Premature Evaluation: Hardland

Put on a mask in Hardland and you can pass undetected among the creatures it represents. Since this is clearly not a disguise that should really fool anybody, there’s something simultaneously slapstick and sinister about it, standing silently amid a herd of pigs with your own pig-hat, with its snub nose and inscrutable glassy eyes. Masks are creepy and weird - as pop-culture appears to be rediscovering with the likes of Hotline Miami, horse memes and True Detective. I feel they’re even weirder if you think about their gestation as a cultural artifact. Drawing or painting what we observe in the world, including faces, seems a too natural behaviour to evolve - but to go from that to creating a face that you can put over your own face is to take a big step into an entirely different realm of symbolism: a desire not only to represent the other but to transform yourself into it. Indeed, a large number of mask rituals across cultures hold the tradition that this is literally what occurs: that the wearers of masks aren’t merely performing a role, but have momentarily become the entity the mask represents.

Each week Marsh Davies gambols through the lush pastures of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or feeds some ham to a decapitated skeleton while dressed as a chicken. This week he’s been playing Hardland, an unusually gorgeous and imaginative ARPG set in a part-procedural bucolia of rolling hills and haunted forests.

Having no head, much less a stomach, it’s not wholly clear how the skeleton intends to eat the ham he’s begged me to fetch. But there he is, standing by the river in his oversized pauldrons, optimistically holding a saucepan, issuing dying wishes to passing chicken-headed men. As undying wishes go, though, to taste ham one last time is relatively benign and, the difficulties of his digestion aside, my part in this quest is trivial to fulfill. When I give him some ham, after several minutes of pelting round, waving my sword at pigs, the skeleton rewards me with a mask. A pig mask, in fact, which, much like the chicken mask I am currently wearing, successfully disguises me as the animal in question, allowing me to charm and, supposedly, command them, possibly in great numbers.

If not actively transforming the wearer, the use of masks throughout history has, at the least, suggested an act depersonalisation. The nuances of expression and interaction that the face permits are so socially important to us, that by simply obscuring the face we feel suddenly divorced from the usual social contracts, whether or not our true identity is hidden: Bacchic rituals and masked balls alike both permit varying degrees of disinhibition as a result of obscuring the participants’ faces. Even something so simple as wearing sunglasses, I think, offers a sort of permission to do as you please: with your gaze hidden, you are freed from the laws of etiquette that say it’s rude to stare. You can also deny eye contact that might otherwise have provoked you into some necessary social interaction. It’s oddly powerful for so little a thing.

I haven’t yet worked out how to do this in my too-brief time with the game: it abruptly ceased working overnight, affording me only a few hours play in total. Mountain Sheep are a small dev studio and although they are very responsive by the standards of Early Access, a patch to fix the game might take them a week to issue. Hardland is, by their estimations, 65% complete, and it feels it: chaotic and a little glitchy, with nothing in the way of an explanation for your purpose or really any of the game’s systems. But those short few hours have also shown me a game which has been as continuously surprising as any RPG I’ve played, mixing pre-authored quests and discreet, designed areas with procedurally generated wilderness, busy with strange characters doing their own emergently chaotic things. It’s weird, funny and full of personality – its art-style alone is one of the most winsomely idiosyncratic since Windwaker, with the bobble-headed, wide-eyed characters having the soft, tactile look of clay sculptures, as though from some 80s Eastern European stop-motion animation. It’s cute and mischievously grotesque, and delights in juxtaposing the two. I love it.

If you were somehow rendered insensible to Hardland’s astonishing art-style, however, the game doesn’t otherwise immediately promise to upset expectations: you awake an amnesiac and are quickly given directions to a nearby village by a fisherman, who inevitably slips in a fetch-quest for a new rod. But you can step off this path almost immediately, abandoning the primly designed wooded enclosure for a sprawling procedural landscape by way of a giant glowing portal, over which hovers the tool-tip “WTF”. I step through, finding myself on an outcrop of rock, littered with skulls, overlooking rolling hills and forests. A nearby tree grows oversized apples and I fall off the outcrop as I take a swing at them, tumbling into a congregation of chickens, who, I infer, are worshipping at an altar. On it sits a chicken helm. That’s mine, I think, and take it, pelting away from the angry squawks that ensue and into the woods.

More obviously extreme are the masks designed to apparently dehumanise their wearer, like the theatrically fearsome demonic helmets worn by samurai or, more terrifyingly still, the total blankness of the masks worn by Taiwan’s Special forces. Clearly these are both designed to disturb and intimidate would-be enemies - but I wonder if our ancient ancestors might have got it right about the transformative power of masks: that such masks give amoral licence to those wearing them; that they are more able to fulfil the expectations of inhumanity that the masks project.

