Hohokum: The Game I’ve Always Wanted to Play

Hohokum recently came out on the PS4 and Vita, I first discovered this game at a EGX/Playstation’s YouTube Channel. (Can’t quite remember which came first.) What I do remember is sitting down to the play the demo (the Carnival Level) and getting absorbed in it. The headphones supplied at the booth did a very good job of blocking out the sound of the show floor and the soundtrack put an instant smile on my face and made me feel at ease. I then started playing, well exploring. I found great joy in just weaving in and around the 2D colourful world in front of me discovering hidden interactions and creating my own little goals within the sumptuous landscape.

Soon my partner tapped me on the shoulder, apparently I had been sitting there for nearly 40 minutes, our friends off exploring other games while he went to play several other demos. For me I felt as if I had only just sat down, time had lost meaning while I was playing. After thanking the Sony rep at the booth for the chance to play and apologising for being there so long I left to explore the rest of the show floor, but determined to buy the game as soon as it came out.

To be honest I was going to be buying the game upon it’s release anyway as the trailer with it’s soundtrack (also used in this trailer might I add) already had me captivated.

Now several months later I have been playing the game on PS4/Vita on and off since it’s release, I have a fair collection of snakes and discovered a fair few levels. Yet every time I see a tweet, a tumblr post or video of this game, each time they seem to depict environments I have yet to discover. I’m currently in that wonderful stage of play through that feels as though the enjoyable experience will never end. (A rare feeling I have found with a lot of games, as most of the time it seems all too obvious that you are drawing towards the final act. The Zelda games (mostly) and most recently Tearaway are ones that spring to mind that have invoked this endless exploration feeling before.)

Yet I digress, playing this game also made me realise that it has been a game that I have always wanted to play, without fully realising it. The imagination on display is inspiring, the music beautiful, the fluid movements hypnotic, the relaxation it provides reminds me of time gone by when I was a child.

You see when I was younger I was often found daydreaming, often found making up worlds inspired by images, places, artworks. I was the kid with the over active imagination, making it great for my younger sister and our friends as I led make believe games within detailed worlds for us to enjoy, but a pain for my teachers. (I liked learning when I was younger, what I didn’t like was school.)

To provide context I suppose some examples would be best:

Dr.-Seuss-Oh-the-Thinks

Dr. Seuss – Oh the Thinks You Can Think

I loved this book as a child, the wordplay of Dr. Seuss is well known to be enjoyable for children, my little brother was endlessly fascinated by “The Fox in Socks” when he was young. For me it was an old copy of “The Thinks you Can Think”, not only for it’s words but for it’s imagery. I have strong memories of it being read to me by my Mum when visiting my Grandparents when I was very young, and I would lose myself in the image on each page. Imagining the world that each page provided a window into, thinking up personalities and stories for all the different characters. I would fall asleep dreaming of the worlds and see myself walk around them, interacting with them and building on the scope of each one in my dreams. It is a strong memory for me, as it is linked to a time where I felt very safe, loved, and happy. A time where I was relaxed and without a care in the world.

There was also the picture books my sister owned:

whereswallytrainstation

“Where’s Wally?” – At the Railway Station, Martin Handford

Her “Where’s Wally?” collection grew quite a bit during our childhood, but there were a few books that seemed to remain firm favourites. We would look at them for hours playing the hidden object game in each of busy fun filled images provided. (They also remind me of Mike Jupp’s Puzzles.) Yet again I have strong memories of ‘reading’ these before bed, or on lazy weekend afternoons, and imagining the image coming to life and watching all the events unfold. There were times when I wanted nothing more but to jump into the image and take part in all the calamity or simply explore the world presented to me.

These two I think sum up some of the influences I had when I was young and demonstrate the kind of imagination I had. It used to keep me occupied even when I didn’t have a book in my hand. In (one of) my childhood homes there was this patterned wallpaper on the wall (left by the previous house owner) it looked like a criss-cross of pillars and squares, all interconnected in un-repeating ways. My sister and me had bunk beds back then with lights fitted at just the right height for each of us by our Grandfather. My sister would turn her bottom bunk into a den, I would turn the light onto the wall paper and imagine a world within it, tracing walkways through the geometric land with my eyes until I fell asleep.

