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Saturday, March 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Girls become Drew in Bellevue company's games

By Stephanie Dunnewind
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Nancy Drew gets an update in Simon & Schuster's new relaunch of the series, but young fans already know Nancy's with it: The favorite book character stepped into the modern age seven years ago in a Bellevue company's Nancy Drew computer game.

In Her Interactive's latest title, "Danger on Deception Island," Nancy kayaks around the San Juan Islands, navigates with a GPS, calls friends for help on her cellphone and logs onto the Internet.

"We try to preserve the classic look and feel of the books while bringing her into modern times," said President and CEO Megan Gaiser. Thus, while the digital Nancy relies on newfangled gadgets, her soul remains true to the book: "She's gutsy, smart and in the end she always wins," Gaiser said. "What's not to like?"

When Her Interactive asked girls what they would change about Nancy Drew, their one complaint was that she was too perfect. "We added humor and tried to make her more like an Everygirl," Gaiser said.

The company, which releases two titles a year (Nos. 10 and 11 arrive in August and October, respectively), has sold 1.6 million games, and "each new title outsells the previous," Gaiser said.

The games consistently win awards, racking up Parents' Choice gold awards and best software honors from iParenting Media.

"They're one of the leaders in interactive novels for children," said Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children's Software Revue, an independent quarterly periodical and Web site that reviews interactive media for kids.

While Her Interactive's first Nancy Drew game warranted a "not that good" 3.9 rating (on a scale of 1 to 5) by the Revue, the rest of its titles have ranged from 4.3 to 4.6. "We can recommend that without reservations," Buckleitner said.

In the games, players move through virtual environments as the title sleuth, who is never depicted. "We don't put a face to her, so players can easily embody Nancy Drew," Gaiser said. "You get to experience what it feels like to be brilliant."

Nancy interrogates four characters, solves puzzles and searches areas to find clues, taking 10 to 20 hours to figure out the mystery. The games are based on books, but the plot and characters are changed so the solution isn't obvious to readers.

"Danger on Deception Island," for example, used 1999's "Whispers in the Fog" but moved the setting to the San Juans for a ripped-from-the-headlines plot about an orphaned orca whale. Most games rely on recent entries in the nearly 200-book series, though the company is considering an adaptation of the first book, 1930's "The Secret of the Old Clock."
 
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"It has to be juicy enough so we can bring it to life," Gaiser said.

Her Interactive overcame the industry's dismissal of "girl games" by bypassing retailers who refused to put early games on shelves, selling them through its Web site and Amazon.com. After Web sales took off, the mystery titles hit stores in fall 2000.

Though the literate Nancy Drew series has been called the "unBarbie," Gaiser credits the success of Barbie titles with finally proving girls will play (and buy) computer games. Still, she's waiting for a broader range of games for this underserved market.

"The mistake companies make is they think games for girls have to be 'girlie,' " Gaiser said. "We're just out to make great games."

The target audience of girls ages 10 to 15 has since expanded to age 10 and up, with many moms and even grandmas playing. It's wholesome, nonviolent fare that avoids gender stereotyping — a rarity — but the mysteries appeal to all ages, as well as both sexes. Intended for casual gamers, they offer two levels of difficulty.

Buckleitner agrees the games are "not just for girls; it's done in a way that is compelling."

The Nancy Drew software does reflect feedback from girl players, who tend to prefer collaborative games, are bored by repetitive violence and dislike being portrayed as victims. Otherwise, Gaiser says, "girls are as diverse as boys are in their interests. Some like shoot-'em-up games, some like strategy. It's dangerous to pigeonhole them."

After a disappointing attempt to enter the GameBoy market, the company is sticking with PCs and looking at downloadable Internet games. The audience for game consoles "isn't there yet, so we're just going to wait," Gaiser said. Instead, the company might expand its offering by negotiating other intellectual properties to adapt.

For now, fans are content with Nancy Drew. Lauren Overman, 17, of Seattle started playing the games in sixth grade and still gets excited when a new title comes out. She lent games to school friends and "I got them all hooked on it," she said.

She and her mom, Debbie, sometimes play together. "It's kind of addicting," Debbie admits. The games are nostalgic for her and empowering for her daughters (Hannah, 14, also plays occasionally). "The games make them think," Debbie said. While the titles are not educational per se, "in the big picture, they end up learning something with each one."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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