Chinatown Detective Agency is the Carmen Sandiego I’ve always wanted
Before I ever owned a gaming console or settled in as a gamer, I was still playing games. Specifically educational games on a clunky Packard Bell like Reader Rabbit, Cluefinders and one of my favorites, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
This was before our household had internet or even before internet game guides existed Matter. So when an in-game witness said to me, a nine-year-old kid, “He asked if I wanted to go because he had reservations for two in Kisumu,” my options were limited to staring at a giant globe we had on the nearby mantel, flip through a dictionary or encyclopedia, or run to my mom to see if she knows what that means (a hit-or-miss strategy, depending on the clue). I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of detective work, and many of my earliest geography lessons came from trying to figure out where one of VILE’s worst villains had gone after wiping entire landmarks off the map.
When I first opened the Chinatown Detective Agency last week, I didn’t expect to be transported back to the old Packard Bell and Globe prints nearly 30 years later, but there I was. Set in Singapore in the year 2037, the story follows private detective Amira Darma as she investigates a range of mysteries within the city and abroad. Each case leaves a trail of clues for you to follow, but many of them require additional investigation outside of the game and are designed specifically for online research. For example, one of the earliest riddles gives you a cryptic quote and asks you to learn either the name of the book it came from or its author. You won’t find either of these anywhere in the game, but a quick Google search will bring it up right away and let you proceed.
Chinatown Detective Agency inspirations are evident throughout, from the clunky moving menus to the research puzzles to the interface that prompts you to deduce where in the world to go next to buy a plane ticket. Creative director Mark Fillon immediately assures me that my intense experience of nostalgia for Carmen Sandiego was intentional. Like me, he grew up on Carmen’s adventures, puzzling a world map and encyclopedias for in-game answers outside of fiction and marveling at what he learned. But what’s different about Chinatown Detective Agency is that it’s an adult game through and through. More of a “hard-nosed” detective story, as Fillon puts it.
“If I had to sum it up, it’s Carmen Sandiego for people who’ve come of age,” he says. “I felt that if we did this, we would be addressing mature issues, issues that needed real thinking, needed real research.”
And they definitely do. Fillon says he wanted to make sure the puzzles weren’t too esoteric, but they cover a range of subjects like ancient languages, cryptography, history and more. And they get harder over time. Luckily, stumped players can always turn to in-game librarian Mei Ting for enthusiastic help, either a vague hint or a blanket solution.
A minor flaw in Fillon’s plan to let players do their own research inadvertently turned out to be the very research tool players were meant to use. During my own playthrough of Chinatown Detective Agency, my Google search for answers almost immediately pulled up full game guides to the top, which simply gave up all the answers even in the article’s metadata, making the search for information far less rewarding than it would have been me was forced to sift through more normal, historical search results. Fillon admits the team probably should have anticipated and planned for this issue, but what’s done is done.
“We just didn’t know it would skew the algorithm that much,” he says. “And I suppose it’s a testament to how well it’s being taken that people are actually doing it. But I know it’s really difficult for beginners who are really looking for material that can help them really progress. I feel like people who are engrossed in this moment get into the mission if they type it into their google. Be forgiving and just drop by and gloss over many of these walkthroughs and look for real results be it off Wikipedia or what reference material.
It’s certainly easy enough to immerse yourself in the Singapore of the Chinatown Detective Agency, thanks in no small part to the care that Fillon and his team took to create it. Fillon tells me they’ve strived for authenticity in every part of their adventure, including the voice acting, sound design, and graphics. However, some of these elements were a little more difficult to create than others, especially with a completely remote team during a pandemic. For example, art director Ricardo Juchem had never been to Singapore when he began working on the project. He eventually did, but in the meantime Fillon would often send him photos of locations around town to provide background information on the game. Juchem also used other, more imaginative methods to capture the country’s location, including Google Street View and in one case, flying an airplane in Microsoft Flight Simulator to get a good angle of view of a specific location, and took a screenshot to its own environments to establish on.
Of course, the Singapore of the Chinatown Detective Agency is not modern Singapore. It is set in the year 2037 – so the future, but not the distant future. Fillon says that was intentional, as he wanted to tell a futuristic story that was still understandable to the audience, as a real, near possibility rather than something imaginative and distant. It’s our world, but it’s a version of our world where things never really get better.
“We envisioned a world where the pandemic basically just cost mass economic stagnation,” he says. “People are unemployed. Governments are running out of funds. The Singapore you see in the Chinatown Detective Agency is like a very extreme opposite of what Singapore is today. Singapore is known for being a well oiled machine, right? It’s very organized. It is a case study of how a government should run a country. Things just work.
“But at the Chinatown Detective Agency, we imagined what would happen if the police ran out of money, what would happen if public transport ran out of money. It would change Singapore quite drastically on a fundamental level and that affects plans and storylines beyond Singapore.”
Fillon adds that crafting this particular vision of Singapore felt a bit like “eating forbidden fruit” — a dystopian future for his country just isn’t something people want to talk about.
Chinatown Detective Agency – Screens from Humble Games Showcase 2022
“For someone who’s been to Singapore, it’s striking because everything is sparkling clean here,” he says. “The glass has no cracks. The stickers and the posters in the subway are super nice. The edges are super straight and they are brightly colored. In game they’re dark gray and they hardly ever run and noisy and just break, and imagining that was a bit scary because it felt like Singapore was at that level of disorder that you know the world has gone completely wrong .”
So the Chinatown Detective Agency uses nostalgia for the past to tell a futuristic story. Fillon believes that with the advent of the internet, knowledge has become so accessible that exploring and learning new things has become second nature to most people. With Chinatown Detective Agency, he hopes to rekindle some of that spark for his audience.
“The hope is that if someone enjoyed playing it, it sparks some sort of interest in just learning something new again. I don’t want to use the word edutainment because it’s so stigmatized. But I suppose if it’s used as a vehicle to tell a compelling story, hey you know what, I have no problem with that.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
https://www.ign.com/articles/chinatown-detective-agency-carmen-sandiego-reminagining Chinatown Detective Agency is the Carmen Sandiego I’ve always wanted