Hohokum: video games are art, right?

hohokum screenshot3

After reading a review on Polygon and sinking a few hours into Hohokum, I’m not sure what I think. One part of me agrees with Phil Kollar when he pines for a decent map system or some new gameplay mechanic after swirling in a circle for the ten thousandth time, but another part of me really loves the way this game just meanders here and there.

One thing that this type of game always brings up for me is the now-exhausted argument of whether or not video games can be considered art and, consequently, whether or not we as a culture should treat them as such. As much as I want the answer to that question to just be “yes, let’s move on,” it really doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case any time soon, especially with the way “comfort food” video games are pretty much the only ones that get mainstream attention. Still, Hohokum was a nice little break that let me philosophize on what it is to play a game.

You start out as this kind of rainbow worm thing with an eyeball at the end (that you can close by pushing square to no apparent effect), bouncing around a dark room with circles everywhere. You get joined by other worms that sometimes mimic your movements but usually just bounce randomly off of stuff. So far, nothing super interesting or game-like.


“There’s this weird itch to DO something that keeps coming up. When I realized what that feeling was, I quickly got irritated and wanted to stop playing.”


I quickly figured out that slamming into stuff was how you made things happen so I proceeded to bounce off every single surface I could find. As it turns out, a ton of them give you nice audio and visual feedback, sometimes lighting up or spinning or even changing shape. “That’s nice,” I thought to myself while simultaneously wondering what the hell the point was.

So I eventually figure out the travel system which involves passing in and out of circles into other levels. Each level has a cool colour palette and artistic style, although sometimes the objects look like something straight out of MS Paint. Still, everything is very cohesive and polished and is definitely worth spending some time just admiring.

So now I’ve spent a good ten minutes just exploring the first level, taking in the ambient tunes in the background and trying to shake or bounce anything I can see. But there’s this weird itch to DO something that keeps coming up. When I realized what that feeling was, I quickly got irritated and wanted to stop playing: where was the “game” part of the game?

To be fair, there's a hell of a lot to just sit back and admire in this game.

To be fair, there’s a hell of a lot to just sit back and admire in this game.

It’s one thing to paint a picture, hang it in a gallery, then expect people to stop by and admire it. I get that. That’s been a thing for centuries. But video games are still, by a wide margin, a young medium. Do video games really need to have explicit goals and enemies and powerups and whatever else in order to be called video games?

This brings up a big point of contention for me. For those who don’t know, my education is largely in creative writing, short fiction specifically, and one point that came up time and time again was whether or not story arcs were a necessary part of storytelling. Does the protagonist NEED a chance for redemption? Does the good guy HAVE to either win or lose? Can the hero just BE?

My answer is yes, you do need a story arc. At least, you need to give the reader a chance to at least INTERPRET that there’s an arc. I don’t see the point of the stories that are simply “I sat on a bus and watched the people come on and off. The end.” To me, that’s the equivalent of a two-hour movie that just follows some dude working a 9-to-5 job at some boring office. The world revolves around conflict, dammit!


 “If I’m on break at work or waiting for the doctor to call my name, it’s difficult to really be involved in the atmosphere of the game.”


So now that I’ve had my daily tangent, back to Hohokum. I’m not saying that the game is completely devoid of goals or motivations, even though they are often extremely vague or hard to find. The problem is that the “puzzles,” if you want to call them that, don’t really seem to be the point of the thing.

The point, to be honest, seems to be just “look at how crazy this is,” which is fine in theory, but I don’t always play in a place where immersion is possible. If I’m on break at work or waiting for the doctor to call my name, it’s difficult to really be involved in the atmosphere of the game.

In the end, I probably will finish playing through Hohokum. Every new level is pretty damn interesting, whether it’s discovering random tree creatures or helping a weird elephant thing find its way to a pool, there’s always something surprising to see/hear. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether opening up the gameplay a bit, adding a few different mechanics, or even just providing some modicum of a story would vastly improve the experience.

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