Imagine for a moment that you're playing a detective game. There’s been a horrible murder, and you must examine crime scenes, scrutinize evidence, and question suspects in a series of garishly pulpy set pieces. During your interrogations, you pick up on behavioral inconsistencies and stories that don’t quite line up.
Care to guess what game this is? Phoenix Wright? LA Noire? Murdered: Soul Suspect?
None of the above. It's Dead Reckoning. This isn’t a triple-A console franchise storming the stage at E3, it’s a HOPA (hidden object puzzle adventure) for mobiles and PCs. Its developers at the Serbian studio Eipix have been working with publisher Big Fish to add compelling narrative innovations to the standard picture-scrutinizing gameplay.
Many dismiss hidden object games as a casual genre for audiences made up of older women--as if that in itself was a terrible thing. But what Eipix and Big Fish are doing reflects a level of ambition that has crept into the genre as a whole, and has begun to attract a broader audience. (It should be noted that several industry observers have begun to take notice of the increasing sophistication of hidden picture games.)
Dead Reckoning: Silvermoon Isle
Eipix's HOPAs tend to put players in the role of a detective, ferreting out clues and solving mysteries and puzzles. But there's a great deal of design diversity within that system. Dead Reckoning games are about solving crimes in a gritty milieu, while their Dark Parables series is centered around fairy tales and myths, with young heroines, princesses, and magic monsters bantering and interacting with each other in a manner that would do an indie RPG proud.
"You have to think of a puzzle that can be played over and over again."
Big Fish confirms that 85-90 percent of the hidden object player base is women, and mostly over the age of 45. But according to producer Danilo Gnip, Dark Parables in particular is now attracting a younger and more deeply engaged audience. ”These younger fans can be quite demanding!" says Gnip. "They really cut down those stories piece-by-piece and analyze them, and then they mail us to ask really in-depth questions. The game even has its own Wiki! ”
If you’re a narrative designer on a triple-A console franchise, that level of fan devotion probably sounds familiar.
Story isn't just tacked on to picture-finding in Eipix games. In Dark Parables, narrative rewards are doled out not just in the form of story progression, but also in the collectible “parables”--fairy tales within fairy tales that are uncovered by paying extra attention to the surrounding environment. Certain puzzles add items to the player's inventory that act as keys to different doors, or symbolic keys in interacting with characters and furthering the plot. Optional objects, when completed, may unlock story details that the player would have missed had they not been particularly eagle-eyed (a mechanic that doesn't sound that different from certain Assassin's Creed side quests).
Dark Parables: The Little Mermaid and the Purple Tide
Another reason that hidden object games are off the radar of so many is their central focus--those hidden object puzzles that supposedly flatten out the design into something repetitive. But Gnip explains that each of the different series Eipix works on have their own unique twist on how to incorporate puzzles, and that they're often based on player feedback.
In Dark Parables, he explains, hidden object puzzles are tied closely as to narrative progression, such as finding a cure for a member of your party, or finding key pieces that recreate the classic Red Riding Hood fairy tale.
“You don't have cogs that rotate or do some math or something like that," says Gnip. "We always try to fit in the story somehow. You have to think of a puzzle that can be played over and over again, because that's a part of the Dark Parables franchise, they have one puzzle that can be played three or four times through the entire game, on different scenes and locations, but still remain interesting. If you try to throw the player at the same thing over and over again they will get bored."
By contrast, Dead Reckoning games rely on interrogations, and Lovecraftian nightmare-tales like Phantasmat have players searching for secret passageways in haunted mansions. Though all games in this genre invite the player to scan the screen for clues, there's enough variance that the genre's most devoted fans will consistently buy several every month.
Phantasmat: The Endless Light
Gnip says that Eipix has been forced to innovate in response to play testing at Big Fish. Feedback from play testers has the Serbian studio scrapping puzzles, design, and story much the same way RPG designers might after finding how players responded to a certain mechanic. For the murder mystery Dead Reckoning: Silvermoon Isle, Gnip’s team first introduced a new mechanic to simulate pulpy detective work---an interrogation mechanic where players pay attention to narrative clues and character behavior in the art and animation.
“We planned to introduce it like a side feature, just to have it once or twice in the game, to see how the players would react. For play testing, we placed one right at the beginning of the game to introduce it...and they loved it.” The game was refocused around this design pillar, with a lot of original story and new characters to support it.
Many have noted a kinship between HOPAs and 90’s point-and-click adventure games.Gnip acknowledges similarities and overlap, but says he avoids the notoriously difficult puzzles found in classic adventure games that could sometimes be off-putting in their obtuseness. "I still really like the point-and-click genre," he says. "But I think it's easier for a newer player to get immersed in a hidden object game.”
Thus far, the hidden object genre has been dominated by publishers like Big Fish and Alawar, but smaller companies like Wooga have made entries into the genre, introducing episodic storytelling that unfolds across multiple entries, as opposed to Eipix's self-contained story format.
If you’re seeking to create an engaging narrative experience for newer players, it may be worth diving in to a Dark Parables or Dead Reckoning HOPA to see what might fit for your game. This is especially worth doing if you have a design interest in 2D environment exploration, or an art team invested in creating layered environments. And the genre will definitely be of interes to writers tackling stories that overlap with popular YA fiction and hard bolied detective novels. There should lots of ideas and inspirations lurking in this genre--you just have to know where to look for them.