That’s Edutainment: Carmen Sandiego Word Detective

Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and considers whether they hold up today, focusing on their development and on the relationship between education and entertainment. Previous articles can be found here

We’re continuing this column’s first-ever miniseries – the Summer of Carmen Sandiego! This summer’s articles focus on games from the Carmen Sandiego series, how they fit into the surprisingly weird history of the franchise, and their legacy as edutainment. (Our first entry in this miniseries was an article about Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time.) The header image is from MobyGames.

Today, we’re looking at the next game in our series: the 1997 title Carmen Sandiego Word Detective. Let’s begin!

Word Detective wasn’t meant to be a Carmen Sandiego game. At some point in 1996, development was well underway at Broderbund on a language-themed sequel to the studio’s 1994 title Math Workshop. Math Workshop featured bright, colourful graphics and featured a cheerful main character named Poly Gonzales; its planned follow-up, Word Workshop, would presumably have had a similar aesthetic.

Poly Gonzales in Math Workshop. Credit: MobyGames

However, the realities of the mid-Nineties edutainment market soon changed Broderbund’s plans. The studio’s commercial success, which had seemed infallible throughout the first half of the 1990s, was suddenly in question. As a 1998 article in Strategy and Business magazine reported:

For much of the 1990’s, Broderbund set the pace in consumer software, a market that grew to $2.63 billion in 1997. … But in 1996, growth slowed sharply in the consumer software market while a flood of products jockeyed for shelf space. … Broderbund watched as its margins shriveled.

Broderbund, which had previously “fostered a creative culture unparalleled in the software business,” now faced the harsh realities of a new era in software development. This new era came with new priorities and a shift in focus for the studio – “[t]he days of flexible budgets and free spending were quickly replaced by a cost consciousness that put every creative decision under scrutiny.”

In this environment, it should come as no surprise that an in-development project like Word Workshop would face critiques. Math Workshop was presumably at least somewhat commercially successful for Broderbund, but it wasn’t part of an established franchise and lacked characters with immediate name recognition. Something had to be done, and fast. 

The solution? Remake Word Workshop into a game now starring everyone’s favourite red trenchcoat-clad thief, Carmen Sandiego:

After six months of intense design and development, “Word Workshop” was nearly complete when management decided that the competition for shelf space had become too cutthroat. To have a better chance in the stores, the game would have to be recast as a line extension to Carmen Sandiego.

Word Workshop was quickly shelved, and Carmen Sandiego Word Detective was born. Out of this sudden shift, however, would come one of the most creative educational titles of the late 1990s.

Word Detective had a fairly quick development period – according to Strategy and Business, “the game went into full production mode within six months, about a third the usual time” – and came out in the fall of 1997. (IMDb lists the release date as September 12, 1997. It’s unclear how this lines up with the release of Great Chase Through Time, which features some of the same characters and also came out in fall 1997, though its actual release date is unknown.)

However, Word Detective is far from the mere cash grab its corporate-mandated origins might suggest. This is not merely Word Workshop with a new coat of paint – instead, Word Detective takes familiar elements of the Carmen Sandiego universe and presents them in new, interesting ways.

Word Detective cover art. Credit: MobyGames

Like its predecessors, Word Detective revolves around one of Carmen’s often outlandish schemes – in this case, she wants to steal all language with the help of her new Babble-On Machine, an invention that leaves its victims, well, babbling incoherently. (In Carmen’s own words, her machine steals “the power of speech.”)

In Word Detective, the player takes the role of ACME’S Agent 13, a ACME detective sent to investigate the Babble-On Machine in a new Carmen lair called (appropriately enough) the Tower of Babble. ACME’s other twelve agents had each attempted to infiltrate the Tower, but were instead captured by Carmen and subjected to the Machine’s word-scrambling powers. It’s up to the player to free their fellow agents and put a stop to Carmen’s plans. (The game’s suspenseful opening sequence features Agent 12 – also known as Ann Tickwittee, seen previously in Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time. The captured agents are a mix of familiar faces and new characters.) 

The player is assisted by the red-headed, gravel-voiced ACME agent Chase Devineaux, who was Carmen’s partner back when she worked for the agency (an aspect of Carmen’s backstory introduced in Great Chase Through Time). Chase Devineaux’s name was chosen through a contest on America On-Line, and I wish I knew more about the results.

