Secret Shelf - Tin Hearts is a clockwork Lemmings-alike with a lot of soul
1991 had its fair share of video game benchmarks - we only have to look as far as Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter II to see that - but it had some sleeper hits peppered in there too. As the video game industry was still stepping out into new areas (literally) with home and arcade consoles, with new aesthetics and mechanics still waiting to be addressed in the coming years, unassuming titles would become iconic almost by accident, and unexpectedly kickstart archetypes and sub-genres. One of those genres is one without a name, but one that you'd definitely know if you saw it - a burgeoning style that we'll call "the little guy genre."
Lemmings brought it to life most abundantly in 1991, offering a game in which players could control legions of fun little dudes to solve puzzles and fulfil their god complexes - followed then by Pikmin and Locoroco accidentally joining an elite club of titles that put the lives of hundreds in the player's hands.
It's been some time since the puzzle genre was blessed with legions of minions, poured into the palms of prospective messiahs - and maybe unintentionally, we have a new admission into the little guy hall of fame, and it's on time like clockwork. But it might not be all that it seems to be.
Like toy soldiers (because they are)
At first glance, you'd think that you'd have Tin Hearts clocked. Little mechanical toy soldiers wandering around a human-sized laboratory and playroom, solving puzzles as they go - it'd be easy to presume that what you see is what you get. But as Managing Director of Rogue Sun Games Kostas Zafiris tells GGRecon, there's much more at the core of the game.
"We see it at conventions and things where people go 'oh, this reminds me so much of [What Remains of] Edith Finch, for example, or Gone Home, or The Witness, which is another one that I personally really like and have drawn a lot of inspiration from. Yes of course, guiding a bunch of little guys is the core mechanic and that's always gonna be there, but the sort of sucker punch with Tin Hearts, or the wool we pull over your eyes, is that it is actually a narrative game."
Though the most enthralling part of Tin Hearts from afar may be the novelty of playing with toy soldiers, there is a dense story that lies in the game, following a professor character in an exploration of magic, family and ambition.
"it is kind of a fairytale world, but it's actually a very contemporary kind of story about human relationships, and family relationships and self-relation, like your own introspection of how does anyone deal with the battle between being creative and wanting to do things, but also being there for your family, your peers, your relationships in your life."
Cracking open the toybox
Tin Hearts might be indie in name, but that doesn't do anything to diminish its team's efforts in the gaming space, who have accrued a number of years "in the double digits" in the industry as a large part of Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios before its closure. It's this understanding of the industry that led them to attempt to capitalise on a new frontier that they hadn't yet touched - VR.
The game was designed with VR in mind from the start despite its console edition launching sooner, and it's this that Rogue Sun hopes will set their work apart. But there's no doubt that it wasn't easy.
"There was a lot of appetite from the platform holders in terms of high-quality VR content," Kostas tells us about the team's decision to narrow in on VR. "Because you had your solo devs, smaller teams potentially that were doing really great. Um, but then the platform holders did want to seed that ecosystem and make sure there's enough content there for the platforms to stick. It was kind of a clever bet on our side to kind of go 'we are gonna need investment as a new studio.' We had some savings to kind of bootstrap at the very early days, but, uh, you know, with a team our size, that doesn't get you very far."
The game's perspective granted by the player looking down on the toy soldiers that make the game's core mechanics stick is one that truly sells the VR element of the game, but thankfully, it's not all focussed around this, as the console versions of the game do allow for some more interactive movement and all the while loop back around to Tin Hearts' core narrative.
Tin Hearts has a lot of, well, heart
Much like the gameplay itself, Tin Hearts is hiding secrets, and as Kostas holds his cards close to his chest during our interview about what to expect from its story, his candour and passion tell of a thunderous, beating heart at the core of the game. Its protagonists may be squeaky and cold, but its atmosphere certainly isn't, and with years of experience under their belts, there's every chance that Rogue Sun could be onto the most precious game of 2023.
With It Takes Two proving that there is an audience for games a lot like Tin Hearts, there is no doubt that its innovations in creating a game that works on console, PC and VR could catapult them to industry superstardom. Your new favourite game is coming - but you might have to crank the handle on its back first.