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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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
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.
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
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
About 10 percent HOs, 30 percent exploration, 40 percent inventory
challenges, and 20 percent puzzles/mini-games
Noteworthy Challenge: repairing the reanimation machine
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
Noteworthy challenge: the poltergeist sequence
Empress of the Deep: The
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
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
About 30 percent HOs, 10 percent exploration, 25 percent inventory
challenges (including inventory item combinations), and 35 percent
Noteworthy Challenge: the castle entrance
Snark Busters: Welcome to
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.
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
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.
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
About 45 percent HOs, 20 percent exploration, 20 percent inventory
challenges, and 15 percent puzzles/mini-games
Noteworthy Challenge: the medallion riddles
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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