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"Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst"
Big Fish Games
The latest game in the blockbuster "Mystery Case Files" franchise takes hidden-object gaming to new heights ... and new frights.
By InGame reporter
NBC News
updated 1/6/2009 5:59:23 AM ET 2009-01-06T10:59:23

There are few things more frustrating than losing your keys within the confines of your own home.

They’re not on the table where you thought you left them. They’re not under the sofa cushions where you’ve found them so many times before. And they‘re not on the key ring because, of course, you never actually use that thing for what it was intended. Surely, you tell yourself, they must be here … somewhere … and yet no amount of searching, sulking, or hissy-fit throwing will make them reveal themselves.

But here’s the question I’m forced to ask: Why is it that I get so blindingly frustrated when I’m obligated to hunt for some simple object misplaced within the cluttered reaches of my home … and yet I’m downright thrilled to spend endless mesmerized hours doing the same thing when it’s presented to me in video game form?

That is, over the recent holidaze, I found myself staying up into the wee hours of the morning playing the latest “hidden object” game from Big Fish Games. It’s called “Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst,” and it’s a game so absorbing that it will leave you staring unblinkingly at your computer screen until your eyeballs shrivel into raisins and begin rattling around in your skull.

For those of you who haven’t played a hidden-object game, these games typically present players with a static scene. For example, you might be given a picture of a bedroom. But while this bedroom is populated with the usual items (furniture and whatnot), it’s also festooned with an assortment of objects and knick-knacks. You’re then presented with a list of items that you must find secreted there among the bric-a-brac. A broom, a banana, a rolling pin, a key ring.

This may not sound like particularly gripping fare, but trust me, a good hidden-object game is easy enough for anyone to pick up and yet it’s such an enormous brain tease that when you go to quit it, it’s as if  you’ve super-glued the thing to your hand. You want to put it down and walk away from it … but you simply can’t.

Must … find … one … more … object …

"Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst"
Big Fish Games
In this scene from "Return to Ravenhearst," players must find the items listed at the bottom of the screen. The question is, can you find the needle in the tea party?

Just ask the casual gamers out there. In recent years, hidden-object games have become a staple of the casual gaming biz … or, some might say, a plague upon it.

That is, much like the multitudes of match-three titles that crowd the casual gaming space, it seems everyone who’s trying to cash in on the casual cow is whipping up a hidden-object game. Why? Because they know players will snap it up.

But “Mystery Case Files” games aren’t just any hidden-object games. They are the best of the best, not to mention the foundation upon which the genre was established. And now, with the launch of “Return to Ravenhearst” – the fifth installment in the series (a series that has sold more than 2.5 million copies) – they’ve taken not only the franchise, but the hidden-object genre in general, to splendid new heights.

Before your very eyes
“Hidden-object games hit that sweet spot in our brains that craves order,” says John Bardinelli, a writer for game review site JayIsGames.com. “Finding items in a cluttered mess is, quite literally, picking out the needle in the haystack.”

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Sweet spot indeed. There’s something intensely satisfying about hunting for and finding that elusive needle. It would seem a frustrating task, but what makes these games so compelling is the way they turn the faith you have in your perceptive abilities on its head.

That is, hidden-object games make it clear that the objects you’re looking for are sitting right there in front of your nose – all you have to do is point at them with your mouse and click.  And yet, search as you might, they defy detection. The clever use of light and color, the careful placement of an object where you least expect to see it – the eye is tricked into not seeing what is right in front of it.

And when you do finally see it – the moment of discovery is a sublime revelation.

Paul Thelen, founder of Big Fish Games, says the idea for “Mystery Case Files” came about because one of his employees was a big fan of the old children’s seek-and-find games such as “Where’s Waldo.” Thelen noticed that while those games were designed for young children (simple to solve and featuring cartoony graphics), there were adults that enjoyed playing them just as much. The challenge, he decided, was making a seek-and-find game that appealed specifically to grown-ups – one that offered more mature themes, a higher level of difficulty and professional graphics … and yet still maintained that intangible something that made the kiddie games so fun.