Zombies muddle about aimlessly here, but don’t seem instantly aggressive. I take a swing at a few anyway, which appears to rile up the ones closest to me, but I’m nimble enough to avoid their slovenly flailing, and put them to the sword, admiring both the precise and responsive collision detection and the voluminous gouts of fuscia blood that squirt out of them. Night sets, momentarily leaving me in the pitch dark before the moon climbs into the sky. Torches move in the distance and I work my way closer, towards a copse of trees which surround a house. Gunshots resound, though I can’t make out who is responsible. The torchbearers are a goblin troupe of varying sizes. The largest are clearly captains, each given unique names and armaments, while the smallest are disposable minions – but adorably miniature, like the innermost matryoshka doll. Some spot me, and come waddling through the grass. I take a few swipes, sending the little goblins (goblets?) flying like skittles. But, now suddenly appreciating their numbers, I decide on a course of discretion and leg-it back to the portal. Starter Village Quest it is.

Even this holds a fair few surprises. As dawn rises again, the guards by the village gate are drawn into combat with a sizeable force of zombies, led by a ghoul – I join in, but in the chaos somehow manage to aggro both the guards and a nearby merchant, who blunderbusses me. I’m not sure how permanent such states of aggression are, but it’s clearly a good idea to save regularly. Luckily I have, and undo my misdeeds, sauntering on into the village. A tiny wizened old man with a large round nose tells me, “I often eat cabbages.” I pick him up and throw him in a river. It turns out you pick up a lot of things, including people, and throw them into rivers. I really enjoy this. Other characters have more useful things to say and offer fetch-quests, too – thereby forestalling their rivery fate. None of these quests seem to suggest a larger narrative or particular centrality as yet. I find a fire-mage’s hat stuck in a tree and return it to him. I pick up the fisherman’s new rod from the blacksmith. I give an old lady some apples. But as mundane as some of this might sound, the art style’s ability to balance on the very dividing line between cute and sinister renders it with a giddy unease.

Trepidation surrounding the tradition of masks is apparent in the word itself, its murky etymological past threading back through European languages, where it has the connotation of painting or darkening the face, to Latin, where it held a trial meaning with “specter” and “nightmare”. Masks held strange ritualistic meaning to the Romans, being part of theatre but also a means of proving your identity as a citizen: the death masks of your ancestors were used as testament to your bloodline. At some point in the middle ages, masks may take a further detour into the occult: the language Old Occitan, once spoken in the area joining southern France to Spain and Italy, has the word “masco” meaning “witch” - a suggestion of a since-vanished tradition of masked mysticism perhaps?

Things take a more definitive turn when I meet the mayor. He seems peaceable enough, though surrounded by a cluster of guards and a suspiciously well-armed elf. We have a brief and not terribly enlightening chat about the village, and then, while experimenting with my inventory nearby, I somehow enrage everyone by donning my chicken helm. Panicked, I run, leading them in an angry conga line round the ornamental gardens of the mayor’s manor. Each of my pursuers has a unique name – although some of dubious accuracy: Terrence the Friend of Animals is clearly not that fond of chickens. And with good reason, it turns out: I kill him with a magic green mace I seem to have acquired from somewhere. I have some luck kiting the rest of them around hedges and tonking each as he emerges, but eventually the elf does me in with an arrow. All my loot fountains from my body as it crumples to the floor.

Masks don’t always inspire such aggression however – the pig mask, for instance, seems to let you go through both human and goblin country unmolested. After a reload, I go exploring, and briefly chat to Ulvkil the Ruthless about how fat and delicious the goblin king is looking these days, before chasing him through a corn field and bludgeoning him to death, sheafs flying with every blow. Later, I trade his heart for some healing potions at a witch’s cottage, before stumbling on into the procedural wilderness – it can be reached on foot as well as by portal, it seems. Here I encounter an undead merchant, who groans incoherently at me before being slain by a wandering elf. I follow this elf, known as The Swift Boot, apparently, as he carves a bloody path through the local fauna. He doesn’t seem terribly interested in the loot, so I snaffle it all up after he’s done the hard work. He eventually bites off more than he can chew, ploughing straight into a force of some twenty or thirty goblins, who are apparently guarding a house, sending wave after wave of mini-goblins flying, before falling before the blade of The Poison Tooth. Still wearing the expressionless, glassy-eyed pig-mask, I saunter up to pocket the elf’s goodies. The Poison Tooth remarks that he can’t wait until the fat goblin king bursts. I thwack him over the back of the head and take his hat.

Tracing the word further back from Latin is tricky, but most etymologists seem to suggest a link with an arabic word, “maskharat”, meaning “buffoon”, which, they say, alludes to a tradition of masked or face-painted foolery. The dictionaries I’ve consulted, including the OED, seem to give up there, which is curiously unsatisfactory given that further digging suggests more promising and evocative relationships. Dating them, and thus attributing the direction of evolution, has proven beyond my Google powers, however. It seems that words related to the arabic maskharat mean to deceive, distort or metamorphose - all very apt for the process of donning a mask. But then hebrew, too, has a word for a mask, “masecha”, and its origins seem to be more prosaic: coming via a word for a veil or covering from a root word for weaving. If there are any further advances on this from RPS’s extraordinarily learned readership, I would gladly hear them. And I have another question for the anthropologists, too: masks are clearly widespread but not universal - what reasons might be given for the few cultures which have not developed a tradition of masks?

