To My Valjean, Carmen Sandiego: History Still Marches On

“A famous writer once said: ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.'”

— Carmen Sandiego, Boyhood’s End: Part Two

To those of you who grew up playing edutainment games, I ask this: what was the biggest lesson that stood out to you? Can you remember the name of every historical figure? The capital of every country in the world? The difference between a preposition and an adverb? Or how to subtract fractions?

Upon revisiting a few of my childhood favorites, I discovered there were some lessons I remembered and others I didn’t. When I replayed Cluefinders 4th Grade Adventures, for example, I learned that I still hate, hate, HATE fractions, but I adore the delightfully over-the-top villain. Edutainment games were gifts I received after attending all of my summer camp lessons, or sometimes as a surprise at the end of the school year. My favorite was always the Carmen Sandiego series. Perhaps it was the spy setting, or the endless puns, or even getting to fantasize that I really could save the world with little more than a basic working knowledge of geography.

But in hindsight, the most fascinating part of the series was — and still is — Carmen herself.

Truth be told, I didn’t know what to make of Carmen as a kid. She could be ruthless, charming, clever enough to get away with legendary thefts, and bold enough to leave her mark on the world. Carmen was the villain; therefore, we should root to bring her down, right? She stole things like the Mona Lisa’s smile. How did she even do that? I didn’t know and couldn’t begin to guess, but that didn’t matter. My role was to catch the crook regardless of intent. Wasn’t Carmen Sandiego the Jean Valjean to my Inspector Javert?

Okay, I didn’t know about Les Misérables back then, but I think the comparison will become clear. Especially because it’s been almost nineteen years since I first played Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time.

[The following screencaps are courtesy of FuckYeahCarmenSandiego.]

After successfully capturing Carmen Sandiego — the Carmen Sandiego (as this was the first game I actually beat and managed to catch her) — the player is congratulated by the Chief. She has decided that since you’ve accomplished what was once thought impossible, she will reveal Carmen’s true plan to you, which was the entire reason for the game to begin with. Apparently, Carmen hopped around history and led detectives on a wild goose chase because she was trying to distract the agency long enough to destroy an old ACME dossier. Why, exactly? Because that dossier was Carmen’s. She used to work at the ACME as a detective. 

Wait a second. The titular villain I’d spent the majority of the game chasing to the point of making Javert look tame by comparison used to be one of the heroes?

When I first beat the game and got to that scene, this was the equivalent of an earth-shattering Game of Thrones twist for me, but without the violence and death. You know, if “The Rains of Castamere” ended with the revelation that Walder Frey was running a dog adoption center and needed the Starks to keep it running or else Tywin Lannister would close it down. Of course, I’ve since played video games with far more shocking and brutal plot twists and betrayals, but this was the first one I had ever experienced as a kid.

The Chief also explained how Carmen was once one of the very best agents the ACME had. She was a star who rose up far quicker than any who came before, and although the Chief doesn’t say it, the implications are clear: Carmen was a lot like you. However, all was not well with Carmen. As time went on, the ACME failed to challenge her, and so she left to pave her own way — even if it meant going up against the same people she used to work alongside. Carmen attempted to steal her personal ACME dossier and erase her own history because, according to the Chief, it contained the sad, sorry tale of how Carmen went from ACME’s best agent to its worst enemy.

Upon beating the Great Chase Through Time again, I got to relive that bittersweet victory. I finally caught the elusive Carmen Sandiego after striving for so long, but at what cost? She wasn’t just another garden variety villain. She used to fight as a hero — and I put a hero in jail. The Chief’s congratulatory words about how I captured one of the most elusive crooks of all time (in universe) rang hollow, especially since she waited until after I had captured Carmen to tell me the truth. That’s kind of a sleazy move there, Chief.

Seeing Carmen behind bars immediately after that revelation — both when I was a kid and today — just felt wrong. Granted, Carmen’s vow to break out and give us the slip once more would eventually prove to be true, but what if this was meant to be the last game in the series? Would Carmen really just rot behind bars for good? Would she be punished for a time in her life when thievery was the only way she could get any stimulation? Because she was brought down by me, a simple agent who thought her basic knowledge of history could save the world?

This revelation was what began to spin the cognitive wheels in my eight-year-old brain. If Carmen was once one of the heroes, did that mean she was still capable of doing good? If so, why did she do bad things, like stealing? Because she was bored? Because she was unhappy? Could someone actually possess both good and bad inside themselves at the same time?

Anyone who’s had actual life experience, taken a psychology course on issues with the concept of evil, or analyzed the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would know the answer to that. But the path to learning all this must start somewhere. And for me, that path began with discovering that Carmen Sandiego could be the hero and the villain at the same time. Perhaps if Javert had ever experienced a similar epiphany when he was younger, he might have had an easier time accepting some of Valjean’s actions, particularly ones committed during a very difficult time in his life. Those choices did not define the entirety of who Valjean was, and maybe Javert’s final number would’ve ended very differently had he realized that.

More than anything else, this revelation laid the groundwork for my present day appreciation for morally ambiguous women in fiction. I’ve since learned how rare these characters tend to be, and how underappreciated they are when they do show up. Men who are morally reprehensible are lauded as badasses, yet women who attempt something similar — even on a far less grand scale — are dubbed unlikable or even worse: bad role models for young girls. They are made to forever walk a fine line between ruthless and vulnerable without ever treading into dreaded Mary Sue territory. 

So few women have successfully managed to achieve such absurd expectations. The more they are continuously scrutinized upon the threshold of Strong Female Character™, the more they end up like this, played completely straight without any self-awareness or irony. Cringe. What we should be writing are complex, layered characters who just so happen to be women. Especially ones who can steal the Mona Lisa’s smile and (almost) get away with it, or ones who run an entire detective agency and juggle assignments for new up-and-coming detectives.

Admittedly, there are many areas of the Great Chase Through Time that I found to be heavily dated. One segment during 1086 asserts that not all historical figures were angels or even remotely nice people, but this was the only point in the game where that concept was explicitly stated. William the Conqueror had a cavalier attitude toward the revolting Saxons because they refused to let “bygones be bygones” when he pillaged and burned their villages to the ground. But in other cases where the historical figures you helped were far more explicitly flawed, it barely warranted a mention (outside of Beethoven sometimes getting a little grumpy).

As a result, history tended to be whitewashed by omission, and figures who committed atrocities ended up portrayed as more heroic than they should have been. At least you get to pull a “Well, actually” on Columbus who thought he’d landed in China. It was pretty awesome — in part because before this point in the game, you actually had visited China.

Despite that, the Great Chase Through Time is still my favorite of the series. It has held a dear place in my heart due to the most important lesson it imparted: women and girls can and should be portrayed as complex. History was always written by the winners, and thus, what was previously thought to be factual is constantly in flux. We know now that people didn’t really believe the world was flat and that Marie Antoinette probably didn’t say, “Let them eat cake.” But if history was written by the winners, then let’s hope Carmen steals history away and gets her cake, too.

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