I spent Sunday afternoon at a family picnic, and then when I came home, I went looking for Carmen Sandiego. These two events aren’t related, but they could have been. I was talking to my brother about video games. My aunt had just returned from Europe, and we were talking about travel.
But the truth is that I was procrastinating. I was supposed to be writing about blackberries (they have not had the best summer), and when I realised that wasn’t working, I quickly outlined some recipes from my week in cooking to fill my eight pages. But none of my plans were coming together, and I was facing down my deadline.
Then I found this game, streaming online in its original form. This is exactly the Carmen Sandiego I remember. These colours, those pixels. I couldn’t stop playing. I didn’t really want to. When you don’t feel like thinking about the future, spending some time in the past is a comfort.
If you were a brainy kid like me in the 90s, here’s the game.
I had been thinking about it for a few days, long enough that I don’t recall now what triggered the memory, but I had been thinking Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
The amazing thing about the internet is that these thoughts aren’t stuck in your head anymore. Now we have a way to make them real. It used to be that you’d hear a song on the radio, and if you didn’t catch the band or the title, you’d just have to wait until you’d hear it again. There was no way to look up that kind of information. Tonight, all I did was search “carmen sandiego game,” and I discovered a cache of late ’80s/early ’90s PC games, playable on the Internet Archive. I knew I would find what I was looking. That’s the promise of the internet.
I spent hours playing this game on the computers at my local library. There were a few set up in a little alcove, blocked off from the rest of the library by a shelf. These were the computers reserved for games and other programs, like the Encarta Encyclopedia, not the computers for searching the catalogue.
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was easy for me, even then. The date on this version is 1989, which means I was 7 when it came out, but probably still playing the same game for years after. (I remember the next versions, when the teletype machine was replaced by a flip phone, and then when they added time travel. That was when I stopped playing, though it wasn’t because the game got harder.)
I was obsessed with this game, in a way you can only be with something very easy or very hard. There are obsessions which are borne of challenge and needing to figure something out. My obsessions are about the things which come easy to me, my places of comfort where I feel like I can succeed. They’re happy places because they’re predictable. I know how to do this.
Computer games have natural limits–or at least they used to. Updates were years away, and they didn’t come automatically from the app store. There were only so many options written into a game before developers had to ship it. There were only so many cities I could visit, people I could question, criminals I could catch. When you do the newspaper crossword every day, you learn the tricks, the quirks, the familiar vowel-heavy words. I learned the Carmen Sandiego facts and memorised them the way others count cards.
Though the objective of the game is to catch criminals, win promotions, and work your way up the ranks until you eventually, inevitably, catch Carmen herself, my objective was never to beat the game. I wasn’t playing to win; I was playing because I was good at it. I had always been good at school because I had always been good at facts. I have one of those brains that is always on, always assimilating information. It felt like the game had been made just for me.
I loved video games then. I love them less now, though I play a lot on my iPhone, and I’m always looking for something to challenge me. I haven’t found anything as satisfying as Carmen Sandiego. She was a worthy opponent and an unexpected role model. She was a video game woman to be proud of.
May she always be one step ahead.