Hidden Object Gaming

So I play a lot of games.

You would call me a gamer. (You damn well better call me a gamer, or I will cut you. I am the one in the relationship who understands the critical nature of ammo conservation, and it is somewhat embarrassing when we go on that Alien Invasion game at Disney World as a family and they give us the little laser guns and you shoot targets for points.

OLDEST CHILD: “I got twelve thousand!”

YOUNGEST CHILD: “I got nine thousand!”

KEVIN: “I got thirty five thousand!”

URSULA: “Ah. Um. Hey look, a churro vendor!”

KEVIN: “Oh, just—wait…two hundred thousand? How did you even DO that?!”

URSULA: “It would be easier if they weren’t cute. I hate shooting cute things.”)


In addition to all the standard console games and tablet games and whatever will run on my laptop (yes, I did upgrade my laptop solely so it could run Civ5, shut up) I also have a membership over at Big Fish and when I am bored and wish to lay in bed and vegetate, I drag out one of their little puzzle-adventure-hidden object games and start finding objects to click on other objects to unlock other objects.

I have played a lot of these.Most of them are forgettable. There’s a few that I know I’ve played because it’s in my queue and if I hit “play” it rolls the end credits, but I have absolutely no memory of it. There were a few that were pretty nifty. At 6.99 for four to six hours of entertainment, it beats the hell out of the movies and puts it on par with a paperback. Most of the ones I play are fantasy. They all take place in an enchanted forest. I am now extremely skeptical of enchanted forests. You must rock the enchanted forest like CRAZY for me not to roll my eyes.Approximately 90% of these games involve rescuing someone from Horrible Danger. (The other 10% seem to involve restoring someone to their rightful throne.) About 75% of the time, this person with be female. Interestingly enough, about 90% of the time, so are you. (Well, assuming your character has a gender, which they often don’t.) This is arguably the only game demographic I’ve ever played where female protagonists massively outnumber male ones. Mind you, I haven’t done most of the private eye ones, so mystery may slant the other way. Fantasy/horror, though, heavily weighted to either genderless or female main characters. It’s also the only field I’ve ever played where the protagonists are occasionally middle-aged women, a demographic so taboo in video games that you begin to assume that they all take place in a universe with a female-only version of the life-timers from Logan’s Run. (You are allowed to have old women, so long as they are quest givers, pleasantly befuddled, or EEEEVIL. But only one per game.)But it’s usually a damsel in distress. Usually it’s a princess, sometimes it’s your sister, occasionally it’s a random little girl that you, for whatever reason, have to save. I played a cool one recently that involved mechanical cockroach races with Death, and you were actually male and had to save your girlfriend. (Mind you, I’ve also played at least two where you were female and had to save your boyfriend or husband. But they’re rarer.)
Animation is almost always awful, voice acting is mediocre to bad with occasional standouts. Art wavers between great and apocalyptically bad. (The “Drawn” series in particular is visually spectacular. Others resemble, at best, Thomas Kinkade paintings. Most are shades of fairly forgettable European Ren-Faire High Fantasy Shlock.)Now and again you find one that is genuinely creepy and unsettling or genuinely delightful and well done. It’s rare, but it’s nifty when you find it. I accept all of this as part and parcel of the genre. However, there’s a couple of things that make me CRAZY.1) “I don’t want to get my hands dirty.”I swear to god, there is NOTHING that infuriates me more in these games. You’ve got an object that is dirty, slimy, muddy, muck-encrusted or has spiderwebs on it, and your character—who is in MORTAL PERIL, remember, or is saving someone in mortal peril, or in one memorable occasion, has just seen her comrade be drowned by a kelpie—says “Ew. I don’t want to touch that.”

This drives me utterly bugnuts. Oh my god, you just watched someone drown and you’re going “Eh, mud. It’ll make my hands dirty.”?! BITCH, YOU BETTER BE DOING PUSH-UPS IN THAT MUD NOW DROP AND GIVE ME TWENTY.

