Edna and Harvey: Harvey’s New Eyes speaks a language all its own.
It’s not in the narrative that we find that language. Really, much of the narrative is an excuse for an extended black humor setpiece in which a good and virtuous little girl accidentally(?) kills almost everyone around her. The twists in the story are projected very early on, and the dialogue is a little bit overcooked in its propensity to say twice as many words as actually need to be said at any given time. Despite its drawbacks, the narrative is interesting enough, and the hook of seeing just who’s going to get killed when and how allows for the sort of morbid curiosity that keeps a player clicking. The narrative of Harvey’s New Eyes is serviceable. But it’s not what makes the game special.
It’s not in the game mechanics that we find that language, either, at least not specifically. Harvey’s New Eyes is an adventure game, and it plays like an adventure game. There are plenty of items to pick up, characters to talk to, and environs to visit. There are minigames, little diversions that happen at irregular intervals that offer some sort of logic problem or block puzzle to solve. You don’t have to do them — each minigame has a “skip” button that’ll send you right back to the adventuring — but it’s worth doing them to break up the mood every so often.
It’s not even in the game’s art style that we find the language. It’s a slightly off-center cartoon art style, in which nobody really has a mouth unless they are speaking, and its hand-drawn style veers from detailed and intriguing to crude and ugly seemingly on a whim.
Really, it’s in the interplay that connects the three aspects above that we find the true language of Harvey’s New Eyes. The narrative sets up the head space of the player. Lilli, the aforementioned accidental homicidal maniac, is the character that the player is forced to identify with, and in so doing, forces us to think like she does. It’s not the first game that has put us in the shoes of a child, but it’s this very specific child that helps set this game apart from others. She’s more naïve than even your typical child, more literal-minded than we may be used to.
How this plays into the game’s puzzles is sublimely executed. Simply do everything that is asked of Lilli, and you will succeed. Puzzles that involve item combination are almost never random. If you are supposed to build a trophy that looks like an animal and you happen to have a paper spike and an animal head, well, you know what to do. If you are asked to start a fire in the stove by someone in a position of authority, well, it doesn’t matter that another child happens to be in the stove when you do.
You do as you are told.
What the art does in this particular equation is that it makes everything OK. I can’t imagine a game with humor this black working with a photorealistic aesthetic. The art of Harvey’s New Eyes is what draws the player into the role of Lilli and actually makes the player okay with what is going on. It’s the sick and twisted mind of the grade schooler who spent all their time drawing skulls and monsters and Giger-esque instruments of destruction. It’s not pretty so much as it’s colorful and stylized in a way that never lets you forget that you’re in a fantasy world. The world of Harvey’s New Eyes exists in a place that only works if you never start confusing its world for reality. This is true in its narrative, and this is true in its puzzles. It’s a very thin line between needlessly macabre and charmingly morbid. Harvey’s New Eyes treads that line almost flawlessly.
There are certainly quirks that do detract from the overall experience. Hunt ‘n peck puzzles whose only challenge is to find the pixel that contains the necessary item are never fun, and a couple of the later puzzles fall into this trap, confusing small click windows for difficulty. There’s also a mechanic that manifests later in the game that involves a means of travel from one place to another that seriously stymies the momentum of the game by getting it caught up in load times (at least on my wimpy little machine) and transitional animations.
Still, that a game like Harvey’s New Eyes would be a little rough around the edges is almost part of its charm. It’s very easy to put down when it gets frustrating and pick up again when the bad vibes wear off. It’s not a game that will win any prizes for originality — at its root, it’s your everyday PC adventure game — but the way it goes about its business keeps you off-balance. It may not be a unique experience, but it feels like it is. That makes it something worth looking at.