The original Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is a generation-marking game. If you're between 20 and 32, you probably spent a few (hundred) hours chasing criminals around the world on the basis of geographical clues.
Last month, games developer Blue Fang partnered with The Learning Company to bring back the game on a new platform: Facebook. The game mechanics remain the same. You fly around the globe asking people for clues about the bad guys and their whereabouts, then you get a warrant and arrest them. It's basically the same old amusement, which means it's still as addictive as you remember. You fire up the app and 20 cases later, you're still hitting the mouse button like a trained monkey.
But there is one big difference between the old and new Carmen Sandiegos. This time around, Blue Fang went out and hired some real writers: Rob Dubbin and Jay Katsir, writers for The Colbert Report, and Chris Dahlen, a journalist who edits the highbrow videogame journal, Kill Screen.
I talked with the three of them about how writing a game was different from their other pursuits, why it's hard to write clues for Casablanca, and what Carmen Sandiego is really like, deep down.
What was your team's relationship with the original Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
ROB DUBBIN: I think I speak for a lot of people in our age range when I say that I spent a lot of time on the Apple 2GS in the elementary school computer lab just jamming on Carmen Sandiego. The game sucks you in with the routine of it. It's easy to play game after game after game, combing through the Almanac. Maybe that's why it translated so well to Facebook.
CHRIS DAHLEN: I had never played it. We played Lemonade Stand.
I feel like I have all these odd bits of geographical knowledge bouncing around my brain from Carmen Sandiego. Did you learn anything from the original?
JAY KATSIR: I definitely did. It would have been many years before I would have been aware of the existence of Interpol. And my mom was never going to tell me that the Nepalese flag was two triangles or what Sri Lanka was.
How do you even start rewriting a legendary game like this?
DUBBIN: I said to Blue Fang, I'll write you up a spec on this, with the kind of clues I might do and the sort of material you might get. I played through the original a bunch and wrote up some sample clues.
From there, they started to see the information about what the scale of the project was. I very quickly realized it was not a one man job. There are 66 cities and dozens and dozens of clues per city. The math starts to get really out of control. So I talked to Chris again, who had brought it to my attention, and then also looped in Jay, who I share an office with at Colbert. And we had our crime fighting team. [Editor's note: Below, you can see Jay and Rob's office at Colbert, where some of the magic happened.]
What was your actual process like? Did you sit around a table cracking jokes?
DUBBIN: It was sort of a division of labor. Chris shouldered the lion's share of the location, atlas-y, around-the-world stuff in one of the most herculean performances ever.
DAHLEN: But you guys had to find 100 different ways to say someone had blue yes, which is not trivial.
DUBBIN: We started coming up with lists. What are the pun names? What is Carmen up to this time? What are 50 first and last names that could go in the database of low-level criminal profiles?
Was the process there just getting drunk and talking?
KATSIR: It was more like waking up early, which was probably the mental equivalent.
DUBBIN: Writing this stuff involved the creation of something like 25 spreadsheets.
DAHLEN: Rob had real spreadsheet mastery. He was creating and organizing them at incredible speed.
Two of you are TV writers. How's writing a game compare with writing Colbert?
DUBBIN: There's an extent to which it's similar. Once we had a sense of what we were trying to do, it was fairly similar. We said, here's what we need here and let's come up with a few different options. Jay and I have a rhythm for working together. We work a little faster because you don't second guess yourself quite as much. This also is a reason that I believe that Chris captured the soul of the genie in order to do what he did. Jay and I were a lot of times working in concert. Chris basically traveled the world on his own.
DAHLEN: I don't write for TV. Usually I've been writing about games, been a games journalist for years. One thing that's different about game writing is the extent to which it is really about writing tons of clues or incidental dialogue. I knew that there were hundreds of little pieces of text that are not linear and could be heard at any point. But now I appreciate that more. Every bit of incidental dialogue, I can picture a guy sitting there at 4 a.m. with a spreadsheet, I gotta get it in there. I've heard people say I could write a videogame in a day. And they could plot it and write a couple of cut scenes, but there are so many other pieces of text.
Chris, how'd you write all the location clues?
DAHLEN: I'd sit down with a stack of Lonely Planets and Wikipeida (I'd double check those sources), Google Maps, Google Earth and sit there until I had 50 interesting things to say. We knew people would be using Google and that doesn't feel too different from the old days, when you'd use an Almanac. The trick is that you had to go a little deeper in each city because there are so many different things to look up.