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OK, which 42? Answer 

"Where does a wise man hide a pebble?"
And the tall man answered in a low voice: "On the beach."
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It's sometimes said the best place to hide something is in plain sight. But suppose that logic won't work — the object you're trying to hide happens to be something that would stand out no matter where you put it. How do you hide such a thing?

Why, by making about a thousand duplicates and hiding it amongst them! It'll be nigh-impossible for future treasure hunters to figure out which is the right one. They don't have to be exact copies, either: So long as there are too many to go through, the object is completely safe.

This kind of challenge is set up so characters can demonstrate their intellect rather than physical prowess. Figuring out the clue to deduce which is the real MacGuffin may be a Secret Test of Character. Or perhaps a test of lateral thinking - there is often a way to Cut The Knot.

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A variation on Hidden in Plain Sight. Doppelgänger Spin is this tactic applied to battle. For hiding people, the equivalents are Lost in a Crowd, I Am Spartacus or the Ringer Ploy. Shell Game is when a stack of needles is made while a witness watches. Pixel Hunt is the video game equivalent. Serial Killings, Specific Target is when the 'needle' that's being hidden is a specific murder amongst what appears to be the work of a serial killer. Decoy Convoy is when the "needle" is hidden in separate transports.


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Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Bleach, for Ichigo's training to learn bankai, he must find his zanpakuto amongst a field of hundreds of other zanpakuto, which shatter immediately if he tries to use them to defend himself against the manifestation of his zanpakuto spirit that is attacking him. However, they're all of wildly different shapes, and one of the first that Ichigo picks looks exactly like his real one... and it immediately breaks. It was a manifestation of him depending too much on Zangetsu.
  • In one arc of Case Closed, a priceless pearl is hidden from a Phantom Thief by giving every guest to a party on a ship a replica. Of course, this being the Kaitou KID, he finds it anyway. He figures out that the pearl's owner has the real thing because he sees her handle it carefully to avoid damaging it.
  • And in Code Geass R2, Zero bargains with the Britannians to be exiled instead of executed along with the rest of the Black Knights. Cue every member of the Black Knights and every other Japanese citizen at the assembly dressing up in Zero's trademark outfit. This left the Brittanians stuck between letting them all go, which they ultimately choose, or killing them, which would spark riots and violence all over Japan. Zero was relying upon the fact that he knew the person behind the agreement would do everything in his power to avoid senseless bloodshed - which is good because a lower-ranking member of the Britannian government was fully prepared to start shooting first and identifying corpses later.
  • Used by Jasdero and Devit in D.Gray-Man while they were screwing with the exorcists on the Ark. During the initial fight, they dropped the key to the door leading deeper in- so Jasdevi materialized enough keys to cover the entire floor of the room. However, Lavi has a Photographic Memory and eventually picked it out by the patterns of wear.
  • This very phrase is uttered by Lust in the dub of Fullmetal Alchemist when she and Gluttony are looking for Dr. Marcoh's notes on how to create a Philosopher's Stone. His notes are in the form of an unidentified book. And the book is written in code so you can't tell just by reading it that it's about the Philosopher's Stone. And it's in the largest library in the entire country. Unfortunately, they soon get into a battle with Scar that results in the entire library being burned down, preventing either of them from accessing the information they need. What they don't know, however, is that Sheska recreates the very book from her own memory. In fact, she recreates the entire burned section of the library!
  • In the Hidamari Sketch manga, after Yuno lost her room key, the replacement key is in a box full of other keys, forcing Yuno to try them one by one to find out which one's the correct key. In the anime, it was the landlady who has to do it.
  • In the "Kindaichi the Killer" arc of The Kindaichi Casefiles one of the most suspicious things Kindaichi noticed in the first murder scene was a smashed fishtank, and everyone was led to believe that it was destroyed in a struggle between the true killer and his victim, or the killer used the water in the tank to wash away any traces. Both theories are technically half-correct: The killer and his victim had a fight, but it instead caused the killer to accidentally smash his glasses. Since both the victim and Kindaichi aren't wearing glasses, the killer destroyed the tank in order to hide any of his glasses' shards among the rest of the tank's remains.
  • In one episode of Lupin III, the Mona Lisa gets lost in an ocean of copies, made by an expert painter who copied Leonardo's painting for so long and so many times that they were indistinguishable from the original.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, the Londo Bell forces fire salvos of nuclear warheads mixed in with more conventional missiles in order to make it harder for the Neo Zeon forces to shoot them down. Char is able to use his Psychic Powers and Attack Drones to shoot down most of the nukes, but one or two still get through.
  • My Monster Secret spoofs this when Akane steals Mikan's glasses. First, Akane attempts to hide the glasses by throwing out dozens of pairs of glasses. It fails because aside from the other pairs being completely different designs, she's wearing the glasses she stole. Then she tries again, by replicating herself. It fails again because none of the clones are actually wearing the glasses. She gets it right on the third try.
  • Pokémon: The Series
    • Team Rocket does this in order to steal a Togepi egg.
    • In another episode, Team Rocket steals numerous people's Pokeballs by claiming that they had a special Pokemon-trading machine when Meowth was actually hiding inside the machine and swapping out the filled Pokeballs that came in with empty ones. When Ash locates the place where they hid all the Pokeballs, he initially can't find his own Pokeballs among the countless identical-looking ones until Pikachu sniffs them out for him.
    • "Gotta Catch a What?!" has a whole group of wild Pikachu captured alongside Ash's by Team Rocket. Thing is, aside from knowing the gender difference they barely have any way of telling which Pikachu is the one they're looking for (and the wild Pikachu aren't giving up the answer to Meowth).
    • In Pokémon: Hoopa and the Clash of Ages, Hoopa tries to prank/test Ash by summoning a horde of Pikachu and asking him to figure out which of them is his partner. To Hoopa's disappointment, Ash picks the correct Pikachu instantly.
  • In Slayers TRY (ep. 11 to be precise), a revenge-crazed Jillas devises a plan to steal the Sword of Light from Gourry by getting him to fall on a huge pile of weapons with the same design, most of them useless (memorably, a bright red hammer). It works. Gourry is devastated by the loss, and carries the aforementioned hammer as a temporary replacement.
  • In the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles anime, Shredder and his gang are trying to steal a sacred mirror from a clan of Japanese ninja. The mirror ends up on the roof, and to stop Shredder from getting it, the ninja throw out dozens of identical mirrors to confuse him. Just as the ninja are laughing at their cleverness, Shredder asks how they know which mirror is real, causing them to panic. It becomes a moot point anyway, as the evil spirit haunting the mirror just points out the way.

    Comic Books 
  • Archie Comics had one story where kids from a rival school swipe a noted football jersey that's Riverdale's Good Luck Charm, whereupon Archie and the gang swipe the rival's charm, a lucky coach's hat. After several hijinks, both jersey and hat are returned to the rightful owners, but the lucky hat is accompanied by 49 identical others, all in a huge pile.
  • In Asterix in Britain, a keg of magic potion ends up with a multitude of kegs of wine. The Roman Army decides to find it by drinking from all kegs. Naturally, this results in a large number of very drunk soldiers. Even more chaos ensues when they do find the potion... while completely wasted.
  • One early Batman comic had Joker offering his services as a criminal superhero; In exchange for some loot, he would rescue crooks pinned down by the cops during heists. He stashed "Joker signals" at every potential robbery target in Gotham, and even built Joker-versions of Batman's vehicles. In order to get him, Batman discovered the signals and had the cops set off all of them; as a result, Joker couldn't figure out which one had the most loot to take a percentage of. Naturally, the first stop he made had Batman waiting to collar him.
  • In Corto Maltese, in "Burlesque entre Zuydcoote et Bray-Dunes", the last story in "The Celtics", a killer disguised as a wooden puppet hides in a room full of similar wooden puppets.
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe: In Carl Barks's "The Status Seeker", Scrooge McDuck seeks out a gem called the Candy-Striped Ruby in order to impress Duckburg's wealthy elite. He brings along a few crates of striped peppermint candies that just so happen to resemble the ruby and hides it among them once he gets his hands on the gem.
  • Doctor Strange: During the "Montesi Formula" arc, Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum was being closely monitored by minions of Dracula. Two of Strange's allies, Morgana Blessing and Sara Wolfe, both took trains out of New York while wearing talismans that disguised themselves as Strange, to lure Dracula's minions away from their real target, who was able to escape by wearing a conventional disguise.
  • In an early The Mighty Thor story, Loki tried to escape from Thor by turning into a pigeon and flying away. When Thor followed, Loki hid in a flock of pigeons. Thor found him by throwing some food down. The real pigeons immediately went to it, but Loki didn't react.
  • In an early Nick Fury story, S.H.I.E.L.D. outwitted agents of HYDRA who targeted Fury by sending out a number of Life Model Decoy android replicas of Fury.
  • In Requiem Vampire Knight, the main protagonist has to rescue his love interest, who has been forced to become Dracula's bride. After entering the temple where he thinks she is being held, he finds out another vampire has kidnapped her. He asks a bride of Dracula about her captor, all she can say is that he was pale, had big teeth, and dressed in black; in other words, like every other vampire ever.
  • Neil Gaiman did a more gruesome version of this trope in The Sandman comic. Joanna Constantine is tasked with rescuing the head of Orpheus during the time of the French Revolution. To confound revolutionaries seeking the head, she hides it in a pile of other heads belonging to guillotine victims.
  • In the Spirou and Fantasio book "Yellow-Horned Rhinoceros", the duo is tasked to find a microfilm containing a prototype supercar schematic. The duo learns that the man who had it gave it to an African tribal chief, who bored a random rhino's horn, put the microfilm in there, and... released it back to the wild, amongst thousands of other rhinos out there. The eponymous yellow-horned rhinos are results of the duo's attempt to identify which rhinos they had tranq'ed, examined, and marked off.
  • Superman: Subverted in Superman (Volume 2) #9. The Joker kidnapped Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen, then sent a message to Superman that his friends were trapped in lead-lined coffins in three different locations in the city, where they would suffocate if Superman didn't act fast. Joker actually had Superman's friends with him on a train heading out of Metropolis; he reasoned that the lead-lined coffins would make finding the coffins difficult for Superman since his x-ray vision wouldn't work on them, but instead the opposite proved to be true; the lead-lined coffins stuck out like sore thumbs. He was able to find Joker and his hostages with ease from there.

