The following contains spoilers for the Nancy Drew books and video game series.
It wasn’t until I was in the middle of the Arizona desert that I realized I should have been more suspicious of the cook. Now, he’s advancing on me, a menacing glower on his face. He’d already chased off the horse I rode in on, stranding me. Things are looking bleak.
Suddenly, my dad interrupts. “It’s a school night, it’s time for bed,” he chides me — and my mom, who’s sitting next to me, just as wrapped up as I am in solving this mystery computer game: Nancy Drew and The Secret of Shadow Ranch. Ultimately, she buys us 15 more minutes, hopefully enough time to thwart the cook’s plans and save the ranch.
This was a typical weeknight when I was about 9 years old. After dinner, my mom and I would head to the “computer room,” pop a Nancy Drew CD ROM into the computer tower, and play for my allotted hour of screen time. We’d write down clues on a legal pad, solve puzzles, interview suspects, and try to crack cases, usually sucking down delicious Capri Sun pouches as we went. (Yes, I’m your basic millennial.)
I don’t remember exactly when we stopped this nightly ritual. But even after I stopped playing, the games kept coming out — there are 33 total, released between 1998 and 2019 — and I never forgot how much fun they were. As it turns out, I’m not alone.
“There’s a diehard Nancy Drew Community on social media,” says Michael Gray, a game reviewer and player who goes by “Arglefumph: The Nancy Drew Dude” on social media. “I hear from people who’ve been playing forever; it’s really evergreen.”
Plenty of people love the book version of Nancy Drew. Former Presidential nominee and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that, as a young reader, she “adored” Drew. The 16-year-old detective is a character in The Book of Gutsy Women, which Clinton co-wrote with Chelsea Clinton. But while the computer game version, produced by HeR Interactive, stayed true to the mystery-solving heart of the book series, it added a level of interactivity that made the storylines feel all the more compelling. “I read the Nancy Drew books when I was a little girl, but they were pretty boring,” my mom, Ellen Longman, remembers. “But playing the games with you never was. They were interesting, challenging, and showed young women that they could get themselves out of trouble and they didn’t need a prince to do so.”
And it’s true: From the very first release — Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill, a point-and-click adventure game — the Nancy Drew adventures weren’t “girly,” although they clearly were marketed to the “untapped market” of girl gamers. And they were a success. HeR Interactive began releasing two editions a year, and adopted the tagline, “For girls who aren't afraid of a mouse.” In 2000, they’d gained enough steam that The New York Times wrote about the games in an article titled “Prowling And Spying With Nancy Drew, The Un-Barbie.” “HerInteractive wants to have girls sitting at their computers in slack-jawed concentration just like the boys, paving the way for a future female Bill Gates,” the write-up, by Charles Herold, asserted.
But anyone could play. You never actually see what Drew looks like in the games, because she’s you. Unlike other gaming options of the early 2000s such as Dream Life, you’re not spending time building your avatar — you’re thrown right into the action, foiling the plans of kidnappers, scammers, and schemers alike.
“At that time, there were strong female characters who were badass or smart, but there was always this huge element of: What do they look like? What are they wearing?” “says Kayli Kunkel, 28, the founder of Earth & Me NYC, who began playing when she was about 10 years old. “It’s not that I didn’t care about that stuff at the time, but it was nice not to have to think about it… Back then — well, always, but especially then — there was such an emphasis on women’s bodies in media, and this was a space where that didn’t matter.”
Indeed, HeR Interactive intentionally made it clear that Drew’s “superpower is her brain,” as a company spokesperson put it in an email to Refinery29.
Kunkel adds that she remembers learning about other cultures and history while playing the games. The characters were somewhat diverse, and the games seemed to at least try to be culturally sensitive and historically accurate. They certainly didn’t always succeed: The 20th game in the series, Ransom of the Seven Ships, was quietly discontinued in 2020 for racist content, specifically having a white man disguise himself as a Jamaican person, Gray says. HeR Interactive didn’t answer Refinery29’s question about this.
But despite the games’ flaws, they clearly meant a lot to many fans. Part of it may be because the games took kids seriously, Kunkel says. “Being in a game where people are ostensibly trying to kill you was probably intense for a kid, but I like that they treated me like a capable person,” she says. “They didn’t coddle you. They set you up in this universe and you had to go figure it out. It was a good way of respecting a young person and their capabilities.”
“Generations of girls revere [Nancy] because she thrived outside ‘the rules,’” Megan Gaiser, who was CEO of HeR Interactive in what many would call it’s “heyday,” until 2011, said in an email to Refinery29. Gaiser says developing the series was a collaborative effort, and “each person's unique gifts were reflected in the games. That’s what made them extraordinary. I simply nurtured a creative, inclusive culture in an industry that believed girls were computer-phobic and therefore ‘ungameworthy.’”
Lani Minella — a director, casting director, and the voice actor who brought Drew to life in most of the games, save for the most recent edition — says fans have written to her and shared personal stories of how Nancy inspired them, taught them, or readjusted their worldview. “It’s made much more of an impact than a lot of other games have,” says Minella, who’s done work on projects such as World of Warcraft, Frogger: The Great Quest, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. “Fans have shared personal stories with me about how it’s changed their lives, brought their families together. It’s charming and it makes you feel good. I hope fans still feel good about it.”
