The Harbinger’s Head (Kim Berkley / Choice of Games Hosted)

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The Harbinger’s Head is a fantasy horror story from Kim Berkley, in Choice of Games’ Hosted Games category.  It’s set in 1820s Ireland, in which the player encounters a supernatural creature — a kind of headless horseman character — and has to agree to help find his missing head.

The story that follows is focused on action and folklore. You’re partly collecting stories to try to piece together what has really happened in this supernatural situation, but there’s also quite a bit of violence, and one moment where it felt like my protagonist was implicitly under sexual threat, though this passed quickly. Descriptions often focus on the physical, and the game’s text doesn’t hesitate to tell you when you’re supposed to be feeling afraid.

The diction of The Harbinger’s Head sometimes feels substantially more modern than its period — there’s a reference to cutting and pasting something, for instance, and while both concepts individually certainly existed in the past, the paired idiom belongs to the computer age.

But for the most part it does deliver on the folkloric feel. There are several types of faerie creatures, but not your standard vampires and werewolves. Promises are made in desperation and redeemed in less than ideal circumstances. Old bonds of family come into play; so does the conflict between Church and Faerie (though fairly lightly, in the playthrough I experienced).

Hosted Games are games that Choice of Games is selling but that haven’t been edited in the same way or developed according to the same brand standards as their premium line; Hosted Games may have different lengths or styles. The Harbinger’s Head at 46,000 words is shorter than the average branded Choice of Games work — a single run-through took me about an hour — so is probably worth approaching more as a novella than a full novel.

There are also some structural differences; the game includes more binary choices than the average branded Choice of Games work. For something as streamlined as The Harbinger’s Head, however, I thought this mostly worked fine.

One exception or missed opportunity, though: there are a fair number of conversation nodes in the game where you’re allowed to keep asking questions of a particular character until you run out of things you want to say. There’s rarely any reason not to lawnmower these and ask every question: the game states that you have limited time, but I never experienced that time limitation in any mechanical way, only as a piece of the system. And sometimes asking a somewhat undermotivated question did turn up useful information, so it didn’t feel safe to just skip the questions that I wasn’t that invested in.

This is okay — there are plenty of times when it works to give the player an exploration mechanic where they’re expected to look at every element but where they have control over the ordering.

What I considered a missed opportunity, though, is that many conversation options lead to the character saying they don’t know the answer or that they won’t tell you. Between the lawnmowing and the empty content, you wind up repeatedly working through lists of questions where you probably do need to ask all of them, but 30-50% of the answers are not interesting. Even if the author didn’t want to reveal plot answers here, these were moments when we could have had some more character- or world-building response from the character.

Disclosure: I am also working on a project for Choice of Games, and the author did reach out to me for coverage. I receive no financial advantage from the sales of their other projects, and I paid for my copy of this game.

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