HARVESTER DESIGN NOTES
by G. P. Austin of FutureVision
When Lee Jacobson approached me to design a game for Future Vision, neither of us had any idea what that game might be. I was finishing up Privateer, he was busy with Command Adventures: Starship, but regardless of what the project would become, Lee hooked me with a simple, but rare, guarantee - he promised me complete artistic freedom in creating it.
Neither Lee nor the good people at Merit Software resemble Marlon Brando, but just the same, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.
I start off my article by mentioning this because Harvester was born as a direct result of Lee's promise; if not for Future Vision's willingness to accept the bizarre, I would never have dared to create Harvester.
The gaming industry is fairly conservative, at least in my experience. You look at the shelves, and you see the same rehashed material over and over again. Here another medieval quest, there another sim-something. Too often marketing departments supplant creators in determining what ships, to the detriment of the consumer. Sadly, in their search for sequels and their analysis of numbers, marketing personnel tend to forget that nothing sells quite like originality. My point here is that, if I were making a cold pitch to one of these conservative bastions, I would never have bothered to bring something like Harvester to the table. They would've thought I was out of my mind. They wouldn't have had the courage to try something so out of the mainstream, and even if they did, by the time it hit the stores it would be nothing but a watered-down, homogenized version of the original concept. In short, Harvester was conceived in an unnatural atmosphere, a suspension of the natural order, a willingness to experiment ...and live with the consequences.
So, after all that...what is Harvester?
Harvester is a horror game. That's an easy answer, and an inadequate one. While trying to decide what to do with this newfound and alien freedom to create, I took a look at the marketplace, asking myself a simple question. What's been done, and what's been done to death?
I concluded that no one had done a good horror game; in fact, I was struck by the fact that no one has done a horror game, period. (Ed note: ummm, errr... well, I’ll keep my big mouth shut, I guess...) As I researched, I found that existing efforts were mostly variations on the old haunted house theme - you inherit property from your evil ancestor along with certain curses, restless inhabitants and hidden traps, all of which must be solved or battled. Some of these games are quite enjoyable, but where's the fear? Horror is supposed to be scary...isn't it?
I had no desire to rehash those tired clichés, but I was at a loss. The people who design those games aren't stupid. Perhaps it's the computer medium itself. Can a game scare people?
I firmly believe the answer is no...with a qualification.
Think about the films that have scared you in the past. They differ from computer games in their linearity. Films are manipulative, while games are cooperative. The director of a horror film guides a person through an experience in a linear fashion, carefully orchestrating fear by choosing what to reveal to the viewer, and when to reveal it. Even films presenting narratives out of chronological order do so in linear fashion, to fulfill the director's objectives. In Psycho, Hitchcock scared us by preventing us from discovering Mother's true identity until the last reel...a difficult trick if the viewer could wander through Norman's house at will, from a top-down perspective, and stumble across Mom's clothes in Norman's closet.
That's the difficulty. While moviegoers are content to sit back and allow themselves to be swept along a pre-determined path, game players value open-ended scenarios which allow them to wander around a world and do whatever they want. When these players are hard-wired against going into Norman's house until the end of the game, they resent it. How can a designer scare people under those conditions? Most designers address the problem by peopling their games with staples of the horror genre - skeletons, Eldritch Gods and so on - but these creatures, never particularly frightening, are merely targets to be eliminated, little different than mushrooms in a Nintendo game.
How to resolve this problem?
I finally decided to attempt a horror game because I realized that, even if you can't scare someone on a PC, you can certainly disturb them. Offer players disquieting images out of their normal context, a wasp laying an egg inside a tarantula beside a sleeping baby, and they won't jump out of their seats...but they just might feel something tighten up inside.
That's what Harvester's all about.
You wake up in a nice little house in a small town with no memory of who you are. You find a woman dressed in heels and pearls in the downstairs kitchen claiming to be your mother, an alleged little brother watching cowboys kill Indians on television, and low moans from behind a locked door which supposedly come from your father.
You don't recognize any of them. They seem like caricatures of normalcy. Your mother is a June Cleaver clone obsessed with baking cookies, your house a technicolor embodiment of small town bliss. As you wander around Harvest, you discover it's a little slice of Americana with a difference, like a Norman Rockwell painting...or a nearly-perfect forgery executed by a madman.
As I was designing Harvester, the plot came first. A strong story with focused characters was a prerequisite. To horrify someone, you must first involve them. The inhabitants of this town had to suck you into their lives and their world. To appreciate the strangeness of Harvest, you'd have to live there.
Once the plot was locked down, certain interface issues had to be resolved. I feel that a clean, intuitive interface may be the single most important element in any game. Complicated controls only get in the player's way, distancing him or her from the overall experience. A bad interface would prove fatal to a game like Harvester.
To that end, I opted for simplicity. All controls in Harvester, from navigation through the town to combat in the mysterious and oppressive Lodge, are handled through the mouse (although keyboard support is provided for those who prefer it).
The game is essentially divided into two sections. In the first, the player moves freely around Harvest, gathering information, speaking to locals and solving certain problems which arise. I've taken great pains to ensure that each person in Harvest is fully realized, and implemented in a cinematic context (in other words, you won't be subjected to an endless succession of talking heads as you speak with them). Cinematic cutaways will occur during conversations, producing images which complement or contrast with what the character is saying.
The second portion of the game occurs in the Hall of the Order of the Harvest Moon, a kind of Lodge which looms over the town like a dark guardian angel. As you move through Harvest, you realize just how entrenched the Order is there. They sponsor Harvest Charity Bake Sales, Harvest Blood Drives, Harvest Homeless Roundups. Only gradually do you come to understand the sinister implications of the Order. When you gain entry to the Hall, intensely gory combat ensues. And already, the controversy has started.
Violence in the media has gotten a great deal of attention recently. Words like "responsibility" and "accountability" are being wrapped around creators like Marley's chains, weighing them down and crushing their desire to express themselves. People seeing the graphic Harvester trailer which I and the talented Future Vision artists prepared for Winter CES have already asked me, "Don't you worry that a game like this could make people violent?"
No, I don't worry about that. I'm an artist, not a social worker. The question is, does violence in the media cause violence in society, or does violence in the media mirror violence in society? I firmly believe the latter. I do object to gratuitous violence, when it's used as a selling point, titillation for titillation's sake. But the intense violence in Harvester is absolutely essential, both structurally and thematically. Although I anticipate objections when the game is released this summer, I feel secure and justified in my position.
In a sense, Harvester is an RPG with arcade combat; however, you can't have true role playing, in my opinion, without the possibility of evil. Any game which forces you to be "the good guy" isn't really an RPG. The average person, by societal morés and laws, is pretty much forced to behave in an acceptable, restrained manner. People don't want a game which limits them to what they can do in real life. Sim-Accountant would not be a best seller. Players most want to do what they ordinarily cannot do. Harvester will allow players the option to indulge their darker natures. And I have the feeling they'll enjoy doing so.
Warning stickers will be featured prominently on all copies of Harvester. The violence is disturbing, and it is to Future Vision and Merit's credit that they've given me such latitude in writing and designing Harvester. Their forbearance ensures that, regardless of whether you hate or love the game, it will be a focused work, the result of a unified vision and not the patchwork product of a marketing department, as so many games are these days.
A real horror game, impossible? I don't think so. I believe Harvester may well be the first.
But that determination is up to you.