Evocative and provocative, a game born of the anxiety about George W. Bush's polices abroad would have included a Chinese invasion of the U.S. and the emotional journey of a soldier struggling over whether to flee military service.
But the game was killed, not by politics but the popularity of the other game that developer David Jaffe was working on.
During our weekly Kotaku Talk Radio podcast, special guest Jaffe spoke at length about his canceled PSP game, Heartland. Read about how the game came to life, how it died, and the game developer that rose from its ashes.
Following the release of God of War for the PlayStation 2, David Jaffe was eager to create another story-based game. It was this desire that gave birth to Heartland, a first-person shooter for the PlayStation Portable that he hoped would make players weep openly.
"Heartland was a very liberal response to the Bush administration and the Iraq War. What I really wanted to do was to create a first-person shooter on the PSP that really tried to evoke emotions beyond the traditional emotions you get in a first-person shooter – you know, adrenalin and competition. I wanted to also evoke fear and sadness.
"It was basically an invasion of the United States by a greater military power and you basically played a reserve guy who was trying to get back to his family. It was really sort of my attempt at speaking through video games about George Bush the second and the war and all that stuff. That's what Heartland was."
Jaffe spoke of the game in relatively simple terms, but his vision for the title was much more powerful. In a lengthy article about the title posted at The Escapist in 2008, David spoke at length about the game's Chinese invasion of the states, which would explore the brutal reaction American's would have to an invasion by foreign powers. In one planned scene, the player would be ordered to set fire to a Chinese American family, herded into their home and doused with gasoline.
It would've been an extremely provocative title. Unfortunately, that's exactly the sort of game Jaffe's development team wasn't used to working on.
"Scott Campbell and I –- my business partner and co-designer with Eat Sleep Play — are very similar in some areas. We like arcade-y stuff, we like action stuff, we like pick up and play stuff. I tend to also like the more arty-farty, storytelling, you know, really trying to push the medium in that direction. I think it was just a bad marriage when it came to that particular design.
"I think they felt, 'This isn't the kind of game we like to make.' If you look at some of the great games they made on their own – Downhill Domination, War of the Monsters – those are games that really speak to the kind of company we are now and the kind of games that they've made."
It wasn't simply developmental differences that caused the downfall of Heartland. The team had gone as far as creating the basis for an engine for the PSP first-person shooter, before Sony started stealing team members to work on a "more important" project.
"What happened was Scott would always call and say, you know we probably started with a team of about 20, and every couple of days he's like 'You know this guy got Warhawked. This guy got Warhawked.' Basically Warhawk was in production at the studio at same time, and it obviously was a much bigger game from a standpoint of Sony's agenda and lineup. It was a much more important title, because it was originally meant to be a launch title for the PS3, so we would keep losing members of our team to go over to help finish up Warhawk."
Stranded in Santa Monica with a dwindling team with no passion for a portable story-based first-person shooter filled with controversial themes, Jaffe and company found inspiration in the Xbox Live Arcade.
"By the end we were down to a skeleton crew of about six guys, and we were just like 'You know what? This is stupid. What are we doing?' That's when we started looking at XBLA and saying 'Hey, there's this thing called Geometry Wars. There's this option out there to start doing games like that.' And that kinda gave rise to how we started Eat Sleep Play.
"So it all kind of led to where we are now, and that's what happened to Heartland."
So that's the beginning of Eat Sleep Play, the studio that's produced Calling All Cars for the PlayStation Network and is rumored to be working on the next Twisted Metal, but is that the end of Heartland? Could it see the light of day once more, perhaps, as Crecente suggested during the podcast, as an episodic title?
Perhaps, but not at Eat Sleep Play.
"To go in and try to say to Scott, 'Hey man, we gotta make this kind of game' is kinda like somebody coming to me and saying, 'Jaffe, we need to do this football arcade game.' I mean, arcade games I do, but football simulation, I'm like 'Dude, it's just not my thing.'
"So maybe one day, but I certainly don't think it's going to happen with Eat Sleep Play."
It's disappointing that Heartland wasn't made. The title had so much potential, exploring themes that many Americans either can't or won't ponder. If we were invaded, would we react any differently than the citizens and soldiers of Iraq? It's a question we'll hopefully never find the answer to, but exploring it hypothetically could lead to a better understanding of ourselves.
Listen to the full story in Wednesday's episode of Kotaku Talk Radio.