Game Dev

Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego (1997) review

Platform: Windows 3.1x, Windows 95, Power Macintosh

Genre: Educational, Point-and-Click Adventure

Developer: Brøderbund

Designers and Writers: Jim Everson, Matt Fishbach, and Todd Kerpelman

Overview

Chronoskimmer activated. History awaits!”- Carmen Sandiego

Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? is an educational point-and-click adventure game for children ages 9 and up. Carmen Sandiego and her V.I.L.E. henchmen break into ACME Time Net and steal the ACME Chronoskimmer, a device that will allow her and her henchmen to travel through time and swipe history’s greatest treasures!

The chief of ACME reaches out to the player, a rookie time pilot, and calls upon them to save the day by upholding history so it does not get “thrown out of whack!” In order to follow Carmen, the player must follow the time tunnels that are unintentionally left behind by whoever handles the Chronoskimmer. Although The Chief is able to speak to the player in the time tunnels, she cannot communicate once the player is in the past. To mitigate this and assure the player is successful in their mission, she sends ACME Good Guides to assist the player.

Each case is a time period in history where the player helps a specific leader or influential person of that era. The player meets historical figures such as Queen Hatshepsut, Murasaki Shikibu, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and Yuri Gagarin! After putting history back together, the player tracks Carmen Sandiego down and uncovers her real motivations behind Project History Sweep.

It’s take off time, time pilot!”- The Chief

Characters

  • Carmen Sandiego – The ultimate adversary for the player, and ACME Detective Agency; Carmen is a smooth Latina American woman, and the leader of V.I.L.E., ACME’s rival organization. Once a former detective for ACME, Carmen found outsmarting and bamboozling the agency far more satisfying than working for there, and is now the world’s most notorious thief. Unlike many of her minions, she indulges in lawlessness for reasons far more complicated than the player can understand.
  • The Chief – The director of ACME; The Chief is portrayed as a resolute African-American women who heralds the player, and sets the adventure in motion. The Chief appears in the time tunnel before every case to provide some wise words as well as assigning a trusty Good Guide to accompany the player, and after every case to salute them on their success in dealing with any particular V.I.L.E. henchman.
  • ACME Good Guides – Good Guides consist of some of the brightest minds at ACME Detective Agency. The Good Guide will always have the knowledge and expertise that corresponds with the time period the player is visiting.
  1. Ann Tickwittee– One of the player’s aides; Ann is a curious Asian American archaeologist, and often makes proper use of ACME equipment and tools to finish up cases. She holds a degree in “Ancient Cities and Other Dusty Stuff”from ACME Institute of Carmenology. She accompanies the player on Case 1 (Queen Hatshepsut), Case 7 (Mansa Musa), Case 9 (Pachacuti), and Case 12 (Montezuma).
  2. Ivan Idea– One of the player’s aides; Ivan is a white teenage inventor extraordinaire. In fact, he invented the Chronoskimmer, the device Carmen stole! Ivan uses a lot of slang in his vocabulary, which is a hint to his age, but contradicts his geniusness. He uses his own inventions to help the player catch thieves in Case 2 (Julius Caesar), Case 8 (Johannes Gutenberg), Case 17 (Thomas Edison), and Case 18 (Yuri Gagarin).
  3. Rock Solid– One of the player’s aides; Rock is a burly white man with a logger’s aesthetic and is an excellent explorer, but has a sweet spot for animals. He accompanies the player on Case 3 (Leif Erickson), Case 6 (Kublai Khan, Marco Polo), Case 10 (Christopher Columbus, Queen Isabella), and Case 15 (Lewis, Clark, and Sacajawea).
  4. Renee Santz– One of the player’s aides; Renee is an African artist, and the daughter of a musician and architect. It is a known fact that she perfectly copied the Mona Lisa from crayon as a child, and now her work can be found in museums around the world. She also leads the ACME orchestra. Renee accompanies the player on Case 4 (Murasaki Shikibu), Case 11 (Leonardo Da Vinci), Case 13 (William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I), and Case 16 (Ludwig van Beethoven).
  5. Polly Tix– One of the player’s aides; Polly is a white and fiery redhead who, although too young to vote, she is adept at politics. She was voted by her high school class as “Most likely to run a country… Any country!” She accompanies the player on Case 5 (William the Conqueror) and Case 14 (Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin).
  • Select Historical Figures – Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? contains 18 cases and many different historical figures that the player interacts with. Described below are the characters from select cases as they relate to this paper.
  1. Murasaki Shikibu– Historical figure; Lady Murasaki lived near the end of Heian era in classical Japan. She is the first documented novelist and started writing The Tale of Genji shortly after her husband died during her time as Empress Shoshi’s lady-in-waiting. Beyond her factual existence, she gives young players a palpable example of grieving. She is the main point of contact in Case 4.
  2. Sacajawea– Historical figure; Sacajawea was a Shoshone woman who helped explorers Lewis and Clark on their expedition to discover the Western United States. Her role in Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? is to introduce the player to a new way of communication. She is a secondary point of contact in Case 15.
  3. William the Conqueror– Historical figure; William was the first Norman king of England. He established an order in England when he became king, and also enforced the medieval feudal system. His Doomsday Book contains information about land and it’s owners. He was also quite violent, but was still presented in Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? in an appropriate way. He is the main point of contact in Case 5.