    Fairy Tales 
  • "The Troll's Daughter": The troll insists that the hero picks his daughter and the fish that holds his heart out of a myriad of identical duplicates. The young woman helps both times by giving her suitor a clue.

    Fan Works 
  • Implied in Luna's Hubby: there are apparently enough offscreen Harrys that Dumbledore's first thought upon hearing the name Harry isn't "oh my stars I've finally found Harry Potter", but "Harry who?"
  • Off the Line: Cloud uses an enchanted necklace that turns him into a woman to hide from bounty hunters and visit a city in peace. It works because the Viera are mostly female and Cloud stands out for being the only male Viera in Gaia Online. While this works for a while, it backfires after Cloud gets caught because bounty hunters start killing Viera women because one of them could be Cloud in disguise.
  • The Secret Return of Alex Mack: The Collective attempts to determine Terawatt's identity by stealing blood samples and hospital records from medical offices in Paradise Valley. However, it turns out that a good 8% of Paradise valley inhabitants had noticeable amounts of GC-161 exposure, not to mention people too poor to visit, those passing through (the origin story of at least three superheroes in the series at large), or those who — like Alex — avoided the doctor due to their exposure.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Balto, when Balto attempts to rescue the lost dog sled team, he scratches every tree he passes to mark his trail. Out of spite, Steele sabotages his mission by scratching every tree in the area. Fortunately, after Balto calms down and gathers himself, he sniffs the scratches and is able to tell which ones belong to him.
  • At the climax of The Emperor's New Groove, Yzma tries to keep Kuzco and Pacha from finding the right Baleful Polymorph potion by knocking over an entire shelf of them, forcing them to try out every potion they can in order to get it right (time wasn't on their side since Yzma had called the guards on them).
  • In Kubo and the Two Strings, the hero has to find three magical items that belonged to his father. One of them, the Sword Unbreakable, is hidden among several other swords, embedded on the skull of a giant skeleton demon.
  • At the end of Spirited Away, Chihiro must figure out which two pigs out of a group of them are her parents. Her parents aren't there at all, because they're not really pigs to Chihiro. She wins simply by pointing this out.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Ang TV, a '90s Filipino children's comedy skit show, adapted the Philippine legend of Ang Ibong Adarna (The Adarna Bird) as its Big Damn Movie. When the protagonists reach the mountain where the eponymous bird makes its home, they have to find the real Adarna among a group of many other birds. Those who choose wrong get turned to stone.
  • Assassins: While being chased by police including helicopter units, Sylvester Stallone's character hides a stolen taxi cab among a bunch of other cabs at their terminal, then climbs into another cab as a passenger and rides it out of there.
  • Batman Begins: When constructing Batman's distinctive cowl, Alfred suggests ordering the parts separately, each from a different overseas company, in batches of thousands to avert suspicion that it's a custom order.
  • In the climax of Batman Forever, when Two-Face corners Batman, Robin, and Dr. Chase on a beam, Batman convinces him to flip his Two-Headed Coin before deciding to shoot them, before throwing a handful of similar coins into the air. In trying to catch all the coins at once, Two-Face lost his balance and fell into Riddler's watery pit.
  • Cruella: Cruella manages to sneak into the Baroness' charity gala by arranging for all of the female guests to be dressed as her, in identical black and white wigs and black gowns, thereby making her impossible to spot.
  • In The Dark Crystal, Jen must find the true crystal shard from among a pile of similar shards.
    Aughra: Questions, questions, too many questions. You want a shard? Here.
    (she dumps out a box of many crystal shards)
    Jen: But which one is it?
    Aughra: Don't know. Euurrrrgh... Don't. Know.
  • The Dark Knight The Joker uses a school bus as a getaway vehicle for his heist timed to leave the bank just as the city becomes bumper to bumper with identical buses.
  • In Drive (2011), this trope turns a tense cat-and-mouse getaway chase becomes a Hot Pursuit and The Driver evades the police by driving into the Staples Center just as the crowds rush out of a Clippers game. There are 3,300 parking spaces at Staples and the getaway vehicle is an Impala (one of Chevrolet's most popular models). The related Lost in a Crowd trope is performed as an encore when The Driver proceeds to walk right past the police, lost in a 15,000 strong crowd of celebrating Clippers fans.
  • One Encyclopedia Brown movie had a plot mainly revolving around a missing derby boxcar. Other cases are picked up by Brown and Sally, including one where one of their friends accidentally took a bully's bike, mistaking it for his own. Encyclopedia then imagines being in a court, acting as a lawyer for the friend and eventually asserting that among a bunch of other bikes (though each were different), the bike in question could be mistaken for another. This became his "Eureka!" Moment as to how the boxcar could have been stolen.
    • He later invokes it when talking with Sally:
    Encyclopedia Brown: If you had a needle, where would you hide it?
    Sally: In a haystack?
    Encyclopedia: No, with a bunch of other needles. You can't tell which one's real because they all look alike.
  • In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the title character, who is a cute but not very human alien lifeform, hides in a pile of stuffed animals.
  • Forced Vengeance. Chuck Norris is on the run in Hong Kong with two attractive women. Where to hide them?
    Josh Randall: Damn, if I were a tree I'd hide in a forest. Ahhh, of course! A cathouse!
  • Frog Story: Harry finds a magic frog that changes into a beautiful woman when kissed. For obvious reasons, he doesn't tell his wife. His wife finds the frog and takes it to the pet store. Harry winds up buying a whole aquarium full of frogs, and the movie ends with him kissing them one at a time as they hop around.
  • In The General, Johnnie loses a shoe as he's about to sneak into a Union encampment with his girlfriend in a sack. Thing is, it was originally a sack of shoes before he talked her into getting in and he'd just poured them all over the ground.
  • Indiana Jones:
    • Raiders of the Lost Ark:
      • A government agency hides The Ark of the Covenant in a shipping crate, which is stored in an immense room filled to the roof with identical shipping crates.
      • Marion tries to hide inside a laundry basket, but gets discovered and is taken away inside the basket. Indy sees her, but eventually, he finds himself in a market square where dozens of people are carrying identical baskets. He frantically turns over every basket until he hears her shouting elsewhere.
    • Early in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Willie's efforts to recover a large diamond from the nightclub floor are nullified when an ice bucket is knocked over and scatters its contents across the area where she last spotted it.
    • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Holy Grail is hidden in a room with dozens of ornate, bejeweled, golden grails. Indy et al have to figure out which of them is the real one. The true Grail is the only one in the room made out of a humble material: "There. That's the cup of a carpenter."
  • I, Robot: When Sonny is told to "go lose yourself" by an angry engineer, so he hides within a shipment of robots, but it doesn't last because Spooner just starts shooting them and spooks Sonny.
  • In Men in Black, when "Edgar" escapes with the Galaxy and Laurel, Jay realizes that he's escaped in a cab. The trouble is, the movie is set in New York, and it's rush hour. However, Kay makes him stop, saying "He's not leaving [Earth] in a cab.".
  • MirrorMask - the heroes have the key to the box containing the eponymous MacGuffin. But there are thousands of boxes there, with no way of knowing which one is correct. Without any better ideas, one of them simply brute-forces the puzzle. Too bad the MacGuffin was already taken by someone else.
  • Mission: Impossible – Fallout: The bad guys hide two nuclear bombs set to go off in a medical camp. The heroes try to find them with Geiger Counters, but since the camp has so much equipment with radioactive materials like X-Ray machines, the Geiger Counters keep getting readings everywhere. The heroes find the bombs by pure chance.
  • In Mr. Bean's Holiday, Bean's bus ticket gets carried away by the breeze and ends up stuck to a chicken's foot (at an open-air market), and the rancher then puts the chicken cages into his pickup and drives off. Bean steals a bicycle and follows the pickup all the way back to the ranch, but by the time he gets there, the chicken with the bus ticket is among a large flock of chickens.
  • In the Laurel and Hardy film Pack Up Your Troubles, Stan and Ollie set themselves the task of uniting the young daughter of their fallen war buddy Eddie with her grandparents. Unfortunately, Eddie had been estranged from them and less than forthcoming with their address, so the boys have to locate them on their own. Their sole clue? Eddie's surname: Smith.
  • In Return to Oz, there's a scene where Dorothy had to rescue the Scarecrow (and her friends who'd previously failed the test), who'd been turned into an ornament - in a large room filled with various ornaments. And if she picked the wrong one three times, she'd get turned into an ornament too. The clue was that the correct objects were all green.
  • In The Rocketeer, when Cliff arrives at the South Seas Club, he hides the rocket and helmet in a laundry bag in the laundry room. But when he returns, he finds the room full of a dozen more bags.
  • In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks' character actually refers to their task, finding one soldier in all of Nazi-occupied France, as "Trying to find a needle in a stack of needles."
  • An early film example is in Shall We Dance? (1937): In Peter's show, all the Chorus Girls wear masks with his lost love Linda's face. Linda sneaks in among them and dances with him for the finale.
  • Tales of Halloween: In"Bad Seed", the man-eating jack-o'-lantern hides from Detective McNally in a display of jack-o'-lanterns.
  • Ted 2:
    • Ted tries to hide from Donny at New York Comic Con by standing motionless in a group of identical teddy bear dolls. Donny manages to flush him out by singing "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond so that Ted will instinctively sing the "bum-bum-bum" part.
    • This happens again during the climax, Ted tries to finger Donny as the one who caused the giant Starship Enterprise model to hit John. Since Donny is dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and standing alongside a group of Turtle cosplayers, Ted grabs a cellphone and plays "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tiffany so that Donny will twerk to it.
    Ted: Alright, two can play this Where's Waldo? shit, you son of a bitch.
  • In Urban Legends: Final Cut, during the big face-off with the serial killer, both the guilty party and the campus cop drop their guns in the struggle. A prop rack promptly gets tipped over, scattering dozens of realistic prop guns across the floor and sending everyone scrambling to snatch whatever's in reach and hope they lucked out.
  • A possible subtrope in its own right involves a car chase being aborted by having the protagonists parking in a row of parked cars. Jackie Chan's Who Am I? (1998) involves a woman who Drives Like Crazy to pull this off flawlessly, and The Other Guys has Will Ferrell doing this in a row of cars on an elevated platform (he credits Grand Theft Auto for his driving skill).

