How 2 Colbert Staffers and a Game Journalist Rewrote Carmen Sandiego for Facebook

The original Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is a generation-marking game. If you're between 20 and 32, you probably spent a few (hundred) hours chasing criminals around the world on the basis of geographical clues.

Last month, games developer Blue Fang partnered with The Learning Company to bring back the game on a new platform: Facebook. The game mechanics remain the same. You fly around the globe asking people for clues about the bad guys and their whereabouts, then you get a warrant and arrest them. It's basically the same old amusement, which means it's still as addictive as you remember. You fire up the app and 20 cases later, you're still hitting the mouse button like a trained monkey.

But there is one big difference between the old and new Carmen Sandiegos. This time around, Blue Fang went out and hired some real writers: Rob Dubbin and Jay Katsir, writers for The Colbert Report, and Chris Dahlen, a journalist who edits the highbrow videogame journal, Kill Screen.

I talked with the three of them about how writing a game was different from their other pursuits, why it's hard to write clues for Casablanca, and what Carmen Sandiego is really like, deep down.

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What was your team's relationship with the original Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

ROB DUBBIN: I think I speak for a lot of people in our age range when I say that I spent a lot of time on the Apple 2GS in the elementary school computer lab just jamming on Carmen Sandiego. The game sucks you in with the routine of it. It's easy to play game after game after game, combing through the Almanac. Maybe that's why it translated so well to Facebook.

CHRIS DAHLEN: I had never played it. We played Lemonade Stand.

I feel like I have all these odd bits of geographical knowledge bouncing around my brain from Carmen Sandiego. Did you learn anything from the original?

JAY KATSIR: I definitely did. It would have been many years before I would have been aware of the existence of Interpol. And my mom was never going to tell me that the Nepalese flag was two triangles or what Sri Lanka was.

How do you even start rewriting a legendary game like this?

DUBBIN: I said to Blue Fang, I'll write you up a spec on this, with the kind of clues I might do and the sort of material you might get. I played through the original a bunch and wrote up some sample clues.

From there, they started to see the information about what the scale of the project was. I very quickly realized it was not a one man job. There are 66 cities and dozens and dozens of clues per city. The math starts to get really out of control. So I talked to Chris again, who had brought it to my attention, and then also looped in Jay, who I share an office with at Colbert. And we had our crime fighting team. [Editor's note: Below, you can see Jay and Rob's office at Colbert, where some of the magic happened.]

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What was your actual process like? Did you sit around a table cracking jokes?

DUBBIN: It was sort of a division of labor. Chris shouldered the lion's share of the location, atlas-y, around-the-world stuff in one of the most herculean performances ever.

DAHLEN: But you guys had to find 100 different ways to say someone had blue yes, which is not trivial.

DUBBIN: We started coming up with lists. What are the pun names? What is Carmen up to this time? What are 50 first and last names that could go in the database of low-level criminal profiles?

Was the process there just getting drunk and talking?

KATSIR: It was more like waking up early, which was probably the mental equivalent.

DUBBIN: Writing this stuff involved the creation of something like 25 spreadsheets.

DAHLEN: Rob had real spreadsheet mastery. He was creating and organizing them at incredible speed.

Two of you are TV writers. How's writing a game compare with writing Colbert?

DUBBIN: There's an extent to which it's similar. Once we had a sense of what we were trying to do, it was fairly similar. We said, here's what we need here and let's come up with a few different options. Jay and I have a rhythm for working together. We work a little faster because you don't second guess yourself quite as much. This also is a reason that I believe that Chris captured the soul of the genie in order to do what he did. Jay and I were a lot of times working in concert. Chris basically traveled the world on his own.

DAHLEN: I don't write for TV. Usually I've been writing about games, been a games journalist for years. One thing that's different about game writing is the extent to which it is really about writing tons of clues or incidental dialogue. I knew that there were hundreds of little pieces of text that are not linear and could be heard at any point. But now I appreciate that more. Every bit of incidental dialogue, I can picture a guy sitting there at 4 a.m. with a spreadsheet, I gotta get it in there. I've heard people say I could write a videogame in a day. And they could plot it and write a couple of cut scenes, but there are so many other pieces of text.

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Chris, how'd you write all the location clues?

DAHLEN: I'd sit down with a stack of Lonely Planets and Wikipeida (I'd double check those sources), Google Maps, Google Earth and sit there until I had 50 interesting things to say. We knew people would be using Google and that doesn't feel too different from the old days, when you'd use an Almanac. The trick is that you had to go a little deeper in each city because there are so many different things to look up.

