The 30th Nancy Drew videogame may be the best one yet

Gone Home’s success last year revived interest in the point-n-click adventure style with which the Nancy Drew franchise has experimented since the first title Secrets Can Kill came out in 1999. Since then HerInteractive releases two games annually. The first title of 2014 is The Shattered Medallion, which is also the 30th title in the franchise. That’s right, 30. Nancy Drew is one of the longest running gaming franchises with a female protagonist, second only to Barbie. Nancy Drew’s longevity, financial success, and unanticipated breadth of appeal argues that a primary female character is no hindrance to a videogame series and might in fact be an asset. Although some developers would like to convince us that the work needed to provide the option of playing as a woman is too difficult, for 16 years HerInteractive has built a truly singular female lead.

What better way to tell the stories of an endlessly curious girl detective than to play as her in-game? 

Nancy Drew was first introduced in the 1930s, through the series of novels written by an inconsistent string of ghost writers called Carolyn Keene. Since then, the character has appeared in countless novels, a couple television adaptations, and that movie starring Emma Roberts which no one saw. Of all these incarnations, HerInteractive’s 30-game long series suits Nancy the best. What better way to tell the stories of an endlessly curious girl detective than to play as her in-game? Nancy has been poking her nose in people’s business since the ‘30s: eavesdropping from secret passageways, sneaking into hotel rooms to rummage through suitcases, reading private journals and notes. In the games, the player acts out this sleuthing through the mechanics of puzzle solving, exploring the environment, interviewing, and playing minigames aligned to the theme of the mystery.

From an outside perspective, Nancy Drew games appear to be for a young audience. While that remains true for the most part, like all good franchises, the games have consistently appealed to players of all ages. This is partially due to the many different mechanics working in concert, a form which allows the experience to be more customizable. This sense of personalization has only become more pronounced in recent releases. Newer titles show that HerInteractive’s slight alterations to the design of the core Nancy Drew experience accommodate the diverse range of player ability and preferences. So, if puzzles aren’t your thing, an in-game hint system gradually helps you solve the puzzle or provides the solution if you’re stumped or just hate number puzzles. There is also a dialogue fast-forward button for players who hate talking to NPCs, as well as optional mini-games and object collecting, if so inclined. These innovations yield a game that is never too easy or too difficult. Thus, players are never so overwhelmed that they abandon the story, a common problem in many older Nancy Drew titles where the difficult puzzles would prompt players to seek answers from the Internet (guilty).

The puzzle solving, clue-collecting mechanics work in a mystery game and they also work in Shattered Medallion’s primary setting: a reality TV show. The game starts with Nancy and her best friend being selected for the show Pacific Run: New Zealand, a parody of programs like Survivor and The Amazing Race. As in most Nancy Drew games, The Shattered Medallion educates the player on its geographical setting without fetishizing that locale. In this case, the show’s challenges are New Zealand-related tasks, like sheep shearing and panning for gold. I never knew there were so many breeds of sheep—yet another fact to add to the long list of “Things Nancy Drew has taught me,” which includes the folk history of Lycanthropy and what shoes Marie Antoinette was wearing when she died.

While the challenges educate players on New Zealand, the primary narrative unfolds at base camp through interactions with the other characters. The game may have benefitted from the game tasks directly aligning to the plot: like many other Nancy Drew games, this format makes The Shattered Medallion a game about its characters rather than about a mystery. Even so, many Nancy Drew games end with a standard mystery climax, but this game builds toward a much more complex ending, due in part to the narrative focus on the characters, specifically a series regular background character named Sonny Joon.

It is the narrative focus on Sonny Joon that sets the tone for the Shattered Medallion as a game primarily for long-term Nancy Drew fans. Since first appearing in the sixth game, Secret of the Scarlet Hand, Nancy has found Sonny’s doodles of aliens and notes on conspiracies in drawers and notebooks of her various travels. Despite never appearing onscreen, he’s become a fan favorite, which is why he’s been introduced in The Shattered Medallion as the producer of Pacific Rim: New Zealand. The game gives him a background story worthy of the build-up. The plot centers on him, even though the supporting cast is equally complex: a government code breaker and linguist, a clueless rugby player descended from a long line of mystics, and a ruthless serial Reality TV star. The game also features Nancy’s best friends Bess and George, who provide assistance as well as comic relief. All Nancy Drew games feature an equally eclectic cast, but no other title delivers a cast this memorably well-written. Eventually, each of these characters’ quirks congeal into an important plot device—which I am obviously not about to spoil.

Shattered Medallion’s rich cast holds with HerInteractive’s history of creating great characters, the greatest of which is Nancy Drew. Due to the first-person perspective, Nancy’s physical appearance has not been revealed once in 30 titles. Nancy’s anonymity is another campy running joke in the series. Her face is conveniently obscured in photos that appear in-game, any mentions about her appearance from other characters are brief and unmemorable. Leaving Nancy’s silky smooth voice (provided by Lani Minelli, who has been in pretty much every videogame since 1994) proclaiming “It’s Locked” has been one of the few diegetic traits associated with her character for the entire series. Last year’s The Silent Spy hinted to the appearance of her character by introducing Nancy’s mother, absent since the introduction of the original girl sleuth in the 30’s. Few games focus on the mother-daughter relationship (actually, do any?), but in The Silent Spy learning more about Kate Drew gives players further insight to Nancy’s character, appearance and otherwise.

 Nancy Drew is not a strong female character. She’s flawed; she’s not always strong. 

Like her mother before her, Nancy is the kind of girl that girls are taught not to be. She’s always rubbing people the wrong way by asking too many questions. She makes honest, clumsy mistakes. She refuses to let her relationships get in the way of doing what she loves: solving mysteries. She’s the girl who cannot stay out of trouble, because she insists on following her burning curiosity, even if it means putting herself in danger. Sure, she solves the mystery to help people, but that’s secondary to quenching her thirst for adventure. Nancy Drew is not a strong female character. She’s flawed; she’s not always strong. Her character has a realness most videogames, films, or other media don’t bother to allow female characters. We’re always asking for more “strong female characters.” What we should be asking for is more characters like Nancy Drew.