An insult to the art and purpose of storytelling
Ghost Detective is a puzzle game where you find hidden objects to catch your own murderer. As you search for clues across New Orleans, you meet other ghosts and chat with your ghost-talking sister Angela, solving their problems and collecting resources to unlock new locations.
The core of Ghost Detective lies in its hidden object gameplay. You look at pictures of a bar, plaza, police station, or apartment, and tap on objects matching a list of words. If you find the objects in the list within the three minute time limit, the scene is completed and you get rewards. Objects tend to be appropriate for their scene – a phone in an apartment, a coffee cup in a police station – and are shared between scenes, so you’ll see the same kind of cup in both places.
Some objects are always easy to find even in harder levels, like an oversized yellow butterfly, presumably to keep your spirits up, but others are very small or in weird places (e.g. a teddy bear in foliage) or blend into the background (e.g. a red fire alarm on a red wall) requiring you to zoom in. As the difficulty ramps up, the list of objects for a scene grows, along with the proportion of objects unreasonably hard to find.
Take this apartment scene, for example:
The alarm clock is at the back of the room but isn’t obscured. The cactus is on a shelf to its left. Only the top of the bottle opener is visible, poking out of a trophy on the desk, but it’s not otherwise hidden. And while the red first aid kit blends into the red sofa, its green cross stands out. Nothing too objectionable!
Now take this bar:
Let’s ignore all the objects apart from the orange. In fact, I’ve even zoomed in already to make it easier. Can you find it? No? Look at the barrel suspended in the middle of the picture. See the pattern on its end? That’s the orange. That’s right, shit is fucked.
This kind of chicanery may be common in hidden object games – I’m hardly an expert. And I’m prepared to accept a certain level of abstraction in the representation of objects beyond literal depictions. But if I’m looking for the word “camera”, while I’m willing to accept a photo of a camera, I’d draw the line at a picture of the private chambers of a judge. That’s how I feel about this “orange”, which seems purposefully designed to be impossible to solve in any reasonable time limit, let alone three minutes.
This is where hints come in. You can tap the Hint button to reveal the location of a hidden object; there’s also a “Triple Finder” button that reveals three objects at once. Naturally, the first hit on both is free, but otherwise they cost an exorbitant 40 diamonds. This takes a couple of hours to earn in normal play, encouraging frustrated players looking for an “orange” to pay real money for more diamonds, except Netflix’s version of Ghost Detective has no in-app purchases, meaning your only resort is to keep retrying scenes.
Repetition works, but only thanks to rote memorisation. If you play a scene enough times, you’ll eventually remember that a “speaker” might be a sticker of a speaker symbol on the back of a laptop, or you’ll memorise the locations of fire alarms in the bar. It’s so slow and arbitrary it sucks the fun out of the game.
All of this is probably a result of the game needing to do three things at once:
Provide variety, so players don’t get bored.
Increase difficulty over time, so players are forced to repeat scenes before getting new stuff.
Reduce production costs, because capitalism.
You could boil this down to “maximise play time while minimising cost”, because while there are no in-app purchases here, I presume Netflix is paying out royalties or bonuses to the developer based on player engagement time; as such, the game is exercise in how much designers can annoy players without them abandoning it entirely. A modicum of variety is introduced with variable weather and lighting, but scenes’ main features and object locations are stable; a little more variety is injected on scene replays by putting teddy bears on ceiling fans, necklaces in fountains, and other weirdness.
It’s not that I’m demanding realism in hidden object games – I loved the trippy vaporwave Holovista – but Ghost Detective’s scene design is inevitably lazy because each one needs to withstand dozens if not hundreds of replays, and whatever procedural generation and/or handcrafted design they’re using isn’t enough to make it interesting.
