There has been a lot of chatter over the past couple of years regarding what constitutes a “game.” Do games need to have conflict or a written narrative? Do they need to be “completed” to be properly enjoyed? What makes a game different from a toy? Is it the rules? If one ignores the rules of a game, does it become a toy? As the barrier to entry in game development is steadily being torn down—as more artists and students are venturing into game design—so too is the divide being blurred between games, toys, and other forms of interactive media.
Hohokum is a playground, a wide and varied canvas of expression ready to be explored. Controlling a rainbow-colored kite—it looks like a long worm with a single eye steering its path—players can visit myriad locales at their own pace and in any direction they choose. The story, what little there may be, is almost entirely left up to the player to discern. Hohokum focuses instead on encouraging players to do what the title suggests, and just play. It’s no coincidence that the opening section of the game demands players to spin around in circles and bump into things. This return to a more childlike fun, one that values simplicity and testing boundaries, sits at the very core of Hohokum.
There are goals, sure, but they are oblique and lax. There is no princess waiting for rescue, nor is there a war being waged that requires bravery. Instead, there are stars to be scattered, pollen to be collected, and Ferris wheels to be ridden. Without antagonists or any sense of urgency, Hohokum encourages players to touch and experiment with everything at their own pace and find their own course. Wonder what would happen if you bumped into every seed on that tree? Go for it. See what happens! What if you sneak up on all the pigs in this field and spook them? No idea. Let’s find out! Not every experiment pays off with some grand revelation, but enough of them do to make it worthwhile to simply try anything and everything players can think of.
The biggest motivating force and clearest sign of progression is the discovery of the other worm-like kites—your friends, brothers, and sisters who have scattered across the multiverse. Finding another kite is a glorious event accompanied by an uptempo theme and an animated comic strip detailing that kite’s adventures while you were separated. Where once you flew alone, you are now zooming side-by-side, kindred spirits with recognizable individuality but a profound shared exuberance. It is suddenly impossible not to want more of this, to find more of your kin and feel this camaraderie all the time.
Most of the areas in the game house one of the other kite creatures, though finding each of them is a puzzle unique to the world they are in. The environment and its interactive curios are each indicative of the hidden kite’s personality. One will only appear after everybody at a wedding has been served a drink. Another is burnt out from a long night of partying, while one more has found satisfaction entertaining a father and son in a floating village. They’re just wavy lines with cartoon eyes that never speak a word, but with these broad strokes, we are given enough to reach conclusions about who these kites are and why they matter to one another.
All of this is set to a soundtrack provided by the chillwave art and music label Ghostly International. Original and reworked tunes by the likes of Tycho, Com Truise, Shigeto, and their contemporaries create an air of floaty etherealness, re-asserting Hohokum’s dreamlike nature and creating a soft, warm, playful environment for players to cozy up inside of. The music is so integral to the game’s sense of carefree experimentation that the few areas without Ghostly’s music feel gloomy and unwelcoming. The absence has the same effect that an expertly crafted score would in any horror game, creating a lingering dread and the understanding that something is irreparably wrong.
Above all else, Hohokum is a constant reminder that the verb used when we interact with games is “play.” Football and Call Of Duty may be considered serious fare for serious people, but we still describe them with the same verb as an infant crawling around inside a cardboard box. Games are a thing that we play, where we get to experiment and make our own decisions. Watching a movie out of sequence with an inappropriate pair of 3-D glasses could be considered “wrong.” Reading only the odd numbered pages of a book and imagining every character as your father could be considered “wrong.” There is no “wrong” way to play Hohokum.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita