Netherlands based indie game development studio Wispfire, recently announced the launch of their Kickstarter campaign for the interactive visual novel, “Herald.” Determined to create story focused titles with historical events and references, Wispfire believes that “Herald” embodies everything they hope to include in a video game.
Designed to mix both point & click adventure and visual novel elements into the gameplay, “Herald” sets gamers on a journey over the open ocean to face a number of moral, social, and racial questions. Players control Devan Rensburg, a man of mixed heritage on a journey to discover his roots. Set in an alternate 1857, the West has been united as a single empire known as the Protectorate. While Devan was raised and educated in the West, he was born in the Eastern Colonies and books passage on-board a ship called the Herald, to return to the country of his birth.
Players will be exposed to a wide range of conflicts stemming from cultural and societal tensions, which have been mounting in this fictional re-imaging of 1857. Choice will play a major role in the development of the narrative as dialogue and story options will drastically change how the crew, other passengers, and Devan react or respond to each other.
Lead Writer and Researcher Roy van der Schilden sat down to explain some more about why the themes of this project are important to his studio, and give some additional insight into the historical time-period that inspired the project.
Jesse Tannous: Tell me a bit about how your studio initially formed and why you place importance on having your games be story driven and involve historical events.
Roy van der Schilden: Wispfire was founded by four people who had just graduated from the study “Design for Virtual Theatre in Games”: a study which mixed game design with theatre. As such, all founders had an interest in storytelling and how theatre elements could be applied to game design.
Next to storytelling, history, and how it relates to common day society, has always been another big inspiration for our team. History is an incredible source of inspiration for any form of art. When it comes to developing story-driven games, history can provide all the material you require when it comes to setting up your world, your characters and designing interesting dilemmas.
Seeing how history still influences our society to this day, we also feel research into many historical subjects can provide valuable insight when it comes to understanding modern-day events.
JT: Without spoiling too much of the story, what kinds of themes, topics, or questions do you hope to display for players during the course of “Herald?”
RS: The idea of “Herald” resulted from our interest in the 19th century as both an exciting setting and an interesting time of change. During this time, worldwide trade and colonialism had led to mass migration of people and their cultures. The concept of a multicultural society, a “melting” pot of different people living together, was starting to become a common concept in larger societies. However, inequality and prejudice were still running rampant. As such, many fights over people’s rights were fought. New laws were introduced, like the ones abolishing slavery, in answer to this growing concern for human rights. World powers were forced to give up their colonies, or struck back with overwhelming military force, usually both.
In short, the 19th century, just as our time, was a time of great change. With “Herald,” we wanted to tell a story about someone experiencing these changes in a time of great inequality and prejudice.
Devan’s mixed heritage is reflected in the way the crew of the Herald reacts to him. To some high ranking officers he is a man of vague south-asian descent hopelessly trying to fit in, even though you’ve had the same education and speak the English language fluently. To some of the lower ranked crew members your manners and accent quickly give you away; you are but a western man posing as a native.
“Herald’s” dialogue choices often allow you to choose a side within these conflicts. Though it should be mentioned that the topic of racism is but a form of prejudice resulting from a much larger conflict: Cultural Imperialism, the concepts of groups imposing authority over others they deem beneath them, robbing them from their culture and identity.
Through choice and interactive dialogue we want players to explore the effects of cultural imperialism on people. As the steward of the Herald it’s your job to abide to everyone’s wishes and either side with authority or rebel against it. Whether you fulfill all the wishes of the passengers is up to you, but be prepared to face the consequences if you don’t.
JT: In order to create the alternate historical setting of “Herald” what sorts of key historical moments or conventions did you manipulate? What caused you to believe that this setting may be born out of those historical changes?
RS: “Herald” is set during an alternate 1857. In the timeline we’ve created most of the western world is ruled by an imperialistic world power: The Protectorate. The concept of the Protectorate actually stems from a time when England, Scotland and Ireland were not ruled by a monarch, but by an appointed government officially known as “lord protector”: Oliver Cromwell.
During this time period the Commonwealth was also referred to as “The Protectorate.”
Around the same time, the government of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was in a dispute between the Orangists faction and the Republican faction. William II died and his infant son could not become Stadtholder right away so Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary, became the highest official in the country during the Stadtholderless period. With Johan De Witt as Grand Pensionary the country flourished in its Golden Age, but the Orangists were waiting for William III to become the next Stadtholder through a hereditary claim.
A true-hearted Republican, Johan De Witt strongly opposed the claim of the House of Orange, of whom the current Dutch royal family are descendants. As is often the case with people who opposed nobility, Johan De Witt was brutally murdered.
To find out what these two historical events were like in our game, and how they resulted in The Protectorate in “Herald,” you will have to play the game. Rest assured, the story has some interesting alternate history twists and turns that resulted in the empire of the game. By playing you will slowly unravel this lore and learn much about its world.
The events which take place during “Herald’s” timeline hold many similarities with our own. Devan Rensburg’s country of birth and the year (1857), in which Herald takes place, are important factors. You only have to google the year 1857 and look at your second hit to see one of “Herald’s” major inspirations of real-life history.
JT: You explain in your studio’s description that, “By providing agency, games create empathy and increase understanding.” Some may argue that a title that mixes point & click adventure and visual novel mechanics together, such as “Herald,” may not have much agency to offer players. How would you defend against this?
RS: Our definition of agency, in relation to games, is that it is the freedom with which a player can act upon a situation in the game world. “Herald” is a choice-driven adventure game. Through interactive dialogues and puzzles players are presented with many choices which affect the story, allowing them to become actors. To take the demo as an example, players are given the choice to make the gun-thief keep the gun, or give it back to the captain. In order to make a choice, a player has to imagine the possible outcome of each option and compare those to his or her own opinion. Doing so creates empathy and understanding for the game’s world and characters.
It’s not necessarily a game’s mechanics which determine the provided agency, but the types of choices they allow players to make with them.
With “Herald,” we’re hoping to create an interactive drama which, next to being engaging and fun to play, lets people explore the complex subject of 19th century colonialism and form their own opinion on its related issues while playing.
Players who wish to try the experience first-hand before deciding whether or not to support the Kickstarter campaign, can find a demo available on the official “Herald” website.
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