An elevator pitch might dance around the notion that Headliner: NoviNews is spiritual successor to Papers, Please, the immigration visa-simulator designed by Lucas Pope. Set in the very modern and well-off fictional nation of Novistan, public opinion is governed by the articles and reports published from NoviNews, the nation’s premiere news source. As an editor, your job is to approve and reject articles that cover heavy and loaded topics such as immigration, universal healthcare, and advertisements. Headliner’s main hook is how the city you live in is directly affected by the reports published and toss in the trash, hammering home the idea that the world is not a clean contrast between black and white but rather a mushy, oozing mass of gray.
Your behavior and its effect on the population is presented through the microcosmic lens of three main characters. First is Evie, a fellow NoviNews reporter and foreign correspondent who is concerned by the growing anti-immigrant sentiment and suffers from undisclosed medical issues. Second is your brother, Justin, an aspiring stand-up comic troubled by feelings related to imposter syndrome and could really use a therapist if he could afford it. Finally, there’s Rudy, a single dad running a small deli shop in danger of being run out of business in light of the new big box retail store opening up next door. Understanding the plights of these characters is to understand how society at large reacts, albeit more quickly and somewhat irrationally what comes out of NoviNews. They have fears and anxieties that articles are meant to exploit or satiate. The truth is that no matter what choices you make - even those you feel are morally correct - there is almost always going to be some negative impact. And it’ll be mostly your fault.
Headliner is barely a game and feels more like the sort of interactive edutainment you might see in high school computer labs. The entire experience is built around a daily routine of going to the NoviNews office and listening to your boss outline the rules and expectations for the day and, more importantly, getting paid. You’re then sent to the news desk where a collection of four to five articles await your scrutiny, a process that’s typically over in about a minute or two. Once this is done, you’re free to go home for the day, a trip that is deliberately long so you can see how the citizenry reacts to what you’ve allowed getting published. People may riot, they may talk about how well informed they feel, they might react negatively to something you thought was a good idea, they could start getting increasingly sick from a strange genetic illness, perhaps you’ll spy an increased police presence or forms of civil disobedience. You’ll also have a chance to chat with Evie, Justine and Rudy, whose lives are affected not just by the news but also the dialog prompts that shape their existence and relationship with the main character. You can relax and reflect on the day when you finally get home before falling asleep and doing it all again.
At first, everything seems easy. News articles are pretty straightforward and feel designed to help you get your feet wet with the process. Conversations with other people are light and breezy. No one’s rioting or doing bad stuff. As the days go by, you’ll be given more serious and potentially compromising articles. Briefings with the boss stretch journalistic integrity. Would you risk angering a major advertiser by not promoting a new product or be partly responsible for causing an increase in dependency? And what about the government? Do you stand alongside the State and its “Novistan First” attitude towards immigration? Do you agree with the concept of healthcare for all? Time moves quickly in Headliner and you’ll bear witness to near-instantaneous social change and upheaval the second you leave the NoviNews office for the day. Approving articles that support the Prime Minister’s hard-line agenda against a foreign nation will see people conducting protests and calling for all immigrants to be forcibly thrown out of Novistan. Promoting universal healthcare might be great for people like Justin but others will complain that the lines are too long and stew unrest as more people get sick and cannot be promptly treated.
Consequences also extend to your character’s quality of life. I made the decision to go against NoviNews’ advertisers and published articles decrying a new synthetic alcohol. As a result, I got chewed out by the boss and the entire staff got a pay cut because the advertisers cancelled the partnership. This meant less money for me to spend at Rudy’s shop, who was worried about business slowing down, less money for Evie to use towards her growing medical bills, and me having to worry about Justin after he got arrested for an incendiary stand-up act I encouraged him to perform. On a bigger scale, my decisions allowed me to bear witness to citizens burning down the big box store because they carried the synthetic drink (and spared Rudy’s deli because I told him not to sell it) and a group of people committing suicide because they were forced off the questionable beverage. Headliner actively tests your moral resolve and being the architect of anarchy or a totalitarian utopia puts you in an uncomfortable position. Can you make decisions that benefit the greater good at the expense of others? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? You’re going to have to decide that and there are no warm fuzzies to tell you that you’ve done the right thing.
Headliner: NoviNews is an experience designed to simulate the impact news media has on society. It can be uncomfortable because it tackles a sensitive subject matter and reflects particular attitudes that have come to define journalism (and the attacks against it) these past two years. With the increase in incendiary rhetoric towards newsagents and the use of sensationalism and cries of “fake news!” to drown out opposing viewpoints, Headliner can come across as a little too real and hit too close to home.
Apart from having a direct hand on what information people consume, you’re given many opportunities to shape the main character’s personality and the strength of her relationships with other characters through dialog choices. I found it practically impossible to pick callous and uncaring statements because I find it difficult these days to be openly mean to characters. The game works overtime to push buttons and challenge you to deliver clear, unbiased, and objective-based journalism in the face of some hard, agonizing choices.
Headliner: NoviNews isn’t meant to dazzle people with super tight, unique, and revolutionary gameplay. It is, however, immensely replayable as it gives room for you to play through the story again and make all sorts of different choices the second or third time around. Whichever route you take, the entire practice of selecting which articles to publish is to get you thinking about the role journalism plays in society. It’s meant to provoke thought and test the player’s willingness to stay true to their own self in the face of ever-growing moral quandaries. I did experience a few quirks that exposed seams in the design, like why do I have money issues when there are literal piles of cash in my apartment. Also, my decisions regarding the BetterBuzz account were largely negative except for one article, which I felt put me down a particular story path that kind of didn’t make sense. I image that Headliner operates on a conditional, Choose Your Own Adventure-like framework where one decision puts you down down a very specific road and keeps you there no matter what other choices you make down the line. Though curious, these issues didn’t stop the game from doing a good job of putting you on the spot. How far are you willing to go to create a just and honest society? By selling the government’s ideals and turning your area into a police state or do you just burn the motherfucker down and create a new life atop the ashes?
Get to work, headliner, there’s work to be done.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.