Slow Bros How the German studio crafted an entire video game world by hand

WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see “coming to the big screen” appear at the end of a trailer for “Harold Halibut,” a video game made by German Studio Slow Bros. That said, the beauty of it being a game rather than a film is that the interactive format allows for the opportunity to wander through scenes, go off course and have chance encounters with the world’s inhabitants. Art director Ole Tillmann tells writer Alix-Rose Cowie how the team brought the game’s universe to life, and about the myriad of influences that inspired it.

Welcome to Fedora I, the city-sized spaceship that fled Earth under threat of the Cold War to find another habitable planet on which to preserve the future of the human race. This is the setting for “Harold Halibut,” a narrative game by the Cologne-based collective Slow Bros. The game begins 250 years after the now-aging Fedora I set off, with the ship having been submerged for decades in an alien ocean. 

A still from the handmade video game Harold Halibut. It shows two people sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship, with many control panels and buttons around them and a bright red light filling the room.

“Harold Halibut” began as a chat amongst friends around a dinner table in 2012, the underlying theme emerging as a search for “home” when you have to forge it for yourself, and the friendships that help you find it. The game follows Harold, a lab assistant, general handyman and pushover who leads a mundane life fulfilling the requests of his ship-mates, and dealing with the same old frustrations and awkward conversations while privately dreaming of a bigger purpose.

Much of the game’s art direction was inspired by the speculative designs of mid-century Avant-Garde architecture groups, like Archigram, whose “A Walking City” imagined a society within a giant metal ship with legs that could walk across land and ocean to other parts of the world. Drawings of these impossible science fiction-esque fantasies became a starting point for the Fedora I which left Earth on a mission to save humanity, but ended up sitting rusting underwater. “A lot of the game story is inspired by human hubris and failure,” Tillmann says, “By things not quite panning out how they were intended.”

Join the club

Like this story? You’ll (probably) love our monthly newsletter.

“Harold Halibut” has taken years to complete—using real materials, everything has been lovingly crafted, molded, welded, woodworked, sewn and painted by hand, and the exceptional detail is apparent in every floorboard and face. “The beginning of the project very much revolved around an enthusiasm for world-building and fantasizing together about what this place might be, and what the story could be that we tell there,” art director Ole Tillmann says. “There’s something about having paint strokes and fingerprints in there that one connects to.” Every physical element was then 3D scanned to be animated digitally to achieve specific motion and lighting.

To fill a city-sized spaceship and the alien planet beyond, an ensemble cast and many, many props are needed. To save time, the team could’ve borrowed furniture from a dollhouse, or nicked some bits from a miniature train set. “That logical step didn’t even cross our minds,” Tillmann says. They were having too much fun experimenting with tools and materials in the workshop. Instead of sourcing an existing tile to cut to size, for example, Fabian Preuschoff (original team member and set designer among other things) made a terrazzo floor from scratch. Costume designer Holle Schlickmann joined the team to design and sew all the clothing from finger-achingly tiny patterns. “We had a lot of fun building things,” Tillmann says. “I think enjoyment is surprisingly an often overlooked factor for why we made a game this way.” 

A still from the handmade video game Harold Halibut. The still shows a man and a woman talking over a table that holds a plate of cupcakes.
A still from the handmade video game Harold Halibut. The clip shows a man and a woman talking while sitting together on the floor of a dimly lit room.

The team quickly got stuck into making things: an illustrated magazine about snakes, hand-painted signage for a winter sporting goods store, packaging for canned food the size of a coin. Everything started off vaguely informed by what it was supposed to be, and then was twisted in some way to fit into the imaginary world.

For example, Project Cybersyn was an unrealized idea developed in Chile in the early 1970s that inspired the design of the control room on Fedora I. “It was a plan for organizing the government from a single super-designed ‘futuristic’ control room with lots of monitors that would display simplified messages about how the country was doing,” Tillmann says. “Instead of showing overloaded graphical user interfaces, see-through screens and touchable holograms, we wanted to have more physical buttons, gauges, knobs, levers and simple screens. And the space programs from the USSR/US probably subconsciously slipped in there.” Humorous additions make it part of the “Harold Halibut” world: a washing machine amidst the equipment and a control stick that’s become a perch for the captain’s pet bird.

A still from the handmade video game Harold Halibut. The still shows two men standing in a mailroom together and reading a letter that is placed on the table in front of them.

A lot of what makes Harold Halibut so satisfying to explore (and surely to make) is in the details drawn from the team members’ personal interests, amusements and niche references: rare sculptural furniture designed by Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo in the 1980s, the architecture in a documentary about a town that hosts a prestigious German filmmaking award and an animated neon sign of a beer-guzzling man in downtown Cologne. “The whole game is very Easter eggy,” Tillmann says, “A huge part of the fun was including little bits that are completely unnecessary. They’re so granular—it’s funny to think that no one is likely to ever find them.”