As part of my “vacation” I’ve been playing a bunch of computer games, mostly hidden object games from Big Fish Games. I love being able to try the game for an hour and decide if I want to buy it or not. It’s usually pretty obvious within the first few minutes of a game if it’s “for me” or not.
Sounds familiar, I bet. Agents/editors know within a page or two if the project is right for them.
There are tons of hidden object games out there, but there’s only a handful that I’m going to be willing to buy. It’s taken me awhile to discover what kind of game I really enjoy — what kind of game is going to compel me to buy it past the one-hour trial.
First, the game has to have really good graphics. I love the haunted castles with spooky hidden nooks, or the ancient civilization sites where I really have to check behind every stone. But good graphics alone are far from enough.
(Good, even beautiful writing, isn’t enough to make an agent/editor/reader pick up your book.)
The overlying story has to be appealing to me, too. Usually I’m on some quest: free the ghosts, stop the lord of the mirrors, find my father, mentor, children, etc. But even a “find my children” game — which sounds very compelling — can fail to snag my attention.
(Have a compelling hook or premise to drive the story from the very beginning.)
The lead character of the story driving the game has to be interesting to me. I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman, and I obviously don’t get as much internal thoughts, etc. as a reguar book, but a well-written hidden object game makes me forget that I’m not really in this fictional world. I’ve passed on several hidden object games where I just didn’t care for the main character.
(The protagonist must be compelling in some way, even though flawed and hopeless at the beginning.)
If I like the graphics, the story, and the main character, I can still end up bailing on a game. There’s one I can’t remember the name of off the top of my head, but it had gorgeous graphics and a cool story, but I was absolutely lost. I didn’t know how to get to the other rooms. I didn’t know what to do. I stood in the front “room” of the game clicking, confused, and frustrated, until I finally closed the game and deleted the files without purchasing.
I like to be led through a game. Yes, I know it’s lame but I like the sparkly hints that tell me where to investigate. I’m playing this game for fun and I don’t want it to be too hard — but I also want it to last much longer than an hour (to justify buying the game). I want to know and trust that the journey is going to be clear for me. I’m not going to get down in some basement dungeon and quit out of frustration because I have no idea what to do next.
Now BFG does have blog walkthroughs for many of their games, which helps, but if I have to refer to the blog walkthrough every single time I enter a room just to figure out what to do, I’m sorry. I’m not buying.
(Make a promise to the reader in the opening scene of the story and carry that promise through all the way to the end on a journey they won’t want to forget. The reader trusts you never to take them down the wrong path and leave them.)
So now I have good graphics, a storyline that intrigues me, and a lead character to guide me. The game can still fall part between the hidden object games and the puzzles. The games I love the most are the ones where I keep items from each hidden-object portion of the game, even if I have no idea what they’re used for. e.g. In the opening section of the game, a key is one of the 10 items to find. Then the key is what opens the rusty iron gate. In another section, I find a glove. Later, I have to use the glove to reach through thorns.
I don’t like hidden-objects just for the search. e.g. a bunch of items that have nothing to do with the story, and it’s not crucial that I find a particular item. I want those objects to all be tied to the story in some way. The game I played last night was so danged creepy — one of the hidden object scenes involved row after row of old dolls, some clothed, some not, some with holes in their heads, missing eyes, some with huge creepy eyes that kept looking at me. It was hilarious — I could hardly stand to look for the objects! Which made that game so very very cool (Return to Ravenhearst if you’re interested).
It’s sort of like reading a mystery and finding a bunch of red herrings. I love that aspect of a hidden object game. Great, now I have a can of bug spray in my inventory. Where in the heck am I going to use that? It makes me anticipate and plan — which I love.
(Drop elements into the story that tie to the theme, enhance the atmosphere and tone of the story, and drive the plot.)
What I don’t love is when I find a bunch of stuff in my inventory at the end of the game….that I never used. I can’t stand it! Did I miss a section of a the game where I was supposed to use the shovel? Ack! How did I finish the game? Should I go back? But no, I finished…
(Always tie up as many loose ends as possible even when the climax of the story and the main characters are resolved. Careful readers make note of every little detail and will feel betrayed if they don’t mean something!)
Lastly, we have the puzzles themselves. They’re sort of like plot or turning points of the story. They’re “gatekeepers” to moving on to the next room. I don’t want the puzzle to be so hard that I have no idea how to even start — or I’ll simply look up the solution in the blog walkthrough and move on. Yes, I cheat on occasion!
(I also read ahead to the next chapter — or even the end — to make sure the book isn’t going to fail me.)
The puzzles are more interesting if I’ve had to gather items throughout the game to beat it. e.g. there are three marbles that I’ve found all over the mansion and now I have to use them to beat the next level. The puzzle itself should tie to the game and the story it’s leading me through. The elements should mean something to the game. e.g. in one ancient civilization game, I had to stack golden skulls on a scale to balance it. Why use regular old weights when you can use skulls? How cool!
I don’t care for puzzles that have absolutely nothing to do with the story itself. e.g. a jigsaw puzzle and the final image is a contemporary-looking photograph, while the game is a creepy gothic. The image is an underwater ship — cool — but not if it has absolutely nothing to do with the story of the game. Don’t show me an underwater ship just because it’s cool.
(Elements of the plot should reflect the theme over and over, every element tied back to the premise, driving the story toward the climax in a logical way.)
I know it’s a great game when I immediately hope there’s a sequel in the same world. My wish for BFG is that they’d have a way to search by the creator of a particular game. e.g. if I know team A creates the kind of game I like with the graphics, etc. then I want to buy more by team A. Right now, I’m relying on “look and feel” to tell me when I might want to buy.
(Branding is important. Make sure readers can find you!)