The game plays like it belongs in a museum, one of those interactive displays that invites people to navigate the art rather than stare at it.
HohokumPlatform: PS3, PS4 (reviewed), Playstation Vita
Developer: Honeyslug, Sony Santa Monica
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Release Date: 2014-08-12
Much of the hype surrounding the release of Hohokum centered on the game's visuals, and with good reason. Hohokum's artwork falls somewhere between “Yellow Submarine” and Joan Miro, an amalgam of drug addled hallucinations, sexual suggestion, and microscopic ecosystems. The game even plays like it belongs in a museum, one of those interactive displays that invites people to navigate the art rather than stare at it. But at its core, Hohokum is about impermanence, imperfection, and loneliness.
The game opens on a black screen with only your serpent-like character floating in empty space. Barring environmental clues, you aren't given give any indication of how you're supposed to play. The game encourages exploration in its purest form; there is quite literally nothing to do throughout the world other than finely comb environments and discover what you can run into/interact with. One button makes your character move faster; one makes your character move slower. That's it.
But from the beginning, it's clear that something is amiss in the Hohokum universe. You move primarily in circles, bending and twisting in whatever direction that you point the analog stick. And while the game attempts to teach you how to make a perfect circle, it's nearly impossible to make the crisp rings that you see the AI serpent characters making. The game's persistent music also hints at this perversion. Most elements of the environment make noise when you come into contact with them, acting as complementary instrumentation. The levels are even designed for you to hit multiple objects in succession to create melodic riffs, but rarely do those sync up perfectly with the background music. Your additions always seem an eighth note behind the soundtrack, creating a real sense of uneasiness in an otherwise peaceful world.
Hohokum's greatest achievement, however, is its ability to tell a story without dialog, text, or a traditional narrative arc. After learning the game's controls in the opening moments, you float aimlessly through the hub world, running into walls and arbitrarily placed obstacles. As you navigate, other serpent characters join you, mirroring your movements and creating a visual cacophony of lights and colors. Once you've collected all of these characters (ostensibly your friends -- they all have individual names that you discover as the game progresses), they disperse into the various environments throughout the universe, tasking you to find and reconnect with everyone.
Perhaps being a late-20s college graduate invites this metaphor, but it's not an uncommon story. You build a close group of family and friends, who eventually go their separate ways. The game's most bombastic moments come when reuniting with your friends, culminating in playful cutscenes, followed by a symbiotic dance between the two characters. But a sense of loneliness permeates Hohokum as you navigate through the distinct worlds, often with their own inhabitants that seem to mock you with their close-knit community. Even the game's climax is withholding, never allowing you to achieve the completeness that appears within your reach.
It's true that there's not a lot to do in Hohokum. The puzzles that you solve are not unlike those in Zelda. You're taught a new way to interact with the world in every environment, and you must utilize that skill until your friend reveals himself. The most challenging aspect is usually uncovering that new method, at which point it becomes busy work to finish the puzzle. But criticizing this misses the point. It's never hard to reunite with your friends, but it's usually a pain in the ass.
Hohokum will inevitably become the next brick in the Video Games As Art wall. The visual beauty is undeniable, and rarely do developers create games that are this aimless. The storyline is bound to be forgotten, lost in conversations about what it means to be a video game and whether or not the medium belongs in the artistic pantheon. Unfortunately, those are the least interesting discussions surrounding one of the more nuanced indie games we've ever seen.