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Shed a tear for Jaffe's Heartland


Newsweek's latest exchange with designer David Jaffe dredges up memory of Heartland, one of the industry's recent missed opportunities. In October 2005, when Heartland was known as 'Project HL', Jaffe went public with his goal to make gamers cry, describing his PSP epic as an examination of "what's happening with America and the military". A year later, Heartland was shelved and forgotten, until Jaffe squeaked out a few details in an interview with Entertainment Weekly last month. "Hearing myself talk about it now makes me a bit sad," lamented Jaffe, who was re-realizing that the would-be allegory that depicted a fictional Chinese invasion of the US would have been an important effort for the games industry -- and perhaps Western culture at-large.

Our perception of what Heartland could have been has been damaged by Jaffe's often-manic outbursts. The designer essentially snuffed out all curiosity in the title when he spastically proclaimed last September that the future of the industry was in (in all caps) "SHORTER, LESS EXPENSIVE" games, beginning with his PSN launch pad Calling All Cars. Though the Calling All Cars delays will apparently cease by mid-May, the untimely delivery has led many of us to tune out Jaffe's banter. So, just as we've yet to join Jaffe's "pop songs" crusade (a belief that small-time games will pwn the market), we have little faith in the notion of his PSP tearjerker. Shame on us then for feeling a pang of sorrow -- that sudden urge to pour one out -- over Heartland, as Jaffe confesses to Newsweek's N'Gai Croal his reasons for abandoning the project:

"If the team would have been the right size, we would still be in production with Heartland today ... [but] the main issue that made it clear that we could not continue was that WarHawk kept taking our team members... [We] didn't want to wait 18 months [for Warhawk to be finished] to make our game so we came up with one that could be done by the team size we currently had. But, the thing is, if I had really been ready to leap back into the hell that is epic game making (my personal opinion,) I could have worked with SCEA to try and hire more folks or found a team that was of the proper size to make it... But my heart was just not in it. These days I feel like down the line, I may be ready to tackle a game like that again. But right now, not so much."

Not that Heartland would have been an exception to the grueling task of developing a marquee title, but as "a liberal person's response to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq" it certainly could have been an exception in the commercial games market. In the end Jaffe's heart was in the right place, with his family, and he chose to invest in his responsibility as a husband and father (though Jaffe has intimated that if there was a "pot of gold" in it for him, he'd have made the sacrifice). We only wish there was another equally coveted, but less family-obligated designer to take his place. How many developers would SCEA green-light to do a thinly veiled critique on the Iraq War using a 'China vs. America' set piece? Not many.

The industry doesn't need an all-out 'serious games renaissance', but a skillful attempt at conscious, empathetic gaming, and a heartfelt reminder that the war has already been waged for four long years would be welcome.

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