The term 'hidden gem' is one that, unfortunately, crops up all too frequently these days. With wave upon wave of quality titles hitting digital storefronts every week, more games than ever risk getting carried away by the tide before you've had the chance to pick them up. Horace — ostensibly a 16-bit-inspired platformer, although one that really goes places — launched on PC last year to acclaim, but arguably failed to make the splash it deserved.
With so many elements and eccentricities, Horace is an exceptionally tough video game to pin down with a neat genre tag. It's warm-hearted and accessible, yet also a real gamer's game filled with humour and challenges that feel laser-focused on anyone who played 8 and 16-bit consoles as a kid.
Labels aside, those who've played it know it's something a bit special. With the Switch version coming on 21st October, we recently spoke with developers Paul Helman and Sean Scaplehorn to find out some more about the inspirations, themes and ambitious ideas that went into Horace, as well as how the creators themselves describe it...
Nintendo Life: First up, can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to work together on Horace?
Paul Helman: I started in the video games industry at the ripe old age of 17 at the very end of 1994. Probe Entertainment took me on to create textures and various other art assets for Die Hard Trilogy on the PS1. This mainly involved me watching and recreating various scenes from the “Die Hard” films, which ironically meant breaking the law as the films were all rated 18+.
I then stayed at Probe until 1998 when Simon Pick, the lead coder from Die Hard Trilogy, set up small development company called Picturehouse which is where I met Sean.
Sean Scaplehorn: Paul sent me the demo he had been working on and I really enjoyed playing it. I don’t think I had laughed so much playing a game since Monkey Island on the Amiga, so I immediately knew that I wanted to get involved and looked forward to working with an old mate again.
When did you start making the game and what inspired you to write this story?
Paul: When Picturehouse wound down in 2003, I ended up working as a freelance artist on various video games. While this paid the bills, it was often less than inspirational, so in 2010 while still freelancing, I started messing around in my 'spare' time with some software with the goal of making something that I could call my own game.
the episode “Digital Estate Planning” from the television show Community had quite an influence on the way I presented everything
By 2012 I had gotten a small demo together in Game Maker but realised I would need at least one other person helping me. My weakest development skill is coding, so in 2015 I shopped my now expanded demo around a few publishers and eventually secured funding with 505 Games. This is of course when Sean came on board and thus the 'team' was born.
As for the story, the main thing would be the 1980 Peter Sellers film, Being There, which was a huge influence on the characters and general feel with an innocent character going out and exploring the big wide world for the first time. Also, the episode “Digital Estate Planning” from the television show Community had quite an influence on the way I presented everything, with the close ups and huge pixels. Although, I took the whole concept even further than they did.
Despite its ‘nostalgic retro-styled platformer’ appearance, it’s difficult to sum Horace up in a pithy line that really captures the spirit of the game. Nothing we’ve played feels quite like it. Having lived with it for years, how would you describe it?
Paul: When I was first putting Horace together, I really did find it hard to describe to people. I often referred to it as a "2D cinematic platform adventure," even though that sounds quite specific I don't know if that does it justice. People are often surprised just how big the game is, especially how much story and cutscenes there are. Maybe a huge sprawling 2D platformer with hours of story and dozens of mini games? Or maybe a AAA SNES game?
Sean: The phrase we kept using when showing the game around was “it’s a platform game with a twist”, which makes sense once you play the game and reach the Basement Bathroom. I’d probably also say it’s the most British game you’ll ever play…
It seems like a lot of time was spent really nailing the feel of the platforming. Were there any specific games you looked to for inspiration in that area?
Paul: The core mechanic in Horace meant it needed really tight controls. So being “from the past,” I took most inspiration from the feeling of the 8 and 16-bit Mario games, mainly Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, plus really just a lot of playing Horace until it felt “right.” The core mechanic can be quite confusing so getting that feeling “right” and “natural” feeling was really important!
Also, a lot of the gameplay was inspired by the ancient home computer game, Jet Set Willy. Not in the controls, which are unforgiving and as stiff as all hell, but the whole sprawling world of rooms to explore and items to collect.
Horace starts small but quickly wrongfoots players in some wonderful, strange ways, and it’s a much grander beast than players might expect from the outset. Did you have the entire thing planned from the beginning, or did its scale grow organically throughout development?
Paul: I planned most of it from the very start, the twists and turns of the plot came first and then the gameplay grew from that. Lots of the gameplay specifics grew out of which mechanics worked well or felt fun to play with.
I knew I wanted Horace to be a “BIG” game and knew various places that I wanted to take the story and gameplay, so a lot of it came about as ways of linking the craziness all together into what I hope is a cohesive game!
The pixel art works beautifully with the retro/robotic themes. Was the pixel-style in place from the beginning? Were there any other art styles under consideration?
Paul: I absolutely love pixel art, so yes it was always in place from the very start, to the point that I never even created any concept art or “sketches” so to speak, everything was just drawn straight into “promotion” pixel by pixel. I love pixels and most importantly when it came to creating all the art in the game by myself, I can draw using them very quickly!
Plus, my favourite period of gaming is the end of the 16 bit and the start of the 32-bit era. I love the SNES / Neo Geo / early PS1 pixel games and really wanted to mimic that sort of feeling!
Tell us about the game’s soundtrack – Erik Satie jumped out as we played the first few chapters. How did you pick the tracks in the game?
Paul: I really wanted Horace to feel as cinematic as possible and music was always to play a big part in that. I'm quite a music nerd so I wanted Horace to feel like a film or TV show, where they have 'proper' music in the right places.