“The enduring longevity of our award-winning series is attributed to our amazing fan base,” a spokesperson for HeR Interactive said in an email comment, noting that the information came from different members of the HeR Interactive team. “We love hearing how our games have inspired fans to become female game developers, artists, or writers, or even pursue STEM-related careers.”
For years, the Nancy Drew games provided a fun yet educational escape for folks of all ages and genders, Gray and Minella say. But nothing lasts forever.
In March, 2015, HeR Interactive laid off 14 employees, more than half the company, a year after Penny Milliken took over as CEO, Kotaku reported. It was announced that Minella, who’d been voicing Nancy since the very first game, would no longer be behind the iconic character. Fans noticed changes were happening, and they began to get upset. They even created a petition urging the company to keep Minella on.
The only in depth knowledge I have of gaming was HeR Interactive’s change in management that basically brought an end to the Nancy Drew games, which crushed me. They had their issues, but it was my point and click childhood.— Desock (@ATimelikeDesic) March 31, 2021
Minella, for one, remembers rumors starting online about her departure. “The separation was not due to me sounding ‘too old,’ and it wasn’t because I asked for more money,” she says, now. “I want fans to know how much they mean to me, and to not believe the stories about me.”
Ultimately, Minella says she believes the company wanted to go in a different direction to attract new, younger fans. They also were trying to chase a mobile audience, while struggling to become profitable, Kotaku reported. HeR Interactive’s spokesperson didn’t respond to questions asked about Minella’s departure, the 2015 layoffs, or about the company’s audience goals and profitability.
“Action adventure games are running out of money. It’s not a lucrative genre,” Minella says. Games like Nancy Drew rely on individual sales, while other games are free to play online, but, as Minella puts it, “charge you an arm and a leg if you want a new shield” in what are called microtransactions. This is often a more successful model, she says.
“It was good while it lasted,” says Minella of the Nancy Drew games. “It’s a shame what happened to the whole franchise.”
Gray says that he noticed a shift from HeR Interactive in the mid-2010s. Most notable, he says, was that HeR Interactive stopped releasing Nancy Drew games regularly. After the game Sea of Darkness came out in 2015, there was a four and a half year wait for a new release.
“That was really rough on a lot of the fans,” Gray says. He posts walkthroughs, reviews, and quippy “Everything Wrong With The Nancy Drew Games” videos to his YouTube page, and people started leaving disgruntled comments. “I shared in their frustration,” he says. Eventually, he was contacted to be a tester for the game that came out in 2019, Midnight in Salem. ”I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I was testing it, but I would see all these comments from people feeling like another game would never come out. I really wanted to tell them it was coming, but wasn’t allowed. People have been so frustrated with the lack of communication.” Now, two years after Midnight In Salem’s debut, fans are waiting anxiously for yet another release, with no word on when it could come (HeR Interactive didn’t answer a question about what they could share about the next game, but gave the vague answer, “Not nearly enough time to break it all down now but... Next game would you come along with us for a new story?).
However, Gray says, “the Nancy Drew community is a pretty positive crowd, compared to most on the internet.” They may be emulating Nancy — although she had her sassy moments, she was generally a polite, kind role model. “Nancy wasn’t a smartass,” Minella remembers. “She could be a little square, but she was never cynical…. Her persona was made to be pleasant.”
Despite the recent unrest in the Nancy Drew computer game community, the pandemic brought many people back to the series. “The entire video game industry grew significantly more in 2020 than previous years,” the HeR Interactive spokesperson said. “We had solid sales and continue to have meaningful engagement with old and new fans.” Gray says that in February 2020, his YouTube videos were getting an average of 11,000 views per day. By March 2020, he was getting 40,000 views per day (though that’s not all attributable to Drew, as he posts walkthroughs of other adventure games too). “Everyone was doing marathons of the games because we were all stuck at home with nothing to do — and it was comforting,” Gray says. Some played them through the platform Steam; I dug the old CD ROMs out of a dusty filing cabinet in my basement and popped them into an old school computer for the authentic experience.
Kunkel revisited the games in April, and fell back in love. “It was so nostalgic, and I remembered the games so well,” she reflects. “And it was cool to see as an adult how I got to idolize this awesome, relatable female character who was a normal person but very funny, curious, and who wasn’t afraid to defend herself.” Around this time, Kunkel was also working for the 2020 Census, and masking up and knocking door to door to get everybody counted. “I felt like I was channeling Nancy Drew,” she says. “For the Census, you have to figure out how to get into buildings, ask neighbors who lives in a certain place, and build trust. You might notice there are two sets of shoes in front of a door of different sizes, and that’s a clue. It was so Nancy.”
Playing the games took Kunkel back in time, and made her realize the small ways in which Nancy influenced her thinking and path. My mom and I felt this way too, as we revisited the games, finding ourselves yet again stuck in the Arizona desert with the villainous cook. And yes, we were able to escape his clutches and save the ranch.
“I loved that you got to see this fearless heroine, but the best part was the games gave me some common ground with my tween,” my mom says now. “When we replayed, it gave us some light in quarantine, even though the games can be pretty dark... All these years later, Nancy is still bringing us together.”