Where do I belong? Ymir finally got to play Herald on his (not so functional) laptop and got all existential as he delved into the many narratives of the game and its social and political messages of inclusiveness, gender, sexuality, and more!
Herald was a highly anticipated game for me, as it was for the entire VALUE group. In 2015, we had the opportunity to meet Wispfire’s Roy van der Schilden and Bart Heijltjes during their kickstarter campaign for Herald in one of VALUE’s first Streaming the Past sessions, on colonialism. We played the demo of the game and talked about all things Herald, its relation to colonialism, as well as many other aspects of the game.
A lot has happened since then: the game was successfully funded, VALUE organized The Interactive Pasts Conference during which Roy presented on accommodating historical events in a respectful manner, and now we are publishing a book in which Roy and Bart are contributing a chapter about how Herald came to be. Come to think about it, it’s been (almost) two years!
Having been in contact with the game and the ideas behind it from quite early, I must say that I already had a very positive impression of it, but, at the same time, had rather high expectations, knowing the creators’ capabilities. A series of unfortunate events, including a (nearly) destroyed hard drive, an intense teaching program, and the sudden receipt of a municipal tax bill, kept me from playing Herald on day 1, which only increased my anticipation. On Sunday, however, I managed to get my PC to work (more or less), made sure I would have no distractions and got ready to get on board.
I will briefly introduce you to the story of the game (no spoilers) after which I want to focus instead on the concepts it brings to the table. The game is set in an alternate version of our actual history in which the Protectorate, a colonial superpower, has firm control over a large part of the world. You play as Devan Rensburg, a man of mixed heritage, in search for his roots. For that reason, he decides to work on the HLV Herald, one of the most prestigious ships of the Protectorate, sailing to Devan’s birthplace. You wake up as a captive to an unknown woman who demands to learn your story as you have written it in your journal. That’s where the game begins. As you start telling Devan’s story in retrospect, you get the opportunity to write it yourself by playing through the events that took place onboard the Herald.
Herald is categorized as an interactive drama and, even if I tried, I couldn’t find any better way to describe it. The story is engaging, the characters deep, and all your choices feel meaningful and impactful to the outcome of the events. As an all-time RPG fanboy I have low tolerance for standardized dialogue boxes with either extremely obvious choices or irrelevant chit-chat. Herald has neither. Being a game that is advanced by dialogue interaction, the creators have gone to great lengths to make every single line of dialogue be relevant to the events on the ship.
The story, or several stories, is not the only thing unfolds through dialogues. Herald is concerned with a number of modern-day social issues such as gender equality, sexual orientation, racism, western views, capitalism and more. Games, as a medium, have proven that they have the capabilities to deal with such important issues in a meaningful way. The question is, how can you fit them into a 19th century setting without making them feel like out-of-place anachronisms?
If you’ve ever read my article on the Greek themed Magic: The Gathering set, Theros, I am a big proponent of using alternate and thematic versions to tell stories rather than embedding ‘real’ places/names/events into fictional settings. This is what the developers of Herald have done to great success. Herald is a game set in an ‘alternate version’ of history where things are clearly recognizable but also quite different. It is very easy to associate the Protectorate with historical colonial powers, like England for example, but at the same time, the setting feels like an alternate reality, which allows for both anachronisms as well as innovations and new elements.
In addition to the this fictional historical setting, the fact that the story takes place in a closed space, a ship in this case, provides the opportunity to present a multitude of different characters, from different social classes and heritages, who are forced to interact: bringing forward the conflict that emerges from their differences in social and cultural backgrounds. In this limited space you are confronted with a number of difficult situations in which you, as Devan, have to take moral and ethical decisions. The effects of these decisions might not be obvious at first, but pretty soon you get to understand the impact of your actions. Are you willing to comply with all the rules? Are you ready to rebel against a colonial power? Will you stay silent as you see male dominance manifest in front of your eyes? Are you a servant, a steward, or a slave? Does it matter? Does it matter that you are not ‘white’? Are you a citizen of the Protectorate? Or a man with no past and no future?
The game makes you deal with these and other difficult decisions in a very compelling way. This is achieved through making all possible dialogue options equally diverse and (seemingly) without a standardized pattern. Even in excellent RPG games, such as Mass Effect, the “good, bad and in-between” options in a dialogue situation are pretty obvious. It is very easy to realize which answer will increase your paragon score and which your renegade score. In Herald however, morality is not counted by score but by you, you choose how to play your role on the ship. For those of you who have played the game I will provide an example in a spoiler:
At the same time, despite the fictional setting, it feels very authentic and real, making it extremely immersive. The paintings, the characteristics of the ship, even the cutlery, all feel real and authentic. Difficult, confronting decisions and dialogues, however, are not the only way the developers chose to present their views on social issues. One only has to pay a visit to the kitchen and enjoy a good laugh while examining the different types of consumables stored. As you inspect the cheese for example: first, it looks like a proper Dutch cheese, but then Devan says that based on the awful smell, it is more likely French. Alternatively, a slight hint about meat consumption as you examine the sausage and you read “To ponder about the true nature of sausage is to see the horror in man’s ways.”
I could talk for quite a while about different encounters in the game but I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for anyone as the game is still so new. I do believe that Wispfire with Herald, much like CITC and E-line Media with Never Alone or 11bit Studios with This War of Mine, has made a very important statement: games are not only fun, but they can tell diverse, meaningful stories, bring the past and present together in innovative and provocative ways, and confront both past and present cultural assumptions. Herald is both a beautiful story and a virtual space which makes you think and question the ethics and moralities of modern capitalist, Western society. Herald also shows that indie game development, which can be more focused in artistic and cultural production, without the increased revenue pressure of AAA titles, has a lot to offer to education (through historically informed games), social change (through powerful and respectful messages) but also to meaningful playful experiences (through beautifully made games). Video games have the potential to give a new dimension to discussion of heritage, equality, social justice and more and Herald is one of the best examples out there.
Finally, on a personal note, I found myself struggling emotionally in several cases. I was both confronted with my own presumptions but also identified with a number of situations. I had a continuous tendency to help the people on the ship I felt needed the most help. In several occasions however, the pressure of not breaking everything apart, with a spontaneous emotional answer, and meaningfully helping an individual was too high. Rational versus emotional decisions was a thing that came up several times. Several personal struggles relate heavily to this conflict (from being the target of bullying in my school years because of my height/weight/prone-to-crying to living for the past five years away from home). In the end, Herald was revealing. As Tabatha sang: “It’s never been so strong, the fear that I don’t belong.”