Casual Adventure Games -- Notes from a Newbie

By Becky Waxman

 

What distinguishes casual games? Are casual games similar enough to adventure games that the two categories will eventually merge? As more adventure gamers begin trying out what's available in casual games, I've also started branching out from the adventures I usually play. I've stumbled upon casual games that are impressive (MCF: Return to Ravenhearst, for example) and others that are less so (The Princess Bride Game, for instance). Time spent playing casuals has made it clear to me that adventure games have influenced casual games and vice versa. Whether or not there are examples of actual convergence -- I'll discuss that at the end of this article.

Introducing IHOGS and Casual Adventures

Below are descriptions of the two most adventure-game-like casual subgenres, plus recommendations for games that I hope will provide experienced adventure gamers with an introduction to casual games. A disclaimer: I have barely scratched the surface of what's available in casuals, and the breadth of what's out there means that my selections may be somewhat arbitrary.

The casuals I played largely fit into the "Interactive Hidden Object Game" (IHOG) and "casual adventure/adventure-lite" subgenres.

IHOGs developed as a variation of Hidden Object Games (HOGs). HOGS are games with Hidden Object screens, in which a list on-screen tells the gamer what objects to look for. In HOGs, clicking on the correct object causes the item to disappear. In the IHOG variation, clicking on the correct object sometimes transfers the item into the inventory, making it available for use in the gameworld.

I would define casual adventure/adventure-lite games as casual games with significant story elements, more time spent puzzling than object searching, and enough exploration to give you a sense of how rooms or spaces in the environment interconnect with one another.

Time and Flexibility

Casual games are meant to be playable by gamers who have a limited time in which to play them. Gamers with lots of time, of course, can also enjoy them -- but one factor in their design is that they are interruptible -- you can play them for twenty minutes, set them aside, and then return to them later.

This means that the interface needs to be as intuitive as possible. Casual games usually use a point-and-click interface, they frequently have brief tutorials so you don't need a manual, and they have an autosave feature so you don't need to think about how to save your game. (The result: getting into the game is quick and getting out of the game is even quicker.)

Casual games usually have a hint system so you don't spend precious time being frustrated, and it's common for the most difficult challenges to have a "skip" feature. If the game has a story, there will usually be a journal to catch the gamer up on the plot when she returns to the game.

Difficulty and Rewards

Often (though not always) the opening challenges in a casual game will be easy, but will increase in difficulty later in the game. Many times you'll be able to select a difficulty level before you begin. Casual games, when played in timed mode or when played past the first few chapters/levels, can be just as challenging as adventure games.

Some aspects of casual games result in good replay value. You can return to try to better your score or improve your speed in solving puzzles or finding objects. Some HOGs reshuffle the location of objects on the second playthrough to add to the replay value.

Casual games frequently reward the gamer's progress. Finding an object may be celebrated with a musical flourish or with an animation. Solving a puzzle usually gifts the gamer with an inventory item or something directly related to significant advancement.

Casual games vary widely in terms of game length. Of the games I've played, the shortest has taken about four hours and the longest about fifteen hours.

Visuals and Immersion

Every casual game I've played uses a first person perspective, though characters do appear during dialogs and cut scenes. Recent casual games are featuring more and more animation, but it is still unusual to see lip sync, and cut scenes tend to be brief and simplified. About half the casual games I've played are not fully voiced.

With a few exceptions (some of which are discussed below), the gameworlds in casual games are more restricted than in adventure games. To some extent, I suspect, looking for Hidden Objects is a way to reward the gamer for staying in one place, looking carefully and interacting frequently. This is different than the adventure games which involve wandering around large environments where the gamer is presented with infrequent, tenuously-related interactions.

Sometimes in adventure games, it's a challenge just to figure out what to do. This is rarely an issue in casual games, where the more restricted environments tend to result in tasks that occur frequently and (usually) the items needed to perform the task are close at hand. Sometimes the goal is specifically stated before the task begins.

Casual games seem less concerned with drawing the gamer in so that the "real world" disappears and the gamer forgets he's playing a game. Again, this is partly a result of the possibility of frequent interruptions. It's not easy to combine flexibility, interruptibility, and frequent rewards with complex plots, large environments and intense immersion, though it can be done.

Common Casual Themes

In casual adventures and IHOGS, you will find yourself journeying through enchanted landscapes, participating in fairytales, solving mysteries, visiting exotic "real life" locations, and traveling through time and history. Recently, there has been an increase in the numbers of casual games with an atmosphere of darkness and/or horror, sometimes accompanied by a quirky sense of humor.

What follow are brief descriptions of recommended casual games that include a sampling of these themes. These are games that offer a good experience for an adventure gamer who is a first time casual gamer. I've also recommended one straightforward HOG for those who are curious to see what these are like.

Drawn: The Painted Tower

This is an exquisite, stylized casual adventure with a touch of darkness -- an Edward Gorey sensibility. It has a mythic story and environments full of odd angles and ambient animations.

