An Interactive Period Drama Challenging the Games Industry: Interviewing the ‘Herald’ Team

[Courtesy of Wispfire]
[Courtesy of Wispfire]
It is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to a game I’ve had my eye on for quite a while now. Ever since I scrolled past the image above on my Tumblr dashboard, I’ve been nothing short of excessively overeager waiting for this self-proclaimed “interactive period drama” to get funded on Kickstarter and finally hit the market. What game is this and how can you help the team get it off the ground? I’m glad you asked! Herald is a choice-driven, 3D point-and-click adventure game expertly blended with visual novel elements created by the Wispfire team. It deals with colonialism in an alternate 19th century world where you, playing as man of mixed race, must choose between the fortunate and the less so all while carving out your very identity and place among your fellow shipmates.

A mere cursory glance at Herald‘s Kickstarter page will confirm three things that I personally think make this game worthy of your well-earned monetary backing:

  1. It’s a game rich with representation across many races, classes, and genders.
  2. The art is absolutely stunning and deeply complex, offering an array of colorful characters to populate this diverse environment.
  3. The team responsible for Herald believe wholeheartedly in the work they’re putting in to bring this game to life.

That said, I had the honor of speaking with Roy van der Schilden (lead writer) and Aïda de Ridder (art director) about the development process as well as their thoughts on the player experience and much more. Join me for a very enlightening read! When you’re done perusing the interview, of course, consider backing the game. Herald only has three days left on Kickstarter!

J: Please introduce us to your team! How did everyone come together to work on such a unique project? What experience is everyone bringing to the table?

Hello, we are Aïda de Ridder (art director of Herald) and Roy van der Schilden (lead writer of Herald). Together with Bart Heijltjes (creative director) and Remko Haagsma (lead programmer), we founded Wispfire in May 2013 in the Netherlands. We currently also work with music and marketing freelancers and three interns on Herald.

All the founders have a background in interactive theatre and/or installation art. But as much as we loved working on theatre projects, the problem of interactive theatre is that it isn’t a product that lasts. Once a theatre piece is performed, it’s gone. With Herald, we wanted to use the knowledge of theatre and make a product that does last, a product that you can copy and share as many times as you like, and won’t disappear after it’s performed.

J: Herald at first seems to hold true to a narrative common to countless games, and moreover, popular culture: a journey to find one’s identity. Devan is what’s truly unique here. How did you approach research for slashing all expectations with a POC?

Roy: To find Devan, I did a lot of research on historical men and women of mixed heritage, as well as on the world they lived in. Several books, like Max Havelaar by Multatuli and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, were a great inspiration for the colonial setting of Herald, as were the lives of historical figures like Dido Elizabeth Belle and Frederick Douglass.

Though the most useful inspiration came from the interviews I did with people who are in the same situation as Devan is. That’s what makes the topic so relevant today: our multicultural society still deals with the fear of exclusion and the necessity to adapt to a culture to truly fit in. So, naturally, the people I interviewed had first-hand experience dealing with this.

It can really bother me when people demand that the minority adapts itself to the customs of the majority. So I hope that people who play Herald will see that this issue is still a problem today, and that we need to talk about it instead of denying its existence.

J: Clearly, you have your protagonist on lock. What about the rest of the cast? What’s the process like in terms of bringing these people to life in this particular setting?

Roy: While Devan himself has some clear goals and motivations in life, he is meant as a conduit for the player to explore the spectrum of choices that a man in his position has at any given time. When designing Devan, it was important to us that he had his own background, but that almost everything he does aboard the Herald is up to the player, so part of his personality is intentionally left open for interpretation.

As I said before, we did a lot of research on historical figures as well as had interviews with people with first-hand experience. Also on our team, and among family and friends, we have people from minority groups, so we do have a lot of access to personal experiences.

[Courtesy of Wispfire]
[Courtesy of Wispfire]
J: Herald is set in an alternate 19th century setting. What was it like designing a world we’re all familiar with, yet putting a fresh spin on it? How did you approach the balancing act of familiar/new?

Aïda: To design the world the cast of Herald lives in, we took inspiration from several nations that were involved in colonialism. We mainly looked at 19th century Britain, but also at our own Dutch history. I was always very fascinated by the Dutch Golden Age—the 17th century where the Dutch were heavily invested in foreign trade. It is a very romanticised time period and I always loved it as a little girl. I was only vaguely aware of the dark side of this time in history and how it affected the countries the Dutch traded with. I’ve learned more about this time period while producing Herald than I ever did in school, and it’s only made me more fascinated.

So the Protectorate, the big western empire, is very much inspired by 17th century Dutch paintings and the heavily romanticized age of sailing. The 19th century British-inspired uniforms are probably more familiar to people, but I think by adding the strangely sober flamboyance of the Dutch elite in the 17th century to the mix, it’s become something unique.

