DigiFX Interactive / Merit Studios
Genre: Horror Adventure
There are plenty of gaming discussions and topics that grab my attention and engage me, but few really stoke my fires like video game controversy and censorship. I’ve definitely hinted as to how much I love exploring the how and why of a lot of these actions (see my article on Night Trap for a sample taste of that) come to be. Even better, I love hearing the voices of the creators on these matters.
Once again, I dip my toe into a game that fought censorship and bred controversy in its day with Harvester. When Harvester released back in 1996, it shocked plenty of people with its claims of being ‘the most violent adventure game of all time’. Given its place in electronic history, I could maybe see where its claim could be valid. There was a lot of competition to push boundaries while balancing interesting gameplay not only to ‘stick it to the man’ but to also promote commentary on what was acceptable in video games and film at the time. According to Wikipedia, Gilbert P. Austin who wrote and directed the game said that he wanted to use Harvester to explore whether violence in the media created violence in real life. Sounds oddly familiar, yeah?
This brings a few questions to the table then: did Harvester achieve what Austin was looking for? Were the shock and awe worth it? Above all else- is Harvester even a good game?
Well, I’m glad you asked!
Everything has gone to hell ever since Steve Mason woke up in the small town of Harvest. He can’t remember who he is, how he got to Harvest, or even what day it is. Heck, he remembers things like color television and how everything looks ‘retro’ but given that everyone is saying how this is the time he lived in- 1953, to be semi-exact- and that he has a wedding coming up soon, his amnesia feels all the more misplaced. What he knows, however, is that this isn’t his life (which I assume is supposed to be in the 1990s, but the manual doesn’t make it clear).
His household alone is just one branch of the oddities in Harvest. His “little brother”, Hank, is planted in front of the television, fully adorned in cowboy attire while he watches his hero, Range Ryder, violently massacre Indian Americans. “Mother” is in the kitchen, and she’s baked nearly 2,000 cookies in preparation for the bake sale coming up at the school in town. She says she’ll only end up selling 20 or so, but the practice is worth it to make her cookies perfect. “Dad” is sick in bed, though a little examination makes it clear that it’s due to his late night forays with “mom”. More investigations make this even stranger, given the amount of effort you have to put in to get into the room he’s locked up in. Lastly, your “baby sister” fusses in a crib in the kitchen while bugs fly all over her and she munches on a spider of some sort. Steve’s “mother” claims it has to do with the Wasp Woman, an old hermit who lives nearby and whose house is covered in wasp nests.
Given that Steve doesn’t remember any of these people, his desire to get out of Harvest becomes more intense. Things in Harvest are clearly strange and his normality is constantly challenged by what he runs across: the newspaper boy threatens trouble if you don’t deliver a newspaper to him every morning, the firemen at the department in town spend their downtime drawing a nude young man and consistently make comments about ‘flaming’, and the meat processing plant that your father works for is littered with cats and most likely isn’t just in the pork and beef business. On its surface, Harvest can be compared to plenty of off-kilter communities like Twin Peaks or Deadly Premonition’s Greenvale, just much darker.
Steve’s solace comes when he meets his fiancee, Stephanie. She doesn’t remember much, either but like Steve, she knows she doesn’t belong in Harvest. Her parents won’t let her out of her room, though, so when Steve offers to get them out, she is more than happy to help. Given that the town won’t stop talking about “the Lodge”, a central building of the community that they keep pressuring Steve to join, they unwillingly begin the process to make Steve a member, hoping it might keep them safe or help them leave Harvest behind once and for all. The question then becomes an issue regarding how much Steve will have to do to achieve their freedom.
Much like most point-and-click adventure games, Harvester abides by the need to search over environments Steve is in to find items and clues to help him in his quest to escape Harvest. By using items on other items or characters, you can progress through the game.
Where the game differentiates itself from other point-and-click adventure games is that there is also a combat mechanic. By clicking the right mouse button, Steve will throw a punch or, if he’s armed, swing or shoot a weapon. There are a number of weapons to be found throughout Harvest, and if Steve equips one, anyone he can reach is fair game.
There are only a few select characters who are so important that they are unreachable without some kind of cheat code. If you swing a weapon at nearly any of the NPCs in town, you will kill them. Some will fight back and some just collapse in a bloody heap. These nearly always result in the sheriff arresting Steve, though, and putting him into an electric chair, resulting in a game over.
This is just one of the many ways that Steve can meet his end, however, so saving frequently is key. Sometimes, you can just say the wrong thing to someone and they might just react violently. You can also lose a fight and while healing items are found regularly, it’s not so regularly that you can count on them to be there as the conclusion of the story approaches. Thankfully, the save feature is available at just about all times so this doesn’t become much of a problem.
The Good, The Bad, and…
I’ll just get this out of the way right out of the gate: Harvester never feels like a ‘good’ game. There’s a laundry list of reasons why:
Nearly every conversation with the residents of Harvest feels unnecessary. This might be because of the nature of the NPCs. The assumption is probably that the game should be able to continue on. With that, though, comes the overwhelming feeling that everything is flavor text outside of Steve’s actual objective- and most of it feels more like you’re wasting time than expanding on the game’s setting and characters. All of it comes off as very ‘one-note’.
The game’s message is also super unclear when it all wraps up. I don’t want to go into spoilers here (for that, you’ll have to wait until the Plot Discussion section), but there is no pleasant feeling ending to Harvester. Not to mention that the message of the game feels like it is a counterpoint to itself. In some documentation related to this game, there is a sort of quote that alludes that if you enjoy anything that takes place in Harvester, you should seek psychological help. I don’t know if I agree with that entirely, but it really is tough to see merit in the examination of violence in the media the way that this game presents itself.
