Inspiration: The Thief in Red

A very long time ago, when I was about eleven or twelve, my mom brought home our first ever personal computer - a Power Macintosh 5200. This was 1998, three years after it was first produced, and about the same time after the Playstation first came out. Growing up, my brother, sister and I experienced video games purely through consoles. I had never gamed on a personal computer before, so this was a pretty big deal for me, even though the machine was already pretty outdated at the time.

But even more outdated were the games pre-installed on the Mac (it was meant to be thrown out at the company Mom was working at, but she decided to take it home). There was a bunch of demos, most notable being a video demo of Full Throttle, which I would watch over and over again. Where I grew up, finding video games for Macs was pretty hard, and the Internet wasn’t really that accessible back then.

There was one full game installed. It had a pretty long name: “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego"?”, by the now legendary Brøderbund Software.

I took this image from, which recently publish a cool    article    about the game.

I took this image from, which recently publish a cool article about the game.

It was magical. It was a detective game, where you had to track down a criminal mastermind named Carmen Sandiego and her army of thieves as they stole national treasures from around the world. You had to interview witnesses, look for evidence and compile enough information to figure out which city to fly to next in hot pursuit of these vile (their group was actually called V.I.L.E.) felons.

I instantly loved it. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have an Almanac (the game was designed to be played with one handy) — I had a world map on my wall and some general knowledge and trivia books to aid me. And forget that the version of the game I played was released all the way back in 1985 — it was more captivating than the games my brother was playing on the Playstation, at least for a while.

So when I was thinking about the next game we were going to make, it wasn’t hard for me to decide to make an homage to such an influential game from my childhood.

Some sites like this one (bless ‘em!) have different versions of the game archived, and though the graphics and the content vary, the structure and mechanics are pretty much the same. I used the 1992 version as my reference when looking for inspiration for Chinatown Detective Agency.

The game featured a pretty static GUI, with scenes and settings changing as you move from location to location.

The game featured a pretty static GUI, with scenes and settings changing as you move from location to location.

From a design perspective, what I really, truly love about Carmen Sandiego was its simplicity. The interface was rigid yet functional. It was simple to understand, and that was important for a game that relied on its U.I. to guide the player.

You had your phone, which you could use to get in touch with your boss or make travel arrangements. You had all the little case files and game settings clumped together in a central console. You had the action buttons to be able to interact with the environment. And finally, you had the environments themselves, which were iconic snapshots of the different cities you were in. The whole game took place within this system. It was so easy to jump into a game and get on a case from the get go.

The travel service screen.

The travel service screen.

Traveling was a fundamental part of the game. Clues would lead you to different cities around the world. If you followed a string of clues successfully, you’d eventually catch one of Carmen’s minions and solve a case. If you make a mistake, you’ll have to backtrack, and it becomes one big mess, so you had to be absolutely sure that they used Pesos in Buenos Aires because the currency the suspect used was the only clue you had to work with. The more cases you solved and thieves you apprehend, the closer you get to the ultimate prize — catching the master thief dressed in a red trenchcoat and hat, Carmen herself. She was calm, cool and collected. She was smart. She was elusive. She was awesome!

And I never caught her, ever…

Anyway, fast forward 20 years later, and here we are, developing Chinatown Detective Agency. It’s more than just a game inspired by Carmen Sandiego — it has management elements, it has a deep, mature storyline, and you play the role of a protagonist hot on the heels of a serial mass murderer. Oh, and it takes place in the future version of my current home, Singapore.

But one look at the game’s interface, and you immediately see that it is a conceptual descendant of the game I used to religiously play as a kid.

A shared design DNA.

A shared design DNA.

I’ve thought about introducing air miles to the game, just for kicks. But it’s probably not worth it.

I’ve thought about introducing air miles to the game, just for kicks. But it’s probably not worth it.

Chinatown Detective Agency aims for the same simplicity that Carmen Sandiego had. The entire game takes place in a more or less static GUI. You have notifications and communication tools on the left, functional buttons at the bottom, the case log on the right and the game scene taking up the rest of the screen. The game relies heavily on its story, and a substantial part off the dialogue between characters is voice-acted.

In essence, what we are attempting is to take the great things (of which there are so many) about Carmen Sandiego, give it a twist, wrap it up in an original story and try to spark a fascination with the world around us in our gamers, the same way Carmen got me infatuated with geography and history.

We’ll be posting more content as we continue to develop the game, and we’re excited to share this really exciting journey with you. Next up: travel in the world of Chinatown Detective agency. I’m going to show you guys how you’ll be moving around Singapore in the game by showing you how people do it over here in real life. In other words, we’re going to be riding the Singapore MRT!

See you guys soon!