This week, with a lot of help from our fans and the classic gaming community, we’ve released the legendary gore-fest horror adventure game, Harvester, (uncut and uncensored!) on GOG.com. Lee Jacobson, the game’s producer and current publishing rights holder, joined our blogger-in-chief, GDoc, for a chat about the backstage workings of one of the most disturbing and controversial titles in the history of PC gaming. Here’s another GOG.com Official Blog exclusive interview!
GDoc: Lee, you were the producer of Harvester, the one title considered to be the summit of disturbing violence and over-the-top gore in 1990s PC gaming. Some might even say, that the game’s first public showing at 1994 CES inspired the establishment of Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) aimed at regulating computer games as a medium. So, are you directly responsible for ruining all the bloody fun for all of us? Wait, let’s rephrase that: what was the role of a producer, about 20 years ago, in 1990s game development industry?
Lee Jacobson: Well I suppose everyone wants to leave their mark on the world, huh. ;-)
Seriously though, those were really fun times. Our small team was based in Dallas, Texas back in the days when a number of small companies had grown up and had a lot of success like id software, Ion storm, Ensemble Studios, Tetragon and others. It was a great close knit game development community where everybody knew everybody.
Back in those days the tools for creating games or prehistoric compared to what developers have now. The processors and memory constraints really were tough on game developers because we were always pushing the hardware to its limits and trying to find a way to optimize everything. For Harvester, at the time we were trying to really do some high-tech stuff for the time and we always had problems with all the video compression we were trying to squeeze onto a single CD-ROM.
We had a really great team as everybody wore multiple hats. On numerous occasions a number of us all took turns sleeping on the couches as we marched toward key milestones during the game’s development.
Overall, the role of a producer still was relatively same in that you are constantly trying to shuffle priorities both on the finance, production and technology side in order to make the best game you can within the constraints placed on the project. I think the entire crew did a great job in that regard.
GDoc: Harvester’s writer and lead designer, Gilbert P. Austin, said in an interview that the game was pretty much ready in terms of script, design, and live-action elements when he left it under your supervision in 1994. The game wasn’t released until 1996. In the meantime Sierra delivered Phantasmagoria, a game sharing many of Harvester’s qualities and effectively stealing much of your production’s thunder. In 1996, when Harvester started shipping, it didn’t feel that fresh, or even that controversial. Its distinctive story and b-movie feel secured its position as a cult-classic, but the game didn’t get to be the smash-hit it had the chance to be. What was the hold-up?
Lee: Gilbert did a great job writing very innovative and disturbing story. It was my goal to let him have as much creative freedom and push as many boundaries as possible (of course as long as we didn’t get banned of course) :-)
He definitely had a vision of what he wanted to do and I think to some extent the technology and the budget constraints that we had at the time limited what he wanted to accomplish. I must tell you though that we both spent many a long night in warehouses shooting videos and actors on green screens with so many actors I can even remember, and the whole time he was nothing but professional during the entire filming process.
It’s because of the clear vision he had that he really fleshed out the story pretty quickly. Unfortunately from the technology side and the resources we had at the time (which I believe still happens today) really set us back in our production schedule longer than we had anticipated. It’s always a challenge to push the envelope and unfortunately in doing so you can always anticipate all of the challenges the production team will face. I have no doubt that game delays will be a part of the industry or as long as it exists.
We were all pretty excited and somewhat disappointed when Phantasmagoria came out before us, but we felt that there could be room for more than one product given that our story was one that was unique. And since a lot of those games during that time were all about the story, people really wanted to experience the journey as opposed to necessarily a game mechanic. I must admit that even to this day, people are still writing about how much they enjoyed the game and the twisted nature of the story even almost 20 years later. I guess there’s worse things than being labeled a cult classic!
GDoc: Harvester was one of the few games to present actors superimposed over pre-rendered backgrounds. All of the in-game sequences had to be shot over greenscreen (or was it still bluescreen?) like in some of the modern Hollywood productions. Pair that with the peculiar taste and weird story the game presents, and it’s safe to draw the conclusion that making Harvester had to be a very surreal experience for everyone involved. Was it fun? And what about the effects? Not all of them look CGI, did you guys use a lot of traditional F/X techniques?
