‘Hohokum’: All the braver for ignoring gaming conventions

Aug. 23, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.


The emphasis is on exploration in "Hohokum." (Honeyslug / Sony Santa Monica)

The emphasis is on exploration in “Hohokum.” (Honeyslug / Sony Santa Monica)

Deep within dating site OkCupid, there’s a question that treats video games as child’s play. “Would you be willing to date someone who plays video games almost every day, for at least 2 hours?”

Two hours may seem excessive for our time-crunched lives, but there’s an underlying implication that the above activity is perhaps a bit weird — a potential red flag about anyone otherwise considered a full-fledged adult.

Although the video game industry doesn’t do itself any favors, what with tolerating the boorish behavior of its online communities and relying on games that emphasize gun play, there’s no denying that this is a mainstream medium that still carries a stigma.

But the OkCupid question did hit a chord. There are times when even I feel embarrassed about my accruing games knowledge.

It’s the moment, for instance, when I’m reminded that the majority of my recent cultural references are more likely to be recognized by the children of co-workers than anyone in my actual peer group, or the realization that the 30 minutes I spent slicing fruit with a virtual ninja blade could have been spent with the new Jules Feiffer novel.

Then along comes a game like “Hohokum,” one that celebrates the sheer joy of play with an exquisite soundtrack and a dash of highbrow abstractness. There’s no mission to complete or grand quest to conquer, as the end goal is the exploration. “Hohokum” could be called an art-house game, but it’s too dastardly cute for niche status.

Utilizing the bright, rounded and heartwarming work of artist Richard Hogg, “Hohokum” looks as if it belongs in a gallery — or at least in the outtakes from the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” film.

Characters don’t talk, but their actions make music as they languidly move around the screen. It’s as if the player is in control of a digital fish tank.

The critters are off-the-wall weird in "Hohokum." (Honeyslug/Sony Santa Monica)

The critters are off-the-wall weird in “Hohokum.” (Honeyslug/Sony Santa Monica)

Each of the 17 worlds of “Hohokum” is an interactive, text-free storybook with multiple narratives waiting to be unveiled. Sometimes a cave dweller needs to be guided to light. Sometimes a boomerang-shaped, ferret-like creature needs to be rescued from a yellow cow-ish/bull-ish monstrosity that for some reason is sporting a saddle. A player discovers the secrets of each landscape simply by flying around triggering sounds and inspiring movement.

As a general concept, “Hohokum” recalls the very early days of video games. Imagine the old snake games of yore, in which a line or dot would leave a trail as it moved around a virtual board, only here it’s a multicolored creature that can fly. This thing — it looks like an eel, or maybe a snake, or maybe a kite with an eye — can’t die, and there’s a flash of excitement whenever the ropey critter discovers another of its species.

There’s one control: move. And there’s no way to actually win or lose at “Hohokum,” nor can one really be good or bad at the game. No matter, as the experience of playing “Hohokoum” is like a headfirst plunge into a multitude of miniature, finely detailed universes that feel as if they could live inside a rainbow. Come here and float for a while, the game beckons, and maybe help these little blue people get their dance groove on.

Players control a snake-like creature through 17 colorful worlds in "Hohokum." (Honeyslug/Sony Santa Monica)

Players control a snake-like creature through 17 colorful worlds in “Hohokum.” (Honeyslug/Sony Santa Monica)

There’s no overarching theme and no grand statement to “Hohokum,” which was developed by London indie Honeyslug and published by Sony’s Santa Monica Studio for its PlayStation devices. That thematic directive comes direct from Hogg, who says that early iterations of the game felt “stressful” and were pushing against “everything that was making this feel good and interesting.”

Although improvisation, and rediscovering the childlike joy of play, may bring about its own stresses in some. “It boggles my mind the extent to which kids naturally take to a thing like this and don’t worry about the rules,” the 41-year-old artist says. “When we were showing the game at festivals, adults have quite a bit of trepidation. They feel insecure about the fact that they don’t know exactly what they should be going.”

Yet rare is the game that provides such a playground for the mind to wander, and the lovely soundtrack curated by electronic label Ghostly International lends a pensive atmosphere. Our creature may stumble into scenes of pure euphoria — a group of fairy-tale creatures having a pool party in the heavens — but the dance music is of the post-club, chill-out variety. It toes the line between romantic and forlorn, shifting easily to the needs of the evening.

That tone is rather apt here. Our creature never really joins in the fun; it just passes through, facilitating the mirth of others.

"Hohokum" doesn't have one linear story but it tells dozens of little ones. (Honeyslug/Sony Santa Monica)

“Hohokum” doesn’t have one linear story but it tells dozens of little ones. (Honeyslug/Sony Santa Monica)

A sense of melancholy wasn’t achieved accidentally. Hogg says the game captures the moment one feels on the final days of a vacation — the pleasures of still going out and avoiding one’s life, but the awareness that the clock is winding down and a feeling of homesickness has crept in.

“Hohokum” is wistful, and for me it has become an occasional substitute for bedtime reading. Hardly competitive, “Hohokum” acts as a relaxing agent. There’s a constant sense of wonder. What if I bring this shimmying blob of a thing to this Ferris wheel in the sky? Can I actually spin this Ferris wheel? Are those farmers riding dinosaurs?

By forgoing goals and not having a specific story to tell, “Hohokum” instead tells dozens of little ones. That choice doesn’t just feel mature; it makes “Hokokum” feel brave.

— Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex


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2 Responses to ‘Hohokum’: All the braver for ignoring gaming conventions

  1. Fordonkey says:

    The element of play really comes out in this game. But this review… Sings like a songbird! Maybe I should subscribe to the LA times…

  2. starkwoman.01 says:

    At last! An engaging game that doesn't involve murder and mayhem and that doesn't foster destructive competition!! No right or wrong strategies … no strategies or goals other than to explore and enjoy. Bravo!

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