Hidden Objects: The Stories They Could Tell -- Characters

By Becky Waxman

       

I've been exploring the world of Interactive Hidden Object Games (IHOGs) in previous editorials, including innovations in way Hidden Object challenges are presented, and the incorporation of adventure game elements: more puzzles and inventory item challenges, and the opportunity to explore in larger environments. In case you haven't read previous editorials, IHOGs are games with Hidden Object (HO) screens where one or more of the selected items are later used as elements in inventory item puzzles.

Now I turn to story and characterization. I've found IHOGs to be an excellent source for studying storytelling in games -- partly because they are available in great variety, and partly because they tend to be shorter than "core" games. In other words, they provide an efficient way to experience different approaches and story types, much like comparing or analyzing short stories rather than novels. In this editorial, I'll focus on IHOGs with intriguing stories in which events and puzzles are character-driven.

Character-Driven Games and Suiting Puzzles to the Characters

Character-driven IHOGs are those where the developer has given the main characters unique personalities, and the gamer begins to know them well enough to be able to predict how they will respond to various events. These games reveal character by putting the protagonist in situations where there is conflict, mystery, and (often) danger that is augmented or caused by non-player characters (NPCs) in the game. These NPCs have agendas that help or hinder (or do one while appearing to do the other). How the protagonist reacts in various situations highlights his or her personality. Also revealing is which NPCs the protagonist chooses to trust, and why.

One effective technique games can use to increase knowledge of the main character is to create challenges that tap into the protagonist's area of expertise. A lab technician's analytical skill, or a historian's knowledge of the past, or the mental powers of a psychic are not just central to defining the protagonist's personality -- they can also bolster puzzle/story integration. Admittedly, in the context of a game, these skills trend more toward entertainment than heavy-duty realism. Still, a protagonist doing puzzle-like "work" consistent with his occupational or personal skill increases immersion and suits the story.

IHOGs that draw the protagonists' talents or special abilities into the gameplay have more dialog and/or more cut scenes than the typical casual game. Antagonists are often hiding in plain sight -- a colleague or a neighbor -- and the protagonists interact with them (sometimes several times) before discovering their villainy.

A Short Detour into the Idea of Linear Progression in Games

The character-driven IHOGs I played also tended to be quite linear. What do I mean by "linear"? Stories in books and films typically begin at the beginning and unfold step-by-step. Though some experimental books and films attempt to give a sense of nonlinearity (often through the use of flashbacks), these are not the norm.

Like books and films, IHOGs with a linear structure don't allow the gamer to walk around the environments, but present one screen with its Hidden Objects, puzzles, and character interaction, then present the next screen, and so on.

A linear progression in a game allows the developer to exercise complete control over the story elements, including when and how they are presented, keeping the gamer "on the right page." In theory, a linear structure should make complex stories easier to write, with more nuanced, plot-progressing, personality-descriptive dialog.

I expected character-driven IHOGS to exhibit instances of witty, character-revealing dialog exchanges, but (with a few exceptions, some of which are featured below) I was disappointed. Why, I wondered, haven't designers taken advantage of this subgenre to write elaborate dialogs?

I discovered that -- for a significant percentage of gamers -- the "casual experience" means skipping the story altogether, especially if it means that the characters engage in long conversations. This preference has apparently discouraged IHOG designers from writing lengthy dialogs like those seen in adventure games like The Longest Journey or The Moment of Silence.

IHOG designers may someday write dialog comparable to that in (for instance) the classic novel Pride and Prejudice. But for now, they seem more concerned with keeping dialogs from overwhelming the puzzles and HO screens.

Five Examples of Character-Driven Interactive Hidden Object Games

Though linearity hasn't influenced dialogs as much as I expected, linearity in character-driven IHOGS makes a twisty plot possible in a small space. The plot is often fleshed out in brief, graphic-novel-like cut scenes and the game contains puzzles suited to the protagonists' specific abilities. Below I've provided descriptions of five character-driven games. For variety, I've included IHOGs that can loosely be classified as a thriller, a romance, a mystery with police procedural elements, a mystery with pulp fiction elements, and a fantasy spoof.

*Note: I'm aware that many gamers partner with their young children to play IHOGs. I've put an asterisk in front of each game that is more appropriate for teens and up. Unlike the games I discussed in previous IHOG editorials, most of the games described below are not appropriate for young children -- perhaps because deep stories delve into the darker side of human nature.

