Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? [1985]

The genre of the “detective game” predates the video game, but it suits the medium like two gears meshing. The narrative impetus to piece together discrete units of information in some systematized way or another suits the computer. Though the genre likely peaks here in the 1980s, it’s a perennial genre that never really goes away or goes stagnant. Usually, you find it tied at the wrist to the “Adventure Game”… but not here. In Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego [1985], you go on an adventure in the sense that you travel all around the globe taking in the sights like an Adventure Movie might, but it’s a real stretch to connect it to Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] influence, even for me who you know loves doing that to every game I come across.

Quest – Mind Games (Underground Mix) [1985]

I guess in an abstract kinda sense you could consider the little knowledge morsels (henceforth “datum” or “data” in plural) that you get about the suspects as inventory items? But it has a totally different feel from ordinary lock-and-key reflavorings… Okay, let’s go over the “core loop” of the game real fast. Somebody has stolen an extremely valuable object from somewhere in the world. There are two obstacles to overcome, and both are simply a not-knowing that you need to make into a knowing: one, you don’t know where the criminal is, and two, you don’t know who the criminal is. (Carmen Sandiego herself is the final boss.) You the player go to cities, and in every city you get a menu of three buildings. When you investigate at any one of these buildings, you get a datum, fictionalized as eyewitness testimony, which may or may not enough to draw a firm conclusion on. These datum you collect are, for example, things like color schemes of national flags — so “red white and blue” when France, or the UK, or the USA, or any other combination of two nations with that common color scheme on their flags are both equally plausible is not helpful enough at narrowing the range of possibility to a single point of fact and you’re gonna need more data. The idea with all of this data is that it won’t be stuff you will know off the top of your head. In any given city, the airport has between 2 and 5 other cities you can travel to, and the function of the data is to winnow this list of cities down to 1 plausible answer for where to go next and do it over again until you arrive at the final location of the suspect, having followed their path step for step. That’s the entire game, you just do that over and over again.

This is, at a fundamental level, a variation on the quest structure that so dominated last post’s Ultima 4 [1985], but with all the filler RPG Stuff cut out and with the slight complication of being a little bit cagier about where to go next. Much the point of this cagey data is that the presumed player is not likely to know off the top of your head that, say, Mexico is one of the world’s leading producers of coffee, and to decipher the data they will have to then refer to the 1985 edition of The World Almanac [1868-2021], which was originally included. This too rhymes with Ultima 4, which verbatim tells the player upfront “No, seriously! Read The Book Of History,” its own included-in-box lore manual. You can’t get more extensive worldbuilding than just using real facts about Earth!

In addition, about 1/6th or maybe 1/9th of the time when you visit one of the city’s three buildings, when you get your information, you also get a datum about the suspect themselves. For the purposes of this game, there’s 5 things maximum that you can know about a person, and once you know about 3, sometimes as few as 2, you have functionally fingerprinted them and can secure a warrant for their arrest. This is similar to the geography knowledge, except the people are fake and the set of facts that there can be about them is explicitly enumerated and thus limited for you. The characteristics are: Gender (male or female,) their hobby, their hair color, their “feature” (which could be tattoos or just liking to wear jewelry,) and what type of automobile they drive. It’s like a glance at their dating site bio. These categories are gender essentialist, but it’s also everything-else essentialist. It’s hair color essentialist like these international criminals at large can not dye their hair or wear a wig, it’s automobile essentialist like an international criminal at large flies to a new country and either brings their car along or pays for an identical one everywhere they go. Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego… doesn’t care about people, really. It cares about places, and simply transplants the way it handles Rome, The Eternal City [c. 753 BC – 2021] onto the way it handles suspects. Its prosecutorial logic doesn’t really work if people are anything less than fixed, immutable targets.

When you get your debriefing, you do not know anything more about the suspect besides their gender, apparently easier to clock than hair color. In fact, it’s not really clear how you’re establishing suspicion at all. When you go around gathering datum about the suspect, none of this data in any way connects them to the crime or even the scene of the crime, raising the question of why they’re even a suspect. The only reason the 5-factor fingerprinting even ostensibly works is because Interpol already has a shortlist of suspects: people who work for Carmen Sandiego’s organization, VILE. It resembles the ethically troubling real-life practices of profiling and keeping a list of suspects in advance of their being connected to any crime, vindicated here by it consistently working. The hitch is that if you don’t have a warrant, the criminals get let off scot-free on that technicality, and you don’t get any points. (Now, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems like you’re catching them red-handed anyway, and like I just said it’s not like you’ve established probable cause.) Warrants are purely an obstacle to justice in this game, bureaucratic red-tape not protection of rights, and it’s easy to resent especially if you run into a scenario where it seems like you were never able to get enough datum to narrow down the suspect. Alternatively, from a more conscientious and generous and Liberal point of view, they can be considered as a matter-of-fact depiction that there are procedures and strictures that bind cops and prevent them from doing whatever they want if they’re arresting a criminal. It’s a civic virtue you’d tell kids is true because you think it ought to be true, whether or not it really is, like how in-game promotions are strictly merit-based and the path of career advancement is clear and fair. The warrant-gathering is more a sketchy evocation of police procedure than anything really considered or realistic. This is, after all, a game where Interpol is not only an enforcement agency of World Police supercops but… promotes the player character detective to the level of “Private Eye,” which I’m pretty sure just means firing you?

