Edited by Tiffany Chan, Catherine Harlow, and Morgan Moore.
Cover image courtesy of Odyssey.
Since 1998, HeR Interactive, a small computer game company based in Bellevue, Washington and headed by female CEO Penny Milliken, has been publishing adventure and mystery computer games based on the beloved Nancy Drew series. HeR Interactive has enjoyed much success since that time; it won the Seattle Tech Impact Award in 2014 and the Eastside Small Business of the Year Award in 2015. Its Nancy Drew games have also won numerous awards from esteemed organizations like the Museum of Science (Boston), Amazon.com, and the American Library Association.
HeR Interactive makes it their goal to entertain and inspire audiences nationwide, and it does so by virtue of the Nancy Drew computer game series, which is intelligent, sophisticated, and geared towards female empowerment. As their mission statement highlights, the audiences they most hope to inspire are girls:
“Our mission is to be the leader in high quality, fun and inspiring interactive adventure entertainment targeted to female play preferences. Our Nancy Drew series offers exciting adventure game play without violence or gender stereotypes.”
At the time of HeR Interactive’s founding in 1998, there were few game options for girls that reflected the company’s mission statement, and that did not involve some kind of beautifying and appearance-oriented goal. Though we’ve made important progress in this respect – a more recent installment in the series, called “Nancy Drew: Codes and Clues,” seeks to teach computer coding to girls, and Mattel has released a new line of Barbie dolls based off of intelligent and successful female role models – there is still an incredibly long way to go. As a small child when HeR Interactive was established, I remember a strong duality in the aisles of the toy store I used to frequent: one clearly devoted to dolls, and another containing toy cars and pickup trucks. While my parents sought to surround me with toys and games that were not gender-specific, the media was still heavily saturated with “boy” and “girl” oriented toys.
So it was a welcome surprise when I received two copies of the Nancy Drew games for my tenth birthday. Out of the games I owned throughout my childhood, these were definitely the most eclectic of the bunch: fun and educational, and featuring a smart and resourceful young woman as the main character. It is worth noting that now, in my mid-twenties, I still enjoy playing these games – obligatory nostalgia aside, I feel that I can appreciate the games’ intellectual challenge even more, and I can more clearly articulate Nancy’s importance as a feminist role model. This gift was so refreshing in a time when empowering and intelligent games for girls were almost unheard of. While the Nancy Drew games are consciously targeted to female players, they achieve this targeting without relying on the stereotypes or limited narratives of earlier “girl-oriented” games.
Since 1998, HeR Interactive has published thirty-two Nancy Drew mystery games, all available for digital or physical purchase on their website. Each game is beautifully unique. All of them feature the smart and driven protagonist (voiced by the talented actor Lani Minella) intelligently navigating various challenging mysteries. The games pass the Bechdel test again and again, as Nancy Drew narrowly escapes death on her journeys that are globally and thematically nuanced. Throughout these games, Nancy travels everywhere from a cowboy ranch in the American Southwest (The Secret of Shadow Ranch), to the seedy streets of New York City (Stay Tuned for Danger), to an archaeological site in Egypt (Tomb of the Lost Queen), to a haunted inn in Japan (Shadow at the Water’s Edge). Each game features a different mystery to be solved and a unique plot that aims to educate as well as entertain. No matter the installment, you always learn something new about the culture and history depending on the theme of each game, which clearly evidences the game developers’ thoughtful attention and diligent research. Thanks to these diverse games, I have learned everything from French words and phrases, to horse grooming and care, to how to dust for fingerprints. The installments never fail to teach me something new, and are certainly a fun and interactive take on the books.
Each installment features a different mystery to be solved, and requires interacting with the fictional world presented by each game. You pick up clues throughout each setting, solve puzzles, and often need to make sense of enigmatic texts and codes, applying them to each mystery at hand. I’ll never forget one of my favorite puzzles from the series – Message in a Haunted Mansion required me to search an entire mansion (and multiple secret passages uncovered along the way) for different characters in the Chinese alphabet. I then had to piece these clues together, according to their significance, in order to open a hidden compartment, which ultimately revealed coordinates to a secret treasure.
Probably since it is a first person point-of-view game, you never see the main character, but even in instances when you expect to see what Nancy looks like, you don’t, because her face and body are always conveniently obscured. This might just be an idiosyncrasy of the series, but I think it definitely lends itself to the company’s mission statement of eliminating gender stereotypes and inspiring girls, as there is no concern with the character’s appearance. Instead, players can focus on deciphering clues, accumulating knowledge, and solving a complex mystery.
You also meet and talk to different characters throughout each game, choosing your dialogue as you prompt Nancy to respond, and gather clues from them in order to solve each mystery. Each character is well-developed, and has a nuanced backstory and unique personality, all evidenced by the rich dialogue present in each game. In The Final Scene, an older installment set in a historic theater about to be demolished (and with one of Nancy’s friends kidnapped inside, no less), we meet Nicholas Falcone, leader of radical activist group HAD IT (Humans Against the Destruction of Illustrious Theaters), which is dedicated to preserving the theater and protecting it from outside developers seeking to modernize it. Nicholas’ quirks (see below screenshot) quickly made him a fan favorite. In fact, due to their vast idiosyncrasies, the Nancy Drew characters have inspired pages and pages of entertaining memes.
One of my favorite installments, both for its inspiring characters and adventurous setting, is Treasure in the Royal Tower. In this game, you, as Nancy, vacation at an old, arcane castle in the Midwest – which we soon learn is the site of a lost treasure hidden by the French queen Marie Antoinette. Full of twists and turns at every end, this game is an intellectual delight – you must search every corner of the confusing premises, including an off-limits library and multiple secret passageways, and gather clues like Antoinette’s personal journal, a special decoder, and multicolored medallions serving as keys, which lead directly to a lofty tower containing the treasure, a beautiful diamond.
Perhaps the most notable character in the game is Professor Beatrice Hotchkiss, a quirky and eccentric scholar of French history, who is also staying at the castle (as an aside, Hotchkiss is one of the most quotable characters in the series; her numerous witticisms make this installment a delight). Throughout the gameplay, Nancy and Professor Hotchkiss become close. In their multiple meetings in the castle’s lobby – but only at 3 AM, since Hotchkiss is essentially nocturnal – the professor serves as a wealth of knowledge about Marie Antoinette. She even helps translate Antoinette’s entire diary (within the span of one night, no less), and shares her translations with Nancy. Their clandestine late-night meetings serve as pivotal moments in the game, as they give you key details about the treasure, and help lead you to the hidden tower. The intellectual relationship the two women share – one between mentor and student – is of special note, one that even reminds me of my experience with professors when I attended Wellesley College. I have not seen this kind of relationship – one between two intelligent women – in any game I’ve encountered throughout my life. It definitely fulfills HeR Interactive’s mission of creating smart, feminist games, and serves as an inspiration to fans everywhere.
I feel fortunate to have experienced HeR Interactive’s Nancy Drew computer games first-hand, and it’s definitely important and refreshing that options like these exist, especially for girls and women. The series provides intellectual and entertaining gameplay, captivating its female audience with nuanced, intelligent characters. I’m confident that this series will continue to educate, inspire, and empower its audience for generations to come.