Harvester looks like it was deliberately crafted after Senator Liebermann's 1991 hearings about violence in video games. It is intensely bloody, and on the surface, utterly depraved. While it was originally announced in 1994, it didn't actually hit shelves until 1996, having been beaten to the market by other horror adventure games like Sierra's Phantasmagoria and Cyberdreams' Dark Seed II. However, while both of those titles tried to play it seriously, Harvester is a much weirder, off-the-wall experience, one which revels in its absurdity.
Steve Mason wakes up one day with no recollection of who he is, but finds himself in the middle of '50s suburban America, in the small town of Harvest. His kid brother is watching Cowboys and Indians on their black and white TV set, while his mother is dressed like June Cleaver and perpetually stays in the kitchen baking cookies. Expressions like "shucks!" and "gee willikers!" are still spoken unironically. Steve has no idea who any of these people are, and everyone believes he's simply faking his amnesia, repeatedly emphasizing that he was always a kidder.
The story is divided up into five days, with the first spent exploring the town and getting to know the insane inhabitants of the town of Harvest. Movement is quick and expedient, since you can double click on exits to zap from locale to locale. The conversation system is frustrating, as it adds and subtracts topics for seemingly arbitrary reasons. You're given the option to type in topics, although functionally it's almost useless, and never actually required. It's slow going at first, but it's all deliberately done to introduce you to this unsettling version of reality. There is an influx of hobos and vagrants, whom the town seems to welcome, but they all seem to disappear under mysterious circumstances. The kids in school are kept in line with a blood-stained baseball bat. Your fake mom has a very distressing sex life. Suggest something kinky and she may profess some interest. Your father is locked in his room. He's taking a nap, your fake mom says. His room is also locked with security bars and a burglar alarm. Upon breaking inside, you find him lying in a full body cast, in a bloodied room filled with sordid sex toys. He begins to tell you about the birds and the bees, as if this kind of extraordinarily extreme sadiomasochism were indeed quite normal. There is an army base filled with nuclear missiles, which are at the disposal of a single deranged army general, who is missing the entire lower half of his body. The human intestinal tract is three miles long, he tells you. He used this to measure the distance he crawled when escaping from the enemy in World War II. If you even suggest that you might be a pinko Commie bastard, he'll shoot you in the head, then accidentally sit on The Button, bringing annihilation to everything.
The other inhabitants of Harvest range from silly to downright disturbing. Deputy Loomis has an extraordinary taste for pornography. One of the puzzles involves distracting him with a dirty magazine so he can sneak off to a jail cell and have a wank. Meanwhile, his boss walks in and ruthlessly beats him like a dog with a rolled up magazine. The sheriff himself is no saint, either. One poor resident is brutally murdered, leaving only their bloody spinal cord. She died of natural causes, he concludes, while eating a healthy serving of blood-red pie. You can't live without a spine, his logic goes. If you end up getting arrested, and have a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, he takes you home, tucks you into bed, and gives you a good night kiss. Mr. Pottsdam has a strange psychotic obsession with meat, and shows a particular interest in Steve, since his family runs the town's butcher facility. He also casually molests and buries one of the town's children, and no one else seems to pay it any mind. Not all of it is quite so dark, but it sure is bizarre. When buying the adult mag, the general store manager proclaims that they promote healthy interest in woman, because you wouldn't want to end up as a firemen. What seems like an off-color gay joke ends up being strangely literal when you later walk into the fire station and find a bikini brief-clad male model, who sits around all day, waiting to be sketched.
Undoubtedly the strangest thing is the town's obsession with the Lodge, a gigantic building in the center of the town. More than a mere Masonic society, its medieval appearance greatly clashes with the deranged Norman Rockwell Americana that surrounds it. It is run by monks in robes, and everyone wants to be a part of it. Membership is not simply as easy as filling out an application, although the first chapter of the game involves untangling that bit of bureaucracy. A good chunk of Harvester's play time is spent as part of the Lodge's initiation rituals, which involve various acts of burglary and vandalism. As weirdly creative as the setting is, it's disappointing that so much of the puzzles revolve around breaking-and-entering, but there's an eventual justification for it, at least. While keying cars is relatively innocuous, soon Steve's reign of terror has much more severe consequences for the residents.
The only sane townsperson is Stephanie, the comely girl next door. She is engaged to Steve, so everyone seems to say, but she's in the same situation you are, unable to remember anything and clearly uncomfortable with the situation. She is confined to her room by her parents though, unable to actually do much other than sitting around. Instead, she acts as the moral center of Harvester, discussing the various events around town with you. You can confess to your crimes, if you want, although it doesn't actually have much of a bearing on anything, except maybe to clear the player's own conscience. (You can also have sex with her, although her creepy father takes the liberty of peeping through the hole in the wall.)
Once you've finally made it into the Lodge in the last third of the game, Harvester totally shifts gears and focuses on the depths of the mysterious building and the evil society that dwells within it. The box advertises Harvester as "the most violent adventure game of all time", and it's here that it really fulfills that title. It is also the second game (after the first Leisure Suit Larry) where you can die from an STD.
From here on out, Harvester focuses more on killing than puzzle solving. There are numerous weapons, including a shotgun, a nail gun, and a scythe. You can also find food to replenish your health, which is indicated by your portrait on the inventory screen. But like most adventure games that shift into action territory, it's all very badly handled. Since character movement is so sketchily implemented, it's really just a matter of equipping a weapon and repeatedly right clicking to attack, and reloading if you fail. Certain enemies pretty much require that you use a ranged weapon, and you can easily run out of ammo, which is in limited supply.
All of the characters are digitized actors, and while the package comes on 3 CDs, full motion video sequences are relatively sparse, as most scenes are simply carried out with static portraits and voiceovers. The FMV is mostly used in the more violent sequences, often to absurd effect. Rather than using traditional gore special effects, like Phantasmagoria did, nearly all of it is done with CGI. It actually looks even cheesier than most Z-grade flicks, if that were possible, although it's appropriate given the nature of the story.
Your handling of Stephanie's fate determines which finale you'll receive. In truly cynical fashion, neither are actually considered "good", although which is preferable is a matter of opinion. Both are satisfying in ways that most horror games aren't.
At the end of the day, Harvester definitely feels like it's satirizing something, but exactly what is anyone's guess. Beyond the broad parody of the idyllic '50s lifestyle, and some vague commentary about violence in media, the overt shock value makes it hard to get a grasp of what it's actually trying to say, if anything. But beyond its crass exterior, there's actually a bit of heart at the core of Harvester, something atypical of much popular horror fiction. Combined with the weirdly memorably characters, it fulfills its role as a cult classic rather nicely.