As gorgeous as it looks, as nice as it sound, the true star of Hohokum's weird galaxy is design.
I nearly didn’t notice that I was supposed to start controlling Hohokum. The way your stringy, rainbow, one-eyed magnet drifts fluidly on a black background, it seemed more natural this way. No formal instructions, no alert to intervene, you just begin.
There are other creatures like you, who fly and play for a while, before piling into a portal to play hide and seek, bouncing along to a score that includes tracks from Tycho and Com Truise. Then you’re alone.
Similarly, I had no explanation, or idea of what I was doing, the first time I gave it a whirl during a festival last year. In that demo, the game wasn’t set in a dark void full of piercing hues, but a clear skied vertical park with alien inhabitants lounging on floating platforms. If I passed by one, it would hop on my back. When I passed by a pinecone-looking object, my passenger picked it up.
My brain, doing what it does, began putting together an equation. That dude + pinecone + X = ? After a couple swan dives and spirals up, I eventually discovered my new friend would depart when I swept over the highest, biggest platform, which had a nice big green set of hills. He dropped down, began unravelling the pinecone, and out came a kite.
Figuring out what the game is trying to say is the solution
Repeating this process, finding other villagers and sniffing out the other pinecones, would reveal your missing relative, disguising itself as a kite. It was a puzzle, it had clues, but in order to deduce it you don’t have to master mechanisms as much as communication, basically. Figuring out what the game is trying to say is the solution.
Adventure games and surrealism have always been friendly with each other, with dashes of it in Myst and mounds of it in The Neverhood. These games require you to sync with its aesthetics, rather than using props in clever ways.
If Hohokum has a more recent relative, it’s Fez, which also asked you to come to specific conclusions based on dense visual hints. While Fez asked for intensive participation to unlock its secrets, Hohokum is much friendlier about it.
I have to admit, playing Fez I rely on online guides, there are a lot of dead-ends, and a lot of solutions I wouldn’t have even begun to know how to pursue on my own gusto. Hohokum is brand new, so I doubt there would be much of anything thorough even if searched, but I haven’t had any sort of trouble. It’s rarely a matter of ‘not getting it’ as much as ‘not looking hard enough.’
There’s often discussion about the ‘language’ of games, how they can communicate their intent without stating things explicitly through a tutorial, and leading instead of enforcing. But even when you don’t require hovering boxes of text, you still get participation points for your experience with games. Buttons to jump, fire and run all have a history, one internalized in many people who play games, and one absent from Hohokum.
Hohokum pursues visual storytelling more than structure. The web has been so nerdy about graphic design, typography, and Saul Bass pop lately, and while the pastiche will allure players here, it will hopefully remind them that design isn’t only about being easy on the eyes, it’s also about delivering messages.
Solving puzzles isn’t always sifting runes and navigating logic conundrums. Usually to solve Hohokum’s puzzles, you simply need to clue in to what the scene is trying to say.
One tableau had a church bell, family and friends, and a cosy summer seaside. It was a wedding, and it didn’t take long to notice the altar was missing a partner before a ceremony could begin. And once the ceremony began, you’ll also be asked to cater with ample red wine, because people’s cups are empty and three dapper servers have materialized just in time.
One segment is a honey factory that could use your help getting the product out, helping the harvesters and using your slender body to declutter the pipelines.
Another segment is an ancient tomb, filled with blinding darkness, bats and fragile treasures. Usually you’re encouraged to touch and tinker with everything to see if it gives a reaction, but given the sorrow the tiny torchbearing explorer expressed every time I shattered some ancient item, I clued in that maybe, this one time, it was a hands-off policy.
Even as things begin to look particularly out there and odd, as whimsical as Hohokum developer Richard Hogg’s art lets loose, it’s always elegant and clear on what is ultimately being said.
I’ve noticed comments being left on gaming comment boards that they don’t seem to understand what’s being asked of them in Hohokum, likely because it goes so strictly against the default of other video games. There’s nothing to kill, there’s no conflict (aside from one area where you rescue a gorilla), and the only thing you can do with your wiggly self is move along.
Games like this— Proteus and Mountain come to mind—can get frustrating because they don't ask you to beat conundrums in the way you’ve always been trained to. And this isn’t to say it’s a total cakewalk, stakes do get higher with what’s being asked of you go deeper, and the fact you look like a needlehead is appropriate to some of the intricate threading to be done.
The trope doesn't always work, and indeed the game can get needlessly confusing. Some segments stray from storytelling, and feature little more than a bunch of playground toys to activate and circles to tickle that feel arduous, like I have better places to be.
Overall, Hohokum feels like a game made for other consumers, its sensibilities may speak more to graphic novel nuts than point-and-click adventure fans. This is the kind of game I was hoping for from this new generation, ones which don’t feel like a continuation of what we’ve already gone through, but a fresh start instead.
Hohokum will work best to those with a limited history with games, those who don’t have to fight against their conventions and trust the design, or players willing to forget everything they know.