Heart of the Woods is a self-described “modern-day fairy tale”. With a little bit of trimming and the removal of sexual references, it could easily fit alongside any book that your mother read to you as a child. As a genre, the fairy tale occupies a special place and duplicating its unique qualities is not an easy task. While belief in supernatural beings is still common in our society, fairy tales play a special role as the remnant of a more local mysticality, a belief that magic could be found right outside your door. At the same time, while more medieval societies believed in the existence of dwarves, elves, and magic wholeheartedly, the contemporary fairy tale is a fable, containing a broader truth but couched in the knowledge that none of its events could actually take place. But while elves may not be real, they certainly stand in for something that is.
Heart of the Woods may not be aimed at children but it certainly understands the genre whose lineage it borrows from. It tells the story of two friends, Maddie and Tara, the latter of whom hosts a supernatural-investigation show on Youtube called Taranormal. They travel to the remote village of Eysenfeld, as Maddie declares that this will be her last project as part of the show, something which creates a rift between them. There, she meets a ghost named Abigail, while Tara finds herself drawn towards the one who invited them, Morgan, whose mother, Evelyn, seems to hold a dark secret which appears to hold the entire town in its grasp.
This is a game of monsters and magic, a melancholic story set in a constantly snowed-over village bordered by, you guessed it, the perilous yet serene woods. Like the fairy tales we grew up hearing from our parents and teachers, the Hansel and Gretels, the Little Red Riding Hoods, this game understands that fear is an essential element in any moral narrative. As they say, a monster is never just a monster, it stands in for other fears that can not be so easily discussed. The town of Eysenfeld’s inhospitality even to those who come from it reflects a broader anxiety towards small towns and society as a whole, worries about a state wherein anything you do will quickly spread to everyone you know, terror at the prospect of being in a position where you have little control over how people will interpret you. Evelyn is the quintessential controlling mother and mayor, narcissistically using others for her own ends with little concern for how anyone else will end up. She’s a literal monster as well, yes, but real Evelyns hurt their Morgans and Abigails every day without any magic.
This is where the game’s queerness comes in. While Hansel and Gretel may foreground the fear of being abandoned by your parents, going hungry, and being abused by terrifying strangers, Heart of the Woods focuses on the fear of being unaccepted, hurt by those who are all too close. In this game, the village is far more dangerous than the forest. Past fairy tales had little chance to focus on queerness; at best, you could read that into the monsters, as the witch in the aforementioned story lives alone in the forest, eating other humans. In this game, however, it’s the protagonists who are queer. If crafting a modern-day tale of this sort is your goal, then focusing on the groups who have reason to fear society is not a bad approach to take. Queerness, something which is simultaneously hideable and visible, is a perfect vessel for exploring historical and local trauma. That the game ties this into ecological and spiritual preservation is just a testament to how smart it is.
But don’t be confused: the queerness in this game goes far deeper than being the symbolic cause of the girls’ ostracization and hardship. As with any good yuri visual novel, Heart of the Woods spends plenty of time building up its relationships. By the time the characters finally get around to kissing, the reader will have been begging for them to do so for an hour. Maddie finds Abigail while off by herself and quickly becomes fond of the young woman who’s a scant 223 years old though their relationship starts off without much progress since Maddie can’t hear what Abigail’s saying. Tara, on the other hand, manages to do-the-dirty with Morgan quite quickly, but with both of them hesitant about commitment, it takes longer to go further. These two relationships don’t begin in the same way most queer couples get together, though I’d be down to date a ghost if I didn’t have a girlfriend, but the way their personalities are weaved into their relationship dynamics is perfect. And did I say that one of the girls is trans? Yeah, that’s another element which ties into the broader focus on social ostracization in the game.
The writing is absolutely fantastic on this and other topics, far better than in most VNs on the market and while part of that may be due to the fact that it’s not a translation, it’d give most Japanese works a run for their money. When the game needs to focus on Morgan’s fear of Evelyn, the anxiety she feels at having lived for 20+ years with a monster who’s systematically gaslit her with the eventual aim of killing her, you feel it to your core. At the same time, when the game needs to convey the sheer elation felt by Abigail and Maddie after their first kiss, it’s absolutely able to do so, in large part due to the great art and absolutely stellar music. (Seriously, I could listen to the soundtrack for hours).
Perhaps most interesting is how the game progresses in terms of play. While I’ll leave spoilers to the side for this review, I will say that the game is not kinetic, there are a number of choices to be made and they will influence which ending you get. What’s curious is that these decisions are made by Morgan, a member of what could be considered the “side-couple”. This is an important move as it gives agency to the one who’s been trapped for the last two decades, in a worse state than any other character, including the dead girl. What that agency means to the other themes is up to you to find out as the game progresses, though I can promise it’ll wrap up with a satisfying conclusion, even if it is a bit overly neat. The only significant problem with the game is its performance; for a visual novel, there’s an awful lot of lag, and one of my computers was unable to get through a particular section without crashing. It’s a major issue, though not one that should deter you.
Heart of the Woods does an exceptional job at tying its diverse elements together, recognizing that it had to engage with changes in society if it was going to be a contemporary fairy tale. At the same time, it feels right at home with your Little Red Riding Hoods, its use of magic serving to emphasize what is, at the heart of things, a sweet story of newfound romance paired with a fight against letting past pain keep you immobile. It’s a narrative which deserves to be spoken of alongside those it was influenced by and a must-play for any yuri fan. Thank you to Studio Elan for my copy of the game. It can be found on Steam or on itch.io.