I would often do this also on long train journeys, looking at the tracks through the window through half focused eyes so the silver of the tracks glistened and appeared to move along with the train. I would daydream that the track could tell me all the places it led, that it could talk about all the different types of people it carried on the trains. (It sounds a little odd these days, but when you are young and the batteries have given out on your cassette player and it’s just a bit too bumpy to draw and the view seems to be repeating my imagination would wonder.)

Either way I started to realise that a lot of these elements would come to mind when playing Hohokum, the feeling of serenity when playing, the ability to reach into the world and affect it, explore it and change it, the odd bizarre way each world was constructed and presented. All of it suddenly seemed to remind me of a times that my imagination ran wild, while providing me with a gameplay experience that constantly caused delight, surprise and curiosity.

HOHOKUM_screenshot

Hohokum on the PS4

I soon realised that it was a game that I have been wanting to play for a very long time and I didn’t realise it. A game that I would have loved to have made if I had kept my imagination as fertile as it had been when I was young. (Instead I found my skills to lie in production, not art or code or design – but not through lack of trying each first!)

It is a game that I am over the moon exists, grateful to Sony for seeing it’s potential and full of admiration for the many creative minds (and organisers) behind it’s creation. It’s something that shows that the emotional spectrum of games is broadening and is lucrative place to explore, that the simple act of basic interactivity can lead to exploring art and imagination in ways that potentially resonate more with the end user.

It’s odd though when people have asked ‘what are you playing right now?’, at work and among friends, as I have been unable to fully describe this game to them. At least in a way that makes it seem as enticing as I believe it is. I guess it’s because I don’t think I can do it justice in words, that only emotions and pictures can convey the joy that I have been getting from playing this over the past couple of weeks.

It is now on my list of all time favourite experiences had while playing a game, more serene than Journey and more relaxing than Flower and at times as emotionally impactful as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. (More on that last game in another post.)

The Joy of Play

Last year I had two projects on the go, one of which is continuing now, one was for the iPad and another that is being pitched to another company. There is one thing in common with both of these projects, they both have to comply with the usual expectations of a game. They have to have set goals, antagonists, and the expected rules of a game that the player has to learn and adhere to to complete the experience. Now all these are valid forms of creating a game, a game has rules, the agreement that when the player(s) enter the magic circle that the normal rules no longer apply and the game rules apply instead.

This got me thinking and then writing this post, thoughts on paper as it were, as I find myself conflicted at times about this. One side of me thinks about the game as a piece of entertainment, as something that is designed to be an input – output system and provides the sense of fiero to a player and is just fun. The other side of me thinks that the interactive system of a game can be used for so much more, a means to convey an experience to others that they may not otherwise get. A means to explore topics and help people, be therapeutic, or cathartic and educational.

However with the defunct debate about ‘what makes a game?’ these days, as at the end of the day the video game market is more about interactive experiences, from ones like Proteus to those created by Tale of Tales, why are companies and education establishments are still fixated on the rules of the game? I suppose as Vander Caballero points out that you need to have a deep understanding of the rules of a game so you know how to use them and repurpose them to say something different. Yet I can’t help but feel that this is a little counterproductive when in an environment where you can experiment without fear of financial loss, such as a degree program where you can learn the rules, but then also learn how to bend them.

A lot of revolutionary products have been created by those that break convention, and yet it seems we are being taught that this is bad thing to in the games industry. No wonder there was the explosion of ‘indie’ developers, with the view that the big AAA companies don’t take enough risks. It is a shame that in this capitalist society every creative product has to be created to make money. There was something to be said about the artist patron set up of old, at least then artists like Da Vinci were allowed to pursue their creative whims. Obviously I understand the need to make the return on a product otherwise you won’t be able to continue making products. I am also impressed by Sony’s embrace of creative ideas and funding innovative games recently and giving them a showcase on their systems. (My wish for a PS Vita right now couldn’t be stronger!) 🙂

I guess as much as I want to work for the big companies like Sony as I know I can learn from them and I have always admired them. As I can’t help but feel constrained by the rules of play and the expectations of what is a game. And that at the end of the day I imagine that even pitching a product to them it has to either have a proven track record like Proteus did or have an obvious way in which to market and sell it.

