Phantasmagoria and Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh were just the beginning of controversial horror FMV adventure games, as DigiFX Interactive’s Harvester is even more disturbing, but also much weirder, and therefore perfect for another sleepless Halloween night.
(USA 1996, developer: DigiFX Interactive (now defunct), publishers: Virgin Interactive (now defunct)/Nightdive Studios, platform: PC)
Teenager Steve finds himself in the small town of Harvest in the 1950ies with a severe case of amnesia, and the only way to find out more is to join the Lodge, a mysterious society which gives him tasks to complete that seem like silly pranks but will soon have serious and deadly consequences.
A story about mystery and weirdness
The overall storyline isn’t particularly rich with explanations, but it serves its purpose to draw the player in, as there are constantly references to a big harvest during which people say it would be wise for Steve to be inside the Lodge’s sanctuary. If one expects suspense or dramatic twists or even logic, then one is in for disappointment, as the only surprises are how weird and violent it gets and what is hidden behind the picture perfect facade of the town.
Violent and sexually depraved people
Calling the townspeople of Harvest eccentric would put it mildly, as they’re more than just a little bit strange. A farmer who collects alien heads as trophies might be the most normal person, as the others are usually concerned with sexual perversion and violence. So it’s not surprising to have Steve’s mom keep her husband locked in his room with lots of bandages covering his whole body and various sex toys lying around, the school principal being obsessed with spending “quality time” with the protagonist or any of minor age. One school teacher even takes corporal punishment so far as beating a pupil’s head to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat. It requires a very special sense of humor to consider this satirical, but it’s clear that the American (or any other society’s) way of life is ridiculed, so family life becomes obsolete because of dysfunctional family members and the education system becomes meaningless because pupils are punished for questioning the status quo and authoritative figures.
It’s often difficult to consider everything as a satire, as there are way too many uncomfortable scenes that cross the line of good taste far too many times. For example, one can play peeping Tom by looking through a hole in the bathroom wall and watch Steve’s soon-to-be wife Stephanie undress, something her own father does on a regular basis as well. Then there’s an older man commenting on how he’d like to have sexual intercourse with Stephanie and maybe even with Steve on their wedding night, or the sheriff’s deputy asking for a dirty magazine for masturbation, or gay firemen painting a male model in underpants, etc.. The list of sexual depravities goes on and on, becoming so excessive that one wants to shout “Enough already! I got it! Everyone is sick and obsessed with all kinds of sexual perversions!” Subtlety is definitely something the game doesn’t handle well at all.
A sick society
Thankfully, not everything is about marital abuse, voyeurism, and child molestation, as consumerism is also satirized, which becomes clear with the townspeople’s obsession with meat that goes so far as that it’s not important what it’s made of anymore, which can be seen in the meat factory where cat carcasses lie on the cutting table. Other characters are used for making fun of society’s standards as well. So there’s the wasp lady who finds the insects so fascinating because they’re not productive, but self-centered. According to her, this makes them much better people, because they don’t work themselves to death, but instead enjoy life to the fullest. Then there’s the colonel with no legs who has access to nuclear missiles, which is another obvious reference to the USA’s (or society’s) fear of outsiders, as he constantly asks Steve if he is in league with “the enemy”. His hate is also aimed at the homosexual firemen who he thinks collaborate with the enemy as well. But as one doesn’t learn anything positive about these firemen, it’s very questionable if one should take this homophobia seriously or as a satire. Just as with the wasp lady’s more egoistical look on life and society, one constantly questions the game designers’ true intent: Do they want to show how ridiculous and meaningless society is, or do they simply want to provoke without providing any meaningful alternative?
Violence on TV and in real life
The game also makes fun of violence as entertainment on TV and compares it to real life. Watching a cowboy shoot an Indian and his entrails falling out, for example, is simply taken as part of American history with cowboys having slaughtered the Indians. So it should only be natural to show it, as it doesn’t have any negative effect on a person’s personality. However, as Steve’s little brother doesn’t do anything else except sitting in front of the TV and watching one gory scene after another accompanied by cartoon music, he often comments on deaths in town as a lot of fun he would have loved to have seen in person or even have liked to commit murder himself, a clear indication that despite all the gratuitous violence and gore the game designers throw at the player, becoming desensitized to violence is criticized. Still, watching children eat their mother or a baby’s eyeballs pop out certainly requires a strong stomach, as even today, the splatter effects are quite convincing despite their obvious comic absurdity.
Even more social criticism and weird humor
Another example of the game’s strange sense of humor that is used for social criticism can be found in the town mortician’s (who is also the owner of a hotel next door) comment that it’s much more reasonable to fund graves instead of shelters for homeless people passing through Harvest, because they would die, anyway and it would cost the town too much to keep them alive. Of course this can be seen as a tasteless joke because of the man’s aversion towards the living in general, but seeing it as a social commentary on people’s disregard of those who don’t have any money and don’t contribute to society in the way of consumerism works, too. There are also quite a few surreal scenes that don’t necessarily have a deeper meaning, e.g. the sheriff eating his pie while looking at a crime scene or a small girl being buried alive and everyone considering this quite normal.
