There is one single burning question which has plagued the industry, ever since the release and subsequent popularity of Doom and Mortal Kombat: are violent videogames to blame for society’s inherent evil?
Thinking about it a couple of 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, but in the end they are nothing more than creative products meant to entertain or, sometimes, send a message. Should one ask Joe Lieberman or Herb Kohl, though, they would have said that, with videogames’ main consumers being young kids and teenagers, these naive subjects should be kept safe from scenes of sex and violence.
But should children actually be raised in a sterile world devoid of sex and violence? Does an individual become ill when exposed to graphic scenes or were they already mentally ill to begin with? Can art actually go too far, does it need to be stopped for fear of offending someone? And if so, who should decide what is excessive and acceptable, indeed, 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 1996 FMV adventure game where the player can get shot by an angry paperboy within minutes from starting or a wrong answer might cause the nuclear holocaust. The town of Harvest is definitely a dark place, a sort of Twin Peaks gone really 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 average sleepy american town had a lodge whose sole objective was breeding and training serial killers?
In order for the player to accept the violence around them, the script needed to stick to the search for one’s identity, thus the town is populated by “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 narrative, especially in the case of 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 is destined to be married to a girl he’s never met, who also seems to be the only one who shares his amnesia predicament. Steve’s mother is baking thousands of cookies and throwing them away and our kid 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 and most disgusting secrets. In an entirely similar way to what was the whole shtick of Marilyn Manson by the mid 90s. In that overall narrative arc of juxtapositing a façade of good hardworking people along with the most perverted thoughts a human mind can conjure, Harvester feels indeed a 90s experience to the core.
After a few minutes of playing, 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 they lead 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.
Despite many interviews saying the opposite (see infra), the developers want the player to stick to being a good citizen, even while playing mean spirited pranks to appease the Lodge. Once enough testes have been passed, Steve will be allowed enter into the foreboding Order of the Harvest Moon and, after that, things will take a major turn to the morbid and bloody. When our dearest kidder enters the order, the designers pull the rug away from the player and Harvester turns, quite abruptly, into a semi action adventure.
Serial killing: it ain't much but it's honest work
While genre mixing has become an average feature nowadays, for 1994 it wasn’t really employed by many titles. 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, not really just “for fun”.. Still, it quickly becomes a not-very-much entertaining design feature, since 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, without being allowed to freely explore like in the first part.
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 different flavor of gameplay would have been better, perhaps conveing the serial killer training by first practicing on the town folks themselves.
This would – also – have made sense in retrospect, since the Lodge is inhabited by several “evil twins” of Harvest inhabitants, an interesting idea which unfortunately seems to have been hurriedly implented and ends up clashing with the restrictive gameplay. It is quite a strong contrast, since the adventure part is functional: 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 isometric 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 rush to get to the end and dialogue – which in the adventure part is long and generous – 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 the overall 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, from an original idea he had in 1993: he had previously worked as a writer on Strike Commander and Wing Commander II. He disappeared from the gaming industry after 1995, well before the release of Harvester, leading everyone to believe he was either a talentless hack or an evil genius. Austin actually worked on another game for Future Vision before retiring, The Fortress of Dr Radiaki (which was, for lack of a better word, not very well received), even though ironically even that managed to come out before the horror adventure.
Reading the post-mortem interview, along with the ones he did to promote it in 1994 where he’s dubbed “the David Lynch of electronic games”, reveals that he handled most of the creative work by himself: designing, writing the script, directing the actors and guiding the creative team around the art. His intention was to spark a debate about controversial violence in videogames and how Steve is nothing more than the person sitting in front of the monitor: the player. Also, originally, Harvester was apparently going to be a first person adventure game with some “monsters” popping up in the second half (in another interview, Austin goes as far as to describe it as an action-RPG). When he completed shooting the actors, again in 1994, he left the lead programmer and president of Future Visions, Lee Jacobson, in charge of development.
That very same year, the team made a quick trailer that would end up looking only vaguely like the final product, to be shown at that year Consumer Electronic Show. While it really did caught many people’s attention, there was another pretty serious contender to the FMV horror throne: Sierra Entertainment’s Phantasmagoria. But since, from the trailer, things looked pretty much on track, everyone thought that Harvester would actually beat Sierra to the punch for the most memorable horror game, because of how over-the-top it was, even compared to Roberta Williams’ pretty 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.
Harvester 1994 CES Trailer
Two years is a long time and times change
By the end of 1995, there was still no sign of Harvester on the market, while Phantasmagoria had already been on the shelves for some time. In the end, it came out in the Fall of 1996, even after the second FMV horror game in the series had been released, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, which had better acting, modern full screen video technology along an accessible plot still heavy on gore, sex and shocking scenes. By 1996, Harvester didn’t really turn heads, graphically it was a FMV only during some of its sequences, while the average gameplay looked pretty similar to Darkseed. The original comic book and full screen conversations with characters were also nowhere to be found, with conversations taking place with characters shown in a static portrait.
