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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Secret of the Scarlet Hand 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 Secret of the Scarlet Hand 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 Secret of the Scarlet Hand that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

This was my personal favorite of the Nancy Drew games so far. The museum setting managed to be both otherworldly and completely realistic, the graphics were very evocative, there was a plot twist I actually wasn't expecting (Henrik falling down the stairs) and the endgame sequence was MUCH scarier and more exciting than any of the others (my heart was really pounding while time was running out inside that tomb, and the mummy's face was very creepy in the eerie green light.) Also, the game gets big props from me for using actual correct information about an ancient civilization as its backdrop. (You'd think this would be a no-brainer, but I have played several Egypt-themed games with my kids that had blatantly, even stupidly incorrect historical material in it, and this game actually taught them a few things.)

Scarlet Hand still did suffer from the basic flaws shared by of all these Nancy Drew games: a painfully linear plot that refuses to advance unless Nancy does something irrelevant, a very small area (only 15 true rooms) that takes hundreds of clicks to navigate and includes no movement shortcuts, and a few pointless inconveniences like only being able to call some phone numbers from the telephone in the lab and others from the telephone in the hotel room. I also found it very irritating that the game gave Nancy Internet access for no good reason, and then she was unable to use it to look anything up online. (Like, the Nahuatl word for "snake." I'm willing to accept the fact that Nancy didn't play D&D as a child and so has never heard of a coatl, and even willing to accept the fact that these games won't let you bring outside information into them and so you have to get Nancy to discover the answer rather than providing it yourself, but it's just frustrating that she's provided with a sensible IN-GAME method for answering her question, yet she has to ignore it and go perform an extra-legal chore for an NPC to learn the answer instead.) In the end though, these aggravations did not keep this game from being fun. I genuinely enjoyed playing this.

Plot Holes

Secret of the Scarlet Hand has a very good plot that holds together quite well, but a couple of major holes did stand out:

1) Why did Henrik fall down the stairs? Did Taylor push him? Or was it just a random accident? Why was this never returned to?

2) What was going on with the cinnabar? According to the plot, it must have been Henrik who picked up that cinnabar, since he was the one who made the handprint message. But then why did Joanna lie to Nancy about it (telling Nancy that the museum didn't have any cinnabar and the distributor had a supply problem with it, when the distributor said that was false?) Joanna didn't seem to be in on Henrik's scheme in any other way.

Secret of the Scarlet Hand Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Secret of the Scarlet Hand:

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 Bess and George on the phone was 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 woiuld be even more satisfying if the player's choices affected these resolutions at all, but one can't have everything.)

5) As usual in these Nancy Drew games, though there are only four NPC's (and a few extras you can call on the phone), the characters are well-written and compelling and the voice acting is excellent. This is a good area not to skimp on if you're designing a graphic adventure and particularly a mystery adventure. Once an NPC is infused with even a tiny bit of depth, you start wondering about them more, and that makes it a lot easier to keep up a mysterious atmosphere.

6) One thing Secret of the Scarlet Hand did particularly well that other Nancy Drew games could learn from was breaking up the investigation (and the inevitable long conversations that always go along with that) with unexpected bursts of action: the theft and (presumably) attempted murder of Henrik. Surprisingly few Nancy Drew games include attempted murder of anybody other than Nancy. That's a shame, because it's very dramatic. Surprisingly few of them have any midgame plot developments at all that aren't directly related to Nancy, either.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Secret of the Scarlet Hand a 6.5 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? The most obvious place to start would have been improving the interface. A smoothly functioning interface is always a plus for any adventure game, but the Nancy Drew games would benefit even more than most, since it would make the game more viable for younger kids or kids with short attention spans. My kids could have played this game without my help if moving around a room hadn't involved so much pixel-hunting for movement arrows (the least rewarding kind of pixel-hunting, if anyone in the gaming industry is listening.) It's also long past time for these Nancy Drew games to start using a clickable map.Once Nancy has spent 27 clicks walking from Joanna's office to the lab, there's no reason for her to have to do it again-- she should be able to select the lab from a map and travel there automatically. It isn't a "puzzle" to see whether one can wrestle the awkward movement interface into submission and get down a zigzaggy hallway without wasting any clicks (as was necessary to do with the calendar stone in this game.) I don't know why these Nancy Drew games keep including variants on this useless task as if there were something fun or interesting about it; there isn't. In related news, it's long past time for Nancy to get a cellphone. Seriously, it's a tiresome chore walking her dozens of clicks to a telephone each time she needs to make a call, and it would be mildly annoying even if there was a clickable map.

But to really improve itself, Secret of the Scarlet Hand would have needed to work more interactivity into the game design. I enjoyed playing it, but with the exception of the dramatic endgame sequence I never felt like I was part of it, because nothing I did really affected anything. In fact, had Nancy just sat around on her keister after finishing all her tasks instead of going to talk to Taylor, the theft would evidently never have occurred. It's really not that hard to design a game so that important plot events happen in response to relevant actions taken by the player, as opposed to irrelevant actions that the game just wants you to take so it can exposit at you before letting you move on. I wish this Nancy Drew series would put some small effort into doing that. I also continue to be disappointed that no opportunity is offered for the player to guess who the miscreant is before the endgame (an option flirted with in the second game, Stay Tuned For Danger, but never returned to.) It's frustrating to play a mystery game and have no opportunity to deduce whodunnit (whether correctly or incorrectly.)

So Secret of the Scarlet Hand was not a great game, but it was a good one, and my kids and I did have fun playing it. I just wish that the game design, if not the subject, was a little more grown-up in this series.

Best Puzzle: There were several good ones in this game based on the actual Maya counting system, writing system, and calendar. It's always a plus in my book when a puzzle is not only logical and challenging but based on real-world logic.
Lamest Puzzle: The one with the marionette throwing balls through a hoop was particularly bad because the game design kept you from effectively using trial and error to figure out what effect the different settings would have (by interrupting you with an unskippable animation sequence, then restarting the puzzle so that you have to repeat the whole thing from the beginning each time.) That really killed any sense of exploration that might have gone along with this puzzle.
Best Plot Twist: Henrik suddenly falling down the stairs successfully startled me (though the amnesia subplot afterwards was a little contrived.)
Lamest Plot Twist: The sequence with Poppy Dada was rather boring and a fairly silly coincidence.
High Point: Frantically waving the small green light around the tomb at the end, trying to illuminate an exit route, and accidentally catching a green-limned view of the mummy's dead face. Ack!
Low Point: Using the damn telephone. It takes too long to get to a phone, too long to make the call, and far too long listening to the NPC's blather (WHY can these monologues not be skipped once you've skimmed the subtitles?) And to add insult to injury, you just have to make way too many calls. These sequences should have been vastly condensed. If Nancy's spending more than 15 minutes of game time on the phone, it's time to get out the edit scissors.

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Secret of the Scarlet Hand plot and characters.

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