The heroine, Iris, is a remarkable child living in a medieval tower. She likes to draw and she can weave magic into her paintings so that others can interact with them. These paintings hang from the walls throughout the castle.

Drawn contains inventory challenges and lots of standalone pattern analysis puzzles. Although you search the environments for inventory items, this is a casual adventure, not an IHOG. Solving the more difficult puzzles brings spectacular cut scene results.

A sense of sadness and deep longing pervades the game. The background music, which ranges from alluring to plaintive to bombastic, adds to the atmosphere.

The colorful, innocent paintings on the towers' lower floors give way to darker creations as you climb long flights of winding stairs. A force of evil, fraught with ruin and destruction, moves toward the tower. Can you rescue Iris before it arrives?

     

 

Nancy Drew Dossier: Lights, Camera, Curses!

This game is a standout among casual adventures because of its production values. Nancy Drew is once again on the case -- this time investigating a series of accidents that plague the remake of a movie about ancient Egypt called "Pharaoh!".

Lights, Camera, Curses! features colorful graphics that are more cartoonish than in the regular Nancy Drew series. Graphic novel-like panels stand in for animated cut scenes. You can only view one screen at a time, but the game does move you from screen to screen in the same location, so you get a sense of space. Lani Minella once again voices the famous girl detective.

This game contains challenges in which you locate and then associate items in order to move, repair, and uncover things. You will also work with a panel showing various actions -- "look," "touch/move," "use flashlight," "pick lock" and "decode." You'll encounter many dialog challenges as well as timed mini-games. You can improve your mini-game skills by accessing the main menu if you want to practice.

The plot in Lights, Camera, Curses! is twisty and many characters are hiding secrets. The result is a complicated story that can become a challenge to follow. Fortunately there's an excellent journal that reviews the evidence, offers mild hints, and catches you up on events.

     

 

MCF: Dire Grove

Four American students with a theory about an archaeological discovery visit the village of Dire Grove in England. You assume the role of a paranormal investigator who is caught in a freak snow storm and stumbles across their abandoned car. You tramp all over the village of Dire Grove, exploring the rustic buildings, the forest and the dig site, while figuring out what led to the storm and its ghastly/ghostly results. The story starts out dark and gets creepier. Expect startle-scares and moments of pathos.

This is a large IHOG with generous gameplay. It contains frequent Hidden Object challenges, but the gameworld is large and contains so many varied puzzles, that you could remove the Hidden Object screens and still have plenty to do.

Dire Grove's unfolding story is told via video taped sequences, while letters and other texts (including the investigator's diary) add further detail. Orchestral and choral music brings texture to a haunted place locked between layers of snow and ice.

     

 

Vampireville

Vampireville is a campy IHOG with frequent cut scene dialogs, amusing voiceovers, and a biting sense of humor. It features a handsome young lawyer/businessman, Michael Christensen, who is investigating a gothic mansion that his employer, Mr. Rockwell, wants to buy. Rockwell resembles Ebenezer Scrooge. Christensen resembles Keanu Reeves. Other characters resemble the cast of Upstairs, Downstairs.

The writing is tongue-in-cheek and the story takes amusing turns. The environments are photorealistic in a style that I would call "Semi-Funky Edwardian." The game provides frequent Hidden Object searches, puzzles and mini-games. I loved the golf challenge and the "seeing double -- spot the differences" mini-game.

     

 

Dream Chronicles: The Chosen Child

The third game in the Dream Chronicles casual adventure series, The Chosen Child can be played first, if you want (the story structure could accommodate playing the first two games later as rekindled memory). You take on the role of Brenna, who lives a quiet life in a picturesque tree house. She is troubled by strange dreams involving the vision of a husband and child, though she knows she has never married.

The environments are quaint and otherworldly, with a "when the world was young" aura. You can move about them freely. Light streams through the stained glass windows and illuminates dust motes floating in the air. Fire flickers in the hearth and bubbles rise from the potions. Part of the game takes place underwater, near a coral reef with exotic fish. Background music branches out from orchestral folk/medieval into more modern rhythms and sounds.

You will encounter a few characters, including a human guide whose face you see in a crystal ball. Conversations are brief and take place via text with no voiceovers.

The game provides inventory puzzles, item searches, assembly challenges, anagrams, pattern puzzles, mazes, and sound puzzles (these also include visual cues). Particularly enjoyable are the potion-making challenges, and the process in which you craft dream jewels, which are used in a magical Nexus to reach other areas in the game.

The Chosen Child's goal is to provide a leisurely journey, a charming story, and gentle puzzle-solving in flavorful, bite-sized pieces.

   
     

 

Flux Family Secrets: The Ripple Effect

In this IHOG, you assume the role of an orphan, Jesse Beckett, who discovers that she is related to the eccentric Flux family. This family has a legacy by which they are appointed as protectors of history wherever it encounters disruptions. You travel into different time periods, each associated with a famous historical figure (William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, and Amelia Earhart, for instance). You visit a theater, an airport hangar, a tomb, etc., where you solve puzzles, find missing or misplaced objects, and try to set things right. (You don't meet the historical personages, though you do see a portrait or icon of each of them.)

