Part Deux: Hidden Objects and Beyond

by Becky Waxman

Interactive Hidden Object Games (IHOGs) are casual games that increasingly provide an experience similar to that of an adventure game. Traditional Hidden Object Games contained limited environments and followed a step-by-step process -- where the gamer was presented with one screen, finished that screen, and then was presented with another. With the newer IHOGs, environments are increasing in size, and the gamer can wander back and forth at will. Also, in many IHOGs the portion of gameplay with Hidden Object (HO) screens is decreasing in proportion to the gameplay that involves adventure-game-like inventory challenges, puzzles and mini-games.

The first part of this series of editorials introduced several innovations in HO game mechanics. In this second installment, I'll examine the differences between IHOGs and adventure games, and also discuss a handful of IHOGs that have already adopted certain adventure game elements.

Distinctions

Is an IHOG an adventure game, plus HO screens? Are the two actually close members of the same "family"? Not exactly -- maybe second cousins once removed. Though they are adding adventure game elements, most IHOGs still differ in key areas. One difference is length. IHOGs are usually shorter than adventure games. They tend to be shorter because they are less likely to have vast environments, complex stories, and lengthy dialogs. Although many of the recent IHOGs offer significant exploration (which I define as the ability to walk freely from one location to the next), few feature the ability to turn around and view the gameworld from different angles.

Another key difference between IHOGs and adventure games is how much direction is given to the gamer. Adventure games often require the gamers to figure out what they should be doing, as well as figuring out how to do it. Adventure games encourage back-and-forthing through the gameworld in order to accomplish tasks that are spread out or interrelated in subtle ways. Many adventures are nonlinear, which makes each gamer's progress slightly different and adds to the perception of choice and control.

IHOGS (and other casual games like adventure-lite games) often decrease the back-and-forthing by keeping puzzle elements in close proximity, and by providing task lists or hints. They sometimes signal when an area is finished, so the gamer doesn't return, futilely looking for a challenge that isn't there. They use first person perspective and point-and-click interfaces, so there isn't a learning curve in terms of trying to "drive" the player character.

Consistent with a more directive approach, IHOGs ease the gamer's experience. They are much less likely than an adventure game, for instance, to "sneak in" an almost impossible to find directional arrow, or provide a challenge that results in the player's death, or create a situation mid-game where the interface or assumptions have changed slightly, and the gamer must figure that out and adapt. Most casual games want the gamer to find where she is going and to lessen overall frustration, focusing attention on the specific challenge at hand. This can feel overly directive if you like figuring everything out for yourself. Or it can feel wonderfully liberating if you find nonlinearity exasperating and obscure.

Implications

If an IHOG/casual gamer isn't going to be doing nearly as much back-and-forthing or engaging in long conversations with characters -- how does this affect gameplay? One result: the gamer spends more time engaging with puzzles, mini-games and HO screens. So challenges have to be plentiful, and this can lead to repetition.

I've seen HO gameplay criticized because it is repetitive -- and I agree that it can feel that way if the HO challenges aren't balanced with other activities. But the focus on "doing" in casual games can also lead to repetitious puzzles and mini-games. For example, in the nine IHOGs I discuss below, I encountered 13 "connections" puzzles (where pipes or circuits had to be lined up), 8 mini-games where I had to guide a marble-like marker around obstacles on a board, and 8 challenges where I needed to create a pattern and moving one item/piece caused other pieces to move.

Some of these puzzle challenges can be presented creatively, but after a while they begin to suffer from a certain sameness, particularly in their visual appearance and the techniques used to solve them. I've found that -- in terms of their adaptability to different visual styles, and unconventional ways to provide clues -- HOs are superior to a lot of other types of puzzle or mini-game challenges. That said, I think the aim should be to provide variety overall -- in many of the IHOGs I've played, I felt that the "find" lists in particular are too frequent, and reducing their number while providing other puzzle or unconventional HO challenges makes the games more engaging.

Examples

Discussed below are a selection of IHOGs that have adventure-game-like elements. These games have balanced the HO screens with exploration, lots of inventory and other types of puzzles, and non-timed mini-games. A few have aspects that, when examined in isolation, do come bring them close to adventure game "kissing cousin" status.

To get a sense of how gameplay is balanced, I've used my own system to (roughly) delineate the percentage of game time that is devoted to exploration, HO searches, inventory challenges, and puzzles and mini-games. I also mention one challenge per game that was particularly fun and/or creative.

*Note: I'm aware that many gamers partner with their children to play IHOGs. The game descriptions I hope will 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.

 

*Escape from Frankenstein's Castle

The approach to HOs in this game is unusual. Escape from Frankenstein's Castle does not contain a "find" list or even (with one exception) a visual image interface showing you what objects to search for. The game indicates what to search for by letting you discover a container, or an empty shelf or a device that's missing parts. I realized that there was something different about this game when, early on, I found what looked like a color-coded egg carton with nine holes, and then realized that the colors matched nine eyeballs strewn about the bedroom.

