Go! Go! GOTY! 2019: Game Two: Horace

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  • Game: Paul Helman & Sean Scaplehorn's Horace.
  • Release Month: July.
  • Quick Look: Here.
  • Started: 02/12.
  • Completed: 04/12.

My goodness, this game. It's hard to know where to start. What I can tell you is that this game is extremely British and extremely 30-something-year-old British at that. Rare that I feel so seen by a game; the last one steeped in this much '80s British gaming paraphernalia was probably Lumo back in 2016. Horace is, nominally, about a little yellow robot who learns how to become a real boy, albeit with a few hurdles and mishaps along the way. The story begins small enough as Horace ingratiates himself with his adoptive family and learns what it means to walk, talk, and appreciate video games, before the tale soon segues into a massive global war that has left the United Kingdom (the game's setting (mostly)) devastated, and then continues to escalate and make many wild detours from there. With so many plot turns and surprises, I'd be loath to say any more about where it goes.

Horace is chiefly a 2D platformer, with the unnamed robot protagonist - you'd assume his name was Horace given it's the name of the game and the name stamped on his delivery box, but he's only ever referred to as "The Robot" - modified in such a way to have "infinite lives" by his benevolent creator and father figure, whom is only ever called the Old Man. For the majority of its length the game is strictly linear: you move from one area to the next, dying dozens of times to the game's many single-screen platforming challenges, until eventually story cutscenes take over for a while and you end up somewhere different with a new objective. The game is very story-dense considering its genre; I'd liken it to last year's Iconoclasts with the way it combines a very arcade-y style of action game with a narratively complex plot with a huge cast of characters, each with their own arcs, and many dramatic twists and tragedies. Often you might find yourself pushing through an overbearing challenge just to see where the story might head next. For a long spell around the two-thirds mark the game becomes a honest-to-Robot-Jesus (who is in this game, incidentally) explormer complete with regular post-boss traversal upgrades and an auto-map filling in rooms of an enormous interconnected mansion.

A great use of the gravity mechanic early on. This ball is heavy and unaffected by your gravity switching, so it pulls you backwards as you climb the left wall (which I'm standing on here), makes you jump higher when walking across the ceiling, and speeds you up as you descend the other wall.
A great use of the gravity mechanic early on. This ball is heavy and unaffected by your gravity switching, so it pulls you backwards as you climb the left wall (which I'm standing on here), makes you jump higher when walking across the ceiling, and speeds you up as you descend the other wall.

One meaningful aspect of the game is the Robot's impulsive decision to "collect a million things" as his life's work, after he asks what his purpose is and is told it must be an answer he finds himself, with most areas of the game filled with a certain number of "junk" items to pick up (some of which aren't junk at all and can be sold for a lot of cash). The pause menu will tell you how much junk is left in the immediate area, assuaging the slightly more obsessive collectors among us, and even the broken and useless items can be sold for a little bit of money which can then be put towards upgrades. Having all these collectibles, and a means to always know how many you have left, added a lot of extra little risk vs. reward targets to chase after, making the tough platforming even more so as I invariably made my way over to all the flashing piles of detritus before moving on. I'm a sucker for collectibles, so you better believe I earned that requisite million before the game was over. (I realize that sounds like a lot of items to collect, but there are a few rare trash objects that are worth several hundreds and thousands apiece.)

Graphically, it's a great deal of pixel art, but it's very good pixel art. The artist has a knack for drawing faces which leads to a lot of recognizable cameos throughout, and there's a huge number of enemy sprites, detailed backgrounds, and other art assets that evidently took some time to create. The music is mostly chiptune renditions of famous classical music, though there's a few original tracks in there too. It sounds fine and is worked into the scenes germanely, but it's not like I haven't heard Danse Macabre or Für Elise a hundred times before. The voice acting is exclusive to one character - The Robot, who is narrating his life from some time in the future - and it all sounds like one of those monotone text-to-speech machines with a slight southern English accent, though its deadpan delivery lends itself well to a few of the fish-out-of-water jokes early on.

To give you an idea of the game's sense of humor, this is what happens when you fall
To give you an idea of the game's sense of humor, this is what happens when you fall "up" with the gravity boots.

I realize this is a trite thing to say about a game starring a literal tin man, but Horace has a lot of heart. So much heart, in fact, that I'm willing to overlook a great deal. The core platforming gameplay is competent with some neat features you don't normally see in Indie games of this genre - the ability to walk on walls and ceilings, defying gravity, as well as the usual bevy of explormer upgrades - but Horace isn't exactly well-optimized for weaker machines and the framerate can be just tragic in some densely populated areas. Other sections, like the dream sequences where you fly through rings, was for me a glitchy mess that was impossible to visually parse. The platforming can also be slippery and there's a lot of weird hitbox problems - I'd regularly die crashing through brick walls because the game detected I was standing where it thought a wall was and gave me the "stuck in geometry" insta-kill - and the many, many times it tries to stretch its creative muscles with something a little different (shoot 'em ups, 3D runners, driving sequences, FPSes, and many other arcade parodies) it was a little more "miss" than "hit." Yet for as frustrated as I could get with Horace between its very harsh challenge level and no shortage of bugs both visual and gameplay-related, and the aforementioned slowdown issues, I found it impossible to stay mad at a game this ambitious and personal. I think it could be 2019's Deadly Premonition or Undertale, purely in the sense that while it certainly won't be for everyone it took a very determined individual (or two, in Horace's case) a very long time to make a very specific type of game that epitomized everything that was important to them, with the hope that it would find others and resonate with them just as strongly. It did for me.

