Hidden Objects: Innovations
by Becky Waxman
More and more Hidden
Object games are releasing (the current rate: one almost every other day).
And more and more, they contain elements that make them similar to adventure
games. (I noted this trend in an earlier editorial:
"Casual Adventure Games -- Notes from a Newbie.") Older Hidden Object
games sometimes were repetitive, with limited environments and brief
stories. But the newer Interactive Hidden Object Games (IHOGs), not only
have many inventory challenges, but also may contain complex stories, larger
gameworlds and increasingly varied overall gameplay. Now it's time for
adventure gamers to evaluate what they have to offer. I began with many
questions about IHOGs, and recently went on a gaming quest to find answers,
some of which are below.
What's the Difference
between Pixel Hunting and Finding Hidden Objects?
Pixel hunting is common
in adventure games, especially older ones -- you are sweeping the cursor
across the screen, looking for objects that are interactive, which usually
means you are looking for objects which cause the cursor to change. (In
games without a "smart" cursor, this was even more difficult, as you had to
click continuously while moving the cursor all over the screen.)
Sometimes it's obvious in
an adventure game that an object might be interactive -- a door, for
instance, or a telephone, or a non-player character. Other times the hotspot
is very small (only a few pixels in size) and in an obscure location.
Careful searching or extreme luck is the only way to find it. So you slowly
"paint" the screen with the cursor, watching like a hawk to see if it
changes to signify a hotspot: this is pixel hunting. If the environment in a
particular adventure is large, you can spend a great deal of time pixel
hunting for one tiny hotspot in screen after screen. Some gamers enjoy this.
I personally don't.
The chief similarity
between Hidden Object (HO) gameplay and pixel hunting is that you are
looking closely at the screen. Other than that, the process is very
Most HO screens are just
that -- one screen. You aren't moving about in a large environment, looking
for the cursor to flicker to show the hotspot. With HO screens, what you are
looking for is specifically identified -- the game provides a list of object
names or a visual clue, such as a miniature icon of the item you are looking
for. This would seem to make the searching very easy, but it doesn't -- at
least, not until you've had practice.
Say "Hidden Object
Game," and what Springs to Mind?
For a game categorized as
a Hidden Object Game, the image I conjure up is a series of close-up screens
with a jumble of random items, where sheer numbers and clutter make
searching a daunting task. This "object rich" environment, along with a list
of things to find (usually one word per item), is the most common type of HO
challenge. Some of the items in the HO screen may be obvious, in full color
and sitting boldly in the foreground. But others will be silhouettes,
shadows, outlines or reflections, part of a painting, wallpaper, or curtain.
Some will be partly obscured by other objects or camouflaged when placed on
a background with the same shape or color.
However, the way HOs are
presented has seen some rapid innovation. Do you find a cluttered screen
unappealing? Designers are now using other ways to "disguise" items. You're
unlikely to find an HO screen that is low on detail. But you will find HO
screens in which nearly all the items are logical extensions of the
environment -- or screens in which the objects are in a logical place rather
than randomly distributed -- or beautifully surreal, uncluttered screens
using stylized shapes to camouflage items -- or interactive environments
where you have to open drawers or move items to see objects hidden within or
behind -- or screens where a 3D feature makes items "pop out" of the
background. Some HO screens are starting to feature movement, with
scrolling, panning, and even HO challenges that occur during cut scenes.
Can an IHOG survive
without Hidden Object Close-up Screens?
It isn't just the artwork
and presentation of HO screens that are evolving. Cluing and gameplay
structure are also being transformed. Some of the variations I've seen are
Objects hidden in the
Some games don't have
close-up HO screens, but objects are found within the regular game
environments. In these variations, the screens aren't nearly as cluttered
and the items often (though not always) are more logically placed.
Full-fledged environments with HOs also tend to feature lists that are
multiples of the same category of object -- finding a dozen roses, or
tools on a workbench, or different kinds of sports equipment. Sometimes
clues are words associated with objects rather than the name of the
object. Clues can be riddles or words with multiple meanings.
Occasionally, when looking for multiples of an object, the only clue
provided is a counter whose number is reduced as you click on each correct
In this variation, an
inventory item has been broken into several pieces; a representation of
each piece is somewhere on the screen, and you search the screen for these
fragments. In this fragmented object screen, you will never see a "find"
list, and often you can get pretty far by just searching for what looks
odd or out of place on-screen. Usually two or three fragments, however,
present a real challenge, and since they're fragments they're tiny. Once
all the fragments are found, the item reassembles itself and you can then
figure out how to use it.