J: You say that in-game quests can be pursued in two different capacities: by following the rules on the ship or siding with the less fortunate who work there. What was so important about providing the player with the opportunity to explore this divide?

Aïda: We think the best way for players to explore a topic is to give them as much room as possible to form their own opinions and ideas through Devan’s choices. At the same time, we want to give them the opportunity to look at different options, and then confront them with what their choices mean for the world around them. We never wanted Herald to purely be a history lesson or a way for us to push our own politics onto others, but we did want it to be a way for people to learn something without it being a lecture. Herald’s characters do make some clear statements, but it is up to the player whether he accepts those as fact or denies them as short-sighted ideas.

Roy: Ultimately, all our characters fall somewhere on a spectrum that has the Protectorate on one side and the Colonized on the other side. Devan falls somewhere in-between, and because he represents attributes of both sides, the player can place Devan anywhere they desire him to be. Of course, picking a side always has consequences, and it will eventually determine Devan’s disposition towards others and vice versa.

J: The backer rewards on Kickstarter offer quite a few immersive options! What significance does this have to the player’s gaming experience? Is it difficult to integrate these aspects into the art/concept of the game itself?

Roy: Throughout Herald, the player will explore the ship and collect a lot of information about the history of the Protectorate and the people that occupy it. We wanted to give backers an opportunity to be part of that aspect of the game they helped to create. It will only be more fun to incorporate real life people in this history! Just like actually playing the game, these backers will be taking on a role of a character in the game, and thus, becoming part of the narrative. For the ‘Board the Herald’ reward, backers can expect to see their face [or whoever’s face they want] in a painting, a journal, or antiquity aboard the ship.

Our highest reward tier will allow someone to work closely together with us to create a side character of the game. We think it will be a very fun challenge and if someone chooses this reward, we look forward to working with them!

J: I’m gonna be a meanie and ask the question everyone dreads: who’s your favorite? Of all the characters, do you identify with any in particular? Better yet, did you sneak any significant parts of yourself into their creation?

Aïda: Someone in the office has already compared me to Tabatha, but I don’t really think that is true. Just because she is a woman and a feminist, has short brown hair and is short of length … wait a minute. But I really do like how Roy has written her. Just like most other characters in Herald, she embodies the duality of opinions many people have inside themselves. And I can’t lie, I really enjoyed designing her! I wanted to show that she abides by the rules laid out for her, but always strives to express herself for who she truly is.

Roy: While Devan Rensburg is definitely the character I spent the most time on to write (designing a player character in a story with narrative choices is very difficult!), I am most enthralled by Aaron Ludlow. Aaron’s intentions are not always clear to Devan, but in Aaron, Devan has his first true friend aboard the Herald. As is often the case with friends, a deep sense of trust and loyalty can form between the two characters over the course of the story. Writing a developing bond between two people is something that I find a lot of fun.

[Courtesy of Wispfire]
[Courtesy of Wispfire]
J: In all my reading on Herald, I couldn’t find any mention of an antagonist. Did the absence of that negative force raise the stakes? Did you find you had to work even harder to compensate for the traditional signposts littering video games today?

Aïda: Keeping everybody getting along as a steward is no easy task. Devan always has something to do or solve, and as the story progresses, the tension on board will rise and lead to a lot of conflict. There are, of course, people with bad intentions aboard the Herald, but none of them are pure evil. There is an overarching antagonist and it will become clear who this is as the story progresses, but it will not be a supervillain. This person is a human with motivations and reasons and came to his own conclusion about how to solve the issues on board.

Roy: For us, the story only gets better when we don’t have a supervillain. They make stories predictable and dehumanize people who make bad decisions. It’s sad, but even people we don’t like are still just as human as us. With Herald, we want to show that even the worst people in history were still people.

J: Most importantly! How can our community help your team see Herald realized?

Roy: Right now, we are reaching the end of our Kickstarter period and it’s getting quite exciting for us because at this moment, we have not reached our goal yet. What you can do for us is check our Kickstarter out, play our free demo, and if you like what you see, back us! We really want to make this game happen, and continue to make games in the future that have stories and subjects worth investigating within the medium of games.

J: Since it’s a time-honored tradition here at FemHype, share with us your favorite breakfast food!

Aïda: While usually too busy to really have a good, proper breakfast during the week (I know, it’s unhealthy), on the weekends I love making noodle soup brunches for myself with fresh vegetables!

Roy: I hardly ever eat breakfast during weekdays, but I do often drink a glass of fresh juice if I have some. During the weekends? Soft-boiled eggs and bacon!


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