Casual adventuring: cross-genre franchises

Casual adventuring 3
Casual adventuring 3

Adventure game protagonists sure have been busy lately. From Hercule Poirot to Sherlock Holmes, from Mata Hari to Leonardo Da Vinci and even Nostradamus, wherever you turn, you can’t help but find their latest exploits in games like Death on the Nile, The Mystery of the Persian Carpet, or Secret Missions

Oh, these weren’t the games you were expecting?

I can’t blame you if you were expecting such titles as Evil Under the Sun, The Awakened, and Mata Hari. If you tend to follow only adventure game news, you may not realize that these prominent characters have been moonlighting lately in casual games. We’ve seen it once from Sherlock already, and recently the CSI New York crew and Nancy Drew have followed suit. It’s all part of the ongoing casual invasion that’s happening right before our eyes. Or perhaps happening while we’re not looking.

Rest assured, however, that Adventure Gamers has got your backs. In order to avoid further confusion between standard adventures and casual games among popular franchises, it’s time to take a closer look at the various "lite" games that might at first appear to be full-fledged new adventures but really aren’t, perhaps appropriately for the “hidden object” games that some of them actually are.

If you'd like to skip ahead, the following are included in this feature:

Page 1: Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot

Page 2: Sherlock Holmes

Page 3: Mata Hari

Page 4: Leonardo Da Vinci

Page 5: Nostradamus

 



Agatha Christie


And There There Were None: 2005 Adventure

Murder on the Orient Express: 2006 Adventure

Evil Under the Sun: 2007 Adventure

Death on the Nile: 2007 Casual

Peril at End House: 2007 Casual


Last year was the first since 2005 that we haven’t had a new Agatha Christie adventure whodunit. That void was quickly filled by Death on the Nile, the first of two Hercule Poirot hidden object games developed by Floodlight Games and published by Oberon. Originally released for download in 2007 and followed by Peril at End House, the subsequent boxed version of Death on the Nile can easily be mistaken for a new full-fledged adventure. It’s not.

Death on the Nile sends players aboard the S.S. Karnak, a luxury ship travelling the famous river in Egypt. Poirot’s knack for being in the right (wrong?) place at the right (wrong?) time prevails once again, as a jealous wife wounds her husband with a gunshot before being killed herself in her cabin that night. Being a Christie yarn, naturally your fellow passengers are an oddball sort who all have something to hide, and so it’s your job to scour the various areas of the ship in search of clues.

Of course, those clues are mixed in among an abundance of other junk. As a hidden object game, you’ll not only be looking for incriminating evidence, but lots of stuff with no use at all. It’s a completely traditional seek-and-find exercise: you’re given a timed period to sift through numerous cluttered screens to find every item on a pre-defined list, most of which are entirely arbitrary. The artwork is pleasant, the object concealment generally fair, and the activity fairly straightforward, although the game tends to rely a little too much on finding multiple items of the same type. Your list may look manageable enough until you realize you need to find six ducks or twelve ripped pieces of paper.

In each of the game’s eleven chapters, you’ll have five “hints” that identify a remaining object on your list, and while it’s unlikely you’ll fail a round as a result, you may find yourself using more than you think. As with most hidden object games, you’re out of luck if you simply don’t know what a “Calabash” or “Henna Hands” are, but you’ll also find yourself looking for undefined items like something that “rhymes with three”. Some of the objects are even part of the game’s few animations, which may seem either clever or unfair at the time. On other occasions, you’ll need to drag items into a sequence on-screen, but it’s often unclear where the items should go, and even the hints won’t help.

There are also a handful of other puzzles to round out each chapter. Most are either small jigsaws or match-clues-with-characters exercises, though there is the odd combination to crack and object to assemble, along with a few other standalone types. I found several of these poorly clued, but as a last resort, you can opt to skip any of these entirely with no penalty.

Naturally the murder mystery is a central component of the overall game, but only a peripheral element of the gameplay itself. A few comic-style, sepia-toned cutscenes move the story forward occasionally, and key plot points are fleshed out in random notes and articles conveniently left for you to discover. There is a “clue room” where you can review important items you’ve found (which the game determines for you), and a “salon” where you can ask questions of the ship’s guests. The latter makes for a nice change of pace, but it’s a little too sporadic to make the narrative very coherent. Even though the whole game only took several hours to complete, I was already forgetting who did what and why by the end. Luckily, the final reveal excused my confusion with a rather anti-climactic process of elimination task (which seemed a bit beneath Poirot but suited me fine).
 



