Review – Harvester

Image via Mobygames

Normally, I play through a game before sitting down and writing a review, even if I’ve already completed it before. I like to have all my praise and condemnations at the front of my mind. I didn’t do that with Harvester, which I first played back in 2021 for my kusoge column on Destructoid.

I don’t really have any desire to play it again. And that isn’t because I don’t like it – I really do. However, I think the first playthrough I did of it kind of fucked me up. Moreso, I mean.

Thankfully, that means that most of the game still lives in my brain amongst the rest of the worms. I can still vividly remember the bizarre atmosphere, the off-kilter voiceovers, and the scenes both amusing and disturbing. Harvester is like an itch. It’s very uncomfortable but also satisfying to scratch.

Oh, gosh. This is Harvester. Steve stands in a room with a man in a full-body cast, surrounded by BDSM implements and the walls stained with blood. His father speaks like being injured by kinky sex is just a normal part of marriage.

OH, STEVE, YOU’RE SUCH A KIDDER

Harvester puts you in the role of Steve, who was always such a kidder. He wakes up in a world full of disturbingly twisted ‘50s values with no memory of who he is or how he got there. There are people around him who claim to know him, a mother, siblings, a fiancee, but he doesn’t recognize any of them. So, while his mother works feverishly to prepare for a bake sale, you wander around the town of Harvest.

You’re told that you should work on joining “The Lodge,” which is an imposing take on the Shriners or other masonic fraternities. You’re not really told why you should join the lodge, it’s just something people say you should aspire to. It’s also the most prominent building in Harvester, so it must be important.

The Lodge tells you that, in order to join, you need to undergo a series of trials. These trials often seem innocuous enough, but whenever Steve carries them out, they often have dire consequences for the town’s inhabitants. The first one, for example, is to simply get an application letter to fill out. However, the postmaster makes things difficult, so you wind up getting into the police evidence locker and stealing information to blackmail him with. That’s one of the more innocuous challenges. It gets much darker from there.

Each Lodge challenge happens in a day. You typically have to gather information and items in the daytime, then after it switches to night, put your plan into action. Or maybe not your plan. Harvester has some pretty terrible adventure game logic, so it’s more likely that you’ll just explore the town of Harvest talking to people and sucking up any item that isn’t nailed down. As a player, you’re just along for the ride. As for Steve, he doesn’t seem to have much choice either. The people of Harvest aren’t very pliable and only leave him one course of action.

There are a fair number of games these days that are deconstructions of player agency, but Harvester was pretty well ahead of the curve in 1996. It was also a lot more subversive and effective. Spec Ops: The Line was well-timed in showing the disgusting reality of modern warfare video games, but Harvester did it 15 years earlier with sharper vision.

Harvester A fireman explains that they don't just draw dongs all day, but also hand out fire code violations.
Oh. My mistake.

YOU ALWAYS WERE A KIDDER, STEVE

A big part of its effectiveness is in its misleading presentation. The graphics are exemplary of the horrors of pre-3D CD-enabled graphics with terrible digitized actors pasted against dreadfully antiquated pre-rendered 3D backgrounds. If an indie game these days wanted to harken back to those days, Harvester would be the caricature they draw up. The effect of these bad blue-screen photos in front of weirdly textured, flatly detailed backdrops just adds to the nauseating atmosphere. It’s like going in and out of a fever dream in the small hours of the morning, sweat pasting your hair to your damp forehead, not sure if you’ll survive until morning.

It’s made complete by incredibly adept sound design. There’s constant unsettling ambient noises like the hum of fluorescent light fixtures in the background. Harvester knows how to feel uncomfortable more than any other game I’ve ever played.

Each person you meet is a disgusting example of humanity. They spout slurs, are deeply sexist, spotlight their own bigotry, and behind closed doors, they’re broken and twisted. There are no skeletons in their closets. No, those corpses have much more meat on them than that. It leaves you with a weird feeling of vicarious shame.

It can be extremely shocking, but that’s sort of the point. We’ll get to that point, but if you’re going into Harvester, just know that it doesn’t pull punches. If you’re the type to be offended by words – and really, to some extent, we all are – there’s a good chance you’ll be offended here. It’s not even in the sense that the ‘90s were a different time and mindset. That’s maybe part of it, but in no universe was Harvester ever in good taste.

On the other hand, even if you can’t stomach the slurs, Harvester’s humour doesn’t rely exclusively on shock. It tends to be pretty funny in its own right, and its ability to spin a web of callbacks is extremely impressive.