    Folklore 
  • One Chinese folktale involves an emperor's indoor garden of silk flowers, with one real flower among the vast complex. A peasant must find the real flower, which he does by allowing a bee in through a window; it immediately alights on the only real plant.
    • A similar story exists where King Solomon is tested by the Queen of Sheba, with the same solution.
  • There's an Irish folktale in which a poor man catches a leprechaun and demands a pot of gold. The leprechaun tells him it's buried under a particular weed in a field. The man wants to go home and get a shovel, so he ties his red garter to the weed to mark the spot, then forces the leprechaun to promise not to untie it. When he gets back with the shovel, every weed in the field is marked with a red garter.
  • There's also a fairytale (Andersen's The Magic Tinderbox) in which a princess is carried away by a dog each night to a waiting man. Her mother the queen follows her and draws a cross on the door of the house she enters in chalk. To avoid being caught, the dog draws crosses on every house in the area.
  • Also happened the same way in "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" with Ali Baba's door.
  • At one point, in order to catch the Sly Thief of Valencienne in the eponymous story, the princess has been given some difficult-to-remove paint with which to mark the forehead of anyone who sneaks into her room and kisses her. The thief gets his forehead painted... and then paints everyone else with at least one similar mark.

    Literature 
  • The ABC Murders is built around this trope: the murderer commits four letter-themed serial killings to hide his true target and thus his motives. Poirot even lampshades the use of the trope:
    Poirot: When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pincushion!
    • Another Hercule Poirot story, The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim, has the villain and titular character pull this. After embezzling from your bank, robbing your own safe, and framing someone for the robbery and your own disappearance, where does a criminal hide? In prison.
  • In the Alex Rider book Snakehead, Major Yu has been hired to kill a few high placed people, and so plans to use a bomb on an oil rig off the coast to cause a tsunami that will cause such death and destruction that the twenty-odd dead people that were on a resort won't register as particularly significant.
  • In After the Funeral (or Funerals are Fatal), the Abernethie family gathers after the death of patriarch Richard. Everyone believes that he died of natural causes, but Cora Lansquenet, his eccentric sister, comments offhand that "He was murdered, wasn't he?" The next day, Cora is found murdered herself, and it seems like the killer is on the trail of anyone who knows too much about the plot; various other attacks on family members, plus their own suspicious secrets getting out, lend credence to this theory. Hercule Poirot eventually realizes that the "Cora" at the funeral was actually Mrs. Gilchrist, the real Cora's housekeeper, who planned to murder her employer to get her hands on a rare painting that she'd inadvertently acquired without realizing its value. Richard actually did die naturally—Mrs. Gilchrist assumed the Cora disguise to trick everyone into thinking a murderer was on the loose, with Cora's death glossed over as part of the chain.
  • In The Book of Lost Things, the Woodsman marks the tree portal that David arrived through with a string layered with unpleasant-smelling ointment, all in the hope that they'll be able to find the portal next morning when it's safe to return. However, when they return, they find that someone has marked all the trees in the area with the same string, making the portal effectively invisible; David points out that it'd be easier just to remove the string from original portal, but the Woodsman notes that the perpetrator - the Crooked Man - would have found that boring.
  • Subverted in Bridge of Birds. Li Kao guesses that the MacGuffin Super Person may have been transformed into a rose petal in a huge meadow of wildflowers, or a single raindrop in a thunderstorm, or any number of things... Except that it's far better to keep the goddess in plain sight, where she can bankrupt any pure-hearted man in China by just smiling at him.
  • Brother Cadfael: In one of the first cases Cadfael investigates, a murder victim is left among 94 prisoners that King Stephen has ordered hung for treason, presumably in hope that nobody will count them.
  • Discworld:
    • In Wyrd Sisters, the Royal Crown of Lancre is hidden in a theatre props box full of stage crowns.
    • In Witches Abroad, both Granny and her sister are shown a whole bunch of reflections and are told they have to find the real one. The sister runs among them. Granny says — herself.
    • Proving this trope doesn't take a genius to come up with, the drugged-out troll Brick hides from the Watch and the troll Mafia by tagging along with a bunch of other gutter-trolls in Thud!.
    • At the climax of A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany is desperate to find Granny Weatherwax - and learns that the Witch Trials are a very bad place to look for someone in black with a pointy hat.
    • The Science of Discworld compares separating uranium-235 from uranium-238 to "looking for a needle in a haystack when the needle is made of straw".
  • In the Disney Fairies book "Vidia and the Fairy Crown," the queen's missing crown was accidentally placed in a room full of duplicate crowns (made as favors for the queen's birthday arrival day party). The only difference between the real crown and the fake crowns was that the real crown would shrink or grow to fit the wearer's head. Cue four fairies trying on thousands of crowns long into the night...
  • Dragon Steel: Near the end of the book, the heroes break into King Sambar’s treasury to retrieve Monkey’s staff and the magic cauldron they came for, but find that everything is hidden among countless perfect replicas; the only way to identify the real from the fakes is with the guards' Magic Mirror, which only reflects the real one.
  • Father Brown:
    • In "The Sign of the Broken Sword", a corpse was hidden on a battlefield - one where a battle was staged solely to hide the corpse. This was then referenced by Neil Gaiman in American Gods.
    "Where would a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest."
    "If there were no forest, he would make a forest. And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest."
    "And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it in."
    • Chesterton uses the trope earlier in "The Flying Stars", with a diamond hidden among many paste diamonds (referred to in the above conversation), and again in "Pond the Pantaloon" (not a Father Brown story) with a brown paper parcel hidden among numerous similar parcels.
  • In one William Johnstone western, "Gunsmoke and Gold", the heroes know that the Hidden Villain has a mark in his boots that leave distinctive footprints and set out trying to identify him that way. But then they discover that the mark in those boots is caused by nails sticking out of a commonly used boardwalk (whether that was how the bad guy's boots were marked in the first place or whether he stuck out those nails to make other boots leave tracks like his upon realizing they were onto him is unclear), meaning that half the town has boots with that mark and there's no way to narrow it down.
  • Harry Potter likes this trope:
    • In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry has to find the right key from amongst a group of flying keys. Ron deduces it should be similar to the handle on the door, and Harry spots it amongst the rest, noticing it has a broken wing, as it had been caught by Quirrell when he passed through.
    • At the beginning of Deathly Hallows, the Order has to transport Harry safely from the Dursleys' to the Burrow. They have six Order members take Polyjuice Potion, turning them into exact replicas of Harry, so that when the Death Eaters attack they'll be unable to tell which is the real Harry. The Death Eaters discover him fairly easily; all they had to do was focus their attack on a random replica; they knew from repeated experience that the professionals who volunteered for the scheme are dedicated to the ruse, but the real Harry would Stop to Help.
    • Also in Deathly Hallows, one of the Horcruxes is enchanted to create burning hot duplicates of itself every time it's touched. The duplicates themselves are similarly enchanted so that touching the cup sets off a chain reaction that buries the thief alive in burning hot cups. Everything in the room is enchanted to burn and multiply if touched, which makes it all the worse.
    • This is the reason Harry gives to not go back and try to "properly" hide the Resurrection Stone once all is said and done. As he dropped it in the middle of a forest on the way to his duel with Voldemort, it's just one pebble amongst countless others, and he wouldn't be able to find it himself.
    • Defied with the Horcruxes. It was noted how all Voldemort had to do was just do this trope when making them and he would have been invincible, but his pride wouldn't allow him to make them just some mundane object.
  • In Winds of Fury of the Heralds of Valdemar series, freshly minted Herald-Mage Elspeth leads a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits into the lands of their archenemy, Hardorn, in an attempt to assassinate the nation's leaders before their armies overrun Valdemar. They conceal their extremely out-of-place appearances by posing as members of a wandering carnival. They cite an "ancient Shin'a'in proverb" in doing so — "Where do you hide a red fish? In a pond full of red fish."
  • The Hobbit had this once the dwarves finally get rid of Smaug and begin looking for the Arkenstone. You'd think such a beautifully, stunning gem would be easy to spot but it's buried among all the other countless jewels and trinkets in Smaug's massive hoard. They dig through the pile for days without finding it. This case is actually a subversion, however: Bilbo found it right away, in the dark, and took it before the dwarves had even begun to look.
