Review: Headliner Novinews
Released on the Switch in a month
dominated by the likes of Zelda: Link’s
Awakening, the award-winning Headliner
Novinews is a game that deserves more attention than it is likely to
Set in a dystopian future where most people have been genetically modified, migrants are demonised, and the government is cracking down on all dissidents, the game sees the player take control of a customisable ‘Headliner’ (editor) and determining which stories Novinews publishes.
Choices that the player character makes regarding what articles they approve directly affect and shape the game’s world. If you approve an op-ed backing a key piece of healthcare legislation, a bill passes in parliament to provide free care for all, where running a piece critical of the proposal sees it fail to get over the line.
This has consequences for some of the game’s characters, who are affected by the bill’s outcome. Passing the legislation means the player character’s brother can finally afford to see a therapist for his anxiety, but potentially affects the story’s love interest, who must endure longer wait times for treatment. The choices are rarely as straightforward as determining whether to back or oppose something, as a lot of smaller choices start to affect the outcome.
This goes to the design of the game’s world itself. If the player opts to print stories that investigate potential problems with a new synthetic alcohol called Better Buzz, graffiti appears on walls slamming the product, and in game characters start to comment to one another about how dangerous it is. Similarly, the approach the newspaper takes to crime and foreign affairs reporting affects how minorities are treated. Over the course of the story, players can bring down a corrupt regime, help solve a murder, and potentially form a romance with a co-worker.
In taking this concept of a simple game mechanic that forces
the player to make choices, Headliner
is similar in vein to the likes of Papers,
Please. Compared to that title, however, the game is more direct in its
political commentary, with some clear references to the likes of Donald Trump.
While Headliner’s graphics are cartoony and its characters simplistic, the game is beautiful, with its use of colour and lightening effects to create a lasting mood.
Accompanying all of this is a soundtrack that helps add to the ambiance, with music that helps add to Headliner’s addictive charm. Happier melodies contrast sharply with some of the more despondent chords the soundtrack hits at times when things turn sour.
What first seems like a fairly straightforward narrative about news and manipulation changes over time, however, and Headliner’s real underlying story only becomes apparent after repeated playthroughs. This is where the game becomes truly interesting (and what took Insights by surprise). Numerous characters say that they’re experiencing déjà vu, and the game starts breaking the fourth wall with messages to the player directly.
It should be pointed out that Headliner’s central premise is heavy handed. The editor’s ability to craft or sway public opinion is given way too much credence and the game overly simplifies the relationship between the press, politicians, and broader public. As any comments section will show, it is rare to see readerships that simply absorb and believe what their newspaper says. Within communications theory, there are numerous attempts to explain audience responses, but one broader conclusion is that readers are not simply passive receivers of media messages.
Still, this seemingly simplistic approach is upended by aspects of the game’s overarching narrative, and the title cannot be judged for this until playing through multiple times.
Headliner Novinews is available on Nintendo Switch and PC.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor