Yesterday, Netflix officially announced a Carmen Sandiego animated series. The trench-coated international thief first leapt to life in 1985 and has been stealing our hearts ever since. Here’s why she’s still awesome to this day.
Carmen Sandiego started her thieving career as the criminal mastermind in Brøderbund Software’s Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? The goal was to learn a variety of geographic facts and use them to hunt down Carmen and her crew as they ran around the globe. In concept, it was a light edutainment game. In practice, it was a gateway to the rest of the world.
It’s hard for me to overstate how exciting Where In The World... was for me as a kid. I grew up in New Hampshire, a little spitball of a state that is known for three things: voting first in presidential elections, colorful fall leaves, and maple syrup, I guess. Games like Carmen Sandiego were a way to learn about the wider world, to celebrate how beautiful other cultures were, and to put world knowledge to the test in a more exciting way that a simple Geography class quiz.
The key to Carmen Sandiego is how much it succeeded in making the world feel simultaneously vast and knowable. Initial investigative forays would be a clumsy rush around the globe. When you’re a kid, you don’t exactly know much about Tanzania or Thailand after all. The more you played, the more you learned about landmarks, cultural hallmarks, and cities around the globe. Of course the crook’s in Nepal; he’s opening a dahl stand near the Himalayas.
The Carmen Sandiego series expanded over time to include numerous TV shows and spin off games including Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? and Where In Space Is Carmen Sandiego? These games also made distance places feel less abstract and offered a colorful cast of characters to keep things fresh. Chief among them was... well, the Chief. Played by veteran actress Lynne Thigpen, the Chief’s energetic phonecalls were motivating and captivating to watch.
Carmen herself was mysterious and clever. Most players’ experiences with her can be summed up by the phrase: “Fuck! She got away again.” A dashing mastermind, Carmen was always a few steps ahead. She was a cunning opponent. Sly, sneaky, and smart. Players would pour hours into hunting down crooks before even catching a glimpse of her. Finally arresting her is one of most memorable gaming moments of my childhood. Plus, her fashion game was on point. That red ensemble is iconic. She’s the perfect childhood villain.
Netflix’s upcoming animated series will focus on Carmen’s past and function partially as an origin story. That’s all well and good. A story about a budding international crook could be a lot of fun. Carmen Sandiego is a chance to paint the world with a bright and vibrant brush. We’ll see how it turns out. The ball is in Netflix’s court. At least until Carmen steals it.