Monday, October 19, 2015

The Effective Atmosphere of Harvester

Last Halloween I wrote a piece on Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, a relatively well-known adventure game known for being disturbing.  As disturbing as it might have been, I wouldn't describe IHNMAIMS as "scary."  At least part of the reason for that can be attributed to its stylized, hand-drawn graphics.  In my experience, the 90s adventure games of old that used digitized actors are better at inducing nightmares thanks to the literal realism of the characters clashing with the special effects (and sometimes the sloppy voice acting) that creates an uncanny valley effect for extra punch.  I touched upon this way back in my post on the first Clock Tower game.

For FMV games, this can be felt in horror titles like the Phantasmagoria and Darkseed games.  The fear factor in the second installments in both those examples have kind of been mitigated in the public eye by certain internet comedians, however.

But there is one horror adventure game that is largely overlooked.  One that is an excellent example of how to make a game subtley disturbing as well as outright horrific.  It's the messed-up game called Harvester, which luckily has not yet been ruined by silliness.


Harvester starts the player off in the same boat as the main character, Steve.  He wakes up in a strange little town called Harvest with no memory other than his name.  What's more, he's engaged to one of the local residents who also can't remember a thing.  His look for answers (through everyone's nagging) takes him to the gigantic super-building in the middle of the town called the Lodge, where the local cult requires him to complete a series of tasks over six days in order to allow him admittance.

The answers to questions on the application are pretty funny.
To fulfill these tasks you do the usual point and click adventure game spiel of exploring the town, collecting items, using them to solve problems and talking to others, but it quickly becomes apparent that Harvest is a very very disturbed town, and it's in that surrealism Harvester is most effective.

Harvest seems to treat violence and deviance as though they aren't a big deal.  The paper boy demands to be given a newspaper every day or else he'll gun you down, there's a legless army commando guarding a big red nuclear apocalypse button he can easily press on accident and the local butcher gets his meat from stray cats.  The entire town is full of these breaks from reality and its many dark secrets makes the atmosphere hostile even when nothing is happening.

In an uncommon move for point and click adventure games, the main character is aware of this and rarely treats the more ridiculous aspects like they aren't screwed up beyond belief.  Steve apparently lost his memories, but not his sense.  He's usually deadpan and says what the player is probably thinking, which is an effective way of writing him.

As the game goes on the tasks get more and more morally ambiguous and Steve witnesses various atrocities and crimes, which he himself can be arrested for, most notably murder because the game actually has combat.  It's sloppy combat that amounts to swatting/shooting things away like a wimp by right clicking, but its inclusion plays into the story.

You have the option of killing anyone at any point in time during the game, but barring a few exceptions, you will very likely be caught for it by the local police, put into the electric chair and get a game over.  You can avoid this consequence once if you manage to get a literal get out of jail free card... Through blackmail.  That or if you're caught for theft instead of murder, in which case you get one warning.

It's interesting that when you're arrested, nobody says that what you did was wrong.  They act disappointed that you got caught!

The combat itself is never necessary until near the end of the game, mostly once you actually go into the lodge, where the game goes from "really fucked up" to "astronomically Salvador Dali fucked up!"  The lodge is full of ways to die, monsters to kill, random architecture and mysterious people preaching cynical viewpoints that the game gives you the option to either agree with or dispute.

Where in the fuck...

It's hard to put into words how absurd the lodge is, so for a taste, here is an example of just one room in it:
You enter a room where a short, obese man with an Elvis hairstyle wearing nothing but undies, shoes and sunglasses is sitting in front of a table with a pile of burgers on a plate.  The man never says anything and is watched over by a secret service agent who tells you that you must learn to abstain.  You are literally supposed to stand there and watch the fatso eat every burger one by one in a lifeless, mechanical fashion until he is done.  If you don't, the agent guns you down.  If you do, then you only have to kill the fat man, who has no gun.

I did not make a single word of that up!!!

The entire game feels like a nightmare where everything is wrong, but it thankfully doesn't pull the "it was all just a dream" card.  The ending has a more creative twist that explains everything and is so ridiculous yet brilliantly set up that it has to be seen to be believed!

I like Harvester because it's interesting and unique, but unlike IHNMAIMS, I can't call it "good."  It sometimes falls for the trap of 90s adventure game logic and pixel hunting, for one.  It's not as bad in that regard as other games of its kind, but I had to consult a walkthrough more than once.
The presentation isn't as good as it could be either.  The in-game graphics are well-done, but the FMV cutscenes, even with their disturbing imagery and gore, are badly pixelated.  Of course, as noted by many critics, the combat is also really bad.  In its defense, the hit detection seems to work ok to me, but it's still ultimately just swatting/firing at something coming toward you until it turns into a pile of bones and guts.  There's no satisfaction or depth.

A lot of Harvester is sloppily done, but it succeeds so well in surreal horror that it's interesting to observe in the fascinating observational sense, if not the "fun" sense.  Make no mistake, its dark humor, satire and Steve's straight man attitude can deliver on the fun, but even then the game often feels like a period piece, intentional or not.

It's clear there are people Harvester appeals to because it has gained a cult following over the years and is now available on both GOG and Steam, complete with humorously captioned Steam trading cards.  For horror and storytelling enthusiasts, I recommend dropping a few dollars to check it out this Halloween if you haven't already.

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