Stranger yet, a special effort was made to give her laces their own audio track as she strolls up to Joshua as he lies in the grass.
Oh, and she now goes by the name of Axis. Which I think is a silly name for a seven foot tall woman in white. Why would you name a seven foot tall woman after the bad guys in World War II? Or if it’s her first name, is her last name “O’Evil”? I don’t think so. Something should be called by a proper name and as far as I’m concerned a proper name tells you what something is and what she is is Showgirl Barbie. Or Granny. Or heavenly hostess. Nothing else. Period.
Granny fills in the blanks for Joshua — “This is Heaven” — and then sets him up for the obstacle course (Purgatory? Twiddleville? Island of Lost Puzzles?) that he must traverse in order to become a member in good standing of heaven. (With all appropriate rights and privileges, of course.) At least I think this is what happens. If he doesn’t decide to take on the challenges, he just winds up sitting in the grass on Paradise Island, a little spot of property that hangs in space just outside of heaven. I particularly liked the brooks that flow off the property and endlessly pour their water on anyone unfortunate enough to live under heaven. Then again, maybe water would be appreciated by those who live under heaven.
Just a few observations before I plunge into the puzzles of Heaven. House of Moves, the animation people responsible for giving Granny her moves, gave her moves that would not be out of place in Britney’s Dance Beat, another House of Moves project. Our heavenly hostess, when in idle mode, spends a lot of time rolling her head around with her eyes closed and tossing her blonde mane. And as odd as that comes off, Showgirl Barbie appears to be the poster girl for a problem that afflicts countless computer and console game characters: uncanny valley-itis. (For those not familiar with the uncanny valley, it’s the place where video puppet images get just close enough to human to become really disturbing.) Her face is no problem. It’s obviously a bit of computer art. But tilt down to her hands and Whoa! Those things look real! Just say to yourself, “It’s only a puppet, it’s only a puppet.”
On to the puzzles. Keep in mind as the puzzles are discussed that one does not get into Heaven by skipping puzzles. Since one is no longer alive, solving the puzzles is not, however, a matter of life or death. More like a matter of salvation. Solve them or, as Project Runway‘s Heidi Klum says, “You’re out.”
The first stumper involves using a series of symbols to raise a series of underwater bridges to reveal the rest of the symbols required to raise the rest of the underwater bridges…six in all. I’ve always said that nothing says “tedious big challenge” like a pile of boring little challenges. Especially one challenge after another that is just like the one that came before it. (One is tempted to wonder who designed this ridiculous obstacle course, but given that this is supposed to be heaven, the question is hardly worth asking.) It’s a puzzle that gets longer with each raised bridge (one must walk back to the beginning of the street each time one opens a power station and each power station is further away than the one before it). The only message I gathered from this puzzle was “stick with it or you’re never getting out of here.” This puzzle does, however, contain an unexpected howler. Once you have activated a power station, Showgirl Barbie appears and, with the affect of a flight attendant indicating the nearest exit, points off-screen and says, “If you need another symbol, the symbol machine is that way.”
(I was trying to figure out what was bothering me about Showgirl Barbie and it finally came to me. She is seven feet tall and Joshua isn’t. Yet when I, as Joshua, am listening to her, I’m eye level with her. Hmmm.)
The second puzzle is a matter of putting the apostles in game-approved order by clicking on poles bearing Hebrew symbols. The puzzle begins with offering a look at a list of names attached to symbols. All that remains is to select the symbols in the proper order when they appear without the names. Sure. No problem. At least it doesn’t involve endlessly traversing the streets of gold. (There has to be a joke that transposes the elements of “streetwalker with a heart of gold” to “hearty walker of a golden street”, but I don’t seem to be able to lay hands on it at the moment.) One bit of advice: Be sure you know what you’re doing when you start.There is no leaving the symbols-on-poles plaza once you start the selection process.
The third puzzle – which means players have completed nearly half of a $35 game (I’m really not bitter) – involves matching colored balls with animals. It’s as complicated as most things in Heaven, involving all manner of odd machinery. The object is to get a ball of the proper color inlaid with the image of the animal associated with that color. Three balls, three animals, three colors. It may take you a while to figure out how to get the proper animal on the proper ball. And if you get it wrong, you have to go through the entire process before you can try again. The entire process being: Bring the mismarked ball back, find out it’s got the wrong animal, seek out Showgirl Barbie, watch her walk around a massive turnstile, watch her activate her alpha-omega belt buckle with her creepy hands, watch a tableau of the animal you were supposed to match with the chosen color launch a spinning ring, and watch a catapult launch your doomed ball into the ring, which shatters the ball to powder. Listen to Showgirl Barbie inform you a second time that you’re going to have to try again. The only difference between success and failure is that successful balls pass through the ring.
