Way before I ventured into the strange world of hardcore gaming, I was a dedicated practitioner of casual games. I’ve never given them up completely, and now while I’ve been sick for three months, sometimes, a casual game is all my brain can handle. Hidden Object Games (HOGs), Match-3, Solitaire, Time Management, I like ’em all. I have a much lower expectation of them than I do hardcore games because one, they’re churned out like processed meat at a rapid pace, and, two, they’re much less expensive than hardcore games. I am a member of BigFishGames.com, and a Standard Edition (SE) game is $6.99, whereas a Collector’s Edition (CE) is $13.99. In addition, the expectations are different when I play a casual game than when I play a hardcore one. I play casual games just to relax, so I’m not as critical about them as I am with hardcore games. That being said, there are several tropes in casual games that are way past their expiration date, and I would like to make some suggestions as to how to make them better. Most of my suggestions are for HOGs, but some of them apply across the board. I’ll indicate which games are the worst offenders for each trope I’m going to dissect.
Let’s start at the beginning. Literally. When I start up a HOG, I know I’m going to be greeted with a cutscene. Here’s a weird fact about when I play casual games–I play them with the sound off. It’s weird because I always play with the sound on with hardcore games, but I play with the sound muted for casual games. Why? First of all, the sound is jacked up in comparison to how loud it should be. Additionally, many of them have music that plays throughout the whole game, and I don’t want that in my ear the whole time I’m playing. Secondly, voice acting in casual games is usually atrocious, and I’d rather read the text than hear them speak. Anyway, the fact that I can’t fiddle with the settings before the cutscene starts is irritating to me. I would sit through the cutscene and read the text if that were an option, but because it isn’t, I simply skip the cutscene instead.
By the way, there are some things in casual games that will make it a no-go before I even get started. Oh! One of the best things about casual games and using a client service like BGF is that every game has a free demo. It used to be an hour, regardless, but now it’s more like a set amount of story/scenes that a developer wants you to see. I’m fine with that, but it seems as if more and more games are creating their games for that hour point and end on a cliff hanger, which is understandable, but somewhat irritating. Anyway, my top egregious sins are: One, not allowing for windowed mode. There is no excuse for this. None. Two, not being able to mute the music. Again, there’s no excuse for it. I have a hunch that the developers of casual games are not as experienced or knowledgeable as are hardcore developers, but it can’t be that difficult to code window mode or muting the sound. Not being able to skip cutscenes is also a non-starter for me. Basically, if I’m not in control of my gaming experience, I’ll tap out. I’m not as strict about resolution settings because that doesn’t matter as much to me, but sound and window? Yeah.
Here are some of my micro annoyances with casual games. One, making it so I have to continually press a button to mute the sound–especially if you have to do each aspect separately. I don’t even like sliders, but they’re better than having to repeatedly press a button. I wish more games had a ‘mute all’ button, but that doesn’t seem to be a thing. Another is once I’ve fixed all the settings to my liking, as the game continues, it ignores what I’ve done and reverts to previous settings. If a game does that (say with cutscenes and sound), I instantly stop playing. Another weird thing many HOGs do is that you can change the difficulty in the settings, but if you do it before they specifically ask you to select your difficulty, they’ll still ask you, even if you change the difficulty. In addition, some games will change your whole computer’s resolution when you choose window mode, and that’s another game stopper for me. Obviously.
One more mini-rant: Fix the obvious bugs in the game. One of the solitaire games I played had a fun premise (you’re a detective, and you must solve a crime by playing solitaire!), but it was so riddled with bugs, it wiped out most of the enjoyment. Not only did the game not see certain cards on the field from time to time, it froze up several times. This happened once or twice in the demo, but I thought it wouldn’t be too big a deal. Sadly, I expect more of these kinds of bugs in casual games, but this one exceeded even my limit. I finished it, but only because my OCD tendencies kicked in. I never would have bought it had I known how riddled with bugs it would be. I should have read the reviews more carefully.
On to storylines. I’m mostly talking about HOGS in this section, so I’ll note if it’s otherwise. First, let’s talk stories. I’m all about the paranormal and dark fantasy, but it seems as if casual games has become locked into these genres. Ghosts, witches, and other-worldly terrors have become the staple of casual games, and it’s reached the point where even I heave a sigh when I read about yet another witch trying to take over our world. That’s partly because I am pro-witch, but that is neither here nor there. The story usually starts out with a tragedy happening to the protagonist. More often than not, it’s a kidnapped/killed family member, which is an eye-rolling trope to start with. It usually turns out that witch or a demon or some such has taken the beloved family member, and it’s up to you to stop him/her/it! But first, you must leave your house, which you can’t do because the door is locked and you don’t remember where you left the key! Seriously. This is a thing in so many games, and while I know there has to be actual interaction, and I’m not looking for complete immersion in a casual game, but the whole find a key thing is way past tired. So is being in a prison and having to find a way out. So is using an animal as a helper, but I actually like that because who doesn’t like a cuddly critter lending you a paw?
One trend in HOGs that I’m not a fan of is making the hidden object scenes more complicated. In the past, it used to be, “Here’s a list of objects you need to find.” I will say that I hate that most HO scenes are simply cluttered with so many objects, your eye can’t process what you’re seeing. I prefer well-crafted scenes in which the objects blend in to the environment rather than are placed among a pile of random items. Anyway, then it came to be that in the scenes, there are a few actions you have to do in order to get your object, such as use a pencil on a the tic-tac-toe game to put in the winning X. It’s fine when there’s only a few per scene, but it’s not always intuitive what is needed. Which is one complaint about HOGs in general. I recently played a demo in which not only did you have to do this, then you had to take the result of one of these actions and use it somewhere else on the scene. Needless to say, I did not buy this game as that was a step too far for me.
One of the problems is that casual games are trying to be more hardcore, and that isn’t their strong point by far. In a current HOG I’m playing, you have to shoot ice wolves (don’t ask) or fire dragons with a bow. They put a shooting reticle on the screen, moved it around, and I had to ‘shoot’ when the reticle’s crosshairs were green. It was janky, and it wasn’t at all fun. I don’t play casual games to shoot things, and it just made me impatient. Be who you are, casual games! Embrace your escapism and lightness! Don’t try to be so hard and badass! It’s not a good look on you.
One more complaint: The puzzles. Thankfully, there are less of the Towers of Hanoi kind of puzzles, but there are still too many ‘move the blocks and slide the key out’ puzzles, ‘put all the angels and demons in their proper spheres, only moving one space at the time’ puzzles, and a bunch of other staples that weren’t fun in the first place. I don’t like the ‘try to move across the board without being detected’ puzzles because they’re usually finicky, and in the current HOG I’m playing, I skipped two puzzles in a row because I just didn’t give a shit. I normally don’t skip puzzles, but I wasn’t having any of that shit. I just wanted to be done, and they were obstacles to my goal.
I know I’m complaining a lot about games that I regularly play, but it’s because I think there’s the potential for them to be so much better. I’ll still play them, dreaming of what they might one day be.