Justice Playthrough #90: Headliner: NoviNews

Give it credit, this game executes its underlying concept about as perfectly as you could hope for. I just wish that underlying concept weren’t so thoroughly defined by such bone-deep cynicism.

Also, there’s a subplot that’s aged … badly. Very, very, very badly.

Page 10, Game 7: Headliner: NoviNews by Unbound Creations

You’re the latest employee for NoviNews, the most important news organization in the country of Novistan. You’re in charge of selecting which articles get run; kind of intense for an entry-level position, but what the hell, gotta start somewhere.

Meet Jack Lumberman, who will determine what the nation thinks

After a hard day of saying “Yes” or “No” to the articles that come across your desk, it’s time to walk home. You’ll chat with folks — co-workers, shopkeepers, random citizens, your brother. You’ll see how the news you chose to promote is affecting the world around you. And your choices will affect it — dramatically.

The game looks fantastic. Core gameplay is a very slick visual novel, but the connecting interstitials are a playfully animated side-scroller that give a wonderful sense of context and place to the world. The conversations you can have feel meaningful and satisfying; it really feels like you’re choosing to develop and nurture relationships with other people. There’s a lot here to like.

But there’s just as much to take issue with.

This is a game with a thesis, and that thesis is that the media influences reality. It’s a highly defensible thesis, and one well worth exploring. But the way the game chooses to explore it is not that the media is TEMPTED to bias; it’s that the media HAS NO CHOICE but to be biased.

At one point, a random passer-by in the street accused us of running nothing but thinly disguised opinion pieces, and … yeah. Often as not, that was literally all that came across my desk. In Headliner, you can be Fox News, or you can be Daily Kos. Stuff that seems like actual researched NEWS was few and far between.

So when our nation’s decidedly fascistic leader started talking smack about those filthy filthy furriners, my choice was to either run his comments with our implicit approval, or … not run them. I was never presented with the option of running his commentary as news (because if the leader is saying that shit, it IS legitimately news) but also fact-checking his obvious xenophobia. Is there any EVIDENCE that the furriners are up to the nefarious shit he says they are? Seems like a relevant thing to report on one way or the other, dontcha think?

So, yeah, under my bottom-up stewardship, NoviNews WAS decidedly anti-government. It was either that or be a willing propaganda arm. Even attempting balance was not presented as an option. Fox News or Daily Kos. No in-between.

This had consequences, as one would hope for a game. At one point, my brother was thrown in jail for talking smack about the government during his open mic set. My reporter friend wrote that up as a story, of course, which further battered our relationship with an overreaching government.

Later, my boss at the news agency was led away in cuffs for spreading sedition. I was unable to bail my brother out of jail, and he simply … disappeared. One would think that this would lead to me having the options of putting both deeply disturbing developments in the news. One would be wrong.

There’s also the game’s take on healthcare, which I found quite grating.

MEGANOPE

The game wants to present all choices as having consequences, good and bad, and the health care issue is no different. In this instance, the co-worker you can choose to pursue a romance option with has a worsening pre-existing condition, one that could prove debilitating or even fatal if left untreated. Treating it will require medication that isn’t cheap. So naturally, pursuing the nationalized healthcare option will … cause her to get sick and (possibly — it’s implied but not stated) die.

WTF?!

The way this plays out reads like pure “SOSHULIZED MEDCINE!!!!!” scaremongering. I did not care for it, at all.

The biggest issue was that she was unable to get the care she needed, because opening the system to all caused it to be overwhelmed … thanks to the ongoing pandemic.

Remember how I said there was a subplot that aged badly?

Yup, this is a thing

There’s a pandemic raging through Novistan. Opening healthcare to all causes the system to be overwhelmed by people who would like to stop falling ill and not be barfing in the streets. This is presented as a failing of socialized healthcare.

As I’m writing this, it is late in July, 2020. I live in the United States. It has been over four months since I spent any time socializing face-to-face with someone who is not either my wife or her boyfriend. The economy is in dreadful shape. My homeland has responded to this crisis in the most inept, half-assed way possible. While other countries across the world are trying to return to some semblance of normalcy, my own country is currently locked in a debate about how many dead children and teachers we’re prepared to accept if the schools reopen.

