semi-worms eye view of Harold looking slightly off-camera.
Harold Halibut's Aesthetics Can't Carry Its Story
First Published: March 27, 2024

Catch and release.

Janet Garcia

Harold Halibut is a 3rd-person, narrative adventure game with a walking sim style but its most defining feature is its handmade art style. All the environments are sets designed in real life; all its characters are puppets wearing real fabric. Everything you see as you explore this city-sized spaceship, stuck in an alien ocean, is quite literally handmade and 3D-scanned into the game. The result is a claymation, stop-motion look that has the fluidity of modern adventures. It’s an incredible feat that’s lovable to look at and a delight to interact with. It feels delicate and real all at once as you walk through cardboard revolving doors on the way to the bar.

The Agora Arcade District, featuring several shops and restaurants.

Unfortunately, Harold Halibut’s second most defining feature is how boring it is. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some hilarious writing, some charming side stories, and an intriguing cast. But the underlying mysteries feel done to death and dragged out. And the quest structure had a back-and-forth, errand-style monotony I haven’t felt since Starfield. It took me a little over 5 hours to play the first two chapters of Harold Halibut and, by the end, I had no interest in seeing the rest of the story through. 

Exploration Over Explanation

Moody, spacey, and musically cinematic Harold Halibut has a strong start. The developer, Slow Bros., crafted a story that lets player exploration lead to world explanation. It’s appreciated and, more importantly, it’s effective.

It didn’t take long for me to get up to speed. It has been 250 years since this ship, The Fedora, fled a soon-to-be inhospitable Earth and crashed into the space sea. The story begins with you, Harold, dealing with a fine for tubing without credit. Tubing is the ship’s transit system and it's the only way you can get around to the different districts within the ship such as The Lab, Agora Arcades, the Energy District, and so on. As the player this is your first introduction to All-Water, the company in charge of it all, but as Harold it’s just another fine on another day as the professor’s assistant.

Harold with the postal worker.

This opening reveals another strength: this game can be really funny. Harold pushes back over this tubing fine and Mr. Secretary, the guy working the desk, says he’ll “go [double] check the protocols” but the room he goes into has a huge glass window where you can clearly see he’s just drinking coffee and killing some time before coming out to say there’s nothing he can do to help you.

Slow Bros.’ emphasis on exploration doesn’t mean you’re on your own either. But even things like the in-game to-do list have storytelling properties. For instance, when you click on an objective the explanation is written like a diary but still includes key information: such as the location. Presenting it this way makes the world feel real and cohesive. One of the early objectives is to go to sleep. The task reads “I do declare it’s snoozin’ time! I wish my bed wasn’t right below Mareaux’s Lab. She’s such a noisy night owl sometimes.” I immediately knew where I had to go while getting to know both Harold and Professor Jeanne Mareaux a bit more. 

Ridiculousness Creates Highs and Lows

Things like having several characters look identical to the first Mr. Secretary you meet and remembering that ‘wait they’re all brothers’ is a fun surprise. There’s a trippy roboticness to the fact that they’re all numbered, which supports the retro-future aesthetic the game is going for. Finding out there’s a fourth brother who doesn’t work for All Water and hasn’t been seen in some time is an amusing narrative thread to pull on. Tasks with descriptions like “No. 17 told me about a mysterious fourth brother and that No. 8 might be willing to tell me more” felt like chasing leads while most of the other objectives felt like doing tasks. 

Similarly, the character Slippie excitedly shows you the commercials for his store and it has some bizarre 80s energy that reminded me of Alan Wake 2’s Koskela brothers’ commercials. It’s funny, strange, and memorable. This is completely in line with who Slippie is and how obsessed he gets over his cooling system and underwhelming ski simulator. 

"Comedy is a strength but it can also be a limitation."

Other times, things seem weird just to be weird: as if ridiculousness inherently translates to humor. For instance, you run into a kid who might be in trouble and you get interrogated with lines like “your fish won't save you when I catch you red-handed” tossed around. You work with fish so it's not completely out of left field to invoke them but the whole scene and aggressive tone just feels random.

Comedy is a strength but it can also be a limitation, especially when it doesn’t commit to the bit. Madame CEO always having the same classical song playing in her office, Chopin Nocturnes Op. 9 No. 2 to be exact, feels like a bit but the rest of her character doesn’t fully evoke pompousness or corporate satire. The song choice here has to be intentional but it doesn’t feel intentional. Granted, it’s possible this repeated song is just a result of the limited media folks on The Fedora have access to.

At times, Harold Halibut feels like a silly world struggling to deliver serious messages. Sure there are some heartwarming one-liners (ex. “you’ll never know when you’ll have to slow down so keep going while you can”)  but they feel shoehorned in rather than woven into the tapestry of dialogue.

