I've spent the last few minutes staring at a black-and-white picture on an iPad. It's a picturesque, cartoony campground surrounded by picnic tables, a flower garden, and even some farmland. I'm looking for Mary. I know that she's a farmer, and that she is holding a trowel in one hand, but I can't seem to find her anywhere. My eyes scan the scene back-and-forth, trying to pick her out from the mass of similar-looking characters. A few minutes later I finally spot her, and then I move on to Ben, whose defining characteristic is that he's always stuck at the back of lines. This is Hidden Folks, an upcoming, interactive take on Where's Waldo? that manages to make staring at a screen a lot of fun.
Where's Waldo? on your phone is a seemingly simple and obvious premise, but for whatever reason no one has done it successfully before. The official Where's Waldo? games have all either been simple digital versions of the paper books, or free-to-play bombs that miss the entire point. Hidden Folks, on the other hand, gets what made those books so fun when you were a kid, and then translates them to a touchscreen. The scenes start out small, having you explore quiet city streets and pockets of forest. Each scene comes with a list of characters to find, and tapping on them gives you a brief description, like whether they're a farmer or maybe someone who is looking for their car. These descriptions are important, because the characters all look very, very similar, with only small differentiations, like their clothing or whatever they're holding in their hands. Once you find all of them, you move on to the next scene.
It sounds simple, and it is, but Hidden Folks remains interesting because of its playfulness. It's interactive in a way hidden object books can't be; you can tap on garage doors to open them, or move cars and trucks out of the way to see what's hiding behind them. There are even complex factory sequences, in which you're able to manipulate conveyor belts to move objects around and find what you're looking for. As the scenes grow in size, the complexity increases. The factory section I played was so big that, even on an iPad Pro's massive screen, I had to constantly zoom in and pan around to see everything. This made the conveyor belt moments especially fun, as I tracked a box's progress from one side of the scene to the other, constantly shifting my view to do so.
Hidden Folks is being designed by Dutch game developer Adriaan de Jongh, who previously worked on the iPhone ballet game Bounden and the multiplayer, multitouch game Fingle. For Hidden Folks he teamed up with Amsterdam-based illustrator Sylvain Tegroeg. It's Tegroeg's first game — he only recently graduated university where he studied product design — and his unique art style is a large reason why Hidden Folks works so well. Even with a lack of color, he's able to create scenes that all feel distinct from one another, and then he packs them with a ridiculous amount of tiny details. As I spent those minutes searching from Mary, I spotted cute little tents and trailers, and families having picnics together. Every time I looked at a section I managed to find something new. (Each area also includes a few bonus items to find for those with eagle eyes.)
Hidden Folks isn't quite ready for release; de Jongh says he's still working hard on the game's interface, figuring out how to give players hints without spoiling too much. But even in the short time I played it's clear that Hidden Folks has a great deal of potential, the kind of experience that's perfect for sitting back with on a long train ride while listening to your favorite podcast. When it does launch later this year, the game will be coming to iOS, Steam, and the Apple TV.