Review: Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned For Danger

Her Interactive (publishers). There's probably a web page for the game, but I couldn't find it amid all the Javascript.

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Not bad
Not much
Dialogue and writing
Good, except for a number of arbitrary puzzles and riddles
Pretty good
Variable (I only tried the "very easy" mode)
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck. You can make a fatal mistake, but you can "undo" after the game ends, returning to a point before the mistake.

I'd better touch all the biases first...

Your first guess was right: this isn't the sort of game I normally buy. I got a free review copy. (What, I should say no?) I didn't promise a review; I don't review every game I play, no matter where it comes from. But having played it, I feel like talking.

But -- well, your second guess was right: this isn't the sort of game I normally play. I like science fiction and fantasy. That's what I'm good at enjoying. A mystery set in a TV soap opera studio, in New York -- nothing much there to fascinate me.

I still haven't hit it. Your third guess: I'm not the sort of person this game is normally played by. (Not that I really suppose you've made three guesses; sorry; parallel structure is in my contract.) Nancy Drew is girl software. Which is to say, the publishers have put it in that marketing category. I read a couple of Nancy Drew books when I was a kid, and they were okay, but I was never hooked on them.

(And -- Stay Tuned For Danger. Gad, what a title!)

So why did I even start playing? I'll tell you: I asked, "Self, do you believe that a Nancy Drew game would be a worse game than any other game by the same author?" Answer: not really. I asked, "Do you believe in girl software and boy software?" Um, that's complicated, but basically no. And I asked, "Would you play a Tom Swift adventure game if it were dangled in front of you?" Hell yes. "So try this thing, idiot."

Oh, all right.

The setting, as described. Rick, the male lead of Light Of Our Love, has been getting death threats. You're staying with Mattie, the female lead, who's a friend of your aunt. The show has a director, a producer, a propmaster, and so on. It's sleuthing time.

You talk to people. (Menu-style conversation scheme.) You snoop around. (The cursor is a magnifying glass, which I cannot hold against them.) You snoop into places you're not supposed to be. The plot progresses.

The game is paced by the conversations, and the topics of conversation are paced by what you've found. What you find is, well, what you find -- pixel-hunting is more important than in any game I've played since Alice. Formal puzzles are scattered around, some reasonably plausible, some slapped in so blatantly that the authorial mortar is still wet. (Characters writing notes to themselves in code -- this I can accept. However, riddles on lampshades and maps are way out of place in a realistic mystery. And a key hidden under towers-of-Hanoi... I really don't know what the designers were aiming for. Maybe some of those puzzles were added late in development.)

Anyway, this sort of design is great as long as you can keep exploring. When you've mapped all the boundaries, however, the seams show. Everyone you talk to repeats the same few lines; everything you look at, you've seen before. You know a crack lies somewhere, but everywhere you know to look, of course, isn't worth looking. So you look anyway; you orbit the game, trying things at random. Eventually, you stumble on an angle. New data! But it doesn't really open matters up again, because most of the conversation menus remain unchanged. Likely, you run through half the characters again, reading the same lines as before, until you find the one who cares what you found.

I'm painting a grim picture, and it's not entirely fair. The plot of Nancy Drew has a few twists, each of which opens up a fairly large tree of exploration. Nonetheless, for most of the last half of the game, I felt like I was on a starvation diet of clues. The background (as I said) held no great interest for me; the characters had clockworked their speeches far too often to remain alive.

The story didn't excite me much either.

A mystery is a puzzle, and I like puzzles. I like sci-fi stories that are puzzles; I like prose that's a puzzle, that hides droplets of meaning in the shadows of fallen leaves. But I don't like mysteries. Why is this? (I'm sorry, I'm supposed to be past the prefatory remarks and into the game by now. Bear with me.)

A mystery, of itself, is not a story. It's an anecdote. A sequence of events. The detective observes, and discovers those events; but he (she) isn't involved. The audience, therefore, isn't involved either -- except in watching the puppet-show of revelation, and (possibly) playing along. This can be fun, but it doesn't make a story.

Now, I've enjoyed books that had "mystery" written on the spine. Some, just because of the background -- science fiction or fantasy. Others, because the protagonist was involved; a book which was a story about that person, which happened to include detecting. I don't read many mysteries, but I'm sure the mystery genre figured out this out decades ago. Well, Nancy Drew originated a lot of decades ago, and -- correct me if I'm wrong -- the series was never great writing. The syndicate had a formula, and they spun many a fine variation, but the series wasn't about a character, nor did she ever change. (No, nor did Tom Swift either. Leave me mine point.)

