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The Story of Carmen Sandiego: From a Video Game to an Iconic Character
In the 90s, never did a video game protagonist strike me as more charismatic and powerful than Carmen Sandiego. Decked out in a gigantic headgear and an endless parka, both matched with a garish red that would only suit her, the famous gangster managed, for years, to embody the object of a hunt. exciting for millions of children (and to stay on the run in such an inconspicuous outfit). How did an entire generation become obsessed with finding a heroine who almost never appeared on screen?
Birth of an icon
It was in 1983 that the programmer Dane Bigham sketched the beginnings of Carmen, in a creative impulse inspired by the bases provided by Colossal Cave Adventure, one of the very first textual adventure games on a microcomputer. In the era of the Apple II, Bigham intends to evolve the technique and emancipate oneself from the so limited thesaurus of the 1975 title that one had to conscientiously peel to extract the only word capable of advancing the epic. The developer opts for simple commands to select from a small menu. The idea is then to offer an experience that could easily suit the youngest. With son team at Brøderbund Software, in Oregon, they begin to imagine a story of cops and robbers, far from the themes of dungeons which still reigned. Bigham’s boss, Gary Carlston, then suggested integrating the World Almanac, which had always fascinated him, into the game. The hunt will therefore be international; better still, it will serve as a pretext to offer children notions of geography. “Once we decided that Carmen was somewhat educational, we wanted to stick as far as possible of this word, car educational games back then sucked“, says Bigham in a book by David L. Craddock called “Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution” (many quotes from which will be included in this article).
“I wrote a whole prototype in which you chase a thief and his men of main steal two things at once, and you have to track the different flights at the same time” he relates. Then he resigns himself to removing one of the two thefts from the project. Players will set off on the trail of a single criminal, collecting the clues that will lead to his capture. The script is entrusted to a certain David Siefkin: “My wife was a cooking teacher at Berkeley, and one of her students, Joanne Koltnow, was working for Broderbund at the time and knew that I was interested in video games.“, confides the latter. Siefkin was the ideal candidate, he who had just traveled the world for nine months and approached some of its cultures. From a garden chair, at the edge of a swimming pool in the open air from the Berkeley campus in Strawberry Canyon, he writes what he considers to be an invitation to travel. The player will be a detective, receiving a first clue that will lead him to travel the globe where he will have to answer multiple choice questions. Siefkin then imagines several bandits who could animate the story. One name, in particular, arouses the interest of Brøderbund: Carmen Sandiego, who was still only a villain among others.
Carmen and her minions
Siefkin and Bigham worked on the concept alongside Raymond Portwood, Jr. who, before working for Brøderbund, was busy bringing the character of a certain Jiminy Cricket to life. As development progresses, Carmen Sandiego is sort of becoming the boss final of the game, the sacred object of a captivating quest. To hope to see son red uniform appear on the screen, you must first put the main on his minions, members of the VILE organization (Villains’ International League of Evil), a band of thieves who don’t just steal a few jewels from a chest, but rather historical monuments such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Most of the bad guys get their names from box employees, while others are excuses to former cute puns; Anita Bath, for example, is a quip meaning “I need a bath” (“I need a bath”). The big gang of crooks is finally ready to play some tours to children. “We wanted to sell games that we thought they would enjoy. One of the things we love to do is learn, and we’ve tried to do that in a context similar to how we learn” says Doug Carlson, the other co-founder of Brøderbund. “I grew up learning through games. I think that’s basically how people improve their physical and intellectual abilities. Like I’ve done this my whole life, it was natural for us to try“. Exit the “educational” category, Carlson wants the experience to be approached as a fun exploration game.
Being an inspector makes you dream? Think you’re as cunning as a fox? As fine as Sherlock Homes? Interpol needs you!
The recipe is well established, and Brøderbund Software holds a real gem in its hands. But where is Carmen Sandiego hiding? (“Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” version original) is a terribly clever game about geography, disguised as an exciting investigation. Witnesses must be interviewed at scenes of crimeearning warrants, handcuffing suspects, all nested in an ever-motivating reward loop. The title even includes sequences in full motion video, enough to make the experience devilishly immersive for children. Actress Lynne Thigpen, who played the chief of police (died in 2003) even later became an icon with college students.
However, Dane Bigham will recount having developed a relationship of love and hate with Carmen, quickly disinterested in noting that son The cops-and-robbers story was scrapped in favor of a question-and-answer game. He will be forced to complete the title in some pain, he who dreamed of himself in other projects. Ironically, if the Carlsons didn’t want the game to fall into the educational category, it was the teachers who boosted Carmen’s popularity by loaning the CD to themselves within their community.. Sales will take off approximately eighteen months after release. A game show based on the license will soon be decided by two PBS-affiliated TV stations, prompted in part by a recent National Geographic study that claimed that one in four Americans couldn’t place the Pacific Ocean on a map. From the end of the 1990s, millions kids were stalking Carmen, not having the faintest idea who she was.
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