In the dark, you saw long brown hair and a wide-brimmed red hat. A sultry voice interrupted your communications, taunting the detectives nearby. You wondered how she did it, how she kept eluding you. She committed impossible thefts while looking cool and striking terror. She stole many things, including my heart, when I grew up and realized that I could no longer play her games.
Carmen Sandiego, in hindsight, should have made me realize I was bisexual. She ended up not doing that, because I didn’t even know the term existed until I was a teenager; Alison Bechdel had to provide that awakening with her memoir Fun Home. That and Carmen Sandiego’s not real. She’s a villain from a game franchise.
The greatest thief in ’90s edutainment
A brief rundown for those who never chased her: In most of Carmen Sandiego’s CD-ROM games from the ’90s, she was an unapologetic thief. Most canons confirmed she previously had worked for the Agency to Classify and Monitor Evildoers. The ACME chief, played by the late Lynne Thigpen in various shows and games, explained that Carmen rose through the ranks as a detective. Eventually, however, catching crooks became too easy for her; as a challenge, Carmen betrayed ACME. She even called her past there “embarrassing.”
Depending on the game canon, two different ACME agents claimed they had been Carmen’s partner. Chase Devineaux in the Word and Math Detective games maintained a dry cynicism, while Julia Argent in the Treasures of Knowledge game saw the good in Carmen. Both had chemistry with Carmen during their interactions, reminding one of bitter exes.
One canon kept the chemistry but changed the dynamic: Netflix’s 2019 Carmen Sandiego show made Carmen a heroic thief. VILE criminals raised her as their new weapon, but Carmen rebelled upon realizing they wanted her to kill innocent people. She stole from criminals to donate to charity or restore items to their proper owners. Julia and Chase appeared in the Netflix show, with their personalities radically altered. While Julia became less active and more observant, Chase went from the coolheaded badass to an impulsive and stubborn Javert archetype. They both admitted that Carmen was hard to catch, but alluring.
Why is Carmen Sandiego?
The Netflix series started its pilot by inquiring, “Who is Carmen Sandiego?” Most of her games asked about the “where.” After all, she could navigate to another country and steal a great historical landmark in a matter of minutes. With that said, why is Carmen Sandiego? Why do we love her? What about her makes her attractive and a great villain?
Carmen’s adrenaline junkie tendencies made her attractive; the Netflix adaptation kept this tendency. She taunted the player’s character, dropping hints about her next heist. If the crooks were caught? She blamed them for their incompetence.
Even time travel didn’t elude her. She stole an ACME device called a Chronoskimmer, ordering her VILE henchmen to go through time and grab historical objects. Carmen ended the game leading the players on a chase through time. When caught, she boasted that high-tech prison laser bars couldn’t hold her. You had to admire the braggadocio.
Clothes also reflected the thief’s confidence. Carmen wore a bright red outfit, but she was notoriously hard to spot while conducting her thefts. We know she was a master of disguise when necessary, and could even slouch to adjust her height. Her coat made her stand out from a crowd, but she knew when to switch to a plain dress and wig. The look remains stunning 30 years later.
Carmen also had an obsession with your character. We played as adults in the game because neither ACME nor Interpol would hire a child to take down an international criminal. We fascinated her, because we could track her down without breaking a sweat. You could see that in Where in the USA, Where in Time, and Word Detective, where Carmen sends her crooks all around the United States. If you were traveling from the East to the West Coast that many times, you would be exhausted. Not Carmen, though, or the player. You stayed right on her tail, ready to rumble. The Good Guides followed your lead, beating up criminals or tossing handcuffs when necessary.
A crush on a villain
Carmen appealed to my bisexuality in multiple ways. She checked off the criteria for threatening villains, inviting real stakes into a conflict. If she left the heroes alive, there had to be a legitimate reason, like a giant flaw, or either side getting injured during their more serious confrontations. I admired Carmen for being utterly terrifying at her worst.
Carmen was an explicit threat. In her best games, she showed no qualms about the moral hazard of her actions. Steal the Forum from the Romans? That could cause the empire to fall faster than it did in real life. Snatch the lightbulb prototype so Thomas Edison couldn’t benefit from plagiarizing Tesla? No one can work necessary graveyard shifts like doctors on call. Carmen also had no limitations to what she could pickpocket. Sometimes, she and her crooks snatched national monuments.
Word Detective showed Carmen at her worst in terms of villainy. She had developed a machine, the Babble-On Machine, that could steal written language from the mouth and the brain. That’s already bad enough for those who have communication issues or language barriers. Carmen, however, planned to steal language from the world. The beam would scramble people’s brains.
I refused to play or even watch Word Detective as a kid. It was too creepy. As an adult, the opening remains pure nightmare fuel. Carmen’s Babble-On Machine captured longstanding Good Guide Ann Tickwittee. Ann, referred to as Agent 12, had previously beaten up crooks larger than her. That the tower caught and shackled her, as well as Rock Solid and many other Good Guides, established that Carmen had upped her game. Carmen also subjected the agents to the beam. All they could do was beg for help in gibberish as you infiltrated the lair. It was rather kinky for a kids’ game.
It took until I was an adult to realize that the game wouldn’t harm you. There were no stakes as you searched for clues to puzzles and keys to free your Good Guides. You could take your time, reset, and not worry about anything worse than a few jump scares. That game, however, was pretty formative for how I saw good villains. It also solidified how I saw Carmen. She was a villain, but she was good.
Switching off the computer screen
It is a shame that it is nigh-on impossible to play a ’90s Carmen game now. One has to know how to run an emulator that mimics a 2000s Windows screen, download the files from a website that maintains Carmen love, and troubleshoot. I once spent a whole night trying to do that and failed miserably, even with a friend’s guidance. Carmen vanished once the oldest computer in our house decided to shut down forever.
The Carmen Sandiego of my childhood exists in a CD installer that no longer works, a few booklets we kept, and YouTube Let’s Plays. Yet she will never be gone, with the nostalgia that we have. Not will the awakenings that hindsight can bring, when you see brown hair flutter in the wind.