I played a demo of Four Horsemen when the initial Kickstarter launched in April 2016. I had found out about it via Olga Andreyeva (who I knew from her work with Boogie Down Games) as she had done some work on the project. When I first looked over the list of attending developers at Play NYC 2017, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the team behind Four Horsemen was listed there and I made sure to drop by Nuclear Fishin' Software's booth and see how it's evolved in the last year.
Four Horsemen is part visual novel, part adventure game, and part SLG - "Simulated Life Game", a term I only recently became familiar with after having looked it up. In essence, you experience the story of multiple characters in a fictional (yet still very realistic world) and work on building out a clubhouse while dealing with all sorts of fun teenage drama and angst. If you're a fan of stuff like Questionable Content or slice-of-life manga, you'd probably like this one.
What initially appealed to me about the game was the art style. It had a vague anime-esque look while nonetheless lacking eyes the size of dessert plates. The lines were a bit rough, but to me it was clearly a stylistic choice as the artists on the project put together a pretty nice package. I'm a sucker for a good slice-of-life story, and I ended up spending a couple of hours checking out the demo while the Kickstarter was running. Since that time, it had sat at the back of my mind, a file somehow lost in the shuffle of everyday life.
Over a year later, and the game has been a lot more rounded out. I had the gist of the gameplay down - you go through the story like any other visual novel and make decisions. You also worked to get your hands on various bits of trash or doodads to further upgrade your clubhouse, a little slice of heaven for this group of misfits. I got what the game was in terms of the mechanics. However, I had been a bit concerned about the story in terms of my own personal taste, and one of my objectives at Play NYC was to pick the brain of one of the people behind it to see what it was all about.
A lot of different topics come up in Four Horsemen - one of the central themes is that of racism and the immigrant experience. I am extremely gun shy when it comes to any modern media - especially games - that attempts to address a difficult or controversial issue. It is a monumental challenge to pull it off without it becoming a train wreck of cringe. There were a few moments where a character had given me secondhand embarrassment, but there wasn't anything that was handled particularly poorly. I've seen some games that deal with "difficult issues" that made me wonder if I had accidentally imbibed too much Nyquil and somehow ended up in the darkest corner of Tumblr where they discuss social issues with zero knowledge of the real world, and Four Horsemen had managed to avoid that entirely in the little bit of it that I had played.
Kevin Chen was the man to talk to, and I had missed him at my first pass by the booth at Play NYC. I bounced back and forth between Four Horsemen and Ghosts of Miami, another visual novel-like game that happened to be set up right next door. Much to my surprise, I later received a text from Mr. Chen asking me to swing by to talk more about the game. I couldn't pass the opportunity up and dragged my tired self back over to territory I had already covered.
We chatted a bit about the gameplay, but the core of my discussion was about how they managed to handle tackling social issues without becoming overly preachy. Mr. Chen admitted that it was a challenge, and given his attitude and demeanor I can now see why the game managed to avoid going off the rails. The Steam Greenlight page gives some further insights that didn't come up in our conversation - they talked with actual teens and young adults who lived through these experiences rather than imagining what they might be like with no firsthand knowledge as some other games might have done. It's little things like this that counted, in the end.
I do want to emphasize that I've only scratched the surface of this game. I play video games to get away from the real world, and with far left and far right ideologues literally fighting in the streets in America, I'm a bit cautious about how this will reflect on the modern climate. It could all go sideways at some later point I've yet to experience myself - though I don't get the feeling that it will.
I enjoyed the little bit I had played over a year ago, and I'm glad that I got to speak with Mr. Chen. I really would like to look into this particular game some more and see if it can hold up the quality throughout the entire story with all of the fun trappings of a visual novel (as well as a crafting system and, much to my surprise, a combat system that I had not yet managed to encounter in my first pass). It's a little meme-y at times, but the general feeling that I get from this game is a unique charm that I think is worth exploring. If it manages to hold up to Mr. Chen's vision and can consistently deliver as good of an experience as I already had, I think that this game will become a good example of how to talk about a difficult topic without fumbling the ball.
Four Horsemen has been Greenlit and is presumably working towards getting on Steam proper. If you'd like to get your hands on it now and don't want to wait, you can pick up a copy over at the game's itch.io page.
What do you think of Four Horsemen? Do you think that video games can tackle social issues, or do you think the medium is ill-suited to handle complex topics? What's your worst experience with a game trying to tackle a difficult subject? Let us know in the comments below!