Here you are given
tasks to complete, and each one requires assembling parts or items that
can work together. These are presented as images; often these images fan
out in a circle over the area of the task. For instance, you might need to
find wood, an axe, and rope to make a ladder. Once you've found all the
items/parts, the items are joined together. These combinations may require
searching a larger gameworld than just one screen, and sometimes the
combinations are subtasks that fit into a larger task, so they can become
Mini-games and puzzles
and standalone puzzles in IHOGS aren't anything new, but the inclusion of
other types of gameplay to vary the experience does seem to be increasing.
You may actually encounter more puzzles in an IHOG than you do in an
adventure game, though the puzzles in IHOGs will probably be less
interdependent and multi-layered. IHOGs are also far more likely to allow
the gamer to skip the puzzle altogether after a period of time.
What Makes Gamers come
back for More?
Tastes vary considerably,
but what follows is a list of what I think works well for HO screens. I
consider myself a casual HO gamer, so if you are a hardcore HO gamer, your
list may differ significantly from mine.
Thumbs up for:
close-up screens that are less cluttered, with a visual focal point
Exotic and unusual objects to find
screens with some artistic variety
For historical or travel games, items that suit the surroundings
Objects that are hidden in different ways with a varied difficulty level
clues that are unusual (variations in addition to the single-word "find"
Item proportions that are at least roughly accurate
For fragmented HOs, providing the option of close-up viewing via a
Ambient animations on-screen and atmospheric background sounds/music
Thumbs down for:
screens with a timer and no "relaxed mode" option
screens that are overly cluttered, layered, blurry or dark
Reusing the same HO screen, especially for the third or fourth time
Seeking the same object repeatedly (e.g., finding the same bat in three
different HO screens)
Items that require perfect mousing (you must hit the exact center of the
object for the game to recognize you found it)
Objects that fit the label but don't "count" (when looking for a "bottle,"
the baby bottle doesn't count but the soda bottle does)
The word on the list is incorrect, probably due to a translation error
(you are told to look for a lighter, but the item turns out to be a
The game penalizes you for random clicking by disabling the mouse or
blurring the screen for more than a second or two
The hints meter takes a long time to recharge
Where to Start?
I've briefly described
eight games that are good examples of many of the innovations I mentioned
earlier. (Many other fine IHOGs are available -- I plan to talk about other
casual games that illustrate an even fuller range of HO types, artwork and
gameplay styles in later editorials.)
I'm aware that many
gamers partner with their children to play IHOGs. The game descriptions may
help you choose (if murder is clearly on the menu, for instance, you've been
alerted). In addition, I've put an asterisk in front of each game that is
more appropriate for teens and up, rather than young children.
For games that are part
of a series, I usually describe the most recent game. Although this brings
the gamer in partway through the series, I think that playing the latest
game is the best way to evaluate what IHOGs have to offer. The later games
in the series show significant improvements in graphics, story and gameplay
-- making it best, in my opinion, to start with the newest game in a series
and then work your way backwards if you find that the story or characters
merit a second visit. Further, most of the games in these series are almost
entirely self-contained, with perhaps a brief appearance by a character from
a previous game. (The only exception to the rule, 3 Cards to Deadtime,
is noted below.)
*3 Cards to Deadtime
You assume the role of
Jess Silloway, a young woman with psychic talents who uses a pack of Tarot
cards to explore the truth about disappearances, occult practices, and an
abandoned estate. The game has a gripping story, told via frequent cut
scenes, which aren't fully animated, but are effectively presented and
voiced. (Although I had played other HO games before 3 Cards to Deadtime,
this one hooked me.)
The environments consist
of individual screens, usually cluttered locations rendered
naturalistically. The HO screens have a twist -- they rely on word
association (for instance, you will look for three objects associated with
the word "star"). Word associations are presented in several different
categories, so you have to think in complex ways about the screen you are
looking at. If you click too many times on the wrong thing, you will have to
repeat the screen. Limited hints are available.
About midway through the
game you are asked to make a choice to select one character over another.
The choice has consequences, leading to a different outcome for the
character and a different ending.
This is the second game
in a series, and though I liked it better than the first game -- 3 Cards
to Midnight -- it helps to play the first game to understand what's
going on. I recommend playing 3 Cards to Deadtime first on the Easy
setting, then play 3 Cards to Midnight to see the background story,
then return to play 3 Cards to Deadtime again on the Gamer setting.
When you do, choose the other character to trigger the alternate ending. (Of
interest to adventure gamers: this game's designers, Aaron Conners and Chris
Jones, also designed the Tex Murphy adventure games.)
Mortimer Beckett and the
Mortimer Beckett is the
endearingly geeky protagonist of a trilogy of games that begins when his
mysterious uncle asks him to investigate an old mansion (Mortimer Beckett
and the Secrets of Spooky Manor). In Lost King, Mortimer enters a
beautifully lit, naturalistic fantasy realm which is occupied by oddball
characters. The game has a 3D esthetic plus an absurdist comic touch.
