Reviewed on Sony PS VitaAlso available on Sony PS Vita, Sony PlayStation 3 and Sony PlayStation 4
The last time I can remember such innovation and pure randomness in games was probably back when I was a kid perusing Spectrum cassettes back in the dark ages of fashion. Back then you’d enter some smoky den of a shop, cast your eyes around at whatever variety of pap they were selling, and then sidle your way down to the little spinney rack by the counter. Furtive fingers would dance over the cases, inexperienced young minds probably ignoring a game from Codemasters and favouring something with a scantily dressed lady on the front. Coins would be tossed onto the counter, the prize pocketed, and the anticipation on the walk home was tempered only by the expectation of the thirty minutes of screeching, colourful loading that awaited you. And after that? Well, it was probably rubbish, but there was every chance you’d end up with something as awesome as Tir Na Nog or Gilligan’s Gold. Such was life back then.
And now? Well, as this bustling indie scene continues to deliver the closest you can get to the above experience is logging onto your preferred digital store, having a quick look at a couple of usually not helpful screenshots and then handing over the price of a beer or two. Sometimes you get a glorified Venetian Blinds (*cough*Proteus*cough*) and yet other times you’ll get Thomas was Alone. But we’re not here to talk about past indie darlings, we’re here to look at Hohokum, a collaboration between the artist Richard Hogg and developers Honeyslug. Best described as an exploration puzzle experience ‘game’ (catchy!) Hohokum wears its arty credentials on its sleeve. Taking control of the suspiciously sperm-like snake Long Mover you’ll fly, swim or waggle your way through seventeen levels and a series of connecting screens, each one more random than the other.
Unlike other games within the nascent exploration genre there are definitive goals for you to reach in each of the levels; in fifteen of them you play a game of hide and seek with other sperm-snake friends, sometimes engaging in a quasi-rescue and other times just bumping into them as you zoom around checking stuff out. Nothing overtly tells you where to go, or guides your snake, leaving you to interact with the various worlds in an experimental way, looking for that one clue or trigger that will begin to open up the route to solving the hidden puzzle and finding your buddy. There are other things to do in the levels of course – perhaps fish to swim around with, or passengers you can pick up and deliver to their preferred destinations, but these all very much feel an extension of exploration, rather than some kind of defined sub-objective.
But, arguably, the main point of the game isn’t to find your lost friends, but rather to lose yourself in the same environments they evidently found so enthralling. Wonderful spectrums of colour await in some levels, whereas in others understated aural cues guide your progress. No other game quite plays like Hohokum, each little biome you encounter making perfect sense in its own little bubble, the only element out of place being your own wiggly snake. It’s a game you have to approach relaxed, however, as frustration can all too easily set in if your sole purpose is to force progress towards completion – it feels as though the puzzles on offer here should be encountered incidentally rather than intentionally, existing as part of a journey rather than set waypoints to be driven directly towards.
And this is, unfortunately, where some of the issues with Hohokum pop up. There’s a level full of musical strings, for example, where you can strum away at the strings to your heart’s content. Aim for one of the walls here and speed up and you’ll elicit a drummed response to go along with your rudimentary twangs. But the hidden snake is easily found here, no musical machinations to confront and beat for players here. There’s beauty in pure exploration, of course, and any inherent value within the level isn’t suddenly lost because of the lack of expected gameplay, but the point is that by the time the average player experiences this level they do expect a certain amount of gameplay. Finding the hidden snake is the goal, figuring out which actions to take to find the snake is the game, exploring is the tool by which those actions are identified. When you suddenly find a level where there’s not much puzzling to be done it does feel like a let-down, even if you can glide around checking out the rest of the level as much as you want.
Hohokum tries to be all things to all gamers, attempting to fit inside both the ‘game’ camp and the interactive art collective. That it succeeds, somewhat, is a compliment to the developers and the artist, but this attempt is also what holds Hohokum back from real greatness in either distinction. It could have been a piece of moving art, an emotive experience based on experimental exploration supported by an immersive soundtrack. It could have been an innovative puzzle game, requiring interlinked stages of thought based on the results of trial and error, free to transform game mechanics on the fly to support the overall quality of game. What it is, is an attempt at both, and it comes very close to nailing those genres. There’s no cigar to hand out here, but Hohokum is still worthy of your time and a firm handshake.