And so in 2005, Big Fish launched the first “Mystery Case Files” game – “MCF: Huntsville” – a hidden-object game with a pulp detective novel flair, and a game you downloaded straight to your home computer.

"Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst"
Big Fish Games
Puzzles have become an increasingly important part of the "Mystery Case Files" games. In this puzzle from "Return to Ravenhearst," players must first find the missing typewriter keys and then piece together clues to figure out what it is they're supposed to type.
"Huntsville" put players in the role of a detective charged with solving a rash of crimes plaguing a sleepy town. To solve the crimes, the player was presented with painted scenes (a bookstore, a museum, a clock shop) and charged with finding a list of objects (a dustpan, a telescope, a silver teapot) within a set amount of time. “Huntsville” was an immediate success, selling more than $1 million in digital copies in less than three months.

The game quickly inspired what would become a deluge of imitators (as well as some innovators) and thus pioneered a casual game genre. Big Fish followed that success with further “MCF” games – “Prime Suspects,” “Ravenhearst” and “Madame Fate” – each one offering new features, introducing new kinds of puzzles and making story an increasingly prominent aspect of the series.

With the third installment,“Ravenhearst,”Big Fish seemed to hit their stride – introducing door puzzles into the series – intriguing and intricate brain teasers that had to be solved in order to proceed through the game. They also introduced players to Ravenhearst Manor – a haunted 19th-century abode – and to the tale of an obsessed madman, a missing woman, a nursemaid and a love affair gone horribly awry.

With the launch of “Return to Ravenhearst” late last year, Big Fish not only returned players to that bewitched mansion, the company also presented its biggest and most impressive production to date.

Big Fish hired the Berlin Film Orchestra to perform the game’s epic score and they sprinkled live-action sequences throughout the game to further immerse players in the ghostly and ghastly story of obsession and murder.

But more importantly, the game has evolved well beyond the hidden-object genre it pioneered. Taking cues from beloved games of the past, “Return to Ravenhearst” adopts the kind of exploration-focused adventure gameplay that made the likes of “Myst” so devilishly enthralling.

“We really wanted to push this one to the next level,” says Chris Campbell, the “MCF” series producer. “We wanted to show the rest of the industry what a casual game is capable of.”

Mechanisms of madness
Indeed, it’s a spine-chilling pleasure to explore Ravenhearst Manor, a sprawling and eerie place of hidden tunnels and secret chambers that have been decked out in an absolutely splendid variety of puzzles. To conquer the game, players must conquer a madman’s elaborate memory game and decipher his convoluted mathematical contraption. There are codes that must be cracked, mechanisms that must be manipulated and tools that must be unearthed and then used in the appropriate places.

Your memory skills and your logic skills will be put to the test. But all of it makes good sense. Think carefully and you will be rewarded.

Certainly the seek-and-find play is the best it’s ever been. The scenery is both gorgeous and gruesome as you find yourself combing the perverse nooks and crannies of a subterranean prison. And the objects have been so cunningly hidden you’ll be thrilled to see how the artists concealed them in plain sight (that is, once you’ve finally found them).

Ultimately, “Return to Ravenhearst’s” crowning achievement is the way it seamlessly blends puzzles, object hunting, exploration and story together. The result feels like an interactive mystery novel in which you get to be the star sleuth.

"Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst"
Big Fish Games
A mechanized memory game is just one of the clever contraptions you'll have to conquer in "Return to Ravenhearst."
Jay Bibby, founder of JayIsGames.com, couldn’t be happier. After wading through too many run-of-the-mill hidden-object games, he’s thrilled to see this evolution.

“They did just a brilliant job with this game,” he says. “This is where the genre needs to go.”

It seems unfortunate that “Return to Ravenhearst” was launched during the holiday season – a time when every gaming company on the planet seems to be flooding the market with titles. Though "Return to Ravenhearst" has popped up on a few best-games-of-the-year lists, I fear it could get lost among the clutter.

But then again, perhaps I should trust that, in the best hidden-object tradition, perceptive players will be able to find “Return to Ravenhearst” in the crowded scenery. A good place to start looking: MysteryCaseFiles.com.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I have some keys I still need to find.

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