Out of context, out of mind
The actual gameplay has some intriguing ideas, but is riddled with design problems that mostly have to do with narrative continuity. Even if one can choose different kinds of responses in dialogues, they don’t change the way how characters treat Steve later on. As there are so many topics to discuss and some only become visible after clicking through others one has already selected, one repeatedly listens to the same dialogues that are often too long. Additionally, if one decides to stop talking to certain characters on some days, one will receive outdated information later on, and if one accidentally clicks on the “exit” button during conversations, the other person won’t talk to Steve again, at least for the moment, so that one can miss out on some current comments. As people’s tones and moods constantly changes with the topics, a weird sense of disconnectedness is created, and even if this contributes to the strange atmosphere, one can also simply see it as a serious design flaw that makes any conversation between the characters pointless. This repetitiveness is also found in the video sequences, e.g. a alarm siren at school and the same pupil getting beaten to death again and again. There’s also a gratuitous and unbelievably silly sex scene that is repeated at least twice without any consequence for the story or the characters.
The puzzles wouldn’t be so frustrating if one knew where to go next or simply what to do. Exploring the town might be fun at first and is recommended in order to learn about the individual characters, but there are so many locations and people that often don’t even have anything to do with progressing the plot and who can also simply be beaten up or killed if one feels like it. Items can be easily missed as well, and as there are so many parts of the environment that can be looked at, pixel hunting and aimless wandering around becomes routine, as one hopes to pick up something that can be used later on. Interestingly, there are various ways to solve certain puzzles, so one can use different items to break into a building, but it doesn’t change the fact that the puzzles themselves aren’t very interesting or fun. As there’s also a day/night cycle, one has to be careful about each step one takes in some chapters, as it’s easy to miss out on an action or an item. The more the game progresses, the more nonsensical the puzzles become, the pinnacle of frustration being the interiors of the Lodge where the labyrinthine layout, fetch-quests, and easy-to-overlook items become more common. Of course one can attribute this to the surreal nightmare atmosphere and how the game goes against adventure conventions, but one can also simply see it as terrible game design.
Time to fail and/or die so many times
There are quite a few ways to fail in the game, and while some give the player a second or third chance and are as weird as they’re funny, e.g. getting arrested by the sheriff, brought home and tucked into bed with a goodnight kiss on Steve’s head, or getting shot by a small boy if one doesn’t give him a newspaper each morning, others aren’t so forgiving. Very frustrating time-sensitive sequences are the final nail in the coffin of many adventure games, and if one has to repair broken pipes with a very tight time limit and one can’t see most items on the floor or points of interaction because they’re indistinguishable from the the background, or if one has to build and cross a bridge with wooden planks before they sink into a sea of lava and the characters movements are so slow, one feels more anger than tension in these scenes.
Time to kill and be killed even more times
The game’s final chapter is sadly another exercise in frustration, as one has to fight against enemies as much as against the terribly clunky combat controls. While it’s sickeningly satisfying to see bucket loads of blood and guts pouring and spilling out of killed people, the fights become too numerous and unfair. There’s a wide selection of weapons to choose from, ranging from a shotgun or a chainsaw to a scythe and a sword among others, but as ammunition is scarce and it’s more a case of luck than skill to hit the opponent before he or she hits Steve, it’s another useless and unbalanced gameplay mechanic that doesn’t add much fun to proceedings. If one isn’t careful enough with the few items that can replenish one’s health, it’s possible to get stuck, which is also true for the final fight that can only be won with a gun, as one won’t be able to get to the opponent before being shot dead.
Of course these arcade-like action sequences can be seen as a statement about the danger of becoming desensitized to violence, as the more people one kills, the less one cares about each individual. The player is given the option to skip some fights by either using a specific item or even by deciding to torture or kill helpless people. The former requires backtracking and it’s not often clear where to find the object or when to use it, while the latter is obviously morally wrong. But as the alternative is to have another fight with a stronger opponent, it’s certainly the easy way out, again highlighting the fact that this is more of a meta game than a fun game to play. There are also two different endings, but even if one is made to believe that previously morally ambiguous actions should make a difference, only the final decision leads to one of these endings, making everything one has done before rather redundant.
Weird visuals and sounds
The game’s graphics weren’t the best when the title was released, so they’re even worse today. Low-resolution characters with no animations might add to the surreal environment, but they still remain lifeless. Only by making use of exaggerated facial expressions in character portraits is it possible to see any emotions during dialogues in which the characters simply stand motionless. While the voice acting isn’t so bad, the audio quality is often filled with annoying background noises, and the terrible over-acting in the video sequences has to be seen to be believed, but then again maybe it’s all intentional for satire purposes, as if one watches a bad sitcom with lots of violence. The music also adds to this weird atmosphere, as it’s a mix of rockabilly music that suits the 50ies setting, melancholic piano pieces, moody synth parts, but also orchestral and choir music in addition to a few silly tunes with whistling.
A game unlike any other, but not for everyone
Harvester is such a difficult game to like, not necessarily because of the amount of gore and uncomfortable sexual references, but because the gameplay is so frustrating with bad puzzle design and even worse combat mechanics. The dialogue system is also broken, while the parallels to Twin Peaks are obvious with the weird characters and the questionable identity of the main protagonist, but the plot isn’t nearly as engaging. Maybe the most redeeming feature and the reason why one should still play this mess of a game is that it invites discussions about violence in the media and how society works or doesn’t work, but as the satire concept is rubbed into people’s faces by throwing one disgusting scene and obnoxious character after another into the mix, one can’t shake the feeling that it’s all for controversy’s sake and that the game might not be as clever as its designers thought it would be. It’s certainly one of the weirdest games one can play.
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