Peril at End House is virtually identical to Death on the Nile, with only the details changed to suit the plot. This time around, Poirot is joined by his friend Captain Hastings, not to solve a murder (at least at first), but to prevent one if possible. The owner of the modest “End House” on the Cornish coast has been the near-victim of several suspicious incidents, and although her acquaintances all have skeletons in their closets, there seems little reason to wish harm on the likeable young lady, so the vacationing Belgian detective determines to take up her cause.

Gone from the previous game are the clue room and suspect questioning, replaced here by periodic “clue cards” which pop up whenever you discover an important item or piece of information. These can be reviewed at any time, but I missed the direct character interaction of Death on the Nile, however limited, as here I felt even less connection to the characters or the storyline. As a result, with so much revealed in so short a time, it proved even more difficult to follow the details unfolding.

There are no significant changes to the hidden object gameplay or hint system, though the chapter-closing puzzles in End House include more pattern matching and dialogue fill-in-the-blanks exercises than its predecessor. Production values are similar as well, displaying attractive but limited-resolution artwork, light and often jazzy background music, and no voice acting of any kind.

If you like one of these games, it’s a no-brainer to suggest you’ll like the other as well, and as far as hidden object casual games, they’re pleasantly diverting fun. But if you haven’t tried either, bear in mind that neither should ever be confused with the Agatha Christie adventure series. There is no exploration, story integration, inventory puzzles, or personal freedom, and no matter how hard you look, these are just about the only things you’ll never find.

Up next: Sherlock Holmes...

Continued on the next page...


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Comments

Scott Nixon
Apr 27, 2009

If I’m 100% honest about the Agatha Christie switch, it upsets me most because I’m proud of the adventure game series (I know many hated it) but now whenever I mention I worked on an Agatha title the assumption is that I worked on a HOG game.  Not that there’s anything wrong with working on HOG games, but the confusion is a little jarring.  Selfish, I know, but there you are!

Banderwocky
Apr 27, 2009

I looked the Agatha Christie games up on Moby and they both credit Jane Jensen as designer.

AndreaDraco83
Apr 27, 2009

As far as I know Jane Jensen used to work (still works) with Oberon, and she designed some of their games, like Inspector Parker. As far as I know, thought, she was merely responsible for the writing of the dialogues on the two Agata Christie casual games.

DaveGilbert DaveGilbert
Apr 28, 2009

I saw Jane Jensen speak about “Women’s Murder Club” and Hidden Object Games at GDC.  She has nothing but love for the genre, saying that she was making games that she really wanted to play.  She said one very funny thing, which was that since she is a middle aged woman she had a lot of clout when it came to pitching projects for the casual market..

AndreaDraco83
Apr 28, 2009

Jane did a great work of A Darker Shade of Grey, the second WMC game. She also implemented a basic dialogue system, which was quite entertaining (if a bit too straight-forward).

Marian
Apr 28, 2009

And now there’s going to be a Hardy Boys hidden object game, as well:  Hardy Boys The Perfect Crime, published by Dreamcatcher, and supposed to be released sometime in May.

DaveGilbert DaveGilbert
Apr 28, 2009

@andrea another funny thing Jane said.  The Hidden Object mechanics of the first WMC was an afterthought, thrown in at the last minute to appeal to the Hidden Object fans.  Then when the second game was released, the biggest complaint was the lack of hidden objects!  I believe in the third one they are going to reinstate them.

Scott Nixon
Apr 29, 2009

@Marian: And there’s the irony… I wrote the Hardy Boys project you mentioned, as well as the adventure game version (Hidden Theft) that came before it.  So the two series (Agatha and HB) I’ve worked on have both transitioned into the casual HOG market…

Jackal Jackal
Apr 29, 2009

We’ll be looking at the Hardy Boys casual game when it’s out. Scott, I didn’t realize you were involved in either version. Interesting. I’ve also encountered that confusion about the Agatha Christie titles. I was discussing them with another developer recently, and there was miscommunication all over the place until we realized we were talking about entirely different games. Grin Funny, the talk here so far has been about the writing/storytelling, but truth be told, I’m not honestly convinced that story adds that much to casual games. No disrespect meant to Scott, Jane Jensen, or any other writer, as it’s not quality I’m talking about. Just its relevance. Sure, it’s the “hook” to draw people in, but like I said for some/all of the games in this article, mainly it’s just window dressing, and it’s often shoehorned in so abruptly that I’m barely following it by the end anyway. That’s not to say a good story can’t be important, just that it would have to be integrated a bit differently (read: better) than it often is now.