Worse, there’s no reason for it. It’s lazy writing. It’s “I want you to use this object on this other object but I can’t be arsed to think of a good reason, so let’s go with “Icky, mud!” and never mind how shallow and vapid that makes the protagonist seem. I can think of fifty reasons off the top of my head, and have actually seen some of them used well. Just finished a game where by god, you got in and got your hands dirty and bled all over thorns if that’s what you had to do, and they still managed to come up with some pretty good reasons not to grab things, among them “I don’t think that’s really water, and I don’t want to put my hands in it in case it’s acid” and “that’s broken glass and I’ll cut myself to ribbons” and “that object is currently on fire.”

These are all good and valid reasons and will not make me hate the protagonist. “Icky” is not a valid reason for anyone in even semi-mortal peril.

2) Planned obsolescence

So you get an object. You use the object. The object then frequently vanishes.

Twenty minutes later, you really need an object JUST LIKE THAT LAST ONE, which is, of course, gone.

Now, if the object is dynamite, that makes sense. But the object is almost never dynamite. It’s always something like a crowbar that is so obviously goddamn useful that only an idiot would throw it away.

I accept that this is to a certain extent endemic in the puzzle genre, but damnit, it’s unnecessary. I seriously just finished a game where you get a lighter in the first twenty minutes, light the torches, the lighter vanishes, and you spend the rest of the game banging rocks together to light fires and fuses.

Why, god? Just let me keep my lighter. The five seconds of gameplay required to locate the flint could be made up hiding one more part of a multi-part key that I need to unlock the stone dragon guarding the temple of the thingummy which holds the sacred recipe of whatsit, and I would not be left yelling “Why didn’t you keep the Zippo, dumbass?!” at the screen.

There are four abundantly useful objects in such games. They are a knife, a crowbar, a bucket, and a lighter (or matches, or a pocket dragon, or whatever. Source of fire, anyhow.) Let us keep those objects. Only a moron in mortal peril discards their crowbar.

And indeed, this can be done well! The same game that infuriated me with the kelpie and the mud let you keep a knife and a pitcher for the entire game! The one with the lighter and the flint gives you a pet hamster that you can name,* who climbs into all the small holes for the rest of the game, bringing you puzzle pieces and statue eyeballs and keys and god knows what all. The one before that gave you a mole with sunglasses that would appear occasionally when you needed dirt dug up, instead of making you muck about making shovels out of native vegetation. This can be done.

3) Time to Butterfly Net

Back when I worked at a crappy little game company (that frankly should have been making this sort of game, they would have been superior to the crap we shipped) we had what was known as “Time To Crate.”

This is the span of time between the opening credits and the point where your character must shove a crate around to activate a floor switch, reach a second-story window, jump to a stalagmite, or whatever. I don’t know that I played a game in that entire time-frame that didn’t have a Time To Crate. The only thing more ubiquitous would be smashable barrels in dungeon crawls.**

In the hidden object-puzzle-adventure genre, there is “Time to Butterfly Net.”

Every. Single. Game.

I wouldn’t mind, but sometimes it’s just nonsensical. Do you really need a butterfly net to dip that object out of the water? Wouldn’t a branch work just as well? What is this crazy obsession with butterfly nets?

I feel better for having ranted this rant. Thank you.

(No, the solution is not for me to do one myself, thank you. I’m still mucking about with Story Nexus when I get the game-making itch, and it looks like writing Act II is going to take me until the end of the year at this rate.)


*Hamster-Bob. I’m surprised you had to ask.

**Bard’s Tale had, in addition to a brilliant plot, brilliant music, and thumb-destroying gameplay, a really good explanation for this. You were hired by a barrel maker to destroy as many barrels as possible so that he would be hired to make replacements. You received a bounty per hundred destroyed. It was genius.

9 thoughts on “Hidden Object Gaming

  1. Katie says:

    I don’t know if Big Fish has it, but if they do, try The Chronicles of Emerland Solitare. It’s hidden object combined with …solitare. It’s a bunch of fun, some of the levels are punch your computer hard.

  2. Anne says:

    I also use Big Fish as my time-waster of choice (when I don’t have the mental capacity for Real Games ™), and the mystery genre does not skew very heavily towards men either.