  • In the Honorverse Houdini is the plan for the Mesan Alignment to disappear. When it needs to be accelerated, a campaign of terror begins to hide the people disappearing in massive terror attacks, killing thousands each incident to cover the removal of their people. It works out to something like a few hundred civilian deaths per evacuee.
  • In Horton Hears a Who!, Vlad the vulture drops the clover that carries the speck of dust that contains the Whos into a huge clover field. Horton painstakingly sorts through the field and finds it on the 3 millionth clover.
  • In The Laughing Policeman someone shoots up a bus and kills nine people — all eight passengers and the driver. One of the victims was a detective investigating an old murder (nearing the statute of limitations), and police assume he was the intended target because of that case. They are only half right: The primary target was the suspect in the old case, acquitted on insufficient evidence. The one who killed this time was the one who hired him back then. The murderer later said that he told the victim to take the bus at this precise time so that there'd be a few other passengers to throw the police off.note  In addition, the old case being re-investigated is full of false leads, and the detectives find the murderer in the old case files only after the confession.
  • Little Brother: The protagonist is careful to keep all of his communication encrypted so that the Government Conspiracy can't keep tabs on him. However, he realizes that if they think to analyze system traffic based on how much of it is encrypted, rather than trying to read the messages, that fact alone is a huge red flag — since most systems only encrypt data that's actually important. He convinces his ISP (he uses a local, independent operation that he works part-time for) to encrypt everyone's traffic so that he and his allies no longer stand out.
  • "Little Lost Robot": An NS-2 model robot is told to "go lose yourself" by an angry engineer, so it hides within a shipment of 62 other NS-2 robots. Dr Susan Calvin is angry upon learning that this particular lost robot had their First Law modified to allow Murder by Inaction. She conducts several tests of the 63 Nestor robots, finally tricking the lost robot into revealing itself because it could tell lethal radiation from non-lethal due to experience, and is suckered by an IR hazard that Dr Calvin knew the others would see as gamma rays.
  • In The Magician King one of the magical keys they're looking for is hidden on a beach entirely composed of thousands of keys. All of the other keys were guarded by either a puzzle or a monster, so they figure there's probably a trick to finding it, but they can't work out what it is so they just spend twenty-four hours a day for a couple weeks trying every key until they get the right one.
  • Subverted in Magic: Top Secret. The protagonist has to search the Egyptian royal palace for a hidden radio transmitter being used to send information to the Nazis. He finds a repair room full of disassembled radio sets and has to waste time searching it because he assumes this trope. However, the radio turns out to be elsewhere.
  • The Mike Hammer novel The Twisted Thing by Mickey Spillane. The first elaborate murder plan having failed, the killer simply murders the victim with a hatchet, knowing his death will lead to other crimes and revealed secrets among his Big, Screwed-Up Family as they all scramble for his fortune, thus creating a large number of suspects.
  • I n Murder in the Place of Anubis, an ancient Egyptian period mystery, a murder victim is concealed in a salt vat where bodies are mummified.
  • In Nate the Great and the Missing Key, Nate deduces that the key to his friend's house was hidden in a dog's collar, "along with other shiny silver things."
  • Partners in Crime: In "The Crackler", when Tommy and a confederate find the villains' hideout, he marks the door with a cross, referencing The Tinderbox. The confederate is actually one of the gang, and marks the other doors as in the story. Subverted because Tommy already suspected that, and referenced the story to distract him while he dropped a bottle of valarian essence. Tuppence and the police just have to find the door surrounded by cats.
  • In The Satanic Mill, an evil sorcerer turns his apprentices into ravens, then challenges the heroine to determine which one's her beau. She succeeds because she senses which one of the identical ravens is afraid for her safety.
  • In Shards of Honor, Emperor Ezar hides the murder of his son, psychotic Prince Serg amongst the piles and piles of deaths resulting from a deliberately half-assed invasion scheme.
  • In "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" Sherlock Holmes has to figure out what's so important about the eponymous plaster busts that criminals keep stealing and smashing them. The answer, of course, is that somebody previously hid a priceless pearl inside one of them before it set, and the criminals are trying to find out which.
    • This was later referred to in a McGurk mystery novel involving ceramic dogs, with the restriction that McGurk as a Meddling Kid, can't go around smashing the statues, so he has to deduce which one holds the stolen object without breaking it. Knowing that the item was hidden recently, he looked for the statue which still had wet clay on its bottom.
  • In John Myers Myers' Silverlock, after Shandon falls afoul of Circe and is turned into a pig, Widsith must pick him out of a sty full of pigs to rescue him.
  • John Dickson Carr's Sir Henry Merrivale novel The Punch and Judy Murders has a counterfeiter who hid the real money with the fake money.
  • Tea with the Black Dragon, part of the plot involves a document the villains want to get their hands on because it details their wrong-doings. It turns out that, in addition to the physical document, there is an electronic back-up copy — saved on the villain's own receptionist's office computer, hidden among the boring documents of the office's day-to-day operations.
  • This nearly gets one of The Three Investigators killed. One of the Investigators finds himself locked in the trunk of a car driven by a group of criminals but managed to mark the floor of the garage the car will eventually return to with a large chalk "X", and even informs the other investigators of this via a walkie-talkie. Unfortunately, a Jerk Jock was listening in and had his gang mark every garage they could get into just to be an ass. Time for Plan B!
  • In Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, Tossie's diary, which the heroes have been trying to get their hands on for most of the book, is revealed to have been hidden in the library, "in amongst all those other books where no one would notice it".
  • The novel and various film adaptations of The Twelve Chairs are about the search for a fortune in jewelry that was sewn into the cushions of one of a dozen externally identical chairs.
  • The last exercise in most of the Where's Waldo? books hides Waldo among about a thousand Waldo lookalikes.
  • In Andre Norton's Witch World novel The Year of the Unicorn, Gillan is magically split in two. Then her other half is surrounded by duplicates, and she has to pick out the right one.
  • There's an illustrated Gamebook where you journey through an underwater world to find a treasure. At one point, you go into a shipwreck and find a room full of navigational compasses, and the challenge is to find the one the ship's captain used. It's a simple wooden compass since the captain was poor.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 4400: "The Wrath of Graham" featured a teenage loser named Graham who, after taking a promicin shot, develops the ability to make people worship and obey him like a god. He quickly begins abusing his power and brings his entire school under his thrall, with plans to spread even further. When a few cops show up to take him down, they're told that Graham will be wearing a hoodie... unfortunately, Graham suspects this and has all of the people in his cult wear one. This confuses the officers and gives him enough time to sneak up and steal their free will as well.
  • One episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. starts with a group of guards dressed identically and all wearing red masks while carrying identical briefcases to protect a shipment of diamonds. It doesn't work because the one tracking them has X-Ray Vision, and thus can see which of the needles is the right one to target.
  • The Amazing Race is a huge fan of this trope. One notable Road Block involved finding fake pieces of food amongst a huge table of real food. The catch was that if you chose wrong, you had to eat the food you picked. This, obviously, became a huge problem when some teams made several dozen wrong choices...
  • Burn Notice featured something similar when Maddie had to hide from some armed thugs. Instead of making Sam drive her to Orlando to hide, she joined up with a senior citizen gambling group, saying something along the lines of "If they can find an old woman here... they deserve to get me." (Thereby freeing up Sam to help Michael.)
  • Occurs in the pilot episode of Castle, with a lampshade from Castle about why criminals use this trope.
    Alexis Castle: How do you get away with one murder by committing two more?
    Richard Castle: At one death, you look for motive. At two, you look for a connection. At three, you look for someone like Kyle. At three, you don't need motive, because mentally unstable serial killers don't usually have one.
    • Another episode had a little girl's kidnapper give specific instructions on the backpack the ransom is to be left in. Esposito tackles the first person he sees with said backpack, but it's full of tissue paper. Then they see that almost everyone in the area has one. It turns out the kidnapper had posted online about a flash mob, enticing unwitting strangers to create the needle stack.