Scott Nixon
Apr 30, 2009

I hope that isn’t the case! I’ve written several HOG games in the past year or so (Hidden Mysteries:Civil War, Elizabeth Find, M.D., Lost Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle, Real Crimes: The Unicorn Killer and Hidden Mysteries: Buckingham Palace) and was trying in each to not only force in as many adventure game elements as I was allowed (answer- not many) but also keep the overarching story at least interesting enough to warrant OCCASIONAL reading of the blurbs. I’ve no doubt the majority of the players skipped right through all the text rigmarole, but at least it was there as a kind of codex for those who were interested in WHY they were collecting a bunch of unrelated items. Again, I’m clearly biased - I am *NOT* a fan of HOG games - my motivations are to steer them towards traditional adventures as much as I am allowed to, and to pay bills until such time when the melding of the two genres (which, Jackal, I thought your previous article summed up brilliantly) makes the entire point moot.  I also suspect Jane Jensen’s remarks about WMC not intending to be a HOG game until the ‘last minute’ were hyperbole.  It might not have started out that way, but unless she redesigned that game from the bottom up, it’s ‘HOG’ness was clearly intended.  Redesigning a game from the ground up doesn’t warrant the phrase ‘last minute’, IMO.

Jackal Jackal
Apr 30, 2009

You’ve been busy, Scott! I haven’t tried any of those games, so I can’t comment specifically, but I still think you’re referring more to quality, which I didn’t mean to diminish in any way. I read everything in games, and the stories are often interesting enough in their own right. My issue is more that they just don’t feel all that relevant to the game, mainly because they aren’t integrated very well. They’re more like book dividers for “the gameplay”, with the one frequently not having little to do with another. Read a blurb, spend half an hour looking for stuff, solve a puzzle, get another blurb, lather, rinse, repeat. Walk away between chapters, and you’ve forgotten all the blurbs by the time you’ve come back anyway. It’s not always that way, and casual games are evolving, but I’ve encountered quite a few like that so far.

Marian
Apr 30, 2009

Scott, I just finished Real Crimes: The Unicorn Killer a few days ago, and I want you to know that I read each and every line of text and actually wished that there had been more, as I was actually more interested in the details of the case than I was in the game mechanic/play.  Having said that, I have read comments in the past by HOG players that they “don’t like a lot of reading,” and my sense is that Jack is correct in saying that (at least at this juncture) story may not add much to casual games; that doesn’t mean of course that things may not change in the future in that regard.  By the way, I noticed right away upon starting the game that it was an AWE Games production, and wondered if this might also signify that AWE was not going to do another full-length Agatha Christie adventure game, and I also wondered how the AWE group felt about that, so your posts are very interesting to me.

Scott Nixon
May 1, 2009

@Jackal I totally agree. When the gameplay mechanic is so divorced from anything beyond the most abstract connection to any sort real-world analogue (even one with absurdly convoluted logic) then, right, where’s the motivation to care about context? There really is none, unless your writing compelling enough to make people care about this story being told in parallel that doesn’t really have any (or much) integration. I don’t consider myself a writer at all, much less one who could keep people reading a story devoid of contextual relevance. I TRY to consider myself (on a particularly self-confident day) a game designer who just wants the writing to not be completely horrible - to as least be passable or not stand out as awful.