But this isn’t really a game “about” cops-and-robbers, in its own self-conceptualization. All the police stuff is stuff that bled through like a stain through a shirt. There’s another authority that is more important to Carmen Sandiego, and that’s the authority of fixed truth. “Urchins” will amusingly talk about their quote-unquote “reliable sources” like seasoned journalists, but all sources in and beside the game are utterly reliable. You’re solving crimes in a world where nobody ever lies, or is mistaken, or bends the truth to their benefit. Another simplification, of course. Still, it stands: Where In The World Of Carmen Sandiego wants to teach the player to ask questions and be inquisitive, not just rote memorization of geographical facts like you might think, which is good pedagogy, but there’s a hard limit on how far it takes that. Once you get your answer, you don’t question it. It’s essentially unscientific. It presents all information as trustworthy, with The World Almanac as an ultimate authority, rather than approximating a fraction of the discernment needed to create an encyclopedia.

You’re less a detective than a tourist-by-proxy. All the members of VILE go globe-trotting to places that catch their fancy, and their villainy gives you the righteous excuse to do the same, just one step behind. Your character is an empty careerist shell hunting down the people who are doing the actual living, the people who have any particularities at all, and closely copying their every move, for the sake of stamping out such klepto-wanderlust. Surely not for vicarious purposes, to get your own kicks.

Everywhere you go is accompanied by a sort of postcard, like the above. We’re reaching the point now where computer game graphics can just be called “pretty” full-stop. These pictures urge you to luxuriate in the beauty of the world, its architecture and natural vistas. (Caring nothing at all about the people there.) They are there to induce a hunger for splendor, like the hunger for knowledge, to get you intrigued in learning, maybe. But it’s a necessarily reduced world, a flattened world of snapshots and Mad Libs, populated by automatons. Before the gaze of Interpol, states are like quirky curiosities, collections of fun facts. The world is your oyster. You can go to Communist China or Russia circa 1985 like it’s no big deal. There’s a noticeable preoccupation with national industries (like Mexico’s coffee production) that further identifies Interpol’s point of view with that of mid-80s globalizing capitalism’s interests and aspirations, especially around Glasnost, which we might as well call imperialism.

Or maybe they want to put the world on the computer, at any user’s fingertips. Maybe this is tenuous, but I think Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego’s aspirations here foreshadows the World Wide Web [1989-2021]. This is also in part because there’s a techno-utopian rhetoric and point-of-view to the field of computing that, these days when every industry is a tech industry, defines the boundaries of the tech industry from the 1960s to this day, and Carmen Sandiego too springs from this ideology. Like (again) Ultima 4, the impetus to create this game come from an idea that computers (and art) can improve people and in doing so improve the world.

The Prisoner [1980] was made by Edu-Ware, an edutainment games company, and it’s clear that Carmen Sandiego’s ideologically-careless rigidity is exactly what they most feared computerized education would do. Thankfully, even in our present-day world where classes are run over internet video conference and Bill Gates personally dictates education policy in many parts of the world, I don’t think there’s any serious stab at the whole “replace schools with computers” thing posited by some frankly kinda goofy science-fiction. School is already a technology and a platform in the broad meaning of those words, and computers these days mainly supplement it, slotting into its multimedia edifice in the same way that the mediums of books and lectures do. But computers’ strengths in education mainly it turns out are instead in either sideways faciliatory moves, like putting encyclopedias or student essays online where anyone can edit or annotate them, or in games’ close cousin the simulation getting used as a demonstrative, allowing pupils to poke at relationships that are harder to observe and less clean-cut in reality, like gene science or physics, which present a situation and have students draw conclusions from it. Not that these attempts nor schooling itself cannot be problematized, cannot have imperialist bleed-through… but I’m already getting way ahead of the story on a tangent, here.


Special thanks to Manu “Schazer” S., a teacher pal of mine, for chatting about computers in the classroom. The Oregon Trail [1985] is also edutainment, and it’s a better game even as it’s worse education, but I already said all I had to say about it when I covered The Oregon Trail [1971], and I stand by that post even though it was my third ever and I think its prose is pretty sloppy in places even from only one year later’s look back.

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