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The Great Object Hunt

In which I chart some of my experiences with hidden object games, starting as a genre newcomer and meandering through several attempts to understand what I’ve been doing here. This post has been in development for years, and changed direction several times. It’s become a journey from my first experiences with the genre, until now when I find myself moving away from it.

[Post contains some spoilers, particularly for A Vampire Romance, Twisted Lands: Shadow Town and Deadly Association]

There are some defensibly good hidden object games, like Tiny Bang Story or the Drawn series, but I'd much prefer to write about trash. Most of these games feel churned out, with little depth or originality. Disposability itself can be part of the attraction, but in a conflicted way. I waver on whether these games are playfully cheesy or just cringeworthy.

The Case of the Excessively Long Title

Season of Mystery Screenshot

A hidden object scene in a Japanese garden.

I first dipped my toe into the hidden object genre with Season of Mystery: The Cherry Blossom Murders. Long titles with multiple parts are in fashion.

SoM:tCBM is a murder mystery featuring western people in 19th Century Japan. It begins with Irene Pemberton finding her husband dead. The police rule it a suicide, but she knows better. This sets up a predictable tale about an anachronistically independent woman solving a mystery. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Scenes are necessarily cluttered, but objects are well integrated into the scene. The soft, hand-drawn appearance is soothing and aesthetically inoffensive. Mrs Pemberton might have just found her husband dead, but there’s little sense of grief. It’s more about determination, exploring uncomfortably exotic Japanese locations, and making eyes at the attractive policeman. He gets to do all the properly exciting bits because we couldn’t have the woman getting too independent now, could we? There’s a hilarious fight scene featuring single-expression cut-outs sliding past each other in slow motion. It’s pretty great.

A lot of mainstream games contain obvious tension between serious and lighthearted elements. In a big-budget action game that might mean exploring a dark, gritty setting while still promoting fun as the primary objective. No need to actually feel like it’s dangerous. Sometimes it’s like being pulled in opposite directions. The contrast is here too, even though it plays out differently. The veneer is softer, but in either case I have a similar sense of design trying to be serious (murders! intrigue!) but moderated it to make sure it’s “just a game” and not trying to make anyone uncomfortable.

I suppose this is natural for any format of murder mystery that is more focused on mystery than murder. Just the slightest touch of death being a horrible, gruesome thing, but mostly it’s a device for the actual point of bouncing characters off each other and putting the pieces together. Hidden object focuses the mystery more onto environments than characters. Dialogue is quickly flipped through between scenes, and “where” becomes a far more important question than “who” or “why”.

“Where” is a relatively easy focus to transplant between different genres and settings, which can become samey, but it’s a question I associate heavily with games (in a good way). It’s a different kind of mystery, and where watching the details of a search is tedious, but taking part in a treasure hunt can be exciting.

As with all genres, it takes some imagination if you want the treasure hunt to make real-world sense. An object hunting minigame is not supposed to be taken literally, but it does evoke the sense of searching a scene, and going through a process of deduction. Most of the objects you pick up don’t turn out to be relevant, but no investigation can guess ahead of time everything is going to turn out to be important. Some things will be studied and put aside. Some things will be clutter moved away before you can get to what you’re looking for.

Down the Pixel-Hunting Rabbit Hole

Some people like to pick on so-called casual games for being terrible. Among hidden object connoisseurs, games made by HdO Adventure attract a similar kind of hatred — these are not just trash, but the stinky rotten bits at the bottom of the pile. Of course, I didn’t know that starting out.

Many of HdO's games are based on classic literature, in this case Alice in Wonderland: The Incredible Adventure, because we still can't get away from that multi-part title thing. Oh, I forgot a bit: Alice in Wonderland: The Incredible Adventure — Extended Edition (tears out hair).

Alice in Wonderland Screenshot

Follow the rabbit through Photoshop land.

Not having to do the actual writing frees HdO up to concentrate on creating weird images and godawful sound effects. I wonder what they added in the extended edition? The zoom button maybe? It needed it. HdO games often include a recommendation to set your screen brightness to maximum, presumably because it's the only way to have a chance of seeing tiny objects in shadowy backgrounds.

