Origin Story: The ‘Nancy Drew’ PC Games

Lauren Badillo Milici
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming

Even if you’ve never read the books or seen any of the screen adaptations, chances are you’ve heard the name Nancy Drew. The strawberry blonde sleuth made her fiction debut in 1930, initially invented as a female counterpart to the crime-solving Hardy Boys. As of 2021, the ongoing series, authored by a collective of ghostwriters under the name Carolyn Keene, has sold over 80 million copies, in addition to spawning six films and three television shows, cementing Nancy Drew as a cultural icon.

However, there’s a chance you’ve never heard of the point-and-click adventure game CD-ROM series that put the player in Nancy’s shoes, or the mid-2000s made-for-mobile and Nintendo Wii installments. Although advertised as fun and educational games for young girls, the series bordered on horror with each installment having its own creepy, almost too-quiet score and the spectre of death looming over the player as any sudden wrong move could result in a “fatal error.”  After the first installment was released in 1998, the award-winning series spawned over 30 games and amassed a dedicated fanbase. In 2019, the franchise was put on an unofficial hiatus, leaving fans to wonder when—or if—a new installment would finally surface.

HeR Interactive

Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill (1998)

In 1995, American Laser Games (then the leading laserdisc-based arcade game company in the industry) launched HeR Interactive with the intention of making video games for a female audience—despite the general belief that there was no market for such games. After the successful release of McKenzie & Co., a point-and-click adventure game for the PC that centered on a group of friends trying to find a prom date, HeR Interactive released Secrets Can Kill.

The 1998 point-and-click mystery starred a college-aged Nancy Drew posing undercover as a local high school student in order to solve a murder. The game featured Nancy as an unseen player character (voiced by actress Lani Minella), an old-timey haunted house aesthetic, and a variety of “fatal errors” the player can make that result in the death of Nancy and the characters around her. The game, and all games except for 2001’s Message in a Haunted Mansion, allowed the player to choose from three difficulty modes: Junior Detective, Senior Detective, and Master Detective.

In 1999, HeR Interactive absorbed American Laser Games and changed their slogan to “For Girls Who Aren’t Afraid of a Mouse.” In 2001, the company changed the packaging from “For Adventurous Girls” to “For Adventure Seekers” as the franchise became popular among boys and girls alike. Their successful formula of putting out two games a year with Lani Minella as Nancy would remain an unchanging constant throughout the franchise until 2015, when a change in CEO and staff would bring the games to a momentary halt.

Her Downfall

Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem (2019)

In 2014, Penny Milliken, a former Disney marketing director, became the new CEO of HeR Interactive. Not long after, Lani Minella was abruptly let go. The fans, who call themselves the “Clue Crew,” were devastated, and numerous petitions were made. The last game Minella would lend her voice to was 2015’s Sea of Darkness. As part of an initiative to revamp the company, HeR Interactive decided it was time to find a Seattle-based voice actress that sounded much younger. Minella herself was disappointed, telling Kotaku that she never realized what a fan base she had until she started reading the forums and seeing the reactions to her being let go. Although no representatives have given a clear statement on why they suddenly decided to head into this new direction, Minella has her own theories, believing that the company wanted to attract an audience of new, younger fans in hopes of making a successful pivot from PC to mobile.

HeR Interactive had previously tried making games for the Game Boy Advance (Message in a Haunted Mansion) and Nintendo Wii (The White Wolf of Icicle Creek), while also releasing a mobile port of 2004’s The Secret of Shadow Ranch. Each game had been a critical and successful failure, with HeR Interactive admitting that the latter didn’t even make back its costs. And with the company having to pay royalties to Simon & Schuster for each game (which the publisher does not promote), the commercial failures hit that much harder. Add the fact that physical sales of PC games were no longer a viable source of revenue for the company, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

In March of 2015, HeR Interactive laid off half of their staff in order to cut costs. Later that year, the company announced it was moving to the Unity engine, leaving its self-developed proprietary engine behind, and that a new Nancy Drew game, Midnight in Salem, would be out in 2016. After the announcement, mentions of the game disappeared from the company’s social media. The two-game-a-year format was over; fans waited nearly four-and-a-half years for the next installment. Midnight in Salem was released in 2019 to mixed reviews, with fans noticing several bugs and crashes during gameplay. Since then, all of the existing Nancy Drew games have been added to Steam, and the company has released very little information about the next installment.

Detecting Danger

While fans of Nancy Drew were shocked at the sudden news of her death in 2020, the video game series was killing her off left and right long before the comic book world made it official. Not every game is loosely based on a book in the series, but each game does follow the same format: The player, acting as Nancy, clicks around to pick up clues, solve puzzles, interview suspects in a virtual environment, and can die at any time. In each installment (beginning with 1998’s Secrets Can Kill), no matter the difficulty setting, the player learns right away that any sudden mistake can result in death. And because of its point-and-click nature, this makes the game that much more challenging.

The purpose of the  point-and-click adventure style of gameplay is to leave no stone unturned. Therefore, in the Nancy Drew world, everything is booby-trapped. In Message in a Haunted Mansion, unhooking the chandelier can lead to Nancy being crushed underneath it; exploring the well under the basement can result in a deadly fall. In Nancy Drew: The Final Scene, Nancy can get electrocuted while trying to open a gate; trying to raise a crate can result in a fatal blow to the head.

