Gaming has always been a victim of misguided public perception, often the target of watch dog groups against gun violence, anti-social behavior, and generally irresponsible parenting. Studies crop up every other week to either prove or refute these claims. Depending on who you believe, games can either connect you with thousands of strangers across the world in new and exciting ways, or they can desensitize you to things like death and immoral behavior. Hell, they might even make you a racist.
At this point, there's no definitive conclusion on what gaming does or doesn't do to you, mainly because of all the specific, personal factors that can affect your response to gaming. Is it a good idea to sit inside for the entire day playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 if you suffer from depression? No, probably not. But in our attempts to find a scapegoat for things like school shootings and mass murder, the media is more predisposed to blame a single, headline-making factor instead of broader, less sexy, pre-existing condition.
While fending off negative press, the video game industry is simultaneously fighting for its legitimacy. Indie games like Journey, or even a title as old as Ico, have sought to establish gaming in a much larger cultural context than the arcade dungeons and comic book store basements with which the pursuit is typically associated. Certain outlets are starting to notice this attempt to shift the conversation. In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art acquired 14 video games to add to their collection, citing them as "outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity." The Smithsonian made similar overtures during that same year with their months-long exhibition, "The Art of Video Games".
Published by SCEA, the recently-released Hohokum offers a tantalizing vision of video games as a sort of interactive method of cultural consumption. In collaboration with indie record label Ghostly International, Ricky Haggett, the co-founder of Hohokum's developer Honeyslug, and Richard Hogg, an artist and illustrator for Hohokum, have created a playful and hypnotizing blend of sight and sound. You're gently placed into the game's bright and colorful assortment of worlds and left to make of them what you will. The game lulls you into an abstract, fantastical universe which you explore via a technicolor serpent named, "Long Mover", itself resembling a hypno wheel, unspooled. The narrative is unobtrusive and almost non-existent. Certain objectives will appear as you progress through each world, but you rarely receive a sense of completeness in the game, an unexpected contrast to the usual cartload of achievements and unlockable objects that accompanies any sort of adventure title.
Perhaps the game's meandering, exploratory nature is a function of what inspired its creation: conversation. Specifically, conversations shared between Hogg and Haggett about "anthropological things". Over the phone, Haggett explained to us how he'll often email Hogg with links to Wikipedia pages or articles about niche, otherworldly cultures. Hogg mentioned his own interest in architecture and natural history.
"Early on in the process, we would meet up in Central London to go to an art gallery or a museum or the British Library, and we would just go and look at a lot of random stuff. We wouldn't think about the video game at all," Haggett explains. "And then we might have some lunch, and then in the afternoon we would sit down and just talk about stuff. [The conversation] wasn't necessarily focused on stuff that was going to be in the video game, but more like, 'What stuff are we interested in?'"
"This sounds weird, but I get really into, like, seeds and nuts and drawing things like that. Then they make their way into the game in a pretty recognizable way." Hogg adds.
Their leisurely approach to finding inspiration is echoed in Hohokum's gameplay and design. The game is a marriage of disparate cultural interests that you have the freedom to wander through according to your own pace. Nothing is forced upon you or moving by a clock. You consume Hohokum as you choose to do so. Hogg also cited Katamari Damacy as one of his favorite video games, and its influence in Hohokum is clear. In Katamari, your objective is to snowball an entire world into a rolling, ever-expanding ball of detritus, artificial junk, and natural objects. There isn't anything particularly special about any of these items. They're just things you collect as you make your way through the game. In Japanese, Katamari's name translates to "clump soul".
Hohokum is never cluttered, but its objectives can feel similarly convoluted. The game is equipped with its own sense of logic, and operates by an unseen rule book. If anything, most of the discovery and problem-solving that takes place in this title comes from piecing together its manual. You're unearthing the foundational conversations that created this universe as you travel from Hohokum's representations of giant amusement parks to tropical jungles to crude oil factories. You're learning how a world can operate according to Hogg and Hackett. The controls are delightfully simple in the game, but they belie the intricacy of Hohokum's conceit.
This idea is reinforced by how subtly the game presents itself to you. For instance, the soundtrack, furnished by electronic artists like Matthew Dear, Tycho, and Shigeto, arrives in pieces. As you progress deeper into a single world and complete more of its challenges, more parts to the level's theme song are unlocked. For instance, in the amusement park level, you're tasked with rebuilding a roller coaster. As you gradually reassemble the ride, you suddenly hear a new bass line, or an added layer of synths. It's just another small detail of the game that is waiting to be unfleshed. You're never dropped into a level and directed via typical agents like tutorials or NPCs. Hohokum is closer to a paint-by-numbers guide, where slowly adding each color gives you a more vivid idea of the complete picture. It's a patient and creative approach to game design.
"One thing I'm conscious of is that it's really nice to be making a console game that people will be playing on their big tellys and their lounges," Hackett says. "Hopefully, it will be a welcome visitor in that place. Like, when I play Dark Souls, I'm probably not going to be playing that in the middle of the day or when my wife is sitting there trying to watch TV. Something about Hohokum that the music complements really well is that, hopefully, when people are sitting in their living rooms playing the game, it's a positive thing to have in that space, rather than something that needs to be turned off and banished to a sort of 'man cave'".
"I love video games and many aspects of video game culture, but at the same time, I'm happy to be making something that can be seen as challenging to that or different to that," Hogg adds.
Both Hackett and Hogg are aware of the public perception that accompanies video games, particularly Hogg, who, as a former student of fine arts, has been met with skepticism when discussing his gaming pursuits among friends.
"I do feel very strongly about video games as art, or as the potential to be art," Hogg explained. "It's a piece of pop art. It's as much art as a cool railway poster or fashion or anything in popular culture."
"That reality of what the mainstream perception of video games is—it's constantly a part of my life," he says. However, he does note that a general awareness of indie games like Journey or Fez or Minecraft is coming about. He also cautions against reading Hohokum as a response to mainstream criticisms of gaming. Hogg's perspective is more laissez-faire. As one would expect for a game like Hohokum, his response is non-confrontational.
"I don't like to think of Hohokum as a reactionary thing," he says. "I think it was just in our nature to make a thing like this."
Gus Turner is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.