Are violent videogames to blame for society’s inherent evil?
The burning question which has plagued the industry ever since the release and subsequent popularity of Doom and Mortal Kombat. If one thinks about it a whole two seconds, the answer should be obvious: society has been evil since the days before Christ. Videogames are, like movies or books, a tool which can be used for good or bad, they are works meant to entertain or send a message. Should one ask Joe Lieberman or Herb Kohl, though, they would say videogames’ main consumers are actually young kids and teenagers, so they should be kept safe from scenes of sex and violence.
But should children be raised without any knowledge of sex and violence? Does a mind become ill when exposed to graphic scenes or was it already sick to start with? Can art actually go too far and does it need to be stopped for fear of offending someone? And if so, who should decide what is excessive and acceptable. What – in the end – is really “art”?
Believe it or not, these are the main inspirations behind infamous FMV horror title Harvester.
Horror and nonary games: a match made in Hell
Harvester is a pretty infamous 1996 FMV adventure game where the protagonist can get shot by an angry paperboy within minutes or a wrong answer might cause the nuclear holocaust. The town of Harvest is definitely a dark place, a Twin Peaks gone bad, but the underlying narrative arc, instead of a horror story, is closer to a moral work about the consequences of trauma on the human mind.
Trust me on this one: Harvester shares a lot of common threads with the “Zero Escape” series by Chunsoft, even if they address the subject matter in radically different ways. Spike Chunsoft uses complicated puzzles, moral choices and long dialogues, DigiFx Studio goes for “shocking the player” instead: what would happen if an ordinary sleepy town had a lodge whose sole objective was breeding and training serial killers?
In order for the player to accept the violence around, the script needed to make him question his identity, thus the town is scripted to be full of “dull people who do inexplicable things in absurd settings to make the player feel like an outsider“. The amnesiac protagonist is the tiredest trope in videogames, especially adventure games; it is a necessary evil in order for the story to work, a cliché fortunately not used in a clichéd manner. Our protagonist Steve, wakes up one day and he discovers he will soon be married, his mother is baking thousands of cookies and throwing them away and he has a bright future in the slaughterhouse industry. The town of Harvest is designed to be as stereotypical as possible, the quintessential 50s American life with all the usual friendly hotspots: post office, diner, barber shop, missile base…
Portrait of an American Harvester family
The typical middle American values are subverted to create a sense of forced normalcy that, obviously, conceals the dirtiest most disgusting secrets, similar to what was the whole shtick of Marilyn Manson by the mid 90s. In that juxtapositing a façade of good hardworking people and the most perverted thoughts a human mind can conjure, Harvester is indeed a 90s experience to the core.
After a few minutes, Steve “The Kidder” Mason is basically forced into applying to join the Lodge, a secret society which seems to be everyone’s ultimate dream, its HQ a foreboding medieval building in the center of town. Most of the quests are provided by the sect itself: while initially seemingly harmless pranks, they soon devolve into major felonies that wreck havoc on the city. Sometimes those pranks can be seen as “karma”, like scratching the precious car of a sexual maniac, other times it leads to much more unfortunate consequences.
In the initial six days, the gameplay is that of an average point and click graphical adventure: pick up items and combine/use them in order to solve puzzles. The one radical design choice is that Steve can kill anyone he desires, even empty handed, again catering to the whole “serial killing” motif. Most of the time though, killing someone in the town of Harvest will attract the police attention and that will be a game over; but, if unnecessary to the plot, Steve will usually get away with murder. The designers wants our flanneled shirt teenager to be a good citizen, at least as long as it is needed to join the Lodge, after that things will take a major turn to the morbid and bloody.
Grab your scythe and get to work
When our dearest kidder is finally allowed to enter the lodge, the designers pull the rug away from the player and Harvester turns quite abruptly into a semi action adventure. While genre mixing has become an average feature nowadays, for 1994 it was almost unheard of. The action-related gameplay makes sense in context, Steve is being forced to let go of his human emotions and has to kill to survive, but the single-track gameplay feels stiff and the whole design seems to hinge on waiting for the player to do the required action to progress to the next room.
