Here at Paste we’ve been excited about Hohokum since we first played it at E3 2013. It’s the sort of game that doesn’t make you feel any pressure, a leisurely, freeform flight through open-ended screens full of Richard Hogg’s adorable artwork. There are objectives to complete and puzzles to solve, but the game never underlines them, letting you discover the possibilities at your own pace. It’s a charming, colorful treat, as abstract as a Miró painting, and with a recurring sadness lurking at its edges, matched perfectly by a warm, minimalist soundtrack from the Ghostly International label. We spoke to game designer Ricky Haggett of Honeyslug and artist Richard “Dick” Hogg about Hohokum, which comes out tomorrow for the Playstation 3, Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita.
: When I first played Hohokum at E3 2013, I really liked how relaxing the game is, how it never pressured me to do anything. Why did you want to make a game that was so laidback?
Ricky Haggett: Initially we kind of chanced upon it a little bit. When we started prototyping we had this sense of wanting to make something which didn’t have lots of objectives and goals and missions, so we were trying for that and to make a game which was kind of quite vague and strange and had a certain atmosphere about it. But that didn’t necessarily mean that it would be relaxing. When we showed the game at IGS we’d made this mission with a city, which still exists in the game, and in the IGS version the city was being bombed and you had to rescue people. You had to fly around and people would jump on your back and then you’d take them up to this rescue ship that was waiting for them, these refugees, evacuating them from the city. We were thinking we had to make this videogame thing that people do. But we had all these other strange physics toys that were just fun to play with and they didn’t really fit in the city so we put them up above the city in these floating gardens that were like out of the range of the bombs. Even though it was in the same space physically it was kind of a completely separate bit of the level. And we found that some people just really enjoyed going up there and mucking about with that stuff, and not engaging at all with the mayhem going on below. That was the first time we kind of overtly knew that we’d made a thing, a mechanic, a character to control, that works really well with nice, relaxing physics or physics-y toys or playful things.
Richard Hogg: At the same time, coming from the other direction, we were already working with a visual style and themes that lend themselves more to something that’s perhaps more of an ambient experience.
Haggett: Yeah. Dick’s work is full of… I don’t really know what to call them. I don’t think “puns” is quite the right word, but like, visually, things that are nice and interesting things to think about, where like maybe two visual ideas have been joined together in a way that’s kind of connected and interesting. And that suits a kind of contemplative, floating around, Zen-like experience quite well.
: Also at E3 last year, whoever was at the Hohokum station didn’t want to really explain anything about the game. They were like, here’s a controller, enjoy. As an artist, what’s the appeal to that type of mystery?
Hogg: When we show people a game we each really like not telling people things when they start. I genuinely feel that way about most games. Like when I go to a festival or conference and there are games I really hate it when there are developers standing next to me telling me what to do. When you play a game at home you don’t have a developer standing next to you telling you what to do, and often they just like making excuses for things and influence how you feel about the game, and so we feel strongly never to do that regardless of what time it game it is. With Hohokum there is an element of… it is an unusual thing to do in a game, an unusual way of moving around in a place and it takes people a little while to get a hang of, in a way where talking to them isn’t really going to help. It’s more like getting a feel for it.
Haggett: It’s not like you can say ‘go there and then press this button at this exact time” [with Hohokum]. The movement is very fluid and free and a lot of it has to do with just feeling your way through.
Hogg: The controls are very straight forward. And in terms of what you actually do in the game, it’s nice to just sort of let people discover this kind of gameplay. People might start playing it wondering when it’s going to start getting hard. It’s nice to watch people and see it dawn on them that it’s never going to start getting hard. Or see them realize it’s about messing around more than about trying to solve a puzzle. There are some things that should be discovered, and it takes the fun away if you tell people bluntly, “oh this is a game about just relaxing, fucking relax!” It’s going to harsh their buzz a little bit. Every now and then it backfires and somebody just doesn’t get it and then you end up having to explain it and they’re like “oh that’s not for me”, and that’s fine. If people insist I will tell them everything they need to know. but in most people’s experience, when you buy the game, when you play it at home, it doesn’t tell you anything. There’s no intro text that sets the scene, and there’s not much in the way of a tutorial, as if you’d really need one.
Haggett: Some of the things we have in the game are very open to interpretation. And so if you were to say “go and collect that thing there” and explain what that thing was and what it was going to do then potentially what you’ve done is undermine somebody’s ability to just figure out what that thing is on their own. And what we’ve found as we were making this game is that the variety of interpretations that people have, for the things happening and the characters, is quite broad, and that’s really cool. It’s cool that some people think something is one thing and somebody else would think it’s something completely different. And both of them are kind of right, and it doesn’t matter.
Hogg: I like listening to the stupid names people come up with for the things while they’re playing. “Oh yeah I need to take this little guy over to these egg trees” and I’m like “it’s not a guy, it’s a female character, and they’re not egg trees!” I don’t ever say that but in my head I’m thinking “you’re an idiot”. Can you not see it’s a female?
: So are you hoping to see some fan explanations of what they’re seeing?