Some of the deaths are brutal: getting split in half by a swinging axe (Warnings at Waverly Academy), being staked to death by metal spikes after pulling a lever (The Captive Curse), or being buried alive by sand (Tomb of the Lost Queen). Something as simple as being caught snooping around by a suspect or letting the villain get away can also result in game over. Many suspects are easily set off by certain subjects in conversation, and will either refuse to speak to you or kick you out (even though in some instances the game gives you no other choice but to bring up said subjects). Neglecting basic safety, like refusing to wear a helmet or a lifejacket, can also result in game over. Picking too many under-ripe vegetables or being attacked by a hen while collecting her eggs (Shadow Ranch) are fatal mistakes as well. When these wrong moves are made, the screen turns black and a message pops up that simply says, “You have made a fatal error. Try again?” with “Yes” or “No” as an option. If the player chooses “Yes”, they are returned to where they were in the game as if nothing ever happened. Should they choose “No,” they are returned to Nancy’s desk.

Chemistry lessons in 'Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy' (2009)

In several of the games (such as Phantom of Venice, Secrets Can Kill: Remastered, Alibi in Ashes, Tomb of the Lost Queen, The Captive Curse, Shadow at the Water’s Edge, etc.) each fatal mistake is met with snarky “Good News” and “Bad News” before the Fatal Error screen appears. If you fall through the trapdoor in the dungeon in The Captive Curse, the good news is that “trap doors are awesome!” The bad news: “You know, you’re going to be down here for a while, so how about you just focus on the good news.” If you open the furnace without a shield and are set on fire, the good news is that you survived; the bad news is that you’re “just a bit…melty.” (Yet in Creature of Kapu Cave and Labyrinth of Lies, Nancy is surrounded by fire and lava and can walk around scot-free.)  In one rare instance, in Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake, dying results in a snarky PSA: “Hey, kids! Remember: After you’ve been knocked out, tied up, and left in a burning shed, be sure to put out the fire!” In another rare instance, in The Ghost of Thornton Hall, the player’s actions can result in the death of three other main characters.

Luckily for the player, some villains tend to brag or explain their motives and plans at length to Nancy rather than flat out attack or kill her. This gives the player enough time to either get away or solve the case. In Shadow at the Water’s Edge, the culprit decides to unknowingly allow Nancy to record them while they admit to being the one who sabotaged the ryokan. In The Captive Curse, Nancy has plenty of time to activate the trapdoor the villain is standing on, as they can’t seem to stop talking about how genius and unstoppable they are. Almost every game ends with a confrontation between Nancy and the villain, with the player having no other choice.

Some have criticized Nancy’s ability to die as being a useless mechanic, as it seems to only exist to add a sense of danger to each action the player makes. The dark, sarcastic humor in the good news/bad news element doesn’t quite match up with the game’s serious atmosphere. Even though the screen fades to black before any gore is shown, it feels especially dark to kill off the protagonist in a game meant for children ages 10 and up. Still, fans seem to enjoy this aspect of the game and have ranked their favorite ways to die on several forums.

Pandemic Resurgence

Though it could be attributed to the success of The CW’s Nancy Drew (which premiered its second season earlier this year),  Refinery29 attributed the video game franchise’s resurgence in popularity to the pandemic. A spokesperson for HeR Interactive told Refinery29 that the entire video game industry “grew significantly more” in 2020 and that the franchise had “solid sales.” Michael Gray, who posts playthroughs of the Nancy Drew series on his youtube channel Arglefumph, went from 11,000 views a day to 40,000 a day during the pandemic. Some fans downloaded the games through Steam, while others located their old CD-ROM copies. In the summer of 2020 (perhaps to take advantage of so many people trying their hand at baking during quarantine), Her Interactive launched a Nancy Drew Summer Cook-Off, in which fans baked their favorite dishes from the series.

Despite the firing of Lani Minella, the bugs in even the newest games, and the overall downfall of HeR Interactive, the Clue Crew has yet to fall out of love with the Nancy Drew video game series. I think it speaks to Nancy Drew as a character: after 91 years, the book series is still being reinvented, movies are still being made, and she’s still being referenced left and right on your favorite TV shows. She’s smart as a whip, nosy in all the right ways, and always catches the bad guys in the end; the video game series allows fans to be all of these things and more. R/NancyDrew is updated multiple times a day, with recent posts criticizing the problematic nature of some of the now-pulled installments, showing off their physical collection of French-dubbed games, and thanking the community for being so friendly and open-minded. Even with no word on the progress of the next installment, fans are far from giving up hope. HeR Interactive is more than aware of the dedication, and even though the releases have slowed down, I doubt they’ll cancel any forthcoming games. The interest is unwavering.  As one fan put it, “It’s a dumpster fire, but it’s our dumpster fire.”

Lauren Badillo Milici
Lauren Milici is a Jersey-born, Florida-raised poet and writer. She is the author of FINAL GIRL from Big Lucks Books. When she isn’t crafting sad poems about sex, she’s either writing or shouting into the void about film, TV, and all things pop culture.