Propelled by the wind, or perhaps by magical liberty, I drift the skies, the caves, the fabulous colours. But it’s the night hours in this particular world, and the blackness of the backdrop teases me to explore the apparent emptiness. So I quickly ascend and pierce a skyline overpopulated by tiny stars, pleasant spirits that chirp then cling to my undulating body as I pass through them. Amused and curious as to what can possibly await below, I perform a vertical dive to ground level.
Rows of what appear to be dormant street lamps, their bulbs drooping like blossom-less flower buds, meekly stand, hoping for intimacy. I fly through them. Each bulb illuminates, from left to right, in progression of bodily contact. I continue right, until I reach a towering street lamp three times the size of the others. I halt and hover in place.
The light on the behemoth lamp hums as it slowly powers up, spotlighting two vaguely humanoid silhouettes that transition into a pleasant surprise: a tall violinist, and a diminutive vocalist. They begin a musical piece that, depending on my mood, could either be a lamentation or a celebration, and I aimlessly meander about, making sure not to travel beyond the sound field of their calming performance.
That was my adventure in one of the seventeen worlds within Hohokum, a smart-bomb of artistic expression that takes orthodox gaming concepts like challenge and completing structured objectives, and places them on the periphery of the developer’s intentions: to provide a soothing setting where players can relax, interact with the affable artwork, imbibe a peppery beverage whilst toe-tapping to the ambient electronic music, and possibly exercise the imagination by making subjective interpretations of the wonderfully rendered goings-on.
Analysing Hohokum based on these standards, the game is a relaxing, rhythmic, inspirational triumph, for the freedom it provides allows a player to see, interact with, and perceive the fanciful worlds and the worlds’ relation to their inhabitants as her imagination deems suitable; however, even though each world has a unique puzzle the player can choose to, or accidentally, discover and solve, gamers who prefer overt hints and some form of structure or goal orientation, whether explicit or vague, or who gag then punch an impressionistic portrait of a sleeping baby penguin whenever the terms “indie” or “artistic” are confidently stated in the same sentence may not, understandably, care for the liberties being offered.
Soaring from oceans of wine to a skyline of fireworks is a breeze when piloting the right vessel, which is why you adopt the role of a benevolent serpent/ kite known as Long Mover or, as I named her, Francine Skylark. Though you must discover them for yourself, her controls are simple: one button speeds her up, one button slows her down, and you can choose to steer her with the left joystick or any set of triggers. And don’t let me forget the effects of the touch-pad, for slamming a finger on it places Francine into a state I refer to as “Cheeky Voltage,” where her body spasms with energy, causing her to move in any direction sans your influence as the speaker on the Dualshock 4 whirs with whimsicality; also, if you instead brush your finger across the touch pad in the direction you want Francine to fly, she springs lively, controller speaker still whirring, under your informal guidance.
These controls will make your exploration all the more satisfying as you’re flying Francine through every humanoid and object to uncover a useful auditory or visual reaction, thematic relation, or anything that seems out of place. Although you have the freedom to soar in and between worlds at your leisure, there are optional hidden challenges – the most complex of which sometimes involves helping inhabitants party and play a little harder; the simplest of which have you unveiling a set amount of eyes hidden in the backgrounds and architectures – in each location that can only be discerned through this method of interactive playfulness.
An example of one of the more straightforward challenges: In a world populated by numerous massive levitating orbs of water that pulse, shrink, grow, and contract, you’re introduced to a fisherman who, when you fly near his boat, produces a thought bubble that contains an ideal sketch of a mermaid. So you comb the area, swimming in tandem with a school of fish, when you notice an odd, white shape, perhaps a shower cap, protruding from a chunk of corral acting as a water orb’s nucleus. You approach it. You hear a faint giggle. You circle the object numerous times to replicate the reaction when suddenly what appears to be a cross between an adolescent mermaid in a white blouse and a jellyfish emerges into the open. Trying to get her to follow you back to the fisherman, you encounter an anchor-shaped creature on patrol that petrifies and sends her into hiding. And so, with the objects and wildlife around you as your tools, you have to concoct a way to distract or suppress the creature in order to further transport your fragile friend.
As far as presentation, the music composed by various Ghostly International artists is as phenomenal as the energetic, eccentric visuals. They both know when and how to emotively go on the offensive or defensive when conveying the worlds’ bright or dim aesthetic philosophies, they both understand how to uplift a bad mood or calm a state of exasperation, and they both want to sympathise with and alleviate whatever inflammatory worry is on your mind.
This brings me to the true beauty of Hohokum: as advertised, it really is a soothing experience. Within its playground, your mood is the objective. I soared around a single world for what felt like fifteen minutes, which actually turned out to be an hour and fifteen minutes, twirling my thumbs to the tune and pretending my Francine was on a quest to put together the most functional family reunion the kingdom had ever danced to, all while blessing the city’s denizens with free wine and lucky kite rides, and I was amazed at just how, dare I claim, at ease I felt.
But because of the game’s untraditional purpose and lack of concrete objectives, I’m uncertain how many gamers will share my praising sentiment, so I offer this light-hearted test – if the visuals intrigue you in any way, it’s probably for you; if this song generates involuntary thoughts of touring the universe while wearing an aluminium bandoleer, download it; if you can’t imagine a world without artistic pizazz, kiss the pastel watercolour painting you brought to life as a toddler, then download it. In the interests of variety, evolution, and the survival of creative thought, Hohokum is a game that needs to exist and be celebrated by those who can appreciate it.