It’s looks a bit like BioShock concept art, but it is most definitely not. This is a screenshot from Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden, one of the finest examples of hidden object games, the trash novels of casual games. I love them so.
Many casual game genres can trace their roots back to titles that were considered more hardcore back in the day. We used to play matching and sliding puzzle games on our primitive PCs. Now they’re free-to-play fare mostly relegated to the mobile gaming masses. The hidden object genre is sort of a combination of point-and-click adventure games and “Can You Find The Things Hidden In This Picture” puzzles that used to pop up in magazines and newspapers back in the day.
Hidden object games have never really been cool. While other casual games began as more mainstream fare that grew less appealing to mainstream gamers as they aged, it feels as if hidden object games were created specifically to give older adults, mostly female, something to do at their computer. I recall hearing my aunt clicking away at her computer in the evenings, a glass of wine on her desk.
I don’t drink, but when I grab one of the growing number of inexpensive hidden object games from Steam and settle down for an evening of clicking and light mental gymnastics, I feel the urge.
Basically a hidden object game is a simplified point-and-click adventure with plenty of scenes like this one:
The player travels from area to area, uncovering objects that require a key, some text from scattered scraps of paper, a fuse, a seashell or whatever. They pick things up, add them to their inventory, and then go hunting for where they are supposed to use them to progress. From time to time an actual hidden object puzzle will pop up. Finding all of the things generally earns the player some key required object. Watch me play below.
Aside from the basic mechanics, games in the hidden object genre usually share several key elements.
Strong female protagonists. There are exceptions, but most of the games I’ve played feature stalwart female leads with a taste for adventure.
Rescuing someone from something. The main character’s fiance, daughter, son, uncle, father, grandfather or pet is missing, and she must uncover their fate, rescue them or both.
Fantasy themes. Rarely are the mysteries in hidden object games mundane. There are usually supernatural elements, or fantasy elements, or whatever is currently trending well with the demographic elements. Vampires, romantic horror, scary clowns. That sort of stuff.
Lovely art, low system requirements: Hidden object games are designed to draw the eye with fantastic visuals while still being playable on the weakest of PCs. There’s not a lot of 3D in play, but plenty of hand-painted 2D to go around.
Using that basic recipe, developers like Artifex Mundi, Big Fish Games and Sandlot Games have been churning hidden object titles out for years. Here are some of my favorites, along with their Steam descriptions.
A shameless riff on BioShock in the only genre 2K doesn’t care enough about to sue over. A woman searches for her lost fiance and discovers a mysterious underwater city.
Discover and investigate a forgotten underwater city built in an intriguing Art-Deco style. This former utopia hides many spine-chilling secrets and supernatural forces, the remains of which still lurk in every corner. Face the ancient evil that is hiding in the deepest chambers of the city of Eden.
Emma searches for her lost uncle, a quest that takes her to elemental realms and beyond! This is the most recent hidden object game I burned through.
Enter the mythical portal and search for your missing uncle in the new hidden object adventure game!
Emma wakes up from a scary dream: mysterious creature threatens her uncle Alfred. She feels that something bad just happened and it puzzles her…
Upon arrival she discovers that Alfred is missing and that the mythical portal, they were both working on, is active. What’s the story? Did her uncle enter the portal and embark on an adventure on his own?
Strange world on the other side of a mysterious artifact can be the answer, so the young woman dares to step into the unknown. An adventure in the worlds of five elements has just begun.
Emma will take on various mini games, puzzles and beautiful, hand drawn scenes with hidden objects to test her skills.
Will Emma prevail over mystery creatures and deadly puzzles? Will she put her detective hat on to find her uncle and the secret Philosopher’s Stone from her dream?
Another art deco undersea facility! How many of these damn things are there?
Undersea complex called Emerald Maiden hides a lot of dark mysteries. On the surface it appears to be a paradise, when in fact it’s not what it seems to be. Reveal the secret hidden in dreams and save your loved ones!
London 1957. You have been abandoned on an orphanage doorstep as a child. Now – 25 years later – you receive an envelope with an invitation on a mystery voyage and an old picture of you and your mother together. Why did your mom leave you and how is she connected to the secret organization? To discover the truth, you embark on a trip to the Emerald Maiden. Soon it becomes apparent that something very wrong is going on inside this supposed “playground for the rich and elite”. Relying on your wits alone, you will have to face the facilities darkest secrets, learn the truth about your family and flee before it’s too late!
Are you strong enough to challenge the ancient evil lurking deep under the sea in The Emerald Maiden?
You do not have to have played the first two to enjoy the third, but it helps.
Nightmares form the Deep 3: Davy Jones - get ready for the final chapter of the epic pirate trilogy! Become a fearless museum custodian Sara Black to face your greatest enemy, the legendary pirate Davy Jones. Discover his greatest secret and save your daughter!
After a series of mysterious notes give Sara the evidence she needs to prove to the world the existence of the historical figure of Davy Jones, she calls a press conference to reveal what she has learned; that both Davy Jones and his mythical treasure are real, hidden away on a cursed island.
Suddenly Davy Jones’s sails appear on the horizon, and the undead pirate enters the museum to kidnap Sara and her daughter.
They are taken to the hold of Jones’s ship. In order to save her mother, Corey Black agrees to sign a dark pact with the Sea Devil himself…
Sara Black must face her hardest task yet: in order to save her daughter from the soul-stealing pact with Davy Jones, she must find a way to cancel it.
Will she succeed? Who is the voodoo witch who lives on the cursed island? Or the brilliant alchemist? Why does the ghost of a beautiful young girl roam Davy Jones’s island, and what is her connection to the legend?
This one was creepy. Hidden object games might not do jump scares well, but creepy is right in their wheelhouse.
Welcome to a town where something that should not exist runs free; where a desperate wife will risk her beating heart to find her husband; and where a terrible secret lies buried behind an orphanage. Search for clues, solve puzzles, and unlock new areas as you visit spine-chilling locations, play stimulating mini-games and locate hidden objects. Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story is more than a game; it’s a heart-stopping journey of discovery!
This one’s got everything—horror, suspense, and general weirdness. Plus it ditches the saving someone else format for something a bit more insightful.
Mind Snares: Alice’s Journey is a mature adventure game that blends together elements of the surreal, psychological thriller, and horror genres.
Alice’s car breaks down and plunges into a river. The next thing she knows, she wakes up in a strange world made of her own memories, dreams and nightmares. Ruling over this bizarre dream land is the mysterious Shadow, who forces the protagonist to face her deepest fears.
In order to escape this ominous, psychedelic world, Alice needs to follow an enigmatic lifeline and locate four magical totems that will allow her to rebuild a bridge back to her own reality. But this proves to be no easy task. Alice must venture deep inside her own subconscious, to face motley characters embodying friendly as well as hostile parts of her own psyche.
Alice solves charades and puzzle that test her intellectual prowess. She must confront the ghosts from her past, suddenly made real by the Shadow’s insidious power.
Will our protagonist muster the strength to defeat her own demons? Or will the Shadow win?
The fate of Alice lies in your hands!
None of these are what I would consider good games. If I were asked to curate a list called “The Good Game List,” none of these would even cross my mind.
I do not play hidden object games for their quality or challenge. I play them to wind down for the evening, to slowly shut down my brain for the evening before going to bed. They are like sleepy-time tea piped directly into your brain.
If supermarkets sold PC games the hidden object games would be proudly displayed at each cashier lane, alongside the shlocky novels, gossip magazines and other forms of entertainment that don’t require too much thought. There’s a place for that sort of thing, generally right next to my untouched glass of wine.