The art design in the Lodge is unique and very interesting, which makes the hurried pace, little freedom and skippable rooms a lot more frustrating. Easing the player into the the different gameplay would have been better, perhaps conveing the serial killer training by first practicing on the town folks themselves, since it was a feature from the beginning of the adventure. This would have made sense, since the Lodge is inhabited by several “evil twins” of Harvest inhabitants, an interesting idea which unfortunately clashes with the restrictive gameplay.
‘Tis a shame because the adventure part is functional for the time, most puzzles are pretty logical and there is good pacing throughout. Obviously, the action part poses the biggest design issues, not only it is ill suited to keyboard/mouse control but the quasi-3D engine is inadequate for targeting enemies on a 2D plane. The pacing also begins to wildly oscillate, especially in the final level of the lodge where Steve will face a series of “temples” where biblical references and human absurdities abound. Again, not a bad idea per se, but by that point the story seems to be almost in a frenzy to get to the end and dialogue becomes very stringy and repetitive.
It feels like the story is already finished but the design requires the player to still go through a checklist of “shocking scenes” with little thought as to plot and structure. Even if there are two endings, both of those end up being coherently dark, there is really no salvation in the creepy world of Harvester.
Sympathy for the parents
Harvester was written and designed by Gilbert P. Austin, who also directed all of the FMV sequences. He disappeared from the gaming industry after 1995, leading everyone to believe he was either a talentless hack or an evil genius. Austin actually ended up working on another game before retiring, The Fortress of Dr Radiaki (which was, for lack of a better word, not very well received), even though ironically it came out way before the FMV adventure.
Reading the post-mortem interview, reveals that he handled most of the creative work by himself: designing, writing the script and guiding the creative team around the art. His intention was to spark a debate about controversial violence in videogames and how Steve is really the person sitting in front of the monitor, the player. When he completed shooting the actors, by 1994, he left the lead programmer, Lee Jacobson, in charge of development.
In 1994, the team made-up a quick trailer – looking nothing like the final product – to be shown at that year Consumer Electronic Show, which caught many people’s attention. Everyone was sure Harvester would actually beat Sierra to the punch for best FMV horror game, because of how over-the-top it was, even compared to Roberta Williams’ graphic foray. Harvester should have been the shining star that launched the career of Future Vision/DigiFx Interactive studio, but instead came out more like a meteorite.
Two years is a long time and times change
The release date ended up actually being pushed to Fall of 1996; by then the game didn’t exactly turn heads, since not just Phantasmagoria was already out by even its sequel, A Puzzle of Flesh, which had better acting, modern full screen video technology and an accessible plot still heavy on gore, sex and shocking scenes. While critics scratched their head trying to figure out if Harvester was meant to be taken as a joke or not, the general public largely ignored it.
So what exactly happened during those two years of limbo? It is unclear what caused the delay, maybe the inexperience of the programmers or a naturally long development cycle, but apparently Austin goes on blaming Jacobson for many of the problems with the final release. Two years in such a rapidly evolving industry made a pretty big difference, but, after reading several interviews, my feeling is that they made no crucial difference: the biggest obstacle to the public’s reception was the difference between what was shown to the public before release and the finished product’s overall tone.
The marketing completely failed to convey the real message, instead, they relied on pushing the cheap “horror” angle while also relying on radio commercials. Gilbert P. Austin recounters “those were a pretty outdated choice to sell a videogame in 1996!”. Naturally Harvester is a horror title, heavy on gore and violence, but at its core is a tongue-in-cheek moral play about extremisms in art and the value of censorship, with very oddball juxtapositions between blood’n’guts and Looney Tunes style violence.