Escape begins with Hannah and Horatio riding a motorcycle on a steep road, when a creature lumbers into their path and causes them to go over the cliff. Hannah wakes up in a gloomy mansion and starts out by meeting the occupants, including the transparent Isabella and a butler who will only give out information if Hannah beats him in a card game.

There's a campy quality to Escape. The story, after all, involves bizarre science experiments and odd things being done to body parts -- and it is also quite dramatic. The plot unfolds via cut scenes composed of hand drawn illustrations. Dialogs are not voiced. The dimly lit, richly furnished interiors mostly feature candlelight -- and in the laboratories, substances that glow in neon colors.

This game has adopted so much from adventure games that it has also ended up with a few of the downsides -- including awkward navigation and frequent loading screens. I had so much fun discovering its shocking secrets, however, that I forgave the annoyances.

About 10 percent HOs, 30 percent exploration, 40 percent inventory challenges, and 20 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy Challenge: repairing the reanimation machine

*Midnight Mysteries: Salem Witch Trials

As Salem Witch Trials begins, you are visited by the ghost of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who asks you to solve the puzzle of his death. You are swept back in time to Hawthorne's hometown of Salem, on a misty day at dusk, complete with rust-colored leaves and Puritan timber frame houses. The story unfolds through dialogs with ghosts of Hawthorne's contemporaries, as well as his ancestors and their neighbors.

There was a lot going on in old Salem -- and the game takes you deep into the evil brewing there. The story is ambitious, and so intricate as to be confusing at times, though the journal/log will keep you up to speed (your understanding of the characters and events will be enriched if you've read The House of the Seven Gables). The game contains many ambient animations and spooky music, both adding to the overall atmosphere.

Items in the HO screens reflect the time period, and include plot-related objects and symbols that make the searching more meaningful. Puzzles are varied; a couple are particularly clever. Inventory item combinations are straightforward. Uses of certain inventory items, though, will test the gamer's ingenuity.

About 10 percent HOs, 35 percent exploration, 35 percent inventory challenges (including inventory item combinations), and 20 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy challenge: the poltergeist sequence

Empress of the Deep: The Darkest Secret

Located entirely under water, Empress of the Deep's surreal environments are reminiscent of those in the Atlantis level of Timelapse. Monumental statues and classical architecture adorn a submerged, abandoned city under a dome. Music with echoes and pipe instruments adds to the atmosphere. You wander freely through the gameworld and are guided (or perhaps impeded) by two voices -- one a child's and the other that of an old man. The voices become increasingly antagonistic toward one another as you strive to understand what your role is and whom to trust.

The largest portion of gameplay in Empress consists of puzzles and mini-games; the puzzles offer one hint and then a skip option. The game also contains some HO screens with "find" lists, but varied in type -- including one that's a painting and another involving scientific names.

About 15 percent HOs, 35 percent exploration, 10 percent inventory challenges, and 40 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy Challenge: the telescope HO screen

Secret Mission: The Forgotten Island

Created by Frogwares (developers of the Sherlock Holmes adventure series) The Forgotten Island's photorealistic environments depict a colorful rainforest and stone ruins on an island in the Bermuda Triangle. HOs are found in relatively uncluttered close-up screens with a "find" list. You play as a scientist who happens across this uncharted island. Plus the game contains a side story of star-crossed lovers, told via brief cut scenes.

The Forgotten Island has many standalone puzzles, as well as inventory item challenges. Some of the mini-game types will be familiar, but here they feature creative twists. You are free to explore the environments and there is also a helpful map with location hotlinks.

About 25 percent HOs, 15 percent exploration, 30 percent inventory challenges, and 30 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy Challenge: "programming" the robot arm

*Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst

If you've ever wondered what a Thomas Kinkade painting would look like if tainted by an overpowering force of evil-- you'll find the answer in Return to Ravenhearst. As the Mystery Case Files paranormal investigator, you return to the scene of a previous case, this time to find that ghosts of children are imprisoned within the grounds of the Ravenhearst estate. Orchestral, mournful music and pleading ghostly manifestations give a sense of ruin and despair. The corrupted beauty of the place makes the whole effect even creepier. My favorite scene: the sweet-looking cottage across from the pet cemetery, repeatedly struck by lightning.

The HO screens are close-ups with a "find" list, full of tumbled, layered items with a faded Victorian aura. The hint timer takes a long time to refresh. In addition to the HO screens, ingenious (occasionally timed) and sometimes dastardly puzzles/minigames are liberally scattered throughout the gameworld. Many of the puzzles can be skipped. (I still think the marble puzzle in the paranormal prison device is impossible, but I'm willing to be proven wrong.)

About 25 percent HOs, 20 percent exploration, 20 percent inventory challenges, and 35 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy Challenge: the home movie reel

The Dark Hills of Cherai       

You follow in the footsteps of three young cousins who are visiting their grandmother in India. The children leave (or are lured) in the direction of an evil magician's castle. The gameworld is large, including detailed outdoors environments, sometimes with a smudgy water-color-like effect. Animations occur in each location (pay attention to the mirrors). A map with hotlinks to every location is extremely useful.

