A rare thing happened to me today. I was sitting at my desk minding my own business when out of nowhere I was hit over the head with a wonderful new game. The Scruffs is the best hidden object game I’ve played since Big City Adventure and easily the most delightful game of the year.

Yes, I said delightful. Because how else would you describe that feeling? You know, the one that makes you smile and laugh, that satisfying sensation you get when story, characters and game play combine to form a unified entertainment experience that simply whisks you away? I suppose one could call it joy, but that might be a little over-the-top. The point is that The Scruffs is great, because it managed to do to me what the new NBC drama Journeyman has failed to do thus far this season: suck me in.

The Scruffs has a lot of things going for it, but it’s noteworthy for its use of story, characters and voice-talent. The opening is one of the best I’ve seen in this medium. It offers a perfect blend of mystery and whimsy, just enough to make you feel part of its fictional world. Just enough to suspend disbelief. In short, The Scruffs is immersive. It does what any good film, TV show or book must do – it captures your attention and holds it.

The concept of immersion is rarely discussed in regards to casual games. That quality is generally reserved for core games or films, and usually it refers to the high level of realism and graphic richness which so often accompanies immersive entertainment. Certainly games such as Luxor and Ricochet are immersive in that same sense – you can see it, you can feel it. Immersion is primarily a sensory experience. The more senses you engage, the more immersed you feel. This is difficult to achieve in a medium where download footprints and end-user machine specs must appeal to the lowest common denominator. Yet increasingly, casual game developers are figuring out the key to engaging players on an emotional level, not just a sensory one. They are figuring out that our hearts, our memories, and our recently awakened need for nostalgia are more important than ray-traced surfaces and real-world physics.

In the past I’ve discussed my hair-brained notion regarding the advent of casual download games as they correspond to the declining state of world affairs. It is clear to me that 9-11, our various wars, and the general climate of fear and uncertainty has contributed greatly to internet escapism. It is not a surprise that we increasingly turn to the web for a respite from our strange, new world. Because it’s far easier and much more palatable to spend a few minutes in the fantasy milieu of Paris Hilton than it is with the realities wrought by George Bush. It’s more reassuring to play voyeur to the latest breakdown of Brittney Spears than it is to witness another car bomb or the unrest in the streets of Myanmar. Casual games take this escapism even further.

Thank God for Plant Tycoon. Praise the Lord for Chocolatier. Because, for a few measly minutes a day we can retreat into small, manageable worlds where no one loses, no one suffers, nothing explodes and no one dies. Through casual games we can indulge in play as innocent and harmless as a childhood game of tag. In fact through casual games we can become a child again and rediscover those things we once believed but are no longer quite so sure still exist. This is a medium which affirms the golden rule. This is an entertainment venue which rewards try and try again. Here, in the land of plucky waitresses and endless burger joint simulations everything we need to know we truly did learn in kindergarten. It’s beautiful, I tell you. It’s utopia.

Recently I sat down for a cup of coffee with Amanda Fitch, creator of Aveyond and Grimm’s Hatchery. Amanda is one of the few people I know who truly gets it. She’s in games for all the right reasons. She truly loves games. She knows who plays them and why. People, she says, yearn for sweet, innocent fun. They crave innocent escapes (I’m paraphrasing now). And I believe this to be true. Casual gamers seem to be gravitating more and more to themes and presentation styles that are life-affirming, supportive, encouraging, confidence-bolstering and story-rich – games that put you in the driver’s seat and guide you toward ostensibly productive goals. Games such as Build-a-Lot, which is masterfully created and does a wonderful job of establishing and maintaining its rule-set and its world. Games like Sally’s Salon, that are sweet and simple and have so many little touches to make you feel creative and in control. These games sell because they are deep and they hit various emotional sweet-spots.

These games, the great ones, the ones that endure, engage the player on a level far greater than their jewel-swapping, gem dropping predecessors. The Scruffs engages you directly. Its characters break the third plane by talking to you, and because it is well-written and because the voice actors’ performances are first-class, we listen, and we feel more involved. The Scruffs‘ writers show remarkable restraint, something rarely found in a medium whose creatives so often suffer from a debilitating case of Hollywood-envy. They get the fact that it’s not what you say that so often makes a compelling story, it’s what you don’t say. They trust us to fill in the blanks. They trust our imagination and they trust their own sensibilities as gamers. I tip my hat to them, they give me hope.

I stopped making games ten years ago because though the market was growing larger in terms of numbers of gamers, it was shrinking in terms of types of gamers and types of games. In 1997 the games that I loved, the genre that I saw as having the broadest potential to seize non-gamers – mothers, fathers, baby-boomers, seniors – began to die. These were the so-called adventure games that focused on story and characters and narrative-like plots. The rise of the first-person-shooter, and the third-person-shooter all but killed the adventure game.

Yet the people who played them didn’t switch genres and they didn’t go away. They’re here now, buying casual games. The casual game market is now precisely what we envisioned the market for interactive gaming could be then. It is a broad, consumer market, whose audience yearns not just for the latest advance in rendering and poly counts but for the kind escape that more closely resembles what we find in movies and novels. They want a little heart, a little soul.

But we’re not making movies. We’re not writing books. We are however competing with them and we have entered a new age, people. An age where the outer world, the real world, seems less innocent than we remember. That may or may not be true. But perception is reality, and these mini virtual realities we create are evolving into the warmer, safer and friendlier places we choose to believe still exist.