And now, a modest digression.
I encountered what at the time appeared to be a bizarre bug on the first level. After traipsing back and forth on the golden road, turning on one control station after another, the game gave the appearance of getting bored with my wandering and allowed me to move to the third challenge — the ball and animal matching contest.
Then, as if awakening to the fact that I had not completed the first challenge, the game began offering contradictory advice. First I was told to go back to Paradise Island and then told, as I trudged to the speed gate (Stargate-style transporter offering express service to the island), that I was going the wrong way. Showgirl Barbie’s exact words were, spoken with just a touch of annoyance, “You’re going the wrong way!”
If I had listened to my high-heeled heavenly hostess, I would have been stuck, motionless, on the highly polished golden boulevard, with no right way to go. Welcome to Heaven.
Instead, I moved toward the speed gate and returned to Paradise Island. Upon my arrival, I was introduced, by Showgirl Barbie, who seemed to have forgotten I was going the wrong way, to the second challenge which involves matching symbols to the names of the apostles. At the time, my heavenly hostess happened to be standing next to the sparkle tower (don’t ask) I was hoping to shut off to continue the first challenge.
Then, back to the golden road and three more power stations to activate. The competing voices (“Not that way! THIS WAY!”) fell blissfully silent for the rest of the game. Must have tripped something on the way to Paradise Island.
The fourth challenge is an allegedly musical puzzle. I say “allegedly” because you can play it and solve it with the sound off. The situation: There are seven trios of trumpeters on a bridge. Each trio plays the same note with each trumpeter in the trio holding it for either a short, medium or long time. The goal is to figure out which piece of music to play, click on the trumpeters in the correct order, and then run upstairs to the trumpet control center (What is it with Heaven and control centers?) and activate the trumpeters to play the tune. (It really doesn’t matter if you are tone deaf. Oldmariner’s walkthrough will get you through. If you’ve missed a note or two, you will be informed by Showgirl Barbie that you need to try again. As you leave the trumpet control center, you can turn around and find yourself peering down the bodice of your heavenly hostess for as long as you want. She won’t mind. She’s just in an idle cycle.)
The fifth challenge involves flying around Heaven on the back of Showgirl Barbie’s winged steed. (The sequence of her mounting the steed owes much to The Matrix. And once in flight, more than a little to The Thief of Bagdad and Clash of the Titans.) Joshua reappears and rides around Heaven sitting behind his heavenly hostess. This is helpful if you’ve forgotten whose shoes you’ve supposedly been filling throughout this adventure. Though Joshua is shorter than Showgirl Barbie in the long shot, he’s her equal in height when seated behind her. Amazing. Back to the challenge. When the cursor briefly reappears, click for your life. That’s the goal of this sequence. Click for your life when the cursor reappears and eventually the steed loses sufficient airspeed to allow a safe dismount.
The final puzzle takes you to the creation room. I saved just before the creation room and upon reopening my one and only save, was asked to redo the trumpet puzzle and the riding puzzle. Not that that took very long. The creation room is another matching puzzle involving more odd machinery, this one like a giant steamer basket with six petals that open as it spins around. Your job is to find the six symbols that complete the petals. Oh, joy. (Yes, I was losing interest by this point and voted for the clever alternative solution contained in Oldmariner’s walkthrough. Nice to see Showgirl Barbie doing a little work for a change.)
And then, it’s time for the Big Finish! A full 275 MB steaming heap of Bink that introduces players to everyone featured in the clips on the website…and nowhere else in the game. Other than Showgirl Barbie, Joshua and the flying steed, only the giant lion and Archangel Michael and his squadron of Titus-grade angels put in earlier appearances. Everyone else (including a massive CGI crowd) was saved for the curtain call. And then it’s all over but for giving credit to those responsible.
So, what’s the verdict?
The kindest answer is that Heaven, like other inhabitants of the Closet of the Odd, is not really a game. It exhibits game-like qualities (“Match the symbols” “Move the trumpeters”) but only because without those qualities it would be a lecture. Or a sermon. (If you click on your heavenly hostess when she doesn’t have game advice — “The symbol machine is that way’ — she offers, in uninterruptable monologues, a few bits of dogma. Following my belief (!) that games are teaching machines, one quickly learns when she is likely to offer game help and when she is not. Those who learn when she is likely to offer game help will be spared much of what amounts to a very small loop of heavenly advice.)