While I leave you with that unsteady recommendation to check the game out for yourselves, and that you probably won't see half the bugs I did if you have a half-decent rig that doesn't shriek in terror and hide behind the sofa whenever it's required to run anything polygonal, I also wanted to peel back the curtain and demonstrate the many times I felt the game was either speaking directly to me, was doing something lovably overambitious, or was so wildly, blissfully out of its gourd. I'd consider the following screenshot gallery packed with minor spoilers, if only in the sense that I'm potentially ruining surprises for anyone curious enough to check out the game themselves, so I've placed them all inside a spoiler-block. If you need a little more convincing, though, be sure give them a look.

(And hey, on the off chance Dan Ryckert's skimming through this wondering if he should've played a little more after the Quick Look, I should mention that Horace had a very inspirational Ric Flair quote to impart.)

Screenshots aweigh:

Some sort of freeform parody riffing going on here: there's an important talk between the robot and the Old Man that's treated as an homage to the movie My Dinner With Andre. So, the developers decided to stick the two actors from that movie on the far left (Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory) and then decided to throw in three other major homages too (from Community, Frasier, and the Andy Kaufman movie My Breakfast with Blassie). And then Andre the Giant as a waiter.
Some sort of freeform parody riffing going on here: there's an important talk between the robot and the Old Man that's treated as an homage to the movie My Dinner With Andre. So, the developers decided to stick the two actors from that movie on the far left (Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory) and then decided to throw in three other major homages too (from Community, Frasier, and the Andy Kaufman movie My Breakfast with Blassie). And then Andre the Giant as a waiter.
I can always appreciate a good spinning newspaper gag.
I can always appreciate a good spinning newspaper gag.
The game has a bunch of arcade parodies that are almost close to playable. The Space Invaders clone that has you fighting Thriller zombies and '80s Lycra aerobics dancers is probably the best of the bunch.
The game has a bunch of arcade parodies that are almost close to playable. The Space Invaders clone that has you fighting Thriller zombies and '80s Lycra aerobics dancers is probably the best of the bunch.
I appreciated
I appreciated "Day Off" as a workable OutRun, but I was terrible at it. I killed the car.
Finally, an OK Ghostbusters game.
Finally, an OK Ghostbusters game.
As well as arcade mini-games, there are other ones that let you take on menial work for money if collecting trash wasn't working out for you. Last thing I expected to see was a rhythm game based on
As well as arcade mini-games, there are other ones that let you take on menial work for money if collecting trash wasn't working out for you. Last thing I expected to see was a rhythm game based on "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet." (There's also a Golden Girls plate-cleaning game and one based on two layers of British TV-related punnery that I won't elaborate on here.) (P.S. I'm sure no-one outside of the UK knows who these people are, but the big guy on the far left is Pat Roach, who fights Indiana Jones in all three movies as three different characters.)
The time travel arc came out of left field, to put it mildly, and finally made good on choosing to call Mr. Silton's bandmates
The time travel arc came out of left field, to put it mildly, and finally made good on choosing to call Mr. Silton's bandmates "Mr. Preston" and "Mr. Logan". That the professor continues to appear and disappear in future scenes as he bounces around time was a fun coda also.
The game decides to be Flashback for a little while, giving you a few destinations to visit and a train on which to travel between them. Here's the pleasant town of
The game decides to be Flashback for a little while, giving you a few destinations to visit and a train on which to travel between them. Here's the pleasant town of "Sitcombe" (pronounced "sit-coom"), filled with familiar characters.
Because of the gravity boots, the levels are always adjusting themselves to your perspective. That changing camera can make the game a little barfy as it swings around these vertiginous circular areas.
Because of the gravity boots, the levels are always adjusting themselves to your perspective. That changing camera can make the game a little barfy as it swings around these vertiginous circular areas.
The Wonderland chapter is just pure nightmare fuel in general, but never more so than when you're dealing with the omnivorous dismembered head of Bubsy.
The Wonderland chapter is just pure nightmare fuel in general, but never more so than when you're dealing with the omnivorous dismembered head of Bubsy.
The game is sparing with these FPS sequences, but they are definitely ambitious additions to a pixel platformer.
The game is sparing with these FPS sequences, but they are definitely ambitious additions to a pixel platformer.
The Red Queen boss of Wonderland forces you to play through a series of Spectrum ZX-inspired games. She also constantly rocks the screen and puts her hand over important areas. It's disorienting enough being stuck in Manic Miner without her distractions.
The Red Queen boss of Wonderland forces you to play through a series of Spectrum ZX-inspired games. She also constantly rocks the screen and puts her hand over important areas. It's disorienting enough being stuck in Manic Miner without her distractions.
A robot vs. robot video game tournament hits a rough patch with
A robot vs. robot video game tournament hits a rough patch with "Bitchy Million", as he produces a dubious video tape that "proves" he had the high score and you're forced into a rematch.
I'm not sure how many people still remember Ceefax. It's starting to fade from the public consciousness. Horace's developers have a
I'm not sure how many people still remember Ceefax. It's starting to fade from the public consciousness. Horace's developers have a "if it exists, put it in the game" policy however.

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beard_of_zeus

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#1  Edited By beard_of_zeus

I just finished this game on Switch after picking it up on sale for 2 bucks a while back, and really felt the urge to write something up about it, but I think you did a better job here than I would have. It initially comes off as yet another unassuming precision platformer, but it really is so much more than that.

I was not expecting the single-minded work of an auteur, crammed full of everything possible (both in terms of gameplay mechanics & pop culture references) coupled with a surprisingly touching narrative. I think the comparison to Iconoclasts (which I also loved) is fairly apt.

A lot of the very British references went over my head, but I did appreciate things like the boss near the end that entails you trying to play Card Sharks while a giant brain shoots missiles at you.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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#2  Edited By sparky_buzzsaw

I loved what I played but I found it extremely difficult. Shortly after I played it they released a patch for that so I need to revisit it and finish the story. It's a terrific game.

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