Crafting a visually compelling and effortlessly engaging game is no small undertaking. Now, imagine stitching that experience together entirely…by hand. Meet the extraordinary team behind the extraordinary upcoming Harold Halibut, a handmade adventure achieving greatness long before its actual release. Harold Halibut blurs the boundaries between different disciplines, arts, and technologies to summon forth a uniquely tangible tale. We spoke with the talented creators behind studio SLOW BROS. about their development process, their inspirations, and just who gets to keep all those incredible real-world assets at the end of the day.
|| What’s the background story for SLOW BROS., the studio? We hear you’re located in Germany and that your team is made up of an eclectic bouquet of unique talents. Who are you? How did you meet? What binds you together?
Here’s the official backstory of the studio:
“When we started working on this we were three friends and we had no artist among us, so none of us could draw. So we decided that the easiest way would be to build stuff,” Hekimoglu laughs. He initially started the project with Fabian Preuschoff and Daniel Beckmann, with Ole Tillmann joining almost immediately after. “Our art director [Ole Tillmann], who started modeling the puppets and sets, came onboard quickly, after we realised it was impossible without a proper artist.”
We started eight years ago with the first idea. For about two years it was a side thing, we had fun but we had other jobs or were studying. I wrote my master’s thesis about the game and that was the beginning really, we started working on it full time. And now there are six full-time people and three freelancers working on it.
As for what binds us together: true friendship! But also, we embarked on this crazy journey together a long time ago and so we feel a tremendous responsibility to the project and each other to finish it to the highest quality we can.
But also, we’re great friends, and we have this bizarre ability to collaborate on the same wavelength – and aside from our writer Danny we all live near to one another, so we can keep up the physical contact which is so important to morale, swapping and developing ideas – which is never quite the same/as relaxed when you work remotely – and of course – having the odd beer to wind down.
|| How did SLOW BROS. make the leap from art installations and VR experiences to a full-length title like Harold Halibut? You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the game started as a dinner-table conversation piece. How does imaginative chatter transform into a large-scale project such as this?
Blind faith! When we started, we definitely weren’t aware how big, ambitious or attractive to fans the project would be. If we had known what we know now – we probably never would have started!
At the beginning, we fantasized about making a game together and doing something handmade to use our talents, so we just started. And after a while, we had some momentum, and we got more help, then down the line the publisher interest, a fan following and the great support from journalists such as yourself – all of this combined perfectly to keep us going both from a motivational and financial standpoint.
|| What inspired the nautical storyline for Harold Halibut? The title revolves around Harold, a young janitor seeking answers to secrets behind closed doors on an unfamiliar and waterlogged planet.
Harold Halibut’s story arc starts in the 70s: it’s the middle of the Cold War and people think the world is coming to its end. A gigantic spaceship is built, structured as a huge city, to fly to a distant planet which seemingly will be a good replacement for earth. The whole trip takes about 200 years and the spaceship’s inhabitants lose contact with earth. Once they arrive, they crash on the planet and realise that it’s actually entirely made of water.
They are basically stuck on a giant water bubble in space and another 50 years pass until the situation stabilises – the ship becomes an underwater city, still aiming to leave the planet one day, somehow, but in the meantime life goes on and the ship’s citizens adapts to its new more sedentary lifestyle.
Our inspirations come from everywhere because we’re an interdisciplinary team. We have a costume designer, a carpenter, an illustrator, a biologist even and a couple of film backgrounds. So our inspirations come from very different fields. Architecturally, we have a lot coming from a conceptual architecture group of the 60s called Archigram. It’s a group of people who actually never really built anything but they had all these crazy concepts.
We wanted to set it underwater because it would give us an excuse to create an intimate, naturally closed off location, lots of possibilities while grounding in believable science, roots in the 70s, sense of being stuck – people have had to adapt to no longer fulfilling their original roles as they would have if the spaceship was still moving – it’s a parallel society.
Setting the story underwater also gives us the chance to deal with plenty of themes like finding your purpose, what “home” really means and of course, we can show lots of cool underwater stuff!
|| What are some of the singular challenges involved in making a game wholly by hand? Is development slower in comparison to another type of visualization? Or are there simply different problems to tackle, as in any production process?
It’s a totally different process to starting off in-engine – we had to find ways to transport it in a pleasing way to the gamespace – there wasn’t anyone doing it already, so we had to spend a long time figuring out the pipeline and workflow. And we had to do that parallel to all the normal game design and production stuff.
We think we have the first game in the world where every single asset has been handmade, scanned by photogrammetry and then assembled in game. Usually in games there are certain assets and things that can be “cheap” to add or change if you decide you need to change the storyline or what have you, but with our approach, so much has to be decided on and so early (relatively) to fit in with the needs of our handmade production pipeline. Of course, you also have to think about what the player will see totally differently when working by hand and it can be a lot harder to “cheat” stuff.
Also no undo button!
|| And vice versa – what are some of the singular rewards involved in making a game wholly by hand? We already know the visual effect is utterly spellbinding. Are there other, less obvious, benefits to constructing a real-world Harold Halibut?
Fabi says: “I don’t have to work with computers!”
We can let people do the things they do best – Holle, our costume designer and artist for example – brings an amazing vision and a unique set of talents to the process but has no traditional game-making experience. So if we weren’t doing it our way we would totally close off the avenue of working with people like that. It’s the same with Fabi (builder and narrative helper) and Ole (art director and a bit of EVERYTHING) – and many more of the team who aren’t traditional game developers. We achieve the unique vision we have by allowing people of those diverse cultural (and ethnic but that’s kind of beside the point) backgrounds to be part of team.
Also, it’s hugely gratifying to have real physical assets around the office, not just to impress people with but to help keep us anchored in the fiction, to really make it all feel, well, real.
There’s also a lot of creativity to be had within limitations – like a haiku. Because we set ourselves the limit of not being able to create ANYTHING. I.e. we had to physically know and be able to build it, it led us to some really creative breakthroughs about locations and this ended up having a lot of benefits when imported into engine in terms of discoverability and navigation.
Also, in player terms, it can really heighten immersion. In a way, our game is very “real.” There are real textures that are very hard to replicate without a lot of know-how or power on our characters and environments. It also makes you think about story differently, given the “toolset” or “vocabulary” that hand-made assets have. All in all we think it helps make for a down to earth (or down to sea) feel and narrative that is also incredibly eye catching.
|| How far along is Harold Halibut at the time of this interview? We heard you hit another story milestone late January, but little else is known for certain.
We’re not ready to publicly discuss release windows or overall progress – but we’re glad to say that things are going very well, as you know we’ve made great strides with our overarching narrative, and the majority of the physical assets are complete too – so there is still lots left to do, and we’re in close contact with our publisher Curve Digital about the best release windows, in terms of the market and us having the right time within reason to achieve everything we want. We’ve started the voice recording process. We recently tweeted a bit about the typical process in game development once a game is nearly done – all the extra things like certification and testing that need to be done even when a game itself is “finished.”
Let’s just say, indie games like ours don’t typically come up during the holiday season because you’d have to compete with Call of Duty (although putting Halibut alongside CoD would be fun).
|| Once development is over…what will happen to the real-world props?! Digital assets can be saved on drives, but physical ones? Do your team members already have dibs on who gets to keep what?
We have dibs! We’re also hoping to do some kind of exhibition, maybe raffle some of it off to fans or recreate some of it for super special edition stuff. There’s so much, we definitely can’t keep it all in our office forever! Maybe we’ll burn some as good luck effigies. It’s going to be fun deciding who gets what. Maybe we can convince Aardman to take it all and make a movie.