Carmen Sandiego's Flight

Or: Against Nostalgia, Against Eternity

Memory is a funny thing. Fleeting and eternal, always right and utterly wrong. Contradictions are woven into the very fabric of our remembering, creating distortions in the past. To remember is to tell a story, a story that you must believe, lest it become mere acting, mere fib. Who hasn't felt (with the exception of those rare photographic minds that seem to reproduce every detail) utterly confused at being sure that something happened - say, you're sure that girl totally was at the party last week and yet the person in question has a water-tight alibi, having never even come close to said event. What happened there? Neuroscientists will point to particularly bright spots in figures of the brain and explain chemical reactions that occurred or failed to occur; all that is interesting, for sure, but mostly useless for our common understanding. The simple idea that remembering is just fundamentally flawed might be rather more useful - how much of our lives are we really sure happened that way? The big details for sure - that particular boyfriend, a memorable night at the bar, a special accomplishment, etc.; yet if the scenery and characters are mostly correct, the details vanish into the dead of the night, never to return. So much of our lives become lost to the void or hopelessly muddled by the effects of time.

An even cursory understanding of music will reveal that a piece or a song is made just as much, if not, more, of silences rather than sounds. It's often as if composers and artists put silence into sounds rather than the reverse - paint with absences rather than presences. To remember is much the same: we forget much so we can properly remember the little which has left an impact in ourselves - deservedly or not. In practice even our grandiose moments become figments of time and imagination, never to be seen again. Did those things really happen? Sometimes I'm not so sure. Even though I know they did.

Why the long preamble? A long excuse to talk about memory, for sure; and yet, as the title suggests, this piece has a subject: the edutainment game Carmen Sandiego, its reboot as a cartoon on Netflix, and my thoughts on nostalgia.

This story goes back to the previous century, now a long-bygone era, full of odd styles, the sadly dying body of the USSR and not quite climate doom yet. There was some measure of hope - and neoliberalism was there to make sure nothing good could ever happen again. Amidst the financial paradise that was the eighties before Japan's bubble crash, game development of all sorts was happening - games seemed to be "the next big thing", as the radio, the cinema and the television had once been, respectively. Someone, somewhere had what seemed like a great idea: "kids hate school right? What if we made them learn with those newfangled games they seem to love so much? They do spend all their quarters on those bloody arcade machines!" It was a terrible idea. One of the reasons kids like videogames is precisely because they are not school. Still, some good games came out of that.

An image of the original look of Carmen Sandiego. Carmen Sandiego's original look.

I'd cautiously argue that Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is a good game. Or, at the very least young me thought it was. I mean, if little me scrambled to figure out "just what is the capital of Bolivia come again???" in a desperate attempt to catch the dastardly villains at V.I.L.E., the game had to been doing something right. Memorizing places and sights in order to catch the "bad guys" - now that's edutainment done right. I'd probably be bored to tears if I tried to play it nowadays though, but then again I'm no longer its target audience.

The eponymous Miss Carmen Sandiego, as depicted on the image above, is such a cool character. Even though most of the game you don't really see her at all, being too busy getting V.I.L.E.'s other operatives, the undeniable charisma and stylishness of Sandiego makes her front and center in the game's imagery: it's her you're really trying to catch, and the other thieves are mere diversions (though often very amusing ones). It's no wonder that the game ended up creating a media empire, with cartoons and live TV shows and a bunch of other games named Where in the ____ is Carmen Sandiego?, with the blank being filled in by whatever new theme the game had.

Each installment in the Carmen Sandiego franchise has become a relic of the time when it was made - countries that no longer exist, landmarks that are no longer there, ways of thinking no longer current. It's as if, having produced a fact-checking game, the developers have encased in time a particular understanding of the world, of the ways things seemed to be and now are no more. The aforementioned Soviet Union was still in place when the first game was released - now it's a mark of an age gone by. Zaire's once again name change back into DRC, the bloody splitting of Yugoslavia, etc., too much history happened and now one can no longer simply answer the queries the game presents - they are no longer simple "facts", but relics that need not cursory understanding and an up-to-date almanac, but proper historical research to comprehend.

Why talk about a rather old educational game? I do not have any interest in "reviewing it" as it were. I feel such categorization of what is "good" and "bad" to often be pointless squabbling about details, especially when it comes to games as a medium - perhaps the artistic genre most plagued by bad reviewers and hype-fueling propaganda pieces. No, what interests me is the interplay of memory, new interpretations of old characters and narratives, and the way so often we respond to such things. Carmen Sandiego is a mere excuse, an example out of countless ones.

