Harold Halibut Review – From Drab to Fab

Harold Halibut Review

It has long been recognized by sociologists that someone’s happiness isn’t really dependent on circumstances. Unhappy people who win the lottery level-set back to unhappy not long after. Happy and content people are generally that way whether they’re rich, poor, or in between. I thought of that while playing Slow Bros’ Harold Halibut. One of the things that it’s about is contentment, what it means, and where to find it.

Amazing to Look At

Before we get to all that, there’s a big, shiny elephant in the room. First and foremost, Harold Halibut is a brilliant tour de force, a striking and singular marriage of craftsmanship and technology. In the works for over a decade, Harold Halibut looks like stop motion animation. In reality, the game is built on incredibly detailed physical character models and environments. The models are 3D scanned and then animated. The result is magical. The clay and fabric creations have the realistic, not-quite-perfect look of handmade figures–because they are.

Watch any of the behind-the-scenes videos of the game’s creation and you can’t help being impressed. Of course, fully digital games and media are the creation of equally talented artists, but there’s something tactile and timeless about miniature-making that really comes through. Although Slow Bros is working with a small team and a fraction of Laika’s resources, Harold Halibut plays in the same space.

In the end, though, Harold Halibut has to succeed not just as a proof-of-concept or visually stunning demo, but as a narrative and interactive experience.

Life Isn’t That Strange

Don’t worry, we’ll avoid spoilers and content that hasn’t already been revealed. Here’s the premise: 200 years before the events of the game, a massive spaceship leaves a dying earth to find a more hospitable planet. Instead, the craft — named the Fedora — crash lands into a planetary ocean. Two centuries later, Fedora has been transformed into an underwater community. It isn’t exactly thriving, but many generations after the crash, its citizens are accustomed to their aquatic lives. It’s not unlike BioShock’s Rapture, minus the art deco, jazz, and menacing Big Daddies.

We meet our hero, Harold Halibut, in the most ordinary of circumstances, stuck in bureaucratic hell for not paying a fine. Imagine starting Grand Theft Auto starting in line at the DMV. Harold is a lowly lab assistant to scientist Jeanne Mareaux. His tasks are the definition of menial. He feeds the fish. Cleans the filters. Fetches items for Mareaux. Harold is vaguely dissatisfied, but no more so than most of Fedora’s residents. Meanwhile, Mareaux is working on a plan that will return Fedora to Earth.

The population of Fedora is a largely conflict-free and vaguely socialist collective of workers and low-level bureaucrats. There are plenty of petty squabbles and frustrations — and even a hidden resistance movement — but mostly people do their jobs and go about their lives. They find pleasure in simple things, like re-runs of Turkish soap operas and spending time at Fedora’s arcade.

Rocking the Boat

The first third of Harold Halibut is a slow-paced introduction to life in Fedora, learning about its cast of characters and Harold’s daily life. The developers have said that the game is not for the impatient, and they’re right. Gamers used to action right out of the gate will find Harold Halibut’s somewhat dreary and tedious opening hours a challenge. But muscle through the first two chapters and something like true momentum begins to take over. Harold encounters an alien life form that, without spoiling anything, opens his eyes to a more vibrant and imaginative world. The story — like Harold — picks up speed.

Still, Harold Halibut is never about breakneck action or frenetic shootouts. Like the best fiction in any genre, the game is a meditation on human-scale concerns: friendship and contentment, for example, or the importance of imagination. Many will find Harold — the character — frustratingly bland and a little slow. There are hints that his interior life is less mundane.

This is a good place to note that while not everyone will relax into the story, the dialogue is generally well written. It generally avoids the kind of graceless info-dumps so common to bad narratives. The game’s voice acting is likewise well done. Many of the game’s characters are quirky and memorable.

What to Do

The developers at Slow Bros have said they didn’t want to make a movie, but an interactive experience (i.e. a game). While the game’s art is an unqualified success, the moment-to-moment gameplay unfortunately is not. While it’s structured like the marriage of a walking simulator and an adventure game, Harold’s tasks are often repetitive and mundane. Certainly, this is intentional. It mirrors Harold’s uneventful life. The problem is, they’re often not much fun, made further awkward by some fiddly camera angles and choppy movement. There’s a lot of running back and forth around the ship, delivering messages, hitting switches, and fetching items. The population uses personal digital assistant devices. Why not send a text?

It’s a fact that people become habituated to their surroundings. At some point, players will take the stellar visuals for granted, at which point the gameplay jumps to the foreground. I appreciated that there were no busy-work puzzles. But I’m not sure Harold Halibut always respected my limited, easily distracted time and attention.

First of Many

In the end, I think Harold Halibut ought to be experienced for its amazing technical achievement, if nothing else. While its gameplay doesn’t always engage, its narrative, characters, and themes are coherent in the manner of good speculative fiction. Both Harold the character and Harold Halibut the game are weird, wonderful, and quite unlike anything we’ve seen this year.

***PC code provided by the publisher for review***

The Good

  • Fantastic art and modelmaking craft
  • Memorable world-building
  • Well written and acted

The Bad

  • Can be very slow paced
  • Some unimaginative game play
  • Controls are imprecise