How hidden object games influenced video game culture

Natural to human beings, the act of seeing something with your eyes, nose or hands is a natural instinct. When you start playing a video game, it’s one of the first things you do: notice things. Which buttons should I use? How do I get there? Which items are available? Hidden object games focus singularly on this one idea — the gameplay of searching — to create compelling environments, to tell stories, and to build out worlds.

It is possible to argue that most games contain elements of hidden object gameplay. The inherent mechanic is in reacting to things hidden in an environment, whether that’s a patterned ledge, as an environmental clue, or an object literally hidden within a space. Going even further, people have been playing hidden object games for hundreds of years — seeking out hidden objects in illustrations or simply spotting objects in the world, à la I-Spy

Of course, the first hidden object games could be played with no equipment. Illustrations were used to adapt puzzles for books, magazines and newspapers. You can think about it. Highlights magazine or I-SpyThese books were then adapted to virtual versions that work largely in the same manner, but with digital motion. I-Spy’s hidden object video games date back as far as 1999. They were originally published by Scholastic. I-Spy Spooky Mansion. It’s about as simple as these games come, with a narrator reading out what they’ve “spied” once the player clicks on an item. Typically, the object will wiggle a bit — or trigger some other simple animation — before the player moves on.

tablewear with various creepy things, like eyeballs

I-Spy Spooky Mansion
Scholastic Corportion

The core mechanic of hidden object games spans well beyond the video game industry, despite the genre itself remaining in the industry’s margins. A so-called casual genre, hidden object games are played enthusiastically and widely, but largely dismissed as fluff — the same way romance novels are perceived. Some hidden object gaming, which are often based on romance and gothic story telling, has suffered from the same fate that books that have been deemed irrelevant or not worthy of enjoyment and analysis.

Some independent games appeared in the last few years. A rebranding has been done to the genre by a number of studios. OtherInstead, you should be focusing on what it is to search. Games like Hidden Folks Wind PeaksAnd even more ToemShira Chess, a University of Georgia professor, is reimagining the genre to be something new. Shira, a University of Georgia professor and author of the feminist videogame theory book Ready Player 2These hidden object games are complex and were recognized in a 2014 paper. Uncanny Gaming: Ravenhearst gaming and Gothic appropriation. Chess saw how certain hidden object games ”both reinforce[d]It can be confusing[d] the expectations of women gamers,” but continued in the genre’s legacy of “push[ing]Against some of the traditional conventions […], illustrating how digital spaces have begun to rewrite traditional narrative conventions.”

Looking back

“Hidden object games were one of the first genres that were really meant for an assumed feminine audience,” Chess told Polygon. The “assumed” here is important, Chess said.

Hidden object games have always featured a lot of female protagonists, such as Jane Jensen’s works. Jensen famously transformed popular novels into hidden object adventure games. This, paired with the organizational nature of these games, led to the genre being driven toward a perceived female audience — the other. The lack of barriers to entry, whether that’s a device that can play these games or knowledge of the mechanics of play, made for a slower, more approachable game.

The real benefit of this genre was that the mechanics could shift and adjust in order to enable different storytelling styles: gothic romance, mysteries and detective stories are all popular. Though the gameplay is considered slow, it’s still gameplay used to tell a story.

“I think the reason hidden object games both get ignored and also stand out among the genre of casuals is that we tend towards thinking about games in terms of speed, in terms of action, in terms of what’s happening on the screen,” Chess said. “Not the action of what’s happening internally with the player.”

You can find the entire book here Jane Jensen: Gabriel Knight, Adventure Games, Hidden Objects, author and professor Anastasia Salter wrote that hidden object games “started out from scavenger hunt mechanics” that were largely focused around mystery themes. Huntsville mystery case files The original hidden object video game, which was first released in 2005. It was, however, a great success for Big Fish. This game also started a new genre of hidden object games that would be influential for many years. 2007 Ravenhearst: Mystery FilesOne of the many sequels to the series, ‘Mystery Case Files’, landed in third place on the top-selling PC games lists during the holiday season. Reuters stated at the time that Mystery Case Files was a popular franchise for women between 35 and 50. This makes it even more impressive.

