FMVs weren’t new to the world of gaming in the nineties, it was more or less reintroduced in the early part of the decade like an annoying playground fad once CDs became the norm. Popular point-and-click games like Phantasmagoria and Ripper featured professional Hollywood actors giving some ridiculous performances in FMV-centric games. Unlike Command & Conquer, titles like those were used for more than just cutscenes and briefings.
Enter Gilbert P. Austin with a killer last-minute idea for DigiFX Interactive: an adventure game set in a 1950s American town full of serial killers. Thus, Harvester was born. It was rife with social commentary regarding the depiction of violence and sex in society, among many other dicey and taboo topics. However, due to a two-year delay and some poor advertising choices (e.g. radio over TV), the game flopped and disappeared into obscurity after its release in 1996. Flash forward to present day, and the game has become a cult-classic thanks to a small but dedicated fanbase.
Now, some context. The nineties was full of controversies. Video games were being blamed for inspiring real-life violence, Heavy Metal was said to promote Satanism, and Roadrunner cartoons were being censored because they were deemed dangerous for a young child’s mind. In an interview with the Harvester fan page, Austin explained: “When I read about some of the violence being edited out of classic Warner Brothers cartoons […] I was deeply outraged […] Any defective sub-moron who took it upon themselves to cut those masterpieces to somehow save the lil’ chilluns from being corrupted deserves to be […] executed for crimes against humanity”.
Ouch. Clearly, he loves his ‘toons, and hey, who doesn’t?
In Harvester, you play a young teenager called Steve. Stricken with the amnesia trope, he wakes up in the desolate town of Harvest and tries to look for answers. Unfortunately for him, everyone dismisses his recent memory loss with the recurring phrase: “You always were a kidder, Steve.” Thing is, everyone seems to be hiding their own secrets. Steve’s so-called ‘mother’ is a masochist with a painted-on smile. His father-in-law attempts to do unspeakable things to a child. The teachers at the local school uses a baseball bat to discipline children. The game called into question the image of the cereal packet American family, and the constant need to repress their true colours.
Also, you can kill the paperboy. He’s armed with a pistol, for some reason, but there’s probably a clever explanation for this as well.
So, what exactly is the goal of Harvester? Everyone seems to strongly urge Steve to join the Order of the Harvest Moon, simply known as The Lodge. Inside, a Dr. Claw sound-alike called Sergeant-At-Arms gives Steve a series of tasks before granting enlisting him. There are a lot of puzzles that need to be solved in order to complete these tasks. Usually, what you need to do is to hoard every item you can find and start using them on certain things in the environment. The purpose of these tasks is to get Steve to inadvertently kill people via accidents. An example of this would be to set fire to the local diner at night, which will inadvertently force the owner to hang herself along with her daughter. Grim.
The Lodge itself is a ridiculous place. After falling into a cave of flesh, Steve makes his way through various, disjointed rooms. A theatre will lead to a children’s birthday party featuring a chainsaw-wielding killer clown, for instance. Combat is an integral part to the second half of the game, but all you need to do is to mash the attack button and flail your weapon until the enemy dies. Every room contains a character who spouts displaced and forced commentary on abstinence, motherhood, charity, and other tripe. One of the most infamous scenes in the game features a mother being eaten alive by her zombie children, ripping off her flesh and spraying blood everywhere.
After a series of ridiculous battles and irrelevant moral decisions that have no effect on the game’s outcome whatsoever, Steve discovers Stephanie has been taken captive. The Sergeant-At-Arms reveals everything is a virtual reality simulation – much more advanced than Valve or Sony ever could make – which was intended on turning him into a serial killer. In other words, he’s trapped in a video game!
There are two endings to choose from, but the most entertaining one has to be when Steve kills Stephanie by ripping out her spine through her face in order to officially leave the simulation. Eventually, he kills a taxi driver on the way home and eats her corpse. Things get awfully meta when the kidder’s real-life mother watches him play Harvester on his PC, thinking it’ll turn him into a killer like “those awful Roadrunner cartoons”. As nasty as an ending it is, it’s very tongue-in-cheek and darkly humorous.
Harvester is not a masterpiece by any means. There are a lot of notable flaws with the game: the awful combat, the grainy FMV cutscenes and mediocre acting, to name a few. But what makes the game stand out is its thought-provoking and satirical commentary on violence, sex, murder, and art as a medium of expression. All in all, no developer has ever gone this far to defend gaming as an art form in the midst of outlandish accusations and criticisms towards popular things.