Pushing the Limits on Nostalgic Scary Games

By Calina Herman

The air turns cool, nights get dark sooner, the leaves swirl around and settle on a path, ready to be crushed by someone’s warm boots. It’s fall. And amateur sleuths know what that means! It is the best season for Nancy Drew games! With Halloween coming at the end of the October, all days leading up to that are days of scary celebration.

Spooky games are a popular genre among detectives and sharing them with others makes them even more enjoyable. Whether it be the first time, or the hundredth time, these titles hold a special place in our hearts. Or should I say… they made our hearts race and imprinted a memory to reshare in future storytelling moments.

“…they made our hearts race and imprinted a memory to reshare in future storytelling moments.”

Scary, Nostalgic Games

Do you remember the first time you played Message in a Haunted Mansion? I do! It was my first ever Nancy Drew game – and I had no idea what to expect! Every turn in the hall had me nervous to click my computer mouse and take a brave step forward. A GHOST! Nope, just a shadow. “I seeee youuuuu!” Now THAT was a creepy voice! Wait, did that picture just BLINK? And who could forget the séance? With so many little haunts in the game, this one ranked high on my favorite spooky games list.

How about Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake? Having a daytime and nighttime sequence added a level of ambience that had me more nervous about walking in the forest in the dark than during the daytime. I was constantly afraid the dogs would get me if I couldn’t make it out of there in a timely manner.

Perhaps you made it through Curse of Blackmoor Manor without nightmares… but I doubt it. That game creeped me out. Werewolves, cloaked figures, scratches at my bedroom door… something was not right in that house! And I’m not talking about the family obsession with hiding things.

Or maybe you played Shadow at the Water’s Edge and knew at any moment something big could happen in front of you. No place was safe. The Yurei made sure you knew she was around! And that mirror scene? Iconic. Some say this was one of the most scary Nancy Drew games.

“…something big could happen in front of you. No place was safe.”

Maybe Ghost of Thornton Hall left you surprised around every turn to find Charlotte again, threatening to scare you off of Blackrock Island…

Or perhaps the screaming ghost of Abigail Hathorne in Midnight in Salem gave your nightmares of Puritans and fires. Perhaps the hoot of an owl left you jumping out of your skin.

Behind the Scare

All these games hold something special, something unique that leaves you nostalgic to return. But did you know – the development team loved it all, too. Van Ong, character designer for Ghost of Thornton Hall had a great time designing Charlotte. Designer Robert referenced old scary movies such as Die, Monster, Die! for Curse of Blackmoor Manor. Artist Josh had fun adding a giant eyeball to the bloopers in Ghost of Thornton Hall, an homage to one of his favorite game series, Castlevania. And yours truly, Calina a.k.a Little Jackalope of the Amateur Sleuth blog always had a blast during the fall season promoting all these great scary mysteries with contests and fun videos!

There are many types of scare tactics and styles. Jump scares are a classic one, such as when you bump into Ethel in Curse of Blackmoor Manor, which still startles players to this day – no matter how many times they have played the game. Or when the monster in The Captive Curse jumps out from behind the portcullis in the courtyard. Not gonna lie, the first time I experienced that, I was working in my cubicle at the HeR office and literally jumped out of my chair and fell to the floor. How embarrassing!


“…setting a scene with strategic lighting, subtle animations, and eerie music is what carries the player through the experience with heightened nerves, and cautious movements.”

Ambience is another style – setting a scene with strategic lighting, subtle animations, and eerie music is what carries the player through the experience with heightened nerves, and cautious movements. Ambience can add a level of extra emotion, too! A lovely room in the decrepit Thornton Hall adds a sad but beautiful sense of memory and loss. Visions of fiery remnants with heart beating music creates a sense of urgency or fear.

And of course, ghosts! Creepy laughs, whispers, singing, screeches can unnerve a player, but what about what you see? Visuals of a ghost may not always scare a player, but at the very least does inflict intrigue. Is the ghost real? Is the ghost a person dressing up? Is it a live animal? Is it dangerous? That’s for you and Nancy to find out!

Pushing the Limit

With these scares, and more, comes a bit of a challenge to the development team. The Nancy Drew brand is generally aimed towards kids and teens, or at the very least are family friendly without being “dumbed down.” The games are hard, interesting, and yet remain fun for all players. Scares would have to have parameters to keep these standards and maintain a healthy expectation for the brand.

 “Scares would have to have parameters to keep these standards…”

Back in 2012 when my team and I were gearing up for the release of Nancy Drew: Ghost of Thornton Hall, I had the responsibility of submitted the game to ESRB to get the game rated. I gained a lengthy knowledge of what counted against the rating, what made E for Everyone, E10+, and what went to T for Teen. Our goal was stay in the E-E10+ range. When the rating came back, it was placed on the box art. When the box art was revealed, fans’ hopes sank. They believed a higher game rating meant a scarier game. I remember writing up an Amateur Sleuth blog post explaining how this worked.

The rating of a game is not based on how scary it is since a scary experience is a subjective perspective. The rating is based on violence, blood, and destruction. There’s more that judges a game, but these are the key factors for the series. Was there any blood in the game? No – so that keeps it out of the Teen rating. Were there dismembered body parts? Well, we had to consider that for Shadow at the Water’s Edge, but not for Ghost of Thornton Hall. Was there violence? Yes, but player was not the direct cause of the violence or destruction, it was indirect. A scythe dropped on the player with a slicing sound effect, and that was the riskiest part of the submission. However, Nancy is said to have a fatal mistake, but she gets Second Chances!

“…the scary elements of what the team can add to a Nancy Drew really pushes the limits.”

Let’s just say the scary elements of what the team can add to a Nancy Drew really pushes the limits. We know the parameters and found creative ways to make the games as scary as we could, without excluding younger audiences. It’s a delicate art, one that I greatly appreciated, and one that I have great respect for the team for making happen.

HeR Interactive’s testing lab, Halloween 2004 where visitors got to play Nancy Drew games.

So, tell me, what do you like about the scary games? What is your favorite scare style? What is your favorite scare moment (without telling me who the culprit is)? And which Nancy Drew game do you like to play in the autumn months? Where will you return?

It’s scare time! What are you waiting for? Grab a bestie, bring snacks, dim the lights, load up your favorite game and start snooping!

Happy hauntings!

Calina Herman is the gamer and content creator behind Story Retold!

You can find blogs, streams, social media, and more on her website at calinaherman.com.

For a Limited Time, Get 35% Off our Top 13 Halloween Cosplay games! Plus join the community to play scary and be scary in our Cosplay and Pumpkin Carving contests. All until Thursday, November 3!


6 responses to “Pushing the Limits on Nostalgic Scary Games”

  1. CC says:

    Hello, is Her in the process of making a new game? do they ever do beta testing? I would do it for free! I love nancy drew and have played every game at least 25 times and I really enjoyed Midnight in Salem!

    • Brighella says:

      Hi CC! I am not sure of this process and we don’t have any news we can share, but thanks for the question and I will keep you in mind if it ever comes up! -Brighella

  2. Tracy Wilburn says:

    Will there be any more Nancy Drew PC games or is the interactive story telling closed?

    • Brighella says:

      Hi Tracy! Yes we are able to say that we’re in development. Our newsletter will have the latest information! -Brighella

      • Katie says:

        Hi. The newsletter just came out. I didn’t see anything in it about a new game. Did I miss it? Thanks!

        • Brighella says:

          Hi Katie, at this time we do not have information that we can share but if you are wanting to be the very first to know, we recommend to keep checking your newsletters! -Brighella

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