How indie game 'Hohokum' lets players explore art and music
Both strange and welcoming, Hohokum is one of the most singular games to come out on a video game console this year. Released today across all Playstation devices, Hohokum doesn’t really defy classification as much as it ignores it. In Hohokum, players control a snake-like creature called the Long Mover through a strange and vibrant 2D world. The game doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to do, because you’re already doing it by playing–exploring and watching a strange and wonderful new world react to you.
A big part of the Hohokum’s appeal, and the first thing you’ll notice after the colors fill your screen, is the game’s soundtrack. It’s marvelous, a soothing and wistful mix of ambient electronic music that ebbs and flows with the player’s movement through the game. Layers of music sweep in or fall away as you explore, giving players the unique feeling of exploring songs in the same way they explore the world.
Hohokum was developed by Ricky Haggett of indie studio Honeyslug in collaboration with artist and designer Richard Hogg. The music comes courtesy of indie music label Ghostly International, home of artists like Com Truise, Tycho, and Matthew Dear. A mix of tracks from Ghostly’s catalog and completely original work, the soundtrack complements Hogg’s art style in creating Hohokum’s colorfully ambient atmosphere—but it wasn’t until later in the game’s development that the team knew what the soundtrack would even look like.
“Even early on, even before it was the game it is today, we had already tuned into the fact that, we’d already made things that felt kind of performative,” says Haggett. “it felt very natural to have music playing as the only soundtrack … that was kind of early stages of us finding our feet about atmosphere and what kind of music would suit.”
Long in development, Hohokum went through many iterations and changes before arriving in it’s final form. Throughout the game’s development, Haggett and Hogg would trade CDs and Spotify playlists of music they liked. According to Haggett, most of the music they shared was instrumental and electronic in nature.
“There’s a particular kind of quality to the music as well,” says Haggett. “A lot of it was kind of electronic but using analog sounds. In terms of emotion, a lot of the music had a certain, slightly wistful, bittersweet quality to it.”
When the game was named a finalist at the 2011 Independent Games Festival, Hohokum gained some momentum in the industry, landing a spot at the 2011 Indiecade Festival in Los Angeles. While there, the team met with Sony’s Santa Monica studios, who would agree to publish Hohokum.
“When we started working with Santa Monica we started to get a sense of the scope of the game,” says Haggett. “We started drawing up concept art, we started thinking about what the places in the game would be. There was a period where we’d start to listen to loads of music, because at that point, we were making a proper game now, we knew we were going to have music for it.”
Since the duo had been building a playlist over the years, when Santa Monica asked about their music plans, they simply sent it to the studio. As it would turn out, most of the artists they’d chosen were from Ghostly.
“We weren’t really aware of Ghostly as a label particularly,” says Hogg. “ We were huge fans of Tycho and Shigeto and Matthew Dear, and stuff like that.” When Sony Santa Monica suggested they partner with Ghostly for the soundtrack, Haggett and Hogg agreed, but not without some initial apprehension.
“We were thinking, ‘oh we kinda painted ourselves into a corner here, and we’ll only be able to have music that’s in one very specific vein, but actually, there’s so much,’ says Haggett. “and then of course conversations dotted up about ‘hey, what if some of their artists were up for composing original pieces of music?” And that was also incredibly exciting, because we were able to take pieces of the game that were kind of in progress, hand over art, animation, and video and stuff, and work with the musicians to compose original tracks.”
The developers would then send the Ghostly team PDFs with concept art describing levels, and Ghostly would reach out to artists who would be a good fit.
“We wanted something that was ambient but not necessarily obtrusive that would fit organically with the feeling of growth and exploration that we see throughout the entire game,” says Jeremy Peters, director of creative licensing for Ghostly. “Something that wouldn’t detract from the gameplay, but would make for an all-enveloping, all-in-one experience alongside that.”
Peters would approach a number of artists about composing original music for Hohokum, many of which were eager for the experience of making music for a game.
One of those artists, Ben Benjamin, was in grad school at the time, but agreed to participate when he saw what the Hohokum team sent over.
“It’s just really exciting in so many ways,” says artist Zachary Shigeto Saginaw, who goes by the stage name Shigeto. “I’ve never really participated in such a big production that’s outside of just performing for a crowd or an audience. So it’s like tapping into a whole different world, a whole different group of people that could potentially enjoy your music.”
The chance to explore an entirely different way for people to experience music was what proved most irresistible, and also most challenging, to some Ghostly artists.
“In the back of your mind you know each song is for a level,” says Ghostly artist Adrian Michna. “So it’s like, what if they’re on the level for two hours, you know?”
But Michna also believes that the musical experience of Hohokum is one that’s not just good for the listeners, but the artists involved.
“The thing is sometimes, when you release music as a CD, back in the day, you wonder how deeply someone might listen to your music. Especially now, when you send a soundcloud link they might just graze, they might listen to your song for thirty seconds. I know I do,” says Michna, laughing.
“They listen to your song for 30 seconds and get the idea of it, and then if you like it you can pursue it. But I think this is a great chance to get past that thirty second hump, and especially all the artists on the roster–even if it was just a 22 song soundtrack I would listen to that over and over, but having it in a game is an extra bonus.”