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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Danger By Design Review

This is the addendum to my Nancy Drew Game Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Danger By Design yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe the Nancy Drew design team'll read this page and be inspired to put a few more twists and turns in their next title. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Danger By Design that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Danger By Design does some things right that other games in the Nancy Drew series have struggled with. It's by far the most interactive Nancy Drew game-- there are unimportant but interesting details about the NPC's and their actions hidden in the game that you can only learn about through successful interrogation, there is more than one way to figure out the answers to some of the puzzles, and most refreshingly of all, Nancy gets to make an actual CHOICE in Danger By Design (whether or not to tell Minette that Heather sent her a threatening letter.) If she does tell her, then Minette fires Heather, Nancy receives an angry phone call from Heather, and Heather gives Nancy a cold shoulder in the game epilogue (whereas if Nancy keeps this information to herself, there is a friendlier epilogue in which Heather invites her to take part in her fashion show.) It's the little touches like this that make a game with some other frustrating flaws genuinely fun to play.

And there definitely are frustrating flaws here to overcome. Nancy Drew games are generally not very respectful of a player's time, and this one is worse than most. Not only do you have to navigate a large maze pixel-hunting for a bottle, but it's an underwater maze, so you have only a small amount of exploration time before you have to return to the surface (a huge waste of time when you're trying to map a maze.) Like several previous Nancy Drew games, Danger By Design also pulls the aggravating trick of putting a puzzle at the other end of a maze that you cannot solve without returning to the beginning to get some information, so that you need to go through the same boring maze twice. This destroys whatever fun there might have been in maze-maneuvering to begin with. Like other Nancy Drew games, Danger By Design is extremely talky and does not let you skip past lines of dialogue or animations you don't want to re-watch. And for some inexplicable reason, this particular game took away Nancy's cellphone, thus forcing you to manually dial in a 10-digit number every time you want to call somebody in Paris or a 10-digit calling card number AND an 8-digit phone number every time you want to call anybody else.

Overall, though, the relatively flexible and interactive gameplay make this one of the better Nancy Drew titles, particularly for adult fans (some of the puzzles in here would be pretty tough for 10-year-olds to handle without help.) Danger By Design also features well-written characters (something the Nancy Drew series in general does well), several very good puzzles, and a plot that kept me interested. Despite several dull and draggy parts, I can say that I genuinely enjoyed playing this game and was satisfied with the mystery's answer.

Plot Holes

Danger By Design has a very good plot that holds together quite well, but a couple of major holes did stand out:

1) Why did the German gangsters put a paint bomb in Minette's studio? I can understand the threatening letters and phone calls-- they were trying to bully her into producing the dress on time-- but the paint bomb seems incredibly counterproductive. If Nancy fails to disarm it, it explodes and ruins all Minette's clothes (presumably including the spy dress she was making for the gangsters, since it was right there in the studio!) Why would these guys do something so completely contrary to their goals?

2) Why were Noisette and Hans unable to be together after the war ended? This part was very confusing to me. It seems they were still in love, judging by the fact that Noisette sent Hans that postcard years later. I understand that tensions were pretty high right after the war ended, but they had 55 years between the end of the war and their deaths in which they could have reunited if they wanted (and neither of them ever married, so it must have been on their minds.) In, say, 1955, a German man and a French woman getting married surely would not still have raised eyebrows in either country, would it? Or couldn't they just have moved to Switzerland?

3) This isn't really a plot hole per se, but I was a little disappointed that it was never explained why Minette suddenly broke things off with Dieter. Poor guy, it was all he cared about in the whole game and we never even learned the reason...

Danger By Design Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Danger By Design:

1) First and foremost is the excellent "Second Chance" function, which allows a gamer to automatically reload the game from a point just before making a fatal error. Any adventure game that includes instant-death scenarios and/or timed challenges ought to have a feature similar to this one--it saves time and frustration and allows gamers to concentrate on the game better, maybe even to appreciate being sucker-punched now and again.

2) The implementation wasn't great, but for a game aimed at beginning players (which this one is), calling the Hardy Boys on the phone is a good idea for an innovative in-game optional hint system.

3) Nancy Drew really makes a great graphic adventure heroine in general. Too many adventure games hand you characters who either act so inept it's hard to believe they'd be on an adventure in the first place, or else act so blase about it that it's hard to believe they haven't already got a knife in their inventory. Nancy Drew is a character who's both experienced enough with mysteries that you buy her plunging into trouble as soon as she notices some, but at the same time young enough to be a little wide-eyed at each new scenario and still have to go pixel-hunting around for a flashlight.

4) One nice feature of the Nancy Drew games is an epilogue video at the end which not only reviews the crime and its solution, but tells what happens to the NPC's in the game after Nancy solves the crime. Since the characters in these games are generally well-written and many of them have a subplot Nancy has had the chance to learn more about, it is satisfying to see some resolution for them at the end. (It would be even more satisfying if all of the NPC's were included-- the lack of any mention of Dieter or JJ in the epilogue was really baffling to me.)

