Gif by Alex Hanson
Long before I knew what a feminist was, when I was a mere indoorsy only child with a library card and a beige Windows 98 desktop, I was already a fan of Nancy Drew.
Wishing to combine my affinity for the mystery novels with my already fully-fledged attachment to the computer, I remember telling my grandmother (also a Nancy Drew fan from her childhood) that I wished there were Nancy Drew PC games. And like a grandmotherly miracle worker, sure enough, she procured one for my 7th birthday.
I was instantly hooked, and so was the rest of my family. It took several of us to get through that first game— Stay Tuned for Danger, about a soap opera star who has been receiving death threats. But I flew through every other game in the series, and 15 years later, I’m still looking forward to diving into the next game over a long weekend.
What I immediately loved about the games, which are made by an independent gaming studio in Bellevue, Washington called Her Interactive, was that they were far richer both in game environment and in story than any other roleplay game I had played as a child. My cousins and I had come up on, primarily, Barbie games, but Barbie Detective and Barbie Spy were no match for the complex mysteries and puzzles put before Nancy Drew. They were exciting and intriguing, with more focus on writing and art than any game I’d played before (keeping in mind that this was 2002). Gameplay relied more on following actual leads and solving layered puzzles than fast reflexes or finding random items with the assumption that you’ll find a use for them later, like most PC mystery games up to this point.
When Her Interactive began making games for girls in the mid-90s, their MO off the bat was to defy conventional marketing and gaming wisdom. The company struggled even placing the first game in the series, Secrets Can Kill, because retailers simply didn’t believe that girls would be interested in games at all. Those who did advised Her Interactive to “make it pink,” as former CEO Megan Gaiser has said. But stepping away from what marketers assume girls want and instead developing games that are simply of a high quality, and just so happen to be based around a young female heroine, has been the series’ strength for the last nearly two decades, and probably the key to Nancy Drew’s cultural longevity. There’s a reason our mothers and grandmothers grew up on her stories, too.
According to current Her Interactive CEO Penny Milliken, the Nancy Drew franchise’s most empowering traits are the same today as they were 80 years ago in the first (of many incarnations of) the book series. “She’s kind, inquisitive, brave, gutsy, loyal, and never takes “no” for an answer. These traits are what make Nancy Drew,” Milliken says. Now and in future games, “Nancy Drew will continue to represent all the wonderful traits that she has been known for all these years.”
But some developments have taken place since late 90s/early 00s Nancy was investigating murders, death threats, and kidnappings. As is fitting for a girl-directed game series that is decidedly free from gendered markers (Her Interactive has never made anything about the game packing or interface overtly femme, and the only time “dress-up” components are included is when Nancy needs to go undercover), the games have shifted more and more to include STEM elements. They don’t feel educational or didactic, but when Nancy is solving a mystery that crosses paths with science, such as in Danger on Deception Island, which centers around a controversy over an orphaned orca in the Pacific Northwest, real-life knowledge is used to flesh out the game environment and story. According to Milliken, the game designer can spend weeks researching the game’s topic, such as “the intricacies of Nikola Tesla’s inventions or the biodiversity of the Caribbean Ocean,” prior to even starting on design. Research and factual accuracy remains important throughout the development process, as players often need to engage with specific spheres of knowledge in history or science within the context of the game in order to solve the mystery. When necessary, Her Interactive will hire independent expert consultants to contribute to or fact-check the information integrated into the story.
Working STEM elements into a roleplaying mystery game is one of the key factors in keeping the games entertaining and introducing these worlds to girls and women who may not yet be inclined to investigate these subjects themselves. Milliken says that working STEM elements into a narrative makes it easier for players to engage with them. By doing so, “the players are introduced to it knowing that the skills and knowledge they learn will be used to help the solve the mystery. Players carry that knowledge forward through to the game’s end and hopefully beyond.” When a player has to learn what a Geiger counter is in the midst of a mystery that’s otherwise about a “string of suspicious accidents“ at a ski lodge, the science reference serves as an entry point. And for some players, it’s only the beginning of a love affair with STEM. Milliken shared an anecdote about a longtime fan whose introduction to science and technology through the Nancy Drew games now has her training to be a NASA astronaut.
And Her Interactive is getting them younger and younger: their latest spinoff series, Codes & Clues, is a mobile game aimed at kids 5 and older in which a 4th grade Nancy and friends have to solve mysteries using basic elements of computer programming. For those of us whose parents thought we were human marvels just being able to log into the dial-up internet at the age of 5, the idea of kindergarteners learning to actually code is mind-blowing. Kids are getting smarter and more tech-savvy each generation, and Her Interactive is helping to make sure young girls are right on that wave.
Her Interactive is still producing a treasure trove for girls and young women who love interactive storytelling, and are constantly adapting and experimenting with new ways to be a part of that medium. The company has put out several mobile games, both casual and immersive, and is looking to advance their main line of games technologically, too— they are in the process of shifting to the game platform Unity for the next game in the series, which Milliken says will allow for “more expansive environments, better visuals, more compelling story lines, longer gameplay, more characters and more dangerous situations with player consequences.”
Milliken hints, too, that AR and VR are just as exciting for Her Interactive as the rest of the industry. Though nothing is on the agenda as of yet, she says they have started researching what an AR/VR Nancy Drew game might look like.
With the legacy of quality in interactive storytelling that this tiny game company has brought to the industry and managed to stay competitive alongside gaming giants over the last two decades, I can’t help but be excited, too. The Nancy Drew games may be aimed at kids, but that’s just marketing strategy, as far as I’m concerned. If a Nancy Drew AR game comes out, you can bet I’ll be out there chasing virtual criminals on my way home from work.