Perhaps the most important thing about Hidden Folks [official site] is how it manages to contain so much unabashed happiness. Taking the Where's Wally concept and making it far more complex, despite being in black and white, these intricate wimmelbilderbuch art drawings (got to use it again!) burst with silly life. Click on anything and something will happen, whether it's birds squawking and taking off, monkeys falling out of trees, boats sailing further down a river, hay bales rolling across a field, or doors opening to reveal people sitting on the toilet, each is accompanied by a man-made sound effect. Which is both daft and wonderful, which are the two words that best describe Hidden Folks.
I love its capacity to make me laugh out loud. In the second level, a huge (but not nearly as huge as things get) jungle scene, a hen is hidden somewhere with the clue, "This chicken was a bite size dinner". I spotted a snake in a small clearing, with an enormous bulge near its tail. Clicking on the bulge has it squelch along nearer the snake's head, until eventually it coughs out the bird. Who proceeds to peck nonchalantly at the ground.
The game doesn't make a fuss about how it's meant to be played, which is a rare and stupendous thing. If you want to find all the hidden people, animals and objects by meticulously scrutinising the screen, zooming in to maximum detail, and solving the semi-cryptic hints to their potential locations, then great. If you want to click at random all over the picture to see what happens, stumbling on the targets as you go, then you're welcome to. I think the ideal way to play is somewhere between the two, making an effort to find your goals, but enjoying the silliness of all the sound effects and animations packed in there with some frenetic clicking.
Oh, and there are so many sound effects! In a preview earlier this year I mentioned how a small disappointment was clicking on something and not hearing a specific sound. Developers Adriaan de Jongh and Sylvain Tegroeg took this to heart and went completely bonkers, adding in hundreds and hundreds more. There are now, apparently, over 960 different mouth-made noises in there, accompanying over 200 different ways to interact with the pictures. That's quite the thing.
That it doesn't punish you for this as a hidden object game might (and should) is a very wise choice, and not including anything like a click counter ensures there's nothing pushing you away from playing with it as a toy, as well as as a game. It seems like a small detail, but it's one that could have tainted the pleasure, and it was smart decision making not to do it. (Other smart choices include different colour modes, letting you switch from black on white to a less glaring sepia tone, and a night mode with white on black.)
I mentioned last month that I've had the rare pleasure of playing the game as its been through various iterations over the last few months, seeing levels put in and taken out, and indeed entire extra concepts like the rather wonky levels where the camera inexorably slid left forcing a time limit on your finding things. That never really came together and doesn't appear in the released version. The final design is one of mini levels betwixt enormous levels, one sort of introducing the next. You might see a small domestic scene in front of someone's house, and then be confronted by multiple streets each with a dozen houses, stunning amounts of detail and animation taking place throughout. Exploring these involves opening doors, sliding panels, moving manhole covers, and jiggling satellite dishes. In the jungle it might be shaking trees, digging holes, poking animal nests and tickling monkeys.
Larger levels will have up to 14 different things to find, requiring that you collect a minimum of eight before it moves on. Some of these I wanted to find everything, a couple of them I found less enticing and was happy to move on. (It really was only a couple, that felt more fiddly and less interesting than others.) Which introduces the only real issue here: there are only fifteen levels.
Funny thing is, I happen to know they have more than that, because I've played levels in earlier builds that don't appear here. Whether they decided they didn't make the cut, or are holding them back for later updates, I'm not sure, but I would have thought the more the better. As it is, you'll get through everything on offer in just a couple of hours. That's enough, and I should stress that's not finding every item in every level. Add another couple of hours on for managing that. At under £6, that's a perfectly reasonable length, but it does feel a little abrupt.
Still, when you're only complaint about a game is that you want more of it, it's pretty good going. This is charming and silly and gentle and fun, ridiculously intricate and lovingly crafted. It's not hardcore, it's not going to outfox you, but it doesn't want to be doing that. This is one of those instances where you wish "casual" hadn't become a meaningless nonsense term in gaming, because it would nicely capture the feeling of a puzzle book that's magically come alive, a Where's Wally where you get to poke and prod the characters. It's a calm, calming and pleasingly silly game.
Hidden Folks is out for Windows, Mac, and Linux on Steam at £5.39/7,19€/$7.19, which includes a small launch discount.