Hidden Folks is a silly, charming scavenger hunt

A meditative "Where's Waldo?" game with an incredible mouth-sounds soundscape

I’m lost. I know that somewhere in this neighborhood is a guy named Sven, and that he’s showed up to a pool party-- he “got the address right, but the pool wrong.” There are four long rows of houses in this neighborhood, and they’re absolutely packed with people: a trio of movers unloading a delivery truck, a bustling yard sale next door, some construction workers renovating a townhouse, a couple bodybuilders out in the backyard, a birthday party, some gardeners working in their beds, a lonely guy who’s manning a lemonade stand that has attracted not a single soul, and dozens of others.

There’s a pool in somebody’s front yard, but Sven’s not there. A red herring. I get distracted for a moment clicking on a passing delivery truck and listening to its absurd horn. Where on Earth is Sven?

There! Someone at the end of the street has a luxurious backyard with two big swimming pools, and there’s someone bouncing on the diving board--but that’s not Sven. Nor is he the lady in the bikini, or the sunbather. Where…?

Oh! Oh. Sven’s in the front yard of the house. He’s jumping up and down in the bird bath. “Aeuh!” he exclaims when I click on him, giving me his best impersonation of Tim Allen from Home Improvement. One target down. More than a dozen to go.

This is Hidden Folks, a monochrome, animated, digital wimmelbilderbuch in the tradition of Where’s Waldo?. It’s the latest from Dutch game designer Adriaan de Jongh, who’s responsible for the flirtatious Fingle and multiplayer ballet-’em-up Bounden, both games that emphasize the awkwardness and intimacy of touching and moving with another person. I called up de Jongh to ask him how he went from a game about sashaying to a game about searching.

“Have you read about the story of how I met Sylvain?” he asks in return, flashing me a wry smile. Sylvain Tegroeg is the illustrator responsible for the teeming environments and miniscule people that make up Hidden Folks. “I accidentally stumbled upon Sylvain at his graduation exposition… The feeling that I had first seeing his art was: ‘Wow! There’re all these beautiful little worlds! This would be so cool if it were interactive,’ like if you tapped or touched something then something would happen. That struck me as equally playful, in a way, to the stuff I’d been making previously.”

De Jongh was so smitten with Tegroeg’s art that, after joking with him at the exposition that they should collaborate, he went ahead and threw something together to convince him. “I stole his art,” de Jongh tells me with a laugh. “And I made a prototype--I showed it to him and he loved it! That’s how this started.”

The choice to make Hidden Folks a game about finding was a natural one, given the busy, detailed nature of Tegroeg’s style. “It was pretty much the very first game idea we had,” de Jongh explains. “It fit so well with this feeling of…” He gestures with his hands, searching for words, before bursting forth: “‘I want to find things in this world!’” he exclaims. “‘I want to see what’s there, uncover all the little stories!’”

And Hidden Folks is stuffed to the gills with stories. In the desert, a lone skeleton is mysteriously encircled by small stones. In the jungle, an explorer precariously navigates a rope bridge as an alligator looks on in hungry anticipation. At the bus station, a man named Chris is angrily stomping on a ticket vending machine. Everything is bustling, moving. The environments teem. “Hopefully people will find all of those little stories and little things that we’ve put in the game that are not necessarily part of the gameplay,” de Jongh tells me. “There are hundreds of those little stories that weren’t well suited to being targets but make the world feel very alive.”

The stories are an important part of helping you to find your targets within each area, too. “The hints are super important to the game,” de Jongh explains. While he and Tegroeg were putting Hidden Folks together, he continues, “we actually identified more than fourteen different kinds of hints, and they all have subtle differences… If you already have a little story of a character, and you start looking for that character, you’re looking at the world through a certain loupe, and you’re trying to fill in all the little stories that you’re seeing and seeing if they match what you’re looking for.”

As I click around in the busy environments, I start to understand what he means. In the suburban neighborhood, I’m tasked with finding a miniscule golf ball, no more than a few pixels wide. It seems impossible until I notice that someone in this neighborhood has curiously transformed their front lawn into a miniature golf course. “The owner is absolutely sure he saw it fly over the bushes,” the accompanying hint suggests, but there are bushes in the backyard as well as the front... At least I have a focused area to comb!

A similar situation occurs at the campground in the forest: This time, I’m looking for a truffle, which the game tells me is about to be discovered by a hog. The area is so crowded, though, that focusing on any one location to search seems daunting. But as I scroll across the screen, I hear a snorting and snuffling that gives the game away.

The snorting is de Jongh’s. All of the game’s sound effects are mouth sounds; Hidden Folks belongs to the Michael Winslow school of sound design. To hear de Jongh tell it, making all the sound effects was the most entertaining part of building the game.

“It’s been super hilarious,” he tells me. “Our sound recording sessions are fucking wild, it’s great. It’s just either me by myself or Sylvain and I just screaming into the microphone. ‘What does a monkey--what is a gorilla sound? How does a bush sound when it talks?’ I don’t know, we have some weird objects. I think my favorite is the giant duck we have on the farm.”

It’s a choice that wasn’t without some complications, however. “At some point I realized that we were gonna need ambient sounds,” de Jongh continues. “Ambient mouth sounds. And frankly I had no idea even where to start. So I asked the sound designer, Martin Kvale, to help us out on doing the sound design… So it was him who figured out how to make the car sounds, and how to do all the zooming in and zooming out, and how we changed the reverb, like… there’s all sorts of little things that are actually in the sound that make it sound even better. And all the while it’s mouth sounds.”

In the desert, I come across a vulture that makes the most awkward, awful-sounding screech when I click on it. I click on it several times, even though the sound makes me cringe, because for whatever reason I also can’t stop laughing.

It’s fun to click on things in Hidden Folks. There’s no penalty for touching something you shouldn’t. There’s no “wrong” guessing. If you poke something, the worst that can happen is that you get a “psht” or a “doof” that means there’s nothing special there for you to see. Hidden Folks is relaxed and unhurried.

“We’ve tried really hard to not make this a ‘gamer’ game, if you know what I mean,” de Jongh tells me. “There’s this traditional stereotype ‘gamer’ experience in which more is better, and it needs to be really hard, and it needs to have scores and be very competitive, and we’ve tried to stay away from that. We want people to pick up Hidden Folks and be like, ‘this is a really relaxing, chill game, there’s a bunch of targets I have to find but there’s no time pressure.’”

In some ways, Hidden Folks seems akin to the adult coloring books that have exploded in popularity in the last three or four years. It’s meditative, meant to encourage focused examination. “We actually came up with a bunch of features that would allow people to color in Hidden Folks,” de Jongh tells me when I bring up this comparison, “but they turned out to be too difficult for the way that we clicked the game together. It would actually become really ugly colored in. But that’s still something that’s burning in the back of our mind, that maybe at some point we might be able to export a scene and put it in a thing that you could color in…? I don’t know. We’ll see.”

As I talk with him, de Jongh reveals other ideas that he has for how to expand and deepen Hidden Folks--things he’s not quite comfortable sharing widely yet, but that tell me he’s not done tinkering with how to get more playfulness out of these little worlds he and Tegroeg have made together.

In the meantime, there are a handful of folks still lurking in the dense, busy little universes, going about their business, waiting for me to find them.