Paul Helman Interview – “Horace is a love letter to my generation’s video games”

Horace is an upcoming puzzle platformer coming on July 18.

Published by 505 Games, it celebrates classic games using a pixelated art style, putting you in the shoes of a charming robot named Horace.

The game feels like it’s come out of nowhere, but if you ask lead developer Paul Helman, it’s the culmination of a much longer journey.

“The earliest Horace file I have is dated 12th July 2012 so literally exactly 7 years!  It’s a long time to work on a game but it also went by incredibly fast!”

He’s been inspired by so many amazing games over the years and so many titles have come and gone. Horace is a celebration of those games, but very much its own entity.

“Jet Set Willy to Mario, were huge influences but I also decided to pay homage to many old arcade games with the various mini games in Horace.  

When it comes to the narrative and story, I took a lot of influence from the 1980 Peter Sellers ‘Being There’ and a lot of the ‘feel’ from more adventurous and emotional games such as the Mother/Earthbound series.”

It’s a big commitment to invest everything in a project that, for so long was a passion project. But to do it full-time, as Peter describes, it takes something of a leap of faith.

I’ve worked in the games industry for 25 years, I left school at 16 and got a job at Probe Entertainment working as an artist on Die Hard Trilogy, which ironically involved breaking the law repeatedly as the films were of course 18 certificates! 

I had been working freelance on various games for 10 years when I decided to do something by myself.  So I taught myself some coding and worked on Horace during evenings and weekends for 3 years while still working on freelance contracts.  

The major turning point was when I saw the documentary ‘Indie Game The Movie’ and I thought to myself, ‘I can do that!’ along with the episode ‘Digital Estate Planning’ of ‘Community’ which did so much with pixel art, it all came together.

Of course, this turned out to be a big project, but fortunately for Paul, he knew someone who could help.

I realised that if I was going to get the game finished quicker than a couple of decades, I would need some help and I would need to work full time on Horace.

So I contacted my friend Sean Scaplehorn, who I had worked with for a few years at a company called Picturehouse (look us up, we made a great game called ‘Terracon’ for the PS1)  but unsurprisingly as a professional games coder, he also wanted paying for his efforts, which is where 505 Games came in…

We don’t see 505 work on games quite like Horace often and it’s a fascinating partnership, but one that came about by a chance meeting at a conference.

I took my demo to a small (but very good) games developer conference called ‘Interface’.  At this point my 3 years of work amounted to approximately 2 hours worth of game and cutscenes which was very well received by the 6 publishers that I had meetings with. I entered into talks with 3 of the companies and out of which 505 Games offered me the best deal.

Independent developers will be pleased to know that 505 have also been incredibly supportive during the process.

As far as support goes, 505 Games have more than paid my mortgage for the last four years but more importantly they appointed me a truly excellent producer who more than helped out in every aspect of Horace and kept me sane when things got tough! It can be terrifyingly overwhelming when you schedule a huge game to be made by two people and realise that you’ve given yourself the majority of the tasks and they amount to literally tens of thousands of hours of work!

Peter makes it clear, though, that his vision was never compromised.

I was in the excellent position of having 505 Games behind me financially but at the same time they never once insisted how any aspect of the game should be.

I’ve worked on all sorts of games from film licenses to small puzzle titles over the years and have to say that Horace was the most freedom I’ve ever had whilst making a game, unfortunately I don’t think this is typical of game development at all, usually developers have to choose between independent freedom or money with a publisher’s constraints.

Horace’s pixel art style makes plenty of sense, a focus on a style that would have almost certainly found a perfect home on the SNES in its heyday.

But in 2019, where developers invest so many resources into characters conveying emotion, appearing as realistic as possible, and on the cusp of a new gen, it’s fascinating to see a game like Horace come in, loaded with emotional twists and turns that many games with much bigger budgets severely lack.

Personally, I find pixel art can be very affecting as it is reasonably abstract. A character shuts their eyes and lowers their head and you can see that they’re ‘sad’, the more nuance and detail that is introduced, the more that ‘pure’ aspect can be lost.  I’m not saying that something that looks realistic can’t be affecting (obviously not, I love film and TV!) just that it’s far harder to get that ‘pure’ aspect in ‘realistic’ video games without a motion capture studio and a team of animators!

I can draw in pixels really quickly which was definitely a driving force in my decision.  I knew I wanted a lot of story (I’ve hand animated around 3 hours of cutscenes!) so knew I would have to generate around a minute of animation per day so couldn’t spend a load of time rigging 3d models and morph targets when I could just throw a load of sprites around in Flash!

Horace is loaded with lots of mini-games, from Guitar Hero, Pong, Track and Field and more. One might even say that Paul has created a game for gamers.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said Horace is a game for gamers!  I’m a cynical 40 year old man so I made a game that will appeal to anyone who loves video games, especially other cynical 40 year olds like me!

It’s a game full of nods to ‘retro’ pop culture, film & TV references and most importantly old school arcade games! Horace is essentially my love letter to my generation’s video games so hopefully anyone who enjoys late 70s to late 90s pop culture and games should enjoy Horace.

Horace offers so much more, though, not just a platformer with a story and some fun mini-games. But there’s some creative elements to really keep things fresh and different.

The narrative and characters in Horace are a big thing.  As much as I love games that are pure gameplay, I personally always find a game with a decent story will compel me to continue far more.

Also, and I don’t want to spoil too much, Horace evolves as you play through it with plenty of upgrades and power ups to acquire as you go so the game is ever changing, throwing different challenges and changing up the gameplay as it goes.

Plus, the various mini games are integrated into the main game as much as they are simple side quests or distractions so there’s always plenty of variety for the player to enjoy as they make their way through Horace.

Paul has worked incredibly hard to make this game a reality and this will be an exciting week for him as the game finally releases. As July 18 approaches, he has one final message for gamers.

I hope they enjoy it!  And I really mean that!  I’ve personally really enjoyed watching various friends and family members play through Horace so I hope people who play it get as much fun out of it.

Players can expect a LOT of old school game play spread across multiple fantastical locations joined together with an engaging and emotional story!

Horace releases on PC on July 18

About the author

Sam Diglett

Sam grew up with a PS2, spending hours howling at the moon in Okami and giving students wedgies in Bully. Fortunately, she also likes Pokemon because otherwise life could have been quite annoying for her.
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