Lee: It was an absolute blast! And boy was it surreal. I remember the film crew, Gilbert and I setting up this massive 100 foot wide and 30 feet tall green screen where all of the filming of the actors took place. I think we practically lived there three months. I remember a lot of the actors that came through for initially uncomfortable in scenes that they were to be in as Gilbert was terrific at coming up with these really shocking scenes from weird camera angles. You can imagine how awkward conversation would be when asking a little boy to pretend to chew on a woman’s inner thigh in the scene of cannibalism. Granted, a lot of those effects for all superimposed, but nevertheless made for awkward conversations. Gilbert was a master though as he always found a way to get people to do what he wanted in the scene. He was definitely in his element when he was directing those video shoots for sure.
A number of the scenes were combinations of both real actors superimposed on CGI backgrounds with real props used as much as we could. Without a doubt there were a number of times where we had a lot of sharp objects around the set.
GDoc: Once the game was released, the marketing campaign that followed was just as over-the-top as the game itself. We’re talking ads showing dead infants with gouged eyeballs, here. How did you get away with this? Or maybe you didn’t? Did Harvester get you in any real legal trouble? Was there an angry mob at your doors?
Lee: Yeah, the marketing campaign was really over the top. We figured that if we were pushing the envelope, content, twisted story and gore, we may as well make as much noise as we can about it.
I remember we did upset a lot of religious groups and even had one picket our offices. While we didn’t get into any legal trouble I do remember it coming up a few times in political circles as the news media wrote about it. We really did some twisted stuff and those were crazy times!
GDoc: Was Harvester the last game you worked on? It would seem that you parted ways with the gaming industry after its release. Kurt Kistler, the actor portraying Steve, the game’s main player-character didn’t get involved in any other games, although he has fond memories of Harvester. Gilbert P. Austin laid low as well, ever since 1994, but in his website Kistler mentions the two are in touch, and that Austin disclosed to him that something BIG will be happening in 2014. So, what happened to the Harvester crew? And do you know anything about Austin’s impending announcement?
Lee: Yes. Harvester was the last actual game I was directly involved with concerning production. After that I moved over to the game publishing side and went to work for Virgin Entertainment in California. After such a long production I wanted to be done for a while with production, so I switched over to business development. All those years in production was a great experience though as it really helped me prepare, as well as really understand the entire process given my new role which was to assess development studios and find the next big hit.
I think for me it was just such a long and challenging production and that I really just needed to step back and reassess where I wanted to go next. After joining Virgin I really liked being on the publishing side of the business which carried over to my many years at Midway Games. Again, having the technical background on the development side and then switching over to the business development, legal and publishing side for so many years really was something I just loved doing. Helping find, create and be a part of new exciting franchises was really fun. Since then I’ve never had the calling to jump over and get into production again.
I remember Kurt, boy did we put him through hell. He was always a trooper though no matter what Gilbert or I threw at him. I haven’t spoken to Gilbert in a long time but would love to certainly reconnect with him. No clue what he’s up to now, but it’s no surprise that he has something big happening.
GDoc: Now, just to wrap it up, here’s a question you’re probably sick of. Almost 20 years have passed since the game’s original release. The development started over two decades ago. Much has changed in the gaming landscape, but the dispute over violence in games goes on, especially whenever the mainstream media go looking for scapegoats. What’s your take on modern depiction of violence in games?
Lee: Always an interesting topic of discussion for sure! I’ve always held the view that regardless of whether you agree with something or not, free speech and the ability to depict one’s vision and story in an art form is one that should never be trampled upon.
To this day it seems every couple of times a year there’s a study that comes out and blames violent video games directly cause kids to be violent, yet many of them don’t even mention other art forms like slasher movie’s etc. I personally don’t believe games or any other form of expression that’s violent can be a specific scapegoat for whether or not a person contributes to a violent act. I believe that many different forces (both circumstantial, environmental or otherwise) that act upon a person’s psyche influence or draw out what may already be a problem with that individual.
Most people don’t know, but I personally am not even a fan of any violent or bloody slasher films or horror movies. I think I’m the only person in America was never seen a Friday the 13th movie or Freddy Krueger film.
As a society though, you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as they say. In a large society you’re always going to have these unfortunate situations due to the fact that we are a free society and it’s a slippery slope to take away those rights. It’s just the way it is.
Harvester, the infamous adventure game exploring the darkest corners of human psyche and boasting graphic violence in the best tradition of b-movies, is available in its uncensored version and packed with the full soundtrack and many more bonus goodies on GOG.com, for only $5.99.