Herald: An Interactive Period Drama – Book I & II – Review
04 Mar, 2017
Herald: An Interactive Period Drama is an episodic point-and-click adventure game about a fateful voyage in the time of colonialism. Here’s what we think.
Herald is a game that prominently talks about colonialism, and colonialism happens to be a prickly topic for video games. Stories of scrappy rebels defeating better-organised oppressors come dime a dozen in this industry, but what about actually coming face-to-face with the injustices perpetrated by colonisers in history? Apart from the occasional game set in the American War of Independence (which was really more of a civil war), colonialism is mostly seen through the perspective of the colonisers.
Voices from formerly colonised lands are rare in an industry that is overwhelmingly dominated by those who identify as white or of European ancestry. It’s quite easy, then, for games to sweep actual, historical colonialism under the rug but instead use the same themes in the fantasy or science-fiction genres. And it can get worse: when Firaxis Games made Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization, a game celebrating colonisation, the game was called out for offering what would be a choice between either whitewashing historical atrocities, or actually letting you perpetrate them. The response from Firaxis placed the onus on the players’ own morals and unsurprisingly missed the point: that the game’s very premise was rooted in racism.
Herald may be made by mainly Dutch developers, but its theme is very strongly rooted in the British colonisation of the Indian subcontinent. You play as Devan Rensburg, a young man of mixed ethnicity travelling to “the Colonies” aboard the HLV Herald as a sailor. Devan’s adventures aboard the Herald are told in flashbacks while in the present day, he is a captive of a queen referred to simply as the Rani—”Queen” in Hindi.
One thing about Herald that caught me a little off-guard is the world it’s set in. In Herald’s universe, the Restoration of the English monarchy never occurred, and instead, Great Britain came to be called The Protectorate. Over the course of two centuries, the Protectorate, ruled by an elected Lord Protector, would go on to overrun much of Europe as well as Europe’s colonies worldwide. In this alternate history, Britain (or, The Protectorate) rules much of the Western world, has senators, an elected head of state, and wears blue—a colour of much sentimental value—with pride.
In the real world, the year 1857 was marked by India’s first attempt at independence from British rule. The year would be a turning point in the history of colonialism in India, and Herald uses this specific year to set its tale in. In Herald’s 1857, the Protectorate, too, is well-entrenched in “the Colony”—the game’s euphemism for India. Many of the problems seen in erstwhile India are also mirrored in the game’s world. Could the winds of rebellion be blowing into this alternate reality as well?
Herald brims with themes about colonialism, racism and class. Devan Rensburg serves as the ideal protagonist for the journey, being a brown man raised in a white country. Although Herald offers you dialogue choices, the developers take care to ensure that the choices reflect an opinion, but do not force Devan into any one personality archetype. This allows the game allow players to express themselves, while keeping Devan as an easy-going everyman hero well-liked by fellow occupants of the ship.
Video games have had a problem with hamfisted commentary, but Herald manages to sail past this problem with impressive ease. It is as much an examination of inequalities as it is an adventure on the sea, and the characters are presented with considerable nuance rather than having them settle into easy stereotypes. How the characters behave with you depends on the choices that you make, and to facilitate this, the characters have been built three-dimensionally. The chef’s help, who seems standoffish at first, eventually came to form a bond with me. On the other hand, my opinion of the boatswain changed significantly as certain events transpired on the ship.
The characterisation is helped by high-quality voice acting, with the distracting exception of The Rani, who looks to be an aged royal, but speaks like a young woman in her prime. Much like the game’s music, the voice acting adds to the game’s experience without calling attention to itself. Indies frequently have to drop voice acting to keep costs low, but Herald stands like a lighthouse, showing how effective good voice acting can be in making a game feel lively and engaging.
As a game, Herald is a point-and-click adventure that uses fixed, wide camera angles evocative of old-school point-and-clicks. However, the actual gameplay is more Telltale-y and involves mainly talking to people, making decisions and walking around a lot. The game’s low-poly graphics are serviceable in setting up a scene, but the real highlights that steal your attention are the lushly painted character portraits that appear and animate during conversations. Much like the voice acting, I find it impossible to imagine Herald without its beautiful portraits.
There’s also an in-game encyclopaedia that I was tempted to ignore at first, but came around to obsessively reading every time it was updated. Its entries are written to reveal more of the alternate world the game is set in, as well as the technical details of life aboard a ship. Each entry was reasonably brief and illuminating at the same time. I learned quite a bit about ships from the game, which took me back to when I was a kid, playing games not just for how fun they were, but for what they taught me.
Much of the game’s narrative is devoted to setting the themes of inequality: between races, ranks, classes and cultures. This comes at the cost of the story having no clear goal. There’s a fair bit of intrigue, and mystery follows mystery, but there is no particular threat to the ship’s journey and no real objective for Devan to achieve other than to make it through the journey alive (which we already know he has).
Furthermore, a particular revelation in Book II has made me infinitely more interested in the events that transpire in the present day than in the flashback sequences. What I’m getting at is that I’m very interested to see where Books III and IV will take the story, even if I’m a little worried they will have to rush to get there.
Before I wrap up: a word on alternate histories. I’m a sucker for alternate history, and the work that has been put in for Herald’s Cromwellian Protectorate both impressed and excited me. At the same time, I had to put this in perspective: narratives on colonialism and race are rare enough in video games, let alone narratives of life under the British Raj. Replacing the Union Jack and the redcoats under it with the Protectorate’s rooster and its bluecoats felt unnecessary to me.
As fresh and engrossing as the world-building felt, I couldn’t help but feel that Herald’s sensitivity could have been used to build a poignant story about real world injustices that are too easily swept away and ignored. Herald certainly does not ignore what transpired in colonial world of the 19th century, but it does seems to shy away from reality for reasons not clear to me (yet). It comes across as a slightly timid decision, replacing a real-world oppressor with an arguably easier-to-swallow substitute to keep things pleasant and relatable for everyone.
Herald’s first book took me exactly a hundred minutes of playtime to finish, while by the end of the second book, my playtime stood at three hours. With a constrained environment to explore and a diverse cast of characters, Herald held my interest throughout.
Herald is an engrossing nautical tale about colonialism that heavily touches upon race and class, but brings with it a nuance and subtlety uncommon in video games. Developer Wispfire has made a powerful debut, leaving no rough edges or longueurs to sully a high-quality narrative experience. It left me simultaneously satisfied and wanting more—more than just the two planned books that will complete the game.
This review is based on a review copy of the game provided by the developer, Wispfire. The first two of four books of Herald: An Interactive Period Drama are available for PC, Mac and Linux. The PC version was played for this review. The game is well worth its inexpensive asking price.