Am I glad I experienced it? On balance, yes. Few games or multimedia entertainments aspire to offer entree into a place as grand as Heaven‘s heaven. Admittedly, the $35 price of admission was a bit steep for less than half a dozen puzzles. (Reminds me of the price they were asking for Welcome to the Future back in the day. $45 if memory serves.) That Heaven seemed a little cramped upon playing didn’t take away from the first moment of marveling at soaring buildings and thinking, “Wow, this might have possibilities.” (This was before I saw the gargantuan statues that echoed the decayed Soviet Realism in You Are Empty. Did all the old socialists wind up in Heaven or just the landscape architects?). As it became apparent that all that the grandeur was just pixel-thick eye candy and that grandma was a hopeless confection of prefab sex appeal – “the kind men like”, a spottily directed girlish voice and monologues that in no way embodied her age, her experience or her relationship with her grandson, my initial interest curdled into a morbid fascination. Heaven was trying too hard.
Like one of those aliens who was unmasked in a ’50s drive-in flick by some kid who had a funny feeling about how grandma had “changed” and wasn’t acting like herself; the more the alien objects, the more obvious the change becomes. Rather than believe that it could teach by example, Heaven was pushing its messages through the monologues of a cyber puppet. Apparently the creators of Heaven either have never heard or didn’t agree with Samuel Goldwyn’s advice: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Or the more recent wisdom, “Play it, don’t say it!” Having given up on hoping that Heaven could provide the simple pleasures of a game and could only justify its cost by being experienced as an alternative reality, I couldn’t look away.
The challenges of Heaven are not moral. Whenever Joshua leaves the straight-and-narrow, he’s told “You’re going the wrong way.” But it’s not a moral wrong way, it’s a crossing-the-wrong-bridge-at-the-wrong-time wrong way. Joshua, before setting foot on the putting green of Paradise Island, was Heaven-worthy. The time he spends being put through his paces by Showgirl Granny is just busy work. He could have spent the time filling out tax returns for the dead and it would have been about as meaningful. Not as showy, of course, but about as important.
And the little chats Joshua has to listen to from his heavenly hostess. Do we really believe that once someone is in heaven that they really care that God is not responsible for sickness? Aren’t they past the whole sickness/health thing? Aren’t they about to spend eternity without so much as a cold sore? Why would Showgirl Barbie press the point about the relationship of divinity to disease — she claims, perhaps rightly so, that there isn’t one — to someone who was beyond caring about it? Unless, of course, the real audience isn’t in Heaven yet. Which makes for some strange monologues and kicks the stuffing out of any drama the story may have possessed.
And this, perhaps, is the puzzle that Heaven could not solve. Popular stories (parables, anyone?) require a combination of reassurance and surprise. We are reassured when Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder solves the case and surprised to find out who did it. When there is no surprise, the story is left to build suspense about whether it will turn out to be reassuring. What could be more reassuring than heaven?
But where is the arc of rising difficulty awaiting our hero if one starts in heaven? Where is the lesson? There isn’t one. He doesn’t have to rise to any challenge other than clicking on the trumpeters in the proper order. Meanwhile, the audience is still sitting in the world he left for a better place. His concerns are no longer ours. He’s already made it to heaven and the only thing before him is a series of trivial twiddle puzzles, building toward Game Over — “We’re almost out of Bink files” — but not journey’s end. There is no journey’s end.
We’re left with the idea that our hero is immortal and beyond harm. And probably more than a little bored. (I’m projecting, OK?) Our hero, acting as a foil to Showgirl Barbie, is pretty much done developing his personality. He’s not about to learn anything other than that the red ball is supposed to have the eagle head on it before it goes into the catapult IF Showgirl Barbie is strolling around the eagle turnstile. Joshua is just there to keep Showgirl Barbie from talking to herself. We, as Joshua, are just there to listen and listen and listen. Somehow that doesn’t sound like heaven.
Talk about long projects. There were hopes that Heaven would ship in 2003. You can see the optimistic trailer here. As Maxwell Smart might say, “Missed it by six years.”
This review would not have been possible without the walkthrough written by Oldmariner and available here. My thanks to him for his hard work and his apparently limitless patience.
The Stuff You Can Learn Corner: There is much to learn by peering into the 4.25 GB of Bink videos that this game installs. Take a peek at Her.bik in the Media/Crystal directory. Between the baldness and the lack of color, the snippet of figure animation feels a bit like a meekly leering surveillance video of a store mannequin come briefly to life. The fully clothed version of the animation is to be found in the Media/Globes directory and is named firstname.lastname@example.org. It happens to be the long shot idle animation from the last puzzle.
Minimum System Requirements (PC):
Processor Speed: (Not specified)
Minimum RAM: 128 MB
DirectX: (Not specified)
OS: Vista/Windows XP/98
Processor Speed: 1000 MHZ
RAM: 1024 MB
Direct X: 9.0c
OS: Windows XP Pro