That’s Edutainment: Carmen Sandiego – Treasures of Knowledge

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

Today, we’re (at long last!) wrapping up our Carmen Sandiego miniseries with the 2001 title Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Treasures of Knowledge (referred to as Treasures of Knowledge from here on out). It’s the tumultuous story of how the Carmen Sandiego franchise joined the new millennium under new leadership, and how it set the course for games to follow. The header image is from Steam; all other images are credited throughout. Let’s begin!

Carmen Sandiego had a rough start to the twenty-first century. In June of 1998, Broderbund, the studio that had originated the character and franchise, was acquired by The Learning Company (TLC), one of its biggest competitors in the Nineties edutainment market. 

Only a few months later, TLC itself was bought by Mattel to the tune of $3.6 billion in what turned out to be, as one publication put it, “one of the worst [acquisitions] in history”. Following the acquisition, Mattel “lost $300 million in 1999” and “hemorrhaged $1 million a day in 2000.” Broderbund co-founder Doug Carlson described it particularly vividly in a 2019 interview: “Mattel, who didn’t know anything about software, and thought they were buying a gravy train … ended up with nobody who understood software at all, just laying people off as fast as they could to try to get back to break-even.”

Mattel sold TLC to a private equity firm in late September 2000, after which TLC was bought by Dublin/San Francisco-based publisher Riverdeep Interactive Learning the following year. (More specifically, Riverdeep only acquired one of TLC’s three divisions – its Education division – with the company’s Entertainment and Productivity divisions going elsewhere. If anything is emblematic of the 1990s software market, it’s a Productivity division.)

The point of this condensed (and admittedly convoluted) corporate history is to indicate that the edutainment market was in a drastically different place than it had been only a few years prior, during its heyday in the mid-to-late 1990s. Nowhere was this more evident than with the Carmen Sandiego franchise, which, under its original studio Broderbund, had diligently and consistently produced a whole host of products almost every year from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, expanding beyond games to become a genuine phenomenon in the process.

It was in a considerably more uncertain environment that Treasures of Knowledge was released under The Learning Company’s name in the fall of 2001 – the first new Carmen Sandiego title after a tumultuous two years, and a chance to reinvigorate one of edutainment’s most beloved brands. 

But first, a note about costume design. 

Carmen Sandiego’s red-and-yellow ensemble had been an immediately-recognizable aspect of the character since the early 1990s, not to mention the video games themselves and their many, many tie-in properties. However, that changed with the release of ThinkQuick Challenge in 1999, the first title released under The Learning Company’s name. ThinkQuick was the first brand-new Carmen title in recent memory to redesign Carmen’s outfit, swapping the familiar, eye-catching red and yellow colour combination for a sleeker combo of red and black.

This change in costume is perhaps representative of the 21st-century approach to Carmen Sandiego video games: not as fun and zany adventures, but as stories that require, maybe even demand, you take them seriously. ThinkQuick Challenge was also the last game in the series to prominently feature Carmen’s lackeys and their often cartoonish antics; from Treasures of Knowledge onwards, the focus shifted towards Carmen Sandiego herself, as well as the ACME agents tasked with catching her. 

As per usual with Carmen games of this era, there are conflicting accounts about the exact date on which Treasures of Knowledge was released; online sources say it came out in either October or November of 2001.) Despite sharing a name with the very first game in the Carmen Sandiego series released in 1988, Treasures of Knowledge isn’t directly connected with that title (or its subsequent 1992 and 1996 remakes). Instead, Treasures of Knowledge features an original story, brand-new characters, and point-and-click gameplay, distinguishing itself from the clues-based structure of its predecessors in name. 

The Treasures of Knowledge box art. Credit: IMDb

Treasures of Knowledge may have come out with TLC’s name on the box, but the game itself was made by ImageBuilder Software, a developer founded in 1995 with an already extensive portfolio of tie-in educational titles for franchises ranging from Bill Nye to Madeleine. (Riverdeep had acquired TLC by the time of the game’s release but isn’t mentioned anywhere in the game or on its packaging.) 

This technically wasn’t the first time players saw this game’s iteration of Carmen, voiced by Christiane Crawford, who finds a balance between the cackling supervillainy of past portrayals and a more nuanced, character-based approach. Crawford’s Carmen played a minor role in Mystery Mansion Arcade, the final title in TLC’s ClueFinders series, first released in 2000 (and re-released in 2002 after the Riverdeep acquisition).