Did you try to make the clues less Googleable?

DAHLEN: Well, there are three kinds of clues for each location: easy, medium and hard. The easy clues turn out to be things you can look up pretty easily or have on the top of your head. Expert ones are trickier. One of the harder ones to look up is "This city has the only subway on its continent." The answer's Cairo, but it's hard to Google. There are other ways of obfuscating, too.

The most important goal, though, is that when you see the locations in the game, they are interesting. Some are well known, like the Louvre or the Statue of Liberty. But like in Ottawa, there's a street called Elvis Lives Lane. So, for something like that, even if it's not really hard for people to look them up, they still find something interesting there

DUBBIN: There were some cities where we just threw up our hands. Nara, Japan about 80% of the clues that we wrote about it had to do with the deer that roam the city.

DAHLEN: Casablanca was also tough. There are five movies references, the Medina a mosque and then you're on your own.

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What was the hardest part of writing a Facebook game?

DAHLEN: The thing I found interesting was to set that tone and voice and keep it going for thousands of clues. Anyone could get any of those clues at any time. The challenge is you can't craft all of them into an immaculate puzzle but they have to be consistent. I've heard the same thing about voice acting in games. Even a great voice actor like Jennifer Hale, sometimes her delivery seems a little flat. And that's because she can't have an arc in her delivery. The lines could come up at any time in the 20 hours you're playing the game.

DUBBIN: And for Facebook, you're sort of writing for a firehose and you're going to have all these people playing the game at the same time, and you need to have enough variety. You have to strike this balance where people feel like they're finding something new but not going outside the fictional limits you set for yourself. That's a long way of saying, you have to stay inspired when you're writing 20 things about blue eyes or skateboarding....

What was your favorite joke or piece of writing that went into the game?

KATSIR: One of the things that was really enjoyable to work on was the bios for the higher level henchmen. We would look at the list of automatically generated traits. Hair color, hobby, vehicle ... and try to extrapolate a history and personality into, "This is actually the world's greatest grandma." She was a master thief and actually gave you gifts that you like. We did one also who was Caribbean and he mostly had music-related heists and was in a traveling thief/band called the Chillharmonics.

DUBBIN: I mentioned the deer before ... I love the deer. All the crimes in Nara had to do with the deer. When there was something that seemed to typify a city, it was fun to dive into it.

DUBBIN: Playing through today, I saw that Brooklyn had lost its sense of irony. [Editor's note: IMPOSSIBLE!]

 How'd you think about adapting the feel of the original clues?

DUBBIN: Something about the original, it's very minimal. It doesn't get too much into the sociopolitical reality of these countries. It's using markers that are common to all places. It's one of those things that gives it a timeless quality. We were all going for that as a touchstone. You want to identify things that feel a little bit timeless, where you could play this game five years from now and it would be the same ... assuming no one in Africa builds another subway.

DAHLEN: When there was that nuclear scare in Korea with North Korea's saber rattling, I was really worried that they'd blow up Seoul. Because I'd already written the clues for it and that would have been a real tragedy. For me.

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How much did you think about Carmen herself?

KATSIR: We spent a while talking about her character and backstory. When we were in D.C. before the [Jon Stewart and Colbert] rallies, we took some time and just talked about Carmen, her history and motivations. I don't know if any of that went in but we learned a lot about her ... and about ourselves.

DUBBIN: Everything revolves around her, even the nature of the crimes. Throughout the series, there's a fair amount of threatened violence, but no one actually gets hurts. We kind of realized that this is a person who is so crafty that they are able to make non-violence a part of their flair.

Part of her criminal practice.

DUBBIN: They could pull off crazy elaborate heists without ever putting someone in harm's way. You can play 150 cases and you're never actually in danger and no one gets hurt.

DAHLEN: We did spend a lot of time thinking about the voice. We thought about the henchmen to set the tone. None of them have an arc or story, but they are kind of bungling. They do stupid things as they move around the world, but are always one step ahead of you. And in the game, you see hints of the larger story line they are going to be unveiling. Ivan Idea has gone missing.

DUBBIN: There was this long conversation about Carmen's motivations might have been for kidnapping this guy. Was there some kind of surrogacy issue at play?

DUBBIN: And Carmen and the chief. We had a lot of conversations about their relationship and where their rivalry stood.

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.


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