For this blogpost I want to discuss Nancy Drew and the Haunting of Castle Malloy, the 19th game in the Nancy Drew series of computer games released by Her Interactive. I chose this game because it’s favorable acceptance by game critics, the popularity of the long running Nancy Drew series of computer games, and its availability to me via Steam. At first I was extremely skeptical of it, expecting a sort of adolescent-girl mentality to its gameplay (a fair assumption considering it is targeted to adolescent girls), but I found myself enjoying the game even with its marriage seating arrangement puzzles, flower picking, and jetpack flying. Therefore, I would like to review why this game worked in light of the readings that addressed “girl games”, and what made it so enjoyable.
As a Girl Game
“Girl Games” are best defined by Henry Jenkins in his study of girl and boy game spaces and by Brenda Laurel’s example of her experience running and designing the Purple Moon Series. Henry Jenkins first describes female spaces in girl’s literature, pointing to the example of The Secret Garden: “in such stories, the exploration of space leads to the uncovering of secrets, clues, and symptoms that shed light on character’s motivations. Hidden rooms often contained repressed memories and sometimes entombed relatives” (Jenkins 349). He also stresses the importance of emotional connections and relationship based gaming, where in his two examples of Theresa Duncan’s games and Secret Paths from Purple Moon “embrace remarkably similar ideals—play spaces for girls adopt a slower pace, are less filled with dangers, invite gradual investigation and discovery, foster an awareness of social relations and a search for secrets, center around emotional relations between characters. Both allow the exploration of physical environments, but are really about the interior worlds of feelings and fears” (Jenkins 357). Brenda Laurel also pointed out that relationship gameplay did not only have to happen between game character and player, but could also extend to other players. While Jenkins described the “friendship adventure” where puzzle solving is paralleled to relationship building in the game Secret Paths, Laurel also talks about how those games extended to the Purple Moon website to help children form an online community: “We were surprised and delighted to discover that girls were using the postcard system on the site to arrange swap meets for Purple Moon treasures. They formed clubs within the site based on treasures, zodiac signs, sport interests, animals, geographic location, and favorite characters. They also spun off independent fan sites” (Laurel 51). Laurel also pointed out the difference in expectations girls had to games than boys: “girls did not so much mind violence as much as they disliked the lack of good story and characters” (Laurel 40). Girls also had values when it came to measuring social status: “a girl’s social status among her peer is likely to be influenced more by her network of affiliations than by any explicit measure. Covert tools such as exclusion and secrets are prominent means of social competition” (Laurel 41). The aspects of these girl-centric games was not simply finding non-violent alternatives, but presenting spaces that encouraged relationships with in-game characters and online communities, were investigative and exploratory, and centered on social aspects and discovery.
Nancy Drew and the Haunting of Castle Malloy shares much in common with the examples cited by Jenkins and Laurel’s work in Purple Moon. The game’s premise is that Nancy Drew is invited to the castle of Malloy by her friend to be the maid of honor for her friend’s wedding. When she gets there though, she drives her car into a ditch after a mysterious apparition causes her to swerve, and when she arrives at the castle she discovers her friend’s fiancé has mysteriously disappeared. It uses the long-established point-and-click adventuring system and Myst-style gameplay to put the player into Nancy Drew’s 1st person perspective, although movement is done statically and not through continuous movement, like a shooting game would. This kind of landmark and static navigation fits in with Laurel’s discovery that women prefer “more body-centric navigation than boys, relying on landmarks for cues” (Laurel 40). The narrative framework of the game is an important consideration in light of its audience, for the game revolves around trying to save a wedding for a female friend, and several puzzles revolve around female-gendered tasks, such as a (particularly challenging) wedding seating arrangement puzzle. Other puzzles exist in the space of the castle and surrounding areas, discovered through exploration and sometimes impossible to figure out until certain other puzzles have been discovered and explored. But most interestingly, an incredible amount of detail has been put into bringing the three main characters (Kyler, Kit, and Donal) to life through the expert voice acting and detailed animation in contrast to the relatively low-tech approach of the rest of the game. Discovering the secrets behind each character brings out much of the enjoyment in the game and advances the narrative, although such actions don’t solve any puzzles directly; for example, the discovery of photograph can lead to a confession that Kit has lingering feelings for Kyler, and that combined with the discovery of Matt choosing someone else over Kit to be best man relates directly to Jenkins’s earlier quote that “the exploration of space leads to the uncovering of secrets, clues, and symptoms that shed light on character’s motivations”. There is also a parallel between how both Nancy Drew games and the Purple Moon series take advantage of convergent culture and fan communities. Brenda Laurel in her website efforts made the Purple Moon not just a series of games, but also a cross-media experience. Likewise, the Nancy Drew game is drawing from an incredibly long franchise of Nancy Drew books, toys, and other media. Brenda Laurel points out how “Purple-Moon.com really tried to meld brand identity with personal identity…for the success of a brand or a set of characters, an active fan culture may not be sufficient, but it sure is necessary” (Laurel 50). Nancy Drew likewise both a brand and a character that girls can relate to and see themselves in. Wikipedia states “Feminist literary critics have analyzed the character's enduring appeal, arguing variously that Nancy Drew is a mythic hero, an expression of wish fulfillment, or an embodiment of contradictory ideas about femininity.” (Wikipedia). Point by point, Nancy Drew and the Haunting of Castle Malloy hits upon the various criteria Laurel and Jenkins note about girl games: it presents a strong set of characters and narrative, emphasizes exploration and mystery, has secrets that reveal hidden character motivations and leads to character discovery, and provides an alternative that is non-violent and non-masculine.