The game contains plenty of puzzles, an elaborate story, and many HO screens with "find" lists. Hidden objects are part of the environment; the objects look somewhat collaged, but are also more exotic than in the typical IHOG and are related to local flora and fauna. Hints are offered slowly. I recommend selecting "advanced" when you start the game, which makes a ghostly helper character somewhat less intrusive. Dramatic intensity increases as you watch all three cousins advance separately toward their denouement.

About 25 percent HOs, 20 percent exploration, 15 percent inventory challenges, and 40 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy Challenge: shapes and the red fantail

*Elixir of Immortality

This game has an unusual 3D-like esthetic and takes place in a world where magic exists alongside science. You play an undercover detective investigating the death of a handyman at the local castle. Then you watch as the various suspects are "eliminated." Interaction with a handful of the castle inhabitants is brief, but establishes the plot well. New portions of the castle and grounds become available as the mystery unfolds. You roam about, partly investigating and partly wondering how to stay alive.

HOs are found in close-up screens with a "find" list; objects are photorealistic, mostly old-fashioned, and some of them are unconventional (was it my imagination, or did the prosthesis get switched with the shoe shine stand?). Background detail and quirky item design are employed to "hide" the items. Appealing ambient animations and background music, plus a goodly amount of puzzles/mini-games -- some of which are refreshingly unusual -- round out the experience.

About 30 percent HOs, 10 percent exploration, 25 percent inventory challenges (including inventory item combinations), and 35 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy Challenge: the castle entrance

Snark Busters: Welcome to the Club

Follow the exploits of Kira Robertson, the daughter of a rich dignitary in an alternate Victorian (steampunk) world. Kira refuses to take her social position -- or any sort of responsibility -- seriously. She is tempted from her home by conspirators aiming to capture the legendary snark.

Snark Busters takes place in a wacky, cartoon-like world with odd machines and technologies based on the steam engine. Kira leaps through portals into new locations, and each location has a reflection -- a "shadow" dimension. Changing or tweaking elements has unexpected affects throughout the location, as though each environment is part of a large puzzle machine. Background music is jazzy and impudent. Exploration is somewhat limited because, once through a portal, Kira usually can't return.

The game contains puzzles and mini-games; a few are rather difficult (you can skip them if necessary). Challenges include manipulating the environments, interpreting visual cues, and using inventory items. HOs are fragments; once assembled, the finished items are used in the location where they are found. The only component this game lacks is a magnifying glass to help find the most deviously hidden fragments -- some are almost impossible without a close-up view.

About 35 percent HOs, 10 percent exploration, 35 percent inventory challenges, and 20 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy Challenge: the stone faces

Dark Parables: Curse of Briar Rose

Thorns from an abandoned castle in Scotland have begun to infest a nearby town. You are an investigator sent to determine the cause. Once over the castle wall, you encounter a spirit claiming to be a princess named Briar Rose. You work your way through the deserted grounds and the darkened rooms of the castle, hoping to outwit the evil force that shrouds the castle and threatens your world. Candlelight, point-of-view changes and unusual angles -- plus the stained glass and statuary -- depict a place that is mysterious and ancient, frozen in time.

Briar Rose features inventory challenges, pattern analysis puzzles, and mini-games. The final puzzle is difficult and timed. HO searches are close-up screens with fragmented items, and while they make you search carefully, they don't hold up progress for very long -- especially if you use the quickly recharging hints. New areas are constantly opening up, so the game's pace is gratifyingly fast.

About 45 percent HOs, 20 percent exploration, 20 percent inventory challenges, and 15 percent puzzles/mini-games

Noteworthy Challenge: the medallion riddles

Wish List

At this stage in my IHOG quest, I must acknowledge the growing similarity of IHOGs to adventure games, and I am convinced this trend will continue. Here's my personal wish list to make them even more adventure-gamer-friendly.

IHOGS are inherently more flexible than adventure games, and they accommodate a wider variety of gaming styles. The result, naturally, is that I'd like them to be even more flexible! Specifically, I'd like to be able to individually tweak aspects of the difficulty levels -- make it possible to have the HO hints meter fast, while being able to turn off the indicator that calls attention to inventory item locations, for instance.

IHOGS certainly include lots of puzzling, but I am surprised at how seldom these games use the many traditional variations on word puzzles -- riddles, crosswords, anagrams, etc. Perhaps, once the "find" lists are finished, the developers (like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady) are "sick of words." I'd enjoy seeing more word challenges, and fewer traditional "find" lists.

Other items on my request list -- more character development, longer dialogs and more complex stories. To see where IHOGs currently stand in the story department, look for the next installment in this series of editorials:  "Hidden Objects: What Stories They Could Tell."

 

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