A television broadcast station that is ablaze. The fire can be seen through the windows. A message says "The TV Station is Closed."
I guess I’ll come back later.

ALWAYS THE KIDDER, STEVE

It all serves a message, however. For all its bizarre imagery, offputting characters, and hilariously shameful dialogue, Harvester has a lot to say. And while you might expect that its violence and crudeness is just a way to toe the line, it works more as a mirror cast on the morality of the age. The early ‘90s (while Harvester was released in ‘96, it was written and filmed in ‘94) were when politicians initially created a moral panic around video games. Doom and Mortal Kombat were pretty fresh, and so began the conversations about how this violence would affect youth.

It was hogwash, of course. However, looking back, I can kind of see where it came from. Video games were still a developing medium, and old people still believed they were magical. No one really knew what that kind of interactivity would do to the mind. In fact, not a lot has been solidly proven on that subject, even today.

What is true, however, is that it didn’t unleash a wave of brainwashed and trained killers on the world. If anything, right now, political discourse is the biggest source of violence. Many high-profile mass murders have been caused by political extremism and bigotry. Violent cartoons, rock music, and video games don’t create killers in most cases; politicians do.

That’s entirely the message beneath Harvester. It explores the absurdity behind the idea that video games create murderers. It depicts the literal message that politicians were pushing at that time. If their fearmongering was actually true, it would be Harvester. You won’t necessarily see it until all the twists are done turning, but when it all clicks into place, it’s very satisfying. It doesn’t have to wag its finger. It just leads you through the fallacy.

Harvester a robed priest asks, "Is God a jar of strawberry preserves, a size 12 sneaker, a footlong Hogie, an all-expense paid trip to Brazil, or a NEWWW CARRRRR?!"
I’ll take the mystery box!

YoU AlWaYs WeRe A kIdDeR, sTeVe

Unfortunately, Harvester is about as fun as a visit to the dental hygienist. Way back, I mentioned that the adventure game logic is pretty awful, and it is. Even finding objects to suck into your inventory can be difficult. One of the defining moments of the entire experience for me – something that sticks with me all these years later – was missing a solitary shovel in the charred ruins of a building. This led me to walk in circles for far too long.

I can’t remember how often I referred to a guide during my playthrough, but I did recommend doing so in the article that followed. It’s just far too easy to not catch onto the game’s train of logic for a puzzle and find yourself overlooking something repeatedly.

It’s at its worst in the last act of the game when combat comes into play. You have to solve a series of puzzles and fight a bunch of people to proceed. At the very least, the necessary items aren’t far from the puzzles, but the combat is just so horrendous. It makes absolute sense from a conceptual standpoint, but the implementation feels half-assed. Either you waste shotgun ammunition or hope that the slap-fight mechanics play out in your favour as you flail your scythe at your aggressor.

Oh, right. You can die. By 1994 this was considered to be a real faux pas in the adventure game genre, but there’s so much death and failure in Harvester. Save early. Save often. Are you sure you saved? Better save again, just to be sure.

A man sits at the end of his driveway in Harvester and speaks to Steve. He talks about the death of Edna's husband and how it left her daughter without a father and her without a fine, stiff penis.
Ah! You… O…okay…

STEEEEEVE! KIIIIIIDDERRRR!

You know, in my opening statements, I said that I had no desire to play Harvester again, but now that I’ve written this out, I kind of do. Not just that, but I want to play it repeatedly. I want to peel back its skin and map out every muscle twitch so I can slide through it like a greased bullet whenever I want.

Every once and a while I open my box of Harvester screenshots, and it’s always an adventure. In fact, this review started because I was looking through my screenshots, and it’s just such a magical experience.

Harvester feels like the antithesis of the safe, frictionless game design of the modern big-budget sphere. It pushes the limits of good taste, perhaps too far at times. It feels like shit to play, but it’s bizarre, clever, and disturbing. Better yet, it carries meaning. Even if you don’t like your experience with it, I doubt you’re going to be able to forget that. And regardless of whether a game is good or bad, being unforgettable counts for a hell of a lot.

8/10

This review was conducted using a digital PC version of the game. It was purchased by the author.

Encourage more complaints

If you like what I do please support me on Ko-fi

About Zoey Handley 243 Articles
Zoey made up for her mundane childhood by playing video games. Now she won't shut up about them. Her eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer. A lover of discovery, she can often be found scouring through retro and indie games. She currently works as a Staff Writer at Destructoid.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*