Games from the Crypt: Dire Grove – the Queen of Hidden Object Games

Hidden Object Games (or HOGs, as we’ll call them) do come with an arguably bad reputation – as cheaply-made, mass-produced, kitsch-y casual games for an audience of old ladies over 65. Not to say they cannot be badass gamers, as the internet’s most famous Gaming Grandma Shirley Curry can confirm.

And nowadays, with market leader Big Fish swamping its webpage with badly-animated and oversaturated games, the point and click-adventure genre seems to have had its day, but is not being left to die with dignity as there is still quick money to make from the booming business of casual games.

One Game to measure them all by

Among reviews of these games, even the ones that fare better with critics, one sentence keeps popping up, usually something along those lines: “It’s decent enough, but it’s not the next Dire Grove.” Which is a game that came out in late 2009. Let that sink in for a moment – it says a lot about the state of the genre.

What did this apparently legendary game do that people still keep comparing other HOGs to it in 2020?

Well, for starters, Dire Grove was one of the very first Hidden Object Games that, in its combination of mechanics, story and atmosphere, managed to do pretty much everything right. The atmosphere is simultaneously gripping and cozy, the puzzles are, more or less, well balanced and overall, the game feels like an old-fashioned, slow-burn murder mystery with elements of (somewhat cheesy, but well-enough-executed) documentary horror. The whole thing has a classiness to it that just makes you dive into it with the sort of suspended disbelief good fiction will take you to.

Here’s the trailer for the Collector’s Edition, in all its cheesy glory:

Dire Grove came out during what we will call the Golden Age of Hidden Object games. The Big Fish publishing company, with lots of trial and error and via juggling an array of mechanics, had crafted the Mystery Case Files series, the first HOG franchise with an overarching plotline, recurring characters and villains and an actual story to tell. The main character, a figure simply named Master Detective, takes their orders directly from her Majesty the Queen of England to roam the UK and investigate cases of vanished villagers and such, and, in the case of Dire Grove, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a bunch of college students at the (fictional) Celtic heritage site ravaged by an unusually strong snow storm.

Snowy Blair Witch

Well, there’s definitely something off about this place. What vintage car owner leaves their prized possession out in the snow like this?

At first, we as Master Detective find the students’ abandoned car, an equally abandoned hotel and a couple of camcoder tapes strewn around the place. Now you explore the lonely site while snowflakes drift across intricately-painted set pieces and hidden object scenes, with the detective giving sassy commentary at every corner. The camcoder tapes, filmed with actual actors in a “Snowy Blair Witch” style, reveals the story of ambitious college graduate Alison Sterling and her quest to prove the local legend about the Banshee of Dire Grove causing the winter that has the nation in its grip.

Snow, peace, quiet. Maybe a little too quiet. At least you’re not gonna encounter annoying NPCs in this game.

The tapes are the only time you meet the students (or, any other human being at atll) in the game, before you find each of them half-frozen and under some sort of icy spell, mumbling incantations. The game has no need for padding out via clue-dropping and awkwardly-characterized NPCs.

The story of the Banshee goes like this: A hunter, a fisherman, a farmer and a blacksmith sacrifice a young woman to appease the Celtic deities and to end an unusually harsh winter, trapping her in a cave where she freezes to death. The ice lady’s spirit, naturally pissed off about said treatment, has taken control of the students to re-enact the legend, find and open the cave via the pieces of an artefact that will set her free to exert her vengeance and turn the world to ice.

How not to prevent bad harvests, Fig. 1

Point & Click Penny Dreadfuls

Sound cheesy? Well, if you’ve played many HOGs, you know that this is about as sophisticated as their storylines get, and Dire Grove goes to greath lengths to provide an experience that feels as realistic as possible. It is chock full with little details that make it so much more endearing to play than the cookie-cutter games that came after it, padding the narrative with brochures to leaf through, book entries to read and letters to decipher that make the game feel well thought out. And yes – there is a lot of reading involved in this game, including the lovingly-crafted and illustrated detective’s diary that updates alongside your progress, entertaining you with the detective’s private thoughts on the case and little hints on where to go next, while dead leaves and snowflakes cling to the paper.

In terms of visuals, Dire Grove is understatedly elegant, using a muted colour palette, knowing best not to rely on overly-flashy colours and ridiculous story twists that feel like reading very bad episodes of John Sinclair. Hidden Object Games, for the most part, are just that – penny dreadfuls in point & click format, reliying on the same tropes, spooks and imagery. Dire Grove, like so few of its kind, is an actual gaming experience.

That said, there are a few hidden gems out there that also deliver on the “gamified gothic novel” premise, and are actually fun to play, delivering solid world-building and a gripping enough atmosphere to keep you playing for a while:

  • The disturbing, doll-populated haunted house nightmare that was Return to Ravenhearst (featuring some imagery including doll childbirth that will haunt you in your dreams for a long time to come)
  • spooky carnival murder mystery Fate’s Carnival
  • and, now for something from a different franchise for a change, Nightmares from the Deep – which is essentially Pirates of the Carribbean 2 – Dead Man’s Chest in HOG format. Arrrr!
  • Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull: A Louisiana-based spinoff of the main series, featuring enough swamps and tropical soundscapes to give you mosquito bites. This one is on the same narrative level as Dire Grove, but far less well-known. Also comes with some Voodoo-based lore.
  • Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake: Play this one if you’re into cheesy ghost hunter shows (Ghost Adventures and the like, as this contains direct references to it). Not quite as challenging or complex as Dire Grove, but delivers well enough on the premise to be worthwile. Maybe catch it while it’s on sale, though – it’s a wee bit shorter than the other entries on this list.

