MonteCristo.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist.]

I find the hidden object game a bit of a frustration. Here is a genre in which a great deal of effort goes into the framing story -- and, perhaps even more to the point, the games tend to advertise themselves on the basis of that story, in contrast with many sorts of casual games that advertise themselves on the basis of the mechanic.

We have hidden object games about expeditions to Mt. Everest, or assembling archaeological evidence from Egypt, or tracking killers in London. But in practice the interaction and the story usually have almost nothing to do with one another.

There's even a hidden object remake of The Count of Monte Cristo. An ambitious idea, and I couldn't resist trying it. It gets off to a fair start: there's thrilling if slightly cheesy music, a great sense of importance, and an illustrated summary of the opening portion of the book.

If you were going to pick a book to translate into an adventure game, The Count of Monte Cristo is a promising choice: it's a bit of a pot-boiler, but it has a hell of a premise, with lots of obvious, easy-to-share motivation for the protagonist. There's love, danger, money, intrigue, betrayal, imprisonment, a cameo appearance by Napoleon Bonaparte -- what's not to like?

This rendition somewhat flattens the original story (apparently the authors figured that "Chateau d'If" would be too strange to the American audience, so they translated it into the rather less evocative "Castle of Iff", which sounds neither plausible nor French). So it's not as good an opening as Dumas wrote, but even watery Dumas is rich by the standards of adventure game beginnings.

But then -- oh, then. Then we are given a screen showing an inscrutable clutter of items and told to pick "clues" out of it, the clues that will lead us to our betrayer. Clues such as a pineapple, a crumpled paper, or a wedge of cheese. Do this long enough, and the story moves forward just a little.

To some extent I'm handicapped as a critic by the fact that I fundamentally dislike this mechanic. In graphical adventure games, I'm always frustrated when the screen is visually hard to parse: I want to know what I'm looking at, and consider it a flaw if I don't. Having a game take that flaw and make it into a virtue, challenging me to detect where on the screen is a musket that has been placed just so as to blend in with the background and look like a flagpole -- well, that's just annoying.

You could argue that the effect is "realistic", since in real life it's sometimes hard to see things clearly, but that's a bit bogus -- in real life I can move my head, shift positions, get closer to objects. Some games are better about this than others: the best of them have brightly lit rooms with stylish, not-quite-photographic illustrations, which at least make it clear where one item ends and another begins.

The worst are muddled collages of edited photographs in which the scales of objects and the shadows cast never work quite right, and it is near impossible to see the boundaries between things. When that happens, I find the effect substantially more tedious and frustrating than a badly tuned time management game or a text adventure with a bad parser.

So that's my caveat: I am not a big fan of hidden object interaction. I get irritated and start to click at random, and then the game pops up a little message to tell me that I'm going to be penalized for this random clicking.

But leaving that aside, I also find The Count of Monte Cristo frustrating because the mechanic is such a bad form of interaction for the storytelling that is supposedly going on in the game. I would be a little more patient (I think) if the object searches were a little more relevant to the game's supposed narrative, but in the case of the Cristo game, we get to search for absurd things in various settings around Marseille.

(To give credit where due, the settings themselves are designed to be period French rooms -- but that doesn't quite excuse the fact that apparently one of the damning bits of evidence against the villain is, in fact, a pine cone.)

paeh.jpgIt's possible to do much better with the same basic concept. Agatha Christie - Peril at End House is a hidden object game based on Hercule Poirot. I have the sense that they took a lot of their cues from the David Suchet television series, because their Hercule looks shockingly like Suchet, and the theme music has a familiar jazzy-yet-suspenseful score.

The production values are excellent, and there's a clear sense of setting and period -- but that's not what I'm interested in here. Three things make this game much more effective than the game of The Count of Monte Cristo from a narrative-meets-interaction perspective.

First, there's a greater match between the interaction style and the content of the narrative. Dantes doesn't really spend most of his time scrutinizing furniture. His adventures are more about interpersonal manipulation. Trying to squeeze him into a hidden object game doesn't work so well. Poirot, though, is just the type to linger fastidiously over tiny details.

(Holmes even more so: it's no surprise there is also a line of Sherlock Holmes hidden object games.)

Second, the creators of Peril at End House have gone to some trouble to make the searches feel more relevant to the plot. Most of the items you find don't mean anything, but in each room there is usually one -- a letter, a footprint, a revealing receipt -- that contributes information toward the investigation. This makes a world of difference, because it makes these scenes feel more like real searches, and because it doesn't attempt to convince the player that useless side articles have any bearing on the plot.

PaEH2.jpgThird, the mini-games slipped in between object searches are generally more apposite as well: fitting together jigsaw puzzles of torn-up evidence; connecting clues with the characters they relate to; solving a very simple encrypted safe combination; that sort of thing. They're not really very hard puzzles, but they have the effect of reinforcing the player's understanding of the story.

But ultimately, the reason this works as well as it does is that Agatha Christie's stories start out being very much like jigsaw puzzles, with pieces supplied one at a time and the reader invited to fit them together. Some other styles of mystery writing -- a Scott Turow thriller, say, or the psychologically dense mysteries of PD James or Elizabeth George, or even a late Sayers novel -- would not be nearly so open to translation to this format. It would seem trivializing to try.

The cynical explanation is that Christie's work is really more puzzle than story to start with, and that this is why it lends itself so well to conversion. I prefer to make a different observation: that successfully adapting existing narrative material to interactive media is sometimes about making a smart match between the reader's activity (in the original case) and the player's (in the resulting work).

Note I said "the reader's activity" there, not "the protagonist's". Lots of game versions of books try (with varying success) to give the player the starring role. But the player of Peril at End House doesn't really act like Hercule Poirot, or even like Poirot's sidekick Hastings.

He acts like the consumer of the mystery, someone who has to have all the important bits pointed out for him (as, for instance, in a list of objects to find and examine in each room), and whose main challenge is to keep track of what it all means. Some of the mini-games are essentially quizzes on whether the player understands the plot so far.

The Count of Monte Cristo game doesn't let me act like either Dantes or a reader of Dantes' story. It gives me Dumas' wonderful sweeping over-the-top premise, one that demands action of the protagonist and inspires impatient curiosity in the reader. And then it asks me to sit still and click on pine cones.

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]