Friday 13 September 2019

Switch Review - Headliner NoviNews

A “choose your own adventure style” game that attempts to expose the manipulative nature of the media. Never has a review needed to be more unbiased. Newspapers, please!

Developed by Unbound Creations
Released in 2019

“We all lie. But some of us are better at it than others” proposes British author Henry Hemming. “There are people who are so good at lying that they are paid to change the minds of millions, using techniques few of us will ever understand.” It is often said that we live in an age of “fake news”, and while it’s a phrase that has existed since the thirties it’s never felt more relevant.  There’s been an explosion in the use of the phrase since Donald Trump depended on it during his presidential campaign and election. While Trump uses “fake news” to debunk his negative press, his team also used the concept to glorify his inauguration. Infamously “alternative facts” suggested crowds to see his debut as president were bigger than they actually were. Immediate global distribution via the internet makes everyone a news correspondent and they’re allowed to report “the truth” without citing any credible source.  It’s become practically impossible to know who to believe. The concept of fake news has an unsettling and dystopian undertone, and it prompts us to question the headlines and doubt the broadcast news. It’s not just conspiracy theorists who now believe unseen forces are trying to manipulate our minds and shift our beliefs toward their own agenda.

This is the climate in which ‘Headliner: NoviNews‘  is set. 

You play the role of the chief editor at a large media outlet. For two weeks your job is to choose between different news articles, either approving them for publication or rejecting them.  While the choices may seem binary at first, the game alludes to more complex systems at work beneath the surface. Evidently every decision made will sculpt the world around you, something your in game boss eagerly points out. “Whatever we publish will become the truth. We control the news, we control the truth”. Publishing an article essentially means the newspaper agrees with it, influencing the public either positively or negatively. After all if you “repeat a lie often enough it will become the truth”. A dramatic shift in opinion will also have a dramatic and sudden effect on the public.  Similarly publishing or rejecting everything will have consequence; the former making people think your irrelevant the latter making them believe your censoring. 

After choosing the news from a first person view in your office, you’ll then have to walk home. Now the perspective shifts to side-on, zoomed out so far that your character is a dot in the crowd. It’s a visual reminder that you’re something small in a big world that surrounds you. It’s a juxtaposition to the close up view you have in the office, when you’re significant and all-powerful. Strolling through the streets is reminiscent of ‘Oxenfree’, where speech bubbles will let you know what others are saying. The people passed will be discussing the news they have just read, passing comment on both the headlines and also on your news agency’s relevance. More profoundly the environment may also change as a result of your longer term decisions. As the game asks; “is the truth always the best option when it leads to panic and chaos?” Citizens you pass may exhibit signs of sickness, riots might fill the streets and buildings may even lay in ruin in the worst scenarios. “The right message at the right time can have profound consequences” the thoughtful convenience store clerk points out. He’s one of three specific characters you’ll interact with most, along with your brother and a female colleague. As you spend time with them you inevitably build up a bond; something hard to forget when your headline decisions could adversely affect them. They give a face to the main issues; a personification of social problems. As such your choices feel like they have even greater consequence: you’re not just going to change the lives of the irrelevant majority, you’re going to affect your depression afflicted brother Justin, the life of foreign reporter Evie, and the small business owned by family man Rudy.

Set during an unspecified year in the near future, Novistan is a nation obsessed with genetic modification, on the brink of conflict with the neighbouring country of Learis. Racial tensions run high, an epidemic is feared and drug and alcohol addictions are commonplace.  ‘Headliner’ may highlight the plight of the everyday man, but they live in a world controlled by corporations and a potentially corrupt government. But, how do you present these unseen forces to your readers? Opinions on businesses and the amount you support the government will affect your papers funding and reach. There’s merit to being unbiased but becoming too radical makes your publication un-relatable to the masses and vulnerable to criticism. Without advertising your media empire will collapse, without government support you’ll be shut down. Like every decision in ‘Headliner’ there’s no obvious right answer, it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time. 

With so much going on within the game world it’s useful that each news story has an icon that identifies which topic it relates to. To spice the game play up slightly, sometimes you’ll be presented conditions you must meet, for example approving a set amount of articles that day. But that really is the extent of what you need to do when playing. There’s money in the game, but spending it didn’t seem to change what happens - the character will always eat and sleep and who really cares what colour their apartment is?  The limited gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played the cult hit ‘Papers, Please’ in fact that game is even referenced in ‘Headliner: NoviNews’. It’s also comparable to games like ‘60 Seconds’ and visual novels. You make decisions, see what happens, go to bed and repeat until the narrative is played out. It’s not a traditional game from a gameplay perspective, it’s more of a narrative experience albeit one without explicit decision making. You never feel like you’re directly controlling the plot or even your own fate. You are more a guide steering towards an outcome you want to happen and watching the events unfold, often in unpredictable ways. 