Carmen’s “debut”. Credit: The Learning Company

In Mystery Mansion, Carmen is the mastermind behind the game’s entire plot, then vanishes into the unknown, with characters wondering where in the world she could be. Her appearance in Mystery Mansion Arcade was probably meant to re-introduce the character to modern audiences but also suggests a Carmen Sandiego/ClueFinders crossover title that never occurred.

In contrast to previous Carmen titles, which placed the player directly in the shoes of an ACME agent, Treasures of Knowledge stars a pair of ACME agents: methodical senior agent Jules Argent and her over-eager partner, rookie Shadow Hawkins. (An early example of their odd-couple dynamic: Shadow enters the top floor of a building through a window, whereas Jules takes the elevator.) Jules and Shadow are voiced by Irene Trapp and Mark Atherlay, respectively. (Trapp doesn’t have many credits following Treasures of Knowledge. Atherlay has gone on to a fairly prolific career, recently voicing the Games Master in the second Voice of Cards game.)

The game begins with Carmen stealing a book called The Travels of Marco Polo, containing clues to a fabled lost city. Jules and Shadow are tasked with chasing Carmen across the globe, visiting locations from Japan to Peru, solving puzzles (and learning cultural and geographical facts) along the way.

Jules and Shadow find a clue. Credit: Steam

The art style is more cartoonish and perhaps less detailed than previous titles in the series; here, character art was credited to the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Wild Brain Studios, tasked by TLC with creating “a new look” for the franchise. It isn’t my favorite art style in the Carmen Sandiego series, but it’s in line with how a lot of edutainment looked at the time, and is colorful and polished. (Based on my research, it seems like Wild Brain is now the studio that created the Carmen Sandiego Netflix animated series, which would be a nice full-circle moment.)

This title also boasts a more developed narrative than those found in previous Carmen Sandiego games. Jules reveals early on that she and Carmen worked together back when Carmen was an ACME agent – and that Jules was blamed for her former partner’s turn toward a life of crime. This is probably the first game in the series to reckon with the emotional impact of Carmen’s schemes, and that she leaves real people with real feelings in her wake. However, this is still an educational game, so a compelling narrative takes a backseat to geographical and cultural facts rattled off by Jules and Shadow at every opportunity. 

Treasures of Knowledge is one of the few edutainment titles that feels constrained by its genre and format – it almost seems like the educational content is getting in the game’s way. Typical aspects of a Carmen Sandiego property – wacky villains, punny names, fiendish plots, improbable heists – are virtually non-existent. In this sense, Treasures of Knowledge has more in common with classic, ‘serious’ adventure titles published by LucasArts or Sierra. Carmen’s own motivations are questioned; it’s suggested that she drew Jules and Shadow to the lost city because she wanted them to uncover the treasures themselves.

Overall, Treasures of Knowledge feels like a clean break; an opportunity to redefine an aging franchise for a modern era. Even though the Carmen Sandiego series had already been heading in this new artistic and gameplay-based direction for a while, it also brings Carmen as a character back to her roots – and kind of pulls it off.

Treasures of Knowledge appears to have been a critical success as well; it received favourable reviews and garnered a D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Digital Arts in Sciences, in the PC Educational category. (Its competition was a JumpStart title called Spy Masters: Unmask the Prankster and Disney’s Phonics Quest.) The game may have also introduced the Carmen Sandiego franchise, and its lead character, to a new generation. Perhaps most notably, Treasures of Knowledge is available on Steam – I believe it’s the only Carmen Sandiego title (or at least one of the few) from the 1990s you can actually purchase. 

More than anything else, Treasures of Knowledge is noteworthy as the first Carmen game released after several years of corporate uncertainty, and deserves credit for being a polished title with clear thought and consideration put into its development. This isn’t the last audiences saw of Jules, Shadow, or this version of Carmen – the next game in the series took the franchise in a new and unpredictable direction, but it’s rare for this series to rest on its laurels.

Next time: I’m taking a break from Carmen Sandiego articles for now – I’ve always wanted to write more about mystery-themed edutainment, and now seems like a good time to do so. We’ll start off with the charming 1996 point-and-click adventure (and surprisingly excellent tie-in title), Sesame Street Search & Learn Adventures. See you then!