Chase introduces himself to the player. Credit: MobyGames

Chase appears in video messages throughout the game, sometimes in back-and-forth banter with Carmen herself. Carmen is voiced by future League of Legends VA Mari Devon, who does strong work with the character’s sudden (perhaps too sudden) turn toward cackling supervillainy. The dialogue is snappy overall, with a few real gems. (Carmen instructs a henchman: “Take these keys and hide them. And not under your pillow like the last time.”)

Word Detective follows a somewhat structured narrative, as players can rescue the twelve agents in any order. Each agent is freed from the Babble-On Machine using a key hidden in the hideout of one of Carmen’s twelve cronies. Each key is locked inside a capsule that requires multiple passwords to open. To acquire the passwords, the player must complete language-themed minigames scattered across the various hideouts. Each hideout is accessed by a teleportation system activated through the sleek interface at the bottom of the screen, which also keeps track of passwords and is where the player receives video messages. 

The Code Breaker mini game. Credit: MobyGames

The minigames in Word Detective test spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and strategy skills. Minigames range from Code Breaker, in which the player must spell words accurately, to Micropix, which entails completing a text story using the correct nouns, adjectives and verbs. A capsule can require up to six passwords, so the player hops between multiple hideouts before obtaining a key. After obtaining a key, the player automatically teleports back to the Tower of Babble, where they can free the agent of their choice. Upon being freed, each agent gives the player a codeword to help shut down the Babble-On Machine; after rescuing all twelve agents, the player shuts down the Machine, foiling Carmen’s plan. 

If this all sounds a bit perfunctory, I don’t blame you; Word Detective truly shines in its more creative aspects. The game’s grey-and-green interface looks sharp decades after release, and the muted colours of the villains’ hideouts are appropriately atmospheric. (It seems impossible that this title and Math Workshop ever had the same candy-coloured aesthetics.) 

The villains in Word Detective are all new to the franchise, and many have all-time great punny names worthy of the franchise: Otto Readmore, Ill Will, Mel Ancholy, Dr. Ima LeZard, I.I. Captain; the list goes on. Each villain also has their own distinctive and gorgeously-drawn hideout, complete with evocative accompanying music.

Exploring Esther Odious’s estate. Credit: MobyGames

Like previous Carmen Sandiego titles, the music from Word Detective mostly comes from existing sound libraries. The choices of music for each location are impeccable, from Vivaldi’s stately “La Verita in Cimenta” soundtracking Esther Odious’s palatial mansion to the downbeat jazz in private eye Nick Furtive’s dilapidated office. Each hideout features four or five unique pieces of music, helping each villain and their environment feel fully realized and distinct. 

Otto Readmore confronts the player. Credit: MobyGames

The player does come face-to-face with each of Carmen’s lackeys once the key in a particular villain’s hideout has been located. (We occasionally catch glimpses of each villain throughout the game in the buildup to these encounters.) While some of these confrontations are comical in nature (Otto Readmore attempting to throw a book cart at the player but dropping it on himself instead, as one example), others do qualify as jumpscares. (In one memorably creepy sequence, Dr. Ima LeZard, an alien disguised in human form, unzips her skin and leaps at the screen just before the player teleports to safety.)

Word Detective is not without its flaws. Carmen’s scheme to steal all language is somewhat nebulous, as the Babble-On Machine only impacts one’s speech and doesn’t impact the written word, and lacks the foresight typically expected in her plans. (What does Carmen intend to do once she’s stolen all language?) Of course, this can be attributed to the game’s quick turnaround time and the need to come up with a storyline essentially on the fly. 

Carmen herself is depicted as somewhat one-dimensional, lacking the complexity introduced with her new backstory in Great Chase Through Time. It’s still an effective portrayal; Devon excels at the smug superiority of this version of Carmen. And despite its stylish presentation, Word Detective is essentially a collection of language-themed minigames with a shiny exterior, but it’s still successful in its goals. As a contemporaneous PC Mag review noted, “Though useful, ordinary spelling and grammar drills can be tedious; but [Word Detective] puts these tasks into an engaging setting.”

In general, Word Detective feels sophisticated in ways many other educational software titles do not. The game takes itself seriously for the most part, with moments of levity present throughout, but incorporates enough core franchise elements so it doesn’t come across as a drastic departure from the beloved absurdity of past titles. This is one of those instances where a franchise going grim and dark ends up with great results. 

Next time: We continue our Summer of Carmen Sandiego series with a look at the followup to Word Detective, the 1998 title Math Detective. See you then!