Breakdown

The past is always present” – Ann Tickwittee

The 1990’s featured an influx of edutainment titles as family computers made their way into every home. Educational games became a desired product for the general public, not just a learning tool to be used during free time in the school library. Many of these games featured one-dimensional characters as aliens, robots, and mad scientists, while also being very obvious about what they were teaching, most often math or vocabulary. While many of these games taught the same skills with different versions of the same characters, Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? stands out by giving young players an impactful role in history in order to create powerful associations with historic facts and figures, all the while featuring a diverse cast of palpable human characters.

The two most important characters in Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? are Carmen Sandiego and The Chief. While Carmen and The Chief are both authoritative women of color who run their own enterprises and have each earned respect in their own right, they are diametrically-opposed in their goals. The Chief encourages the player and helps them learn history, while Carmen simply enjoys creating chaos. Considering that Carmen was given a home at ACME by The Chief when she was young, the makeshift mother-daughter relationship between these two women creates an interesting allegory for the player; we have all been young children who fought with our parents. Young players are just beginning to cross the threshhold into teenagehood and their relationships with everyone in their lives is starting to changes, especially their relationship with their parents.

The Chief entrusts the player with an official role in history by giving them a position within the good-guy association known as ACME Time Net. The player’s duty is enforced from the start- before the player even hits “Play Game,” they sign up on the ACME Roster to become a time pilot. As the player solves each increasingly difficult case, they are promoted through the ranks and finally become a Time Sleuth. This sort of progression system does more than expand the ACME time pilot fantasy; a simple promotion, even if only in title, gives young players immense satisfaction so they will never want to click “No” when The Chief asks if they are ready for another mission. As a mentor, The Chief uses uplifting language when speaking, asks questions, and checks in with the players every mission. She feels like a mother or a teacher. These qualities make it impossible to not respect her, therefore, the player feels a responsibility to follow her direction. Mechanically, The Chief acts as a checkpoint for the player’s progress which fits seamlessly with time pilot advancement.

While 90’s media had an increased focus on racial diversity, most of the media tokenized the characters of color and additionally fetishized women. Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? does exactly the opposite. Not only are the women of color dressed in uniforms, but they are also shown to be intelligent and capable, as opposed to animalistic, gossipy, or submissive. The elegant mix of diverse characters allows young children of any background to feel like they fit in, which makes them more engaged and ready to learn as edutainment titles should. While there is a lot of variety among the Good Guides characterization, the most memorable Good Guide is Ann Tickwittee. As a child, I was interested in her mature and relaxed quality, and I always felt that she had the most kind and smart advice when it came to helping me solve cases. As an adult, I understand that an Asian woman with a thorough personality like hers in media is important representation for children. There are many exotifying tropes of Asian women, but Ann does not follow any of them. She is mature, relaxed, astute, and she dresses in clothing that is comfortable for her job as an archeologist. These kinds of well-rounded characters make Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? educational on a social level as well as academic. Children, especially the elementary and junior high students, are considerably more socially impressionable than adults. Characters of color in media that counter stereotypes and are not tokenized give children exposure to better racial representation, and the opportunity to realize when a character is being stereotyped so they can disagree.

Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? also portrays genuine tones in each featured historical figure while also communicating the actions that the player needs to take. Satisfying interactions with historical figures allows children with different styles of learning to actually remember what they are taught. This is more evident when it comes to lesser known individuals. In one mission, the player must find Murasaki Shikibu’s first chapter of The Tale of Genji. The first thing we hear Shikibu say is, “My heart drifts aimlessly like the hours on a moonless night. I feel more sadness than I have for many seasons.” When the player asks what’s wrong, Shikibu responds, “My spirits flutter aimlessly like the last leaves of autumn.” Again, the player not only hears how sad she is, but Shikibu also hinted about seasons for the second time. The player can also ask Shikibu to read some of her poems about seasons, and in this pile of poems, they will find the first third of a Carmen note. Shikibu’s poems not only depict what she may have been like while she was writing The Tale of Genji, but they also hint that seasons may be the key to solving this case. Another mission that actively engages players with accurate characters is Case 15: the exploration of the Wild West with Sacajawea. When asking for advice on how to safely travel through the Rockies, Sacajawea responds with hand motions that simulate Native American sign language for specific animals. When speaking to Native Americans in the mountains, the usual conversation text is replaced with images of the hand motions, forcing the player to use Native American sign language to ask how to avoid dangerous creatures to catch up with Carmen’s thief. Young players are able to learn about different cultures because of the comprehensive portrayal of every historical figure. Additionally, since players had to actively engage with particular societies to solve the case, they are more likely to remember cultural details.

Each case has unique narratives that are not connected to each other, but they all support the overall storyline of foiling Carmen’s plans. Halfway through the game, the plot takes a turn, which also provides an opportunity to revisit Carmen’s character while renewing the player’s motivation of playing the game. At this point, all of Carmen’s minions have been captured and are being held in the ACME cells. Carmen uses the time-travelling Chronoskimmer to break her minions out, sending them to all sorts of time periods from the Incan Empire in the 1460’s to 1960’s in the U.S.S.R. with Yuri Gagarin to continue their “history hijinks.” Once again, this shows that Carmen is a chaotic character, but a reliable business executive who values her employees. Even though the player may have foiled her plans the first time, they cannot do it again! However, the idea of having to go after the same bad guys again is an annoyance for the player, as they feel like they have to start all over. Fortunately, The Chief pops in and gets the player reinspired by saying, “It’s good thing you’re on the job.” This renews the player’s sense of urgency, and they feel determined to recapture Carmen’s henchmen.

Carmen Sandiego’s character continues to be a complex one, which is unique for a female Latina character in 90’s media. In the last case, Carmen stashes the Chronoskimmer and gives the player a chance to find it. Once the player finds it, they seem to have an advantage over Carmen, so the big question is: Why did Carmen give the device back? She mentions “Project History Sweep”, which seems to involve chasing her through time periods the player has already been through, but they learn this is simply a distraction. Mechanically, chasing Carmen through time in an nonsequential fashion is meant to quiz the player to make sure historical facts have stuck with them, and narratively it provides a reminder of how far the player has come, along with even more evidence of Carmen’s chaotic behavior. While questioning the historical figures about Carmen doesn’t seem to add a lot to the game and gets very repetitive, they will mention something about her character, which is summarizes her personality as diplomatic, formidable, and beautiful. Most of them are surprised to learn she is a thief. Eventually, the player heads back to present day ACME Time Net headquarters where Carmen is stealing her personal file from the archives, and players realize the purpose of Project History Sweep: Carmen wants to erase her own history. After she is captured by the Good Guides, The Chief explains that Carmen used to be the most successful ACME agent, but catching crooks was too easy for her. The Chief figures Carmen’s overall goal was obliterating her past, and, from earlier analysis, her relationship with The Chief. Players can only guess as to why Carmen would want to destroy evidence of herself from ACME. This provides open-ended motivations which add to her complexity and mystery, further proving that she is not a token Latina villain.