The game also never feels like it’s trying to be shocking to prove some kind of a point. I am certain that the creators had one to make, but everything comes off as an attempt to ‘get’ the player; to make them squirm or feel uncomfortable. It may be sincere, but it feels more like a joke at the player’s expense more often than not.
With all of that, there is some kind of positive to be found and it really isn’t hard to see why Harvester has the cult following it has. Especially going back and playing it now, everything just feels so exaggerated and over the top. The acting is hammy, the situations are ridiculous, and with a little more depth, the game really could have been more than a cult classic. Witnessing the straight man protagonist react to these goings on really only amplifies the tone of the game. All of this honestly just makes you think about the potential Harvester had when all is said and done.
Plot Discussion and Therefore Spoilers
The real discussion about Harvester centers on the question at hand and how the game handles it within the plot- does media violence create real-world violence or does it thrive because of the violence is featured so prominently in the real world?
To do this, I have to rip off the band-aid quick and early and reveal the actual plot of Harvester. In the final moments of the game, everything is revealed to Steve as he joins the Lodge of the Harvest Moon and scales its floors in an effort to see if Stephanie- who has been presumed dead, as a skeleton adorned in viscera is found on her bed- is still alive. Upon reaching the top floor, he meets the master of the Lodge and finds that Stephanie is still alive, though she is in rough shape. This is the key moment that everything is revealed.
The Lodge’s master tells Steve that he is in a virtual world where he has been being trained to be desensitized to violence in order to become a serial killer- better known as a Harvester to those running the program. The escalation of his trials ranging from putting a scratch on someone’s prized car to burning down the diner in town (which results in one of the only remotely emotional moments in the game) all fall in line with trying to send him further and further toward abandoning his humanity. His final task is set before him as the scene plays out and an ultimatum is presented: stay trapped in Harvest for the rest of his and Stephanie’s lives and grow old together, never returning to their real lives, or kill Stephanie and be set free upon the real world as a murderer.
Either choice presents a pretty slapdash conclusion. If you spare Stephanie, you are told what a disappointment Steve is and receive a wedding where Steve and Stephanie are joined in matrimony, have a kid, and die, buried in tombs next to one another. If you choose the alternative, you literally have to stab her to death with a ritual weapon until she dies. This leads to an ending where the ‘programmers’ were successful and Steve becomes a detached murderer, hitchhiking to kill an unsuspecting woman and spending time playing violent video games in his room.
The commentary is clear as day, so there isn’t much to analyze. Harvester strongly insinuates that if after everything Steve’s gone through, you make the choice to kill Stephanie, you are most likely unhinged and have no ability to differentiate between killing someone or watching a Road Runner cartoon. While the message is there, though, it feels like there is a bit of a strange standard being set up for this progression. The transgressions that Steve performs to enter the Lodge tend to target the less outrageous Harvest citizens and result in deaths that are inadvertently caused but are clearly orchestrated by the Lodge. Any emotional impact these incidents have, however, is demolished when it’s revealed that these are just simulations of people. Then again, that might be the point- who cares about killing a bunch of digital people? It doesn’t reflect on you as a person, right?
The one point I really want to outline- and it’s the point where the game is actually creepier than people give it credit for- and that’s whenever Steve is caught for murdering someone, he receives a sort of monologue from Sheriff Duane Dwayne the explains how it was stupid to murder someone in broad daylight. In fact, he seems to be pretty lax about Steve and other transgressions in town. When certain topics come up, though, something becomes very clear. He asks about how it felt to kill someone and, if prompted with the right dialogue, becomes downright grotesque in his response. The popular verdict about his intentions is that he is training Steve. If there is an internal ‘cheerleader’ for the programmers, it’s the Sheriff. He always seems to tow the line in his dialogue until Steve concedes that killing someone isn’t ‘so bad’. Everything goes sideways conversationally after that, and his punishing Steve? Just trying to enforce that in the real world, Steve couldn’t murder someone in public without consequences. His actions as a selectively competent and moral lawmaker make a lot more sense when you realize he is trying to reinforce to Steve how to be an effective killer.
Looking at Harvester is a strange mixed bag. The full-motion video is pretty great, and the environments are well rendered. The interface is pretty great, too. The problem usually occurs when there is an effort to impose graphics over the full-motion video, usually with forced gore or ‘creepy’ effects. Some of the effects are fantastic, however, especially with some of the later murders. Unfortunately, some of the effects are laughable (though to be fair, still unnerving at points) and look a little like someone used MS Paint over a photograph. The look of this game has aged unevenly.
In the sound department, the game isn’t musically of any interest. It’s aurally offensive in some parts and a bit off tone in others. When it is mild and forgettable is when it’s at its best. The voice acting is serviceable, mostly in that it enhances the tone of Harvest and its residents. Whether by direction or sincere production effort, the voice acting is just the right kind of ‘over the top’ to feel like it fits in with what Harvester is offering throughout the rest of its package.
Harvester is a weird creature of a game. I can say a few things hands down, though. It is not a great game. It hasn’t aged well, and its message is muddled and obvious all at the same time. It wraps up abruptly and doesn’t have a satisfying ending no matter what you choose. Really, unless you’re interested in checking out a cult classic, it isn’t much worth tracking down.
It is, however, inventive and has rightfully earned its cult following. It’s not a long game, and there are plenty of easter eggs to be found. To the C grade horror fans and game historians, this is an interesting study of a game that you can find cheap on GOG.com and Steam. If you’re looking for actual horror or a well-crafted point-and-click, you may want to use your discretion thoroughly before embarking on this trip.