An image of the original look of Carmen Sandiego. Carmen Sandiego's new look.

As it were, Netflix started producing a Carmen Sandiego show in 2018 - trying to cash in on old nostalgia for the character and the legitimately interesting designs and ideas, an to fill a much-needed spot on kids' programming for the service, which seems to be often lacking. Why not resurrect the "crimson rogue", and even put some geographic trivia in order for the show to be sold as educational?

In this new incarnation, Carmen is much younger and is no longer "evil" as it were - an orphan adopted by the V.I.L.E. headmasters, since V.I.L.E. is now a school as well as a criminal organization - she comes to rebel against the life of pointless thievery and to become a sort of Robin Hood figure: stealing from the evil thieves in order to return art and history to museums and the public domain all over the world. It's a cute story, though a change in character I took some getting used to. How come? The show is well-written, well-animated and oftentimes quite funny as well; sure, I'm a bit too old to be its target audience, but I could appreciate the finer details the writers wove into the story, with themes of betrayal, dashed expectations and misunderstandings, and the building of new family when all seems lost. And some pretty cool capers as well.

Still, how come I was bothered by the new design - as too often enthusiastic people get rabid at reboots much more than new shows - and the new thematic? I had no reason to dislike it at first, except than in comparison with my old memories of the games (since I never watched the old TV shows); and as I tried to point out above, memory is anything but reliable. What makes people, above all "gamers" and the like, so possessive of old interpretations of characters and stories? Why do they got so bothered with, for example, the new She-ra reboot, also on Netflix? Their paranoid fantasies of a secret cabal of "SJWs" that are supposedly hellbent on destroying culture seem to be all the more rabid when it concerns the remaking of old media.

I'd like to suggest an interpretation: that nostalgia is almost like a disease of the spirit - not my original interpretation, by the way, since quite a few of the old 18th and 19th century doctors viewed as a subset of melancholia and the like - and that under late-capitalist alienation, nostalgic memories become even more of an anchor for immiserated people. In face of the death of public spaces and thus of a great deal of social mingling during neoliberalism, memories of old games and TV shows have become strong character traits for people. It's not as if the idea was merely "I like Carmen Sandiego" - a fairly uninteresting thought - but rather "that Carmen Sandiego has somehow made me as I understand myself" - now that's a crazy idea. (This is just an example, by the way - I don't hold such strong attachment to the game or the TV show.)

In the building of identity, remembering becomes the key piece of it all - the narrative we build, with our sparse pieces that we can still recall. A change in Carmen Sandiego or She-ra or Pokémon or whatever becomes not just a reinterpretation of a character or a story - but an attack on someone's personal identity. And as psychoanalysis has show more than a hundred years ago, when we are confronted with attacks to our sense of self, often we lash out, ignore or become pathologically hateful of said attacks or attackers. It's often easier to pretend the world is wrong than to rethink our priorities and our identities.

Nostalgia only works precisely because our memories are so flawed - every time we recall something, we distort it a bit; and with enough remembering they begin to meld with the memories of the act of remembering itself, and begin to fade away, melding with the emotion of recalling good times rather than the emotions of the times themselves. It calls to mind an old story by the late Douglas Adams: he used to tell about how he first conceived of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxies whilst hitchhiking all over Europe, and one day just staring at the skies in Austria. With fame and success, he had to repeat the story over and over so much that it simply faded away and was replaced with the memory of telling the story countless times, and it became little more than acting from a well-rehearsed script.

Where do I wish to get to? It's rather simple. It's that Ms. Sandiego's new journey and my resistance to it are stand-ins for the countless times we worship memories, those distorted figments of the past. Memories are an activity that should be part of ourselves, but never allowed to grip us into paralysis. Memories are only useful insofar as they are alive - otherwise they become idols (in the strong theological sense), objects of worship that never return the favor, and may doom us to incomprehension and despair. The dead are dead, the past is past - remember only insofar as it benefits the living.

It's a good thing Carmen Sandiego has escaped the clutches of old stultified interpretations and managed to be transformed into a successful new show that holds meaning for those that live today. Nostalgia must be combated whenever it becomes pernicious; eternity is meaningless for finite human beings. In face of climate doom, economic ruin and disaster those ghosts of the past can drag us back into the depths of melancholia. Finding out which memories you truly cherish, and which are curses that demand you return to the person you once were can be rather liberating, something rare in these godforsaken days.