You may have prevented me from erasing my own embarrassing ACME history, but rest assured, given time, you won’t hold on to Carmen Sandiego for long!”- Carmen Sandiego

Strongest Element

The strongest element of Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? is the characterization of Carmen Sandiego herself. Although she is one of the most unforgettable villains from the 90’s, Carmen also has the ability to resonate very strongly with young Latinas. In media, the “Spicy Latina” has been a constant archetype, no matter the decade. Carmen outright defies this. She grew up in an orphanage with no record of her parents, was taken in by The Chief, excelled at being an agent for ACME, which eventually led her to start her own corporation and be satisfied with her career path. Along with her conservative fashion sense, she also runs her own corporation of loyal henchmen, which puts her in a position of power. Even though she is a thief, she is revered as a role model because she is not a scantily clad, and has a career that does not involve a singer, model, maid, devoted housewife, or any position where she could be seen as only existing for the benefit of others. In short, Carmen Sandiego is “a symbol of cultural rebellion” for young Latinas.

Get ready for a wild ride my friends”- Carmen Sandiego

Unsuccessful Element

Diversity throughout Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? is successful in many areas, but there is one great exception; The game lacks the stories of historical female figures in comparison to historical male figures, especially in the second half of the game’s timeline. The only women who are primary contacts for the player are Queen Hatshepsut and Murasaki Shikibu out of 18 total historical cases. Queen Isabella, Mona Lisa, Queen Elizabeth I, and Sacajawea are all secondary in their stories as told in Where in TIme is Carmen Sandiego?. While the designers were as truthful as they could be to history, there are many historical women who also made huge impacts on the world around them. Carmen would love to interrupt the political adventures of Joan of Arc, Jeanette Rankin, or Margaret Thatcher, and steal the research of Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, or Rita Levi-Montalcini. These are fresh faces that elementary history lessons often gloss over. Additionally, Queen Isabella and Queen Elizabeth I could have been made the heroes of their historical stories. After all, it was by their royal power that Columbus and Shakespeare were able to flourish in their times. Including female politicians and women in STEM in the later areas of historical storytelling is of the utmost importance when young girls are half of the intended audience.

Highlight

I first played Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? almost 15 years ago and the historical narrative combined with the role of being an ACME time pilot helped me retain a lot of elementary knowledge. The most prominent way players learned knowledge was through supporting statements from the Good Guides, and there is one quote that I have always remembered very clearly: “Y’know, historical figures aren’t always angels.” Polly Tix says this in response to William the Conqueror’s violent campaigns. Polly was the first person to tell me I could disagree with how a leader went about accomplishing their goals, which was paradoxical to everything I had ever thought. I started to think about politics in a different way from then on, unafraid to analyze and challenge the world around me. Even though this affected me on a personal level, I believe this important recognition of William’s violent tactics was a very appropriate way to disclose tragic historical events without ignoring them, which a lot of fundamental Euro-centric history lessons tend to do.

Critical Reception

Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? was popularly received by educators, parents, and, of course, it’s target audience, children. In most articles, the game is referred to as “edutainment” to highlight its educational quality as well as fun. FamilyPC recommends the game and gave scores in the 90’s for Fun, Easy to Use, Replay, and Education based on a focus group of 66 testers who “enjoyed the thrill of the hunt and the knowledge they picked up along the way”. They concluded that kids found it a helpful tool as they were learning some of the same things in school, and teachers were hopeful that it would appeal to children who otherwise have no interest in history. Games Domain Review and New Strait Times highlight how the characters are funny and upbeat while also providing children the opportunity to learn while exploring the past and making sense of Carmen’s clues. New Strait Timesalso recommends players take their time and not rush through the experience because “the high level of interactivity makes these two disks very engaging” because of all the thought-provoking information. There is also appeal of the game being charming for all genders in a time where many games were clearly very targeted (boys played violent and sexual titles and girls played dress-up games), and “portraying strong, intelligent women characters” such as The Chief as an African-American and Carmen as a Latina.

