HeR final mystery: the legacy of digital drew

On the hunt for some now-forgotten object, I stumble across a white greeting card with green, glittering birdhouses stamped on the front. I already know what’s inside the card before opening it, but I open it anyway.

Dear Molly,

The first thing I want to know when I pick you up is if you had to sing to get this and, if so, what song you chose. Carrie Underwood? Bye Bye Birdie? I hope you are having fun and getting along with your cabin-mates. I am excited to hear all about your week on Friday. I love you – Mom

P.S. Sorry about the Nancy Drew game ):

This was the card I received while away at sixth grade camp, still tucked away in a stack of blurry photos I took between 2003 and 2006. Most days, campers had to sing to receive their mail. Due to some source of divine intervention, I didn’t have to. The references to my very sophisticated music taste, however, are not the reason that I kept the card.

Your first hint, reader, is to save the game frequently. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing hours of gameplay when it inevitably crashes, and you may throw a regretful and embarrassing fit—a fit for the books, a fit for greeting cards.

In a recently released podcast interview with Jon DiSavino of Short Story Today, I mentioned that I grew up reading the Nancy Drew series with my mother. We read them in order, making our way into the twenties or thirties over the course of several years, eventually giving them up for reasons that aren’t entirely clear—maybe I outgrew them, maybe the writing style shifted in a way we didn’t enjoy (after all, Carolyn Keene was not one woman but several), maybe we both grew weary of the formula after cherishing its reliability for years.

Though we stopped reading the books, there was one offshoot of the franchise that we continued to dabble in and that is still part of my life to this day.

I know that we didn’t start with the first game, Secrets Can Kill, which is ancient enough to require two discs, one granting access to two or three different map locations, the other granting access to two or three other map locations. We started with a two-game set, a single jewel case that contained both Stay Tuned for Danger and Message in a Haunted Mansion, picked up, perhaps, at a Scholastic Bookfair. In the first, Nancy is investigating a series of death threats received by fictional soap opera star, Mattie Jensen. In the second, she’s investigating a series of seemingly supernatural events that occur in an old San Francisco mansion undergoing renovations.

Here’s your second hint: canonically, Nancy does not believe in ghosts, so the perpetrator is never actually other-worldly. (That doesn’t mean that you won’t get a little scared from time to time.)

Like the books, the games are formulaic, which is to say that once you’ve played one, you’ll understand how to play the rest. Most games open with what Nancy naively pretends is a simple vacation (like the whale watching trip in Danger on Deception Island) or opportunity (like the internship at a fictional Mayan museum in Washington D.C. a la The Secret of the Scarlet Hand) which quickly devolves into chaos upon her arrival. Whether or not the other characters actively enlist her sleuthing services, she’s—you’re—going to solve the mystery at hand.

The gameplay is straightforward. You point and click your way through the game maps, some of which are (in my very unsophisticated and inexperienced opinion) complex and dazzling. You talk to suspects, you collect clues, you solve puzzles. You see through Nancy’s eyes, which means that you never actually see Nancy—a choice I appreciate, given that Carolyn Keene(s) could never quite decide what she looked like, if her hair was strawberry blond or titian, if she was sixteen or eighteen, if her car (a more significant extension of herself in the books than the games) was blue or red.

The sound effects of these games are burned into my brain: the creaking elevator in Treasure in the Royal Tower, the screaming bird in Curse of Blackmoor Manor. I played these games over and over. I had a binder full of my own notes on how to solve puzzles and unlock plot points, who to talk to when, where to find the most evasive clues. While the binder of notes is long gone, the soundscape, from the tone of a specific character’s voice to the unchanging opening theme, sparks in me a sort of Pavlovian release of endorphins.

These 33 games, with some noteworthy exceptions, rule.

And we’ll never get a new one.

Hint number three: when the new CEO comes in making waves that threaten to capsize the entire endeavor, consider them the prime suspect.

In 2015, HeR Interactive released the 32nd game, Sea of Darkness. The game is set in Iceland, where an old ship is being blamed for the disappearance of Captain Magnus. The game, with the exception of the terrible Icelandic accents, is pretty good. Maybe fans who were more tapped into the inner workings of HeR already suspected a shift, but I certainly didn’t. I wouldn’t start to get that prickling sense that something was up until well after the final game in the series, Midnight in Salem, was announced for release—and then proceeded to stall out for four full years. When it finally did come out, fans were outraged.

I never played it, but I watched some walkthroughs. There are very few “hot spots” allowing you to look closely at objects or pick them up. The plot is handed to you through stilted conversation rather than action or organic discovery, not unlike a freshman creative writing student’s first attempt at literary fiction (don’t worry, that burn is self-inflicted). The puzzles are bland, the mystery is one-note. As far as user responsibility goes, you’re reduced to, well, pointing and clicking. You point, you click, things happen on screen without any significant interference, you find the culprit, the game ends.

What happened here? What contributed to the rise and fall of HeR Interactive?

This all (sort of) starts with a company called American Laser Games, responsible for thankfully forgotten items like Crime Patrol and Crime Patrol II: Drug Wars, in which you, as a cop, graduate from busting meth cooks in America to fighting drug cartels…somewhere in South America, apparently. In the mid-1990s, the brilliant minds behind American Laser Games said to themselves, “Girls probably don’t like these games,” and developed an offshoot that they originally called Gaming for Her Interactive, which then produced a game called McKenzie & Co. The idea, the brilliant minds said to themselves, was to empower girls by creating content that would appeal to them, entertain them, and stimulate their minds. The plot of this empowering and stimulating game is that the character, your choice between cheerleader Kim or actress Carly, is on the hunt for a date to the junior prom.