Hogg: I’m really looking forward to it.
Haggett: I’m really looking forward to somebody having to sit down and write like those GameFAQs docs…
Hogg: What if all those GameFAQ guys decide to just veto our game? What if you go to GameFAQs and there’s just like a guide that has one of those amazing ASCII art headers they always have and then it says “we’ve all decided we’re not touching this game. This game is an insult to people who compile GameFAQs.” I hope that happens. I feel sorry for people who have to try and explain a walkthrough type scenario in text of our game.
Haggett: It’d be a fun job to try and do if you were of the right mind, I think.
Hogg: Maybe. Maybe you should try and save them the mental breakdown they’ll have trying to do it.
: Dick, you’ve said that your artwork came first and the game was being built around the artwork. How do you guys do that? How does the artwork inform the game that you end up designing?
Hogg: The very first sort of communication me and Ricky ever had about videogames was me out of the blue emailing him a drawing I’d done of a kind of machine. And the email just said, I drew this thing that looks like a videogame, and how do you fancy having a go at making it into a game? And that pretty much set the tone for one of the key main ways in which we work. I draw stuff that feels a little bit like a gamey thing, but I don’t really have a strong idea of what the mechanic is going to be or what the gameplay will be, but hopefully it tickles Ricky’s fancy and he looks at it and takes it apart and rebuilds it in a way where there’s a gameplay side to it.
That’s where we first started doing stuff, but then as the relationship went on sometimes it would start coming back the other way, where Ricky would make a thing using simple geometry instead of art and it felt really nice from a gameplay point of view, and then he’d send me a prototype and ask me what I would make it look like. So then we’ve got it going both ways. The middle ground is we spend a lot of time sitting together with a piece of paper from a sketchbook and talking about stuff and what might happen. We’re quite good at just imagining game experiences and talking it through and when it works well getting excited about this idea for a bit of gameplay. “What if this happens, and what if this happens?” And I’m drawing sketches and Ricky’s drawing stuff and then we go away and I make the art and Ricky does the game and we put that together and test it. That describes the three ways we work.
Haggett: Once we started working with Sony Santa Monica we had a sense of how much game we were going to have, and how many places we were going to be able to make. And because we’d done those early builds, entering stuff into IGS and Indiecade, we knew what worked to a certain extent. We knew roughly what the framework was. It wasn’t like we were trying to figure out why the game is even fun. And then it became about what places do we want to have in this game, and we spent a bunch of time just trying to get a sense of it being quite well-rounded. Like, we want to have a place that’s like a city, that feels like a big, bustling, cosmopolitan place, and we want to have a place that feels like a quiet, tribal, out of the way place, and we want to have some abstract stuff, so there was a sense of trying to paint the world to include all these different sorts of things, to have a well-rounded experience. We had to have a factory, we had to have a farm, that kind of stuff.
Hogg: We often joke about having those kinds of familiar, clichéd videogame settings. “Oh yeah, we need a forest and an ice cave and then we need lava.” I guess we’ve got a list that’s a bit like that but it’s a bit obtuse, deliberately different to the standard sort of videogame list of interesting worlds that you can have. There’s a bit of crossover, mainly the kind of factory setting is one you get a lot in videogames, and we’ve done something that feels a bit like that. And there’s an underwater bit as well and that’s something you come across a lot in games, a common trope, and I quite like the fact that we’ve done that. It feels like a nice tradition.
: Were there ever moments, Dick, where you made a drawing and Ricky had a game design idea that you thought was totally wrong for what you drew?
Hogg: That has happened. Lots of things that haven’t worked or we haven’t agreed on.
Haggett: There were lots of abandoned prototypes of little game objects and there’s no one reason why they got abandoned. I’d say a common factor is, often the things that felt a bit too computed or physics-y, things which are sort of like a clever bit of programming and made a thing that feels nice and tactile in the way that things in games often do, but visually it was a puppet—you could see the strings moving in the background. Generally those things got culled in favor of more sort of handmade and animated types of objects.
Hogg: One thing that is a high priority for us, more so than lots of people making games, is that sense of charm and handmadeness. And quite often games that have that, even games that I really love and think are beautiful, quite often they have things in them that are a bit jarring because maybe it’s some sort of AI behavior or a physics thing or some sort of effect or mechanic that, because of the sort of programmatic nature of it, lacks charm when you compare it to more handmade or animated stuff. So there’ve been a few things that we’ve dropped because even though we liked them they had a kind of programmatic charmlessness to them that felt like it was pulling in the wrong direction from everything else in the game.
: Speaking of charming games that have moments that aren’t charming, and also British designers that work with Sony, I like Little Big Planet but that moment where you get stuck and have to make Sackboy kill himself is always such a weird thing in that game, making this cute little doll commit suicide.
Haggett: There’s definitely some darkness in Hohokum as well.
Hogg: There’s nothing like that, though. There’s nothing that’s really dark like that. We did toy with the idea of having stuff that’s really fucked up like that but we didn’t.