You work with individual screens in each location, though you also return to different parts of the same location at various times, giving you a sense of the overall environment. The game provides a series of "fun facts" about the era you have traveled to or the person whose "space" you're visiting.

As the story progresses, you interact briefly with other Flux family members (interactions aren't animated or voiced). The historical locations are photorealistic, colorful and detailed, with small animations in every screen. Music that is appropriate to the time period plays in the background. Much of the gameplay is a variation on Hidden Object challenges, as you search for pieces of historical objects (you are shown the shapes of the pieces) and the objects are reconstructed when you've gathered all the pieces. You also have an inventory of items that can be used to change things in the gameworld.

Puzzles and mini-games are frequent, varied, and can be skipped if you choose. You can zoom in to examine the environments through a magnifying glass (I used this frequently). Gameplay is varied enough and the environments appealing enough that engagement stays high throughout.

   
     

 

The Scruffs

This is a traditional HOG -- no adventure elements -- and is included as an example of a straight Hidden Object Game.

An eccentric British family has to raise enough money to pay the mortgage on their run-down house. You help them comb through centuries of collected/abandoned stuff in search of family secrets and/or anything of value (you have the option to search several screens, and can leave one if you're stuck and then return to it later). The game has goofy, puppet-like characters, photorealistic Hidden Object screens, and wacky voiceovers. The music is catchy, if a bit repetitive.

This is not a game I would recommend to someone who wants a gentle transition to casual games from adventure games. Rather, I would recommend it to anyone who has avoided HOGs because they seem too easy. The objects are hidden in plain view. The game provides a visual education in shape, color, variation, and your own unexamined assumptions. If you get through this game without offering a bone to Scruffy to assist you in your search, I'll hand you my hat -- complete with feather, dried fruit, gila monster, and U.S. dollars woven into the brim.

   
     

Casual Influence and Adventures

If a convergence between adventures and casuals is starting to occur, what would this look like?

In traditional adventures, I would expect casual elements, making the games more accessible and flexible, to become more common. Is this happening? To some extent, yes, though not in a majority of the newest adventures. For instance, some adventures are acquiring hint systems (The Secret of Monkey Island SE, Machinarium), opening tutorials (Simon the Sorcerer 5: Who'd Even Want Contact?!, Blackwell Convergence), mini-game skip features (Keepsake, So Blonde), choice of difficulty levels (Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder and the Nancy Drew adventures,) and "show all hotspot" functions (the Secret Files games). These features are all aimed at easing the gaming experience and lessening gamer frustration, rather than providing an overly exacting experience.

The episodic trend in adventure games also taps into casual elements. In the Sam & Max and Monkey Island episodic games by Telltale, for instance, each episode is shorter than a typical adventure with more restricted environments. Yet playing all the episodes with their overarching story themes and expanding environments brings a traditional (if more punctuated) adventure game experience.

Adventure Influence and Casuals

On the casual end, certain games are playing more like adventure games. Take the Mystery Case Files series as an example. MCF: Return to Ravenhearst and MCF: Dire Grove are casual games because of their frequent Hidden Object screens. Yet, if you eliminated those screens (allowing gamers to simply pick up the inventory items), each of these games could qualify as a traditional adventure. So, do adventure games -- plus HOG gameplay -- equal convergence?

Next let's consider Nancy Drew: Lights, Camera, Curses! Here the environments are more cartoon-like and more restricted than in the Nancy Drew adventure games. But the story is more complex, the gameplay has refreshing innovations, and the game is even longer than some of the traditional Nancy Drew adventures.

Convergence?

A few recent adventure games contain enough casual elements that it becomes difficult to label them. The Casebook games are an example -- they are episodic and the bulk of their gameplay involves searching for objects/evidence at crime scenes. Emerald City Confidential is also tricky to label. It contains a "sparkling button" search challenge in addition to inventory challenges. Both of them are easy to play in short intervals, have tutorials, a hint feature and rely on an autosave function.

And from the casual gamespace, consider Drawn: The Painted Tower. This game has traditional adventure puzzle challenges and an involving story, but falls into the casual arena because of its scope, including the small environments in the paintings. A sequel is planned. Sounds kind of...episodic, doesn't it? If the developers give us a two or three more sequels with an overarching plot, I think these would add up to an adventure series, which in overall scope would be akin to the episodic series from Telltale.

I Want to Judge for Myself! Where can I Buy Casual Adventures?

The games mentioned above are available via multiple venues. You can download the casual games I mentioned from Big Fish Games, and a large selection of casual and adventure games are available via download or disk at Amazon.com. Other good sources for adventure games are The Adventure Shop and Interact. If you prefer to shop locally and you're in North America, Target and Best Buy also offer a good selection.

 

*Note: some of the ideas for this article were influenced by A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and their Players, a new book by Jesper Juul.

 

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