The love and loss behind Pine Hearts, a cosy camping Metroidvania

3 weeks ago 43

"You've got to make the most of it."

Pine Hearts developer Rob Madden as a young child with his father Image credit: Rob Madden

"When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure." I don't know who first said these words, but they have given me great comfort over the years. I truly believe memories can be treasure, and often the most precious treasure there is.

But what if we were to take those memories, and channel them into creating something special and new, which then goes on to help others going through something similar? This is what Hyper Luminal Games has done with Pine Hearts, its wholesome take on the Metroidvania genre, and similar to what fellow Metroidvania Tales of Kenzera: Zau did on its launch in April.

Pine Hearts welcomes players into the hiking boots of Tyke, an adorable little bean of a chap who returns to the Pine Hearts camping site he used to visit as a child. As Tyke makes his way through the grounds, he can assist other campers with tasks such as collecting firewood and scaring off crows. So far, so indie. But quickly you realise there's more to the game underneath its bright and unassuming exterior - a deeper story of love and loss that serves as a heartfelt ode to creative director Rob Madden's father.

Pine Hearts Announcement Trailer.Watch on YouTube

Madden's father Roy passed away in 2019, shortly after a sudden discovery of cancer. "The diagnosis when he got it was, 'it's inoperable'," Madden explains via video call, as he shares his story with me. "There was nothing that could be done. It was well past the stage of any sort of recovery."

Rob Madden Rob Madden. | Image credit: Hyper Luminal Games

Understandably, it was an enormous shock to Madden and his family. "He was always such a healthy guy, and in a lot of ways, you always look up to your dad as this sort of immortal being almost, even when you are in your 30s," Madden continues, remembering how his father was quickly moved into palliative care. Six weeks later, Roy passed away.

After his father's death, Madden found himself consumed with grief, so he turned to something he'd always had a passion for as a source of comfort: making games. "I've always loved that. I have always been artistic and creative in that way, so it became a natural thing to want to build something that felt cosy, and a nice place to be," he says. "I made myself somewhere 'warm'."

Madden soon realised there was an opportunity to tell a story through this game that was "much more directly related to [his] experiences", and the idea started to grow from a self-soothing project to something more. "[Hyper Luminal Games] has built games before that had an element of story, but we've never really used them as a vehicle to tell something about a very specific human experience," Madden says of the studio he co-founded alongside Stuart Martin.

The team soon set to work, and the end result was Pine Hearts, a game about childhood innocence, campside fun and the memories of loved ones, loosely based on where Madden's family would go on holiday. At the start of the game, Tyke arrives at the titular campsite, with the hope of climbing the mountain that towers above. However, he does not have all the gear he needs. So, to get himself ready for the climb, he makes his way around the campsite, helping out others and receiving new abilities in the process.

"The main premise of the game in terms of what you do and how the structure is laid out was very much inspired by something my mum said to me when reminiscing about my dad," Madden tells me. "She said: 'Well, of course your dad lives on through you.'

"I thought, well that could be the theme and the tagline the game is built around - how do people that we love, whether relatives or friends or whoever, how do their spirits and their values live on through the things that we can do, or the ways that we behave or interact with the world? There was something really profound about that. It really touched me. "

Pine Hearts Tyke pets a dog at the foot of a mountain. The path up is blocked by a large gate Image credit: Hyper Luminal

Madden ultimately wanted the game to give a sense of hope, and this idea of hopefulness and looking forward became the core of Pine Hearts. "I knew if we were going to make a game about this topic which is inherently sad and - you know, it sucks - I didn't want to make a game where people finished playing it and felt worse," he says.

"I felt it was important to build something that wherever possible, you could come away feeling like you had taken a step forward... and if we can be a source of comfort for even one person, that is amazing. I certainly hope that anyone who has experienced something like this can take a positive away."

I ask Madden about his mother, and how she feels seeing a game inspired by her husband's memory. Smiling, Madden says she is his "biggest fan" and both his parents have always been his greatest supporters. They had been together for over 40 years, he tells me, meeting when his mother was just 17. "And they were married when she was 18, so they spent most of their lives together," he says. "So, seeing something being made that has been inspired by that life experience is valuable, and she is appreciative of that."

While Madden's story has been a key element of Pine Hearts' creation, he is full of praise for the rest of the team at Hyper Luminal, who all played an integral part in bringing the game to life. Yes, Madden's personal experiences were the catalyst, but love and loss are universal parts of life. This is why the father and son in Pine Hearts are meant to be slightly ambiguous in their design, serving as an embodiment of those special people in all our lives, rather than Madden's father specifically.

Madden describes the game's father as "someone you look to who's been a formative figure in your life, someone you have made lots of happy memories with and you want to carry forward in the way you behave". He could just as easily be a friend, sibling or mother. The point is the connection and emotion behind that relationship.

Tyke explores a dark castle in Pine Hearts
Tyke catches butterflies at night in Pine Hearts
Image credit: Hyper Luminal

Madden now hopes Pine Hearts will start conversations and in turn help others who are going through similar experiences. He admits speaking about his father is still often hard, and there were times during Pine Hearts' marketing he worried he had "bitten off more than [he] could chew" emotionally. But, while it has been hard, he is grateful it has given him the opportunity to be more open with his feelings.

"I certainly would never have been this open about something so personal if it wasn't for the game," he says. "I am quite a private person, I am quite quiet... but to be able to speak about something like this, I think that has really helped. It has given me a good perspective that everyone goes through stuff like this, and it is important to talk about it. It can make you feel better. Even though you might feel worse at the time, you do actually feel better afterwards."

"It has also made me appreciate the time you have with people," he closes with a smile. "You've got to make the most of it."

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