PEGBRJE: Four Horsemen and Trawl
Explicit Storytelling and A Lack Thereof.
Four Horsemen is a visual novel by Nuclear Fishin’ Software as their first official title (that I know of), spearheaded by Kevin Chen. In it you follow the lives of 4 teenaged immigrants who have banded together to create their own secret base out of a derelict, abandoned location. These teenagers, depending on the starting region, have different names but remain constant in their representation; they are representations of the four horsemen of the apocalypse as War, Death, Famine and Pestilence. Regardless of their names, these four stake a claim on this location, fixing it up while dealing with the hardships of living in a region that doesn’t feel like their home.
The beauty in Four Horsemen is in this regional decision players make at the beginning of the game that sets the tone for the rest of the playthrough. Personally I chose the region of Marianne (blame Fire Emblem), which had the four speaking in a French dialect in between the English, with the country they reside in currently being interestingly called Angleterre. Due to this ability to choose where the teenagers are from, they will have a different skin and hair colour to the locals to reaffirm the differences between the two. Choosing a different region will change the names of the four horsemen, and may crucially change how the locals view the player’s protagonists.
In case it wasn’t completely obvious, this is a game about the challenges and tribulations of immigrants and refugees living within a nation that may or may not be at war with their home country. They each have their own varying degrees of immigration situations, from actively escaping the war, being born and raised in this current region or moving at such a young age that they cannot remember their homeland. Yet the general consensus that each feel is that they do not belong, which could be a consequence of their age (teenagers are a handful) but can be more accurately linked to the hatred that each of them face from the locals. The writing flips between lighthearted joking to dead serious conversations, trying to juggle with its own themes of loss, hatred and loneliness while also keeping the upbeat rebellious nature that teenagers have been associated with. It’s tough, and at times falls flat due to timing issues, but in general the juxtaposition works fairly well to convey how cynical and hopeful the horsemen are to their current condition.
The other unique aspect that Four Horsemen brings is in the ‘base building’ tied to the choices the player makes. Items built buy Death can be used for practical reasons, or to decorate the secret base the four inhabit during the Night phase of the game. It gives a sense of progression as players build this disgusting place into a cozy home and sense of direction. The Day is used to either collect the items needed to build these devices, or to carry out daily tasks such as school work, purchasing items or interacting with one of their parents. How the player handles each Day and Night greatly impacts the future choices that are available to them, and inadvertently sets them on the 4 main story lines to achieve the 9 possible endings. These are hinted at during a bizarre speech by Pestilence (in my playthrough, anyway) who mentions the 4 seals that show the paths each of them will take and where they might end up in life.
Four Horsemen is definitely an ambitious title that punches hard on the very real and current issue of xenophobia and immigration. Thanks to its regional system, players feel as if they are actually needing to learn about the new region they are in to understand why the locals may hate them (apart from just blatant racism). No two regions are treated the same, and the game makes sure you know this: some decisions made earlier during a second playthrough may be disastrous with a different regional background. Even certain acts can be over with relative speed depending on choices; my first playthrough barely had a second act, at least it felt as if it didn’t. Perhaps that is why I achieved the Sad End. It was sad, to say the least.
Four Horsemen took me by surprise. The caption reminded me of other titles previously played so I entered with a mild cynicism that this title would also gloss over certain issues simply because they were obvious. It did not. Four Horsemen heads straight for the harsh questions, not only between players and their previous beliefs but even between the horsemen and their own family and friends. Each playthrough invites differing opinions and degrees of prejudice, and dares players to believe that their decisions may not have consequences. While at times the tone and juggling between lighthearted and serious discussion are a little odd, and there are a few instances of conflict that seemingly go nowhere, the general attitude this game takes in approach to these questions is genuine and sincere. If you are looking for a game that demands multiple playthroughs for the full experience while also asking you to think of the relations between differing people, then Four Horsemen may be up your alley.
Trawl is a first person visual experience done by House of Wire, a studio consisting of Danny Gallagher with previous assistance from Nate Gallardo. Players become a ship captain on a midnight body of water, only knowing that they are planning to perform a trawl; which is to say, search the sea for something by dragging a net. Players are searching for something unknown, the only help being a radio giving bizarre signals and sounds to indicate that they may have found something. If the net does have an item, it can be reviewed by the player before putting it down and recording it in the typewriter. Upon reaching a certain number of items or in the event of something failing, players will write up their findings and discoveries before throwing it into a bottle and putting it adrift in the sea. This ends the game.
To say that I was confused for most of my time is a bit of an understatement. At first, the confusion was around what I was actually doing — not much is explained, only that players are searching for items and we’re on a ship. Through trial and error I was able to discover the radio’s abilities and the system to get items out of the water, which lead to the second half of the confusion; the metaphysical. Why.
Why is a question I’m not certain I’ve solved. The items that are dredged up tell a story as the game states, but my ability to understand their story is lacking. I found a shaving razor, a tiny toy boat and then a rusted lock. There were no significant markings on any of the items, no clues, not even signs of waterlog or wear. These items seemed to exist for eons in a state of limbo, one that cannot be explained or answered. After these items were uncovered, the radio broke. I only had one option; to write in my typewriter, which doesn’t allow any form of mistake. Each error is simply crossed out with an ‘x’, and the only thing to be done with the paper is throwing it into the water. Which ends the game.
Truth be told, I still have few answers. Trawl seems to nag on the corners of my brain as a title that is about searching for lost items and uncovering the nothingness that can sometimes follow. All written messages are kept on your computer to be referenced back, like finding a message in a bottle. Will I ever understand fully? Probably not. If this vague style of existential gameplay suits your tastes, give Trawl a try — it’s only a few minutes long to complete a single run, and can be constantly ran for more items and writing new stories. What you tell may uncover the truth behind Trawl; who knows.
EMIGRATE TO WESTERN EUROPE.MAKE CORNFLAKE NACHOS.CONFRONT THE GHOSTS OF A DEAD INTERNET.PRETEND YOU DON'T SPEAK…