Alt Games’ Innovators: Humble Grove

All images used with permission from Humble Grove
Have you ever shaken a snowglobe with a small town inside? Watched as the snow slowly falls, covering buildings and roads. Do you ever wonder whether there are people in your globe? A small world full of people, in your hand.

For the second interview in Altgames’ Innovators, I’ve been chatting to Hana Lee and Tom Davison of the two person collective: Humble Grove. They describe themselves as “a two person collective made up of Hana Lee and Tom Davison. The two met while studying Illustration at Camberwell College of Arts (UAL). They make narrative driven games, that are often have an autobiographical element to them.” Their pieces often have a very personal feel — 29’s two main characters Bo and Ao are modeled after Tom and Hana.

Playing 29 feels less like playing a game and more like exploring someone else’s mind. Exploring the jungle of Humble Grove’s mind reveals at first a set of interlinking rooms, eventually expanding out into a garden. Plants are everywhere, people often replaced with monsters, everyday items become supernatural, transporting you to the ether.

Humble Grove is an unlikely pairing — Tom grew up in London, whilst Hana is from Tokyo. Both are unlikely game devs, having studied illustration. However, all these unlikely factors lead to both of them creating pieces through lenses that are often unexplored in games. They described themselves as follows:

“Tom grew up in London and is particularly interested in psychogeography and scenography in video games. They like plants and witch aesthetics.

Hana was born and raised in Tokyo and never thought game dev was a choice in their life but here they are. They like stop motion animation and high quality naps.”

Both Tom and Hana have a sharp and cohesive vision when it comes to games and their projects. In this interview we talk about the challenges of making something so personal and the transition from illustration to game development.

Friary Road, a prequel vignette made for a jam by Tom and Hana focuses on 29’s two main characters, Bo and Ao as they sit in their back garden, staring up at the stars. The exploratory, intimate quality reverberates throughout 29. Humble Grove create places that exist in the outskirts of your memories. Remember them.

The pieces you make are personal, and often autobiographical. Whilst all art could be argued to be about the artist, you often have to dig to get to the implicit connotations. Other pieces, may be explicitly personal, such as an autobiography. What I enjoy about your work is the depth of detail — from what I’ve played of 29, it feels like looking into a memory. How do you decide the extent to which you display yourself within these pieces? Is it often challenging to find a good balance between the implicit and the explicit?

Hana: I usually don’t put much thought into how to balance implicit and explicit, as in, I tend to chuck whatever I think is cool or interesting in the game so I think Tom does a good job filtering what we need and don’t need. I do like putting in visual details like the mess on Ao’s desk (which it actually tidier than it was in real life), the loose socks in the bedroom, the kitchen etc, and I think that’s because they reflect a lot of subtle characteristics and quirks that we have that we can’t really express through dialogue.

Tom: On the writing side things there’s a lot of editing involved. We have long talks about whether or not to include certain things. Especially when it comes to other people. Sometimes it’s not worth including things, because it distracts from the narrative or becomes too self-serving.

Visual details…reflect a lot of subtle characteristics and quirks that we have that we can’t really express through dialogue.

Apart from questions of what to include or exclude, what challenges are there in making something semi-autobiographical? There aren’t many examples to use within games themselves, where do you draw inspiration from for that particular aspect?

Hana: It’s definitely weird to see ourselves as characters people interpret and control.

Tom: Yeah, I think that can be difficult. Especially when people misgender the characters. Something that will hopefully be less common as people play the whole game and understand the characters better.

I think the auto-biographical aspects of our games originate from our roots in illustration. I always drew a lot of self portraits (Hana too). Self studies are something common to most artists. I think games can be used as a more explicit way to study yourself. People like Jenny Jiao Hsia and Nina Freeman are two artists that helped me realise making games in this form could actually be possible.

Speaking as someone who doesn’t know a lot about illustration, how do you incorporate that aspect into 29? I’d assume it’d have to play a role as it is set whilst you two are still studying it?

T: I think it mostly comes through in our design process. Neither of us studied games, so we’re approaching them from a slight outsider perspective. I think our approach much more centred around tell narrative.

