Death is often a critical component of video games. Some use death as a subject matter to tell poignant stories about grief and letting go, while others rely on player death as a mechanic. In the case of the Nancy Drew video games, the main character's ability to die is used to add a tinge of danger to some of her actions. Yet the way death works in Nancy Drew games feels jarring, discouraging important actions and shifting the tone in a very unexpected way.
HeR Interactive's Nancy Drew games will often feature multiple ways for the main character to die. Most titles incorporate some sort of timing puzzle, usually near the game's climax, and failure to catch the villain or make it to the surface in time will lead to Nancy's death. Oftentimes, her death is used as a way to dissuade players from brute-forcing puzzles -- too many wrong attempts to open a safe or find the right pattern means death, encouraging players to solve the puzzle and find the one right code.
Death in a Nancy Drew game isn't permanent. As with many modern games, players can save their progress at will, so picking the game up at any point before a death is as easy as reloading a save. But these games make it even easier -- after death, players are given an immediate opportunity to try again, taking them back to the moment before their death-inducing action and effectively undoing the effects and emotional impact of her death. This second chance creates a new save and gives players a chance not to make the same mistake twice.
This is important, because many deaths in the Nancy Drew games are completely unforeseeable mistakes. The game encourages exploration of environments, but some environments have traps set up to kill the player at first glance. Unhooking a chandelier, stepping on the wrong floorboard or climbing the wrong tree lead to inevitable death. Unfortunately, however, many of these actions are necessary -- the right tree does have to be climbed -- so the game weirdly punishes the correct type of experimentation
Not only does dying discourage a key component of the gameplay, but it also feels wrong for Nancy's story. At the heart of the Nancy Drew games are mysteries that rarely involve murder. More often than not, the crimes that must be solved are missing antiquities or arson and involve no loss of life whatsoever. The death of the main character during the investigation of these mysteries feels even more out of place, adding the macabre idea of player death into stories where such notions are otherwise absent.
Dying in Nancy Drew games is often unexpected and always little more than a slight inconvenience. With little impact, it feels like a strange nod toward more traditional gaming mechanics yet out of place in the teen detective stories. Despite the tonal mismatch, however, Nancy's many deaths don't detract from the games' overall experience. Players prepared to chance everything on an errant click will still find the Nancy Drew games compelling -- if potentially fatal.
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