Ode to an International Thief

Since “retro” is, in part, a product of nostalgia, I decided a good place to start when writing for a blog about retro gaming would be one of the earliest gaming experiences I can remember.  After all, like so many things, the first game you play can set the stage for future expectations and provides your early basis for what works and doesn’t work in a game.  For me, the choice was obvious about which game I should write.  And so, dear readers, what you are about to read is the story of the first game that caught my attention way back when.  It is the story of a hard-nosed detective hot on the trail of a supernaturally-gifted looter of world treasures.  Armed only with a bottomless frequent flier account and a trusty almanac, this bold investigator must track the aforementioned felon and her many henchmen across the globe in order to bring her to justice and prevent the world’s cultural heritage from disappearing forever.

That’s right.  What in the world could I be talking about besides Carmen Sandiego?

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? first appeared on computer screens in 1985, and since then several remakes and spin-offs have come out.  The version I experienced was released in 1989 for the Apple IIgs.  It was a light graphical/sonic upgrade with the gameplay mechanics of the original version, right down to the almanac-based copy protection scheme (more on that in a minute).  The basic concept, for those unfamiliar with the franchise, is simple, befitting a game intended for those beginning to learn about geography.  As a member of the ACME detective agency, you are assigned a case wherein something often comically unpilferable gets pilfered (e.g. the Circus Maximus or the British Stiff Upper Lip).  To solve the case, you start at the scene of the crime and, in a manner similar to many adventure games, ask around at various locations to acquire clues about the suspect’s identity and next destination.  To solve a case, you must successfully trace the thief’s path to his/her hideout, but this alone will not win you a game.  In addition to using geographical knowledge, players must employ deductive reasoning to narrow the list of suspects down to a single individual so that a warrant can be issued for the thief’s arrest.  Fail to do either of these and the thief gets away, causing a dejected policeman to shuffle across your screen.

It’s a simple game, of course, and it was designed to be, as its primary audience was young children learning to identify their countries.  Additionally, as with most educational games, the game play does tend to get repetitive, though the difficulty curve increases as you play longer and increase in rank.  In Where in the World, the increase isn’t especially steep, as the difficulty comes mostly from the thieves’ flight paths getting longer.  The game’s save system is user-profile based, so although you cannot save mid-case, you don’t have to start from rookie every time.  Good thing too, because I can see that getting old quickly.

What is the lasting appeal of Carmen Sandiego, then?  Well, besides the simple nostalgia of it and the fact that it resulted in an awesome Rockapella song, what made this game fun to play is the tongue-in-cheek detective setting.  Unlike a lot of mysteries, Carmen Sandiego never suffers from taking itself too seriously.   From dispatches that print on-screen in the style of a dot-matrix printer, to the animations of burglars slinking across the screen when you’re hot on the trail, to the witnesses who tell you “The gig is up, shamus!”  when you’re about to make a collar, there are many amusing details that make the game seem fun to play and not a chore.  The mark of a good educational game (or any game, really) is its ability to make the questions it poses to the player worth answering.  Carmen Sandiego accomplishes this by not only rewarding you when you do give the correct answer, but also by making sure your answer applies to real-world knowledge, even if their setting is anything but realistic.  Yes, the developers could have made this a dry trivia game where you answer multiple choice and true/false questions about world capitals and flags, but why not give the player a sense that their knowledge is actually worth knowing, even though in real life the clues are more subtle and less clear-cut and the witnesses often less willing to cooperate?

Finally, there’s the copy protection system.  My own feelings on digital rights management are something perhaps left for a later article, but for our purposes I’d just like to remind people that there was a time when anti-piracy measures was tied in with physical items instead of one-time use license codes or background software which prevents you from using your computer in certain ways.  Although they posed problems for those who are chronically losing things and were still inconvenient for those who wanted to dive right in, these schemes could have a certain appeal if done well by actually contributing to the content of the game.  Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? is perhaps one of the best examples of this.  Instead of the usual code wheels or maps sometimes used, Carmen Sandiego used an entire world almanac.

World Almanac and Book of Facts

Photo by Flickr user Dave Kleinschmidt

Yes, the copy protection instrument is something you could actually use for a purpose besides copy protection!  Besides being useful for looking up information relating to game clues (the world flags section was especially useful), this method had the effect of making the copy protection experience not feel like copy protection at all.  When the game issued you a copy protection challenge, it generally asked you to key in text from a randomly-suggested page.  In hindsight, I can see this for what it was, but to the designers’ credit, at the time this felt merely like the game was testing me on how well I knew how to use my almanac, and so didn’t disrupt the gameplay experience one bit.  I understand, of course, that often measures are needed to protect intellectual property, but it’d be nice if every developer would put the effort into making copy protection seamless, as Broderbund did here.

It really is a credit to this game’s designers that, a quarter century after its first release, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? still stands out in my mind as an influential game.  Though the version I played may seem technologically quaint in light of the revisions and changes to the franchise over the years, it remains the incarnation that first introduced me to electronic gaming, and therefore will always be my definitive version.  Others may have had the same experience with other versions, and may dispute my assertion, but that’s a question for another article.

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