Big Fish game production manager Christine Zeigler confirmed to Polygon that Big Fish’s subscribers skew older than the “hardcore” gaming subset. “Looking back, the audience has matured over the years, with 76% of players over the age of 55,” Zeigler said. “Players have consistently been predominantly female, representing 85% of players.” Big Fish declined to provide exact numbers regarding its player base for hidden object games, but Ziegler said the company continues to release new hidden object games every November.

“Lots of our players came from games like Myst, and were looking for point and click adventure-style games that they could dive into and escape in,” Ziegler said. “The interest in bite-sized adventure games has continued over the years.”

two characters waving at the camera

June’s Journey

In 2013, former Big Fish Studios vice president Patrick Wylie said the Mystery Case Files games garnered “over 100 million downloads” since it was created in 2005. The sheer number of players interested in these games at that time drove companies to invest in this sort of storytelling — often considered an “easy” development path, focusing on still puzzles with little animation. The oversaturation of the genre may have contributed to a maligned perception of hidden object games, once they became bloated full of ads and marketing — something that got more invasive as these games moved into the mobile space.

However, these games are still very popular among dedicated players. Big Fish continues to host Mystery Case Files and other games, which are equally popular. June’s JourneyWooga by Artifex Mundi, a Polish developer.

In recent years, the genre’s evolving.

Seek and hide

Hidden Folks is not a hidden object game, says developer Adriaan de Jongh. It’s a Search game, one in which players aren’t simply staring at a screen to pull some Where’s Waldo?An eerie character emerges from a crowd. Sure, there are hidden objects, but they’re less important than the act of searching: unzipping tents, opening windows, shaking trees. Hidden Folks’ hand-drawn worlds, sketched out by illustrator Sylvain Togroeg, are built out with clues designed to facilitate the search — black-and-white bread crumbs masterly placed throughout the spaces.

a crowded black and white street with lots of screens

Hidden Folks
Image: Adriaan de Jongh, Sylvain Tegroeg

Even though de Jongh hesitates calling, Hidden Folks a hidden object game — a genre he says he hates — there is no doubt that the game DoesThe genre shares many of its elements with other games. De Jongh doesn’t want to say it, but to an outsider, it’s clear: Hidden Folks is a hidden object game, even if it’s not intended to mimic the ones that came before it. This game is an integral part of the genre. Its popularity and reputation has the potential for highlighting a vast array of games that are often overlooked.

It’s rare for a hidden object game to break into the mainstream, off the front page of Big Fish, where hidden object games always come first. Hidden FolksOne of few who has managed to break the stigma and reach a wider audience is De Jongh. Polygon was told by De Jongh that Hidden FolksIt has been enjoyed by over 2 million people. A number of clones have been created to mimic the aesthetics and gameplay of the original game.

But plenty of games are cleverly iterating on the concept, similarly using the black-and-white palette, like the 100 Hidden series and “interactive city discovery game” The Small LifeTo make something completely new. You can even play a game of chess. MicroMacro: Crime CityThe company is harnessing this genre. Hard Boiled Games’ hidden object board game won a prestigious award — a Spiel des Jahres — this year.

“I think we’ve only scratched the surface of players that will be interested in this,” de Jongh said.

Wooga and Artifex Mundi are not the only ones creating stories for their beloved hidden object games. Smaller studios as well as solo developers have also begun to embrace this nostalgia and continue to improve the gameplay. Hidden Folks’ breakthrough popularity feels like it’s paved a way for games that embrace the hidden object label to reach mainstream success, breathing new life into the genre that’s ripe for storytelling.

an isometric scene with waterfalls and trees

Image: Devon Wiersma

Solo game developer Devon Wiersma created Elegance, a “dreamlike hidden object puzzler,” in 2017, and is working on a successor now. Unlike traditional hidden object games, Elegance’s worlds spin, letting the player inspect the space from different angles. To find potions in the world, the player must interact and interact with it. Wiersma’s EleganceFollow-up is called Lofty QuestHidden object games are unique in that they allow for narratives to be added to their gameplay.