As an Androgynous Game
Another light to view the Nancy Drew game though is not to see how it is different from “male games”, but rather what it draws and builds off of from an already established tradition of gaming. As stated earlier, the game borrows from the Myst type of static image navigation where the player moves in the first person through a series of still images to create an exploratory space. The point and click mechanics have existed through gaming history since The 7th Guest, the Monkey Island series, and during the big 90’s boom of adventure games from LucasArts and Sierra. Therefore, all the qualities of exploration, mystery uncovering, narrative, and character relationships could be applied to these past games as well. Indeed, strong narrative and character, exploration within a domestic or limited space to uncover mysteries, and the qualities that make Nancy Drew a “girl game” extend to all the games within the genre it works within. While Laurel describes making a specifically girl-centric game with its paper-moon series, Ludica (or Fullerton et al) point out the need to not just make “exclusively female (or ‘pink’) games” but also consider the genderless-game: “As Woolf points out in her essay, the solution is not simply to create a distinctly feminine voice (although this is one potential angle of approach), but rather to promote the cultivation of an ‘androgynous mind’” (A Game of One’s own). The haunted castle of Malloy provides the kind of “secret places” that Ludica outlines in the essay, which they mark as feminine: Ludica argues that the presence of incomplete and unfinished spaces “cry out for player agency, for players not only be transformed by, but also to transform the space as part of the play experience” (A Game of One’s Own). The Castle of Malloy in Nancy Drew is ramshackle, run down, with not only hidden passages but also ruined stairways and doors that lead to blasted-out nowheres. It is through puzzle solving (specifically activating a Jet Pack) that Nancy can reach the tower which the ruined stairs can not reach, in some way both resulting in the discovery of a “secret space” and the completion of the castle’s incompleteness. Yet, there is a certain aspect in which the castle is like a boy’s space too; Ludica mentions how the “knowing how and where to access [a game’s hidden] secrets is the province of ‘real gamers’” which is tied to male-centric processes of conquest and exclusion (A Game of One’s Own) but with the shift of pushed entirely to discovering hidden areas and discovering new aspects of the limited familiar space, there is also a male appeal to ‘unlocking a new room’ or discovering a gear for the gearbox puzzle from the very beginning of the game, allowing the player to go back and solve it. Nancy Drew’s own ‘Hidden Easter Egg’ is not difficult to find, but it in facts calls for an extra level of exploration and attention to detail, and it is the “feminine” action of exploration and mystery solving that unlocks it instead of having “exclusive knowledge” or enacting “conquest”. But more surprisingly, these same elements have existed in adventure games, some which were markedly male-oriented (Full Throttle) and some more androgynous (Myst). One of the most notable in the genre, Dreamfall, does not explicitly mark itself as a “girl game” yet lends itself to be extremely girl friendly: the main character is a strong female who explores both her world and a fantasy world to uncover a mystery where plot, narrative, dialogue with other characters, and emotional relationships take priority over action, fighting, or conquest. The game was never marketed as “girl”, and has been the darling of many critics and “hardcore gamers” everywhere.
Why aren’t these types of games still being made? One can point to the “Hegemony of Play” that Ludica blames for creating a “third gender” where this kind of androgynous play need not apply: “the game industry has constructed an entirely new fictional variation of Simone De Beauvoir’s subjective male, one which may have as little to do with the majority of men as it does with women” (Hegemony of Play). The essay summarizes this attitude in this anecdote: “In response to the recommendation from his marketing director that [a gaming executive] speak to [Pearce] about creating games for girls, he quipped: ‘Our job is to take lunch money away from 14-year-old boys’” (Hegemony of Play). With the industry assuming the audience consists of 14-year-old boys, values that defined the adventure game genre such as exploration, character dialogue, and narrative fall to the wayside as the industry assumes that “gamers” want conquest, violence, coolness, and don’t care about the other stuff. Yet these were the games that made up a good part of the history of games for many hardcore gamers, and to veterans of computer games such as myself, I don’t find it surprising that on most blogs I read and news I hear comes from the “jaded gamer audience”.
The bottom line ends up being this: what made Nancy Drew an enjoyable experience for me was not that it had qualities of being a “girl game”, but being an “adventure game”, the kind of game that was made en masse right around the time Doom came out and when the computer game industry was extremely small. The qualities marked out of exploration and narrative as being female may or may not stand as true, but what a past history of Monkey Island and Myst point out that such qualities make for great games. Nancy Drew reminded me of the golden age of adventure games, and for that I’m happy that I’ve played it. Besides getting to fly around on an experimental WWII era Jetpack.
Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) (2007). "A Game Of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space." In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia, September 2007.
Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) "The Hegemony of Play." In Situated Play: Proceedings of Digital Games Research Association 2007 Conference. Tokyo, Japan, September 2007.
Jenkins, Henry. "Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces" The Game Design Reader, ed. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman.MIT Press:Cambridge, MA, 2006. 330-363.
Laurel, Brenda. (2001). Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.