Ten years from now, Headliner: NoviNews is going to stand as a fascinating timestamp of how people processed this decade… assuming the current news cycle doesn’t send us into our own death spiral.
Headliner: NoviNews could have been another dull comment on the state of news media. It could have very easily cowered behind the divine protection of “enlightened centrism”, but it does not. In these times, it could have even been a propaganda piece in and of itself for one side of the aisle or the other. It is none of these things because it is far better than that. It is not a statement on the topics tackled by the titular Headliner, but instead their direct effect on the world at large.
Still, Headliner: NoviNews is a strong proclamation on the power of news media, with an excellent branching narrative that illustrates this point – all wrapped up in entertaining gameplay that makes it one of 2018’s best indie adventure titles.
As far as playing out your role of Headliner, the chief editor for your nations news outlet “NoviNews”, tasks are simple and gameplay is tight. There’s no need for anything more than what you do between your life at work and your time spent on the streets of Novistan. Gameplay is split between these two settings, with every “level” separated by day markers.
You start each day at the office, instructed by your boss (aptly named Boss) on how you, as editor, should curate the news cycle for the day. “Should” is the key word there. YOU are the Headliner, which means YOU ultimately control the news. Any and all suggestions from your superior are optional, though certain choices will affect how much you (and your coworkers) are paid. You’re given total control from the get-go. It doesn’t matter how exactly you got into such a powerful position; the wheel of fate is already in motion, and it’s your turn to spin it.
After a brief conversation, you’re sent to a desk scenario akin to Papers, Please, where you’re made to either accept or reject a number of news articles and other documents placed before you. While this yes/no system sounds simple, it is anything but. With every acceptance or rejection, you directly influence the events and outcomes of NoviNews’ second gameplay portion.
Every night, you leave the office to wander the streets of your neighborhood. While this part of the level cycle consists of a single, linear stretch of street – with work at one end, and home at the other – it quickly becomes clear that Novistan has a deceptively complex structure upon which Headliner: NoviNews’ main narrative is built.
Every decision you make influences the streets of Novistan and it’s denizens – and I mean every decision. From the graffiti that appears on buildings, to the buildings themselves, nothing goes untouched by your editorial hand. Whether or not your chosen articles support Novistan’s current political regime or its policies not only shapes the physical landscape but greatly impacts the characters you meet in your life as Headliner. This is exactly where NoviNews steps into a place of nuanced storytelling and becomes something special.
Headliner: NoviNews’ ability to humanize larger themes through its cast of characters keeps your decisions from existing in a sterile void. Every night, you have to look into the eyes of those who are impacted by the editorial decisions that pass over your desk. At first, it may seem easy to set up a modus operandi that helps one person or another, but it’s simply not that simple. These characters all have complex histories, living situations, beliefs and aspirations that can and will be affected by how the news is run.
Your personal relationship with each cast member almost immediately comes into the picture as well. There are three major figures: your brother, your coworker (and potential lover), and your neighborhood shopkeep. Family, romance, and personal politics are all impacted by what you, as Headliner, make “truth” through the news. Through these characters, you become more than just the Headliner, which ultimately gives even this otherwise basic avatar a fully-fleshed personality.
What may look like a sparse cast by visual novel standards could not be more perfect in regards to Headliner: NoviNews’ scope. Beyond these three main face-to-face figures, your choices impact the narrative trajectory of certain politicians, corporations, and political movements. Every single presence in this game looms overhead like a Sword of Damocles, and every single decision eventually falls on someone’s neck; try as you might to avoid it, it’s often your own head rolling at the end of the day… sometimes literally.
You are the Headliner, the truth teller, the decision maker: this role is fully realized as the player of the game, almost to the point of fourth-wall elimination. It’s impressively immersive. If you let yourself really step into the Headliner’s shoes, you’re going to get stressed out in a way many other games can’t quite evoke, but that only helps to keep the game consistently engaging.
Your decisions are your burden to bear, and there is often no turning back after making up your mind about what you publish. There is rarely a right or wrong path, only what you believe is correct. You, as the player, have to make the moral decision. For some time you can take a centrist approach, but you get a centrist reward, and it isn’t great. The game, as with life, is much more interesting when you pick a side and stick with it. You will always stumble into negative outcomes along with the positive; what may save your coworker’s life very well may send your brother to a political death camp.
Before long, it becomes impossible not to endear yourself to at least one character, and that endearment affects your editorial choices. Sometimes, it’s obvious what will benefit someone, but more often than not there is a subtlety to NoviNews’ writing that makes it difficult to tell just who will benefit from the Headliner’s work. If we’re talking replayability, you’ll be hard pressed to find an indie title with more narrative outcomes, all of which are fairly satisfying – or, at least, fun to watch unfold. The game is 100% meant to be played multiple times. It’s even written into the later playthroughs as if the first Headliner you play as is either fired or moves on from their job, and your second save file is the newest recruit for NoviNews.
