First Nancy Drew game in five years wants to teach us to be badass sleuths all over again

With Midnight in Salem, the feminist icon is back and ready to teach a new generation all kinds of amazing skills.

Corinne Reichert Senior Editor
Corinne Reichert (she/her) grew up in Sydney, Australia and moved to California in 2019. She holds degrees in law and communications, and currently writes news, analysis and features for CNET across the topics of electric vehicles, broadband networks, mobile devices, big tech, artificial intelligence, home technology and entertainment. In her spare time, she watches soccer games and F1 races, and goes to Disneyland as often as possible.
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  • I've been covering technology and mobile for 12 years, first as a telecommunications reporter and assistant editor at ZDNet in Australia, then as CNET's West Coast head of breaking news, and now in the Thought Leadership team.
Shelby Brown Editor II
Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
  • She received the Renau Writing Scholarship in 2016 from the University of Louisville's communication department.
Corinne Reichert
Shelby Brown
9 min read
Nancy Drew The Silent Spy
Her Interactive

It's come to this. I fit the heavy, block-shaped Mayan calendar into the Monolith's stone door, twisting it in place. I insert a stone key, detailed with Mayan glyphs, and the ancient tomb creaks open. I stumble back, startled by the skeleton of a 7th-century scribe, fear frozen on her mummified face.

Trembling, I step inside to reach for the notes she holds -- secrets of the ancient world -- but they're blank! Suddenly, I'm shoved from behind into the tomb, the papers snatched from my hands as the door slams shut, throwing me into darkness. I'll run out of air if I don't do something quickly. I need to find some way to escape. Is there something glinting in the mouth of the skeleton? I reach in and --

"I'm not going to tell you again to log off and go to bed. It's a school night." 

This is the third time my mom has told me to get off the computer, but I'm about to crack the case. Catch the culprit. Unlock secrets as old as history itself. Sure, I might be tired at school tomorrow, but I've been through worse. I've almost frozen to death in a lighthouse and been crushed in a theater scheduled for demolition. In my travels to French castles, Japanese ryokans, Egyptian campsites and the Parisian catacombs, I've recovered invaluable artifacts and brought notorious criminals to justice.

Not in real life, though. That could describe either of us, playing Nancy Drew video games back in the day. We're Nancy Drew superfans, and we've been playing those games for 20 years.

And we're not alone.

Nancy who?

Nancy Drew is the iconic fictional detective, originally created in a mystery series ghostwritten by Caroline Keene. Dating back to the 1930s, the saga started when publisher Edward Stratemeyer created a counterpart to his best-selling Hardy Boys book series. Nancy was born when he wanted "an up-to-date American girl at her best: bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy." 

There have been hundreds of books, all throwing Nancy into baffling mysteries, whether it was a creepy ballerina puppet dancing on the lawns of an old mansion or tracking down family heirlooms in Scotland, where her main clue was the sound of bagpipes. 

Nancy Drew The Clue in the Crumbling Wall
Enlarge Image
Nancy Drew The Clue in the Crumbling Wall

Nancy has the skills and knowledge to do anything -- from the mundane, like dancing, swimming, cooking, sailing and golfing, to the truly bizarre, like trick horse riding when she's forced to go undercover in a circus.

With a strong female protagonist as the lead, Nancy brought feminism into the mainstream for young women worldwide. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a fan, recently posting on Instagram that Nancy Drew is one of the stars in The Book of Gutsy Women, which she co-wrote with daughter Chelsea Clinton.

"My friends and I all wanted to be more like Nancy: smart, brave, and independent," Clinton said on Instagram. 

As Nancy Drew's book series was wrapping up, the character was transitioning to television with The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, which came out in 1979. The show would get remade a few times, most recently for the CW. The detective had a feature film starring Emma Roberts in 2007 and another new film just this year

Eventually, the appeal of a strong female role model was potent enough for Nancy Drew to be translated to video games for a whole new generation. The Nancy Drew of the 21st century uses science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, to solve her mysteries.

