In Praise of Detective Barbie: Vacation Mystery

Stolen jewels. Shady characters. And a pink convertible

Twenty years ago, Detective Barbie: Vacation Mystery was released, and the world of video games changed forever.

Okay, that’s probably not even remotely true. But my own fate as a would-be girl gamer was sealed. As a five-year-old with a chunky beige Windows 98 machine and no siblings, Detective Barbie 2: Vacation Mystery was the first game I owned, and it would be my introduction into an unending affinity for slower-paced, narrative-heavy games that required patience and meticulousness. 

Detective Barbie was, of course, a game aimed at young girls and, critically speaking, nothing to write home about. But searching for clues in an opulent seaside hotel, hang gliding over the beach, racing dune buggies on the sand, and piecing together the mystery of the stolen jewels in this particular computer game are some of my earliest memories, and they’re fond ones. And, believe it or not, that girly point-and-click mystery had more in common with the universally praised games of today than you might expect. 

More Beach Week:

Beachcombers

In Vacation Mystery, you play as Barbie walking around a beach resort, hunting for hidden pieces of a painting, exploring hidden rooms, and talking to the guests and staff to uncover the titular mystery. You’re part of Team Detective Barbie (which, yes, is actually the term used), which includes Ken and Becky, the latter of whom uses a wheelchair and is a computer whiz. The game mechanics are far from advanced. You spend a lot of time examining the environment and talking to your teammates and suspects to advance the storyline. Pretty typical point-and-click stuff.

It’s not as if Detective Barbie invented adventure games, but I was a kid who liked to read, and this game had much of the same appeal as the mystery books I liked to borrow from the library. There was a rich, imaginative environment that provided a backdrop to a complete narrative. Gameplay, for the most part, served that narrative, so it felt immersive. And it was something I could enjoy alone.  

But by middle school, I realized that the taste I’d formed through Detective Barbie was not in line with what was considered “good.” I had graduated to Nancy Drew and other point-and-click PC mystery games by this point, but I was well-aware that these were not real games that gamers played. Real gamers, which is to say boys and maybe a few very cool girls, played stuff like Halo and Call of Duty

Even once I became T for Teen, I had no stomach for violence and no interest in first-person shooters. I definitely didn’t have a talent for them, either — if, like me, you didn’t grow up playing console games, you might be able to understand the difficulty of adjusting to the mechanisms, which just feel awkward and foreign no matter the system. I imagine this is how people a generation or two older than me feel about computers generally. 

In the uncool games I came to prefer, gameplay can take a long time and feel slow at points, so, like a book, you put it down periodically and pick it back up later. It’s not fast and there aren’t really tricks or techniques to employ. There’s very little instant gratification, but you feel rewarded and, what’s more, intellectually stimulated when new plot points unfold. 

Conversation with Consequences

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that speed and tactical complexity are key traits to the highly masculinized games that have dominated the industry for the last twenty-plus years. The majority of the games released in my lifetime that have been critically lauded and/or best-selling have been, for the most part, action-adventure, fighters, and first-person shooters. 

I’m not arguing with critics or sales, it’s just that those beefy, fast-paced, violent-leaning games were never my thing. So my taste in video games has always been uncool — but, like lots of my personal traits, I’ve accepted this as I’ve gotten older. I’m not so great at mashing buttons and combos, but if a game uses socialization as a mechanism to advance (people skills?? I have those!!), chances are, I’ll be into it. 

But what’s interesting is that the traits I’ve enjoyed in my lame, girly games — the slow, the careful, the conversational, and the highly aestheticized — are precisely the traits that have set certain recent releases apart from the pack. Take for instance, Red Dead Redemption 2, which has wryly been called Barbie Horse Adventures for Boys by some on the internet

Sure, RDR2 is an action-adventure game with shooting and fighting. But it’s also a role-playing game with a rich narrative, populated with complex and morally ambiguous characters with whom you have to do a lot of interfacing to progress. And the choices you make in these interactions have consequences, both for the protagonist’s overall arc and other characters’ immediate reactions. The game is highly aestheticized — its absolutely gorgeous, sprawling environment contains much to be seen, and not even necessarily interacted with. This is, in fact, one of the main talking points surrounding the near-universally acclaimed game. 

And there’s a definite element of deliberate slowness to it: when you’re not engaging in shootouts, you might spend your time riding across the country scanning the environment, collecting things. Side quests and compendium completion force a player to be patient, methodical, and meticulous. Overall, the experience is not unlike searching for clues on a beach resort, just with beards and chaps instead of pink shirts and capris. 

Barbie Horse Adventures for All

Obviously RDR2 and its ilk are very different games from any PC point-and-click mystery title, and certainly they are miles apart from a kids game marketed to girls in 1999. But the elements that have dominated the female-targeted games I grew up on are exactly those that help these modern, critically and commercially successful games stand apart. And it’s probably also no coincidence that games with these feminized traits never fell into the “cool” category before they appeared in more macho titles.

And while some may find it irritating to see the mainstream come around to the exact things we girl un-gamers have been into since kindergarten (hence the Barbie Horse Adventures comparisons), it’s also pretty cool. For aesthetics and social interaction to be taken seriously in what can sometimes be a very ugly, anti-social community is nothing short of stunning to me. It turns out a beach resort is as good a place as any to start a revolution.

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