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A screen grab from the beautifully drawn game, Hoa. Photo: Skrollcat Studio/TNS

Inspired by Studio Ghibli, non-violent video game Hoa will draw you in with beautifully illustrated scenes that make you want to linger

  • Hoa is a video game with a difference, featuring amazing hand-drawn scenes and engaging characters
  • Its director and art director talk about the gentle game and its Vietnamese influences
Video gaming

Think of Hoa as an interactive children’s novel, a fairy tale set in a lush, elegantly imagined forest world inhabited by luminescent creatures. And although it’s a game, it’s best not to rush through Hoa. It’s a work that inspires patience, asking us to linger on each of its carefully drawn screens.

Hoa, from a small Vietnamese studio, is one of 2021’s must-play games, a charmer that at its start literally forces you to pause and look at the scenery.

The fantastical natural wonderland that has drawn comparisons to the work of Japanese anime film masters Studio Ghibli – which the team, of course, welcomes – is a place you’ll want to spend time. Whether it’s a snail who wears a leaf like a top hat, flowers that act like wind chimes or purple-glowing sea creatures, Hoa is brimming with personality.

“I think heavily illustrated done right is always a joy to look at,” says Son Tra Le, the game’s art director.

As Le talks about one of her favourite Studio Ghibli films, she pauses to twist her camera to capture the commotion behind her, where her cat is treating hanging kitchen utensils in her Hanoi, Vietnam, apartment as musical instruments.

After waiting for her kitty maestro to take a break, Le adds: “If you take any still from My Neighbor Totoro, you’ll want to spend the rest of your life in it.”

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Some of the team’s influences in the debut game may be easy to spot. The robed character that players control – a fairy named Hoa – no doubt bears some resemblance to the floating figures of Journey, the calming indie game sensation that the young principals of Hoa praise for giving them the confidence to chase an idea with a complete lack of violence and deathlike fail states.

But Hoa transcends its inspirations, be they animated films, video games or the Vietnamese storybooks on which Le and game director Son Cao Tung were raised.

It does so by not only treating nature with reverence, but also by giving each of its scenes a dreamlike glimmer. As Hoa, we slowly bring this forest world back to life – or light. Sleepy animals become enchanted when Hoa enters their vicinity. Butterflies give Hoa new abilities, and while timing a hop can be a challenge, Hoa is never in any real danger.

Hoa plays like a children’s book brought to life. Photo: Skrollcat Studio/TNS

This is a run-and-jump game of exploration and atmosphere, enhanced with a classical soundtrack. It’s a largely wordless adventure about the triumph of nature.

The vibe, says Tung, is designed to be one of running around Hanoi gardens and islands, a desire to capture Hoa’s joy of being out in the wild. Hoa’s quest is revealed slowly and only becomes fully clear at the end.

Along the journey Hoa flutters, floats and swims through the world like a woodland tourist. With just a few facial expressions or blinks of an eye, we get a sense of each character’s persona.

When I saw the game, my mouth dropped
Paul Hartling, CEO of PM Studios, distribution partner for Hoa

Asked about the tone of the game, Tung recalls when he first met Le at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, where he was studying game design and Le was focusing on animation.

. “At that time we were at university, and there were a lot of snails crawling on the path. A lot of people would not pay attention or step on them. Tra saw the snails on the path and picked them up one by one and put them in the grass.”

“You’re influenced by the people around you,” he adds, explaining the gentle nature of the game.

The characters in Hoa are brimming with personality. Photo: Skrollcat Studio/TNS

Such clear tenderness in the game – released last month for PCs and all major consoles, including the Nintendo Switch – is what attracted Los Angeles-based partner PM Studios, a publisher known best for creating physical editions of digital games that wanted to more aggressively get into game distribution.

“When I saw the game, my mouth dropped,” says PM’s Paul Hartling, who caught a preview of Hoa via a showcase from Wholesome Games, a social media account and site of the same name. “We felt the love,” says Le of the moment PM Studios reached out.

The game can probably be completed in a few days, and should be relatively approachable for players of all ages. “We want the game to be not very challenging for people to play,” says Tung, “but at the same time we don’t want it to be boring.”