Clue Crew Forever

As grown women, we both shamelessly admit we plan on devoting the majority of our free time to the latest Nancy game, Midnight in Salem, which came out Tuesday. We spoke with Penny Milliken, CEO of Her Interactive, the studio behind the game franchise, about the series that transformed our lives growing up.

"We receive an unbelievable amount of fan email and letters with testimonials about the impact Nancy Drew games have on their lives," Milliken says.

Despite the cult following, Her Interactive struggled to keep Nancy Drew games coming. The 33rd game, Midnight in Salem, the first Nancy Drew game in five years, was released Tuesday on Windows and Mac and represents a big leap forward for the series. In this latest game, Nancy finds herself in Salem, Massachusetts, investigating the arson of the haunted Hawthorne House. The detective, with the help of the Hardy Boys, must draw connections to the heinous witch trials of the 1690s to find out who -- or what -- is responsible.

But there's a lot to look forward to in the new game besides another fascinating mystery, according to Milliken. 

The studio made major and minor updates so Nancy's more modern than in the series' cartoony roots in 1998's Secrets Can Kill. It added full 3D environments for a more realistic experience when digging for clues and solving puzzles. Midnight in Salem also features free exploration, more characters than the standard four suspects and improved animation .

Until now, the game developers had to create entirely new assets and environments for every new game, as nothing was reusable. "The look was painterly and beautiful," she says -- but it was limiting. Midnight in Salem has been built on Unity, a gaming engine that comes with reusable assets and 3D.

Frank and Joe Hardy

Frank and Joe Hardy in Midnight in Salem (L) compared to their first appearance in Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon (R).

Her Interactive/Screenshot by CNET

Remaining true to its roots, Midnight in Salem will still be point and click.

But it'll be without Lani Minella, the voice actress of Nancy Drew herself. Sea of Darkness was her final game, and a new actress, Brittany Cox, will voice Nancy in Midnight in Salem.

Translating Nancy Drew from books to games

After the girl detective's first PC game in 1998 -- featuring an undercover investigation after the murder of a high school student -- Stay Tuned for Danger followed in 1999. Message in a Haunted Mansion launched in 2000, and from then on, two games debuted every year until 2015.

The point-and-click games let you play as Nancy, solving the mystery as she would. Whether you play as a junior or senior detective, you'll question suspects, solve puzzles, discover clues and escape multiple sticky situations to catch the culprit.

The games were updated gradually over time. The first featured cartoon characters, and the graphics slowly became more realistic during the next 10 years. What was stagnant snow in the fourth game, Treasure in the Royal Tower, became the beautiful, mesmeric, constantly falling snowflakes in Sea of Darkness, game number 32. In Midnight in Salem, promo images tease a realistic fire.

Midnight in Salem fire

Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem features realistic fire animation.

Her Interactive

The technology portrayed in the stories has slowly improved, too, going from rotary landlines to smartphones , and from handwritten notes to communication via laptops . For Midnight in Salem, Milliken says there will again be a new inventory system and a new UI for your phone. 

But the thrill of slotting slide puzzles into place after a 45-minute struggle, and decoding glyphs and secret codes, has remained the same as you deal with kidnappings, murders, hauntings, sabotage, monsters and buried treasure.

What Nancy Drew taught me

The skills that book-Nancy mastered are communicated through the games, and force players to learn too. We've been exposed to braille, the periodic table of elements and sheet music. We can now operate a ham radio, read Roman numerals, the Chinese zodiac, Mayan glyphs, Morse code, latitude and longitude, nautical flags, the Fujita scale, hieroglyphs, binary code and more.

We've learned about the French Revolution, the Prohibition era, World War II, Hawaiian legends, Venetian culture and history, Irish lore, herbal remedies,19th-century dinner courses, cloud formations, Grimm's fairy tales, Nikola Tesla, female spies in the Civil War, Scottish tartans and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

We can play the Italian card game Scopa, and we can log artifact provenance. Need someone to play the bagpipes? We've got it.

