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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of The Stay Tuned For Danger 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 Stay Tuned For Danger 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 Stay Tuned For Danger that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

These Nancy Drew titles don't quite hit any of the niches I was hoping they'd hit. They're E-rated, but the controls are too hard for my young sons to work themselves (including timed sequences, instant-death scenarios, and fussy navigation arrows.) They've got puzzles, but most of them are too easy for adult gamers. And they've got interesting, funny characters, but the game design generally gives away the entire plot. (In a book, it might be a believable red herring that Rick and Mattie were faking the whole thing to garner publicity or get him out of his contract so he could be with Mattie, but in an adventure game like this one, a real attempt to murder Rick HAS to happen, so you know that's not going to really be the answer. And, yo, anyone who's playing these kinds of games in the first place realized that "Owen W Spayder" is an anagram of "Dwayne Powers," so it's not like they exactly kept us in suspense very long.) And then there's the herky-jerky plot progression the games all suffer from to varying degrees (this one more than most)--the plot simply will NOT progress until you watch an irrelevant videotape your housekeeper sends you, at which point the villain gets his butt into gear and plants a bomb. Neither the plot nor the gameplay depends on this video in any way--it contains no useful information, nothing the player needs to see before moving onto the next stage, and it is unrelated to the villain and his bomb. Yet I wandered around fruitlessly for far too long before happening to notice that there was a new little brown spot to pixel-hunt in one of the screens, which turned out to be the corner of a package just out of Nancy's view which contained a useless videotape. One gets tired of being jerked from plot point to plot point this heavy-handedly.

So I don't think I would have bought these games for myself, but I still had a pretty good time playing them together with my kids due to their bug-free, violence-free gameplay. These would make good games for a 10-14 year old--they did remind me pleasantly of some of the old Infocom games I used to play in that age range.

Plot Holes

Stay Tuned For Danger has a very good plot that holds together quite well, but a couple of loose ends did stand out:

1) Who wrote the "Sorry it has to work out like this" note in Mattie's jewelry box? It doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the plot. Could Dwayne have written it to Mattie, about killing Rick so the two of them could be together? That makes little sense, since Dwayne was planning to leave the country without Mattie after killing Rick. Could Rick have written it to Mattie, about leaving "Light of Our Love" so the two of them could try dating again? Again, doesn't make much sense, since Rick doesn't leave the show once he succeeds at getting a new agent anyway. Could Mattie have written it to Rick or Dwayne? About what? She's the only one who's taken no drastic measures at all.

2) Why was Dwayne trying to scare Rick off the show? If I'm understanding the endgame sequence correctly, then Rick himself was the one who sent the "B.T. Kaisuur" letters made out of cut-up newspapers; Dwayne sent all the "dropped-Y" typewritten messages. (Lillian only sent the castor-oil chocolates with the hate-mail poem.) But if Dwayne's goal was to kill Rick, why would he send him letters demanding he leave the show? Wouldn't that, you know, rob him of his ability to kill Rick?

3) Where did the name "B.T. Kaisuur" come from? The letters are so awkward together that it looks like they must signify SOMEthing, but it certainly doesn't seem to be an anagram of anything, and it doesn't spell anything in the 'backwards code' used elsewhere in the game, either ("Y.G. Pzrhffi.") UPDATE: A sharp-eyed reader, Laura Nemeth, noticed that "B.T. Kaisuur" is in fact an anagram of "Aburtuski," which according to Dwayne Powers' personnel files is Rick's real name. Since Rick is the one sending those notes to himself, this explanation makes a lot of sense!

4) Why in the world did Dwayne cajole the studio into keeping Nancy on as an extra after Lillian fired her, at the same time he was sending her dire warnings to butt out? If he wanted her to butt out, couldn't he have just, oh, NOT begged the producer to overrule Lillian and keep her around?

5) And finally, was there anything to do with the sound mixing machine? I played that stupid tape over and over, but no matter how I adjusted the frequency on track 1 I still couldn't understand all of what he was saying (everything after 'smithereens' was unintelligible to me), track 2 was nothing but static, and track 3 just sounded like a beeping car horn. Nancy seemed dissatisfied with the results too, telling one of her friends "I can't figure out what to do with the sound machine," but there were only eight settings for each track, so I can't see how I could have missed anything.

Stay Tuned For Danger Game Advances

Things other adventure games should learn from Stay Tuned For Danger:

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 lantern.

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) This game did something especially nice at the end: gave player a chance to announce who they thought the villain was. I was really disappointed to see other Nancy Drew games drop this excellent feature. It helps draw you into the endgame, makes your explorations up until that point have some meaning, and is satisfying to boot.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Stay Tuned For Danger a 6 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. The movement interface, in particular, appears to be unchanged from the one in the origiinal Myst. 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. In a game with so few rooms (13 counting the secret areas,) 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 spending dozens of clicks walking Nancy all the way out of the studio and taking a taxi back to Mattie's every time you need to change the game clock. The inventory in Stay Tuned For Danger could also have been improved; the viewscreen was too small and frequently cluttered with useless objects. Then there's the telephone--for some unknown reason, though this game is set in the modern era Nancy does not have a cellphone, so every time you want or need to make a call you have to walk her all the way over to Mattie's house, zoom in on the phone, and then manually dial the 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, Stay Tuned For Danger would have needed better game design. There's really no sense of affecting anything in this game. The plot chugs stoically along from Point A to Point B to Point C, and the player's job is just to walk back and forth across the studio talking to people, looking at things, and occasionally advancing the game clock until something new happens. There's no way to be proactive in any of these games--no way to use any information you learn or deductions you make to change anything within the game. In a game whose plot is primarily about a tangled romance between soap opera stars, it would have been nice if the decisions you make in the course of the game could actually have had some effect on the romance and the soap opera--if there was one ending cutscene where Rick decided to stay with Light of Our Love but never got back together with Mattie, and a second one where he left to do a different show but married Mattie, and she got a new costar for Light of Our Love, giving the show a newfound burst in popularity. It's extremely rewarding to feel like your actions have an effect on the plot, even when it's really just a choice between two similar pre-recorded endings. Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned For Danger 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: I liked the one where you have to piece together scraps of a torn-up note. Too bad the contents of the note didn't really have anything to do with anything.
Lamest Puzzle: The random one at the very end. Trial and error puzzles are NEVER welcome in an adventure game, but TIMED trial and error puzzles are unforgivable.
Best Plot Twist: Nancy getting fired if she confronts Lillian about the chocolates. That was an unexpected and welcome consequence, especially since it wasn't game-ending.
Lamest Plot Twist: I was really disappointed when the mystery was given away prematurely by Owen W. Spader's name. Maybe it's because I had just spent a long time trying to unsuccessfully anagram "B.T. Kaisuur," but it jumped out at me immediately that it was an anagram of Dwayne Powers, and I found the rest of the game rather boring and frustrating as I wandered around trying to convince Nancy of that.
High Point: I liked the ticking package Nancy received. That got some adrenalin going. :-)
Low Point: After wasting my time wandering around and around the gameworld trying to figure out why nothing was happening, realizing that the answer was I hadn't yet watched that irrelevant interview with Rick that Hannah had secretly mailed to Nancy. He didn't even drop a hint in the damn thing, but the whole game ground to a halt until I watched it anyway???

Follow this link to read my thoughts about the Stay Tuned for Danger plot and characters.

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