Floundering Fetch Quests

My biggest issue with Harold Halibut is how slow it is combined with how under-rewarded I felt throughout my 5 hours. I think this is intentional, in more ways than one. The game feels self aware as Harold remarks on things like “cleaning around, fetching stuff, it could be worse… but there must be more…” I’m meant to be in Harold’s shoes. He’s a dense and awkward man with a dull repetitive life. But monotony needs intrigue to balance it out and this scale leans too far in the wrong direction.

I felt this issue within the first hour of my playthrough so when I got the Q&A portion of Slow Bros.’ press preview event I had to ask about pacing.  

"If you don't have any patience, it’s not a game for you."

Pen to Pixels: Narrative games & walking sims often are a slow burn with a bit of monotony so how do you balance the fun of small details vs good pacing so players don’t feel like accomplishing mandatory tasks drags?

Onat Tillmann (Director and Composer of Harold Halibut): “If you don't have any patience, it’s not a game for you but then [again] there is still a variation… you have the most patient person in the world or you [have people who] just want to enjoy a nice story. It’s a slow game. It especially starts slow but we designed it in a way that it continuously gets more and more exciting in the main storyline and it’s basically like a [positive linear graph] going up. 

But also there’s all the stuff on the side that you can do, that you can explore, and none of that you actually have to do. And one other... reason for a lot of the design choices… we don't explain a lot in the beginning of the game. We want players to explore on their own and get around, which is why the beginning feels slow especially compared to later parts. 

But it’s part of the process… we wanted you to get to know this place... Know where the characters are and who they are. We placed interesting things all around and people and events that randomly happen [so] that even if you [go where you’re not supposed to go] you will always stumble upon something interesting. We tried to avoid dead ends.”

A set of destinations you can select. Each has their name and then a button next to it. Names are Central Station, Agora Arcades, Lab District, Energy District, Social District.

There are points of interest scattered throughout but I got so worn down by the main quest I lost my interest in exploring halfway through chapter 1. I became less inclined to go for the high score at the arcade or read old letters from the postal room. For every fun jogging club moment and the ability to eavesdrop on full conversations, there’s the knowledge that the treadmill of the main quest is waiting for me. And even the best side content involves you ping ponging around the ship. As much as there are well-thought-out characters, it doesn’t amount to anything because the plot drags its feet. 

Gameplay, on the other hand, is hit or miss. Sometimes it’s a route set up steps to follow, like lab work, and other times its something more tactile like unscrewing a panel. Narratively, there are a few dialogue choices but they’re few and far between. 

Mini game that involved selecting sugar to pour onto a rock sample. It's represented by simple lined drawings on the computer screen.

I love a ‘walk and talk’ gameplay moment but this is a ‘walk a lot then talk a little then walk a lot more.’ Running from the lab, down the hall, to the All Water Tube, to the Central Station to run across the room to another All Water Tube, all to do something as banal as deliver a message to someone just to repeat all those steps, in reverse, for the next set of instructions is brutal. 

Getting around The Fedora to accomplish menial tasks reminds me of when I was a kid and an adult would shout my name from downstairs and I'd say "what?" and they'd yell back "come over here" then I'd have to go there just to get the instructions even though the process would be faster if they would've just told me what they wanted before I got up.

The conversations I have during these tasks aren’t bad but they’re not good enough to be their own reward and they rarely move the plot forward. I find myself just constantly checking my to-do list, knocking things out, in the hopes of momentum.

Additionally, a lot of Harold Halibut’s early story invokes known tropes. You have things like some form of an underground group trying to shake up the status quo but their goals are ill-defined. And when you finally make direct contact with one of them, you don’t see their face, don’t get deeper insights from them, yet you immediately go along with it. Even the task they give you and the execution feels inconsistent. You’re told to steal a camera from the professor and to not let her see you but you end up just walking up to her, asking where it is, and then being told you’re the last to have it so you get it from your bedroom bookshelf. There’s something vaguely sloppy and unsatisfying about so many elements of the narrative.

Spoiler Warning But It’s Also Literally in the Trailer

Even one of the big, early reveals becomes drudgery. You encounter an alien lifeform. A fish-like creature that comes through the filtration system. It’s a wild discovery and a major secret between you and the professor. She wants to learn more while you just care about nursing it back to health. That tension between the two of you never gets unpacked since she also wants to get it back to health (can’t study it if it’s dead so motives don’t end up mattering at this point). 

Harold and an Alien fish looking down into a colorful area.

And on top of that the entire chapter is just you running back and forth to the pharmacy getting different medicine for the fish alien. Your ex runs the pharmacy but that drama is also middling  and underexplored. She questions what you need the drugs for but you get away with a quick lie and don’t get questioned much. 

Maybe at this point, my patience had just been whittled down but I really felt Chapter two was the epitome of Harold Halibut’s problem: it’s a long walk for a short drink of water.