PAX West: Hands On With Hob

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“The time has come,” as the Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” And while Carroll’s Walrus wanted to talk about cabbages and sealing wax, what I’d like to talk about is Hob.

I got to play Hob for a bit at PAX West, while talking about the game with Runic Games President Marsh Lefler.

Listening back to my recording, I got this:

I ask: “So, Marsh, you’re the president? CEO?”

“Uh, president, CEO, boss? Titles are so weird to me. It’s a small company. I program, mostly,” he says.

Lefler (and I only know his surname thanks to Google – he introduces himself as “Hi, I’m Marsh”) is a gentle, slight, unassuming man. He leads me into the Hob booth, which is tucked away in a show floor corner near Rooster Teeth’s huge spread.

I ask about the fan response compared to last year.

“The response has just been crazy,” he says, pointing at the line that stretches around the Runic Games booth and around the very back corner of the space PAX saves for indie games. Marsh tells me there were a lot of people who wanted to see Hob at PAX last year, and this year they’re all back. This year, there are more.

Hob is a difficult game to classify. For one thing, it’s not done yet. It’s also a different game now than what Runic showed last year at PAX West. But Marsh is excited to show me what it is now.

My first impression is that it’s beautiful. Runic Games also made the fabulous Torchlight games, and even though I learn that the talent behind those great games has largely moved on, Hob shows the Torchlight DNA clearly, while being a completely different kind of game. The same concept artists worked on both, Marsh tells me. There are bright tufts of green construction paper grass. There’s the heavy oxidized-brown of iron pipeworks. Little yōkai spirits scatter about as you explore the forest.

Playing Hob feels almost instantly like playing a Zelda game, although I’m told it’s really a “Metroid-vania.” But you’re looking down onto your character, who slashes at enemies and holds up a shield the way I’ve learned to play Souls-style games.

Marsh points out that the player has no control over the camera – in every moment of the game, the camera angle has been designed for you. During my demo, the camera gets stuck in a tree. Marsh waves his hands. “Ignore that, we’ll fix it,” he says.

What he wants me to see are moments when the camera drops down to shoulder level as you find something special – not necessarily a key or item to pick up; more usually a vista visible through a rock arch or across a canyon.

“Look at that,” Marsh says. “See that?”

I look at a jungle-covered rock formation far off in the distance, surrounded by mist.

“If you can see it, you can go there.”

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That’s not technically true of the demo, which consists of two discrete play areas: an overworld space that’s full of grass and trees; and an underworld dungeon, which has traps and rusty pipes and jumping puzzles. Your character unlocks skills and traits – you can pick up a Hell Boy-esque concrete arm for instance, which not only works as a powerful weapon, but also lets you work levers that were immovable before.

Marsh guides me toward specific scenic vistas to show me the size of the world and the camerawork, but he’s tight-lipped about the “real goal” of the game. There’s a story, he says, but no words – just the world. And while he’s engaging, he’s non-committal about specifics to the point of seeming to speak in puzzles himself.

“The ‘puzzle’ is the world,” he says. “It’s kind of weird to say this, but the antagonist is the world.”

As I play the game, I kind of get what he means. Maybe. It’s a Chinese puzzle box, with faces that literally shift up and down and change the rest of the landscape in the process. It’s never “difficult,” but it’s beautiful and mesmerizing.

My time ends. I’ve reached a gate that I can’t pass in the demo. Marsh smiles again, and there’s a little Cheshire Cat in it.

I tell him the game seems great. He shrugs.

“As long as I get to make games, and people keep wanting to play them,” he says, “I’m going to smile and enjoy my life.”

He told me that Hob will be out “sometime” in 2017 for PC and PlayStation 4.