Interview: Ricky Haggett, designer of Hohokum and CEO of Honeyslug
Ricky Haggett co-founded London-based boutique studio Honeyslug along with Natalie Marco and Mark Inman in 2008. He is perhaps best known to players for Vita’s Frobisher Says, and to developers for co-organising London Indies and Wild Rumpus events.
What inspired the game?
It sort of came about as a catalyst for Dick [Hogg] and I to collaborate. Dick sent me some drawings and said, “Hey, we should make a videogame…” And we started down this path of him drawing stuff and me programming stuff, but very much in our spare time. It was a little thing that we worked on between other things, and over that period it changed a lot – there were lots of prototypes. This idea of a long, snake-like character that people ride on the back of wasn’t our first idea; that was something that was hewn out of the rock of lots of other ideas.
There seems to be a vague conception theme going on. Is that intentional?
I’m quite reticent to be very specific about it. I think everyone’s interpretation of it is interesting and I’m not sure there is a definitive answer for that. It definitely isn’t, ‘This is the story of the struggle of a particular being…’ The elements which bookend the game, and which provide a sort of very loose spine in all of the adventures you have in the other places, are kind of open to interpretation. Like it’s definitely clear that your character is a traveller from another place.
The imagery often toys with the grotesque. Where did that come from?
I think it comes from two separate places. In terms of that stuff being there in the first place, it’s a desire to make the world of Hohokum feel as much as possible like a believable world. And in the real world, nature is kind of gross in a lot of ways. We’re really interested in the flora and fauna of the world, and some of my favourite things about Hohokum are, like, plants that exist in two completely different places but that are obviously cousins of each other – there’s this implication that they’re subspecies. So when it came to populating these worlds, of course we were going to fill them with this kind of stuff, because we’re interested in it and we want to make it feel like a believable place. And then in terms of visually what that stuff looks like, I guess you just have to look at Dick’s sketchbooks! [Laughs] We’re really into things where there’s a crossover – like, am I looking at a thing that’s a man-made kind of plastic? Or am I looking at a creature that’s soft and fleshy? Or am I looking at a hard seed or nut casing?
“I think when Hohokum works really, really well, people just kind of absorb what’s going on through osmosis”
The soundtrack is a big part of the atmosphere. How did that collaboration come about? We knew music was going to be super-important. Once we got to the point where Dick had done some drawings, we put them in the engine and you could fly around them, we knew that music was absolutely crucial to making these places feel right. I think Dick burned me a CD of a bunch of stuff, and from there we started working on a Spotify playlist, which had about 50 tracks in it by the end, including people like Shigeto, Tycho and Matthew Dear. And at this point, Alex Hackford, who’s Sony Santa Monica’s music licensing guy, looked at our playlist and said, “Hey, do you realise there’s a bunch of Ghostly artists on this? Why don’t we talk to them?” And that really quickly turned into the idea of some of their artists being interested in composing new material for the game. And when that was suggested, we bit their arm off, obviously – that’s a really cool thing to happen! There’s ambiguity in every aspect of Hohokum. Why was this an important design direction for you? I think that when Hohokum works really, really well, people just kind of absorb what’s going on through osmosis without really thinking too hard about it. It’s almost like they’ve been set on a path of completing some series of tasks without ever being told that there even are any tasks, and I think that feels magical. Another part of it is that we really want this place to feel immersive and real. You’re flying around these worlds that Dick, the animators and audio designers have poured lots of love into, and it seems a real shame to then layer that with telling people stuff about what’s going on and what to do. Is that also a reaction to the hand-holding that’s prevalent in modern game tutorials? Yeah, although I think Hohokum is obviously at the extreme end of the scale… [Laughs] We trust that the player’s going to figure out what they need to, and I’m comfortable with the idea that some people might not figure stuff out. And I also think that 90 per cent of the games I play could do with telling their players less. It infuriates me when you’re supposed to be exploring an exciting fantasy land that people have worked really hard to make beautiful and believable, and then there’s just a ton of exposition… You’re undermining all of that hard work. One of the reasons Dark Souls is such an amazing game is because it trusts its players to explore its world and figure out what the rules are. And that’s a really powerful thing. If you trust people, then they have to work to figure things out for themselves, and that’s a really positive experience.