I scored the dramatic parts myself but where I wanted “pop” tunes or something that hopefully people would know, I used my own renditions of famous classical pieces which hopefully gave the right feeling to a scene, be it comedic or dramatic. Importantly though, they were all 100+ years old and therefore in the public domain and even more importantly, free!
We noticed dozens of British cultural references in the first few chapters (boat captain software programmed by A. Trotter, for example). Being a British dude in his late 30s, I adored these little nods, but did you ever get publisher notes or worry that they might not play to a broad enough demographic?
Paul: Being a British dude in his early 40s, I just wanted to make something that my friends and I found funny. 505 Games gave us a great producer in Dean Scott but overall, they were very hands off. So, my rule was, as long as it made me, Sean and Dean laugh, it went in!
from the start, we really wanted to get Horace out on the Switch, what with a lot of the game being a homage to all things Nintendo
Personally, I never worried how things would play to a wider demographic. To be honest, I'm the kind of person who will more than happily make a joke that no one but me gets, no soap radio!
Sean: As a British dude in his late 40s, I loved the fact that we were able to jam in so many memories of my own childhood growing up in eighties Britain. I don’t think we ever worried that all the British bits would alienate players from other backgrounds as there were still plenty of jokes and references that would have a more global appeal.
The game feels very much at home on Switch. Was the process of porting it to the console relatively painless? Any unexpected challenges?
Paul: Yes, from the start, we really wanted to get Horace out on the Switch, what with a lot of the game being a homage to all things Nintendo.
The main job of porting was pretty much all Sean from a technical point of view, as far as I can tell – he did a fantastic job! I just converted all the cutscenes and played it an awful lot to make sure everything worked how we wanted it too!
getting a first build running on the Switch was relatively painless. The game was up and running within a week of first laying hands on a Switch devkit
Sean: We used Unity to develop the game on PC initially, so getting a first build running on the Switch was relatively painless. The game was up and running within a week of first laying hands on a Switch devkit. There were some performance problems in certain parts of the games, but we managed to get everything running smoothly in the end.
The unexpected challenge was with the cutscenes which are all compressed movie files. The Switch hardware was more than capable of playing these movies, but bugs in the Unity movie playback code meant that the original system we implemented had to be completely removed and replaced with a different system. This probably wasted a couple of weeks of development time as we tried to fix the flaws in the original system (which worked 99 percent of the time) before realizing we were fighting a losing battle and had to rip all that code out and start again.
There’s a huge abundance of ambitious ideas and variety in the game. Was there anything you wanted to include which ended up on the cutting room floor?
Paul: There were a few story bits in the later parts of the game that were chopped and edited out as we started to run out of development time but hopefully nothing obvious or anything that effects the story. There were also a handful of mini games which we cut. I kind of wanted to make a meta arcade platform game with an all action Rambo-style hero killing lots of “evil” robots but again, hopefully losing these things doesn't affect the experience.
Sean: We did start making a fruit machine as another way for the player to try and win extra money to spend in the in-game shops. We wanted to have sections in the arcades which were labelled “adults only”, full of slot machines and clouded in cigarette smoke, like the seaside arcades of our youth.
Another idea that was particularly British was to have a trainspotters book where you could log the engine numbers of all the trains in the game. Ultimately though, that was a lot of effort for a throw away joke that didn’t really add anything to the game.
For many people, it seems Horace was last year’s quintessential ‘hidden gem’ – a quick scroll though the @horacedev Twitter feed shows dozens of tweets praising the game. Hopefully the Switch release will garner plenty of attention, but why do you think it hasn’t quite ‘broken though’ yet?
Paul: I honestly don't know. Apparently, I'm quite good at making games but I don't know the first thing about selling them!!
part of the trouble is that Horace does kind of look like “yet another 2D retro platformer”™ and it's kind of hard to explain that it's so much more than that
I guess part of the trouble is that Horace does kind of look like “yet another 2D retro platformer”™ and it's kind of hard to explain that it's so much more than that, but hopefully slowly word of mouth is getting its name out and the Switch release should at least give it another lease of life!
Sean: It’s a puzzle for sure and if I knew the answer you wouldn’t be asking that question! Hopefully, the Switch version will get the ball rolling a little faster, but it has still been brilliant to see all the people who have played and loved the game. It’s a nice feeling to know we’ve brought joy to them at least.
Finally, what have you been up to since finishing the game? Is there anything in particular you’ve played and enjoyed on Switch (or elsewhere) recently?
Paul: We pretty much went straight from patches for the PC version to porting to the Switch so haven't had a chance to start anything new yet.
In fact, I haven't really played anything new in ages!! I spend most of my time looking for old 16 bit games to play that I haven't heard of so I've sunk a bit of time into weird old SNES games like the survival horror Clocktower and Castlevania-esque Majūō.
Sean: I’ve been busy writing an iOS app for my wife so she can take photographs of people’s mouths (she’s a dentist so it’s not as weird as it sounds).
The last Switch titles I really got stuck into were the Katrielle Layton game and before that Luigi’s Mansion 3, which was awesome. I got Super Mario 3D All Stars recently, so I’ve been replaying Super Mario Sunshine which I loved first time round on the GameCube. I’ve also enjoyed the 3 Out Of 10 episodic game on PC which is quite amusing being a game developer!
Our thanks to Sean and Paul. Horace launches on Switch on 21st October. Keep an eye out for our review very soon.