Haggett: The stuff I reckon that’s dark is more sort of wistful and sad rather than overtly nasty.
Hogg: There’s quite a lot of stuff in Hohokum that’s a bit sad, hopefully.
: How did the connection with Ghostly International come about?
Haggett: Quite early on we started to flesh out our list of places that we wanted to have in the game, and Dick started to draw art for them. And around that time we knew that music would be super important and we also knew that we didn’t really know what to do about music. We certainly didn’t know anyone that was definitely going to do the music for us, and we didn’t even really know whether it was going to be a performative music or like what was going to happen at all. So we had a demo running on Vita quite early, with just the player flying around on background art, and I think there were maybe 10 or 12 places in this demo, and we worked on a Spotify playlist, and I think before that Dick made a CD of music, just stuff we thought would suit the atmosphere of the game really well. By the time we really started thinking about it I reckon we probably had about 50 or 60 tracks on this Spotify playlist, and we just handpicked a bunch of random tracks and put them against these places as a way of trying to nail down the specific thing about the atmosphere of the game. and around that time we started talking to the music licensing guys at Sony Santa Monica and they’ve got an amazing team over there. The guy that licenses tracks for videogames or really for anything that the Sony studios do, we sent him our playlist…
Hogg: He does lots of stuff connected with getting the right music into games, whether that’s commissioning new music or licensing preexistent music.
Haggett: Yeah, like finding composers and orchestras for God of War, to licensing an old bit of incidental pop music for the background of a videogame. In our case it was more straightforward than that because we sent our playlist to him and he noticed we had lots of Ghostly artists on there. He was like, “why don’t we talk to Ghostly”, and we were like, “wow, okay, that sounds great.” The way I understood it initially the conversation was going to be if we could license these tracks for this game but fairly quickly it turned into something more free and open than that because I think Ghostly were kind of into the game anyway. Ghostly were into the idea of working on a game in a closer way, and that lead us to talking about it being more of a collaboration and maybe some of their artists would want to work with us and create tracks. So essentially we had this kind of fairly free formed deal where it was like, there were definite bits of the game where we knew we wanted to license a specific track, like we knew that there was a track that was just totally perfect for a place, but in other places it was more like, “hey, maybe this guy would be a good person to compose something original”, and then we would send videos or in some cases builds of the game and artwork and stuff, and do some Skype to try and give the musicians a sense of what we were aiming for. At the time they were working mostly from concept art and very early prototypes. It was a process of either handpicking tracks from the back catalogue or working on original compositions, and that’s been going on for most of the length of the project. It started fairly soon after we started working with Santa Monica, and only finished fairly recently.
Hogg: It was even happening in a sort of informal way even before then. I was listening to a lot of that Shigeto album Ann Arbor. I was listening to that a lot when I was drawing a lot of the art, before we even knew we’d be working with that guy.
: What makes that kind of music such a good fit for Hohokum?
Hogg: I remember when I first made that playlist, that CD Ricky was talking about, I was specifically trying to find music that felt like electronic music but had a particular kind of mood to it. I’d describe that mood as a sort of being quite cheerful and upbeat and ambient, but at the same time something with a bit of a bittersweet nature to it. A lot of that music has a wistfulness to it, a melancholy. If I had to explain exactly why that suits the game, you’re getting into a kind of weird territory where I don’t even know why. It just always sort of felt like that’s the music I imagine there being in the game. This is the kind of feeling I want people to have when they’re doing this stuff, when in they’re in this world.
Haggett: It was definitely important that we had music that was instrumental. I absolutely love the soundtrack to We Love Katamari and all those amazing Katamari Damacy themed songs that they made, but that wouldn’t have been right for Hohokum. I think it would have undermined the sense of it being this strange alien world that you’re exploring, to have to hear human voices singing. It was always going to be instrumental music. If you start thinking about instrumental music, it probably wouldn’t have been a traditional orchestral music. It wouldn’t have felt right to play Hohokum listening to cellos or violins or things that we absolutely know exactly what those instruments are. There’s a sense of otherworldliness to some of the Ghostly music.
Hogg: It’s just the way things look in the game as well, in that it’s not exactly photorealistic. There are lots of stuff in the game where you don’t know what they’re made out of, stuff you see in the game that could be a plant or could be a structure, and that ambiguity is analogous with the ambiguity of a lot of the sort of noises that you hear in, say, a Michna track where there are instruments that aren’t like hardcore electronic sounding instruments.
Haggett: You know they’re not just sine waves but at the same time you know you aren’t just listening to a piano, either.
Hogg: It’s some clever thing that feels like almost like they’ve invented a new type of instrument to make these noises.
Haggett: Our music editing team gets all the stems from the Ghostly artists and then make it loop or split it into a bunch of different layers and then we have a bunch of things that happen in the game that turn the layers on or off or fade them up and down. There’s a ton technical stuff which works really well with the kind of music that Ghostly artists make that wouldn’t work at all well with more traditional rock band songs.
Hohokum is out for Playstation 3, Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita tomorrow. You can stream Ghostly International’s soundtrack today here.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.