Last week, I finally remembered the name of a game series I enjoyed when I was around nine years old. It was called the ClueFinders, about a group of young teens who explored different environments solving mysteries. It was educational in the most traditional way, which is why my parents would have been easily convinced to purchase it from our local Currys or Comet store.
Toca Mystery House, although aimed at younger audiences, can be enjoyed by all ages and tames a desire more fundamental than education: our curiosity. The game jumps straight in after the title splash with zero explanation, where you're greeted with the option of entering one of a few different doors in a crumbling house, the shadows of insects and strange beings lurking in each corner of the hallway before scuttering away.
Each of these rooms contains its own unique delights. You're invited to poke and prod (okay, "tap") at different objects for potential clues about what this place is actually all about. At first, I was bemused by the apparent uneventfulness of it all, until I reached a room occupied by a large monster. I swiped to move deeper into the room and saw it was a lab where you're able to make different potions. Things become weird and wonderful feeding these tonics to the monster, who changes shapes, colours and sounds, sometimes continuously with certain mixtures.
That was fun but I still didn't "get" it, so I left to visit the basement via a broken lift you'd find in any cliched horror film. I was greeted by a genuinely creepy sight before realising I was in some sort of music room. Here, you're able to prod, stretch and twist the different features of a giant monster head, new effects coming into view and a constant, adapting rhythm to the music being played. It's inviting you to be as experimental as the game itself, while it's also very satisfying.
I won't spoil much about the upper floor of the house. Here, you're asked to figure out puzzles with different shapes and colours through little guidance. It's arguably the most mysterious area of the house. But it succeeds by being both magical and majestic, as if you're experiencing the wonders of Hollywood cinema like a kid all over again.
I wasn't alone in this. My niece and nephew constantly kept tapping the screen throughout the game, trying to figure out the potentials and possibilities within this tiny universe created by Toca Boca.
But Emad: The Witness, srsly? Despite the option of multiple points of comparison, the most noticeable link is how features in the hallway changed as I kept playing and experimenting with the game. It's that higher level of "completion" featured in The Witness, where the environment around you changes and obelisks light up as you progress. This is the genius of Toca Boca's design style, focussing on the minutiae in order to expand the open and obvious. By crafting narrow yet fulfilling experiences, Swedish outfit Toca Boca continues to highlight that gaming flair doesn't always reside at the biggest, adult-focussed studios, but in the little gems in our lives.