Death by sequel or Snowy Princess Mononoke

Of course, greatness can not go through extended periods of time without someone trying to rehash it for a quick buck – which is how we got the flat-falling, stereotype-laden sequel Dire Grove, Sacred Grove. Which does come with the aforementioned masses of forgettable NPCs with awkward, automated animations, over-complicated riddles trying to make up for the lack of story content, and over-colourful environments drowning in blue, purple and random folklore kitsch mashed together (mainly Native American things, and as you may remember, we’re still in a village somewhere in the UK). Sacred Grove takes the familiar quiet environment of Dire Grove and stuffs it with a tribe of eco-warrior druids at war with the local villagers. I’m pretty sure you can imagine where this is going. It makes you wish for the quietness of the times when the village was still deserted and you were free to explore it without a bunch of cross-eyed Adobe Animate puppets constantly leering at you from one side of the screen.

What is this, Snowy Princess Mononoke?

Maybe it’s time for the Banshee to return and get rid of all the chattering NPCs infesting the place so that Dire Grove may finally have some peace and quiet again. Because that’s what HOGs are meant to be – casual, chill games to relax and unwind with.

Peace out, folks.

Games from the Crypt: The Darkside Detective

Twin Lakes. 198X. A pixelated small town with its fair share of mysterious incidents. In this town, one fearless detective takes it upon himself to vanquish the horrors of the nether realms that threaten his well-deserved coffee break. By his side: an an in equal parts fear- and clueless garda police officer who is basically an endearingly stupid flat-earther loves conspiracy theories more than common sense.

(cue spooky synthwave music and titles)

Roll Trailer:

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much what playing The Darkside Detective is like: A perfect blend of 80’s horror and mystery tropes, pixel art and humorous references. If you’ve seen pretty much any episode of the Irish television classic Father Ted (starring the legendary, late Dermot Morgan as Ted and Ardal O’Hanlon as his intellectually challenged novice Dougal), the often whacky dialogue chains between Detective Francis McQueen and his aptly-named policeman sidekick Dooley are a lot like the ones from Father Ted. Which, you know, might be an intentional nod since the dev team of Spooky Doorway, the studio behind The Darkside Detective just so happens to be Irish.

“When your dev team is Irish” starter kit

In the very first episode, we open a portal to the Upside Down the Darkside, a parallel ghost realm to the real world, in which everybody is just as normal as in the upper world, albeit a tad greener, glowy-er, see-through, and probably (un)dead.

Upon finding the magic item that makes you see ghosts, the ones moving the pieces on the chessboard are revealed to be the ghosts of (then) recently-departed Terry Pratchett and his colleague Douglas Adams. Meanwhile, in the horror section, the spirits of E. A. Poe and H. P. Lovecraft are having a heated debate about which of the two could write more horrifying, blood-curdling stories. You, as Detective McQueen, settle their argument once and for all – by delivering them a copy of Twilight, upon which the two agree that this abomination is the most horrifying thing any of them have ever read.

I think Edgar might be onto something there, Howie…

The puzzles are fun and, for the most part, not too difficult or frustrating (you get to play everything from tic-tac-toe to Space Invaders). They don’t come with an option to skip them, though, so you’ll actually use your braincells if you want to make progress in some areas. The rest is searching for clues and stuff and mashing together stuff you find lying around until you accidentally make something useful (your options are limited, though – this isn’t one of those Big Fish-combine-shovel-with-rubber-duckie-to get musical instrument games).

Gameplay is dialogue-based and follows the classic mechanics of a point & click adventure with RPG and puzzle elements. The game is split up into five episodes, all of which follow a very loosely-connected base storyline, and each parodize different installments of horror: from Stranger Things and Twin Peaks to Friday the 13th and Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist, we get to visit and explore haunted libraries, a monster lake, cabins in the woods, abandoned Christmas shopping malls and a zombie-infested churchyard.

And lastly, there is the Christmas special, “Buy Hard”. In which Francis McQueen’s garda police car is ultimately used to replace Santa’s sleigh, and takes off to deliver a load of presents.

THIS. GAME. IS. NICENESS. It’s simple, it’s funny, it’s endearing and gives you all the spooky, cozy vibes you need for a lonely evening. Meanwhile, it is brimming with atmosphere and cool ideas, and at its core, a solid, chill, well-executed adventure game.

Also, it’s on the Switch.

Including Boo and Luigi, of course. Leave the ghost hunting to the pros, they said…

So skip this one, even if you’re not into scares, though. While revolving around horror tropes, the game has no actual horror or frightening imagery in it and is much more funny and at best mildly spooky rather than scary. Its strong suit are the shiny, colourful pixel environments, the ridiculous dialogue trees that nothing and no one in this world takes themselves too seriously. Plus points if you’re a fan of chill, spooky, Vangelis-esque synths. Also, Nigel is cutest lake monster.

The full game can be downloaded at Steam for little money.

The dev team is currently working on the successfully crowd-funded second season 2. The demo is already playable and can be downloaded on their Kickstarter page.

If you’re still not convinced to give it a go already, go ahead and at least watch the trailer for season 2, which is scheduled to release around late summer this year:

You will liiiikeeeee ittttt…

No go on and support the folks at Spooky Doorway by at least downloading their games, folks, while I go play the demo and figure out whether the Citizen of Twin Lake backing prize is still worth signing my name in the Book of the Devil saving up for.