Before the days when all of the developed world walked around with portable distraction devices permanently attached to the our right hands, I’d have to resort to the power of imagination when I found myself trapped somewhere I’d rather not be (read: math class) for extended periods of time. I’d look up at the ceiling and take note of the various cracks and grooves, and then, depending on the day, I’d guide ceiling-traversing versions of Mario, Mega Man, or Simon Belmont through the deadly maze of tiles while I waited for the interminable droning about square roots to mercifully end.
I haven’t done that in years now—portable game systems and the new breed of ADHD-inducing mobile phones mean that we all look down these days when we’re bored instead of at the ceiling. We almost never let our imagination run wild anymore. But Hohokum, a game that bizarrely rose to prominence when Conan O’Brien (of all people) visited the Sony booth at E3 2013 and became entranced by its psychedelic visuals and trippy audio, promised to capture some of those free-form adventures from algebra class.
I was looking forward to taking a break from all the rigid, goal-oriented, tutorial-laden fare that dominates today’s gaming landscape. Hell, even Grand Theft Auto doesn’t let you complete missions precisely the way you want anymore. But as it turns out, you really can’t have it one way or the other. You can’t be a kick-back, no-goals game and then include a clear number of goals that you outright require players to complete in order to advance. If you’re a hippie, man, you gotta go all-in—and there’s a reason just about all of those folks are either dead or part of multimillion-dollar ice-cream conglomerates now. It’s hard work being anti-establishment.
Here’s the easiest way for me to describe the Hohokum experience: You’re essentially taking a technicolor spermatozoon through Philip Glass’ minimalist “Geometry of Circles” segment on Sesame Street—a journey into each new circle unlocks a series of surreal worlds, most of which look like they sprang from the same dimension as John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s adventures in Pepperland. The game simply sets you loose and doesn’t give you a clear goal, though one does quickly become apparent: rescue all of our slithering explorer‘s similarly serpentine buddies, each trapped in one of these bizarre worlds.
Despite claims that it would be a relaxing, stress-free endeavor, Hohokum actually requires an astounding amount of observation in order to succeed. I didn’t advance by being passive and simply enjoying the sights. In order to progress—and, make no mistake, since the game does have a clear goal and I didn’t want to zip around the same landscape for hours on end, I did want to progress—I had to think about every minute detail of a given area. In fact, I had to think quite a bit more than in just about any other kind of game. In your typical action title, the road to success is clear: Beat up or shoot everyone within sight, and you’re likely to reach your next goal. Same thing with an RPG: Fight a few goblins, gain some levels, and vanquish a succession of big, bad bosses.
One of the major problems here is that as soon as you leave a world, anything you did in there is immediately null and void. That means that if you completed 95 percent of what you needed to do in order to unlock one of your psychedelic squirmy-serpent buddies and then get frustrated and leave the world, you’ll have to start all over from the beginning the next time. Of course, to even get back to that world, you have to navigate through the game’s Sea of Holes-style progression system, so it might be quite awhile before you get back from whence you came.
That’s my issue with Hohokum. While it has elements of hands-off, exhilarating, free-form exploration, it’s just enough of an actual game that its parameters constantly, consistently fence you in, defeating what’s ostensibly the entire purpose of this experiment. As a result, it doesn’t really lead to relaxing, bite-sized play sessions. My playtime dragged on and starting stretching into hours, not minutes as I attempted to explore every last corner of these worlds and figure out where the snakes could be hiding.
Some might say that Hohokum is simply hearkening back to the days of the NES and making players take note of the world around them in order to advance: Well, while it’s true that old-school games offered a host of visual cues back on the NES, the language of most of those games was very direct. Mega Man couldn’t fly in any direction while exploring Metal Man’s stage—he was hemmed in by a clear path. So if his progress was blocked at some point, there were a very limited number of solutions. Hohokum’s levels stretch in every direction, using minimalist interactive language that feels frustratingly obtuse. Several times, I came away thinking that I couldn’t have possibly uncovered the solution by anything other than accident.
Now, I do think Hohokum’s bizarre collection of shapes and sounds has plenty of redeeming qualities. The worlds manage to impart a surprising amount of feelings despite the fact that they’re generally just abstract concepts. Some are silly, some are scary, some are enchanting, and some are even touching—even though not a word is spoken in any of them. But when I was done with Hohokum, I didn’t feel relaxed—I felt drained. All those sights and sounds are just overwhelming if you can’t actually relax and take the time to enjoy what’s there.
All that said, I’m happy the game exists, and I’m happy I played it—and the PlayStation platform is greater and richer for Hohokum. Just don’t think you’re automatically in for a relaxing experience just because Conan O’Brien couldn’t stop drifting away to its world when Major Nelson droned on and on about next-generation initiatives and content-delivery partners. If he actually got his hands on the finished product, I’m sure everyone’s Clueless Gamer would be as frustrated as I was in the end.
Hohokum's intriguing collection of free-form worlds begs exploration, but the game's questionable structure stifles the ability to play it on your own terms. It's an aural and visual spectacle, but it's also a lot more frustrating than it ever needed to be.
Honeyslug, Sony Santa Monica
Sony Computer Entertainment
E10+ – Everyone 10+
|Hohokum is available on PS4, PS3, and PS Vita. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Sony Computer Entertainment for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|