Having been a game reviewer (and technically still being one... It's like being a book critic, you just can't let go of basic skills), there are things that really piss me off, and are guaranteed to have me pan your product. In this post of unwieldy titles, and the ones like it, I'm going to be talking about some of them, and we're going to begin with something that I have a love-hate relationship with. Mostly masochistic hate.
There is an entire genre of games that dare call themselves Adventure Games. They are not adventure games. No. They're Lovecraftian abominations of bad writing, shitty puzzles, and a level of effort best described as "ADHD Stoner who's forgotten what the fuck he was doing."
They are... Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure Games. And I can even recite a fucking checklist that a hell of a lot of them fill. So let's go through it, shall we?
Many of them contain some hackneyed supernatural threat
I'm looking at my "collection" (mostly gotten from Indie Bundles, GG sales, and the poor fools at Cateia who sent me two in a row, despite my reviews), and over two thirds of them involve either demons, witchcraft, psychic powers, ghosts, or a combination of the above. It's enough to make anyone who has even a vague background of occult research weep. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the second point.
The writing is moment-to-moment drama, with little to no consideration of overarching plot or sense.
Right, let's start pulling examples out here.
This is The Gift, by Alawar Games. I somehow managed to get what I'm assuming is a third to halfway through before quitting for health reasons (Apoplexy is bad for you, mmmkay?), and part of the reason is that bad writing offends me. Amusing, considering I am told I have a somewhat loose grasp of grammar. But grammar is one thing. Random for the sake of drama is another.
The game begins, sensibly enough, in an alternate 1930s style setting, where our southern belle on the cover, a disgraced occult detective, is called to investigate a murder that may be (is) related to a closed case involving ritual murders by spell. Okay, I can deal with tha-
Oh, wait. a vision from the murder scene leads us to a witch's occult store, who then grabs us and gives us another vision of another place, and somehow it turns out that our ex-partner is involved, along with some dude called Riker who we appear to have no reason to care about, and then it turns out someone in our circle was meant to meet the witch in the diner, and somewhere along the way we got actual magic powers instead of some fucked up version of psychometry, and then it turns out that the serial murder is actually going to kill usssss allllllll, starting with a small child who is the next target because oh-look-we're-pulling-your-heartstrings. Oh, and your partner is suddenly missing around the same time.
Did I mention that this oh-so-scary malevolent force is called... Wait for it... Suspense! The Nothingman.
Even writing that down made me clutch my head in psychosomatic pain. Now, let's look at another example of the genre from another company. Nightmares From The Deep: The Cursed Heart.
This one isn't so much an offender because the plot beats are nonsensical (although they are), but because everyone is a fucking idiot. Let's use the beginning of this "masterwork" to illustrate this point.
Okay, so our main character is a museum curator, who wants to hold an exhibition based on a pirate that's cursed or somesuch. She even manages to get the pirate's body, and his supposedly magical kit that he got in a deal with a demon (see? Ghosts and Demons!). Naturally, she wants to display the pirate with his gear, because a pirate without gear isn't half as awesome. So far, so good.
But the first time she puts one of these artefacts on the pirate, the room starts shuddering and he glows with what I'm sure the creators felt was an "eldritch light". Let's leave the graphics out of this, though, and continue on our theme. Okay, that's weird, but once isn't really a pattern, right?
If you guessed, from that last sentence, that she does this twice more (Rule of Three is, by the way, an important thing in gaming), that the second time has more effects (that she rationalises away), and then, in what is actually a mildly spooky display, all the lights tinkle and break, spooky things happen, and her reaction is...
"Oh, the lights went out, how odd, I'm sure this has nothing to do with the cursed items that have incredibly obvious and dramatic foreshadowing that is apparent to anyone with working sensory apparatus!"
Her sister, by the way, is also at the museum, because family are cool. Unfortunately, in this game, family are not cool, because her sister is afraid of the dark, and the main character's reaction to this revelation? "Nope, need the torch for fixing the fuse. Nope, can't come with, you stay by this dead pirate who might not actually be so dead anymore, but what would I know, I'm a Clueless Protagonist (TM)"
I think you can guess what happens next, at least in general terms. If you can't, then I'm sure this game will suit you down to the ground, along with the joys of removing fleas from your troop-mates and flinging poop.
The Main Mechanic... And Infinite Monkeys.
Okay, so there are two main mechanics to these games. One of them is the standard adventure game "Use object on other object to progress story or remove an obstacle in some fashion", with all the joys and problems therein. This, surprisingly, is not the problem, as many of the solutions are common sense. Not all of them, just many, and frankly, I'm thankful the proportion is that high.
The other mechanic, however, induces fits of rage in me that would surprise many of my close friends. You see, the other main mechanic is the wonderful idea of "Find hidden objects in among a bunch of junk to progress the story... somehow."
Let's go back to The Gift for this one.
Okay. So this one, if I recall, has at least a modicum of sense behind its general placement (being in a home somewhere). But you will find very similar scenes that you have to play through for your reward of more game in the unlikeliest fucking places. An altar. A beach. An alleyway where fuckdammit I've already been here (more on that later). But there are things this screenshot is not telling you. For example, guess how many of these objects you get to keep for solving actual puzzles? At most, three. And most of the time, it's just one. Usually the hardest fucking one to find.
