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.

Continue reading “To My Valjean, Carmen Sandiego: History Still Marches On”

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Secret of the Scarlet Hand(y Changes): ‘Nancy Drew’ From Page to Screen

[Editor’s Note: All screencaps are courtesy of littlenancydrewthings.]

Last time, I discussed how the adaptation of Stay Tuned for Danger (STFD) was a mixed bag. Most changes were made for the better, but the game could have lived up to and beyond its potential if it were willing to take more risks or otherwise to seize upon missed opportunities from the source material. Secret of the Scarlet Hand (SSH), however, goes in the opposite direction. It takes missed opportunities from the original book, expands upon them, and creates a far more engaging experience. It’s easily one of the strongest titles in the entire game series.

As a book, SSH isn’t really one of the better ones. It has many tedious red herrings that are only tangentially connected to the main mystery, which could have easily been cut or condensed. For example, Nancy goes to a secret society meeting where a suspect is in attendance, temporarily ends up in peril, and is quickly saved by yet another suspect (Alejandro del Rio). In the end, this secret society turns out to have almost nothing to do with the actual mystery — apart from amounting to bored, rich white people appropriating Mayan customs for their own personal amusement.

While that event is somewhat important because it helps Nancy discover that Alejandro isn’t the bad guy, it could have been removed and it wouldn’t have made much difference. Even when the culprit makes a half-hearted attempt on Nancy’s life at that meeting, the threat could have been replaced by anything else.

The game does away with this entirely. Instead, almost everything you learn about is directly connected to the events at the museum in one way or another. Every clue that points to any of the suspects — even ones who are not the culprit — is still relevant and tied in with the mystery and its resolution. You get the chance to learn more about another series of thefts related to the current one, and slowly unravel the deep and tangled web behind the stolen Pacal carving and its history. The game also takes this one step further by setting up two background characters who make recurring appearances over the course of the series: Prudence Rutherford and Sonny Joon.

Continue reading “Secret of the Scarlet Hand(y Changes): ‘Nancy Drew’ From Page to Screen”

Stay Tuned for Danger(ous Adaptations): ‘Nancy Drew’ From Page to Screen

[Editor’s Note: All screencaps are courtesy of littlenancydrewthings.]

When Her Interactive (HI) was still a division of American Laser Games in 1995, there were at least 128 titles in the main Nancy Drew book series and a handful of spin-offs, including the darker and more intense Nancy Drew Files. I can only imagine it was not an easy task for developers to choose a precise starting point and tone when adapting a single game or even a series from these books.

A lot can be said about the books and games individually, but I haven’t come across anything — apart from the occasional HI board topic or Arglefumph book review — that directly compares the books to the games upon which they are based. On the one hand, they shouldn’t have to. The Nancy Drew games must be able to stand on their own, and they definitely do. You don’t need to read the source material to understand the stories or characters because you can appreciate them as they are.

But are there instances where the game missed opportunities that the book provided? Or even moments when the game actually managed to surpass the book? It’s more complicated than an absolute yes or no, as the games are only loosely based upon the books. Generally, they are used as a blueprint in order to set up the mystery and suspects rather than as an absolute rigid guideline.

Therefore, I’m not going to cover every single book that was adapted or write an in-depth ‘book versus game’ analysis for the entire series (or, at least, not in one article). Instead, I’ve chosen select titles among the ones I’ve read that were adapted into games. Namely, the books that two of my absolute favorite games in the entire series were based: Stay Tuned for Danger (STFD) and Secret of the Scarlet Hand (SSH). [Warning: Major spoilers ahead!]

Continue reading “Stay Tuned for Danger(ous Adaptations): ‘Nancy Drew’ From Page to Screen”

That’s Me: ‘Nancy Drew’ Reveals First Canon Queer Character

Nancy Drew, Sea of Darkness

[Editor’s Note: All screencaps courtesy of littlenancydrewthings.]

The Nancy Drew games have been revolutionary in many ways, but regressive in others. While the developers have tried to evenly round out racial representation (overall — not counting individual games), feature a 50:50 ratio of men to women in the entire series, and include suspects who struggle with depression and/or anxiety, there is one particular aspect of diversity that these games have been sorely lacking in: queer diversity.

Her Interactive (HI) — the company behind the Nancy Drew games — has made a point of making their titles “family-friendly,” and extended this policy to their official message boards. The Golden Rule was to keep it G-rated. While the idea behind this approach is understandable because of the series’ original target demographic (pre-teen girls) and the personal responsibility HI felt to keep their official boards safe for minors, the execution fell short. This isn’t to say that the boards weren’t safe for minors, which they were by standard internet safety precautions, but the manner in which they were meant to be safe was built around heteronormative constructs of what constitutes as “family-friendly.”

To comply with the series’ consistent E rating, any romance or relationships in the games — implied or explicitly shown — had to be pair-ups between (presumably) heterosexual men and (presumably) heterosexual women. Because of an underlying assumption in the ESRB ratings that to be queer was to be hypersexual, abiding by the ESRB standards meant absolutely no explicit references to characters being even remotely queer at all (in the games or on the HI boards). As a result, queer fans of Nancy Drew were told to be silent and weren’t allowed to even speculate that a character was gay on the forums without risking a ban (a rule that was recently lifted a few years ago).

For a while, it seemed as if the Nancy Drew series would never be anything other than heteronormative in their relationships and characters; or that any characters who might be queer could only ever be expressed as such through queer-coding, and would never rise above anything other than subtext. And then one day, along came the latest (as of this typing) game in the series that bucked the trend entirely: Sea of Darkness[Minor spoilers for SEA ahead.]

Continue reading “That’s Me: ‘Nancy Drew’ Reveals First Canon Queer Character”

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