*Rhianna Ford & The Da Vinci Letter

Rhianna Ford, an antiquities expert, is in Rome examining a letter allegedly written by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. She is haunted by the disappearance of her husband, also in Rome, earlier that year. She stumbles across a crime as it is committed, and from then on she is consumed with finding out what is going on behind the scenes, and whether her husband's disappearance is linked to a criminal conspiracy.

This casual thriller is quite linear, and the tight structure allows the story to unfold at a fast pace, with many characters potentially implicated in the conspiracy. It contains frequent, brief dialogs. Memorable character portrayals include Rhianna, who is terrified to discover the truth about her husband, D'Agostino the cynical Italian police inspector, and Paulo the geeky exercise addict. The gamer's attitude toward the characters and their motives changes, reverses, or becomes ambiguous as Rhianna's knowledge about them deepens.

Environments are photorealistic and beautifully lit, giving the gamer many chances to see intriguing museum artifacts, as well as glimpses of sights around Rome. Tension-inducing music with unusual rhythms and sounds adds to the atmosphere. The only downside -- the voiced, cartoon-like cut scenes are decidedly different visually, making them unintentionally disruptive and distracting.

Locations are single screens and always contain a "find" list. In addition to the HO gameplay, the game has well integrated puzzles (some of which spring from the heroine's art history expertise), including comparing ink and fiber samples and using an ultraviolet light to discover hidden symbols. Adventure gamers will recognize Rhianna Ford & The Da Vinci Letter designer Steve Ince of Broken Sword fame.

*Tiger Eye Part 1: Curse of the Riddle Box

Based on a romantic story by author Marjorie M. Liu, Tiger Eye features Dela Reese, a young woman with as-yet-untested paranormal abilities (particularly the ability to shape metal) and Hari, a magical being forced to serve a series of masters over the centuries. The tale begins in modern day China, where Dela and Hari first meet and where the evil pursuing them first attempts to take hold.

Frequent graphic-novel-like cut scenes, fully voiced, portray the couple's adventures. I've never seen a story quite like it in a game. It ricochets between drama, danger and lust and snuggles up next to melodrama. (Keep a fire extinguisher handy just in case a torrid scene sets your monitor aflame.) Themes include the effects of magic breaking into the real world, and how oppression and cruelty shape a person's character. The game has a cliffhanger ending. It'll be fun to see how the story unfolds through the sequel.

Graphics are colorful and cartoon-like, and the game is very linear. The HO searches are for multiples of items in the same category (find 10 metal weapons, for example).

Dela's psychic abilities increase in strength and importance as the story progresses. These powers are introduced in game form through an untimed match three sequence, where squares are cleared away so that a vision is gradually revealed. There are also sequences during which Dela undergoes a form of psychic attack and activates mind defenses -- this is represented by a neuron connection game that starts out easy and then becomes dastardly.

Overall the puzzles in this games are frequent and varied (though some puzzles repeat through several iterations). Expect pattern and shape analysis, inventory challenges, matching, jigsaws, and even a shopping challenge. I particularly enjoyed the word puzzles, a couple of which were types I hadn't encountered before.

*James Patterson Women's Murder Club: Little Black Lies

    

This game features the characters from James Patterson's novels about a group of truth-seeking professionals who form the Women's Murder Club (WMC). You alternately assume the roles of three members of an investigatory team: Lindsay Boxer (detective), Claire Washburn (medical examiner), and Cindy Thomas (journalist). When a friend of Claire's is murdered, the WMC springs into action to find out how the actions of a cult, supposedly disbanded years earlier, may be disrupting the peace of an idyllic spot on the California coast.

Many of the game's puzzles are related to tasks in the forensics lab when you play as Claire. A few are surprisingly difficult, especially the skeleton assembly task. I was intrigued to see a couple of word puzzles in addition to the traditional HO "find" lists -- a crossword puzzle and a riddle-like travel challenge. (This game incorporates a free strategy guide if you get stuck.)

The game's graphical style is naturalistic, with the locations authentically portraying small town America. The NPCs also suit the small town atmosphere -- including Beverly Connors, the librarian who can't decide whether to be helpful or hostile, and Sympathy Morgan, the laidback owner of the craft shop at The Crystal Barn. Little Black Lies has brief and to-the-point dialogs, competently voiced. A map with hotlinks to the various locations is included.

This game is less linear than the previous two I've described above, but some degree of linearity is enforced by changing roles to play the various protagonists. There's also less character growth than in the first two games -- mostly, I suspect, because the Women's Murder Club is a long-running series, where the gamer becomes gradually acquainted with the main characters over several games.

