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Interview: Hohokum's co-creators describe their quirky PlayStation game, react to Conan

by Gabriella Tato, shacknews.com, Aug 26, 2013 9:00AM PDT

We're quite enchanted with the whimsical nature of the upcoming PS3, PS4, and Vita game Hohokum. And even Conan O'Brien was quite enamored with the upcoming indie darling. We spoke with co-creators Ricky Hagget & Richard Hogg about their upcoming game, as they explained how it came together... and what it's actually all about.

Shacknews: What was the driving force behind creating Hohokum? What is the idea or concept behind it?

Hagget: Hohokum is a collaboration between Honeyslug--the indie studio I co-founded, and Richard Hogg, who is an artist and illustrator. Dick and I were friends before we made videogames together--we were in a band together--and Hohokum was the first thing we started making, when Dick sent me a crazy drawing of his idea for a game. At this point, there was no Long Mover, and all the early ideas were very different mechanically (although there is a common thread of wanting to make a playful, toy-like experience that runs throughout).

We have been working on Hohokum for years, initially in an ad-hoc way between other projects--long before we showed it publicly, and started working with Sony. The driving force in the first few years was the novelty of working together--figuring out the common ground of things we were both into, and developing a way to work which felt organic enough to suit our collaboration. At this point, I was learning a lot about how Dick approaches creative work (which I've found very useful over the years) and he was learning about some of the technical realities of making video games. I guess we spent a bunch of time developing mutual trust, so in way those early years were a way of practicing working together--which has proven invaluable now we're working on the game full time.

What did you consider when determining gameplay and controls? How did you create/determine the puzzles for each world in Hohokum?

Hagget: We approach this from both directions. Sometimes I prototype an abstract toy using place keeper art that feels fun but looks ugly, then I show Dick and we figure out how it could be contextualized for a specific part of the game, then he redraws it to make it work visually. Other times Dick draws a bunch of things that he feels belongs in a place, and then we experiment with different ways they could work.

What were some of the influences on the aesthetic design of the game? Did you have a specific art direction or creative vision?

Hogg: Yep we have a really strong vision, or perhaps a better word is philosophy. It is about wanting to make a game in a holistic way where the visual design of the game is inherently part of its meaning as a thing and is an important part of the process by which we make the game. Think of it as the complete antithesis of the other way of working where you make your game work with no or bad art and then get a visual artist to make it look nice relatively late in the process. I think that this approach is depressingly common in indie games. We couldn't be more different. As Ricky has already noted, the game began with me trying to draw my idea for a game and to this day we still work in both directions game design informing my art and my art informing game design decisions.

In terms of where our particular art style comes from, I guess it is strongly influenced by how I happen to draw. I am a guy who draws stuff all day and so it is no surprise that Hohokum looks a lot like the kind of stuff I draw! In terms of being influenced by external things, wow, I wouldn't know where to start. Oh, I know. A good example that I often use is that all of the buildings in the original IGF build (now the city area in the game) are based on the village of Portmerion in North Wales.

Hohokum has an array of uniquely designed characters. Do any of them have names or stories?

Hagget: Actually most of the characters in the game have names, but we'll never reveal what they are! On a practical level, it's useful to have names for things, so you can talk about them easily. But also, it imbues them with life and maybe it encourages us to start thinking about characters and the place they live in at a deeper level?

Hogg: Yeah, like the character called Tom Cruise. He looks nothing like the Hollywood actor of the same name but the fact that I called him Tom Cruise definitely influenced the way Kwok animated him and has given him a unique personality (obviously, we will never tell anyone which one is TC!) More recently Maki, one of the animators working on the game has got very good at choosing names for the characters so I tend to leave it up to her these days.

How did you decide on a collaboration with the Ghostly International label? Did you work closely with the artists to create the soundtrack or did they have freer reign over their compositions?

Hagget: We were talking to the folks at Sony Santa Monica about what we wanted to do for music, and Dick and I had made a playlist of songs that we thought had the right kind of feeling - both in terms of the texture of the music and the emotional range - and a bunch of Ghostly artists were on it. The music licensing guy at Santa Monica got in a touch to say 'hey why don't we get in touch with Ghostly, and see if they're interested in working on this?' So he did--and they were!

A number of the artists have been working on new compositions for the game--we send them artwork and videos, and a general sense of the tone of the place.

Hogg: The music guys at Santa Monica are amazing. We had strong feelings about the music but they bring a whole extra level of consideration and attention to detail to it and making the thing with Ghostly happen, well that alone is a massive contribution to what this game is going to be.

Hohokum has been receiving more attention than most art games due to its upcoming release on a hotly anticipated system and mainstream attention from talk show hosts. How do you feel about the response and exposure to the game?

Hagget: We're delighted! As a game developer, there aren't many things more fun than watching someone enjoying your game.

Hogg: Ha ha, do you mean Conan? Ricky absolutely nailed it on Conan. I was so proud of him. I am really happy with the response we have had so far, especially from the less arty/indie press. There is this narrative that emerged around E3 that is along the lines of 'I don't know what the hell is going on in this crazy game but I love it' That kind of response makes me very happy because it means that although we are making this quite eccentric 'art game' we are not alienating people.

There are typically very standard game genres, but this is a little different. Do you hope that Hohokum will create conversation about or inspire innovation in the game industry?

Hagget: I think that's a conversation that's already happening with a number of interesting games, and it's great that Hohokum is part of it. Actually one of the main reasons we were interested in working with Sony Santa Monica is their obvious commitment to making games which push the boundaries of what kinds of experiences can be successful as a console game--I guess that they are trying to move the perception of what 'mainstream' is.

Who do you think would most enjoy Hohokum?

Hagget: Anyone who is prepared to lose themselves in it, and not worry about what they are supposed to be doing.

Hogg: A Japanese lady who lives on a houseboat in the Netherlands. She has a pet parrot, collects wind-chimes and listens to a lot of Can albums. She would enjoy it the most but any normal person has it within them to enjoy Hohokum quite a lot.

Are there any future plans to create a sequel or spin-offs?

Hagget: Not yet! We're still deep in the process of making Hohokum, so it's too early to think about anything else.