You start each chapter
with what looks like an inventory of quirky items, shown as visual images
along the bottom of the screen. What you're viewing are just images however
-- first you must find all the items which have been placed (sometimes
openly, sometimes surreptitiously) around the gameworld. When clicked on,
they go into the inventory and you have to identify where they really
belong, matching them with their correct (often creative) uses. Since these
objects aren't linked to a specific screen, and since you use them all,
Lost King almost innovates itself out of the HO category and into the
Animated, voiced cut
scenes bookend each chapter. In addition to the many inventory item
challenges, the game adds variety through an assortment of mini-games, item
assembly combinations and spot-the-difference challenges.
*Little Noir Stories: The
Case of the Missing Girl
In Little Noir Stories,
you become part of a private detective team and play alternatively as Amelia
Chandler and Anton Muller. A photograph of a child's figure in an abandoned
building brings Muller to the shady side of town to investigate. The game
features unusual, hand-drawn, stylish noir backgrounds. Cool jazz adds to
HO searches are varied --
sometimes you'll see a "find" list, sometimes you'll search for objects in
the same category or for items shown in silhouette. It's important to open
drawers and doors whenever possible to peer within. Puzzles include
inventory challenges, mini-games involving shapes, patterns and classifying
things as well as repairing machinery. The final challenge involves finding
evidence during a pursuit, and it is timed. The list of Objectives keeps
track of what you're doing -- this assistance is essential, as the gamer
will be involved in several simultaneous searches or tasks.
Little Noir Stories
provides a complex story with a goodly amount of character interaction
(partly voiced), and you can elect to fully follow the story or to receive
minimal plot information. (If you want to learn all the secrets, write down
which dialog choices you used the first time, and replay to try out the
other choices.) If you're an adventurer who loves a good detective story,
this one is off the beaten path but surprisingly satisfying, and worth a
replay to learn all the secrets.
Love Chronicles: The
At first, I thought the
game's title indicated a story similar to a Harlequin romance, with a
protagonist who looks like an alternative rock musician. It turns out he's a
prince, and the game is based on the myth of Sleeping Beauty. The
environments, made up of rustic locations with indoor and outdoor views, are
highly rendered with a hand-drawn effect. They resemble the illustrations
from a book of fairy tales, and contain unusual angles and effective
animations. Each location has characters that must be awakened, and
afterwards you help them and/or receive help from them. Interactions aren't
This game has a clever,
flexible HO mechanic. When objects are required to solve something, the
items appear as visual images in the lower part of the screen. Sometimes
whole items are required, sometimes items in fragments -- most are in
logical places. They can be found throughout the location and (occasionally)
at other locations, accessible via the map. The visual aid indicates if
you're in the right environment and identifies the correct screen location
for each individual item. Once an item is found or a fragmented item is
combined, you can click on the item in inventory to hotlink to the location
where it can be used (or search for the right location yourself if you want
to increase the difficulty level). A magnifying glass is available, and the
environments look as good magnified as they do from the regular viewpoint.
The Clockwork Man: The
Miranda Calomy is an
aspiring engineer in an alternate Victorian reality -- a steampunk world
where technology based on the steam engine has advanced in extraordinary
ways. Sprocket, her constant companion, is a pint-sized robot. The second
game in the series begins in Ireland, where Miranda is searching for her
parents, who disappeared there years before. As Miranda frantically fixes
machinery to get deeper into a mine and elude pursuers, a flashback sequence
shows why she faces her current predicament.
The opening to this game
is a trifle confusing (and the end will leave you guessing), but the
gameworld, characters and puzzles make it worth the time to figure out the
plot. HO screens are varied, with some that scroll from side to side, others
with a zoom feature, and one that even scrolls vertically through a
treehouse. All are particularly easy on the eyes, and many objects are
unique. The range of outdoor environments in the Hidden World is unusually
diverse, with colorful, imaginative details.
Sprocket functions as a
hint system, with four different ways to nudge you forward. The music is
unusual and suited to each location. The game is fully voiced; still picture
panels reveal the story during cut scenes. Frequent inventory challenges,
plus shape and pattern analysis challenges -- including a particularly
memorable wall safe puzzle and a nice set of endgame logic puzzles --
Designed by Jane Jensen
of Gabriel Knight fame, Deadtime Stories uses traditional HO "find"
lists, but the close-up screens themselves are the most unusual I've seen --
creepy, but also organic and intensely colored, with a sensual flair. Each
screen has a focal point, and camouflage as well as stylized, colorful forms
are used to disguise the items.