So what exactly happened during those two long years of development limbo? In a 1996 four pages article on local Dallas mag “The Met”, Jacobson blames the evolving technology and the fact that the budget got overbloated because they wanted to make the game with 3D. In that very same article, Austin also appears, even though it’s quite clear once he was done writing he never touched the project again. In the latest interview, 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, so much so that when Harvester hit shelves many things were cut (see infra), it was graphically sub-par and most people had already lost interest.
The marketing completely failed to convey the real message, ending up with Jacobson wanting to drum up as much controversy as possible, while also not really investing a lot of money in the process (they even paid to feature radio advertisements). Naturally, while it makes sense to market a game like Harvester for its shocking images, since it can be easily described as a horror title, it has to be factored in that most of its violence is silly, over-the-top and rendered in CGI. Frankly, this is not a scary game; disturbing, perhaps, yes. At its core lies 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.
Many of the interviews, especially those approaching the 1996 release date, banked on people being offended by the content: “I fully expect to see protests, we won’t wimp out on anything” said Lee Jacobson on an interview. Naturally, nothing much happened since very few people played the game, surely not enough to cause such a ruckus: perhaps they missed on their chances to organize some fake protests as a PR stunt. That might have been also because of the problems Future Vision had with shops not wanting to carry the game, but in the end, it made little difference. While critics more or less were appreciative of the efforts, with PC Gamer saying “This is no lightweight Phantasmagoria wannabe—it’s an unrelenting assault on your sensibilities from start to finish.”, the public seemed to mostly ignore it. Going in Harvester expecting a serious horror tale, or even a strictly comical one, might have been quite a disappointing experience.
Harvester post-mortem release, naturally, is little more than a collection of gloomy stories: 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 the game was published. Most of the people involved in its development, also, left the industry pretty soon after. For all intents and purposes, it seemed like Austin’s work never reached its intended audience. Perhaps, if it had met its original 1994 release date, we might be looking at quite a different story here.
It is easy to mantain that, while both Phantasmagoria adventures are better games (even though, regarding the first, 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, that obvious style of sarcasm might be easier to appreciate today. As a time capsule of what the overall discussion on morality and censorship in the 90s might feel like, it really does its job.
Nothing more horrifying than reality itself
Looking into the files on the CDs of the game, it is possible to actually discover the amount of things which ended up on the cutting floor: even as late as three years ago new things were still being found. The adventure was originally supposed to have scrolling screens, obviously removed to save on developing costs. Other things were cut at the last minute, still being found in the data files: the Wasp Woman character arc was basically cut in half, from her role in the original script. While she still has her own dedicated location, visiting her is not even required by the story to progress. 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, despite him still having an evil twin in the Lodge.
But still, talking about post-mortem, the most infamous story about Harvester is how the actor who performed the part of the protagonist, Steve, was arrested twice in the last ten years for possession of child pornography. Considering how the character was the protagonist of a story which features overall training in becoming a serial killer, things do take a rather sinister tone, in retrospect. 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 additional creepy note, Steve can be arrested – and executed – in the actual game for showing pornography to a child. Indeed, this might probably the first (and only, hopefull) example in videogame history of an interactive tale where an actor ended up playing his part way too accurately in real life. One thing is clear, on this maybe Austin was onto something: as much as fiction can be disquieting and shocking, life always has that one last laugh.
Harvest... it's Goblin spelled backwards!
After finishing the adventure for the first time in years, I feel that conveying the overall tone and story of Harvester, to someone who hasn’t played it, is no easy task. The more the overall narrative is removed from its original time period, the more it becomes difficult to frame it. Harvester works on two levels: both as an horror game and as an experiment in art, but, most importantly, it more than earns its rightful place as the quintessential “guilty pleasure” PC adventure of the 90s. Like other similar experiences, like watching Troll 2, embracing it as a whole means accepting its faults with unconditional love.
In the year of the creation of the Rating Board for videogames (ESRB), Gilbert was trying to convey a clear message that can still be appreciated by an open minded public. As might be expected, Harvester approaches the whole art should not be censored and violence in media debates 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 might sometimes become, its very shameless down-to-earth approach seems to go in the opposite direction, speaking to the player without filters.
There are several artistic works where the important all-encompassing “Message” is constantly shoved in the public’s face, usually much to the detriment of the overall tone. For all its faults, Harvester never lets that happen. The fourth wall breaking that shatters the illusion of the virtual world of the town of Harvest is the perfect ending to Steve’s journey, suggesting that while the graphical images are gone as soon as the computer is turned off, a sick mind can’t be turned off. They would not need a training in serial killing to become a rather dangerous tool.
Does Harvester succeed in sparking an intelligent conversation on art vs censorship? No, can’t honestly say that it does, but it is safe to say that, even 25 years later, it still is one of the most memorable experiences in adventure gaming. Perhaps it is not a surprise, then that 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; it seems like, in the end, Austin got the message to the public he intended it for.
Come to think of it, 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? Guess not.
Sources & References
“Gilbert Austin: the David Lynch of Electronic Games” Russ Ceccola, EG 1994.
“The Dark Secret of Harvest”, interview with Gilbert P. Austin, Strategy Plus 1994.
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 pictures in this article.