Object hunting is necessarily about the search, but most people don't go in for the challenge of seeking out a minute smudge barely sticking out from behind something. You sort of adjust to it, mostly by clicking on indistinct objects in the hope they turn out to be important.

Then there was this:

Alice in Wonderland Screenshot

Painting the roses red. A bed of tiny flowers inviting the player to search for 59 white roses.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Object hunting itself — the small-scale “where” — is an art, and hidden object gives me a new appreciation for old Graeme Base books or even "Where’s Wally?". I was always drawn to that stuff, if not to the same degree as puzzle books.

Bigger scale “where” is still about jumping between locations, and I lose a proper sense of scale and direction. I’d prefer to search a house or very small town rather than a city. Adventure games sometimes lose me when they start jumping between countries (or planets). Hidden object seems less prone to this than more traditional point-and-click adventure. The scope is kept under control.

Cross My Palm with Silver

After my experiences with Alice I decided to stop playing roulette and do some research on popular HOGs. This led me to Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate. I was expecting a big step up, but in some ways it was the worst experience yet. By genre standards Mystery Case Files has high production values. From a broader perspective, this means Madame Fate attempts something resembling an opening cutscene and falls straight into the deepest recesses of the uncanny valley. Moving back to still artwork for the game-proper, there's still something that doesn't sit right with me.

In Madame Fate a carnival fortune teller foresees her own death, but not who the murderer is because that would be too easy. All the carnival personalities have a motive to investigate. It all builds towards a SURPRISE ENDING TWIST OMG.

Madame Fate Screenshot

The bearded lady.

HOGs absolutely thrive on stereotypes and over-used tropes. Flipping through the titles on casual behemoth Big Fish Games it's difficult to find anything new, unpredictable or thematically challenging. It makes me sad when I really think about it, but probably no more than other major genres. A carnival seems to be a popular setting, and it makes it very easy to create bright, cluttered scenes and larger-than-life clichéd characters. Mystery Case Files overall seems to mostly involve ghost stories, sometimes pirates or jewel thieves.

More recently, Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake moved to using full motion video actors. It's all very '90s, but suits the series perfectly. There's infectiousness to the over-acting that makes the generic plot a little more enjoyable. I'm genuinely impressed with Shadow Lake as a quality example of B-grade gaming.

Thanks to being set in a literal ghost town, Shadow Lake has far less characters than Madame Fate. The people you do meet are still suffering from an overdose of clichés and quirkiness, but at least it's a bit more self-aware. Video tape Easter eggs left behind by the TV series Ghost Patrol are a particular highlight for trash lovers (“Come at me ghosts!”).

Shadow Lake Screenshot

Lea Thompson as a psychic in Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake.

Shadow Lake isn't exactly the creepiest game ever created, but it does include a few jump-scares. It's a good reminder these are games designed for adults, even if that doesn't include most of the adults I know.

I’m not sure if I’m the core audience for any popular games, but here I’m even further from being that. It’s probably beneficial to spend some time with games where I’m less comfortable, but it comes with some headaches. I wish I didn’t end up enjoying Shadow Lake so much, because buying games from Big Fish is horrible. Everything about the experience feels icky, from having to install their game manager, to the "personalised games you'll love" ads, to the dirty tricks. Here, have a free month’s membership and get your first game for 70% off! Now just enter your credit card details… yeah, that tactic’s just designed to trip people up. I never enjoyed it when games first started forcing me to use Steam either (Steam was less reliable at the time and so was my internet) but this is so much worse.

Not Twilight

I never really learnt my lesson about HdO Adventure. Who could resist a game called A Vampire Romance, honestly? Actually A Vampire Romance: Paris Stories — Extended Edition, of course. Presumably Twilight's out of reach so now they have to write their own story after all.

HdO's presentation has not improved at all since Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, one of the static scenes is the same garden from Alice, except with an Eiffel Tower stuck in the background, because Paris. Worse, they now have this weird sliding effect on some screens where you can move the foreground to see things hidden in the background. I'm lucky enough not to get motion sickness from the sliding scenery, but it’s still an unpleasant sensation.