“Often an effective game theme ties into your gameplay and strengthens both in the process, and ‘hidden object’ games prominently feature acts of exploration and searching,” Wiersma told Polygon via email. “Those are themes I’m aiming to incorporate into the narrative. What does a character look for in a person? They will discover something about their past or themselves. What might they reveal about the world around them?”

Wiersma stated that these narrative themes can help to contextualize searching for hidden objects games. It makes a narrative feel natural, and works in all sorts of settings — even in a teaching environment, which is how Pinngauq designer Talia Metuq uses the hidden object format in her Inuit mythology game, Inuit Uppirijatuqangit – ᐃᓄᐃᑦ ᐅᑉᐱᕆᔭᑐᖃᖏᑦShe explained to Polygon that the inscription was meant for children and taught them about the culture.

“Don’t whistle at the Northern Lights or they will take your head off and play with it like a ball’

Inuit Uppirijatuqangit

Unlike a traditional hidden object game, there isn’t a list of objects to find; instead, it’s up to the player to inspect the detailed pixel art landscapes and click on characters to uncover its secrets. Still, there is a to-do list to help players make sure they don’t miss stories, Inuit UppirijatuqangitRyan Oliver, executive producer. “Hidden object [games force] the user to engage in the landscapes,” Oliver said. “It adds a layer of storytelling to the Inuit QaujimajatuqangitTalia presents these ideas in her stories. It serves as a vessel to immerse people in the world Talia designed and provide a simple objective through interaction.”

In a similarly surreal environment, there’s also the mixed reality game HoloVistaAconite is the developer

HoloVista is, as The Verge reported in 2020, “the first mobile game of its kind,” both a hidden object game and a social media simulator controlled by your phone — albeit in an unconventional way. Players physically move their own phones to navigate the mixed reality space, taking pictures of items — like a mermaid tale or starfish in a fantastical mansion — to knock them off a “to find” list. Star St.Germain, Nadya and Nadya, co-founders of AconiteCo, are not afraid to use the hidden object tag; the goal is to find objects in the game. The legacy of this genre is still evident HoloVistaThe game employs this mechanic to encourage players to participate in the story. To learn more, see HoloVistaThe story questions our relationships to technology while we all use the exact same device.

HoloVista The explicit guidance embedded in the genre has been a benefit: players know what they should do and are able to engage with it easily. HoloVista Polygon spoke with Scott John Siegal as the designer lead.

“I think it speaks volumes to the potential for hidden object as a genre,” Siegal said. “By definition it’s a style of gameplay that asks players not to just look at a scene or a place, but to really see it. This is a mindful and meditative type of play. I’ve learned through years of therapy about the calming power of observing your surroundings, and to notice and describe the things you see. Applying the same idea to virtual spaces can feel centering in that same way, even if you find yourself centered in an entirely different world.”

When hidden object games shed the stigma of “genre,” they’re able to immerse players in worlds in ways that are unhindered by skill-based mechanics and complicated controls. Hidden object games are often unfairly criticized for their casualness. This is likely because they’re popular among seniors and women, Wiersma stated. Years of game culture and marketing history has deemed casual games as less legitimate, “which adds to their perception as ‘other,’” Wiersma said.

a TV screen knocked over

Image by AconiteCo

That perception was, according to most developers, incorrect. Wiersma pointed out that legacy hidden object games target legacy players — people who love the franchises and have for years. Indie games, like HoloVista Hidden Folks Inuit Uppirijatuqangit,And EleganceWe are expanding our definition of hidden object games and changing their narrative.

“It almost feels, to me, like there’s a market for hidden object games in that indie space — where big, older companies aren’t interested in the risk of pushing to expand outside their market, but potential players who aren’t entirely in the casual space may discover it’s an experience they’re interested in after all and just needed it presented in a different form that might appeal to them more,” Wiersma said. “Almost a new offshoot of hidden object games.”

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