At least there’s no penalty for tapping on things that aren’t objects, though tapping everywhere randomly isn’t an effective strategy because most hard-to-find objects are very small, and in the most common searching mode (“Words Mode”), only four objects are tappable at a time, with additional objects only becoming available for discovery when one of those four is found. Other modes include:
All-of-a-Kind: Find multiple objects of the same type, e.g. three apples, five hats, ten fans, etc. Each object can look very different. A fan might be a folding fan, a banner, a mechanical fan on a wall, even a piece chart that looks like a fan.
Silhouette: Find objects that match silhouettes. The silhouettes don’t match the actual shape of objects in the scene; instead you’re shown a silhouette of a generic apple rather than the literal silhouette of the apple you’re looking for.
Stakeouts: Complete a scene three times in a row with triple the rewards. You start with the usual three minutes on the first round; each time you clear a round you get a bit more time added on to whatever you have less, but there are more objects to find each time.
You can also find a donut in every scene; when you have 11 donuts, you unlock a reward in the shop. It is unclear how this relates to the story.
While you’ll spend most of your time in Ghost Detective finding hidden objects, there’s a surprising amount of match-3 gameplay too, where you slide coloured beads (it’s New Orleans, after all) into matching groups of three.
The match-3 game is required to remove “Lost Souls” from the map. These appear periodically and if left alone, eventually wander into a scene and cause a “soul storm”. Soul storms have to be cleared before you can play a scene normally and are more difficult than usual because the objects are all over the place and, more importantly, only one word is displayed at a time.
When you tap on a lost soul before it causes a soul storm, you’re presented with a grid of beads, and have limited turns to clear a certain number of beads. When you merge four or more beads, you get special beads that, when matched, clear entire columns or rows or areas of grids. Rainbow beads clear all beads of the colour you merge them into. No attempt at theming is provided other than a pitiful line from a ghost who tells you, “Have you ever seen a tangled clump of bead necklaces after a parade? That’s what these ghosts are like inside. They just need help untangling their thoughts.”
The best I can say about these match-3 games is that they are usually very easy, meaning they’re over quickly.
Ghost Detective’s story is inextricably linked to its time-maximisation goal. You begin as a cop who is murdered and becomes a ghost. Conveniently, ghosts can’t remember what happened just before they died; even better, a death that catches someone by surprise causes the most forgetfulness. Since you’re a cop, you’re not willing to let this go, so the game is about regaining your memories and tracking down your murderer via a series of cases.
When you’re on a case, you’re directed to search various scenes which yield clues and items, represented as cards. Slightly confusingly, these are attached to unrelated hidden objects, so while searching Jackson Square plaza, where I was murdered, I tapped on a crow (because it’s one of the four words listed to find) and a clue card for a blood spatter pattern appeared.
Another go-around Jackson Square provided a second clue (“Body Bag – single bullet wound at close range. Would’ve been bloody”), and so on until I got all four clues I needed. This presented a question: “What happened here?” where I had three choices of a theory of my murder. Since I got it right on my first try (“I was shot elsewhere and my body dragged here”), I got 20 diamonds.
Because diamonds can buy hints, they’re one of the most important and easily understandable currencies in the game. Every four hours, the game lets you unlock a Diamond Box containing five diamonds, but otherwise they’re hard to come by. You can also spend diamonds to get an extra 45 seconds if you run out of time during a scene.
There are too many other currencies and resources. You get experience points through normal play, which levels you up and unlocks new scenes on the map. There are coins, gained by searching scenes, rescuing lost souls, and solving cases, which can buy hints via the “Blitz offer” store, and other stuff. Searching scenes also yields “spectral binders” like Orange Mist, Orange Haze, and Green Swirl, etc., whose “uncanny binding properties” help you assemble collectible Magnets (e.g. a Street Lamp Magnet) that themselves assemble Local Mementoes (e.g. Jackson Square Snow Globe), which provide rewards like extra hints and diamonds.
None of this really matters except when you’re assembling an important object for a character and you discover you’re missing five Green Mists or the like, and the game goads you into spending a few precious diamonds to exchange for whatever you’re missing.
