Hand-drawn game Hidden Folks is people watching at its finest
by Jordan Erica Webber
From hide-and-seek to I spy to jigsaw puzzles, it’s clear we find fun in visual search. Perhaps there’s an evolutionary explanation – ancestors who spent more time looking around for berries and wolves were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Whatever the reason, we love to peer at a scene for targets. So much so that we’ve turned the pastime into a long-running series of books in Where’s Wally? (or in the States, Where’s Waldo?), and not too long afterwards into their digital equivalent: hidden-object games.
Experimental game designer Adriaan de Jongh ended up making a hidden-object game almost by accident, thanks to a throwaway comment to illustrator Sylvain Tegroeg at his graduation exposition. “I jokingly told him, ‘Ha, cool art style. We should make a game together,’” says de Jongh, “and he took it slightly more seriously than I did.”
Tegroeg had never made a video game, but de Jongh – whose previous work has seen him collaborate with the Dutch National Ballet for dancing game Bounden – was unfazed. He put together a prototype, and they quickly found the fun.
The initial concept was, as de Jongh puts it, “Sylvain’s world combined with a sort of Where’s Waldo?-like game,” but over two-and-a-half years Hidden Folks evolved into a new kind of hidden-object game that, with typically inventive de Jongh flare, has freshened up the popular but characteristically samey genre.
Thanks to Tegroeg, the most obvious difference between Hidden Folks and your run-of-the-mill hidden-object game is the visual aesthetic. There are no red-and-white bobble hats here; in fact, the game has no colour at all. Contrary to most hidden-object games, which usually consist of a series of still images of relatively small environments – the corner of a room, a garden, a single desk – buried in a mess of colourful objects, Hidden Folks takes the player through several bustling black-and-white scenes that are often too large to fit onto one screen: a forest, a desert, an entire neighbourhood.
Early on, de Jongh toyed for two or three months with procedural generation, programming the computer to create levels itself by following certain rules, but realised it would take a lot more resources to get a computer to create levels with this much character. Crafting the levels by hand limits the amount of content in the game – de Jongh reckons it will take a player eight to ten hours to find every target, and it’s hardly a replayable experience – but they can always release updates that add more levels, perhaps at first for free and then later in paid-for expansions.
As de Jongh and Tegroeg were figuring out the best way to make these levels, they had people playtest the game to see what went down well. Particularly popular was the ability to affect parts of the environments by clicking or tapping on certain objects, opening doors or knocking things out of trees. “Slowly we discovered that interaction is actually really funny,” says de Jongh. “Apparently there’s nothing in the world that currently does that, which kind of blew my mind. Like, there’s some hidden-object games you can drag a stone. That’s as far as searching images go in terms of interaction. So there was a huge opportunity for us there to make something really unique, and we really felt that it added something.”
Making funny mouth sounds
Of course, once playtesters realised that they could interact with some objects, they expected everything to respond in some way to their investigative clicks and taps. “It really felt, to us, it’s either all or nothing,” says de Jongh. “And so we decided to just do it all.” In the finished game, many of the objects in each level are interactive, and almost everything at least rewards the curious player with a sound.
“I won the award for best audio, which is like ‘what the fuck?'”
The sounds of Hidden Folks are a special kind of treat: each one comes from the mouth of de Jongh himself. It’s a raw approach that matches well with the minimalist visual aesthetic, but that wasn’t the original intention: “It initially started as the easiest thing to do,” de Jongh explains. “I needed sounds, and often I find the free sounds that you can find on the internet to be really terrible. And so I did this, and I was like, ‘Oh, this has some sort of weird, funky, cool style to it,’ so I continued doing it.” And de Jongh wasn’t the only one who liked this style: “There was actually a game jam where I did it, and I won the award for best audio, which is like ‘what the fuck?’”
Sound designer Martin Kvale (Teslagrad, Among the Sleep), whose job on Hidden Folks was mastering the sounds de Jongh produced, may have an explanation: as he apparently keeps telling de Jongh, the human voice is one of the most versatile instruments we know. So de Jongh bought himself a professional microphone and proceeded to use his voice to bring character to animals, vegetables, and minerals alike, from creaking doors to – his favourite – groaning crocodiles. (When I asked why the crocodile groans, de Jongh said “well, why wouldn’t it?”)
Visually and aurally, Hidden Folks stands apart from other hidden-object games. But de Jongh reckons its biggest distinction is mechanical: the hints that appear when you click on one of your targets in the bar along the bottom of the screen. “This big snake is a real bush crawler,” reads one in the first level, encouraging the player to poke around in the interactive bushes, nudging aside the leaves to find the serpent within.
“It’s actually, I think, half of the fun as well,” says de Jongh. “Because if you read one of the hints, you’ll make up this little story in your mind in which it becomes logical where the character should be, and then you start looking for that, and you start looking at the world through different eyes.” As de Jongh points out, most hidden-object games are “purely visual”, each target just a still image to spot within the larger picture.
Small people on screens
Hidden-object games have an established online community, mainly spread around free-to-play portals such as Big Fish, Pogo.com and Hidden 247. De Jongh had to think about whether he wanted to focus on appealing to these die-hard object hunters, or appeal to a wider audience – a decision he says was helped by the fact Big Fish would take at least 50% of the revenue if he published it on the site.
Pitching to a more general type of player on Steam or the App Store may mean fishing in a bigger pond, but de Jongh is confident that the universal love of finding things means people will love the game: “I think there’s some universal fun in Where’s Waldo? or Where’s Wally? that I think most of us already know.”
His faith in that universal fun explains de Jongh’s decision to make Hidden Folks compatible with the Apple TV, hardly a mainstream gaming device, but one that opens up the possibility for someone who rarely buys games to stumble across something a friend or family member is playing. “It turns out it’s really fun to look for targets together with someone else,” de Jongh says, and in fact it’s the only way I’ve played the game so far, peering at a laptop screen with a friend.
It feels most like a mobile game, however, and de Jongh agrees. “I think it plays best on mobile devices, because it’s really nice to be able to touch something,” he says. The fingerprints on my laptop – from when I forgot my MacBook Air didn’t work like an iPhone – can attest to that tactile feeling. Like the Where’s Wally? books of my childhood, it’s also a great travel game.
“They need to play some game while they’re on the toilet”
As for those more traditional players who might be inclined to spurn the kinds of games found on Big Fish, de Jongh thinks his attempt to bring quality to this genre will appeal: “I’ve found that a lot of people find it refreshing in that it can be very cute. There’s no aggression in there, there’s the mouth sounds, there’s the funny little stories, the innocent people that are doing really dumb shit. It’s very mild, in terms of it’s a very relaxing game, and I found that a lot of gamers enjoyed that.”
“It’s definitely seemed to fill in a different part of their need for games,” he adds. “Not the action-packed side, but more like the chill, ‘I’m sitting on the toilet and I’m bored as hell, but I can’t play League of Legends. What should I play?’” Some creators who have spent years developing a game might not want to acknowledge the part of their audience that will play it while pooping, but de Jongh embraces it, so much so that he commissioned Tegroeg to create Hidden Folks posters for people to stick on the back of their bathroom door. It’s a characteristically modern perspective from a forward-thinking creator. “They need to play some game while they’re on the toilet,” he shrugs. “Better be mine.”