Game: Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego - Enhanced (1989)
Developer: Brøderbund Software, Inc.
Original platform: DOS
I know this is not the intended lesson of Carmen Sandiego, but god help me, I’m considering a life of crime.
I began with the purest of intentions. Like Sailor Venus before me, I had offered my services to Interpol (oh, you think I’m kidding). My first dispatch came in. A male suspect had stolen a secret remedy for Montezuma's revenge. I had until Sunday at 5 PM to track him down and bring him in. Ready to make my superiors proud, I boarded a plane and got sleuthin'.
I had only the vaguest of recollections of how this went. The game gave me no instructions, no tutorial. But, come on, it’s Carmen Sandiego. If you’re a child of the American ‘90s, there’s a very high chance this game was accessible at school, and you probably had at least a passing familiarity with the PBS show of the same name (or, if you were like me, watched it religiously). I remembered the drill: get clues about geography and local culture, narrow down your options, and swoop in for a glorious arrest.
I flubbed my first case. As I was relearning the game sans tutorial, I made a few false clicks, and I arrived at my suspect’s last-known whereabouts two hours too late. Damn. Well, surely Interpol would give me another chance. My official rank was “Rookie,” after all. They’d forgive me a rough start.
It was time to get serious, but as I dove into my second case, I felt underqualified for what Interpol clearly expected of me. The suspect had converted her money to intis, I was told. Right. Okay. This was a very specific clue, one that did not intersect with any of my areas of expertise. How the hell was I supposed to know what currencies were circulating in South America during the late '80s? How the hell would any North American grade schooler have known that?
In a flash, I remembered: this game came with a book.
This is the thing we’ve all forgotten about this franchise. We remember the Chief and Rockapella and how utterly screwed you were if you got the Africa map in the final round, but the Carmen Sandiego games were as much about teaching reference skills as geography. It’s important to note that the time limit on each mission only applies to in-game travel time, not to how long you’ve been chewing on a clue. This is not, as I’d falsely remembered, a trivia game. Carmen Sandiego doesn’t expect you to know off-hand which countries have a red and white flag, or active volcanoes, or are known for their tulips. It wants you to grab a pencil, pull out your world almanac, and do some honest-to-goodness cross-referencing.
And that’s super cool.
But enough of praising entertainment that makes kids think. This story isn’t about good educational game design. This is about my descent into the underworld.
I got to my final destination in time, but again, the suspect got away. “How?” I wondered. “I used Wikipedia! I found out what currency Peru used before 1991!”
No good, Interpol said. I needed a warrant.
The game had never told me how to get a warrant (this would’ve been covered in the physical instruction manual), but it didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d only been paying attention to one half of the puzzle. Clues are also given about the suspect: gender, hair color, getaway vehicle, and so on. But how would I know who was who? I found an in-game computer (very meta) that would narrow down the options for me, but that wasn’t any fun. There had to be something that told me who these people were.
The lightbulb switched on. Right at the top of the screen, staring me in the face the whole time, was a menu labeled “Dossiers.”
Thus began my downfall. Because, as you can see…
I thought back to the stolen goods I’d been told to find. A year's copra harvest. The keys to the Forbidden City. The Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa! Do you realize the professional skill — the raw intellect — required to steal the most famous painting in the world from the motherloving Louvre and run a successful yogurt bar? These people weren’t mere criminals. They were the greatest thinkers of our age.
But no, no, I was an officer of the law, and I had to uphold the dignity of my profession. So, who was I after this time?
Well, shit. She sounds incredible.
That’s when it occurred to me that my skills were wasted on Interpol. They could keep their soulless dispatches and rigid deadlines. Me, I’d travel the world with the Villains' International League of Evil (V.I.L.E., for short), an organization that clearly valued vibrant personalities and gender equity. We’d trash hotel rooms and guzzle champagne, and Ms. Sandiego herself would praise my contributions to the team. I sighed, imagining myself wearing a hat as fabulous as hers.
But the game doesn’t allow for a change in alignment. Bound by duty, I reluctantly brought in Katherine "Boom-Boom" Drib, now rotting in prison. She'll be there forever, probably.
What a waste. What a waste of a glorious mind.
I turned in my badge. I headed out into the dark street, unsure of where life will take me next. I'm not the idealist I was before. I'm just another crooked cop, seduced by the siren's call of cold hard intis.