The game was awarded the “Computer Edutainment Game of the Year” in the Interactive Achievement Awards (now known as the D.I.C.E. awards) from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences and the award for “Best Curriculum Software for Middle Schools” in the Thirteenth Annual Software Publishers Association (SPA) CODiE Awards in 1998.

Lessons

  • Give young players enough agency to make relevant choices – Although the player can’t choose where to go, they can choose what to ask historical figures. This allows young players a chance to figure out what is important (in this case, what’s important to historical figures), and they are not blindly told information when they aren’t ready to hear it. Children are able to process information at their own pace.
  • Create diverse and relatable characters for children to learn from – Every character in Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? has a unique background, which helps define their identity as it relates to ACME Detective Agency and their role in the game world, allowing the characters to be intricately designed with a purpose. The Chief is first the leader of ACME, and it is important that she is represented as an African-American woman. Carmen Sandiego is first the leader of V.I.L.E, and it is important that she is represented as a Latina woman. The Good Guides all have unique personalities along with their careers, and do not fall into stereotypes based on their race and gender. As adults, we may forget how wonderful it was to learn from characters we could relate to, and we design for what we think children want, however, characters do not need to be all silly and carefree in order capture a child’s interest. In fact, we should try our best to provide mature and complex characters in educational games so children gain more than fundamental academic knowledge.
  • There is always an appropriate approach to complex subjects with children – Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? included a range of warlords and violent societies, yet was able to mention their violent history without being explicit. It is very important that violent histories are not ignored, even at the fundamental level. By making use of the knowledgable Good Guides and mature dialogue, the game was able to mention the faults of past leaders without making the actions sound too severe for the target audience.

Summation

Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? deserves analysis because it is timeless. It was published almost 20 years ago, and the only thing that has aged is the graphics. In comparison to more modern educational games, it still reigns supreme because it engages young players in a relatable way. Children may love talking aliens and robots, but nothing compares to learning from diverse characters all young players can relate to. While the game is meant to teach the fundamentals of history, children are also influenced by the social facets of the world. This particular aspect allows the game to be exceptionally memorable, and fondly so, for 90’s kids.

Footnotes & Sources

1. All quotes are taken directly from character dialogue in Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? (1997), unless otherwise noted.

2. Although the terms are not simply interchangeable, Carmen Sandiego is often referred to as both Hispanic and Latina. I have chosen to refer to her as Latina because I want to highlight her cultural heritage as well as the arguable societal impact she has had on young Latin-American girls specifically.

3. This origin story for Carmen Sandiego began with Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? (1997) and was thereafter maintained for most of the series.

4. Based on Renee Santz’s character design in Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (1996). In Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? (1997), Renee Santz’s race and outfit is slightly altered, presumably to be more inclusive.

5. Martel, Frances. “Who In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? CEO, Intellectual, & America’s Most Positive Latina Role Model.” The Mary Sue. 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.

6. “Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?” Rev. of Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? FamilyPC Apr. 1998: http://archive.org/web/. Web. Nov. 2015.

7. Hollingshead, Anise. “Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?” Rev. of Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? Games Domain Review Apr. 1999: http://archive.org/web/. Web. Nov. 2015.

8. Leon, Debbie Marie. “In Hot Pursuit of Carmen through Time.” Rev. of Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? New Straits Times [Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia] 26 Apr. 1999, Computimes sec.: 38. Print.

9. Hocks, Mary E. “Feminist Interventions in Electronic Environments.”Computers and Composition 16.1 (1999): 107-19. Print.

10. “1998 Interactive Achievement Awards.” Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. Web.

11. The Software Publishing Association. Software Industry Unites in Celebration for 1998 Codie Awards. What’s New – The 1998 SPA CODiE Awards for Excellence in Software. SuperKids Educational Software Review, 23 Mar. 1998. Web.

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