Headliner: NoviNews is full of charming rewards. Not only do you get to see the outcomes for every timeline, but little Easter eggs begin to pop up along Novistan’s streets with every new game file. And yet, these are not the only benefits to spending extra time in Novistan. Beyond the obvious Steam trophies (of which there are plenty) and fun little snippets of new text on each playthrough, you get to see just how deeply satisfying NoviNews’ world is.
Your life as Headliner is only as interesting as the world you affect. Novistan and its neighboring countries are steeped in realistic problems that create a weirdly believable setting, even with a semi-sci-fi-dystopian blanket bundling it all up. Many of the character’s conflicts stem from advances in genetic modification, and it’s subsequent Modification Rejection Sickness. It is both beautifully sci-fi-schlocky, and incredibly real, by way of how it affects everything in the game world.
This is the crux of many conundrums you face as Headliner, and ultimately the source of almost every issue each character faces. Whether it’s the health implications or the political fallout of people playing god, it serves as a force beyond you as Headliner, as if to put their own power into perspective. Not everything can be fixed by simply twisting the truth. This is a game about control, and the specter of genetic modification is the ever-looming threat to your influence as truthmaker.
While your decisions create their own butterfly effect, a second set of wings flap over Novistan, further complicating the story and embellishing the world. The writing itself keeps these dystopian themes believable, and never goes into any unnecessary elaboration – it’s never boring, and just the right level of “that makes sense” to where it’s easy to accept as an everyday part of life in Novistan. In a lesser narrative, this kind of element could easily break the immersion. In Headliner: NoviNews, the writing between scenarios and it’s overarching themes are so cohesive that you never feel pushed out of the game world. As the story ramps up and the stakes of your decisions grow larger, this matters immensely.
Name a hot news topic, and it’s in the game. Xenophobia, racism, drug abuse, public health concerns, political corruption – it’s all present, and how the greater public approaches them is affected by your choices at work. The only concerning aspect to this is the speed at which your decisions as Headliner impacts Novistan. You may start the day off in a perfectly accepting city, and leave work to find the streets are full of rampaging racists. This pacing is the only real flaw I found in Headliner: NoviNews’ narrative. Events unfold quickly, but considering how many times you’ll want to replay the game, this is only an issue through your first playthrough.
In a way, the speed at which your decisions affect Novistan ultimately benefits the actual gameplay, though it can be a little jarring; an entire playthrough takes around two weeks worth of day/level cycles, so perhaps a longer timespan would help slow things down. At the same time, it’s difficult to tell whether or not a slower pace would truly benefit the story. By the time you finish one timeline, most branching paths feel fully explored and covered, at least if you follow the story to the best of your ability. Perhaps I simply wanted more of the game, which is far from a flaw in its presentation.
It helps that the rest of Headliner: NoviNews’ aesthetic further pushes it out of lazy indie game llimbo. The numerous portraits truly capture each character’s personality and are just generally pleasing to look at. The music absolutely warrants its own soundtrack package, like other games provide on Steam. This, unfortunately, doesn’t exist for Headliner: NoviNews, but it really is good enough to the point where I would happily listen to it outside of the game.
The smooth overworld animations and their stylized, paper-cut-out sprites get the job done and look great in doing so. The text is always clear, though, in a game with countless words, there’s bound to be a few typos – but the developer is patching those out, so I can’t even fault the game for that. For all the love put into its narrative, Headliner: NoviNews’ look and feel is just as carefully crafted. Overall, the art direction has a level of professional polish that games at a similar price point simply aren’t providing.
Take it from someone who has played a ton of games this year that have put their looks over the story: Headliner: NoviNews not only contains an entertaining, satisfying narrative but does so using actual words while also looking great. That might sound like a no-brainer, but believe it or not, it’s harder to accomplish than it seems… at least according to current game trends. Turns out you can both tell a story and make your game look great if you put the time in.
The impressive part is, this game tells multiple stories and the interpretation of it’s larger themes are placed on the player in a manner that actually incorporates active gameplay elements. Writing of this caliber is difficult enough to keep consistent, and the game succeeds swimmingly at holding it all together from beginning to end. Importantly, it does so while never dropping gameplay elements in lieu of visual crutches or gimmicks. Headliner: NoviNews isn’t barfing out a story at you, it actively wants you to help guide the narrative and explore its world, and never leaves you out of that process.
There are no half-hearted stories in Headliner: NoviNews. In fact, none of the game is half-assed. For $10 on Steam, hell yeah you’re getting your money’s worth. I’d like to write something clever about “fake news” or maybe comment on the game’s philosophical approach to our more modern media problems, but actually playing the game will provide you with a much better statement on any of it than I could possibly make – and I’ve been a Headliner in 4 different timelines. Headliner: NoviNews is one of 2018’s most interesting indie adventure titles, certainly from a storytelling perspective. If you can handle the day-to-day stress of being an influencer, it might just be the job for you. Just make sure you stay vigilant, Headliner.