Herald, developed by Dutch designers Wispfire and currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, is, in the developers’ words, “an interactive period drama about colonialism”. Herald is an adventure game, one of the few video game genres that might appropriately convey the complexities of the colonial identity. The demo, now available for potential kickstarter backers to try before pledging their support, takes only a few minutes to play but lays out its ambitions fairly honestly.
Herald looks gorgeous. Vaguely set “in the 19th century”, it captures mood with breadth rather than striving for particularities, and ultimately it is better for doing so. Conflating the whole 19th century into a single ship, with a single dress code, with a single set of social mores is uncomfortably romantic about a period that needed to end. Herald admits to the romance of the high seas while discussing, if subtly, the consequences of shipping people and resources back and forth through the Suez Canal. The experience boasts the grandeur and excitement of seafaring adventure, but the game never lets the player forget that the driving force of that adventure is the imbalance of power created by colonialism that exists between two groups of people.
Although set entirely on board the ship after which the game is named, it feels warm and homely in spite of the tight corridors and cabins that make up the ship. Space is tight, but it isn’t claustrophobic. Aesthetically, the game walks a fine line between appropriately boxing the player in in the confines of a passenger ship and in giving the artists the opportunity to give the environment its life. It’s a nice game to look at, which counts because its quintessential adventure game mechanics demand that players will be spending almost all of their time alternating between walking and looking.
There is very little novelty in how Herald plays. The player must look out for objects that when clicked on change in such a way as to allow progress. The trick is in figuring out what order to click on everything. Standard generic mechanics don’t hurt the game, though, if anything these familiarities make Herald accessible. Even those less familiar with adventure games are more likely to feel comfortable and take the mechanics for what they are, a guide to the game’s mise en scène. The real appeal of Herald is in provoking drama between characters.
The protagonist, Devan Rensburg, tells his story from a prison tower. The player acts out Devan’s experiences as a junior officer aboard the Herald, a ship traveling from the Capital that is en route to the Protectorate. Though never stated outright, the two alien territories are respectively coded as Britain and the East Indies. Devan was born in the Protectorate but raised in the Capital. His journey to the Protectorate, he says, is to reconnect with his heritage. He looks like he’s from the East but speaks like he’s from the West and so belongs with neither. Based on the demo, the colonialism the game claims to focus on is the colonisation of Devan as a person, not on the colonisation of an empire over a mapped territory.
The demo tells us nothing about the relationship between the Capital and the Protectorate except as filtered through Devan. The “colonialism” at play is not between nations, rather it seems more interested in how it influences a man recently come of age. Dialogue options place Devan either in confrontation with or subservience to the white captain that he works for. In the demo’s opening, Devan is slipped a letter from a crewmate informing him that a pistol has gone missing and that he must find it before its absence is noticed and the crew is searched and punished. After snooping through the officer’s quarters, it turns up in the hands of his friend, Aaron. Like Devan, Aaron is from the Protectorate, and the two dark-skinned crewmates argue over what to do next. Aaron wants to keep the gun because as a Second Officer he is legally entitled to bear arms, even though the captain has suspiciously forbidden it.
This conversation deals in subtext, the consequences for breaking or adhering to the rules is so much more significant for these two clearly Othered officers aboard the Herald than it would be between crew members of the privileged class. Whether the player supports Aaron’s small rebellion, cajoles him into returning the gun in gratitude for his recent hard-earned promotion, or threatens to tattle on him, it’s clear that neither of these men have total authority over their lives. Without being on screen, the figures of empire dictate how they behave, and the player’s Devan must act within the invisible rules surrounding him.
The game tells the player almost in so many words that Devan is a liminal figure, created by two worlds, neither of which he feels at home in, but the demo is most nuanced in the conversation with Aaron, in which the player must work around the unspoken rules that govern he and his friend.
Herald’s goal of “gaming” colonialism places it in a bit of a political minefield that I hope the developers will take seriously as development of the full game continues. Anne McClintock’s 1992 essay, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism’” discusses post-colonialism as a term mostly employed and protected by those belonging to the empire. “Post-colonialism” ignores the new shapes of empires, the new ways that colonialism is leveled against peoples. The term centers global experience on the creation and deconstruction of colonies, as if all are identical and as if history moves in one direction away from colonization into independence.
Herald avoids some of these problems by dropping the “post-“ and focusing on “colonialism” but the demo nonetheless treats Devan as a pure colonized subject questing for nativity in his homeland. Then there remains that the Dutch developers are imposing a voice on Devan, speaking for the colonized from a former European empire while I, a white man living in the settler-colony of Canada dissects the importance of authentic subalternity. The positions the developers and players are asked to view these experiences from are important and from the demo it’s difficult to tell how Herald will frame the various relationships between Devan and to Devan’s colonization.
Nonetheless, it’s a game that openly presents colonial experiences in so many words. Any problems related to that can be forgiven so long as they open conversation, which seems to be Wispfire’s goal. Herald is more than an impressively presented, approachable adventure game — that alone is worth paying attention to. But it challenges players to examine the relationships between people and the power structures that they live in. If nothing else, the demo presents possibilities that deserve thinking about.