Daylight isn’t a problem for vampires in this game but no one comments on it. Mirrors and photographs are, but the vampire was still silly enough to let someone drag him into a photo booth. I don't have a lot of hope for his unlife expectancy.

A Vampire Romance doesn't have any actual romance, unless being set in Paris counts. It's primarily a game about navigating the subway system (so dreamy). Sometimes it's about a young woman with a crush on an (apparently) young man who keeps telling her to go away and leave him alone. Except she doesn't, so finds out he's a vampire and ends up in terrible danger from other vampires. So they have to run away together, The End. With a dash of by the way you'll never be able to see your friends or family again, and it not being any problem at all.

Vampire Romance Screenshot

That sexy subway.

I'm going to spoil the final screen of the game because it's just too wonderful.

Vampire Romance Screenshot

Live among humans in the shadow of the Sun and the Moon — I have no idea what that means.

I should have learnt by now that HOGs aren't about happy endings. Twisted Lands: Shadow Town ends with the realisation your wife stabbed you and threw you into the sea to die. Apparently the collector's edition includes some ambiguous chance of rescue, which if anything is worse. There is no reason the rescuers should survive that place any better than anyone else did. Also, needing to buy the collector’s edition for the chance of a happy ending? Something is sick in hidden object land.

Wannabe CSI

[Trigger warning on this section for rape and suicide.]

Deadly Association jumps straight into needing to visit the scene of a murder and rape, and it’s not a game that can be trusted with the difficult subject matter. It’s like it can’t make up its mind how gritty it wants to be, so manages to be blatant about serious stuff while simultaneously glossing over and trivialising it. A later scene set up to look like suicide includes a Match-3 game with colourful pills. Abstraction isn’t a bad thing, but just maybe it wasn’t the best idea to use a game style usually associated with bright, cheerful things like jewels, lollies or cute animals and apply it to overdose. Be dark if you want, but at least treat subjects with the weight they deserve.

Deadly Association Screenshot

A cheerful start.

Our detective heroine feels somewhat bad about catching the killer in the end. He is slightly sympathetic, with a little dash of moral complexity involving personal issues and revenge for genuinely messed up things, though still weak and predictable by the overall standards of crime drama. Our detective waves away her concerns to focus on more important things, like her partner asking her out for dinner. Another weak ending.

The best part of Deadly Association was getting to hunt for abnormalities in a sperm sample. Maybe I’m being inconsistent about trivialising serious topics, but visual sperm analysis at least seems something like forensics.

Looking up info about this game now I’m surprised to see so many people struggling with the language. American reviewers who had some problems with “torch” for flashlight or “tumbler” for a glass. The vocabulary is often the bigger challenge of the object hunt, but I think that’s kind of the point. It’s another reason these games aren’t going to be accessible for really small kids. I have to stop and think about what some words mean. There are lots of old-fashioned objects you don’t think about much these days, like a sextant or an awl. And yeah, I had no idea a shuttlecock is also called a birdie, but we all live and learn. Words with multiple meanings are always more challenging. If they are being nice they might specify whether they want an animal horn or a musical horn, but I think it’s more fun when they don’t.

The Fall of the Hidden Object Empire

After a while these games start to blur together. I must have crossed over to the other side at some point because I’m convinced Veil of Mystery: Seven Little Gnomes is a really great title, though I can’t remember anything about the game itself. I did still headdesk over Redrum’s evil “Doctor Fraud” and similarly predictable names, so I’m not completely lost.

I’m playing less hidden object games now. I don’t feel like I have much more to learn about them. They filled a particular niche for me, involving tired evenings where I wanted to focus on something I could finish in an evening or two, while taking things at my own pace and not being challenged too much. I’m turning more towards interactive fiction for that purpose these days.

I feel slightly wistful about this, though I’m happy to be leaving the genre behind. It’s not entirely unlike my feelings about leaving World of Warcraft back in the day, though hidden object never occupied that kind of time. Similar in the sense it was a phase worth going through in some way. And unlike MMOs I have this hope that the HOGs could win me back one day. Maybe that there could be some cool indie object hunts with interesting art and/or themes I care about. You never know.