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 different.

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 described below.

Objects hidden in the regular gameworld

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 item.

Fragmented objects

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.

Specific item combinations

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 fairly complex.

Mini-games and puzzles

Inventory challenges 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:

HO close-up screens that are less cluttered, with a visual focal point

Exotic and unusual objects to find

HO 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

HO clues that are unusual (variations in addition to the single-word "find" lists)

Item proportions that are at least roughly accurate

For fragmented HOs, providing the option of close-up viewing via a magnifying glass

Ambient animations on-screen and atmospheric background sounds/music

Thumbs down for:

HO screens with a timer and no "relaxed mode" option

HO 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 candle)

The game penalizes you for random clicking by disabling the mouse or blurring the screen for more than a second or two

Limited hints

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.)

*Note: 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 Lost King

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 adventure-lite category.

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 the atmosphere.

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 Spell

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 voiced.

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 Hidden World

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 -- provide variety.

*Deadtime Stories

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 Kingdom

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 voiced.

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 Ghosts

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.)

Coming Soon

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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