I suppose all this comes from why I originally wanted to get into games in the first place, I was the kid with the overactive imagination. I created games for me and my sister and our friends to play, stories and worlds for us to interact with. Sometimes they were structured, sometimes they were just experiences and ideas that we inhabited for a time. This was all through make pretend, computers were a part of my growing up but video games were a limited and unknown world to me, my computer time was spent drawing or learning more about how they worked. The imaginary games were a reflection of how my mind works I suppose, it’s all over the place until it gets something to focus on. So I see connections that others miss and remember things that most forget and tend to lean towards wonder and thought rather than structure and expectations. As I grew up a lot of this was lost, not only to the usual means of growing up but also due to growing up quick.

The joy of play and pure experience is lost, and it’s something that I regret, the freedom of a kids imagination. We get to see it and experience in games, the ones with the rules and the ones without. From Zelda: Ocarina of Time to Proteus there is the child like wonder in both, the ability to just let your imagination soar. The reaction most people had to Flower was what I got to NiGHTS playing it for the first time on the Sega Saturn. The sensation of flight and relaxation in a beautiful and colourful environment with awesome music was what I found in NiGHTS for the first playthrough, you can’t really see it these days as graphics have moved on, but I still get the feeling when I boot it up, usually at Christmas.

Anyhow I think I am going to ramble off topic a bit here, as I said this would probably end up being a thoughts on paper post. As I am still trying to find my way into this industry, so far I’ve made about six small games/demos/experiments now, on my own and with teams (GameMaker, Stencyl, Unity, iPad) and although my own coding ability holds me back so I have penned detailed designs for a few more. Through all this I love the challenge of design, and find that my thirst for gaming experiences (by playing and reading and watching a lot) I can usually offer references and ideas from tried and tested methods when going through that concepting phase. The reading I do for pleasure and the references* I used for my dissertation all focus more on the psychology, theory and expansion of the medium. Which is probably why the projects I’ve been working on most recently feel a little stifling as the focus is mainly on the game layer the core compulsion loops that will always get the player coming back for more risk/reward through skill based gameplay gates, rather than just the joy of play.

*A reference list that I need to put up here at some point as it is all fascinating reading. 🙂

Pondering Proteus

I have just spent the last hour playing through the wonderful Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga. I discovered the game at last years GameCity7 and it is something very hard to describe. It is a beautiful experience and I have found great enjoyment wondering around the pixelated landscape when I need to focus or unwind. I truly wish more games came with a mode to just walk through their environments, Flower being the first one that springs to mind. 🙂

Anyway to get a brief idea of what Proteus is like here is a short video of the event from Game City:

WILD PROTEUS GameCity 7 Live Event 2012 from Matt Taylor on Vimeo.

It is one of those games, digital play things, virtual experiences, that does not translate well into still image or the spoken word and really needs to be played. It’s officially released later on this month and I highly recommend getting it, or if you like the look of it the Beta is still available.

This game also got me thinking about the games that appeal to me these days, as I fear the selection is few and far between. Is it because I am getting old? Don’t have the disposable income these days? Or are the games made and released commercially just don’t seem to fit with what I want to play?

A mixture of all of the above I think, but finance is a huge factor, there’s no point getting excited about something if I can’t afford it right? Anyway I am glad that there is an alternative to the commercial route, as it’s great for the times when you want to play something a bit different. 🙂

P.S. Not saying that all commercial games are bad, I have also racked up many hours in Kingdom Hearts 3DS recently. It’s just the release schedules don’t seem as full of excitement to me as they once did during my ‘golden age’ of gaming. So I am very grateful to developers small and large for taking a chance on a game that a publisher may have said no to, and I would have said yes to. 🙂