The game is situated in
New Orleans, where you re-enact the story of Jessie Bodeen, a 19th century
voodoo practitioner facing dilemmas amplified by her dark talent. The game
takes you to the classy French quarter, to Jesse's cottage, and to the
Louisiana swamp. Cut scenes use stills to tell the story, and these are
effectively voiced. Puzzles include inventory challenges, matching, mixing
spells and potions, and freeing spirits. The striking visuals and unfolding
story give Deadtime Stories a luxuriantly poisonous polish.
Escape from the Lost
This game is set in
modern day Egypt, though the story involves a curse from a previous century.
If you've seen the first two "Mummy" movies, you'll find yourself in
familiar (though less violent) territory here. Environments are slightly
blurry, with muted colors and lots of detail, including blowing sand and
tombs by torchlight. The music is bold and exotic, and the game is fully
You play as different
protagonists, all members of the same young family -- each with his or her
own attitude and helpful skill or gadget. The two most intriguing gadgets
are wielded by the youngsters, Emily and Francis. (Why do children always
get the best toys? Why do their parents get stuck writing the journal and
using the crowbar instead of seeing through Glyph Vision or peeking
backwards through the Time Amulet?) Anyway, you have a chance to see
different views with the game's optional 3D feature. You can use 3D glasses
-- the cardboard type with one red lens and one blue lens -- to view the cut
scenes and the handful of HO screens that feature these effects.
I'm a 3D skeptic, so I
was surprised to discover that the close-up HO screens in 3D are an amusing
novelty. With the glasses, the HO screens become more surreal -- the items
lose distinguishing colors, but at the same time, they pop out of the
background detail camouflage, with the whole screen taking on a golden glow.
Even more 3D effects would be welcome. Escape balances the HO screens
with many inventory challenges and mini-games that fit the location and
story, including placing shapes in a wall carving, rotating columns, and
reassembling pieces of the tomb.
Treasure Seekers: Follow
The year is 1931, and a
huge pink diamond, the Ruby Heart, has been stolen. In a nearby English
manor, a ghost appears every night at midnight. Are these two oddities
connected? The treasure seeking siblings, Tom and Nelly, are determined to
find out. The siblings have a globe-trotting habit which seized them two
games ago (Treasure Seekers: Visions of Gold) and has never let go.
The environments are
photorealistic with ambient animations, and each location has its own color
palette and reigning ghost or member of the undead. The game starts out a
bit slowly, but picks up as soon as you leave England and head out to other
parts of Europe, Egypt and Siberia. Background music is orchestral, suited
to each location, and impressive. Tom and Nelly aren't voiced -- this didn't
bother me while playing Nelly, but I would have liked to hear some of Tom's
one-liners spoken out loud.
There's a lot to do in
Follow the Ghosts. A task list guides you to the next endeavor,
including inventory challenges and a scattering of mini-games. Puzzles often
involve a bit of trial-and-error, and occasionally are mildly timed.
The game provides
different types of HO challenges. You'll encounter close-up screens with
"find" lists, including a few items in each screen that require looking
inside things or combining things. Also, HO visual challenges abound where a
wheel with icons for needed items pops up on the screen (all items will be
found in that particular screen). Some of the searching harkens back to
adventure-game-like pixel hunting, as you sweep each location with the
cursor to find a hotspot for an item (or the container hiding the item). The
developers are clearly trying to keep the HO gameplay varied and balanced,
and they have succeeded.
*The Great Gatsby
Based on the novel by F.
Scott Fitzgerald, this game takes place during the Roaring Twenties on Long
Island's Gold Coast. You assume the role of Nick Carraway, cousin to the
lovely Daisy and neighbor to the mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby. The
narration is often taken directly from the novel, resulting in some of the
most vivid, poignant prose I've encountered in a game.
HOs are part of the
environment; a typical HO screen is an art deco mansion edifice, using
hand-drawn graphics, with pastel shades and jewel tones. Some odd objects
are occasionally displayed, but the scenes rarely look cluttered. Most of
the items belong there (and they suit the historical era). Some objects
trigger brief, expertly voiced dialogs -- you can listen to the characters
talk as you search. The hint meter is fast. Screens have small animations,
and characters occupy each screen, all dressed in period garb with 1920s
music in the background.
Puzzles use "found" items
within the environment to repair or concoct things. You also search for
letters in a word guessing game. The game contains cut scenes that have HOs
to click on (if you miss clicking on all of the items during a cut scene,
you can rewind the scene and try again or choose to skip it.)
As you can see, the
variety in the world of IHOGs is expansive and exhilarating, and sampling
this variety is a good part of the fun. I'll be writing more about HO games,
particularly those that include ample environments and puzzle challenges as
the main course, with HOs as a substantial side dish. If an IHOG has more
puzzles than HO screens, does it become a "kissing cousin" of adventure
games? Find out soon in "Part Deux: Hidden Objects and Beyond."
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