@Marian I’m glad to hear you say that! I’m not associated with Awe Games anymore, that game was something I wrote during my last month or so with them (December of last year.) A large part of the reason for my disassociation stems from my growing disappointment in the Agatha Christie debacle—it was my opinion that each installment was getting better - I thought ATTWN had the story and mood, and to some extent the good puzzles, but was hamstringed by sub-par character models, weak animation controls, etc. I (personally) loved MOTOE, I thought the animations, character models, and backgrounds were a real step forward and I think we lost sight of the gameplay a little bit as a result. The idea for EUTS was to keep the graphic quality of MOTOE with the ambience and puzzle latitude of ATTWN. Unfortunately, by that point, certain parties (the ones that wear suits) were no longer interested in investing the time and money to allow that to happen and I think (personally) that EUTS was the weakest installment as a result. Then it became clear to publishing that the cost vs. return on the HOG Agatha games was better than the Adventure versions, and that was all she wrote. Just to be clear, none of this disinterest was on the part of AWE, we were all interested in continuing as much as possible, but when budgets and dev cycles decreased with each consecutive installment, it was just hard to keep morale high. As a result, I joined the Bethesda Softworks family to work on MMOs for a while Smile

colpet colpet
May 1, 2009

Thanks for the rundown. I will probably be buying the Mata Hari game, as well as SH Persian Carpet.
I find it interesting that the game developers are trying to put more story into these games. I play them for the puzzles, and would rather they focus on a wider variety of types of thinking puzzles (vs. arcade style) including an increasing gradient of difficulty. (More like Pandora’s Box,  the Jewels games, or Entombed Enhanced.) I must admit that I don’t pay much attention to the story at all, except in some games that force you to pay attention (Dr. Lynch Grave Secrets).

Panthera Panthera
May 4, 2009

Thank you for the article Jack :o) I’m very fond of hidden objects games, and especially the ones that take a turn towards adventure, like Womens murder club, and also the two ravenhearst games. I’ll definitively be checking out Mata Hari, and maybe also some of the Agatha Christie games. Will you be featuring more “reviews” of casual games? I know you don’t see them as adventure games, but I’d very much like to be kept up to tabs on what’s happening on the casual adventure market. The new womens murder club game is very good, though I could have been without the “dodge the janitor” sequence.

Jackal Jackal
May 4, 2009

Well, we won’t even begin to try to keep up with the casual games. There are too many, and we don’t want them detracting too much from the main site focus (namely, adventure games). But we will continue to take a look at any we might think are of particular interest to adventure gamers. Either familiar crossover properties like we’ve covered so far, or those that may be more adventure-like than most. (The problem is, finding out which ones are, when they pretty much all claim to. Tongue)

crabapple
May 5, 2009

I don’t consider myself a major HOG player, but I have played a few. The ones I like best are those that allow you to place objects back into the scenes (like Mortimer Beckett and the Time Paradox, Magic Encyclopedia, or Crystal Portal), those that have a variety of different puzzles besides the hidden object parts (Azada, Ravenhearst), and those with the best stories (Women’s Murder Club, Dr. Lynch, Agatha Christie, Lost Secrets Bermuda Triangle). Good dialogue can really help with the story by making the characters likable (Lost Secrets Bermuda Triangle). I really don’t care much if the story is separate from the gameplay. In my experience with adventure games, the most enjoyable puzzles are often the abstract ones. Given a choice between boring puzzles that fit with a storyline and fun puzzles that don’t, I’ll choose the fun puzzles every time.

But story is important with HOGs, whether it integrates with gameplay or not. If you check user reviews over at Gamezebo, you can see that there are many HOG players who appreciate a good story.

I’m sorry to hear there won’t be more Agatha Christie adventure games. I thought Evil Under the Sun was the best of the bunch gameplaywise.

Jackal Jackal
May 5, 2009

Sure, like I said, story is important as the hook to make people interested, and it’s always better to have a solid story framework than not, so it’s very useful in that regard. I’m just saying the actual implementation isn’t particularly relevant to the gameplay experience in terms of motivation. Rarely do the stories lend themselves to players thinking “ooh, I can’t wait to get through this sequence to see what comes next in the story!” The better the integration, the more relevant they are, and the more important they become. Some games are starting to do it better, though, including most of the ones we’ve covered here. Mortimer Beckett is also on the AG agenda, and I appreciate the other suggestions, as it’s kind of a crapshoot otherwise.

crabapple
May 6, 2009

Samantha Swift is another one you might look at. Actually there are two Samantha Swift games now. I’ve only played the first one, but the second one looks like it has similar gameplay in the Big Fish preview video.

Jackal Jackal
May 6, 2009

That idea is so good, I already have the game (first one) sitting on my desk. Grin (Geez, I think I’ve telegraphed our entire next feature already.)

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