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A self proclaimed professor of survival horror despite only having a BA (Hons) degree in film. Go figure.

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1:53 PM on 04.27.2010

Harvester should have been the scariest game on the planet (circa 1996). Except if you lived in the UK, the title would only remind you of two things; one would be an awful chain of restaurants that shared the same name and the other would most likely be a different terror of aural magnitude.

Yes, I’m talking about The Wurzels’ 1976 smash hit Combine Harvester.

Terrifying, isn’t it?

All these elements combined unfortunately deter from the creepy artwork on the cover of the game. Just look at it, you’ve got what looks to be a Somerset druid in front of a rundown diner, which is the absolute norm for a Harvester restaurants in the Southwest of England. Now, throw in the fact that you can’t get The Wurzel’s horrific brand of ‘folk’ out of your head and I guarantee you that this will kill any tension the game generates within the first ten minutes of starting up.

To be fair, Harvester always had an uphill struggle to scare you, even if you didn’t know any of my snooty British references. It’s one of those games that employed one my all time pet hates - taking an existing winning formula and dumping its own extremities on top just to make sure nobody missed the point.

I usually call it American McGee’s Obviousness.

Even though Harvester clearly has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek at any opportune moment, it diffuses the parts where the game gets increasingly dark and thought provoking. Yet, it’s a game that certainly has its charm.

The story revolves around an amnesiac named Steve, who wakes up in a picturesque 1950’s town called Harvest. Despite suffering from memory loss, Steve believes he doesn’t really belong in the town. His creepy All American Mom disagrees; convinced he’s just putting off his wedding to the girl next door. As Steve wanders around his unfamiliar surroundings, he slowly uncovers more irregularities with the townsfolk’s behaviour and their increasing insistence that he should join The Order of The Harvest Moon (no, they’re not a Neil Young tribute band).

The Order run everything from a castle structure called The Lodge and joining their ranks is the ultimate status symbol for the locals. When Steve meets Stephanie the girl he’s supposed to be marrying, she tells him that about her own amnesia and how she’s been ‘grounded’ indefinitely. To find answers and even a way out, Steve reluctantly applies for The Order’s membership. Once accepted, Steve has to complete prank-like tasks everyday that become increasingly more menacing towards the townsfolk as he gets closer to the shocking truth inside The Lodge.

Harvester is typically one of those ‘video nasties’ that were all the rage in the mid-90’s FMV era, with soft-core nudity and hardcore death at every turn. At first, things are mildly offbeat with pitch black humour and disturbing imagery, but once Steve enters The Lodge, everything gets painted with human claret.

I’m talking ‘bucket over of the head of Carrie’ levels here.

Hell, I’m even talking about the time my partner reacted badly to taking ‘the pill’ one time.

In fact, I’m surprised the protagonist doesn’t slip around on the entrails with a comedy slide-whistle effect just to balance out the uneven tone of the game. You see, Harvester might have been a classic if it wasn’t for the developer’s inability to restrain themselves at the right time.

There’s the opening half, in which you wander around, talk to the eccentric characters (a WWII veteran with half his body missing, a paedophile school principle, a pornography obsessed deputy, etc.) and take on your usual point-and-click puzzles. This is where the game is at its strongest, as you pick up on inconsistencies in the town’s behaviour, Steve’s increasing bewilderment and the knowing homage to Stephen King, David Lynch and Clive Barker.

On a side note, have you ever noticed how those guys always get copied by videogame developers?

Aren’t you sick of that by now?

How about some Haruki Murakami videogame where you existentially talk to cats about unrequited love, then go live down a well before ending up in a hotel in a parallel world and discovering you’re inside your own mind?

Anyway, what really works here is how the narrative is constantly pushing Steve’s sanity and questioning if he really does belong in Harvest. Despite the cartoonish depiction of characters, I can be quite subtle when it wants to be, like the neighbour who uses wasps for sexual purposes and the slaughter house that's home many stray cats but no livestock.

The assigned tasks seem like harmless pranks at first (scratch someone’s prized car, steal the firehouse flag, etc.) but your actions increasingly erodes the townsfolk’s’ jovial nature, implosively turning their suspicions and prejudices on each other; no doubt, a nod to a certain episode of The Twilight Zone and cleverly highlights the player’s justified hatred of Harvest’s undesirables.

But once you enter The Lodge, it becomes a strange mix of MTV’s early attempts at live action surrealism (Joe’s Apartment, anyone?) and Sam Raimi, with Steve putting his Home Depot collection to good use – preferably through some antagonist’s head. There’s still a puzzle element, but subtle nature has upped and left, leaving the ‘For Rent’ sign on its way out. The game becomes increasingly nonsensical as you poke out people’s eyeballs, get gunged on and make everyone’s life a misery in an effort to reach the top floor. It does bizarrely have a point, along with the malevolent pranks before it, where all your desensitising actions lead up to a difficult crossroads.

Without ruining too much, you have to make the decision between killing one last person for real freedom or defy expectations, thus remaining blissfully trapped. This kind of grey area choice does throw you for six in the finale and serves well as the story's full stop. At the end of the day, developers don’t owe anybody anything when it comes to narrative, though you’ll always find these kinds of Pyrrhic victories in flawed games that didn’t garner much attention.

Then again, aside from the schizophrenic approach to horror, Harvester had way to many production problems for it to be a real success in the first place.

It managed to garner some press interest at the big events, but was unable to capitalise on the publicity because of delays and shedding content. Apparently, Harvester originally involved cutscenes like DENNIS HOPPER featuring Black Dahlia during the conversations, but instead deadlines meant portraits and voice acting had to suffice; not exactly ideal for a FMV horror adventure.

As it stands, Harvester is odd, but it’s memorably odd. What’s on display is neither a terrifying experience nor an amazing puzzle game, but it does have a thought provoking plot about violence and characters that have enough disturbing ticks to get under your skin. Underneath the shock value, there was an intelligent videogame trying to get out.

Oh, did I mention there’s a scene where a bunch of children feast on their own mother’s guts?

Hmm, maybe it was actually about those awful Harvester restaurants after all.

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