Sisters in Mystery: An Ode to the Nancy Drew PC Games

Classic games like the Nancy Drew series are nostalgia fuel from gamers' pasts.

Sisters in Mystery: An Ode to the Nancy Drew PC Games
Photo by Lorenzo Herrera / Unsplash.

Our family computer was in our basement; it was a stocky desktop with a box monitor and Microsoft 2000 loaded onto it, surrounded by the slightly teetering towers of bins we'd yet to unpack on our move into our new home. It was a state-of-the-art setup in the then-early 2000s, and it was where I spent many a dark night carefully navigating the corridors of a darkened castle in search of clues.

Nancy Drew was not the heroine I expected to love. Her books had never interested me, and the wider reach of her cultural impact was more muted than, say, that of Sherlock Holmes. I rarely heard her mentioned outside of an occasional recommendation by a well-meaning librarian.

As a child, I spent my reading time immersed in more visceral tales of horror, mostly the notoriously terrifying Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. My late nights staying up leafing through each volume and searing the stories and macabre illustrations into my tiny brain were also the same ones I spent wholly unable to sleep, emerging from my room the next morning red-eyed and exhausted. It got to the point that my mother had to gently nudge me away from the books and steer me towards something that would fill in for my love of the supernatural while also letting me sleep at night.

Enter Nancy Drew.

Scene from the first Nancy Drew PC game, Secrets Can Kill (1998). Source: Adventure Gamer.

Having evolved beyond the likes of PC classics such as Freddie Fish, Pajama Sam, and Putt-Putt my mother wisely deduced that a marriage between these point-and-click adventures and mystery-solving would work wonders for my active imagination. As a big fan of mystery novels herself, it was a genre bound for love in our household anyway, cultivated and collected in the various shelves of novels my mother requisitioned from the bookstore and that, in moments of curiosity, I would sometimes explore.

Even to this day, thousands of gaming hours later, I always feel a halcyon love for the Nancy Drew series of games that sits in my memory like a warm cup of tea. There were very few games that encapsulated its particular brand of cozy and quaint mystery-solving. While I was still busying myself with more monumental titles such as Jak and Daxter and Spyro, the Nancy Drew games always offered a refuge made all the better by their calm, novel-like pacing and an endearingly lower-budget animation style. It encouraged me to talk to the people in-game as much as I could, to be either blunt or controlled in my questions, and to occasionally employ the wiles of playful gossip to get a confession. There was a deep focus on puzzles and deductive reasoning. It was something that not many other games I owned had as a factor of their gameplay, and there was a reason for that.

"When we first started in the industry, we looked around and saw that there were not many games made for girls. Everyone we talked to said that girls are computer-phobic and don’t play games, but we knew they were wrong. To drive our point home, we decided to name our company Her Interactive, because we wanted girls to interact with technology and games."
Jessica Chiang, Her Interactive Marketing Producer

Back in the early 2000s video gaming was undergoing a surge of growth in the market of teens and kids, but the marketing was by and large aimed at a male audience. I still remember how excited I was about Pokemon Crystal's choice to play as a female protagonist and how I adored playing as Peach whenever I had the chance. This wasn't due to the fact that I was actively upset about playing as Jak or Tidus or any other male protagonist (quite the contrary), just that in a game like Pokemon Crystal or Nancy Drew I now had something that was specifically and unabashedly for me, something that wasn't just the go-to alternative that Barbie had become.

The deep bond between Nancy, George, and Bess was holistic and compelling, and the relationship that Nancy had with longtime boyfriend Ned Nickerson was lacking the typical drama I had always witnessed in popular media as being endemic to a romantic relationship. It was refreshing and realistic and kind. The games focused on mystery-solving, but they also provided great role models that were foundational to me and countless other young women.

It could be said that Nancy Drew, more than sparking my love of video games, sparked a love of research and a passion for history and the ethos behind video game creation, more so than many other games I'd played. In Nancy Drew, I felt like I was catching a glimpse of the world's real, tangible mysteries while getting a lesson in architecture or physics, or linguistics that felt simplified but still curated for me. It was the simple design aspect and the thoughtful brevity of the narrative that felt achievable like I too could create something like this.

Scene from Nancy Drew: The Haunted Carousel. Source: YouTube.

Each new entry felt innovative and purposefully educational without being didactic. While the more ghostly tales often sold better and are often remembered more fondly, there was always something for everyone. The Nancy Drew games struck a good balance between drama and mystery, between scares and story, all the while creating a space for fans to come together and bond over a new or rediscovered love of the series and its storied history. After all, the first Nancy Drew novel was published all the way back in 1930. Since then, many takes on the series have seen new iterations, including a movie, television show, and comic. But it's in the games that many fans found their footing in the world of Nancy Drew, and her interpretation by the wonderful voice actress Lina Minella is part of the reason people so fondly remember each adventure.

The games themselves are relatively short-lived and have replay value only in how compelling you find the story (and, eventually, how nostalgic it is to you) and if there are any puzzles or mini-games that catch your fancy. I also remember the games so fondly because of the time I spent with a good childhood friend playing them. We would have long sessions of sitting at the computer together in our early teenage years, balanced on the edge of our chairs, sussing out potential culprits and gasping at each shocking twist, revelation, and fatal error. As Nancy cherished her friends and listened to their troubles and advice, I knew I wanted to be the same sort of person.

And yet, as with all things of childhood, I had to leave the games behind once I went off to college. It wasn't until my second year there that I picked up the most recent entry at the time, having bonded with another good friend in my dorm who had also played the games growing up. We decided to play together, sitting in one of our rooms huddled in front of the laptop as if we were children again, perched in tense suspense as to where the mystery might lead us next. To this day we still talk about the games and how much fun we had playing them before we'd even known each other, and how they brought us together as young adults.

Scene from Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion. Source: Planetozkids.

Her Interactive, having since undergone a radical series of layoffs in 2015, has become something of a mystery itself. Their last addition to the Nancy Drew series was Midnight in Salem, released in 2019 after a long hiatus. There are no clues to follow that might lead us to another new game. One might think that the Nancy Drew series of games as point-and-click style adventures are surely on their way out if they haven't been put out to pasture already, but they've remained a solid cult classic on the internet.

Fandom writer Lauren Badillo Milici chronicles this in her article Origin Story: The 'Nancy Drew' PC Games, discussing the game's resurgence in popularity during the pandemic and how many fans still find their home in one of the many Nancy Drew-dedicated communities across the web. Playing through one of my favorites such as Treasure in a Royal Tower is something I've wanted to do for some time now. Thankfully they're all available on Steam, so memories are but a click away. There are nights often now when all I want is to sit down with a game that, like a good book, reminds me of times spent with friends and gives me permission to hold my past a little closer to heart. And in playing Nancy Drew, I know I'll always find that.


Sign in or become a SUPERJUMP member to join the conversation.