"We hear repeatedly from our fans: 'I learned it from Nancy Drew,'" Milliken says. "Our stories are fictional, but where it matters and where we are able to share important historical information, we strive for historical interest and accuracy."

What knowledge will be added to our arsenal in the 33rd game? The Salem witch trials of the 1690s. We'll see that historic moment through the eyes of the town's descendants. 

Milliken, whose favorite games are Danger by Design, The Silent Spy and Midnight in Salem (ours are probably Secret of the Scarlet Hand, The Phantom of Venice and Treasure in the Royal Tower, but it's like choosing a favorite child), says some of the most rewarding feedback Her Interactive receives from players is that they learned logic and critical thinking through the games.

A role model for women in tech

For almost 90 years, Nancy Drew has been a role model for readers, especially young women. When she transitioned from page to PC, the door opened for Nancy to become a different type of role model -- one for women in technology

Though women have come a long way in the workforce, some fields still have a significant lack of diversity. Surveys have shown that white men outnumber women working in the tech field, with giants like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and others not even reaching 30% women. The numbers for women of color are even lower.

Her Interactive Penny Milliken

Her Interactive CEO Penny Milliken.

Her Interactive

While it's not intentional, Her Interactive is predominantly female, as is the fan base -- 90% women, 10% men. The game beta-test groups reflect that ratio.

In the male-dominated industries of tech and gaming, Milliken says women involved with the Nancy Drew project have enjoyed working on a game with a strong female hero. The games also have diversity -- the first LGBTQ character appeared in the most recent game, Sea of Darkness.

"At one of the studios we used for voice recordings, the team did hear the remark how unusual it was to see so many women in the studio on both sides of the booth," Milliken says. 

The studio wants to inspire players to see the value of technology. And it's working -- Her Interactive has received countless emails, social media posts and letters saying how the games have encouraged STEM education and careers.

And since the computer games are typically played by older users (just try getting through a game, especially The Deadly Device, without using the Universal Hint System), the team designed Nancy Drew: Codes & Clues for kids aged five to eight to help younger girls stay engaged in tech and learn the principles of coding.

So what does Milliken think the famous sleuth says to women and girls today?

"Nancy Drew's enduring qualities are inspiring because they are timeless," she says. "Her ability as a character to break through boundaries by being both bold and kind are key messages for today. She always shows respect, exudes confidence, is naturally inquisitive and stays focused on the facts, completely unapologetic for who she is."

Secrets Can Kill vs Midnight in Salem

Character animation has come a long way since the first release, Secrets Can Kill, in 1998.

Her Interactive

The future of Nancy Drew

We haven't seen the last of the nosy bloodhound, but don't expect Her Interactive to start releasing games rapid-fire to make up for the five-year dry spell. The studio committed itself to producing a quality game in Midnight in Salem and doesn't plan to to deliver a slapdash follow-up. 

Milliken says the studio's primary goal is to take away key learnings from making Midnight in Salem as a 3D game. Perfecting the proprietary engine took 20 years, but it was essentially obsolete when it came to competing with modern games.

"It was a huge move to 3D and the new engine, which impacts everything in the game design," Milliken says. "From motion capture to 3D models, and animations to new technologies with facial movements, full-body gestures and expanding the stories for new environments and explorations, these required new systems and more testing and more time." 

Midnight in Salem Her Interactive motion capture

Motion capture was used to create the newest Nancy Drew game.

Her Interactive

More characters mean more relationship development, mystery and suspects to investigate. Fans have requested all of these elements, according to Milliken. 

Nancy could even make the move to augmented reality and virtual reality. Her Interactive has already developed a Nancy Drew VR proposal based on one of the books with a Spanish director, but it's more likely an AR project would come to market first.

Milliken didn't give any hints on when we could expect a game after Midnight in Salem, but indicated more are on the way. 

"We plan to be able to release games more regularly now, and most importantly, want to thank our fans for hanging in there for Midnight in Salem."

Originally published Dec. 3.