Well, I’ve had an interesting challenge in front of me and, quite frankly, I haven’t really known how to respond. The challenge was to summarize my thoughts on the demo for Herald: a 3D visual novel that has been on Kickstarter for about a month now. It isn’t a very long demo, but it is a very interesting concept. It was very nostalgic for me to boot up a game that reminded me of the Windows 95 computer games of my youth. I appreciate that feeling and I do feel the Wispfire team is on to something truly unique.
However, the simple truth is that the few moments of the demo were everything I feared they would be. So, let’s do this: let’s run down the technical side of Herald and after that, we’ll discuss why I had an issue with it. I think I can run that down in two-thousands words or less!
On a purely technical level, Herald is on the right track but requires a lot more polish to be a standout. The biggest issue it has is its camera, which is troublesome in most cases. It sticks to an overhead shot and captures roughly a third of any particular room at any given time. Since you can only move forward by clicking on the right object, having it partially obscured by the camera is frustrating at best.
This carries over with the lack of a hint or tutorial system. You’re just dropped into the center of a room and told that you’re investigating if any of the ship’s officers broke into the ship’s weapon’s cache and took a firearm. The Captain of the ship has ordered that all officers relinquish their arms while on the ship. I understand this is an alpha build of the game and not everything is going to be exactly as the developers, and the readers, want it to be. But, a general idea on how to play the demo would be nice instead of having the reader stumble around the room trying to get through the door.
However, I do like the journal system as well as the graphics. Unity is the primary engine behind this one and it allows Herald to run crisply. Considering the issue that certain animations can have, I was surprised to see how well things could run in such an early stage. It gives me hope that as the development process continues they can smooth out these rough edges and deliver a truly unique experience in the EVN sphere.
Once you get through the door, however, the camera is a bit more stable and the story begins to fill itself in. The investigation is rather quick as the person breaking the rules is just playing with the gun on his bed, however this is where Herald stumbled very hard for me. I have talked at length about my hatred of ‘anvils’ on this site, but a refresher course may be in order for those who are new. ‘Anvil’ is short for ‘Anvilicious’: a trope in fiction described as, ‘a writer’s and/or director’s use of an artistic element, be it line of dialogue, visual motif, or plot point, to so obviously or unsubtly convey a particular message that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head’. This is very popular for very political directors, on both the left and right end of the spectrum, who believe their story is the perfect vehicle to hammer the audience with their opinion and calling developers out on this in the EVN community has proven to be very, very bloody for me.
Yet, it doesn’t take away from the fact that relying only on your opinion, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, leads to sloppy writing which leads to a project only those in your political mindset can love. So, congrats! If this is you, you have succeeded in creating an echo chamber: NOT a viable piece of fiction. Now, where does that leave Herald? Well, the game takes place in a fiction version of a colonial empire and the developers have not been shy with the fact that the world’s setting isn’t supposed to be morally ambiguous. From the Kickstarter page,
As a steward, you are responsible for the well-being of all passengers on board, be they rich or poor, important or downtrodden. Your job is best done without anybody noticing, so if a conflict should arise, you are well-served to solve it before the captain gets wind of it. Which side of morality will you be on? Are you going to stand up for the oppressed, or will you help those in authority abuse their power? Either way, you are responsible for your choices, and you will carry the consequences.
This set up, by itself, isn’t bad. The whole ‘protagonist joins the resistance against a corrupt regime’ bit has been done before, but it isn’t bad. Even with the creator’s clear opinion and agenda leading the way, it can be used to deliver an effective story. The problem comes when you stop reading the page and start reading the demo. Why? Because once you find the officer breaking the rules and playing with his gun in his bed, the protagonist immediately confronts him. We then get a rant by the officer about how he, as a non-white character, has had to deal with the prejudices of the crew and he shouldn’t have to relinquish his rights despite the orders given.
Now, let’s rewind and go back to what that general order was. Every officer had to relinquish their weapon: every officer. This particular officer in clearly in the wrong and is trying to hide behind his race, and presumably his ego, to get away with defying his Captain, stealing from the ship’s weapons cache and, in certain dialogue options, threatening a member of the crew. There is no scenario in this demo in which he is in the right and, considering the time period, he deserves to be locked below at the very least.
I, not being quite as kind, would’ve opted to shoot him in the head right then and there to send a message. But, as a mere steward, I decided to report him instead. The larger point here is that this isn’t a moral choice or a dialogue branch that further defines the ‘injustices’ purportedly brought down by the Protectorate in this game. This is a choice about maintaining order on a military vessel in the face of clear insubordination. And yet, this is supposed to sell us on a game where there are two clear defined sides and any action taken that support the Imperialists is, at best, defending a necessary evil.
Er, no. I’m sorry but no.
I want to be fair because you cannot know exactly how a plot is going to go from, at best, twenty minutes of one conversation. The demo for Herald is about showing us the tone and themes of the larger game and what I’ve seen, quite frankly, I don’t know if it’s for me. I’m really not interested in Wispfire’s opinion on Europe’s colonial past and I cannot get invested in scenarios where the clear right decision could be wrong because of the skin colors involved. This is an idea that needs much more time in development and a much defter hand to create a more solid and engaging narrative and I hope the team takes this short look at their work and uses it to the game’s betterment.
For now, though? I can’t recommend it. If you think otherwise and want to see Herald come to fruition, check out the Kickstarter page here. JP3: OUT.