For such a technically simple game it is shocking that the experience is blighted by loading though. Sometimes it takes close to a minute to start a new day. This is incredibly jarring and takes you out of the game world for too long - a significant short coming when the success of ‘Headliner’ depends on player immersion.  Selecting between two news stories is also flawed because your A button (the one on the right of the pad) selects the left article, while B (to the left of the A button) always picks the right news article. It’s all very counter-intuitive and it’s niggles like this that should have been noticed during QA. Perhaps more crucially you also have no way to change your mind once you’ve approved or rejected a news article, even if you made a decision by mistake. It’s always worth reading everything on hand before making a final decision. Thankfully the game does auto-save at the start of each day, but having to reload is a cumbersome solution to a problem caused by the controller buttons being badly mapped. Touch controls do solve the problem, but this is obviously only possible in handheld mode. 

Outside your office the technical problems persist. Your protagonist feels like they’re moving on ice during the side-on street walk sections. They’ll drift along in an unresponsive manner sometimes even heading in a random direction. I initially thought I was suffering from the dreaded “D-pad drift” but the same thing happened when playing with a pro-controller. It might have been that the game was trying to guide me towards points of interest or it may simply be that ‘Headliner’ has just been badly ported to the Switch.  This feeling is compounded by the fact that the game is also, bizarrely, a huge battery drain. I got less than two hours play from a complete charge. The graphics are hardly system intensive; they’re functional but not really stylish. At one point you can interact with a pet dog in your apartment an action that seems to have no bearing on gameplay at all. During this section you see a close up view of your in-game character and it highlights the low polygon count in a very unfavourable way.
The character models are good from afar, but far from good. Thankfully for the rest of the time you see characters interacting through visual novel style talking portraits. These look much better, full of nuance and subtlety. The game’s music is also just functional, rather than inspirational. Tunes will bubble away in the background but they’re so inoffensively bland you’ll hardly notice they are there. Unlike the incredible aforementioned ‘Oxenfree’, there’s no speech in this equally wordy conversation driven game. Those who don’t want to spend two hours largely reading best look elsewhere. 

Many may suggest ‘Headliner’ is a short game, but those engaged by the decision and consequence gameplay will unlikely only experience it once. As the game itself says “many timelines exist, this game was meant to be played multiple times”. Therefore, the two hour running time feels about right. The big narrative changes happen towards the end of a run and the repetition of news stories would be far more noticeable were the game any longer. Later play through have a wonderfully self-reflective tone to them, as characters note about having the chance to do things differently and how repetitive life can feel. “History repeats itself, maybe you can be better this time” notes a character when you become reacquainted on a new timeline. Sadly there are no way the game tracks which endings you’ve seen or the past choices made on a previous play through. On other versions trophies unlock upon seeing a certain conclusion and the list of other available achievements indicate what sort of route is best to take to see something new. On the Switch you just have to consciously make different choices and hope you’ve done enough to earn an unseen end result.   

‘Headliner’s dramatic narrative twists emphasised by the very different endings makes a player realise that the choices made, even the smaller ones, have profound repercussions. Unlike some Telltale style morality games when you feel what you pick doesn’t really change much, every news article you publish seems to be significant. Sometimes it’s a cumulative build up that alters public opinion, other times a single choice will have an immediate consequence. 

It’s impossible to play ‘Headliner: NoviNews’ without drawing comparisons to the real world. We learn that “Prime Minister Wolff is not exactly the picture of open mindedness”. American and UK players will perhaps draw comparisons here with real world counter parts. Considering the clear social agenda ‘Headliner’ has, it would be silly to think this wasn’t deliberate. The game features an on-going debate between private and nationalised healthcare. It scrutinises the expansion of corporations at the expense of local business. It doesn’t shy away from conversations about drug and alcohol dependency, suicide, free-speech and gay relationships. It’s an undoubtedly brave game.

As your character casually remarks, “the media needs to be responsible” something that’s wholeheartedly agreed with by the person they’re talking to. “Oh definitely [...] they shape how we perceive the world outside of us”. ‘Headliner: NoviNews’ is an engaging game, which (like the citizens of the game) will make the player re-evaluate their perceptions of print and broadcast news. ‘Headliner’ may offer unremarkable graphics, generic music and control problems but it also offers intrigue. It’s a game light on gameplay but heavy on social commentary. The points it makes may be heavy handed at times, but they’re points that need to be made. 

If you’ve noticed the irony of this opinion filled review you’re probably the target audience for ‘Headliner: NoviNews’ and will enjoy the few hours you’ll spend with it. But, if this article has persuaded you to buy it, perhaps you should be questioning the motivation behind my words. I was provided a free copy of the game after all! 

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