This happened to me during the “Sisterhood” storyline. Shortly after my murder, my sister Angela arrived. Apparently Angela had been seeing ghosts since she was 16, and can talk to me too. To convince her to help me, I had to dredge up memories of her, which meant searching every scene I’ve been to, some of them twice, for five cards representing Angela’s favourite food (red beans and rice), and so on.
It’s important to remember that the actual gameplay here is looking for balloons and water coolers and ID cards in police stations and apartments over and over again, against a three minute time countdown. I actually quite like hidden object games, but the sheer repetitiveness made this process very tiring.
Anyway, Angela refuses to pass the clues I’ve gathered on to my partner at the police station because she doesn’t like cops, which is fair enough, though one might have hoped she’d made an exception for the ghost of her murdered sister. Instead, she offers to introduce me to a friend, Red, who could help. Since Red is at a location that requires me to be at Level 3 to meet him, I have to grind through more scenes to get enough XP to level up.
This is when Ghost Detective adds a new Character Insight screen that, essentially, adds sidequests. It tracks my relationships with people I’ve met in the game, such as another ghost named Kate. I can unlock five levels of insights into her past by assembling mementoes and completing cases that matter to her; her first case is rescuing a lost soul.
Sadly, this doesn’t give me any XP, so I had to search scenes another six times. When you complete a scene a few times, it ranks up and gets harder, which in practice means I have to begin zooming in to find a rubber duck wedged in the ceiling or the like. I’m also starting to run out of time a lot, which is not fun at all. When I finally get to Level 3 and unlock Red’s Bar, the map reveals three more locations that will unlock at Levels 6, 10, and 18. I shudder to think how many times I’ll need to repeat scenes to get there.
Red tells me there isn’t much I can do to further my investigation except perform a ritual. Unfortunately, the ritual needs to be done by a living person and because Angela is mean, I need to find a bunch of things she’s lost. I run around town searching scenes and once I have everything, I’ve finally had enough and stop playing the game entirely.
Designers often underestimate the power of storytelling to pull people through an experience. It’s easy to A/B test different colours and labels for buttons, but it’s much harder to test different kinds of stories for games or other products. Even if they concede storytelling is important, many designers lack the taste to distinguish between good and bad storytelling.
Ghost Detective’s designers do understand storytelling. It’s a desperately unoriginal rip-off of the movie Ghost, but at least that gives it clear strakes and distinct characters, which is a lot more than most games. It’s also titrated for maximum efficiency: you’re given the absolute minimum amount of dialogue and plot necessary to keep you playing. Countless casual games do the same thing, and the entire strategy is an insult to the art and purpose of storytelling.
As for the gameplay, it’s not hard to think of how one might use generative AI or good old fashioned procedural generation to try and make more varied and interesting scenes on a budget. But this is more of a business problem than a design problem – Hidden Folks and Holovista already demonstrate how to create joyful, strange, compelling hidden object games. The answer is doing it by hand and not trying to make a game that can last forever.
In three hours of play, I got to Level 3 in Ghost Detective. Given that levels tend to get harder as you go along, I’m guessing you’d need to spend at least 50 hours to get to the end of the story, and likely much, much longer. You might think the length makes for a leisurely experience, but the time limit dashes any such hopes. Merely changing the three minute countdown into a bonus for finishing within three minutes would make it more pleasant, but from the designers’ perspective that would reduce player engagement, which is almost certainly inflated by players’ “near misses” on scenes.
Far from being relaxing, Ghost Detective is a busywork simulator. It makes you feel like you’re doing something productive: cleaning things up, running errands, collecting items, saving Lost Souls. There’s just enough story to add a veneer of purpose, and the constant repetition and rote memorisation provides an illusion of skill. But when we have other great puzzle and hidden object games to play, there’s no need to play one as mean as this.
Thanks for reading Have You Played?! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.