This is a direct consequence of how intensely this pandemic has been politicized here. Pretending that it’s all a hoax, that it’s no big deal, that no precautions are necessary has become a point of motherfucking PRIDE for a disquieting percentage of the population. They’re not a majority, but they’re enough to keep the fire burning, to keep us isolated in our own fucking houses indefinitely. It’s an impossibly childish reaction — one that has been actively encouraged by right-wing politicians and their enablers in the right-wing media.

This game was released in 2018. The developers had no way of knowing that, two years later, their audience would be painfully, intimately familiar with how a country might respond to a lethal pandemic. They had no way of knowing how badly their take on it would miss the mark.

The pandemic is a remarkable non-entity on the news desk. There’s occasional shit about the Great Leader blaming it on the foreigners, but there’s no fucking INFORMATION to distribute. No expert pieces from the doctors trying to keep everybody alive, no information on how to effectively protect yourself or your family.

There are, however, plenty of Ominous Hints that it is all a big government conspiracy. That it was engineered and released by the government as a mechanism for controlling the people.

This is the attitude I keep seeing in real life on Facebook. This is the attitude that is crippling my country. This is the attitude that is going to further wreck the economy and devastate any business without the cash reserves to ride out the storm.

This attitude — that it’s all a big orchestrated conspiracy — is literally killing people.

The devs wrote this game in 2018. They had no way of knowing what the world would be like a mere two years later.

Nevertheless. If anybody who worked on this aspect of the game’s story somehow finds their way to this blog, from the bottom of my heart:

Go fuck yourselves.

And fuck your implication that pandemic victims flooding the health care system somehow represents a failure of making that care available to them. I would have liked to run an article about how fewer people are puking to death on the streets. I would liked to have used my power to put pressure on the government to allocate more resources to the healthcare system in general and fighting the pandemic in particular.

I would like to have treated the in-game pandemic as something other than either a background nuisance that will surely go away if I just ignore it hard enough, or as fodder for conspiracy theories that I’d only promote if I were explicitly trying to hurt the government.

Frankly, that’s what most of your choices feel like: choose an agenda, then select the stories that advance it. Are they TRUE? Eh, it’s not like you have any way of knowing, bloody little actual information crosses your desk. I have no doubt that attitude drives a lot of real-life news coverage, but the game’s failure to provide any other option feels so deeply cynical that it further soured my opinion of it.

I was not TEMPTED to become a partisan player — I was FORCED to. There’s a difference.

The great failure of this game is that, by trying to back you into a series of corners where you HAVE to take a side, it denies you the opportunity to feel like you’re guiding an actual legitimate news outlet. Instead, it feels like being a lazy news junkie with a popular Twitter feed. You may retweet or ignore whatever you see other people post. Going out and getting more information, BETTER information, simply isn’t an option. Retweet or ignore. That’s all you have. That’s the game.

I did have an adorable doggo, though. At one point, when a bunch of hijacked drones crashed into buildings on my block and set them on fire, I dashed into my apartment to make sure my beloved Newshound got out of there all right. The game, however, decided that having buildings adjacent to mine on-fire was not a threat worth worrying about, so I just gave him his nightly ear scritchies and went to sleep.

Who’s a good buddy for the ongoing collapse of civilization? You are! You are!

Also, there were literal fat stacks of cash scattered around my apartment, which accumulated as the game went on. There was no way to spend them — but there were several things I would liked very much to have spent them on. I have no idea what satirical point the game was trying to make with this, but whatever it was, it missed.

Stacking those Franklins, but purely for decorative purposes

Clearly, this game pissed me off. There’s something deeply ironic about a game that, in trying to explore how the media has an agenda, winds up promoting unstated agendas of its own. But, shit, there’s a lot to like here. It looks great. Its plot elements were extremely hit or miss, but some of them did hit.

Am I ultimately glad that my script put this one on my plate? I … guess I am, kinda. It did offer up some stuff to think about, even if more of that was “Holy SHIT did the game fuck this up!” than the developers probably intended.

Recommended. Tentatively. With a whole lot of reservations. But recommended nevertheless.

What agenda will this next game promote?

Page 15, Game 28: The Guilt and the Shadow by oophok

“A short story exploration puzzle platformer inspired by the old point and click games.”

Lots of elements than could work. But please, no slideyboy picture puzzles.