Hoa is a short and nonviolent 2D puzzle platformer set in a gorgeous green world of hand-painted art. If you’ve ever watched a Studio Ghibli movie and wanted to spend more time exploring the backgrounds, Hoa was made for you. The game’s gentle piano music is reminiscent of a Joe Hisaishi score, and Hoa gave me strong My Neighbor Totoro vibes in all the best ways.

You play as a tiny fairy who has returned to the forest after a mysterious trip across a body of water. Your motivation is unclear, but your character seems to want to make her way back to her home. Along the way, you navigate eight levels organized according to simple themed platforming puzzles. Your goal in each level is to wake the level “boss” by restoring light to their sigils, and the boss will give you a new navigation ability once you collect all the golden butterflies scattered throughout the level.

There is no combat or hostility in Hoa, and successful navigation of each level requires the cooperation of its denizens, which include snails, ladybugs, jellyfish, and tiny little robots. As your character walks, flowers bloom and leaves unfurl to help her on her way, and she double jumps in a swirl of sparkling pixie dust. All of this magic is understated and feels like a natural part of the world, and every new level is filled with pleasant surprises.

Unfortunately, there are parts of Hoa that are somewhat unintuitive, especially toward the beginning.

In the first area, your character is taught that she can break horizontal branches if she jumps on them with sufficient force. In the next area, she’s presented with a vertical branch blocking her way. On a higher level, a bug repeatedly rams into another vertical branch, eventually breaking it. It seems the message is clear: If you ram into the vertical branch on your own level enough times, it will eventually break.

This is not what the game is trying to teach you, however. What the game wants you to do is leave the room and walk all the way around the area so you can enter the room from the opposite side, where the branch that the bug knocked down now forms a bridge to another room. Hoa is trying to teach you that all of the rooms in an area are interconnected, and that sometimes you’ll need to approach a puzzle from a different direction. This makes sense, of course, but it’s counterintuitive. When I tried to search for a walkthrough, I found dozens of people asking the same question: How do you break the vertical branch?

In other words, it’s easy to understand what the level design seems to be suggesting, but it’s harder to understand whether that’s the solution the designers intended. I won’t lie – this can be frustrating.    

Once you get deeper into Hoa, you’ll begin to understand how the designers constructed these puzzles, but the game’s combined lack of precision and flexibility still creates unnecessary moments of tension. Although Hoa seems to be aimed at young children, I feel like it demands an unusually high level of patience and forgiveness, as well as an ability to read the abstract intentions of the designers instead of the concrete environment of the game. I would say that Hoa may indeed be a good game to play with a kid, but you probably want to play it all the way through by yourself first.

I should also mention that there’s a gameplay twist in the final level. It’s very good, but it’s also legitimately challenging in a way that the game hasn’t prepared you for. The basic gameplay loop is significantly disrupted, and there’s a certain tricky sequence about halfway through the level that I imagine might cause many players to quit the game without finishing it. Still, even if Hoa doesn’t perfectly execute what it’s trying to do here, it offers the player an interesting concept presented with a surprising degree of style and creativity.

I don’t want to suggest that these moments of frustration break the game. Once I was able to get past the idea that Hoa is supposed to be easy and intuitive, I was able to have a lot of fun with it. After you get a better sense of what the game wants you to do, you can make your way through the later areas with minimal hassles as you enjoy the art and music, both of which are well worth the experience.

My first playthrough of Hoa took about two and a half hours, which includes the time I spent searching for puzzle solutions online. My second playthrough was a smooth one hour, and it was a chill and peaceful experience. I’d say that Hoa is a solid “7/10 game” in the best sense of what that generally means, with the more unpolished elements serving to endow the game with a unique sense of character. All things considered, I’m happy that Hoa is a piece of hand-crafted art that exists in this world.  

Strange Tales and Modern Legends

This semester I taught a seminar called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” (You can find links to the syllabus and course materials here.) A major element of this class was our study of how folkloric traditions have influenced literature. My specialty is contemporary fiction, so we spent a good amount of time talking about what urban legends are and how they work.

I believe that urban legends have the following three characteristics:

First, these stories are specific to a time and place, and they’re generally tied to a specific person as well. This person is someone known to the storyteller, and they’re either a reliable source of information or a direct witness to the event or phenomenon in question.

Second, the story is understood to be “real” and therefore nonfiction. In fact, it often isn’t much of a story at all. Unlike creepypasta, which is shortform fiction, the characters in an urban legend don’t have interiority, and they’re often not attributed with motivation. Rather, the story is stated as a simple fact. At the core of these stories is a statement like “you’ll die if you eat [a certain type of candy] mixed with soda” or “a child was once murdered in [a certain department store] bathroom.” The purpose of additional details is to add authenticity.

