Chinatown Detective Agency is Carmen Sandiego recreating I Always Wanted – IGN

Before I ever owned a gaming console or settled into the identity of a gamer, I still played games. Specific teaching game on a clumsy Packard Bell like Reader Rabbit, Cluefinders and one of my favorites, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

This was before our household had internet, or even before internet gaming guides were one thing. So when a witness in the game told me, a nine-year-old child, “He asked if I wanted to come because he had reservations for two in Kisumu,” my options were limited to staring at a giant globe we had on it nearby mantle, flipping through a dictionary or encyclopedia or running to my mom to ask if she knew what it meant (a hit or miss strategy, depending on the clue). I always got a thrill out of this kind of investigation, and many of my earliest geography lessons came from trying to figure out where one of VILE’s worst villains had run into after deleting entire landmarks from the map.

When I opened the Chinatown Detective Agency for the first time last week, I did not expect to be transported back to the old Packard Bell and globe deduction nearly 30 years later, but there I was. The story takes place in Singapore in 2037 and follows the private investigator Amira Darma, while she investigates a number of mysteries both in the city and abroad. Each case leaves a trail of clues to follow, but many of them require further study outside the game and are designed specifically to be investigated online. For example, one of the earliest riddles gives you a cryptic quote and asks you to learn either the name of the book it came from or its author. You will not find anywhere in the game, but a quick Google search brings it up right away and lets you continue.

Chinatown Detective Agency’s inspirations are clearly painted all over, from the clumsy moving menus, to the research puzzles to the interface that makes you deduce where in the world you should buy a plane ticket for next time. Creative Director Mark Fillon immediately assures me that my intense experience of Carmen Sandiego nostalgia was conscious. Like me, he grew up on Carmen’s adventures, puzzling over a world map and encyclopedias for answers outside of fiction in the game, wondering what he was learning. But what’s different about the Chinatown Detective Agency is that it’s an entirely adult game. More of a “hard-boiled” detective story, as Fillon puts it.

“If I had to sum it up, it’s Carmen Sandiego for people who have grown up,” he says. “I felt that if we were to do this, it would tackle mature themes, topics that require real thinking, require real research.”

And they certainly do. Fillon says he wanted to make sure the puzzles weren’t too esoteric, but they cover a range of topics such as ancient languages, cryptography, history and more. And they get harder as you go. Fortunately, players who are stunned can always contact librarian Mei Ting in the game for enthusiastic help, either a vague hint or a flat solution.

It’s Carmen Sandiego for people who have grown up.

A minor wrinkle in Fillon’s plan to get players to do their own research turned out to be unintentionally the exact research tool he wanted the players to use. During my own review by the Chinatown Detective Agency, my Google search for answers almost instantly drew entire game guides to the top, simply giving all the answers away even in the article’s metadata, making the hunt for information far less rewarding than it would have been. I was forced to search more normal, historical search results. Fillon admits that the team probably should have anticipated this problem and planned it, but what has been done is done.

“We just did not know it would skew the algorithm that much,” he says. “And I suppose it’s a testament to how well received it is that people actually do it. But I know it does make it really hard for beginners who are really looking for material that can help them move on … I’m of the opinion that people who are immersed in that moment, in the mission, when they type it on their Google, they’d be forgiving and just look past and shoot over a lot of these reviews and look for real results, whether from Wikipedia or any reference material. “

It’s certainly easy enough to get immersed in the Singapore of Chinatown Detective Agency, not a small part because of the care Fillon and his team have put into creating it. Fillon tells me that they strived for authenticity in all parts of their adventure, including its voice acting, sound design, and visuals. However, some of these elements were a little harder than others to create, especially with a completely distant team during a pandemic. For example, art director Ricardo Juchem had never visited Singapore when he originally started working on the project. He eventually did, but in the meantime, Fillon would often send him pictures of places around town to inform about the game’s backgrounds. Juchem also used other, more imaginative ways to get grounded, including Google Street View and in one case fly a plane in Microsoft Flight Simulator to get a good angle on a particular location and take a screenshot to base his own environments.

It felt like if Singapore was at that level of disorder, you know the world has gone completely wrong.

Of course, the Chinatown Detective Agency in Singapore is not a modern Singapore. It will take place in 2037 – that is, the future, but not the distant future. Fillon says it was deliberate when he wanted to tell a futuristic story that was still understandable to the audience as a real, close to opportunity rather than something imaginative and distant. It’s our world, but it’s a version of our world where things never really get better.

“We imagined a world where the pandemic has just basically cost a lot of economic stagnation,” he says. “People are out of jobs. Governments are running out of funds. The Singapore you see in the Chinatown Detective Agency is like a very extreme contrast to what Singapore is today. Singapore is known for being a well-oiled machine, right? It is very well organized. It is a case study in how a government should govern a country. Things just work.

“But in the Chinatown Detective Agency, we imagined what would happen if the police force ran out of money, what would happen if public transport ran out of money. It would pretty much change Singapore drastically on a basic level, and that informs plots and history arcs beyond Singapore. “

Fillon adds that designing this particular vision of Singapore felt a bit like “eating forbidden fruit” – a dystopian future for his country is just not something people want to talk about.

Chinatown Detective Agency – Screens from the Humble Games Showcase 2022

“It stands out to anyone who’s been to Singapore because everything here is squeaky clean,” he says. “There are no cracks on the glass. The stickers and posters in the subway are super neat. The edges are super straight and they are light. In the game they are dark gray and almost not running and noisy and just broken and it was a little scary to imagine it because it felt like if Singapore was at that level of disorder, you know the world has gone completely wrong. “

So Chinatown Detective Agency uses nostalgia for the past to tell a futuristic story. Fillon feels that with the advent of the internet, knowledge has become so accessible that the journey of discovery and learning new things has become something most people take for granted. He hopes that with the Chinatown Detective Agency he can renew some of that spark for his audience.

“The hope is that if anyone has enjoyed playing it, then it has revived a kind of interest in just learning something new again. I do not want to use the word ‘edu-tainment’ because it has such a stigma attached to it. But I suppose if it’s used as a vehicle to tell a captivating story, hey, you know what, I have no problem with that. “

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.