Well, Nancy Drew the computer game is more of the same. The protagonist is a stock role, and so are all the bit players. Each could be summed up in two words. The writing and voice acting bring little to life.

So what, you say, it's good enough for teenage girls. Kids aren't looking for deep character novels. Right?

Go stick your head in a pig, I reply.

What else... the interface seemed a bit clunky. Somewhat because Virtual PC on my Powerbook doesn't make a very fast gaming box; but that's been true on other games I've played. The mouse felt bad. When I moved the scroll-sliders on the inventory and menu panes, the cursor kept falling off -- non-standard scroll bar behavior. Arrow-keys were supposed to turn you in place, but they didn't seem to work until the mouse had moved once. (Sounds minor, but it made the arrow keys hard to use for long-range movement; nobody wants to keep wiggling the mouse for no reason.)

In a couple of places, clicking an inventory item on something in the room Just Didn't Work. I got the generic "can't do that" response once, twice, or more; I had to keep whacking the mouse button until the object worked. By luck, this never confused me, but some player out there is going to be horribly misled. And, while I'm on confusion, some of the scenery close-ups are hard to get out of. If you open a box, for example, you usually can't back away until you close it again. In a couple of places, you actually have to look closer, at part of an object, in order to back away. More thought should have gone, there; no player should ever be uncertain about how to stand up.

And I'm unhappy with the way time was handled. The game has a real-time clock, ticking along at an hour every few minutes. The sun rises and sets; people have schedules, and vanish after business hours; buildings are locked at night. (You can always go home and nap until sunrise or sunset, if you want to accelerate time.) All fine and real, yes?

Almost. I wanted to poke around the studio at night. So I waited inside. Wait wait wait. Sun went down. Front doors were locked. Most people went home. But it wasn't what I was supposed to do; I was supposed to find a way to sneak in at night. And so the game didn't let me do anything. It was just a dead building, closed doors everywhere. Later, the plot advanced; I found a way to sneak in; and lo -- I could break into offices, dodge guards, the whole nighttime sleuthing schtick. The relevant hotspots just wouldn't appear when I waited for that time o'clock.

I spent a couple of (real-world) hours banging my head against that.

I should come up with a name for this sort of design problem. "Well of course", maybe. Well of course you can't do anything yet; that comes later in the story, when you find out how to sneak in. Obvious to the designer, disastrous to the player. Worse, there's an obvious fix -- just have the guard throw you out at closing time! It's in character, it fits the scenario, it motivates the later plot events. It's annoying to the player, but it only takes a few clicks to go home, sleep, and return in the morning.

Well. I didn't have any great difficulty with Nancy Drew, aside from that head-banging, and the go-everywhere-retry-everything slogging I mentioned earlier. You can always call home to River Heights and talk to the notorious Bess, George, and Ned. They're the in-game hint system, and are usually willing to nudge you with a painfully blunt elbow.

The game has three difficulty levels, and (for some reason) I picked the easiest one. I'm not sure precisely what it affects, but presumably the simple cryptograms I found would have been harder, and so on. I don't believe the difficulty level affects the plot at all. (Which, I'm afraid, gives you an idea how well-integrated some of those puzzles are.)

The scenery is nothing fantastic... I mean that literally, of course. The world is very detailed, nay, cluttered with stuff to poke around in. Everything looks fine; just all too mundane for my taste. The other characters are rendered figures, not live actors -- it wouldn't be a problem, except that only the characters in the story are rendered. Photographs of people who never appear on stage are all, well, photographs. Mattie's family photos, with a computer-generated head matted in among real people, look awkward as heck. And the cast photos of Light Of Our Love are full of stunningly attractive human beings, except for the two stars, who are dull masks. Unsettling.

So, overall, do I recommend this thing? Hmm. I don't recommend it to people like me. But I can't speak for twelve-year-old girls. Presumably someone is enthused about soap opera stars, and characters who say "Isn't he cute?!"

But... a good book is a good book. Anyone can read Alice in Wonderland, or The Phantom Tollbooth, or The Thirteen Clocks. I read good books when I was twelve. I enjoyed some pretty rotten pieces of fluff, as well... but that doesn't mean an author shouldn't do better. It may be that someone in your life absolutely adores Nancy Drew books, and that person may well enjoy Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned For Danger. (Gad!) But, you know, that person may well enjoy The Last Express too. Is it worth a try?

Diana Wynne Jones writes much better books than J. K. Rowling, too. So there.

System requirements: 166 MHz Pentium, 16 megs RAM, 130 megs hard drive space, 16-bit color, 8x CD-ROM. For Mac users with Virtual PC, I wouldn't try it on anything lower than my 333 MHz G3.

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