Enchantia: Wrath of the Phoenix Queen
Credit: Blue Tea Games

When you think of beautiful video games, what specifically do you think of? The snowy mountain peaks of Skyrim? The lush green fields of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? The gleaming Manhattan skyscrapers of Spider-Man? While I do appreciate the beauty of those games, an entirely different genre of game comes to mind for me: the hidden-object puzzle adventures (HOPA) I play in-between these bigger, longer games.

The bright, colorful art of these shorter games fills a need that most games, with their more realistic or neutral art styles, don’t always fulfill. Apocalyptic movies are all well and good, but sometimes you just want to watch a cartoon.

In the last year, the game that has scratched that itch for beautiful games drenched in bright jewel colors is Ori and the Will of the Wisps, as well as maybe Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. But alongside my love for this style of art is also a desire to slow down and take it in.

What Is a HOPA?

Hidden-object games and other casual games hang around the periphery of the gaming scene — they have their devoted communities, but these are not the games that will top the bestseller lists. Most are developed by small game studios and later distributed by one of the major publishers, like Big Fish Games. I’m willing to bet several people reading this have noticed a game in this category in a Steam sale, and their eyes have slid right past it.

Still, if you’ve never played one before, here’s a general summary: Hidden-object puzzle games are typically two-dimensional games that require you to solve puzzles and find items in a cluttered scene as your gameplay objective. Within that framework, games can vary in types of puzzles, objects to find, and story genres.

Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst hidden-object puzzle adventure HOPA

Credit: Big Fish Studios

One of the reasons I love the art of HOPAs is because the games are typically 2D. The style brings to mind old point-and-click adventure games like Monkey Island or the Nancy Drew series. The limited viewpoint of the environments allows the developers to pack more into every scene.

Playing one of these games after playing your typical open-world RPG or FPS is like going to an art gallery after watching a long movie: Neither is better than the other, but the former is designed to let you slow down more than the latter.

That’s not to say all casual, hidden-object-style games are beautiful — but the ones that are fill a gap in the market for gorgeous two-dimensional environment design. If you’re like me, a lover of lavish, Rococo-inspired art and someone for whom the word “extra” has lost all meaning, then you might enjoy the look of some of these games.

The Prettiest Game of Where’s Waldo Ever

HOPA games can span multiple genres and types. Fantasy games are a common sight and can include lush works like the Awakening series, created by Boomzap Entertainment:

Awakening: The Redleaf Forest hidden-object puzzle adventure HOPA

Credit: Boomzap Entertainment

Alternatively, there is the Dark Parables series, (Despite what the name would have you believe, these are not particularly dark at all.) created by Blue Tea Games:

Dark Parables: The Final Cinderella hidden-object puzzle adventure HOPA

Credit: Blue Tea Games

Some of the fantasy titles do go for a darker look. For an example, see the Spirits of Mystery series, created by then-ERS Game Studios (now Amax Interactive):

Spirits of Mystery: Song of the Phoenix hidden-object puzzle adventure HOPA

Credit: Amax Interactive

There are literary adaptations, like the Dark Tales series, which loosely adapts the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Here’s what its version of The Masque of the Red Death looks like:

Dark Tales: Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death

Credit: Amax Interactive

Certain other genres make an appearance from time to time. Here’s a sci-fi title called Beyond: Star Descendant:

Beyond: Star Descendant hidden-object puzzle adventure HOPA

Credit: Madhead Games

Some studios will try their hand at horror hidden-object games. Your mileage may vary on how scary the games actually are, but they’re at least a new take on the genre. Here’s Escape from Ravenhearst, by Big Fish Games:

Mystery Case Files: Escape from Ravenhearst hidden-object puzzle adventure HOPA

Credit: Big Fish Studios

While some games attempt to look realistic (or at least have a somewhat more photorealistic style), others are more cartoonish. The Drawn games are particularly fine examples of this:

Drawn: Dark Flight

Credit: Big Fish Studios

The gameplay style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the look is so distinct and refreshing that I often find myself playing these HOPAs just to look.

None of these games are particularly long — you could probably get through the longest of them in four hours if you really took the scenic route — but that’s not the point. If the average open-world RPG, with its meaty campaign and arresting vistas, is the three-book epic saga of the gaming world, then HOPAs are the paperback novels. They are designed to be short, satisfying adventures you can easily play in 10-minute stretches.

While the industry continues to make its games bigger, longer, and more overstuffed, it can be a pleasure (and a relief) to step out of that enormity and play a game that demands little investment and offers a short, beautiful experience in return.

If you’d like to try any of these games mentioned here yourself, you can find them at the likes of Big Fish Games or on Steam. Some excellent starting points would include Spirits of Mystery: Song of the Phoenix, Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst, Dark Parables: The Exiled Prince, or Drawn: The Painted Tower.

Rachel Kaser
I'm Rachel, a former assistant horse trainer who somehow wound up talking about video games for a living. In the three or four minutes of my day not spent playing games or writing about them, I'm either writing a mystery novel or tweeting about Netflix and Disney+ shows @rachelkaser.

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