Where am I going? I don’t know. The goblin king looks like a promising line of inquiry, but the game’s shape is hard to perceive and it lacks a clear sense of purpose to draw you through its content. But the systems that underpin its world are clearly rich and deep, and its incidental detail full of wit. I’m not exactly sure what the destiny of Hardland will be. With only a handful of developers, it may top out at a wonderful curiosity – a modest mixture of off-kilter caricatures, fetch quests and emergent chaos in a beautiful sandbox. But in my head it could be next Zelda or Fable: I so dearly want a game with this tone, art-direction and clever blend of procedural and pre-authored storytelling, yet with the megabudget of a triple-A title and the robust, polished expanse of content that this would permit. I wouldn’t normally put money on that happening, but when the consolation prize is already so delightful, it might just be a bet worth taking.

Hardland is available from Steam for £11. I played the version with the Build ID 784771 on 22/09/2015 and had a jolly good time.

22 Comments

  1. Lokai says:

    This is the first early access game in a while that is actually making me interested based on your description, the art, and a few of the design aspects (like the unique qualities of the masks and AI fighting each other). I’m going to have to go check it out now to at least see how it looks in motion.

  2. marak830 says:

    This sounds interesting! Hurry up new net connection -.-

    I like the look of that art style, i just cant put my finger on what it reminds me of.

    • Aetylus says:

      Children’s fairy tales brought to life ala Shrek?

      • Premium User Badge

        Neurotic says:

        Yeah, it reminds me of the wooden bobble-heads in one of the Shreks.

  3. Drowed says:

    The game really looks AMAZING, it feels like you’re playing with plastic figures, kinda like a “child’s play coming to life”.

    That said, the game still feels a little empty. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong – but you can easily see why it’s still in early access. But I bought it anyway.

  4. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    I’ve had it on my wishlist since it released on Early Access. I’m glad this finally got a proper write-up, and now I doubt I’ll be able to hold off much longer. It just looks wonderful.

  5. rexx.sabotage says:

    freaking instabought this.

    although, the installer is a hefty 9 gigs…

    with great games come great downloads :\

  6. Raoul Duke says:

    This looks fantastic. And I actually find the lack of obvious direction that the game seems to have very appealing. I long for game devs to return to the trajectory that games were on about 10 years ago in that regard. Sure, have emergent storytelling and some pre-written concepts, but let the player find them, not find them or do whatever as they please.

    Very curious to see how the emergent gameplay aspects of this play out, too.

    And the art style is brilliant. They seem to be using a shedload of anti-aliasing to achieve a really nice, smooth look, but it has that slightly odd edge to it too. Reminds me a bit of the art style in Grim Fandango, in a weird way.

  7. Wowbagger says:

    This is one of those rare Marsh articles where I read both the normal and alt text. All seems very interesting, I wonder if the dehumanising effect of masks is also linked to the anonymity of uniform. Like in that psychology study where everyone pretended to be prison guards and so acted shitty to the prisoners.

    • kud13 says:

      To be fair, in the Stanford Prison Experiment the guards only got super-serious in response to the “prisoners” demeaning their role.

      Though the lack of ethics committees back then meant the study was practically bound to spin out of control. Dr. Zimbardo (the researcher) also put himself into the experiment (as “the Warden”), and it took an outside opinion from his grad student girlfriend to point out that what was going on was really not okay.

      • Marsh Davies says:

        There’s a great bit on this in Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – it makes the experiment and the conclusions that are traditionally drawn from it sound pretty shaky. Zimbardo comes across as a bit of a crank, tbh. It’s an interesting and very funny book besides – very much recommended!

  8. Artiforg says:

    I always visit Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words when I want to find the etymology of a word or phrase. Sadly Mask is not on there. He does look up words and phrases that people e-mail him about so that might be worth a try.

  9. padger says:

    This sounds great. Might wait a bit, though.

    (I’m stuck in a loop!)

  10. Ashrand says:

    Even if Marsh hadn’t described game features that hammer my endorphin buttons like Granddads First E-mail it would have had me at ‘adorable pig mask’.

    On the Alt-text though finding the root for mask seems like half the story, i wonder what effect avatars (itself a word with a storied history) and other online paraphernalia have in our online lives?
    Is the batman avatar i use for steam influencing my habit of going to other, less moderated, comment sections and arguing with MRA’s, Anti-feminists and the rest of the ‘superstitious and cowardly lot’ until they shut up or go away?
    If that’s too fantastical an assertion perhaps just the fact that the great appeal of a fresh online identity allows you more than you would in person to define yourself outside of the culture you were raised in.

    • Scandalon says:

      Interesting question. I know that I find various emotional responses to certain people here due to their avatar pic, not even counting their online name or the actual content of what they post…

  11. heretic says:

    Excellent alt text Marsh! Thanks! Seems like an interesting game too :P

  12. Razumen says:

    Had this on my radar for awhile, the beautiful art direction is one of the first things that caught my eye, glad to hear there’s something of substance beneath eat, even if it’s still a bit stringy.