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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill 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 Secrets Can Kill 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 Secrets Can Kill that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

This was the first of the Nancy Drew series, and the only one that I truthfully did not enjoy playing. The high school setting was silly and far from sinister; no one even seemed especially concerned that there was a murder investigation going on, rebuffing questions about it in favor of inane gossip about story arcs I would have found uninteresting when I was 13. And the puzzles were painfully idiotic--instead of tracking down clues to logically suggest who the murderer is, instead you can solve a word puzzle in a book in your aunt's house to learn his name. A clue to the boiler room entry code is inscribed in stone in the high school library. A hint telling Nancy how to win a fight that's going to break out later that evening is posted on a bulletin board (these are some damn omniscient high school kids.) To the game designers' credit, they eliminated 90% of this crap by the second game and all of it by the third, leaving a predictable but solid series of adventure games whose main failing is the excessively juvenile feel--you're probably never going to forget you're playing games that were written with 12-year-old girls in mind, but if you're like me, you can probably find it in your heart to forgive that.

But don't start with this one. All the other games in this series are about equally good, but "Secrets Can Kill" is not.

Plot Holes

Secrets Can Kill has a decent plot that holds together pretty well, but two big holes did stand out:

1) Why is there no commotion at all over the fact that a high school student has just been murdered? High school classes are apparently going on as usual, the kids milling around in the halls as if nothing had happened, with nothing more than an unattended piece of police tape slapped carelessly onto the dead boy's locker. The kids themselves seem surprised and annoyed at even being questioned about the event. There are no police, no media, no freaked-out parents, nothing at all. It's just ridiculous.

2) This is more of a game design flaw, but for Pete's sake, given that none of the kids in the high school even realizes Nancy is undercover, why are there encoded messages to her telling her each kid's secrets, how to safely fix the boiler, and what to do if Mitch should happen to pull a gun on her at the pharmacy that night? These are the most carelessly integrated puzzles I've seen in an adventure game since The 7th Guest.

Secrets Can Kill Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Secrets Can Kill:

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) 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.

3) The implementation was poor, but for a game aimed at beginning players (which this one is), calling Bess, George and Ned on the phone was a good idea for an innovative in-game optional hint system--and one that this series improved on to better effect in later games.

4) One nice feature of Secrets to Kill, which is repeated in every Nancy Drew game following it, 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.)

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); Secrets Can Kill would have scored only a 5/10 on its own. So what would have taken it to the next level? Well, the game designers did a pretty good job improving its most glaring flaw in the sequel--namely, getting rid of the nonsensical encoded 'hints' in favor of solving puzzles and investigations that actually make some modicum of sense in the context of the gameworld. "Nancy Drew needs to fix the boiler, how can she do it? Well, she can solve this word puzzle to learn that the answer is GLOVES!" is not an adventure game challenge, it's a lame-ass third-grade homework assignment. I was half-expecting Nancy to announce that she would be able to catch the villain if we could solve a word problem to tell her how many apples Hal and Connie have.

But leaving that aside, what else could have improved this game? 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. The movement interface, in particular, appears to be unchanged from the one in Myst, and its frustrating datedness is definitely keeping at least some kids from playing these games, because my sons were unable to get it to work for them. Pixel-hunting around for the one tiny little spot that will give you a movement arrow is never any fun, lines of dialogue should ALWAYS be easily skippable, and saving a game should be a one or two-click affair. Movement shortcuts would have been a big help too--in truth, there were really only 10 areas worth returning to in this game, but getting between them was a long and tedious chore even if you didn't let the awkward interface get you disoriented. It's inexplicable to me why there wasn't some kind of clickable map or movement shortcut pulldown-menu--it's nothing but an annoyance having to spend dozens of clicks (and two disk swaps!) getting Nancy from the boiler room to Aunt Eloise's house. Then there's the telephone--for some unknown reason, though this game is set in the modern era and everyone has computers, Nancy still does not have a cellphone, so every time you want to make a call you have to walk her ALL the way over to the student center, zoom in on the phone, use your calling card,and then manually dial the 11-digit telephone number. Simply making this a drop-down menu from a cellphone would have saved a lot of tedium in and of itself.

But to be a really GOOD game, Secrets Can Kill would have needed to engage me more as a player. Subsequent Nancy Drew titles made more valiant attempts at this, by introducing more interesting NPCs and putting more emphasis on secret passageways and their attendant sense of exploratory wonder rather than just throwing lots of simple puzzles in your face. And that's very welcome, but still not enough. In Secrets Can Kill, Nancy Drew is basically a passive observer. The plot only advances when she looks at something or listens to someone. Nothing she does to the objects or says to the people makes any difference to the game, except insofar as it permits her to look at and listen to more stuff. Eventually the NPC's duke it out as Nancy watches; her one real decision of the entire game ends up being whether to help the good guys beat the villain or try to run away. This peripheralness just doesn't suit a graphic adventure game. If Nancy is doing nothing but learn more about the other characters as their story unfolds, then why are we playing her, rather than one of them? In the later Nancy Drew game The Final Scene, for example, Nancy's friend Maya is kidnapped. This thrusts Nancy right into the heart of the action. It's irrelevant that WE'VE never heard of Maya before booting up the game; we can believe Nancy knows her, and that's good enough. So why wasn't Secrets Can Kill set in Nancy's own high school, with the victim and suspects being people she, Bess and George already have their own (possibly completely wrong) ideas about? Keeping Nancy an outsider does nothing in particular for the plot, and hurts the already poor interactivity level of the game. Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill was a basic, par-for-the-course graphic adventure game, but to be more than that, it would have needed to involve the player a lot more.

Ah well. My kids got a five-pack of these games as a present, and they can't play them alone, so I suppose I'll see if any of the other titles in this series achieve that goal.

Best Puzzle: It's not good when one of those 3x3 sliders like the kind you can buy in K-Mart is the best puzzle in the game, but I can't remember any others (unless you count entering passwords or solving word puzzles, which I'm not inclined to.)
Lamest Puzzle: All the idiotically easy, out-of-place word puzzles.
Best Plot Twist: Connie's judo subplot.
Lamest Plot Twist: A new NPC being introduced at the last minute to be the villain. It was believable enough, but there was no way to predict it; a good mystery story gives you the chance of figuring the solution out for yourself.
High Point: When Connie ran over and attacked Mitch; that was exciting, and my son cheered.
Low Point: Realizing that the name of the school principal was an anagram of the name of a room I needed to get into, and that this was a clue. I've seen a lot of nonsensically illogical adventure-game crap in my day, but that one has to take some kind of prize. Sporting of that principal's parents to help Nancy out by giving their son a name that would encourage her decades later to look in the boiler room for a videotape someone happened to have hidden there a few days previous, huh?

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Secrets Can Kill plot and characters.

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