H: I think for us (especially me considering I thought I’d never ever make games in my life), it works the other way round. Our process is more of “I drew this and I like it, let’s make a game out of it” than “I want to make a game, let’s draw something for it,” so if anything 29 incorporated itself into our illustrations.

A lot of it is based off our dying love for our old flat and we’ve made little artwork/sketches for it way before development, and later decided that video games could be a medium in which we can share that experience. So in that sense illustration plays a massive role. If it weren’t for spontaneous “hmm I want to draw this part of the flat because I like it” moments, 29 wouldn’t have been conceived.

T: Yeah, it’s much more about the making of something first, then the concept later. I believe Hohokum was conceived similarly (starting with an illustration first).

Various works by Tom Davison

So what was the deciding factor in making 29? What made you both leave uni and think “lets make a video game together!”?

H: We always wanted to collaborate on something and there were times when Tom made 3D models of characters I made for my final year project, but we wanted to do something a bit bigger.

And the exact solution to that was “hey, how about a video game?” It was supposed to be a pretty small and personal project to begin with but it blew out of proportion…somewhere, but in a good way.

T: The other part of it for me was that Hana’s student visa was running out, so soon they would have to go back home to Japan. I really wanted something we could work on together that would keep us in contact while we were apart.

It’s important to think of the environments as a character too. Something that has a personality, flaws and quirks. — Tom

One of the stand out aspects of Friary Road, 29 and even I’ve Been Late are the environments and places you create. None of them feel forced upon the player or unnatural, rather as the games are so personal, they feel like a slice of reality. What advice would you give to other developers trying to achieve similar things within their games?

T: I think the main reason our environments feel real is, because most of them are based on real places. I know this is something Hidetaka Miyazaki was interested in with the creation of Lordran in Dark Souls. For example Anor Londo is based on the Duomo in Milan.

When creating an environment we’re trying to describe the characters that inhabit it. I think it’s also important to think of the environments as a character too. Something that has a personality, flaws and quirks.

H: I’m not sure if I could give a cohesive advice because I’m the worst at giving any advice ever but I’d say just be as genuine as you can and try not to feel the pressure of having it be ‘interesting’ because I’m sure the stories you’re trying to tell are already super cool.

Obviously there’s space for exaggeration, but people have said there are relatable bits here and there when all we did was illustrate our surroundings the way it is/was. People always say “29 had an interesting story” but it’s really just about two graduates feeling lost but getting really excited over a barbecue.

People always say “29 had an interesting story” but it’s really just about two graduates feeling lost but getting really excited over a barbecue. — Hana

Could you each recommend…

  1. An Album
  2. A Game
  3. A Book

T:

  1. I’m still really enjoying Geotic’s new album Abysma, it’s very good super chill synth-pop. I’d recommend listening to it while relaxing on a hot day.
  2. Vignettes is probably the game I’ve enjoyed the most recently. I love playful toy-like games and I think it’s genius and David Kanaga is a genius.
  3. The last thing I read was Jen Lee’s Garbage Night. If you’ve read any of her web comic Thunderpaw definitely give this one a read, as it’s set in the same universe. The characters are very cute and relatable.

H: I have a hard time answering with all time faves since I’ll just come up with a bulk of titles so speaking in recent terms…

  1. The OST for Sicario. Makes me feel like I’m doing something really big and important when I listen to it while I work. The film is really good and I feel like the soundtrack makes at least 50% of it.
  2. Been playing I ♡ Hue a lot. It’s calming and I love colour tests. I missed a train I had to get the other day because I got so into it.
  3. The Stranger or The Little Prince. No real reason as to why I love these two books…I guess they resonate with me a lot.
Vignettes

Finally, what should people be looking out for on your end?

T: You can expect the first chapter of No Longer Home “29” late this year. That’ll be coming out on itch.io and steam now we’ve been greenlit! No Longer Home will be available to purchase once we’ve finished the second chapter. We can’t say when that’ll be just yet, but it shouldn’t be much longer than a year after 29’s release. We’re hoping to work on a few more vignettes of Friary Road’s kind in the future too.

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