Nancy Drew games

[Readings] (03.11.09, 1:44 pm)

I’ll have to admit to start with that I am probably not qualified to do real writing about Nancy Drew. I am not all that familiar either with the many series of books or with mysteries in general, but I will do my best at examining this in context. I wanted to look at HerInteractive‘s Nancy Drew games, because they are important examples of game adaptations, and because they are aimed toward a female audience. In looking at these games, there were several factors that stood out as immediately important. The first is that the Nancy Drew books are mystery novels, and as such, operate according to some formal structure. The games themselves fall squarely under the category of adventure games, which is a genre that has its own conventions, forms, and structures. The transformation of Nancy Drew from novel to game, I believe, is primarily a transition between the mystery genre to the adventure genre, mapping the means of investigation and finding clues from the novel to the game.

The games themselves are surprisingly long, requiring considerable time investment, even given walkthroughs. I played two of them, “Message in a Haunted Mansion” and “The Secret of the Old Clock”, the latter of which is based on the very first Nancy Drew book, which was originally published in 1930, and then again in 1959. Message was set in an old house in San Francisco, which was being restored into a bed and breakfast, but was subject to many construction accidents. Gradually, Nancy discovers that there might be hidden treasure, and uncovers that the supposed haunting is fake. Clock was actually set in 1930, and Nancy had access to her car in order to do errands around the town, and finally to perform a car chase at the game’s climax. The historical tone was constantly alluded to, in terms of characters, dress, and allusions to the upcoming Great Depression.

The gameplay in both of these consist of a point-and-click user interface, where Nancy can move about environments by clicking arrows indicating where to go, and clicking to interact with objects. Interaction with other characters is done one-on-one, and, interestingly, also over the telephone. While Nancy is not able to perform the adventures with her friends (although in a later game, I think that one of Nancy’s friends can come along), she is able to call her friends and also her family, who she can talk to about not only the events and characters, but can also petition for advice and hints. Conversation is given with a standard multiple choice dialogue tree, and is spoken via voice actors. The voice acting is a major part of the games, and is used to account for a diversity of characters. Clues are found by looking around, interacting with everything that can be interacted with (indicated by changes in the mouse cursor), and by picking up everything that can be taken. In short, the game follows the standard adventure game mechanics.

In addition to finding clues by looking for them in rooms, frequently the player must wait for other characters to leave, in order to sneak around them and find out what they were looking at. A major emphasis on the mystery aspect of the game is that anyone can be a suspect, and that everyone can be hiding things. Frequently, in addition to looking around, the player must solve puzzles or minigames. These tend to be simple logic puzzles, tile puzzles, word games, or deciphering codes. These types of puzzles seem to be very common in adventure games, but to the best of my knowledge, are rare in mystery novels. Clues and items can be given as tokens or rewards as a result of completing these puzzles, as well as by doing other forms of sneaking about.

The Nancy Drew games are different from most adventure games in their rigorous emphasis on voice acting, as well as the social connections. Much of what takes place is focused on the history of the environments, and the nature of the characters. There is less emphasis on action, so much as discovery and uncovering reasons. It would be possible to see the Nancy Drew games as female play environments that are halfway through the play town and the secret garden. There is an emphasis on inward directed exploration, of learning more about the space in which the game takes place, and also as a setting for interacting with different other characters and understanding their relationships and attitudes toward each other. Similarly, personal danger is a threat, but not so common a threat as in many other adventure games. It is possible for Nancy to die in some of the games, but most of the failure conditions come from the player breaking rules either explicitly given, or of social conduct. For instance, Nancy can get caught snooping around in someone else’s property, or raising attention to her invasion of another’s privacy, and this could lead to her getting in trouble and getting kicked out by the people who invited Nancy there in ther first place. When the villian is found, a climactic scene will follow where Nancy must do the right thing otherwise the villian will get away. What is important in this is the emphasis on the social nature of risk and reward, where failure leads to embarrassment or ostracism, instead of bodily harm.

The games follow a pattern of introductory exploration, then investigation into history. Early on, the cast of relevant characters are introduced, and then gradually their roles in the history of the mystery become evident. The first half contains a number of side activities, following events or false leads that may not be directly related to the final plot itself. As with all Nancy Drew stories, there is always some paranormal force that appears to be at work, but it always turns out to be a hoax. The false nature of the paranormal is discovered in the second half of the story, where the real focus becomes on finding out what the real cause of the problems is. Additionally, several dramatic points are highlighted in the course of the story, until some major thing occurs and the period leading up to the climax if focused on putting the pieces of the central mystery together. Eventually, the game reaches a moment where Nancy is about to discover the truth, and it is immediately after this point that the villian’s identity becomes known, and Nancy must do something to stop them. I do not know the books well enough to account for parallels, but I strongly suspect that this dramatic arc is the same if not similar to that of the mystery books.

There is a lot more to say about this in the context of fictional adaptation, but I need to read some of the novels before I can really comment on that in full.

Reading Info:
TitleNancy Drew games
Tagsgames, feminism, adaptation, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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