Ho­hokum

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher SCEE De­vel­oper Honeyslug For­mat PS3, PS4, Vita Re­lease Out now

PS3, PS4, Vita

There’s been a great deal of de­bate over whether what the cyn­i­cal have la­belled ‘walk­ing sim­u­la­tors’ – Dear Es­ther, Pro­teus et al – can be de­fined as games, but much less has been said about creations that fo­cus solely on play. Ex­per­i­ments such as Flow and Noby Noby Boy revel in their goal-less ab­strac­tion, of­fer­ing the room to prod and poke at their worlds with no par­tic­u­lar end in mind. Ho­hokum isn’t quite as freeform as those ex­am­ples, but while Honeyslug has set out ob­jec­tives for you to com­plete, you’re go­ing to have to work out what they are all on your own.

There is, how­ever, a nudge in the right di­rec­tion be­fore you’re let loose. In the open­ing area, we learn that Cross makes our monoc­u­lar sper­ma­to­zoon-like crea­ture move faster, while Cir­cle slows it to a creep­ing pace. But how you should progress be­yond that hub sec­tion, or the fact that pump­ing the shoul­der but­tons – in­puts also used for steer­ing in­stead of the left stick – ac­cel­er­ates you up to a much greater speed as you wig­gle, is left un­said. Ho­hokum is built on the in­her­ent de­light of dis­cov­ery, and pre­serv­ing this joy means de­tailed ex­pla­na­tions are best avoided. For­give us, then, for dis­cussing it in broader terms.

Ho­hokum’s world is di­vided into in­di­vid­ual lev­els that are con­nected by por­tals, and which can be com­pleted in al­most any or­der. Some aper­tures lead di­rectly to an­other level, while oth­ers take you to tran­si­tional spa­ces that see you float from one por­tal to the next, per­haps with some nav­i­ga­tional gim­mick thrown in, such as cir­cles of colour that act like pinball bumpers. The lev­els them­selves range from ex­pan­sive and in­tri­cately de­tailed to more com­pact, sim­pler af­fairs, and a fel­low ser­pen­tine crea­ture lies hid­den in each one.

Some­times you might be able to see them straight away, but more of­ten they re­main out of sight un­til you’ve trig­gered a par­tic­u­lar se­quence of events. You’ll have to re­unite an amorous fish­er­man with his aquatic love, but first you’ll need to deal with the ag­gres­sive oc­to­pus in her path. You must ne­go­ti­ate an over­weight game hunter’s bazooka-launched bul­let hell as the sloths on your back hurl jelly­beans in re­sponse. And you’ll need to coax ex­hausted crea­tures into de­posit­ing their waste so that you can fill up a clank­ing in­dus­trial com­plex, en­abling you to swim through its bulging, ex­cre­ment-filled pipe­lines.

Each area is brought to sur­real life by Richard Hogg’s charis­matic il­lus­tra­tions, which chan­nel the work of de­sign­ers such as Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand, con­trast­ing bold, flat colours with of­ten grotesque bi­o­log­i­cal de­tail. Ob­jects re­sem­bling sta­men or uvu­lae bris­tle and swell when you brush past them, gar­dens spring into life, and colour schemes shift ac­cord­ing to your ac­tions. It is one of the most re­spon­sive game en­vi­ron­ments we’ve ever vis­ited, al­most ev­ery­thing re­act­ing to your touch in some way.

You’ll re­unite an amorous fish­er­man with his aquatic love, but first you’ll need to deal with the oc­to­pus in her path

The world is pop­u­lated by a whole so­ci­ety of odd­look­ing crea­tures that dance, sing and some­times strug­gle among the alien, yet dis­con­cert­ingly familiar, land­scapes. While the mood of the game swings from ju­bi­la­tion to de­spon­dency, Ho­hokum is at its best dur­ing its dark­est mo­ments – the so­lu­tion to that oc­to­pus prob­lem, for in­stance, or a par­tic­u­larly haunt­ing jaunt into the future dur­ing an­other level. But even when it veers into or­ganic hor­ror or cat­a­clysm, the game never aban­dons its cheeky sense of hu­mour.

Equally in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing Ho­hokum’s rich at­mos­phere is its sound­track – pro­vided by US in­die la­bel Ghostly In­ter­na­tional artists such as Ty­cho, Shigeto and Matthew Dear – the com­bi­na­tion of glitchy, wist­ful elec­tron­ica prov­ing a per­fect match for Hogg’s vi­su­als. And like the game, the mu­sic is also non­lin­ear, tracks phasing in and out as you ex­plore and in­ter­act with the lev­els. Some­times that means a grad­ual build to­wards a crescendo as you put the pieces in place to solve the puzzle in hand, while at other points you can mix el­e­ments of the tune as you please, or im­pro­vise your own melody by twang­ing taut ropes or switch­ing lights on and off. Ho­hokum is as much a mu­si­cal toy as it is a videogame. But its most en­gag­ing el­e­ment – the free­dom to ex­plore and dis­cover with­out guid­ance – is also Ho­hokum’s po­ten­tial prob­lem. The sense of achieve­ment and ela­tion at solv­ing an opaque puzzle is pro­found, but there are just as many el­e­ments to in­ter­act with that turn out to be closed loops as there are av­enues to solutions. For ex­am­ple, there’s a ring of odd-look­ing float­ing plants in the cor­ner of one level that, when hit in the right way, cause a growth to ap­pear, which can then be burst for seem­ingly no rea­son at all. This lack of dis­tinc­tion between pure play and ob­jec­tives is cen­tral to the game’s ap­peal, but such wil­ful ob­scu­rity can prove frus­trat­ing when you’re at a loss and try­ing to fig­ure out what to do next.

There are a few me­chan­i­cal is­sues, too, in­clud­ing some oc­ca­sion­ally ques­tion­able col­li­sion de­tec­tion and the odd abil­ity to fly be­yond the bor­ders of the level, mean­ing you must nav­i­gate back to the play area blind. Keep­ing your bear­ings is also a prob­lem on larger lev­els, since even with the cam­era fully zoomed out (con­trolled us­ing the right stick), your field of view is limited. The labyrinthine world can cause nav­i­ga­tional is­sues too if, as we did, you miss an exit por­tal.

But th­ese is­sues are in­fre­quent, not per­va­sive, and seem a small price to pay for the brav­ery of de­sign that char­ac­terises Ho­hokum, blend­ing clas­sic game de­sign el­e­ments im­per­cep­ti­bly with more ab­stract ideas. While play­ing it with progress and goals in mind can be baf­fling, set­tling into its pe­cu­liar rhythm of dis­cov­ery is as cathar­tic as it is rev­e­la­tory.

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