Before I ever owned a game console or settled into the identity of being a gamer, I was still playing games. Specifically, educational games on a clunky Packard Bell like Reader Rabbit, Cluefinders, and one of my favorites, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
This was before our household had internet, or even before internet game guides were a thing. So when an in-game witness told me, a nine-year-old child, “He asked if I wanted to come along, because he had reservations for two in Kisumu,” my options were limited to staring at a giant globe we had on the nearby mantlepiece, thumbing through a dictionary or encyclopedia, or running to my mom to ask if she knew what it meant (a hit or miss strategy, depending on the clue). I always got a thrill out of this kind of sleuthing, and a lot of my earliest geography lessons came from trying to puzzle out where one of V.I.L.E.’s worst villains had run off to after swiping entire landmarks off the map.
When I opened Chinatown Detective Agency for the first time last week, I didn’t expect to be transported back to the old Packard Bell and globe deductions almost 30 years later, but there I was. Set in Singapore in 2037, its story follows private investigator Amira Darma as she investigates a series of mysteries both within the city and abroad. Each case leaves a trail of clues to follow, but many of them require additional sleuthing outside of the game and are designed specifically to be researched online. For instance, one of the earliest puzzles gives you a cryptic quote, and asks you to learn either the name of the book it came from, or its author. You won’t find either in-game anywhere, but a quick Google search brings it up immediately and lets you proceed.
Chinatown Detective Agency’s inspirations are clearly painted all over it, from the clunky moving menus, to the research puzzles, to the interface that prompts you to deduce where in the world you need to buy a plane ticket to next. Creative director Mark Fillon immediately reassures me that my intense experience of Carmen Sandiego nostalgia was intentional. He, like me, grew up on Carmen’s adventures, puzzling over a world map and encyclopedias for answers outside of the in-game fiction and marveling at what he learned. But what’s different about Chinatown Detective Agency is that it is thoroughly a game for adults. More of a “hard-boiled” detective story, as Fillon puts it.
“If I were to summarize it, it’s Carmen Sandiego for people who’ve grown up,” he says. “I felt that if we were going to do this it would tackle mature themes, subject matter that requires real thinking, requires real research.”
And they certainly do. Fillon says he wanted to ensure the puzzles weren’t too esoteric, but they do cover a span of topics such as ancient languages, cryptography, history, and more. And they become more difficult as you go. Fortunately, stumped players can always reach out to the in-game librarian Mei Ting for enthusiastic help, either a vague hint or a flat-out solution.
One minor wrinkle in Fillon’s plan to have players do their own research turned out to be, inadvertently, the very research tool he wanted players to use. During my own playthrough of Chinatown Detective Agency, my Google searches for answers almost immediately pulled full game guides to the top that simply gave away all the answers even in the article’s metadata, making the pursuit of information far less rewarding than it would have been had I been forced to properly sift through more normal, historical search results. Fillon admits the team probably should have foreseen this problem and planned for it, but what’s done is done.
“We just didn’t know that it would skew the algorithm so much,” he says. “And I suppose it’s a testament to how well received it is, that people are actually doing it. But I know it makes it really tricky for first timers who are genuinely looking for material that can help them progress…I am of the opinion that folks who are immersed in that moment, in the mission, when they type it on their Google they’d be forgiving and just look past and gloss over a lot of those walkthroughs and look for real results, whether it’s from Wikipedia or whichever reference material.”
It’s certainly easy enough to become immersed in the Singapore of Chinatown Detective Agency, in no small part due to the care Fillon and his team put into creating it. Fillon tells me they strove for authenticity in every part of their adventure, including its voice acting, sound design, and visuals. Some of those elements were a bit more difficult than others to create, however, especially with a fully remote team during a pandemic. For instance, art director Ricardo Juchem had never visited Singapore when he initially began working on the project. He did eventually, but in the meantime Fillon would frequently send him photos of locations around the city to inform the game’s backgrounds. Juchem also used other, more imaginative ways of getting the lay of the land, including Google Street View and, in one case, flying an airplane in Microsoft Flight Simulator to get a good angle on a specific location, and taking a screenshot to base his own environments on.
Of course, the Singapore of Chinatown Detective Agency isn’t a modern day Singapore. It takes place in 2037 – so the future, but not the far-off future. Fillon says that was intentional, as he wanted to tell a futuristic story that was still understandable for the audience as a real, near possibility rather than something imaginative and far-off. It’s our world, but it’s a version of our world where things never really get better.
“We envisioned a world where the pandemic has just basically cost a mass economic stagnation,” he says. “People are out of jobs. Governments are running out of funds. The Singapore you see in Chinatown Detective Agency is like a very extreme opposite of what Singapore is today. Singapore is known for being a well-oiled machine, right? It’s very well organized. It’s a case study in how a government should run a country. Things just work.
“But in Chinatown Detective Agency we imagined what would happen if the police force ran out of money, what would happen if public transportation ran out of money. It would pretty much drastically change Singapore on a fundamental level, and that informs the plots and the story arcs beyond Singapore.”
Fillon adds that designing this particular vision of Singapore felt a bit like “eating forbidden fruit” – a dystopian future for his country just isn’t something people want to talk about.
Chinatown Detective Agency — Screens from Humble Games Showcase 2022
“It stands out to someone who’s been to Singapore because everything here is squeaky clean,” he says. “There are no cracks on the glass. The stickers and the posters on the subway are super neat. The edges are super straight and they’re light colored. In the game they’re dark gray and barely running and noisy and just broken, and imagining that was a little bit scary because it felt like if Singapore were at that level of disorder you know the world has gone completely wrong.”
Chinatown Detective Agency, then, uses nostalgia for the past to tell a futuristic story. Fillon feels that with the advent of the internet, knowledge has become so accessible that the journey of discovery and learning new things has become something most people take for granted. He hopes that with Chinatown Detective Agency, he can renew some of that spark for his audience.
“The hope is that if someone has enjoyed playing it, that it’s rekindled some sort of interest in just learning something new again. I don’t want to use that word ‘edu-tainment’ because it has such a stigma attached to it. But I suppose if it’s used as a vehicle to tell a captivating story, hey, you know what, I have no problems with that.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.