Third, urban legends almost always have a cautionary element, and the unfortunate events of the story are related to social and cultural anxieties. These fears tend to be politically sensitive and thus can’t be discussed openly, so urban legends function as a sort of pressure release valve. In the United States, for example, a lot of urban legends reflect racial tensions, while there are a lot of urban legends about bullying and social ostracization in Japan.  

This isn’t really a defining characteristic, but I find it interesting that an urban legend need not necessarily be untrue. Rather, the act of making something into a “story” adds an element of speculation. This means that, even though the story is stated as fact, both the teller and listener understand that the veracity of this fact is debatable. In other words, the story could be true, but both parties acknowledge that there’s no way to prove it.

Having provided the students with these criteria and a number of examples to use as potential templates, I asked them to write their own urban legends. I was absolutely blown away by the work they submitted. I promised that I wouldn’t spread their stories outside of class, but I decided to make a class zine so that they could share their work with each other. The image at the top of this post is the cover I created for the zine, which ended up being a 76-page book.

I like to think that Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell would be proud.

Decomposition: Tales of Botanical Horror

My newest short fiction zine, Decomposition, collects six short stories of botanical horror and dark fantasy. It features a number of guest artists and spot illustrations, as well as a gorgeous cover created by the botanical art wizard Frankiesbugs. I’ve listed the zine on Etsy (here) if you’re interested.

The past few years have been tough for me. It’s become somewhat taboo in American culture to admit that the pandemic wasn’t the best thing to ever happen to you, so the less said about this the better.

I have to admit that I’m a gremlin who doesn’t really care about germs, but for a while I found it very difficult to relate to other people. I didn’t want to see other human beings at all if I could help it. This is why, after I moved to Philadelphia, I started spending a lot of time wandering around abandoned spaces.

Philadelphia is a fun and interesting city with a steadily growing population and multiple vibrant local cultures, and I find it annoying when people take pictures of a normal street or an early-morning empty parking lot and tag their photos as “urban decay” on social media. That’s just rude. Still, I think it’s easier to get funding to build new construction than it is to repair existing structures, so there’s a surprising density of ruins and wild spaces in and around Philadelphia.

What surprised me while walking around the emptier areas of Philadelphia is just how quickly most architecture returns to nature. Maybe stone castles and granite walls and asphalt roads can last for centuries without maintenance, but a normal house or Burger King or whatever is going to last for one or two decades at most. It’s only going to take about five years before the roof goes; and then, once the water damage gets started, that building is finished. The shell of the walls becomes its own little ecosystem, with plants pushing up through the brick and concrete. In Philadelphia, fig trees and sumac shrubs grow wild just about everywhere, providing food and shelter for insects, birds, and larger animals like opossums and raccoons.

On one hand, it’s lovely to see these pockets of green in postindustrial urban areas. On the other hand, it’s a bit creepy how aggressive plants are in taking over space formerly occupied by people. If you think about it, plants have been on this earth for hundreds of millions of years, and they will remain here long after the last human draws its final breath. Their green dreams are beyond our comprehension as their roots silently feed on the soil of our bodies. Plants are forever growing and forever hungry, and they’ll take everything back from us eventually.

Political Art

I’m about as “indie” as someone can be, but I’ve had trouble finding a place in various indie creative communities during the past year. This is partially because I can’t meet or talk with anyone face to face, but I think it might also be because the sort of work I do isn’t considered to be political. I’m not punk enough, basically.

I don’t see my work as apolitical, though. For example, the full title of this illustration is:

“In higher education, you can’t ask for help because people will think you’re damaged, and you won’t receive help because no one wants to waste resources on the sort of person who has to ask for help. I tried to change the system from the inside by becoming a professor and being kind and supportive to my students and colleagues, and I was remarkably successful. In the end, however, I’m still the sort of person who needs to ask for help every once in a while, so I was denied tenure. The ideology of neoliberal capitalism has all but destroyed the values of higher education, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the damage. Because the problem is systemic, there’s very little any one individual can do, so here, have some plants. They represent diversity, but only in a superficial and visually pleasing way.”

This botanical study was inspired by the point-and-click game When the Past Was Around, which tells a story about burning out and rediscovering joy. Through its gameplay and visual design, the game encourages the player to nurture a more forgiving worldview and advocates for adjusting your goals to reflect your passions instead of your limitations. It’s a short game, but it really spoke to me.

A lot of people are very angry right now, and I understand that. I’m angry too, but I express it in my own way. To me, the opposite of neoliberalism isn’t “productive” anger, but rather “laziness” and an embrace of the sort of gentleness and beauty that exists for its own sake. I like video games precisely because they’re a “waste” of time. I like fan art because it’s “worthless” in creative economies, and I like plants because they exist in their own “imperfect” and “limited” ways without requiring “work” or “effort.”

In any case, aggressively ignoring the bourgeois dichotomy between high art and pop art feels very punk to me.