Then there is the fact that the writers often just fling darts at a dictionary, then the artists shrug and draw whatever the fuck comes to mind with that word. In another game by the same company, you have to find a pole-axe. As in a polearm. As in a very long stick with a sharp thing on the end. There is no such thing in among the random junk. But hiding on a tree branch is a bog-standard axe. This is what you're looking for.
You'd think, what with the hiding things to break up their visual profile (a common dirty trick in these games), colouring them exactly the same as their surroundings (a very dirty trick in these games), and literally hiding things inside other things with no hint that they're there (Oh, hi, Cateia!), that the litany of stupid wouldn't end there. But no, even in the HOPA games where you aren't somehow involved with the supernatural, you have a magical ability. It's a magical ability that all HOPA protagonists have: The ability to peel fucking graffiti, etchings, scratches or paintings from a wall, and say "Yup, that was the thing I was looking for, yessiree bob". Sometimes, these are the actual puzzle items for the more traditional adventuring portions. This wouldn't be so bad, if it weren't for the other sins these things pull.
Where am I meant to g- THE FU? THAT WASN'T THERE BEFORE!
Backtracking is a Bad Thing. Most games, nowadays, appreciate this. HOPAs mostly don't. The Gift is an excellent example of this, because, on the flimsiest of contexts, it will send you somewhere you're pretty sure was only a single-puzzle room, where, all of sudden, there will be a pile of garbage you've never seen before, or a thing you just thought was graphical flavour has magically turned into a garbage pile or puzzle. The alleyway in The Gift is definitely the worst offender here... The pile of garbage that you have to sort through has a fucking trolley in it. Guess what you definitely can't see in the alley before you find the general area has changed your context sensitive pointer to "GARBAGE TIME, BIZHATCH!"
Some games in this genre will throw you a bone. Shadows: Price For Our Sins , for example, has an actual map, which also shows whether there's shit to do in a location or not. But most of the time, though, you are reliant on the hint function. Which, once it has led you to the actual puzzle, will shut down for anything up to 10 minutes, depending on difficulty settings. By the way, this is the same hint button that shows you where that one fucking object you can't find because the artist was too creative with the skew function in Photoshop is.
Now, this wouldn't be so bad, if it weren't for the fact that most first time players will buy into the whole "ERMAHGERD, TIME LIMIT" thing that all these oh-so-dramatic stories have (The Gift: NOTHINGMAN IS GOING TO KILL EEEEEEEVERYBODEEEEE. Shadows: MY FRIENDS ARE STUCK IN HEELLLLLL. Nightmares from the Deep: MY SISTER GOT KIDNAPPED BY A GHOST PIRATE WHO'S GOING TO SACRIFICE HER TO GET HIS WIFE BACK...).
It becomes a lot less dramatic when you realise how utterly prepared the entire world is to fuck you over, though. Which leads nicely onto my final point.
A World of Puzzle Locks
Puzzles in adventure games, hell, even in roleplaying games, are a wonderful idea when done right. Oh look, the evil Lord Fzqefwuk was a joker, wasn't he? We have to solve this word-play riddle before we're all mashed into pulp! Seriously, a good puzzle or riddle can actually buy a GM time, and still be entertaining. It's cool.
But there is such a thing as "too much of a good thing", and HOPA slamdunks that principle, along with other useful ones like "common sense" or "sanity". I don't remember the pictured puzzle, it's probably from further along in The Gift than I got. But if you thought Resident Evil was bad for puzzle locks and fucking weird shaped keys, you ain't seen nothin' til' you've seen a HOPA! Lemme pull an excerpt from my review of "Where Angels Cry", by Cateia Games.
"Play towers of Hanoi... again. Rotate pictures to get 1 sixteenth of the items you need to finish the act. Look for other hidden items (angel statues) for dubious achievement awards. While you're at it, why not wince at some truly terrible voice acting (It's-a-me, italiano-stereotype-ah!), and wonder at how these monks (who are obviously involved in some conspiracy, because DRAMA!) ever get any work done."
To get two rooms in one direction, I seem to recall needing something like twelve red and blue gems, a Towers of Hanoi puzzle, some tile puzzle I brute forced, a colour matching puzzle I brute forced, and about six hidden object minigames. The monks, meanwhile, have obviously memorised the puzzles, and have gems coming out the fucking wazoo, for they are freely able to move around. And no, the puzzles don't follow any sort of difficulty curve, why would you think that? You're just as likely to find that one annoying "shuffle shit around till it's right" puzzle near the end of the game as you are the "glorified jigsaw."
In Summary (or perhaps In Memoriam)
Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures are evil. But I keep playing them in the misguided hope I'll find a few that aren't terrible, and because, as much as they are a dark stain against everything that is good in game design, they still fondle our lizard brain enough that the masochism continues. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to the kitchen and make a nice calming cup of tea...
...Now where did I put my lizard crest, twelve blue beads, and solution to the crossword on the kitchen door?