Happily for all of us, the games-for-girls offshoot grew, morphed, split from American Laser Games, bought American Laser Games, and started devoting the vast majority of its resources (which weren’t vast, themselves—this was a very small company) to our dear friend, Nancy Drew. They started putting out new games every six months and built a devoted fanbase under long-term CEO, Megan Gaiser. Internet communities sprung up around Nancy Drew fandom, expert players started sharing hints and walk-throughs, the HeR Interactive website developed a chatroom for players—things were going really, really well.

The reliability of the games’ formatting was key. Sure, I dabbled in PlayStation and Nintendo DS, but learning new rules, dissecting new plots, and getting used to new controllers wasn’t the gaming experience I was after. I wanted to hear that same theme song, experience my Pavlovian response, and proceed the way I knew how: point, click, snoop, talk, solve.

Unfortunately, around the same time that Borders realized they should have developed an e-reader, HeR Interactive realized that they were falling behind the gaming curve. It didn’t matter how many fans like me, who actively did not welcome change, there were. Without adapting to the world of mobile gaming, HeR might not make it. A new CEO, Stuart Moulder, stepped in between 2011 and 2014 with two key goals: to diversify the Nancy Drew gameplay options and to secure some new investors.

There were a few negligible attempts at non-PC games already, like a DVD reboot of one game and a Game Boy Advance version of another. They even created a mobile game, which I didn’t know until writing this because a) I was still using my beloved green LG Rumor in 2011 and b) the game didn’t garner a lot of attention. Moulder would need to grow the budget if he wanted to produce a successful mobile game that might get Nancy back on the map with a new audience, but it turns out that no investors were interested in a small computer game company that basically only made one game over and over again for a small (albeit devoted) group of teenagers and adults who had been hooked since the late 1990s (or, in my case, early 2000s). Having failed to achieve his goals, Moulder left quietly and abruptly.

The 31st game, Labyrinth of Lies, was ready to hit the shelves, and hit the shelves it did. Without a CEO to take Moulder’s place, the HeR team continued to operate as usual, putting together and releasing Sea of Darkness with no real snags.

Hint number four: if a company is well-oiled enough to produce quality work without consolidated leadership, perhaps coming in and making huge changes before you even get to know your customer base isn’t the best plan.

Penny Milliken, a Stanford graduate with over a decade of Disney experience, took the position of CEO in late 2014. She fired fourteen people, shrinking the company by more than 50%. She got rid of Lani Minella, the voice actor behind Nancy’s character since the beginning, a choice that all but guaranteed that the games would never be successful again. Milliken wanted to give the games a more sophisticated look and feel. Because the staff was so small and Milliken was asking them to learn entirely new programming software, Midnight in Salem, which had already been announced to fans with a promised 2015 release, got delayed indefinitely. In the meantime, HeR released a mobile game called Codes and Clues, built for a younger audience.

Fans started getting restless, demanding information from the company about Midnight in Salem and petitioning for Minella to come back as the voice of Nancy. Some began commenting on Reddit that when they posted questions about the company on the official HeR Interactive message board, their posts went unanswered or, worse, disappeared.  

Finally, with minimal fanfare and no in-store copies, Midnight in Salem dropped in December of 2019. Because the message board is old school and seemingly unarchived, you can still browse through the posts left by fans on release day to get a sense of the initial reaction after all that time:

I have just purchased this game for my pc it installed fine but when I go to play it I get this message saying that the app isn’t compatible with my computer.

Game crashes after Neds letter opening scene. Can this be resolved? Video already set to low.

just finished downloading the game, and the game when i start it, is black screen.

I have the sound “dare to play”, then the game crashes.

By nearly all accounts, the reconfigured HeR Interactive put together a flop of a game—and that was assuming you could even get it to run. Since then, HeR has said nothing about producing a new Nancy Drew game, and no one expects them to. In trying to overcome the problems they had, a new layer of problems settled over the entire company like a thick, sticky, unyielding dust. All we can hope is that they’ll continue to pay for the domain for the HeR Interactive website and keep digital downloads available for anyone who wants to explore the archive.

In the process of writing this, I played four classics in a row: The Final Scene, Message in a Haunted Mansion, Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake, and Secret of the Scarlet Hand. I’m still impressed by the complexity of the puzzles and the storylines. I’m still thrilled by the secret rooms and passageways even though I’ve discovered them a hundred times before. I still try to remember to save often, my heart dropping into my stomach the second Nancy freezes and the audio gets caught in the same two-beat loop.

I call this little corner of my online presence “Obsessions” because that’s what these essays are: entirely self-indulgent love letters to the artifacts, the moments in time, the anecdotes that bring me joy and curiosity. Never has that been clearer to me than when writing about this simple, complex, formulaic, innovative, thrilling, dead series of computer games. And dead as it may be, I’m still hanging on—not to the hope that HeR will someday return to its former glory, but to the joy that I can still board the train to Blue Moon Canyon or weekend at Wickford Castle Ski Resort in Wisconsin or jet off to Ireland to investigate the (not) haunted Castle Malloy any time I want to.

And here’s your final hint: If you get stuck, phone a friend. If you make a “fatal” error, use your (indefinite) second chance. There’s no way to lose and plenty of ways to win. Nancy’s always up for the challenge. Are you?

1 Comment

  1. Linda Newsom says:

    Leave it to a Disney alum to destroy a good thing! Glad you are still able to play these games. My King’s Quest days are long gone.


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