Perception is a funny thing. No matter how hard we look, sometimes we just can't see what's right in front of us.
Big Fish Games, a top casual game developer, knows this better than anyone. It has a reputation for creating high-quality downloadable computer games that force players to kick up their visual and observational skills. And the company's two latest releases definitely uphold these high standards.
Last month, Big Fish released "Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst," the third installment in its much-lauded "Mystery Case Files" franchise, a series of visual puzzlers that have gone on to become best sellers. Big Fish also released "Travelogue 360: Paris," a game that puts a new twist on the company's renowned perception puzzles.
And while the flashy new gaming consoles (Wii and PS3) and their flashy new titles have been stealing the spotlight for the last month or so, both of Big Fish Games' new titles can be played by anyone with a computer, an Internet connection and a bit of spare time.
The thrust of the "Mystery Case Files" game play sounds simple: Players must look at an image on their computer screen and try to find a list of objects within that image before the time runs out. But as with all casual games, the seemingly simplest of tasks is significantly more difficult than it appears on the surface.
In "Ravenhearst," players assume the role of a master detective charged with unlocking the hundred-year-old mystery that surrounds Ravenhearst Manor. To do that, you'll have to search 32 rooms, scouring each one for a list of cleverly hidden items. In the kitchen, for example, you'll look for a door knocker, a woman's sandal and a candle snuffer, among other objects. In the garden you'll hunt for a skull, a spade and a cane.
It's a bit like playing an advanced game of "Where's Waldo." The items are all right there in the beautifully rendered illustration on your screen…right in front of your very eyes…but these visual teasers are designed so smartly, the objects you seek seem to be camouflaged to the point of invisibility.
You might sit there hunting for an hourglass or a pistol or a camera for minutes on end only to discover later that you've been looking right at these items from the very beginning without realizing it. The folks at Big Fish designed their game images so that the objects on your list blend in with the hundreds of other curios and knick-knacks that also clutter the picture.
Meanwhile, your list may call for you to find the soldier hidden in the picture, but it's up to you to realize that it's actually a nutcracker dressed like a soldier that you're looking for. The visual trickery is so simple, but you'll find yourself pleasantly stumped time and time again.
At various points throughout the game, you'll have to piece together missing diary pages that slowly reveal the house's history and help you unlock a mystery surrounding a young woman's visit there in 1894. And in a brand new tweak to the "Mystery Case Files" series, you'll also have to figure your way through several shrewdly designed chain-reaction-style puzzles in order to get into the manor's locked rooms.
You're still after hidden items in Big Fish's other release, "Travelogue 360: Paris." But this time, the pictures you must search through are 360-degree panoramic photographs of famous places around Paris.
Given a list of souvenirs to find, you'll have to spin all the way around, look all the way up at the sky and down at your feet to find the objects you need before your time runs out. The game is designed to make you feel as though you're standing right in the middle of the city's most famous locations — the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees, Saint Sulpice Church. At the Eiffel Tower, you'll hunt for a ballerina, an easel and a bulldozer. At the Bois de Vincennes, you'll search for a rubber duck, a chandelier and a hobby horse.
Though both games offer high production values with excellent sound design and music to set the mood, "Ravenhearst" is the more appealing (not to mention addicting) of the two. The new multi-part puzzles are an engrossing addition to the playing style and "Ravenhearst" offers at least the threads of a story to keep players interested. The immersive nature of "Travelogue 360's" panoramic photos is a great idea and a fun way to take a quick trip over seas, but the game feels like it lacks the depth and variety of its sibling.
Of course, the nice thing about both games is, you can test them out before you decide whether you want to buy them. Download free trial versions at www.bigfishgames.com. The full version of each costs $19.95.