The gaming company, Her Interactive, hasn't released a"Nancy Drew" video game in three years. (Illustration by Julianna Renk, University of California, Berkeley)

The ‘Nancy Drew’ Video Games Need to Shake Their White Savior Complex, and Fast

The games are great for solving mysteries and puzzles, but not so great for other things.

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The games are great for solving mysteries and puzzles, but not so great for other things.

Though it’s been a while since a new game has been released, the “Nancy Drew” video games are a wildly popular series with a large fan base. They follow the titular character Nancy Drew, a female detective first introduced in the young adult novels from the 1930s.

What happened to the “Nancy Drew” games, and where did they go wrong?

The Video Games

The “Nancy Drew” video games follow Nancy on various global mystery cases, where she attempts to crack the code through problem solving and dialogue. The games are point-and-click adventure games in the style of “Myst” or “King’s Quest,” moving the player screen by screen through Nancy Drew’s world.

Each “Nancy Drew” game takes Nancy to a new location, introducing the player to a new cast of characters and a new mystery to solve. In the game’s version of Japan, the local hotel is thought to be haunted, while in Iceland Nancy and the player are on the search for a missing treasure hunter. The games work to teach the player aspects of these new cultures, from language to cuisine and all things in between.

Wherever she is, Nancy always has her cell phone and thus, the ability to call her old friends as well as new contacts she meets during the investigation. Her boyfriend Ned is a frequent side character, as are her friends Bess and George, but so are the Hardy Boys, protagonists of their own series of young adult mystery novels. These recurring characters create a network of familiarity in the otherwise novel situations.

As Nancy attempts to solve each mystery, she collects items in her inventory and solves a series of puzzles. Some of these puzzles are in the traditional adventure-game style, where it’s all about using the right inventory item at the right time. Other puzzles, however, are more traditional logic problems, like Sudoku or sliding tile games.

The “Nancy Drew” video games allow players to be detectives, bringing them into intricate narratives of intrigue. They also provide opportunities to play with puzzles, testing players’ problem solving and logic. The combination of narrative-driven gameplay and intricate puzzles has attracted a steady user base for these games.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these games concerns the central character. Nancy is a smart, independent and yes, fully-clothed female protagonist in an era dominated by male leads or the male gaze. As a teenage detective, her in-game battles mirror the real-life battles that many real-life women face in school or in the workplace. Such representation, especially in the realm of gaming, is incredibly important and immediately appealing to her fans.

Where Did These Games Go?

If the “Nancy Drew” video game series offers a unique and popular experience, why hasn’t there been a new installment in years? The answer to that mystery lies with the company that created these games.

The “Nancy Drew” video games are a creation of the production company Her Interactive. This company has focused on developing games designed for girl gamers, featuring women protagonists and offering an alternative to the testosterone-driven, triple-A titles typically seen. “Nancy Drew” games are not only for women, however, as no video game is limited to one gender. Instead, these games should appeal to both female and male players who are interested in puzzle-driven narratives.

By focusing on this one game series, Her Interactive was able to enhance the design of the Nancy Drew games, improving the user interface and hinting system to ensure a cohesive and polished experience. It also put all of its eggs in one basket, so to speak.

Despite continued sales of the “Nancy Drew” video games, failure to adapt to mobile gaming platforms and limited re-play value of the games left the company in the red. New management and an attempt to move the games to a unity back-end have slashed the original “Nancy Drew” publication cycle from two new games every year to none. The next “Nancy Drew” game, “Midnight in Salem,” was originally scheduled to come out more than three years ago, and fans have been eagerly waiting this entire time.

White Saviorism

In addition to poor management and keeping up with the times, the beloved games face deeper problems. Because these games follow the actions of a white woman, they necessarily privilege the white point-of-view. This is most problematic when Nancy Drew tackles mysteries set in other countries, amidst other cultures. When Nancy inevitably solves these mysteries, it suggests that the native people from these countries couldn’t do it themselves and needed help from a superior, white detective.

In this way, “Nancy Drew” video games often rely on the White Savior trope, where non-white characters cannot solve their own problems and rely on the help of a white outsider instead.  In “Shadow at the Water’s Edge,” Nancy walks into a Japanese family’s complex drama of inheritance, duty and love, and solves their mystery, setting everything right.

Other games find Nancy swooping in to solve mysteries in Hawaii for native residents; in Cairo for British excavations of an Egyptian tomb; and, in the Māori culture of New Zealand. While the games try to be respectful of different cultures, there’s no avoiding the white saviorism of Nancy’s success where locals have failed.

Given the source material, racism in the “Nancy Drew” games should come as no surprise. The original book series that introduced the world to the character of “Nancy Drew” has come under criticism in recent years for “racial and social stereotyping,” something the books themselves now acknowledge in publisher’s notes. Though the older games, much like the even older books, are products of their times, they must still be held accountable to the (belatedly) changing standards of today.

Even when the “Nancy Drew” games limit themselves to American destinations, their way of solving mysteries can still be problematic. In “Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon,” Nancy Drew manipulates the locals to giving her what she wants by relying on their lack of education. The designers’ decision to create caricatures of uneducated southern locals is no less problematic than the white saviorism the games lean on so heavily.

Puzzle Problems

To top it off, there are even more problems with the games! As a puzzle-lover myself, I was initially drawn to the games because of their heavy focus on puzzles. Yet I’m hesitant about the idea that a company should avoid combat-style gaming and focus on intellectual puzzle games in order to cater to women gamers. It’s not the inclusion of puzzles that is problematic, but the conceit that this is how a game company reaches the demographic of women that I take issue with. It shoehorns all women gamers into a sad, less powerful box.

There are some non-ideology-based problems with these puzzles as well. The “Nancy Drew” video games sometimes struggle to ensure that their puzzles fit in with gameplay. It often feels as if the narrative pauses so that the player can solve a Sudoku puzzle, effectively pulling the player out of the game.

Additionally, many find these puzzles to be frustratingly opaque or difficult. Sometimes the “Nancy Drew” video games use this to great effect, pulling the player out of the game for a long, difficult puzzle only to set up a jump scare upon its completion. More often than not, it just serves to anger players.

I’d love to say that it was widespread recognition of these issues that contributed to the disappearance of these games, but it seems unlikely that Her Interactive is taking a break to figure out a less problematic approach.

So Are They Worth Playing?

Ultimately, the value of a “Nancy Drew” video game depends on what the player is hoping to get out of the experience. Those looking for combat, intense action sequences and twitch-muscle speed tests will be disappointed. But those looking for the opportunity to solve mysteries and puzzles will find the “Nancy Drew” games compelling, regardless of the associated ideological problems.

I am personally a huge fan of the “Nancy Drew” video games. They helped teach me that video games weren’t all “Counter-Strike” and “Mario,” and that I didn’t necessarily need to be a fan of fighting and violence to be a fan of gaming. But the issues with these games cannot be ignored. Perhaps if “Midnight in Salem” ever gets released, it will provide a way forward for Nancy Drew and Her Interactive. But in the meantime, I must hold the things I love accountable.

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