After the murderer is revealed in Little Black Lies, the Epilogue takes you back in time and puts you in the role of a character desperately trying to cover up a crime. It was a different type of role than I've played in a casual game, disconcerting and chilling. Jane Jensen, designer of the Gabriel Knight adventure games, was involved with the game's design as Creative Director.

*Valerie Porter and the Scarlet Scandal

    

Set in the Roaring Twenties in urban America, Valerie Porter and the Scarlet Scandal follows the adventures of a fledgling newspaper journalist as she investigates the murder of a film star. The game starts with the murder, goes through an extensive flashback, and then continues with the investigation in a mostly linear fashion.

Graphics are clear, bright, and somewhat stylized, and jazzy music plays in the background. All the characters are competently voiced. Valerie is making her way in a world that clearly favors male journalists -- her boss regularly treats her like an errand girl.

Several puzzles are related to Valerie's writing skills, including word searches, finding the correct words for a feature story, and spelling out headlines. The game also contains photo adjustment, persuasion and mechanical assembly challenges. HOs are "find" lists, sometimes with multiple similar objects, and sometimes with descriptive phrases rather than single words. You can also click to see silhouette shapes for the items on the list.

Valerie's competence in ferreting out sensationalist secrets increases through the game, as does her tendency to remove items from any room in which she is left alone. (Note to self: if a reporter asks for an interview, hide all embarrassing personal belongings.) Other characters tend toward the stereotypical -- the demanding editor, the slick politician, the gruff professional boxer. (The most memorable and non-stereotypical NPC is Valerie's mentor Terry Morgan, who has established herself as an ace female reporter despite the odds against her.) Stereotypes are used in a thought-provoking way here, however, as some of the characters react unexpectedly when the story reaches its culmination.

Magic Academy II

This is the tale of an ambitious young Magic Academy graduate who is determined to work her way onto the powerful Magician's Council. She approaches the Council at a time when it's in a state of near chaos. Some of the members think that a traitor has unleashed a demon into their castle fortress. Others deny that this would even be possible. Suspicions leapfrog among the magicians, and settle on Irene's sister, Annie, who works with foreign emissaries at the fortress.

Determined to prove her worth (and clear her sister's name), Irene sets out to learn as much as she can about the demon and a mysterious box that exhibits demonic traces. She works with various aspects of magic -- runes, potions, and magical energy. Irene also performs many tasks, often related to magic that is now out of control.

The loss of control is shown through the game's challenges. For example, the eccentric magicians at the fortress create illusions they can't remove (spot-the-difference challenges), forget how to access certain rooms in the castle (inventory challenges) and accidentally change all the insects in the castle into animals (HO challenges). HO challenges feature item silhouettes, multiples of the same item, and a few "find" lists. Often objects are in drawers or behind curtains. The game also contains a full complement of puzzles, a few of which are mildly timed. Most of the puzzles are familiar types, but others are fresh -- the magical well, for instance, and the bouncing marble challenge.

Graphics are naturalistic, quaint and colorful. Pleasant orchestral music plays in the background. The story is linear; dialogs are droll and often tongue-in-cheek. All are fully voiced. Voiceovers are competent, though Irene sounds a tad too young and eager, especially for a magician with so much range and talent.

Memorable NPCs include Irene's sister Annie who looks like Queen Amidala (minus the face paint) and Alchemist Ferrous, who can believe six impossible things before breakfast and wants to use magic to enable them.

One downside: Magic Academy II -- developed by NevoSoft, the same developers who created Vampireville -- contains a similar save system. If you quit mid-chapter, you start again at the beginning of that chapter when you resume.

Conclusion

In this editorial I've discussed one approach to "playing a story" -- the character-driven Interactive Hidden Object Game. I've also provided a handful of examples for playing and pondering. There are many more aspects to discuss about storytelling in casual games but this is, at least, a start.

To recap: in character-driven IHOGs, you as the player become acquainted with the protagonist, feel the force of her distinct personality, see how other characters react to this person, and are encouraged to begin to think like the protagonist. These games tend to have complex stories that are fairly (or very) linear, frequent interaction with NPCs, and puzzles based on the protagonist's skills or knowledge. Linearity brings a compression of action and events so the story packs more punch.

Look to this space to see more discussion of stories in casual games. Coming up next: "Hidden Objects: The Stories They Could Tell -- Quests."

**Note: some of the ideas for this article were influenced by Writing for Video Games, a book by Steve Ince.

 

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