  • In Community the plan to grift Professor of Grifting De Salvo involves dozens of identical briefcases filled with fake money and one with real money. Disdainful of their grifting abilities, he complains that there's no point to this element, as the real briefcase was just taken away and isn't hidden among the fakes. On the other hand, it did frustrate him further, and due to his class requiring students to buy two $150 "standard-issue grifting briefcases", they did have a lot of identical briefcases filled with fake money already on hand.
  • In one episode of Covert Affairs, an operative is killed right before delivering important information to the CIA. They know that he hid the information inside a period on a piece of paper. His cover was a college professor, so his house was full of books and writings. Trope played straight, but Auggie inverts the Stock Phrase, describing it as "like finding a needle in a haystack... in a forest full of haystacks."
  • In Criminal Minds, Reid points out that this is a more apt metaphor when looking for an UnSub who they predict will look and behave just like he belongs in the neighborhood.
    Reid: A needle would stick out in a haystack.
    Morgan: And this guy doesn't stick out.
    Reid: Exactly. We're looking for a particular needle in a pile of needles.
  • CSI:
    • There was an episode where a murder victim was put inside a body-farm: a place where bodies are put in a number of different positions/environments so people can learn how they decay. It's also subverted as they immediately notice that it's out of place and not on record.
    • In another episode, the CSIs are initially asked to find a missing horror movie star, and it takes a while for them to actually find her corpse...because she was almost Hidden in Plain Sight among the movie's props.
    • The first season finale features a serial killer with a particular signature. A copycat tries to use him as cover for his own murder plan, but his killing doesn't match closely enough to throw off the CSIs. (He is close enough to fool the Feds, who promptly (and wrongly) name him as the serial killer.)
  • CSI: NY:
    • "To What End?" had a killer disguised as a clown to perform a murder, and when he fled the scene, it turned out he'd hired a bunch of other clowns to dress up like him and hang out around the scene of the crime.
    • Invoked by Sheldon Hawkes in another episode. "With a constantly changing IP address, we're looking for a needle in a stack of needles."
  • Dexter:
    • In Season 3, after having killed a man in front of Prado, Dexter lies to him, telling him he hid the body a foot underneath the soil...in a freshly-dug grave at a local cemetery.
    Prado: Stroke of genius, man...hiding a dead body in a cemetery.
    • In Season 4, after the police piece together what the Trinity Killer must look like:
      Angel: So, we're looking for an old, retired, white guy...in Miami?
  • Doctor Who:
    • Subverted in "The Invasion of Time". The Doctor wants the Great Key of Rassilon from Borusa, who reaches up to an abstract wall structure made up of keys. The Doctor mentions that the best place to hide a tree is in a forest, but then he tosses the key aside, realising Borusa wouldn't give him the Key so easily. It turns out the real Key is stuck in the keyhole of Borusa's desk drawer.
    • In "The Time of Angels", the Doctor goes hunting for a Weeping Angel... in a building of statues. The episode, were it not for the adventurous feel of the fifth series, would be Nightmare Fuel — as anyone who's watched "Blink" can attest to.
      • Naturally, the Nightmare Fuel comes roaring back in the last ten minutes. Why? Because all the statues are Angels.
        The Doctor: And their image is their power. Power... Power! Ah, don't you see? All that radiation spilling out the drive! The crash of the Byzantium wasn't an accident, it was a rescue mission for the angels! We're in the middle of an army! And it's waking up.
        River: We need to get out of here, fast.
      • The Doctor lampshades it with a brilliant example of Metaphorgotten on top:
        River: A needle in a haystack.
        The Doctor: A needle that looks like hay. A haylike needle of death. A haylike needle of death in a haystack... of statues. No, yours was fine.
  • The Halloween Episode of Hannah Montana has Miley trying to track down her evil identical cousin at her Halloween party to prevent her from stealing her fame by taking her blonde wig and claiming to be Hannah Montana. She anticipated this, so she themed the party around Hannah and required everyone to wear similar blonde wigs.
  • A similar stunt was used by some thieves in the new Hawaii Five-0: knowing that there'd be video surveillance of the area where they heisted an armoured car, they dressed in painter coveralls and wore breath masks, having previously advertised for painters to show up at that location for a potential job with coveralls and masks.
  • Happens by accident on Homicide: Life on the Street, when a murdered body is left in the morgue by a killer, and the incongruity isn't noticed for hours because no one thought to check how many bodies were supposed to be there. Turns out the killer hadn't even realized the victim was fatally injured and had laid the soon-to-be-corpse (his cousin) on a handy table to recuperate after they'd fought, then gone home.
  • Rabbi Garfinkle explains on In Plain Sight that finding the needle is easy "If you are willing to look at each and every piece of straw." The rabbi has patiently spent years in a methodical search and successfully found one of Mary's witnesses. He tells her that witness protection works because "Criminals are lazy. That is why they are criminals. I on the other hand..."
  • In the Season 2 finale of BBC's Luther, the numbers in a notebook turn out to be The Book Cipher used to communicate between two killers. This gives the police an Oh, Crap! moment when the suspect's Room Full of Crazy turns out to be full of books. But as any book used must not only be the same title but also the same edition, Luther realises this collection of secondhand books can't be the one used for the cipher. It's a Gideon's bible that the killers could find in any hotel room if needed.
  • In one episode of MacGyver, Mac is carrying a valuable Chinese artifact which he needs to get rid of in a hurry—so he finds a shop selling cheap replicas of the thing and puts it on the back of the shelf.
  • In The Mentalist episode "18-5-4", the Killer of the Week dresses up as a clown. She had earlier put out a fake casting call for clowns in a movie, so the police picked up several hundred clowns based on the witness description.
  • Although Monk never did this in the main series, there is a case of this in the Expanded Universe novel Mr. Monk in Outer Space where a killer, dressed as a popular character from a TV show, shoots and kills the show's producer as he is arriving for a convention, then escapes into the convention center, vanishing because there are dozens of other people dressed in similar costumes to the killer's.
  • Done at least once in Murder, She Wrote: The town is flooded with gossipy letters. Some are printed, some are written, some are typed; they're on all types of paper; and they are all mailed from Cabot Cove. In this case, the letters were sent by the killer, who had been told by the victim that her friend would mail a letter revealing their dirty dealings if anything happened to her. The killer inundated the town with mail, hoping the letter incriminating him would be taken as a joke.
  • On NCIS, Ziva describes the task of finding a stolen defense system in a room full of computers as "looking for a needle in a needlestack". It was on what looked like an obsolete laptop which inexplicably had some modern PC ports and had a suspiciously fast boot-up time; the guts were state-of-the-art.
  • The tribble bomb in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Trouble With Tribbles" "Trials and Tribble-ations", hidden in grain storage with all the other hungry (& dead) Tribbles.
  • Used by name in Supernatural when talking about looking for cursed objects which, of course, look exactly like regular objects.
    • In the episode "The Mentalists", when the heroes have to find a real psychic in a whole town of phonies, Dean states that "It's like searching for a needle in a stack of fake needles."
    • In the seventh season finale "Survival of the Fittest", Sam and Dean finally get the means to kill leviathans. The problem? It only works once, so they have to use it on the boss leviathan. Upon learning this, said boss leviathan has several dozen or so of his underlings assume the same form as he does. However, he fails to account for the angel Castiel, who can perceive the leviathan's true form and, as a result of having briefly shared a body with them, knows which one is the Big Bad.
  • In season 4, episode 3 of Taskmaster, one task had the contestants try to camouflage themselves as well as possible in one hour. Joe Lycett did this by grouping himself with ten other people wearing the exact same outfit and hat as him and all of them sitting with their backs to the camera. Greg was unable to figure out which person he was and Joe ended up ranking second in the task, coming behind only Noel who had ingeniously photoshopped himself into a scene as the banana in a fruit bowl.
  • In The Wrong Mans, Phil thinks he's found the missing musical box he's looking for only to turn around and realise the room is filled with a collection of musical boxes, they're all different but as he doesn't know what the one he needs actually looks like, he's stumped.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • An artifact from Norse legends is Draupnir, a gold ring that creates eight non-enchanted duplicates when left alone overnight. Without applying some thought to the problem, it'd be easy to confuse the original for the eight valuable (but not magical) copies.

