Pete Davison: Genre-Bending Hogs

Posted on October 4, 2011 by

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These days, there’s a whole lot more game genres than there once were. Whereas in the “olden days” we had shoot ’em ups (which no-one woulddream of shortening to “shmup”), platform games, beat ’em ups (which no-one would dream of referring to as “fighting games”, and which had not yet begat the distinction between “fighting game” and “brawler”), adventure games and, occasionally, RPGs. Nowadays, the growth in gaming amongst people who aren’t white spotty nerds with malodorous armpits has meant a corresponding growth in genres which aren’t quite so rooted in gaming convention.

We’ve had the “match 3” puzzle genre — itself an evolution of earlier puzzle titles such as Klax. We’ve had the “time management” game — itself a super-super-super lite version of the real time strategy genre. And we have the “hidden object game”, also known as the “HOG”. (For some reason this annoys me. I’m not sure why. Call me irrational. [You’re irrational. — The Audience.] Thanks.)

I hadn’t tried a hidden object game prior to tonight, but since my BT Broadband account comes with three free months of OnLive’s PlayPack I figured I’d try some of the obscure titles on offer. A game called Elizabeth somethingorother M.D. caught my attention, so I jumped in, not knowing quite what to expect thanks to OnLive’s not-particularly-good job of describing what games are in its catalogue. I was hoping for something more like Trauma Center (itself an example of a new genre) but instead I was confronted with a rather bizarre experience.

If you’ve never tried a hidden object game, here’s how they work: Plot Happens, like in a point and click adventure game (or, more accurately, like in a visual novel, since your interactions in the story are typically fairly limited.) Then, suddenly, for no discernible reason whatsoever, you are tasked with finding the aforementioned hidden objects in a scene, sometimes against a time limit, in order to advance the story.

Now, this sort of “puzzle book” gameplay would be absolutely fine if it made any sort of sense whatsoever. If I was looking for items to use in an adventure game style I would have no problem with suspending my disbelief while Doctor Elizabeth thingummybob faffed around trying to work out why she’d left her forceps on the bookcase. But instead you’re tasked with finding completely incongruous objects that have no bearing on the scene whatsoever.

I’ll give you an example: in the first interactive scene of Doctor Elizabeth Investigates or whatever it was called (I’d look it up, but I can’t be bothered — there’s your journalistic integrity for you right there) I was tasked with taking the patient’s heartbeat using my stethoscope (fair enough, good start) and testing his reflexes with a hammer (similarly doctor-y). However, I was then challenged to find — in a hospital ER, I might add — three beetles, two statues, a club symbol, a gift-wrapped box, a plunger, a dinosaur and several other bizarre items which, oddly enough, vanished as soon as more Plot needed to Happen.

Now, I wouldn’t call the experience “bad” as such, since hunting for the objects on the screen had a certain addictive quality to it similar to that which kept you fumbling around in puzzle books before anyone knew what handhelds or iPhones were. But it’s the sheer bizarreness of interspersing a fairly serious-sounding plot with the complete flippancy of hunting down bizarre objects against a time limit — and that’s not even beginning to consider the hospital’s cleanliness record if it’s letting that many giant beetles into its emergency room. That said, I guess the combination of elements is no more bizarre thanPuzzle Quest.

I’m not sorry I tried it, but the genre’s apparent popularity is somewhat bewildering. Hidden object games are seemingly only slightly less prolific than match-3 puzzle games with the casual market — which suggests that people are buying them. This means that they either don’t notice the incongruity of the gameplay and the narrative — or they don’t care. Which is fair enough, I guess — it all depends on what you want to get out of your gaming experience.

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Posted in: Pete Davison