The clipper Herald is a merchant ship working the lucrative 19th century indigo trade, running between a fictional London-like Western metropolis and India.
Herald, the game (out now on Linux, Mac and Windows PC), mainly takes place aboard this ship. The crew and passengers are a microcosm of a society stratified by class, race and the exigencies of empire.
It's an interactive drama that pulls the player along the knotted rope of its beats through point-and-click exploration and dialog choices.
Although the world of Herald is based on a fictional empire called The Protectorate, it is, for all intents and purposes, the British Empire at its zenith. The Protectorate is totally in control of the seas, unafraid of its rivals and aggressively expanding its colonies and commercial activities throughout the pre-industrialized world.
This is a culture that prides itself on its attainment of the high peaks of Whiggish progress. The Protectorate is zealous in its global civilizing mission, which also happens to gild its own fortunes and power.
I take on the sole playable role of a young ship-hand, Devan Rensburg, working his passage to the East. Although raised in The Protectorate, he was born in the East and is searching for his Indian roots. Devan's skin is brown.
As a servant I soon faces the realities of my humble station. Using dialog trees, I negotiate the tricky hierarchies, taking care not to threaten my immediate superiors, to annoy the ship's captain, or to be noticed by illustrious passengers, including a draconian senior politician.
I'm given tasks to fulfill that allow me to explore the ship, and to gather information on crew and passengers. Puzzles generally rely on common sense.
Herald so far comprises two episodes of a planned four-episode tale. There's much to work through including the mystery of a stolen pistol, rumors of a ghost below decks and a strange relationship between an officer and the ship's cabin boy.
All these narrative threads are worked around a central theme of the enormous injustices of empire, and how those injustices play out at an individual level. You might expect the whip of the lash and cruel name-calling, but it's far sneakier than that.
The higher-ups treat me dismissively, but they never refer to the color of my skin. I am merely scorned for being a landlubber or a lowly servant.
So far, I've only experienced mild examples of overt racism. A young officer of color is told that rebelling natives are "your people," for example. But on the face of it, I'm treated reasonably fairly. The only example of a non-white person feeling slighted by the system is explained away by seniors as a sensible precaution that applies to everyone.
This is to the game's credit. It makes its point by degrees, taking care to normalize the world's injustices, so that their consequences emerge slowly.
For anyone who cares to notice, it's clear that the racism of the system lies beneath a veneer of respectability. All non-white characters are servants or junior officers, kept in their place by invisible rules.
In a parallel plot-line, we meet an Indian woman, robbed of her place in society by a legal system hardwired to demote women and people of color. The Protectorate is merely following laws and customs, long-cherished as being the hallmark of liberty. A white woman is constrained by invisible customs and rules that mean she is treated like a child.
We see newspaper reports of indigo farmers revolting against colonial exploitation. The officer class views this as the treachery of grasping barbarians. As Devan and as myself, I am free to privately draw different conclusions.
The story builds slowly, like a good novel. You could be forgiven for thinking that individual dialog options are all much of a muchness. Often, they boil down to accepting orders in a manner that are either obsequious, polite or mildly insolent. If I act like a good lad, or if I act like an ass, the immediate outcomes are much the same.
My superiors are grouchy and self-involved. My tiny acts of rebellion are nothing more than the uppity pretensions of a fool.
But longer term, it becomes clear that an invisible tab is being calculated, that people in power are quietly formulating a view of me. It is briefly satisfying for me to annoy a pompous patriarch, by stretching the limits of my small power in subtle ways. But when the time comes for him to exercise his much greater powers, I learn the bitter lesson that sucking up to him would have better for me.
In my real life, I rarely have to kow-tow. I've been raised to "stand up and be yourself." Such options are not available to Rensburg. He is kind and smart and resourceful. But he is also despised and oppressed. He cannot escape his own skin or his own class.
The best he can hope for is a blue jacket that marks him as a higher sort of servant, dressed smartly for the pleasure of the nobs, visually incorporated into the livery of the system that keeps him down.
It becomes clear that I must interact with the different characters according to their station and personality. If I lay it on too thick with the captain, I fear he will think me a buffoon. If I hide my personality from the pretty young heiress, she will not take me seriously.
In this way, the dialog choices are more subtle than they seem, but this subtlely also means that the game's feedback is delayed. When it comes to the crunch, I find that decisions made long ago are blocking me from attaining my goal. If a powerful man has taken against me, there is nothing I can do to dissuade him from a cruel decision.
This is a bold design choice. Popular entertainment, and video games in particular, demand immediate satisfaction, a clear road to victory. But I'm glad that a game about powerlessness is unafraid to show me what that really means.
The story is written with enough skill that this trick holds together. The characters are well drawn, both in their facial animations, and through their tightly written dialog. I found myself caring about them. I wanted to create relationships with them. I felt that I was a part of this ocean-going world.
The story unfolds to a highly satisfying cliff-hanger that makes me look forward to the final two episodes, even though they are not due for months. Herald is novel-like in its sensibilities and in its literary quality. It offers cool-headed insights into another way of living, and into the way we live today. It's engaging, and it has something vital to say.