    Podcasts 
  • In episode three of Mystery Show, Starlee goes to a meeting of chefs in Arizona looking for an elderly Swiss-German man named Hans Jordi and finds herself surrounded by a roomful of older men with European accents.

    Radio 
  • In the Cabin Pressure episode "Uskerty", Martin's ring is swallowed by one of a flock of geese, and Martin can't tell which one. Fortunately, the airport manager lets him use the security equipment to find the ring.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Magic: The Gathering has an interesting variation in the Flavor Text of one of its cards: One miraculous artifact that can copy any object, dropped in a vault of ordinary coins.
  • Legend of the Five Rings: The ancestral sword of the Scorpion Clan is kept in a room with dozens of other, completely identical swords. If you pick up one of the fakes, you die on the spot. And whenever no one is in the room, the swords shuffle themselves. Only the Scorpion clan champion or their chosen heir is able to distinguish the true sword from its doppelgangers.

    Toys 
  • Anyone who's ever owned LEGO sets and kept all the loose pieces in a big box or plastic tub can tell you how hard it is digging around for the one piece you're looking for, never mind if you need a piece of a specific color.
  • The same thing applies to jigsaw puzzles. For every piece, there are generally 2-4 other pieces that connect to it, but in the pile of hundreds or thousands of pieces that are on the table when you first open the box, it can seemingly take forever to find anything that matches.

    Video Games 
  • While most Hidden Object Game use the standard "needle in a haystack" approach, or blending it into the existing artwork, sometimes you have to find the correct object amongst a pile of similar objects.
  • The one-trick one-room game 69,105 Keys, where you must find the one unique key to open the vault door.
  • Another Century's Episode uses this trope as a very tragic Sadistic Choice: Char Aznable places a devastatingly powerful bomb inside an ordinary space shuttle and sends it at Earth as part of a giant fleet of refugee shuttles. The heroes end up attacking the entire fleet to stop the bomb since they don't have the time to search every shuttle and it'll kill a lot more people if it gets to Earth. When footage of the attack circulates, the world at large believes the heroes have gone rogue.
  • In the Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer game, there's an unlockable ability called "Morph", which, when used while stand in a crowd of people, will change all of them into duplicates of you.
  • Bloodborne pulls a similar trick as Dark Souls 2 with the Celestial Emissary. The boss is flanked by a whole bunch of Celestial Minions that look identical to it, and while they all die easily, more will just keep spawning in. The only thing that differentiates the Emissary from the Minions is that it doesn't charge in and attack you, preferring to stay in the back. But once you do enough damage to it, it grows larger and becomes more willing to inflict violence on you.
  • Dark Souls 2 uses this as a boss fight gimmick. The Royal Rat Vanguard is a rat with a mohawk and a good deal more health than most rats, which would make for a rather underwhelming boss if the battle didn't take place in a dark room packed full of rats. The fight ends up being less about the usual display of skill and more a desperate attempt to survive a pack of angry rodents long enough to find the one critter that will make all the others leave once dead.
  • The Elder Scrolls:
    • There's a fairly small but highly intricate quest mod for Morrowind which at one point requires you to find a special key to continue. The only room it could possibly be in is entirely filled with keys. Every table and every nook and cranny of the room is covered in keys. As it turns out, the right one is sticking out from the lock in the door.
    • Invoked and subverted in Oblivion's Shivering Isles expansion. In one quest, you're tasked with stopping several treasure hunters convinced they've found a ruin filled with riches when they've really stumbled into the fringes of the Realm of Madness. In one room, they are set before a giant cage filled with riches with a big, obvious lock. The "Manic" solution here is to dump thousands of identical keys in front of them but, since this is just a trap, none of them will actually open the cage. One of the adventurers will start frantically searching through the pile of keys to get the treasure and their obsession with finding the "right" one will drive them completely insane before their companion gives up and leaves without them. Fun stuff.
  • Final Fantasy
  • In Guild Wars, the lair of the ancient dragon, Glint, is hidden inside a single grain of crystalline sand, in what is aptly known as the Crystal Desert. While it might be possible to find that grain and magic your way inside, finding a portal inside a specific ruin is much faster.
  • The Impossible Quiz's question 42: You have to find the 42 (Hint: It's 42). There are 50 on screen. The answer is the 42nd 42.
  • One King's Quest V puzzle includes a literal needle-in-a-haystack scenario, made more complicated by the fact that the needle is also a golden needle. Fortunately, Graham doesn't have to do the searching himself to find it.
  • At one point in Laura Bow: The Dagger of Amon Ra, the stolen dagger is hidden in the museum gift shop in a row of replica daggers. You can tell it's the real one because it doesn't have "Made in Pittsburgh" engraved on it.
  • In Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, Guybrush has to find a map hidden within a pile of maps.
  • In NetHack, when running to the Astral Plane with the Amulet of Yendor, be sure not to confuse it for one of many Cheap Plastic Imitations of the Amulet of Yendor. There are a few easy ways to tell it apart. The genuine amulet cannot be placed in a container, and a plastic imitation is revealed by the "Identify" spell. The standard way to tell it apart is to name it the moment you get it.
  • Panoptic has one player (a masked humanoid creature) hide in a crowd of identical masked humanoid creatures to evade the all-seeing and laser-eyed other player.
  • In Policenauts, a criminal steals a woman's designer handbag, leaves a bomb in it, and puts it in a shop filled with handbags of the same make. Fortunately for Jonathan and Ed, the shop actually only sells knock-off handbags, resulting in a puzzle where the player must compare every single handbag in the shop to a genuine designer handbag and discard every one that doesn't match the real handbag they have.
  • Some maps in Prop Hunt allow for this strategy.
  • Resident Evil 0 has a clue for a hidden key be "To hide a leaf, put it in a forest." Since it's a leech-shaped key, you find it in the laboratory among the mutated leeches.
  • In the first Scribblenauts game, there is a puzzle where, when the answer is found, it causes a large number of Starites to rain down from the sky. One of them is real; the rest are made of plastic, but look identical to the real one. This is easily dealt with by running across the pile since Maxwell automatically picks up any real Starite he's close enough to.
  • One of the most mind-bending puzzles in the Infocom text adventure Spellbreaker required you to find a featureless magical cube hidden with eleven other featureless nonmagical cubes - using the JINDAK spell only three times. In a variant of the classic coin-weighing puzzle, you had to work out whether the real cube glowed more or less brightly than the fakes when you cast a certain spell by arranging the cubes into piles to use a process of elimination to find the right one. It was AGONY.
  • In Ultima Underworld II there's a room with a single Corp rune among a whole pile of Kal runes. All runes on the floor use the same sprite, but Kal and Corp are virtually indistinguishable anyway.
  • Yooka-Laylee:
    • Played with. Capital B and Dr. Quack's Evil Plan is to use a machine to suck up all the books in the world, supposedly to "leave [them] as the only player in the market." However, their bigger goal is to obtain one particular book, which is magical. They use the book-sucking machine knowing that it will suck up the one book along with all the others.
    • Played straight later on. In Icymetric Palace, there's a room containing several duplicates of a Rextro Play Coin. Only one of them is real, the rest will injure Yooka.
  • In The Secret World you're tasked to steal the Ancile of Mars from a Roman temple. Unfortunately, there are multiple temples on the same square, each filled with decoys (see below for historical reference). Also, the pedestals are all pressure triggers that lock the doors if empty, so you have to make a replacement fake too. There's no solution - you just pick a random one, and the questgiver will inevitably say that it's fake and brush off the whole story. He will jokingly say that one time one of the players he's sending there will finally get it right, but it's implied the real deal was never there to begin with.

