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carmen using a grappling hook Image: Netflix

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Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego interactive adventure is for winning, not exploring

It’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure where your choices don’t matter

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

If you ever loaded a Carmen Sandiego CD-ROM into your parents’ clunky PC as a child, you might be excited to learn that Netflix brought back the red-coated thief for its latest interactive experience. Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal draws on the 2019 Netflix animated series, and it’s currently the only Carmen Sandiego game that’s readily available. (Besides the Google Earth integration.)

But while some of the game’s individual moments are exciting, and it makes full use of the 2019 show’s stunning animation and its usual creative team, the actual gameplay mechanics don’t serve much purpose. The choices don’t matter to the story, for the most part. Though the way the multiple endings play out hint at the potential of more branching paths, the experience never really feels interactive.

[Ed. note: This post contains light spoilers for Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal.]

carmen sandiego making a decision
You don’t actually get a choice here
Image: Netflix

To Steal or Not to Steal puts Carmen back into the hands of the evil organization VILE to complete various capers at their bidding, since the bad guys kidnapped her friends. Unlike the original PC games, where the gameplay was strictly of the edutainment variety, the choices here involve the viewer picking the best way for Carmen to pull off a heist. Does she enter the building from the top, or go in from the ground up? The options are pretty straightforward, but with few exceptions, the choices are cosmetic. There’s almost always a “wrong” option, and picking it will lead to failure. Then the game selects the “right” answer that it wanted all along.

Given the choice of sneaking past VILE operative Tigress or confronting her, for instance, I selected the option to slip around her. But Carmen has barely tiptoed past Tigress before her location is compromised, and the events play out in the exact same way they would’ve if I’d selected the confrontation. This happens a couple of times, where a choice might trigger an extra animated sequence, but no new story branches are created, and the wrong choice is never referenced again.

At other times, a wrong choice immediately launches the story’s endgame. Because the game is aimed at a younger audience than Netflix’s most sophisticated interactive project to date, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, ACME leader The Chief prompts you to return exactly to the moment you messed up. Choosing to stash expensive beluga caviar, for instance, instead of dashing out with it, means that it goes bad by the time Carmen delivers it to VILE operative Countess Cleo. Displeased, Cleo wipes the minds of Carmen’s friends, and it’s game over. In that way, To Steal or Not to Steal shares more DNA with another Netflix interactive project, the Bear Grylls outdoor adventure You Vs. Wild, than it does with Bandersnatch. There’s a set, determined path, and if you veer off it, the story goes awry instantly.

carmen sandiego investigating a terra cotta warrior Image: Netflix

The scenes are still fun on their own: Carmen dances in the middle of a fancy gala, or teams up with a former antagonist to burrow beneath a dinosaur museum. A wrong choice has her clutching the wings of a plane during takeoff, which ends badly, but damn, it’s cool. To Steal or Not to Steal is a straightforward game for younger audiences, designed to be won rather than explored. But it could be so much more, and its end sequences hint at how. It offers limited branches in the way the ending plays out: Carmen can either bust her friends out early, or play along with VILE longer. How well she succeeds at these endings depends on the viewer’s previous choices, specifically the ones centered around choosing to trust or help certain individuals. The fleshed-out endings save the game from its otherwise inconsequential decisions; at least here, I felt the ramifications of my own decisions.

But ending aside, each individual caper proceeds without much distinction from the choices you make, unless you enjoy seeing cackling villains telling you that you’ve failed again. There isn’t even a sly nod to the master thief’s edutainment origins — where are the trivia questions about geography? Surely a Carmen Sandiego game should test our knowledge of history!

To Steal or Not to Steal is a breezy story that takes about an hour or so to complete, and never requires you to keep a flowchart of all the possible decisions you could make. That might be a merit on its own — this is a quick adventure rather than an obsessive commitment. But the sparks of something cooler than a slog of inconsequential options makes the game frustrating, hinting at the ways this project could have tied into the things that always made Carmen Sandiego distinctive and enjoyable. At least the Google Earth version is available to remind fans of the character’s edutainment roots.

To Steal or Not to Steal is available on Netflix now.