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.