    Webcomics 
  • The Adventures Of Dr Mcninja: In "First Generation Ninja American", the protagonist, while still a child, goes on his first assassination assignment with his grandfather. He needs to get to a place where a children's party is being held without being noticed. They arrange this by making it so it's a ninja-themed party, so another child in a ninja outfit and even armed as a ninja goes unnoticed.
  • In Erstwhile, the husband has to identify his wife among three flowers, all identical. She had visited him the night before to tell him how he could rescue her, and so had no dew on her.
  • Lampshaded and named in this Evil, Inc. comic, in which the company is searched for unusual activity.
  • Freefall:
    • Pointed out by Florence in this comic.
      Florence: A modern search engine can easily find a needle in a haystack. If you really want to hide a needle, you bury it in a needle stack.
    • Also, 2001 crickets? Talk about bugs in the security system! As a result, the real alarm that's raised when he barges into an off-limits facility is silenced with all the others.
  • In Homestuck, the Trolls' Last Bastion is a meteor hidden in a ring of meteors.
  • In Narbonic, when Dave (in the appearance of Professor Madblood) is trapped on Professor Madblood's moon base, he tries to hide out in Madblood's hanger of 15000 robotic duplicates of himself. The real Madblood comes up with a very direct way of dealing with the problem:
    Madblood: Attention robots! I will begin by strafing you with a flamethrower and then build from there!