The actors were all recruited from a local agency and didn’t really do anything else, the developer studio had blown all their funds and was dissolved by the time Harvester was published and most of the people involved left the industry pretty soon after. For all intents and purposes, it seemed like Austin’s work never reached its intended audience. It is easy to mantain that, while both Phantasmagorias are better games (even though not *that* much better) Harvester is surely the more memorable one. Its morbid tale of serial killing and the direct stabs at censorship and American hypocrisy (“violence is as American as apple pie and low SAT scores!”) were perhaps a bit too much for the target audience, but somehow the obvious sarcasm is easier to appreciate today.
Still, there is a silver lining.
Over the last few years, Harvester has built up a devoted cult following and an on-going youtube show, many of its creators have been found and are still in contact with the fans. It is now also easily found online, both on GOG and Steam, for once a happy ending to a sad story of development hell. Is there something more cult-worthy than a game featuring a baby eating a tarantula made in MS paint with four strokes of black brush, with a CG wasp on her forehead? Guess not.
Nothing more horrifying than reality itself
Playing Harvester does leave one with a weird creepy aftertaste in the mouth, while also providing many laughs. Also, I can be testament to the fact that it probably creates addiction, since researching the story behind it is probably among the most absorbing things I’ve done since I opened the blog.
The adventure was originally supposed to have scrolling screens, obviously removed to save on developing costs. It is rather less clear why other things were cut from the game at the last minute, even though they are present in the data files: for example the Wasp Woman character arc was all but removed from her role in the original script. While she still has her own dedicated location, visiting her is not required to progress, so why not cut her altogether? Pastorelli, the barber, has unused portraits in the data files, meaning he was supposed to be a talking character, but in the game Steve can’t interact with him in any way, even though he still has an evil twin in the Lodge.
Naturally the most infamous story about Harvester is how the actor who performed the part of the protagonist was arrested twice in the last ten years for possession of child pornography. While, perhaps, it won’t come as such a shocking revelation, thinking back to the whole story about the protagonist being a serial killer in training, things do take a rather sinister tone. Even worse is the first mugshot, from 2010, where the actor seemed to be wearing the same exact striped shirt he had on while performing his part!
As a final creepy note, Steve can be arrested (and, well, executed) in the actual game for showing pornography to a child. Yes, this is probably the only example in videogame history of an interactive tale where an actor ended up playing his part way too accurately. While I would be pretty horrified to define something like that as an achievement for Harvester, one thing is clear: life always has that one last laugh.
Harvest... it's Goblin spelled backwards!
After playing it through for the first time in years, I feel conveying the overall tone and story of Harvester to someone who hasn’t played it, is no easy task. It works both as an horror game and as an experiment in art, but, most importantly, it more than earns its place as the quintessential “guilty pleasure” PC adventure of the 90s. Like other similar experiences, like Troll 2, embracing it as a whole means to accept its faults and offer unconditional love.
In the year of the creation of the Rating Board for videogames (ESRB), Gilbert was trying to convey a clear message that will be appreciated by an open minded public. Naturally, Harvester approaches the whole “art should not be censored” debate in a pretty heavy handed manner, not to mention at times juvenile, but never falls short of being entertaining and thought provoking, if one is in the adequate mindset. Instead of coming off as pretentious, as the debate “art in videogames” has become these last few years, its very shameless down-to-earth approach seems to go in the opposite direction, speaking to the player without filters.
There are many works of art where “the Message” is constantly shoved in the viewer’s face to the detriment of the overall tone, for all its faults, Harvester never lets that happen. The fourth wall breaking is the perfect ending to Steve’s journey, suggesting that while the graphic images are gone as soon as the computer is turned off, a sick mind wouldn’t need a “serial killing sim” to become a rather dangerous tool in itself.
Does Harvester succeed in sparking an intelligent conversation on art vs censorship? No, can’t say that it does, but it is safe to say that, even 24 years later, it still is one of the most memorable experiences in adventure gaming.
Sources & References
Big thanks go out to Aarno, who has been crucial in writing this article, he’s been researching the game and hunting down its creators since 2010, providing tons of information available on the Harvester Facebook page. He also does the Harvester show on Youtube and has kindly given me permission to use several of the exclusive pictures you see in this article.