Have you ever played a video game that left you thinking about it long afterwards – but not for the right reasons? This sums up my experience with Harvester, a point-and-click which promoted itself as ‘the most violent adventure game of all time’ when it was released in 1996.
I don’t recall it being a title I ever came across back in the nineties. In fact, I only started taking an interest in playing it after it made an appearance in several news articles and blog posts published as Halloween specials last month. The coverage made me decide to pick up a copy so I could find out for myself whether any of the claims about violence and controversy were true, and this is how I found myself streaming Harvester on the Later Levels’ Twitch channel one Saturday evening.
There are spoilers in the following paragraphs. So if you haven’t yet played the game and intend to at some point, you may wish to consider navigating away from this post now and coming back later.
The story begins when 18-year old Steve wakes up in the town of Harvest in 1953 with a case of amnesia. It’s immediately obvious there’s something sinister going on: all its inhabitants are extremely eccentric or downright creepy and they keep urging him to join the Order of the Harvest Moon. The only person Steve can confide is in Stephanie, a girl he has no recollection of but who he’s apparently due to marry in two weeks, and it looks as if their only choice is to get into the Lodge and find out what’s happening.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of the plot during the stream as I managed to get Steve killed in a rather spectacular fashion around three hours in. How was I to know that using the word ‘Comrade’ in front of Colonel Buster Munroe would cause him to shoot the protagonist in the head, fall on a big red button and send a batch of nuclear missiles rushing towards Russia? Perhaps this was for the best though. Several scenes made for rather uncomfortable viewing so I decided this was a game better played off stream.
I went back to Harvester a week or so later, starting again from the beginning and getting much further this time. The first third of the gameplay focused on gaining an application form to become a member of the Order, then the second involved completing a series of petty vandalisms that had wider consequences. That was where I decided to stop. Not because it was getting too violent, but because the final third of the game involved something every adventure fan dreads: action sequences in point-and-clicks.
I’ve always loved the genre despite its quirks but sequences like this make me want to pull my hair out. There’s nothing worse than being ripped from a world of colourful characters and interesting puzzles, then shoved into a scene which requires you to make use of a different mechanic which is usually very poorly implemented. As soon as I realised this was the direction in which Harvester was heading, I uninstalled it and found a video on YouTube so I could watch someone else struggle with the rest of it.
So how did I feel after witnessing the ending; do I now believe it’s one of the most violent adventure games ever made, as its box-art claimed back in 1996? The truth is that I’m still not sure what to make of it. The only thing I can say for certain is that it’s possibly one of the most confused and pretentious releases I’ve ever experienced or researched in my years of blogging. Developer FutureVision (later renamed to DigiFX Interactive) obviously tried to achieve a lot with their project but not all of it was successful.
It certainly goes out of its way to shock the player as much as possible. There were many scenes that made me cringe internally or even look sway from the screen – but again, not because of the level of violence involved. Let me give you some examples and start with Steve’s parents’ bedroom. After you manage to break through the bars over the window, you find yourself surrounded by bloodied walls and sex toys while your bandaged father gives you a disturbing speech about what a married couple do behind closed doors.
Then there’s the puzzle solved by distracting pornography-obsessed Detective Loomis with a magazine. I’m not sure what’s worse: the fact you see him disappear into a jail cell with it or what the General Store owner says when you try to buy the item. Being told ‘that kind of interest is healthy for a young fella because it steers them away from being a fireman’ seems like a vaguely homophobic remark at first, until you meet Sparky; a man who spends his time sketching nude male models and updating the fire station’s interior design.
And let’s not forget those vandalism tasks mentioned earlier. They begin small with a scratch to Mr Johnson’s beloved car, but then evolve into more serious actions. Stealing something from the barber shop results in Mr Pastorelli’s death after a live wire is left in a puddle of water; and Edna Fitzpatrick kills both herself and her young daughter Karin after her diner is burned to the ground and she can no longer support her family. It feels as if these scenes only exist for the shock factor.
Perhaps the worst one though is when Stephanie asks Steve to ‘take her now’. I know that people in highly stressful situations may turn to each other for comfort but there’s absolutely nothing sexy about this: the whole thing is out-of-place and made even more awkward through terrible writing and acting. And if that wasn’t bad enough, your fiancé’s father is watching through a small hole in the wall complete with a close-up of his face and heavy-breathing sound-effects.
I’m not sure I’ve ever played a release which sets out to disturb the player as deliberately as Harvester does. It throws so many taboo subjects at you in such a short space of time that it seems like a confused mess, and most of the scenes are so over-the-top that it’s hard not to see the game as a bit of a joke. Although I didn’t find it scary at all, I must admit that it was rather unsettling – not because it’s incredibly violent or bloody, but because most of it doesn’t make any sense.
This had a negative impact on the ending for me personally. It wasn’t necessarily disappointing and I got the feeling it was trying to satirise something, but I struggled to figure out what exactly because of just how much the game relied on the shock factor. The last scene should have been a moment of insight and reflection, a chance for the player to question themselves and how they feel about violence in video games; but instead I came away scratching my head in confusion.
After finishing watching the YouTube video, my research led me to a post on the GOG.com blog where they had republished an interview with the title’s designer. It’s clear from reading this and other supporting material that he was vehemently against censorship. He said: “By [Harvester’s] very existence, it would place the player at the end of the game in the position of the protagonist IN the game, raising questions regarding the impact of violence in media on the audience.”
I’m not sure trying to create ‘the most violent adventure game of all time’ was the best way to raise that sort of question, but he did achieve in making an interesting mark in the history of the adventure genre. Harvester is definitely a game of its time and one I’m glad I played, if only for the experience.
Video game lover, Pragmatic Pixel blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Lifelong fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.