‘Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem’ Carries On the Detective’s Digital Legacy

Of all the famous feuds in the world, one we don’t talk about enough is detectives vs. ghosts. Or lawmen vs. witches, a better-publicized rivalry that also falls under the general category of the reasonable, the empirical, the judicial, going up against the unruly, unlikely, supernatural. In the case of law versus witches, there’s another implicit dichotomy at play, that of men versus women — or at least, the masculine versus the feminine. The latest Nancy Drew game by HeR Interactive, the long-awaited Midnight in Salem, doesn’t shy away from the gendered as well as religious and racial injustices of this history. Despite being a detective story, Midnight in Salem respects and makes room for feminized modes of knowledge, like empathy and even witchcraft, alongside the dominant masculine ones. 

Midnight in Salem is the 33rd game in HeR’s long-running series based on teenage private detective Nancy Drew. After 80+ years in the cultural canon, Drew is arguably a folk character — but this is the first gamers have seen of her in awhile. HeR had been churning out two games a year for almost two decades, starting with Secrets Can Kill in 1998. Then in 2015, the games stopped coming on their reliable schedule. 

It turns out a new CEO had recently stepped in, and virtually everything was changing — staff were laid off, the voice actress Lani Minella, who had played Nancy in every game since the beginning, was fired, and the studio was attempting to adopt a new game engine that felt more modern. Through years of near-silence, diehard fans – many of whom, like myself, had started playing the games as children and found that each new installment held up as we entered adulthood – wondered if the teased Midnight in Salem would ever come out.

And finally, last month, it did. Midnight in Salem is set in contemporary Massachusetts, against the backdrop of the Salem witch trials. Nancy has come to town to discover who’s responsible for the arson of a historical landmark before local authorities pin it on Mei Parry, a local teenage girl who so far can only be proven guilty of being a misfit. 

A Different Kind of “Games for Girls”

One of the things that’s always distinguished HeR’s Nancy Drew games is the indie studio’s longtime devotion to creating and defending an unexpected kind of femininity. Famously, when HeR launched in the mid-90s, the company was advised by publishers and retailers that girls were “computer-phobic” and not interested in video games, and that if they insisted on making games for girls, to “make it pink.” Instead, they did the opposite: leaning away from stereotypically feminine elements like fashion, beauty, and dating, and focusing instead on making rich mystery games with compelling narratives. Which isn’t to say the games aren’t feminine – they just explore a different kind of femininity.

The Nancy Drew games have remained similar in their gameplay over the last 21 years, even as point-and-click mysteries gave way to other, more popular styles of games. The pacing is slow, relying more on exploration and looking for clues and connections than fast-fingered shooting or racing. Typically, only one or two moments in a game are timed, and they usually take the form of puzzles. Physicality is less important than intellectuality.

But an equally important aspect is interpersonal relations. Conversations are a major part of the gameplay, crucial to moving the narrative forward. And choices made in dialogue have consequences — being too blunt or insensitive could turn a potential suspect or witness off from sharing. Saying the wrong thing could even cause a game-ending error. Empathy, a trait and skill set that’s typically gendered feminine, is a tool for solving mysteries. Finessing social situations isn’t just helpful here, it’s integral. 

Seeking the Truth

That element comes to the surface in Midnight in Salem. In dialogue, other characters mention how Nancy has been called to this particular case for her special “way of talking to people.” The player as Nancy does what she can to learn about the other characters’ backstories and relational dynamics gently and respectfully, as she asks about sensitive topics. At one point, Nancy scolds her co-investigator Deirdre for playing bad cop and in effect, prematurely ending a conversation. 

“Bad cop” is somewhat of a recurring theme throughout the game, as well. Though Nancy is popular, well-connected, and well-liked, she doesn’t hesitate to question authority. She calls out the town judge for trying to pin the arson on Mei with no evidence, just prejudice; the parallel to the Salem witch trials is obvious. The game’s dialogue makes a critique of power and property systems by discussing the economic motivation behind the trials, wherein the judges finding villagers, mostly female, guilty of witchcraft also seized the criminalized parties’ assets for themselves. Nancy vocally criticizes the town judge for not properly upholding justice, and goes about her own detective work more thoroughly than the authorities. 

Typically, in detective vs. supernatural stories, we see the detectives (be it Scooby-Doo and the meddling kids or Sherlock Holmes) come up against something inexplicable, and eventually find a logical explanation for it. In the end, it always turns out to be something perfectly pedestrian, usually a product of someone intentionally trying to pull a ghostly ruse over on others. Without spoiling anything, there’s certainly an element of that in this game, as there has been in several other Nancy Drew games. But not all pagan forms of knowledge are disregarded by the game’s narrative.

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Letting Mystery Linger

There are a couple of characters in Midnight in Salem who describe themselves as modern witches, each in different ways. Olivia, a tour guide known for her theatrics (she wears a Halloween witch costume around town), gleefully passes on ghost stories and other supernatural tales, keeping the legends alive. Lauren, a black woman who (mild spoiler) is said to be descended from Tituba — an enslaved woman who was the first to be accused of witchcraft — practices herbalism as a profession, passing on this knowledge which is rooted in paganism. The earthy, passed-down knowledge of plants and their therapeutic uses is posited as an example of the reason some women in Salem were accused of witchcraft, and while the game doesn’t depict any magical tinctures curing anyone’s ailments, it also doesn’t discredit this feminized knowledge. In fact, it’s sort of cheekily left open-ended. Players have the option to mix a truth serum and test it on the other characters, and the results are playfully ambiguous.

Through her interpersonal and empirical fact-finding skills, Nancy manages to secure confessions for more than one crime and find strong evidence that would actually hold up in court. But her skills in this sphere of knowledge don’t come at the expense or mocking of others.

And in offering credence to both the empirical and the borderline magical, Nancy and Midnight in Salem do something rare: consolidate masculinized and feminized forms of knowledge. Even further, dialogue serves to drive the point home. Nancy’s conversations with Lauren acknowledge that herbalist practices made the powers-that-be in colonial America uncomfortable, because it existed outside of religious and political authority and was often practiced and passed on by women. It’s because of this perceived threat to power that these women and their practices have been disrespected and even persecuted. 

Delicate conversation isn’t the only distinction between Nancy and a typical hard-boiled police detective or private eye. She may be white, wealthy, and presumably straight, but she isn’t clueless: she has an awareness of the ways justice systems can be cruelly unjust, and she’s hesitant to write off things simply because she might not understand or be comfortable with them. As a result, Midnight in Salem feels more modern than previous installments in the series — not just because of technical updates, but because of its willingness to reflect issues permeating society today. More than just investigating clues and people, entire cultural practices and perspectives are under the magnifying glass. Nowadays, the girl detective knows she doesn’t exist in a vacuum – and old prejudices aren’t safe from her critical eye.

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