    Drawn is fantastic. If you haven’t played them yet, you might enjoy the Azada series. It was one of my favorites. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure it will fulfill your butterfly net needs. Also, The Tiny Bang Story. Those are both more adventure than hidden object, but do have hidden object elements.

    Also, I feel ashamed, but I think you are so much cooler now that I know you’re a gamer. And I thought you were pretty brilliant before!

  3. Wookieegunner says:

    Someone should make one where the fire giver is a small dragon whose fire comes from digestion gases that it stores in a special bladder. Then when you want the player to hunt for fire, make them hunt for suitably gassy foods.

  4. Tami says:

    This sounds like a job for a LIST of games to play because they’re better than the average icky butterfly net. I haven’t played a ton of the big fish games, but enough to know exactly what you’re talking about. I’d happily spend $7 on a game that I KNOW is going to be good, but I’m a bit more mulish when it comes to wondering just how long before I want to throttle my character.

  5. vitupera says:

    (But can I just say, I am hugely excited that you’re writing a Story Nexus game. I will play it with absolute glee when it comes out!)

  6. Scribblegoat says:

    I’m actually working on an article about how the female audience and female protagonists lead the developers to choose totally different points of plot satisfaction than a standard narrative demands (e.g. “YES, YOU UTTER INANE BASTARD, THE WEREWOLF IS THE GUY WITH THE SILVER BULLET WOUND, THANKS FOR FINALLY CATCHING ON!”). I’m focusing specifically on horror, though, because I have a weakness for asylum themes.

  7. dester'edra says:

    I’ve played a lot of big fish games of the hidden object variety myself; i like a good game and love puzzles but i don’t like moving quickly, so hidden object is a good sub for the graphic adventure games i played as a kid. If i don’t think too much about actual plot, the gameplay is oddly addictive. I can’t quite bring myself to get a paid account, tho, so i’m limited to what games they decide to offer for free.

    I’d consider the time to butterfly net phenomenon an extension of the squeamish protagonist, myself. I mean, really, it’s just water, and this isn’t the north pole. Is there some reason why i can’t just wade in and fetch the darn thing myself? At least give me a piranha or a mob of angry carnivorous frogs to explain why i can’t go in. If i’m trying to save someone’s life, i will dig in the mud, ford creeks, chase off non-poisonous spiders, fish things out of the sewer, and wipe off dusty pictures with my bare hands to get the job done faster.

    And i swear, every time i find some incredibly handy knife and then throw it away after one use, i want to swat someone. If it breaks, ok, it breaks. But at least give me th ubiquitous “Darn piece of junk!”

    I’d add a couple more annoyances to your list, however:

    Failure of ingenuity–It’s a knife, so apparently it can only be used to cut things, and then only certain things, like rope. Apparently a chisel cannot be used to unscrew anything, a saw cannot be used to cut rope, a rock can never pound in nails, and so on. If someone i care about is in mortal peril, i’m not going to wander around looking for exactly the right tool–or at least not before i look at the tools i have in hand and think about whether one of them will work reasonably well. Game designers don’t bother thinking about that, however, because it’s too much effort to come up with a reason why only this item is the only one that can be used here.

    Guess My Hotspot–i swear, i once spent 3 hours looking for the correct spot to hit a statue to break it, especially since each strike needed to be in a slightly different completely unmarked place. And if i hit the wrong spot there’s nothing there to tell me that i have the right tool but i’m clicking on the wrong 2mm of the target.

    Solution Looking for a Problem–I notice that half the time i (as the protagonist) find and collect something esoteric like an expensive brooch long before i have reason to think i might need it, but it doesn’t occur to me to grab any cutting tool or zippo that comes to hand. Do i get extra points for use of bizarre implements or something?

    Endgame Puzzle Lag–For demonic personifications of evil, it’s amazing how many villains are willing to give the big “you will never stop me” speech, then stand around idle for 20 minutes while i collect the items for a spell or solve a minigame. Wouldn’t it work better if i had to solve the puzzle in order to make the item *first*, then *after that* i went off to find the villain?

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