Usually, this section is dedicated to games that have already been released. But meeting Slow Bros’ game designer and writer Onat Hekimoglu at Gamescom and listening to him explain the fascinating development process of stop motion title Harold Halibut, the temptation to write about it was too strong.
The game is not out until next year but is shaping up to be one of the most unique indie titles we’ve seen in a while, both from a gameplay and technical point of view. In Harold Halibut, everything you see on screen exists in real life, with the Cologne-based studio hand-crafting every character, every object, every set, before digitally scanning them. That includes over 50 unique
characters (and the clothes they’re wearing!) and more than 80 sets.
Creating a video game is already not an easy task, but having to build everything physically before being able to work on it digitally surely doesn’t make it easier. But astonishingly, stop motion was chosen by the team because it was the easiest way for them to bring their project to life, as they had previous experience with it.
“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,” Hekimoglu explains.
“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.”
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,” Hekimoglu says. “Another 50 years pass until the situation stabilises – they are kind of an underwater city, still aiming to leave this planet but it’s proven difficult. And this is basically where the game starts. You play as Harold, a janitor [who helps] one of the lead scientists onboard the ship.”
Having played Harold Halibut at Gamescom, it instantly feels unique – a maverick of ideas and imagination.
“Our inspirations come from everywhere because we’re an interdisciplinary team. We have a fashion designer, a carpenter, an illustrator, a biologist even and I have a film background,” Hekimoglu says. “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.”
A quick Google image search of the word ‘Archigram’ will show you exactly how Slow Bros was inspired by the architectural group’s designs: Harold Halibut’s spaceship, in which we manage to get lost in just 20 minutes of gameplay, very much has this feel of being a megastructure you’ll never be able to explore in its entirety, a futuristic (but yet very much anchored in the 70s) breathing city.
But Slow Bros’ inspirations also came from pop culture, Hekimoglu continues.
“Stop motion films in particular, but also films in general, were a big inspiration. In terms of humour, the targeted audience has definitely been influenced by Pixar. Everyone can play this game and have fun with it but it’s also about deeper topics that adults will understand more than children for example.”
In terms of humour, a quick encounter with Harold’s boss, Professor Jeanne Mareaux, gives a glimpse of what to expect, as she has to explain to Harold what a butterfly is, for instance.
“They were all born inside the spaceship but the professor has at least seen a little bit of space before the crash, but Harold obviously didn’t see that. It’s the fifth generation in space,” Hekimoglu explains, before continuing talking about the studio’s inspirations.
“Fashion was another influence. Our fashion designer looked at different uniforms from different countries from the past and so on, to create like…” he stops and shows me one of the actual puppet used in the game, displayed on the demo table. It’s dressed from head-to-toe with a tiny uniform. “We chose denim as our signature uniform fabric for the spaceship,” he smiles. “So it’s really a lot of different fields and a lot of different inspirations flowing into the game.”
It’s difficult to not be impressed by the attention to detail in Harold Halibut, from the fact characters actually have a signature fabric for their uniforms, to the overall universe in which they evolve, where you can interact with pretty much everything.
“I really wanted to think a lot about all the things we will never need but want to have in there,” Hekimoglu says. “Usually [in games] if you can interact with something or if you can go somewhere, there is something you’re meant to do there. There are no unnecessary things in games usually because it takes too much time to do everything, right? But we have a lot of unnecessary things because it should feel like a living place.”
IT TAKES A WHILE...
Having worked on Harold Halibut for eight years, the title has obviously evolved a lot since its inception, though the core concept remained the same, Hekimoglu says.
“The underwater thing was there from the beginning although at that time we hadn’t thought about things like: is it an underwater station or a spaceship or is it something else? The main character was created one or two months after this. He was named Richard but it was the same character. The game changed a lot gameplay-wise but the main idea, having all those unnecessary things I was talking about, having that kind of humour that we are trying to achieve, but also the drama... We wanted a nice mix of all those components. So actually a lot of the rough things were set even eight years ago.
“But what really changed for example was the vision. When we started it was a very classic sprite-based approach. So we had photographed backgrounds for all our sets and [everything else] was sprite-based. And then we had stop motion animation. But it felt too static, too much stuck in the 90s, so we experimented a lot for almost two years trying different techniques until we were happy with the results of 3D scanning everything and working on it digitally.”
These two years of experimenting came with challenges, Hekimoglu continues: “We were talking with our art director and I was telling him about moving to 3D and he said ‘I can’t imagine what it will look like in 3D’.”
He admits that it did seem a little mad to be building everything for real if you’re just going to convert it all to 3D models once you’re done.
“So one challenge was to convince him that it can look as good as the original thing. Our 3D artist and I spent a lot of time doing the first prototype and [seeing the result] she was like ‘It’s impossible, is it really 3D or are you joking?’,” he laughs. “But there was nothing that was really hard to overcome. In the beginning we would say ‘Oh no, things like that don’t work’ or generally we said no to some things simply because we knew that it was not possible. But [the switch to 3D] proved that just about everything can work, and up to this point we’ve been really lucky to find a way out of every challenge we had.
“Most of these challenges made the game better. Gameplay-wise, it started as a very classic point-and-click adventure because we love them. But eventually we thought we wanted to work on something more modern and more narrative-focused.”
Hekimoglu mentions that the team very much wanted to give players a sense of exploring, of getting lost in the game’s world, which is why they changed the focus.
“There are point-and-click adventures where you have to fulfil certain tasks and then it goes on to the next level, so to speak. And while we’re telling a linear story, because we think there is one perfect ending for a story, we wanted to give the player the freedom to really explore this whole world... Characters, side stories that you can tackle, so you get a feeling of the circumstances.”
Concluding our chat, we ask Hekimoglu if he has any advice for developers who would be tempted by the Herculean task of building a stop motion game. He pauses for a while before answering.
“To aspiring developers in general I would say: don’t let the challenges hinder you. You can really overcome everything. This was proved to myself too. We never had a situation where we talked about something and it didn’t work. You only have to find a way it does.
“For stop motion in particular, you really have to love it because it takes a while,” he laughs, before adding: “We’ve been working on it for eight years but we never regretted it, it’s a lot of fun. It’s amazing.”