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, an accident causes Jimmy's birthday gift to Libby to be replaced by a chemical that makes anyone it touches Drunk with Power. To prevent a Bad Future where an evil Libby rules the world, Jimmy and the others race to find the present before it's too late. Unfortunately, it's in a room filled with similarly wrapped presents.
    Sheen: Carl, did everyone take the same wrapping class at the Learning Hut?!
  • An episode of The Adventures of Puss in Boots involves Puss searching for the Fountain of Youth. Turns out it is hidden in the forest of Fountainwood, along with a myriad of identical magical fountains that all do different things when you drink from them. Dulcinea helpfully labels them all as they search.
  • American Dragon: Jake Long:
    • In the episode "The Talented Mr Long", an ancient magical chalice is lost when it is dropped amid a stack of identical-looking cheap trophy cups.
    • In "The Egg", the titular gryphon egg gets accidentally covered in chocolate and dropped amid a pile of chocolate-covered Easter eggs. Jake and Fu find it by eating the chocolate off the eggs.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, while the gang was hiding out in a Fire Nation city, they threw a party with all the kids at the school Aang was "attending". The party got busted by some Fire Nation military officials who were looking for the boy with the headband, which was Aang. Within seconds, all the kids had put on identical headbands so that Aang and the gang could sneak away unnoticed.
  • Batman: The Animated Series: In "Two-Face (part 2)", Two-Face flips a coin to decide if one of his targets lives or dies. Batman hastily throws a box full of coins at Two-Face and he completely loses it because he needs to find his coin to decide.
  • Batman: The Brave and the Bold: In the "Four Star Spectacular!" short "Flash in Double Jeopardy", Mirror Master attacks Flash with a neverending army of duplicates. Flash figures out thanks to an inadvertent hint from Abra Kadabra that Mirror Master's teeth are crooked, so they are reversed in the duplicates, allowing him to find the real one and knock him out.
  • In one episode of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, when one of Zurg's Grubs disguised as an LGM hides among a crowd of real ones, XR decides to flush him out by giving out Buzz t-shirts. All the real LGMs run up to XR, leaving the spy out in the open.
    XR: Sorry, Buzz. Guess your spy isn't a fan.
    Buzz: (Grabbing the Grub) The feeling's mutual.
  • One episode of DuckTales (1987) had Scrooge McDuck mark the entrance to a leprechaun's hidden passageway with a handkerchief tied to a branch and he forbade the leprechaun from messing with it. So the leprechaun marked all of the surrounding trees in the same way, instead.
  • In the DuckTales (2017) episode "The Secret(s) of Castle McDuck!", Huey, Dewey and Louie at one point have to find a key made of gold that's buried among a pile of keys made of iron pyrite. Dewey thinks there's no way they can find it in time, only for Louie to find the correct key before Dewey even finishes speaking. He then tells his dumbfounded brothers that it was easy for him because he has knowledge of the different physical properties of gold and pyrite.
    Louie: What? You like nerd stuff, I like gold.
  • The Fairly OddParents:
    • In the episode "Mind Over Magic", Mr. Crocker lures Timmy into a "party" in the gym, tries to expose the mind-reading powers he wished for by having his classmates think constantly to overload his mind. To make sure Timmy had difficulty finding Cosmo and Wanda to help him, Crocker decorated the place with pink and green balloons and cups and such. Timmy finally finds them, disguised as basketballs, by using his mind powers to hear the elevator music playing in Cosmo's mind.
    • Another episode had Cosmo and Wanda, at one point, search for their wands amongst a bunch of fake wands owned by Tootie.
  • Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends:
    • In "A Sight For Sore Eyes", the gang tries to help a multi-eyed friend named Ivan find his creator, whom he gives a vague description of until he remembers that he was wearing a pointy hat when he last saw him. Unfortunately, it was at a birthday party.
    • In "Bloooo", Frankie is outside the house trying to avoid an apparently dangerous character and drops her key. However, the key landed in a pile of dozens of keys (that Wilt, Eduardo, and Coco threw out the window earlier) and Frankie has to find her key before she's spotted by her stalker.
    • In "Emancipation Complication", Li'l Lincoln, a pen-shaped imaginary friend tricks Madame Foster into selling all the imaginary friends so he can turn Foster's into a casino. When Frankie, Mr. Herriman and Mac try to stop him, Li'l Lincoln's partner Moose locks them in a closet. Bloo breaks into Foster's in search of a pair of batteries for his handheld game, inadvertently saving Frankie, Mr. Herriman and Mac in the process. At one point, Bloo tosses a box of pens onto the floor, and Li'l Lincoln falls into the pile of pens. Frankie, Mr. Herriman and Mac then try to find Li'l Lincoln before Moose does.
  • An episode of Futurama has Leela and Fry at the Central Bureaucracy in search of a pneumatic delivery tube that contains Bender's personality chip, which was dumped amongst a mountainous pile of pneumatic delivery tubes. They find it by having Hermes, a natural bureaucrat, sort them and toss all the surplus tubes into their respective slots - in song.
  • In an episode of Johnny Bravo, Johnny chases a leprechaun, who turns into a sheep and hides in a herd of them. In a rare moment of intelligence, Johnny finds him by shouting, "Scotland Rules!" The leprechaun got so offended that he stood up and yelled at him.
  • In Part II of the Justice League Season Finale "Starcrossed", Batman and Wonder Woman are supposed to lay low from the Thanagarians as they rendezvous with the rest of the League, but they expose themselves anyway trying to save a couple of bystanders. Fortunately, a restaurant owner urges them to seek shelter at his place. When the soldiers in pursuit arrives, they give a vague description of their quarry ("a dark-haired man and woman"), but the restaurant owner asks him to be more specific, since almost everyone in his restaurant fits said descriptions.
  • In a 1980s Looney Tunes TV special, Daffy Duck and Sylvester wanted to hide a golden egg for safekeeping, so Daffy painted it white and hid it among some ordinary eggs. This wasn't such a bright idea.
  • Miraculous Ladybug:
    • In "Simon Says", Simon's akuma is located inside one of the cards in his deck. After futily ripping up cards at random, the heroes eventually just resort to destroying the whole deck at once.
    • In "Sapotis", the titular Sapotis are imps that double each time they eat something. Their akuma is in their propeller hat and Ladybug knows that from the off, but they're all identical and grow in number so quickly that finding the real one soon becomes impossible; destroying the fakes only takes out that one copy. She ultimately rigs a contraption to gather all their hats up into a trash can and has Cat Noir Cataclysm it to destroy them all at once.
    • The namesake Monster of the Week of "Gorizilla" has a strong sense of smell and uses it to look for Adrien Agreste. Once one of Adrien's fans neutralize the sense of smell, it's hard to locate him among the several billboards featuring him.
    • In "Reflekdoll", Tikki and Plagg have to find Marinette and Adrien, respectively, after the two have been transformed into physical copies of the villain Reflekta, along with dozens of civilians. This leads to Swapped Roles when Plagg happens upon Marinette first, and she rolls with it rather than wait for Tikki to find her.
  • In the Mr. Bean animated series, Teddy was stolen by a pair of thieves and tossed in a pile of identical teddy bears. Bean was able to tell which one was his by holding each one up to his ear to see which one "talked" to him.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • In the episode "Maud Pie", Maud does this as a game. She invites the rest of the ponies to find her "pet rock", Boulder, who's hiding in a field full of rocks. But when the others give up, Maud reveals that Boulder was actually in her pocket the whole time.
    • In the episode "Stranger Than Fan Fiction", Daring Do is at the convention to blend in and be mistaken for another cosplayer. Dr. Caballaron, who follows her, is likewise hidden amongst cosplayers when Rainbow Dash tries to warn someone about him, but he's confused and dismayed at all the ponies dressing up as him.
  • Samurai Jack: In "Jack vs Aku", Jack and Aku agree to a one-on-one fair fight with no swords or magic. Aku, of course, cheats and uses magic. But Jack expected he would cheat and hid his sword on the battlefield in case he needed it to even the odds. But Aku expected Jack would expect he would cheat so he had his Mooks find the sword and take it away. But Jack expected that and planted dozens of fake swords all over the battlefield. But Aku expected that and made sure his Mooks found every last sword. But Jack expected that and buried his real sword underground where Aku wouldn't think to look.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Two Dozen and One Greyhounds," Mr. Burns is going to skin a bunch of Santa's Little Helper's puppies except for one, who stands up on his hind legs. Lisa uses Bart's socks (which the puppies love to tear up) to get all the puppies to stand up on their hind legs, in order to save them from Mr. Burns.
  • In one episode of Sofia the First, it looks like Sofia and Amber are facing this when their run-away flying carpet hides in a stall selling carpets. But as it's the only one standing up, they spot it pretty quickly.
  • In one episode of Spongebob Squarepants, Sandy insists on playing a game based on an entirely different and separate concept called "find the hay in the needle stack". You can guess what this involved.
  • Anansi, a recurring hero on Static Shock, gets his illusion powers from a spider amulet. When the villain Osebo is about to destroy it, the hero uses the last of his power to create hundreds of identical spider amulets, distracting Osebo long enough for Static to interrupt and allow Anansi to reclaim the amulet.
  • In the Steven Universe episode "Steven and the Stevens", the legendary glass of time is hidden in an underwater temple filled with dozens of fake timeglasses. Grabbing the wrong one causes the windows to vanish, transforming the temple into a Drowning Pit. Implied to be a Secret Test of Character, as the device is shown to have enormous Time Crash-inducing potential even in the hands of good-natured Steven. Dozens of alternate Stevens get killed through Temporal Paradox — and each one may have taken an entire timeline with them. The only winning move was not to play.
  • Super Friends: In "The Case of the Dreadful Dolls", the villain Dollmaker creates clay dolls that allow him to control the people in whose likeness they are made. He manages to control all the Super Friends except El Dorado, who kicks his doll out of Dollmaker's hands. When Dollmaker attempts to retrieve it, El Dorado uses his illusion powers to surround the doll with dozens of copies, distracting the villain long enough for El Dorado to activate the fire sprinklers to destroy the dolls and free his friends.
  • In the Superman: The Animated Series episode "Monkey Fun", Superman fights a chimpanzee named Titano, whom Lois had treated as a pet when she was a child, and who had been turned into a giant mutant by outer-space radiation. At one point, General Lane arrived with Titano's favorite toy, a plush monkey doll named Beppo that contained a music box which played "Pop Goes the Weasel" when squeezed, hoping that Beppo could calm Titano. Unfortunately Beppo wound up lost in a pile of non-musical toy monkeys during Titano's battle with Superman, which led to Lois telling Jimmy Olsen "Shut up and keep squeezing the monkeys!"
  • A Tom and Jerry cartoon, taking place in a toy store, has Jerry hiding among a pile of lookalike mouse dolls. All Tom can do is pull each mouse's tail to see which one screams in pain instead of saying "Mama".
  • Wander over Yonder: In "The Battle Royale", Wander gets Sourdough the Evil Sandwich out of the way by dropping several other sandwiches on him so it'll take a long time for his servants to find him.
  • In an episode of W.I.T.C.H., Cedric threatens to kill Matt unless Will gives him the Heart of Kandrakar. Will responds by using magic to create several duplicates that disappear when touched. After Cedrick lets Matt go, Will reveals that she still has the real one.
  • Yogi's Treasure Hunt: In one episode, the treasure of the week is a pot of gold and Dastardly and Muttley force two leprechauns to reveal its location. Needing shovels to pick it up, the villains tie a handkerchief to a nearby tree and make the leprechauns promise they won't remove it. When Dastardly and Muttley return with shovels, they find several trees with one identical handkerchief each.

    Real Life 
  • In a robbery from 2008, a criminal dressed in safety goggles, a respirator mask, and a yellow safety vest attacked an armored car and escaped...after using Craigslist to hire unwitting freelance handymen who showed up across the street from the bank, wearing similar outfits.
  • On December 13, 2014, someone robbed a bank while dressed as Santa during 'SantaCon', a street party with many partiers dressed as Santa.
  • The Temple of Mars in ancient Rome contained twelve identical shields. The story was that under the reign of Rome's second king, Numa Pompilius, a shield (ancile) fell from the heavens and it was prophecied that the future fate of Rome would depend on its continued ownership of this divine shield. So to guard it against theft, Numa Pompilius had eleven shields made that looked entirely like the original one and hung them all up in the Temple of Mars to be guarded by the college of priests called the Salii.
  • Improv Everywhere pulled this by having the usual dozens of volunteers walk around a Best Buy shop dressed in khakis and blue polo shirts, making them nearly indistinguishable from the legitimate Best Buy employees who normally roam the floors.
  • In one story from Not Always Right, a man living in a residential area adjacent to a golf course finally gets fed up with the customers treating his property callously, as if it were an extension of the course rather than being a separate piece of land owned by an individual, and dumps out an entire bucket-full of golf balls to prevent a trespassing golfer from finding a ball that had been hit into his yard.
  • Some cryptographic techniques involve keeping the communication channel full of decoy messages so that an eavesdropper can't tell when you sent the real messages or how many.
  • This is how One-time Pad Encryption works, and why it's impossible to crack. Even if you accidentally deciphered the intended message through brute force, there is no way to tell that it is the intended message (instead of any other possible message of the same length as the ciphertext) without the original pad. And if you have that, then there's no need for brute force in the first place.
  • This is a common way of smuggling fossils out of countries. Make a stack of plaster copies of the fossil and hide the real one in the middle of them.
  • Any mass deployment of military personnel. All their duffel bags are dumped out on the tarmac when they arrive, and all the duffel bags are identical. It doesn't take many deployments before experienced personnel start tagging their bag with a bright ribbon or something like that in order to make it easier to spot.
  • A similar incident took place with the 2016 Great Britain Olympic team after the country had the bright idea to issue their athletes — all 900 of them — matching luggage as a further display of unity. It got sorted out eventually, but not before kicking up a storm of pretty hilarious tweets.


Alternative Title(s): Needle In A Needle Stack

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