Though the quality of the games has improved over time, the introduction to HER Interactive’s Nancy Drew mystery games has remained familiar: “Hi. I’m Nancy Drew.”
The computer games are true to the spirit of the books, which were written by a number of authors under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Players can puzzle their way through nearly three dozen mysteries loosely inspired by the books in a first-person perspective, allowing for an immersive experience where the players don’t just control Nancy Drew—players are Nancy Drew.
Playing these games is one of my earliest and fondest gaming memories, because everything about this series creates a welcoming environment. Though dialogue is sometimes cheesy, the other characters in the game are well developed and helpful. The environments—the deserts, amusement parks, and mansions where Nancy is called to solve mysteries—are beautifully rich in detail and backed with subtle but thematic music.
Each game provides hours’ worth of clues and puzzles to solve. The series has been met with success, and more than thirty games were released between 1998 and 2015. I probably played at least thirteen of them between 2003 and 2010.
There are plenty of point-and-click mystery games—teen detectives Frank and Joe Hardy also have game adaptations—but Nancy Drew games work exceptionally well as adaptations.
Nancy Drew books typically fall into the ‘cozy mystery’ category, a genre made up of mysteries that would be considered fun, fast-paced, and engaging, rather than novels with dark, twisted plots and explicit language and themes. Cozy mysteries take place in small towns, where the heroine is helped along by her intuition, her charm, a close-knit community, and maybe a busybody or two.
Nancy’s book adventures hit almost all of the characteristic points of a cozy mystery. Though educated, Nancy is an amateur sleuth rather than a professional detective. She’s sharp, intuitive, and experienced, and this allows her to puzzle through cases the most seasoned detectives can’t crack.
In both books and games, Nancy is called to take on mysteries that are causing problems in a community, which can range from strange accidents to ghostly figures. She also frequently takes on mysteries that crop up during her travels, because mysteries follow Nancy wherever she goes. Nancy is likable and gets along well with members of the town or community in which the mystery takes place, meaning she’s able to get information community members wouldn’t tell a police officer. Her charming personality makes her immediately trustworthy to those around her.
Finally, Nancy Drew mysteries, like other stories in the cozy mystery genre, are gentle. The books were produced by Stratemeyer Syndicate (the company responsible for the Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and Rover Boys series) and are geared toward an elementary school age. Even so, Nancy never takes on murder cases in the original 56 books in the series and while she may be put in danger, she is never graphically tortured or injured.
These traits aren’t uncommon to syndicated series. The Hardy Boys are comparable to Nancy Drew, but these books often feature darker and more cynical themes. Though Hardy Boys mysteries carry some of the traits of cozy mysteries, they fall somewhat outside of the genre because the themes and settings.
Part of the reason the HER Interactive computer games work so well is because they lean into the cozy tropes and turn them into engaging gameplay mechanics. The games introduce players to the world by placing them in Nancy’s room. There, she describes her affinity for mysteries while the player clicks around through a case scrapbook, a game control manual disguised as a book titled How To Be a Detective, and the case file for the current mystery.
Because Nancy is an amateur sleuth, she’s accessible to players regardless of whether they’re longtime fans of the character or new to the games. Players don’t need any level of knowledge about detective work or the property as a whole to enjoy the story and gameplay.
Nancy’s charming but persistent personality also translates well into a game setting. It allows for a fleshed-out story where players can converse extensively to gather clues and other pieces of information, creating an overall effect where players slip into the role of Nancy rather than simply controlling her actions.
Though cozy mystery books typically focus on one specific town, the games take place in a variety of settings. However, in keeping with the traits of a cozy mystery, each game is set in a small town, community, or area. This puts constraints on the gameplay, forcing the player to focus on solving mysteries while still giving them freedom to roam. A smaller sandbox also allows the game to throw a small but helpful cast of characters together that will provide the player with information. These constraints also mean that the game must be played in a linear fashion.
The cozy mystery “town busybody” functions as a role in the game, as well. If players get stuck on a particular puzzle or need help figuring out the next step to take in figuring out a clue, Nancy can phone a friend. Bess, George, or Ned, Nancy’s friends from the books, are almost always available to help players out of a jam. The crossover between Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys properties is also present in the game. Frank and Joe Hardy are an additional resource for Nancy, and occasionally show up to work alongside Nancy in the game.
The Nancy Drew games are much gentler than, say, something like Heavy Rain, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, or L.A. Noire. Few Nancy Drew games have featured murders, with the notable exceptions being Secrets Can Kill (1998), The Deadly Device (2012), and The Silent Spy (2013), and even those weren’t graphic. More often than not, the themes of these games centers on a haunting, theft, or a disappearance. Even this has a function: Nancy investigates cases that police officers wouldn’t care about, which gives her character total independence in hunting down the real people using ghosts or monsters to cover their tracks.
The relative gentleness of these games makes them accessible to younger players, but also means they remain fun for teens and adults. Cozy mysteries tend to include less action, valuing the heroine’s wits and intuition more than her ability to conduct a high-speed car chase. What this means for this story model is that it creates space for the inclusion of puzzles. Nancy Drew games are full of situations where players must use critical and logical thinking, so while players will never engage in fights or use firearms, there are still plenty of puzzles to solve.
Despite being a comparable property, the Hardy Boys Adventure series fails where Nancy Drew succeeds. Dreamcatcher released two games for PC, The Hidden Theft (2008) and The Perfect Crime (2009). These games feature third-person point-and-click gameplay rather than first-person, and while this makes it easier to control both Frank and Joe, it takes away the intimacy of the relationship between player and game.
These games are less successful because the play is uneven in terms of puzzle difficulty and mechanics, and the game design itself is much less rich in detail. The Hidden Theft opens with Frank and Joe receiving a secret mission from the organization American Teens Against Crime while dramatic spy-movie climax music plays in the background. This emphasizes a masculinity that appeals to an audience of young male players, making Frank and Joe seem cooler and more worldly than a couple of teens from the small town of Bayport.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with amping up drama in a video game, but where Nancy Drew leans into cozy mystery tropes, the Hardy Boys Adventures shy away. The lack of detail and sporadic use of dramatic music results in a gameplay experience that is less fulfilling and established than that of the Nancy Drew games.
Not only do cozy characteristics create space for engaging mechanics, but they lay the foundation for a fun, challenging game. The game becomes a more intimate experience because of these characteristics, and the layers of puzzles and detail in the environment bring the story to life. Each story ends with an arrest or an unmasking, but they also end with a new level of familiarity between the player and Nancy.
Heroines in cozy mysteries don’t just charm locals, they charm readers as well. Nancy Drew games build a familiar environment, and they also build a familiarity between Nancy and the player. When Nancy signs off at the end of the game in the form of a letter or journal entry, she’s not signing off as a character, but a friend.