Home Tech As if Wes Anderson went crazy with Aardman: Harold Halibut, the visually stunning puppet adventure game

As if Wes Anderson went crazy with Aardman: Harold Halibut, the visually stunning puppet adventure game

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As if Wes Anderson went crazy with Aardman: Harold Halibut, the visually stunning puppet adventure game

ttick, tick. In the dripping confines of Fedora 1, an aquatic space colony of exquisite retro-futuristic design, it is not water but time that exerts an unmistakable pressure on the inhabitants. A cataclysmic meteorite looms over the horizon and threatens to annihilate them all. But this cast of adorably eccentric characters, including the titular Harold, aren’t rushing anyone, preferring to wander through their days as they stare down the barrel of cosmic disaster.

It’s fitting that an adventure game as leisurely-paced as Harold Halibut was created by a team with an equally leisurely approach to time. Fourteen years have passed since game director Onat Hekimoglu came up with the initial idea while studying for a master’s degree at the Cologne Game Lab. Back then, it was a strange point-and-click adventure with earthly stop-motion images. Elements of that version persist today, namely the protagonist Harold, a depressed caretaker who spends his days contemplating the sea. But over the years it has become more mechanically refined, narratively expansive, and visually beautiful.

Now Harold Halibut is a spectacular synthesis of the analog and the virtual that is so tactile, so texturally compelling, that at several points in the game you may want to reach out to the screen and physically touch it.

A synthesis of the analog and the virtual… Game by Harold Halibut. Photography: Slow Bros.

Hekimoglu, who studied film before video games, points out this strange quality: Harold Halibut is a game with “stylized” images that, paradoxically, appears “photorealistic.” Achieving the aesthetic required two years of intense experimentation. Initially, it was an authentic stop-motion game made with puppets, in which each frame was laboriously captured by the camera. But, Hekimoglu says, “the 2D sprites of stop motion characters sitting on beautifully lit photographic backgrounds didn’t look right, they didn’t look unified.” So the small team of four, from two studios in Cologne, transitioned to a technique known as photogrammetryby scanning their real-world models into a computer and animating them within the game software.

The resulting game, in which you direct a figure around an intricate virtual game setting, feels like it was made by Wes Anderson run amok at Aardman Animations. Art director Ole Tillmann, who studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design before working for Disney, really enjoyed creating the puppets, reestablishing “broken childhood connections” in the process. Simply having the puppets in the room while the story was being devised sent the imaginations of Tillmann, Hekimoglu, and studio co-founders Fabian Preuschoff and Daniel Beckmann in unexpected directions.

Like sci-fi film classics like Solaris, the game’s drama unfolds on macrocosmic and microcosmic scales, contemplating the universe’s biggest questions while delving into the inner lives of its quirky cast. In one sequence, we see Harold humming at the top of his lungs as he cleans a giant filtration pump, transforming, in that moment, from a man who does a boring job without complaint to a person with long-repressed feelings. This sweet, tender scene sets up the rest of the game: Harold’s search for the meaning of life in a surprisingly welcoming corner of the universe.

Direct an action figure around a complex virtual game… Harold Halibut. Photography: Slow Bros.

As development progressed, the team moved from one funding pool to another, while working on ad hoc contract work, the technology behind Harold Halibut gradually improved. during the experiment photogrammetry phase of the project, “it was obvious that there were limitations with Unity [the software used to make the game]”says Hekimoglu. The lighting was off; the engine couldn’t accommodate its gigantic HD scans. But physical rendering arrived in 2015, which helped make in-game objects look more real. With more major software updates, the team was sometimes able to leapfrog, rather than just get closer, to its final vision. At these points, Hekimoglu jokes, it was as if “they had already done a remaster of the game”.

Tillmann reflects that Harold Halibut’s unconventional development occurred in reverse than in most games. “People often start with technical limitations and then adapt their creative decision-making to them,” he says. “We came up with the world building, the look of things, and the concept art (mood, lighting, and atmosphere) from the beginning. And then it took all that time for [technology] to get closer to that.” He says the team has come to a satisfactory conclusion: “make it look like we imagined it all that time ago.”

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Although 14 years have passed since Hekimoglu’s first concept, it would be inaccurate to say that Harold Halibut ever languished in development hell. Rather, this group of artists, outside the video game industry, continued to steadily work according to a completely different business logic, with a completely different schedule. There were certainly low points: the mutual termination of a contract with publisher Curve Games, the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis in a team that he said had reached a “breaking point.”

But these events galvanized the group, Tillmann says. It was during those months that the team promised each other, with a determination similar to that of their unlikely hero, Harold: “No matter what happens, we will keep going until the end.”

Harold Halibut releases today for PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series

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