What's a 'Hohokum?' The origins of a strange, relaxing new game

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Out this week on Playstation devices, Hohokum is hard to sum up in words. It’s sort of like Snake—the cell phone game we played before anyone knew what a Candy Crush was—except you don’t ever lose, and it takes place in a 2D dreamland full of creatures and landscapes born from the mind of a graphic artist. It’s really quite pleasant even though it doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to do. Also, it has a pretty sweet soundtrack.

It’s not every day that you see a game like Hohokum coming out on major consoles. So EW reached out to the game’s creators—artist and designer Richard Hogg and developer Ricky Haggett—to talk about their whimsical creation.

EW: What inspired the game?
RICHARD HOGG: The initial idea was actually really simple. It was—me being a person who had never made a video game before, who’s just a guy that does sort of graphic art—it was me saying to Ricky, or us saying to each other, “Shall we have a go of making a video game together?” You know, like, what would it look like, how would it work if the stuff that I drew became a video game? That was the initial idea, and we didn’t really know more than that. And I started drawing things that felt somehow like they might be a game, without being too specific about exactly what the gameplay would be, or what happens. We just started sort of jamming on it really, and I’d send stuff to Ricky, and he’d start playing around with how to do things in a video game engine, environment type-thing. Whatever you call that thing. [laughs] That was years ago. There was a series of prototypes that start off nothing like what we have. [In] the end, the game almost built itself in the spaces between our conversation and our working out how that collaboration would work.

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Hohokum is a very relaxing, stress-free kind of game. Was it always meant to be that way?
HOGG: It just kind of feels like that’s just what the game wanted to be. In fact, the version of the game that we took to the [2011 Independent Games Festival] actually did have more stressful things in it. It had explosions and people dying in it. I think, even though we were making something quite unusual, there was a bit of us that wanted to make—because it’s a video game, so it has to have people being blown up in it. It’s kind of funny how without even realizing it, you sort of conform to these notions of what should happen in a video game. But it didn’t feel right, and as we went on, going further we realized that there wasn’t really much of a place for things like that in our game.
RICKY HAGGETT: I guess we were quite lucky in a sense that quite early on, [we] cottoned on to this idea that Hohokum could have quite a freeform layout to it. Like, the very early prototypes were very constrained into a series of caves and chambers where it was all very much focused on tasks. But by the time we got to the IGF demo, we had the ability to just lay stuff out on a big old sheet and let people just rove anywhere.

We figured that actually, moving around is so fun, but it’s nice to have a big old area to just fly around in. That kinda lends itself to areas—like there’s a big city here being bombed, and the place you’re taking them to is up here on the left, and there was just a big old gap on the right, and it was like, “What should we put up here?” And that was sort of an opportunity to try putting some other, I guess more toylike, things there. That leant itself very well to people having the freedom to fly around the game—or just escape all that and go muck about. That’s when we started tuning into the fact that people are really enjoying just flying off onto these other places, and ignoring the kind of core tasks that we’ve got.

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How do you make aimless wandering compelling?
HAGGETT: Most of the places in the game, they lend themselves to there being a thing to do. It wasn’t like we were hunting around—the environments in Hohokum are very lavish, often busy places. So thinking of objectives, and things for the player to do, wasn’t very hard. Figuring out how the things the player might do would add up to a wider goal was very much done on a case by case basis. So in some cases we always knew “ah, the objective of this place is to do this thing.” In other places, it ended up being one of the last things that we figured out.
HOGG: We also had places where we were adamant we weren’t going to have anything that felt like a thing you should be doing. There’s a couple places where I felt strongly, I just want the person to be in this place and listen to the soundtrack and hopefully enjoy the atmosphere without having to get all video-gamey on it.
HAGGETT: The hardest part, I think—you’re making a place where there’s already quite a lot of ambiguities in what’s even going on in Hohokum. And people have very different interpretations about that, which is great. We don’t have any text, we don’t have any verbal communication that explains to the player what’s happening. And the player can go anywhere they want any time. And those things add up, so that it would help them construct something like the narrative that we wanted them to construct in their head.
HOGG: At the same time, there’s nothing worse than watching someone who’s just frustrated because they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing.I think the job that Hohokum is supposed to be doing—I was going to say reeducating, but that sounds like a bit of a harsh thing. But you know, letting people figure out that they don’t have to worry so much about that stuff when they’re playing this game…I can’t remember the last time I watched someone playing it who gave up out of frustration,.

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It’s interesting that in Hohokum, objective is almost secondary.
HOGG:
Yeah, I like to think that the video-gamey objectives are kind of secondary. At the same time, they’re very important. It’s important that people don’t feel completely like, this is just a toy, you play with the toy, and when you get bored of it, you stop playing with it.
HAGGETT: Yeah. If you do that, then you’re putting the emphasis on the player to make their own fun. There’s a lot of pressure in that. Then you’re kind of making it their job to figure out how to have fun.
HOGG: I think some of the best Hohokum playing that I’ve seen has been while I’ve been talking to somebody. So maybe somebody like yourself, like a journalist has come along to say, E3, and they’ve been playing it for a bit, and then they started asking me questions about it. And while I’m talking to them, they’re still kinda playing it with half of their brain while they’re listening to what I’m saying. What they’re doing while they’re thinking about other stuff is, for me, the core Hohokum experience. Because they’re just doodling around, and they’re probably doing stuff more repetitively than they would if all of your brain was focused on it. It’s like, in the moment, while I’m talking to you on the phone I’m drawing in my sketchbook, and the stuff I draw while I’m on the phone is different than the stuff I draw when I’m focused on drawing. It’s simultaneously that quality, but kind of more relaxed and more unfocused and doodle-y. It’s good to see people get into that similar mind state.

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Why the name Hohokum?
HAGGETT: It’s a deliberate misspelling of a place that used to exist many thousands of years ago in the sort of Arizona region. [It] coexistent[ed] with the Aztecs further down the continent. We’re into the idea that people would Google the name of the game, and people would find these other results about this totally other thing, but misspelt. Like, “Hohokum—did you mean Hohokam?” [laughs]
HOGG: It’s really not a very good marketing strategy. When we were in the IGF, that’s what would happen: If you Googled ‘Hohokum,’ it would say “Did you mean Hohokam?” And it would give you a load of results about this ancient civilization in Arizona and New Mexico. It doesn’t do that anymore, because our game’s famous. [laughs] Which is insane! Our game’s more famous than a whole civilization, that’s terrible! It’s not a very obvious connection. There’s nothing directly taken from Hohokam pottery or architecture that appears in the game. But I think you can tell from looking at the game that we are interested in anthropology, and that we spend a lot of time talking about various ancient civilizations, or un-contacted tribes, or remote civilizations. Naming things is hard. It’s one of the hardest bits, isn’t it? I’m quite happy with the name.


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