5) The later Nancy Drew games include the interesting feature of awarding the player a special nickname at the end of the game based on his or her playstyle (the ones in this game are French-themed: Savoir Faire for solving puzzles especially quickly, Partout a Paris for exploring especially thoroughly, and so on.) This is a nice way of recognizing the player's contribution to the story... not quite as nice as being able to guess the identity of the villain correctly or incorrectly in Stay Tuned For Danger, which I'd like to see the series use more often, but still a welcome addition.

6) As I mentioned above, Danger By Design is the first (and so far only) Nancy Drew game to feature alternate endings depending on whether you told Minette about Heather's secret or not. This is an excellent innovation and one that I'd like to see more Nancy Drew games, and more graphic adventure games in general, take advantage of. Note that the main ending was exactly the same regardless of what happened to Heather-- Nancy still foils the gangsters' plot and recovers the stained glass treasures. There's just thirty seconds of voice-over that goes differently depending on whether Heather is on speaking terms with Nancy or not... and that's all it takes to make a game feel slightly more interactive, folks.

7) Another great feature of Danger By Design was the way it allowed you to solve many puzzles EITHER by using your own knowledge OR by exploring the gameworld. If you know or can guess that "sucre" means "sugar" in French and "farine" means "flour," then you can solve the baking puzzle yourself; if not, you can have Nancy buy a French dictionary. If you are familiar enough with history to deduce that to a World War II-era French lady, "the year our despair ended" is probably 1945, then you can solve this puzzle as soon as you come across it. If not, you can have Nancy search for this information. This is a great feature for any adventure game to have, but particularly adventure games that cater to both children and adult players the way the Nancy Drew series does.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave the Nancy Drew games an overall 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken Danger By Design to the next level? The most glaring thing is the time-wasting interface. Animations and audio files should ALWAYS be skippable with the escape key. Truly, there is no conceivable valid excuse for this omission in this day and age. If a gamer doesn't want to watch the slow animation of the metro toodling from place to place for the 26th time, what is gained by forcing them to? If a character you call on the phone deposits a big wall of text in the dialogue box and the player has already skimmed it and doesn't want to wait for the audio to finish reading it aloud, why make them? Not only are these things annoying, but they slow the gameplay down and rob it of tension. Not good in a mystery adventure.

There were also some disappointiingly ill-conceived puzzles in here that should have been done better. The underwater maze, for example, would have been much less irritating if Nancy had been given some scuba gear so that she could have stayed underwater a little longer at a time. Having to keep surfacing every couple of minutes for air was aggravating and only made the chore of mapping the underwater tunnels that much more annoying. And the chest at the end of this maze should have had a puzzle to open it that did NOT rely on information you need to fetch from the surface. The code based on the subway map was a nice idea but it should have been located on the chest under the park or something, where it would not be so profoundly aggravating to have to leave and return again.

More substantively, though, Danger By Design suffered from relatively weak characterization compared to earlier Nancy Drew games. Jean Michel, in particular, was a real wasted opportunity-- he was underdeveloped, had no subplots, no meaningful relationship to the main characters or anything. Dieter and JJ were potentially interesting characters, but Dieter's story arc ended abruptly (he declared he didn't care about anything but Minette anymore and never said anything important to Nancy again) and JJ's never went anywhere in the first place. The writers didn't even bother to mention any of these three characters in the final game wrap-up! This game would have been much more affecting if the NPCs had played a more important role in the story.

The other thing Danger By Design could really have benefited from is a sense of suspense. The game really just sort of moseys along and the only events that occur during it are minor harassments of Minette (who turns out to be in cohoots with her harassers anyway.) Compare that to the attempted murder and creepy cult rituals that Nancy witnesses in the much more suspenseful games Secret of the Scarlet Hand and Curse of Blackmoor Manor. Moments of unexpected danger really work for mystery games. Why not have the mobsters threatening Minette by making dangerous "accidents" befall her assistants, who quit in fear rather than just being fired? Then Nancy and Heather could have some scares along the way. Splashing paint around just isn't very exciting as threats go.

All in all, this was a good installment in the series, particularly commendable for its moves towards greater interactivity; but it could have been a lot better with a little more attention to detail.

Best Puzzle: I enjoyed solving the various codes. The shift code may have been too difficult for some of the kids playing, but it was just right for me!
Lamest Puzzle: The underwater maze. Nothing good can ever come from a timed maze in my opinion, but this one was especially frustrating because unless I missed something major, there was no clue anywhere in the game about which way to go, so you just had to map the entire area by hand.
Best Plot Twist: The dress Minette was designing for the First Lady being wired. I was suspecting she must be sabotaging it somehow; this was a good implementation.
Lamest Plot Twist: The mask being a red herring. It made sense with Minette's character, but it was still a let-down after all that buildup.
High Point: Getting to make a decision for Nancy as to whether to tell Minette about Heather or not.
Low Point: The silly endgame challenge. I'm not sure hand-to-hand combat minigames belong in Nancy Drew games at all (it just doesn't fit thematically), but this particular one was the cheesiest and most annoying combat minigame I've encountered since Monkey Kombat in Escape From Monkey Island. :P

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Danger by Design plot and characters.

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