Hohokum is almost definitely the strangest video game I’ve ever played in my life. I swear I can hear the new game giggle at my attempt to describe it or pin it down. I’m going to try, because you should know what you’re getting into. And, yes, Hohokum is very much a thing you should get into.
The first thing that needs to be said about Hohokum is that it’s weird. The new PlayStation title feels like a secret multiverse that’s existed outside of our notice for aeons. Now that some crazy game design scientists have rendered the veil separating our reality and Hohokum, we can look at what it looks like in that dimension. More specifically, we can touch that odd nexus of realities.
Hohokum‘s a game about touching things. All you can really do with the kite-like character under your control is bump or glide around, into or through things. You can speed up or slow down, which will have different effects depending on the thing you make contact with. Everything you come into contact with makes its own musical noise, which turns you into a wriggly little conductor.
As you fly around the nonsense worlds gathered into the game, you’ll pick up the inhabitants on your kite-guy’s back. In order to figure out what you’re supposed to do in certain levels, you’ll need to ferry Hohokum‘s people-creatures around the various environments, float past symbols and deduce what discovered object will need to go inside a particular nook or cranny. Moving the slinky avatar around amounts to sliding a digital finger across the grain of each little colourful universe, identifying its texture and sussing out its systems. What does touching this do? Oh, it gave me a thing. Where do I put it? Does some person/thing need it? Sometimes, you’ll need to touch creatures and elements more than once to coax out their appointed happenings.
One level consisted of massive floating bodies of water, which swelled and shrank in time with the giant sponges swimming inside of them. Once I rattled an anemone-thing and freed the mer-princess, I had to figure out how to deal with the duopus (only two arms, guys) that was blocking her from where she needed to go. (Oh, look, that duopus is really called a Squanchor. OK, sorry.)
Another level was a gloomy street scene, until I bounced and flew through mysterious shadow shapes, waking them up to colourful surprising life. As I flew up to the stars, the music I had awakened faded away, replaced by xylophone notes pinged by my own undulations. And the stardust I dragged behind me would work its own unexpected magic in select spots.
Weird as Hohokum is, there’s still a story to sniff out on its fringes. See, the game starts with a bunch of different kite-folks frolicking in a psychedelic crossroads. But, something uncool happens and they all get scattered to random corners of the multiverse. Solving each level’s main puzzles frees the other kite-creatures and sends them back to the central hub. Here’s an example in the video below. Be warned that this sequence might be considered a mild spoiler for those who want to go in fresh.
One of the goals you’ll have in Hohokum‘s levels will be to wake up the sleeping eyes, sprinkled through out each level. In some environments, they will be super tough to spot and each awakening will be a pleasant little surprise.
Overall, Hohokum explains very little, nudging you all along to run through the basic interactions and see what transpires. It’s an experimental game that encourages the player to experiment, too. There is causality in Hohokum — doing action A to thing B makes result C — but its exact nature is intentionally muddy until the epiphanies happen. That winds up creating a wonderful sense of freedom for the player. I didn’t need to figure out where I was on a map or go into a checklist to see what else needed to be done. All I needed to do was fly around and prod the levels into explaining themselves to me. This is a video game that does it’s best to feel like pure leisure, instead of another job.
You can’t just float around aimlessly, though. Many levels have hazards that will harsh your mellow, like Tesla coils that will electrocute your riders or catapults that will pull them off and shoot them all over the place. But these seeming hazards will occasionally also be the key to solving some of the puzzles on a given level, making it even more difficult to figure out what’s going on. Since your meandering can lead you down into secret portals and interlocking hidden areas, trying to revisit places you’ve already been can be annoying. As Bjork sang in “Human Behaviour” years ago, there’s no map. And a compass wouldn’t help at all.
All of the befuddlement gets leavened by wonderful art and music, though. The excellent soundtrack assembled by Ghostly Interational pulls together catchy, reactive electro-tracks for all the game’s many tableaus. And Richard Hogg‘s artwork populates Hohokum with an entire ecosystem of weird-cute critters who still manage to be relatable thanks to sure-handed animation. Whether it’s the bird-thing deep thinker pacing back and forth or the carnival-goers bouncing on top of umbrellas, all the game’s characters feel like they need you to interact with them. Once you do, the curiosity as to how you’ll affect them proves a strong driver for further play. I see my three-year-old daughter do it all the time — “Look at me! Let’s see how this and this goes together, daddy!” — and Hohokum feels like a virtual cousin to that sense of fearless wonder.
It’s that playfulness — a great re-configuration of the guileless imagining of a preschooler — that’s Hohokum‘s biggest success. I’m not sure just how to ‘win,’ ‘beat’ or ‘finish’ Hohokum. But, I am sure that I really didn’t want to stop playing. I mean, there’s a counter for those sleeping eyes, sure, but waking them up doesn’t reveal anything in and of itself. The mysteries of the game’s levels aren’t connected to that goal.
Nevertheless, I’ve already determined that Hohokum is valuable. It’s a gentle, whimsical reminder that video games don’t have to have recognisable shapes or look anything like real life to be seductive and fun. They don’t need to have guns or skill trees or customisation options to be worth your time. Think back to how bizarre the earliest video games were. A triangle that spat dots at octagons. A hungry pie-chart avatar trapped in an endless series of mazes, chased by ghosts. Things were weird in video games’ infancy, only to be supplanted with a focus on recreating reality. It’s easy to get lost in Hohokum’s oddity. But it’s a beautiful kind of lost. The kind where you’re just ambling along and taking in the splendor of everything there to be seen. The kind that got me back in touch with mental spaces I thought were closed off long ago. I’m glad Hohokum exists to open up that multiverse once again.