I can’t decide if I like HEADLINER or not. It’s an addictive game — when I sat down to try it out at the Seattle Indies Expo over Labor Day weekend, I ended up playing the whole thing in one sitting.
But it also shows a dystopia that’s eerily close to our own: one where divisive social issues and fake news rain destruction down on society, quite literally.
Players spend a week as an editor at a fictional news organization in a fictional city. You get to decide which articles to publish and which go to the dustbin, so you can give the news any spin you want and pursue whatever agenda you’d like. But there’s a catch: the decisions you make have a very real impact on you, your family and the society you live in.
“I’m basically giving players a conflict of motivation,” the game’s developer, Jakub Kasztalski, told GeekWire. “The news will affect your career, the society around you and your family at home. So right there you have three conflicting motives that will sometimes be at odds with each other.”
The game launches on Steam Tuesday. Between the growing skepticism of the news media, the increasing presence of fake news and propaganda online and a recent slate of high-profile disasters, there has perhaps never been a more interesting time to take a swing at controlling the news yourself.
First, a few specs on the game. It’s only available on PC at the moment and costs $2.99 on Steam. It’s also very short — you can play through it in about 45 minutes — but has massive replay value as there are dozens of unique endings that occur based on the decisions players make.
In the game, players are under pressure at work to raise their news organization’s ratings by giving the news a sensational spin.
They have the option to publish controversial, one-sided pieces about social issues like immigration, healthcare, human rights and even celebrity scandals. If they do so and raise ratings, they can get a promotion to pay for things like their child’s college tuition.
“If you want to advance your career, you want high ratings, but maybe that destabilizes society,” Kasztalski said. Taking an extreme stance on civil rights might result in riots in the street, for example.
They also have a direct impact on the player’s family. When I played, I ended up creating a police state and making my in-game wife lose her job to a refugee. I also didn’t get that promotion because I tried to keep the coverage balanced and fair.
Thankfully, I didn’t do as badly as the person who had played before me. In that game, the main character’s daughter died and society collapsed entirely.
Kasztalski, who runs Seattle indie studio Unbound Creations and built the game entirely on his own, said he wants players to explore “how bias comes about and what it means.”
“I want to almost dupe the player into following whatever their bias is and make them realize that, in the end… it really doesn’t matter,” he said.
Whether it’s a religious issue, ethnic issue, or civic issue, it’s people refusing to talk or understand the other side that’s the problem, he said. “It’s not what the reason for the division is, it’s the level of the division,” he said.
Kasztalski said he started working on the game a year ago. It started out as a more lighthearted, skill-based puzzle game. “As the game kept evolving, and all this stuff with fake news and the media started happening, I started shifting more towards the shaping of public opinion and how the news affects society,” he said.
Kasztalski also drew on his background and education to craft the game. He moved to the U.S. from Poland when he was 15 and lived in North Ireland for a time, while he was earning a master’s degree in comparative ethnic conflict.
In fact, part of the game was inspired by Kristallnacht, a one-night riot aimed at Jews living in Germany in 1938. But Kasztalski wanted to make a game that would touch a nerve for people alive today, so he began mining data on current social issues around the world.
“I’ve done a lot of research. I basically looked at Google trends and I used the Facebook ad planner to do some data mining about what social issues” people are most interested in, he said.
He limited the research to his target audience: people in North America and Europe who were 20-35 years old and had some sort of interest in video gaming. He also surveyed random Seattleites in the coffee shops where he worked on the game to get a sense of local interests.
“What was interesting was the difference between the local, national and global level,” he said. In Seattle, for example, homelessness was a huge issue that wasn’t as big in most other places.
In Europe, the Syrian refugee crisis was a huge point of social conflict. In the U.S., and particularly southern states, issues around immigrants from Latin America were more prominent and divisive. Issues like education, health and wellness and parenting were big topics across most regions.
“So all those differences were very interesting to me, and they ended up inspiring a lot of the scenarios in the game,” Kasztalski said.
He also said he was surprised by issues that he expected to rank high but showed relatively little interest, notably gun rights/control and climate change.
In the end, there is no way to “win” HEADLINER. There are some outcomes that are objectively better — all the members of your family surviving, for example — but what you take away from the game really depends on your own values.
“That comes down to you. What do you define as winning?” Kasztalski said.
I’m still not sure I can say that I like the game, but it did something that’s hard to do with any media: It forced me to slow down and grapple with hard, complicated topics. I know that I’ll be back to play it again.