Playing through Four Horsemen for the first time, I assumed that the writer was from Southeast Asia. The group of immigrant teenagers at the centre of the game had a way of talking that mirrored the slang I heard growing up in a community with a lot of Filipino and Malaysian immigrants. The kids in the game were from a fictitious place called Green Isles, but the way they talked called to mind my Filipino neighbours and classmates. The authenticity of the dialogue made me almost certain that this was how the person writing it spoke, at least in their teenage years.
As it turns out, the writer of Four Horsemen isn’t Southeast Asian, and the writing that I encountered—authentic though it was—was just one of twelve different dialects featured in the game. On my second playthrough, those same kids were now light-skinned, fair-haired, and their dialogue had a Germanic twinge. On another playthrough, they spoke with the sort of American slang that’s become almost ubiquitous in the Western world. On another, they threw in a few French profanities for good measure.
Each time you start a new game in Four Horsemen, you get to choose from one of 12 fictional countries, which in turn affects how the characters look and speak, and even what ideals they value. This isn’t just a gimmick; this is a game about being an immigrant, and all the good, bad, and ugly that comes with it.
Set in an unspecified future, Four Horsemen follows four immigrant kids as they set up a clubhouse to hang out in. War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death (their actual names change with each new game) just want to hang out and find their place in the world, but they’re “foreigners” in a country where most people haven’t really accepted their presence. War’s the only first-generation immigrant in the group, but even though the other three were all born in their adoptive country, they’re still “outsiders”. So their clubhouse—a rundown World War II-era bunker—and the few hours they spend together after school each day are the only times they really get to be themselves.
Against this backdrop, you get to choose how the group spends their time. It’s part visual novel and part slice-of-life simulation, as you scrounge around for things to decorate the clubhouse with, work odd jobs, smoke a lot of whatever the new country’s analogue for weed is, and—in Death’s case—tinker with broken electronics. While that’s happening, you also have to deal with the inevitable racist microaggressions of strangers in the kids’ adoptive country.
Digging through trash for scrap materials is all well and good until a cop comes along and turns it into a big thing, which you just know wouldn’t be the case if the kids weren’t immigrants. How do you respond to something like that? What do you do when someone randomly starts cussing you out at a bus stop because “you people” are ruining the neighbourhood? These are the sorts of situations that Four Horsemen throws you into.
How you choose to react can have implications later on, but not to a huge degree. There are four main story paths, one for each character, and though the decisions you make affect which path you wind up on (and which ending you get), there isn’t a huge amount of variation within each route. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s pretty standard for visual novels, really—but the game’s storefront descriptions imply a greater deal of influence than I was able to find, even over the course of a few different playthroughs. This isn’t some sort of open-ended adventure with myriad outcomes accounting for every contingency; it’s a structured game with a handful of different story routes and a handful of endings.
The stories themselves are as sweet, funny, poignant, and heartbreaking as you’d expect from a game about the immigrant experience. Each of the four main characters has their own unique relationship with that part of their identity—War, for example, is old enough to remember fleeing the old country, and how much her family had to sacrifice to move. Famine is a naturalised citizen of the new country, and feels oddly stranded between two different identities as a result. Death’s an engineering genius, but that comes with its own loneliness even when she’s among friends. Pestilence is frequently the victim of racial profiling, because he doesn’t look the part of “one of the good ones”.
Even though their stories go to some dark places, they’re also full of the sort of silly antics and goofy humour of many a coming of age story. Each of the four kids is cute, funny, and empathetic. They’re best friends, and it really shows in the way they crack jokes together and the extent that they go to to look out for one another. Through everything—whether it’s the unique challenges of life as an immigrant, or the universality of adolescence—they’ve got each other’s backs.
This all brings us back to the point I made right at the start, about the language: the different dialects, all based on real-world languages, ground Four Horsemen‘s stories in something real. They add to the identity and humanity of the cast, and even though nothing changes drastically in terms of the plot, it gives each run a unique flavour. The group’s adoptive country also changes with each playthrough (though, importantly, you don’t get to choose it), so other characters also have their own little linguistic quirks. It might seem mostly superficial, but the authenticity of the game’s languages ground it in something real.
And that’s the thing—even with a dystopian setting and the fictitious countries involved, Four Horsemen tells a collection of very real stories about life as an immigrant. It’s about the beauty and the bullshit that comes with being an “outsider”, whether you want to or not.
Four Horsemen is developed and published by Nuclear Fishin’ Software. It’s available now for PC.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.