Grow Up is a series in which I evaluate whether games called young adult actually fit the definition and explore why that matters.
“Unlikable” is a word that comes up again and again when discussing characters. It’s a fraught idea to begin with—I love a deeply flawed character myself, while others prefer a character they can look up to—but especially so in fiction for younger consumers, such as young adult and middle grade. Is there room for selfish, mean, or otherwise unlikable characters in fiction for younger audiences, or should young protagonists serve as role models?
Enter Jenny LeClue, protagonist of Jenny LeClue: Detectivú, an oddly named adventure/puzzle game from Mografi. Jenny LeClue is, to my 33-year-old perception, kind of a precocious little brat. I like that about her. Unlike the clever but well-behaved girl detectives of yore (the genre exemplar being the Nancy Drew of the early Carolyn Keene books—she’s loved by all except the villainous), Jenny is not just brash, but sometimes downright mean. She’s clever to a fault, and the game gives you ample opportunity to lord that cleverness over people, sometimes with positive rewards.
But even so, the game doesn’t paint this tendency as a good thing—Jenny’s capability for cruelty sets up one of the story’s more interesting subplots. Jenny LeClue is actually a story within a story: following a mysterious opening, the player is introduced to Arthur K. Finklestein, the author of the Jenny LeClue series of books. Finklestein’s carefree children’s mysteries have long been sinking in popularity, and his publisher tasks him with writing something dark and scary, this time with a real murder. The player, through time-based choice and consequence mechanics as well as classic point-and-click adventure puzzles, brings Finklestein’s grittier work into being by playing Jenny herself, with the occasional zoom out into Finklestein’s increasingly unraveled writing habits.
Within the world of Finklestein’s books, as Jenny, daughter of a police detective, players must solve the murder of the dean of Gumboldt College, a beloved community figure and father to Jenny’s best friend. Evidence puts Jenny’s mother at the scene, and Jenny takes up proving her innocence, even if it means getting into all kinds of trouble.
That itself sounds like the perfect story for a plucky girl detective. And while “plucky” might be one adjective you could use to describe Jenny, she’s also something of a callous busybody a la Harriet the Spy or Sherlock Holmes. Her relentless pursuit of answers leads her to alienate her best friend, and, upon getting to know a popular girl from her school, Jenny refuses to believe that she could be anything but a silly blonde stereotype.
To be clear, I think these are all good things. Jenny is annoying in a good way, even a realistic way. While I don’t know how Mografi would bill the game, these characteristics fit a middle grade classification, a demographic of children’s literature that skews a bit younger than young adult, typically targeting 8 to 12 year olds. Middle grade is often forgotten, more so than young adult literature—including by me—but tends to focus on younger characters and their interpersonal relationships, with less complex conflicts for readers and characters to untangle. That’s not to say that they can’t deal with heavy subjects (Animorphs, infamous for its intense depictions of war, violence, and psychological harm, is middle grade), only that these conflicts will be less complex in execution than they might be in work for older audiences.
Finklestein, in our frame narrative, fears the consequences of exposing children to dark and deadly literature. He doesn’t want to write stories in which bad things happen, especially not to intrepid young girls like Jenny. But we, as players, can see the effectiveness of it; sure, you can make Jenny answer every question nicely, but where’s the fun in that? If Jenny starts off as the sweet and charming girl detective, she has nowhere to go. A girl universally beloved has only to ask for information and get it. Nobody would believe Nancy Drew did anything wrong, but people are ready to believe the worst of Jenny LeClue.
Much as Finklestein wants to protect her and his young readers from the horrors of the real world, adult players are likely to find Jenny’s tromping through graveyards and crawling over roofs to be more frightening than fun. I can easily imagine a young version of me that found everything Jenny does to be very exciting—she’s so clever! so daring! so rude, but fun!—but adult me wants to wrap her in bubble wrap and give her a stern talking-to about being kind to others.
But doing so would do her no favors. Finklestein’s safe books don’t sell because they’re boring. If Jenny were in fact the spunky girl detective of yore, she’d be too dull to be worth reading about. Adult audiences might still want to protect her, but all the thrill would be gone. Younger audiences might tune out entirely.
In letting Jenny be kind of a little shit, Mografi is creating a modern, flawed heroine who can capture multiple audiences. We all know that children’s fiction isn’t confined to the target demographic—many adults (myself included) also read it, and the same is true for games.
Jenny LeClue: Detectivú is not only a middle grade game because of its young protagonist, its bildungsroman structure, and its themes; it’s also a game about children’s fiction. It’s explicitly about what young people can handle, a question we grapple with every day as today’s youth experience climate change, violent insurrections, a pandemic, threats of fascism, and all the regular teen and tween concerns on top of that. Children are people too, for all their flaws and virtues—Jenny, the creation of an adult targeted at a child, is, too. Her unlikability (so to speak—I like her flaws) is the key piece that makes the story work. She’s strong enough to stick up for herself, but eventually her actions are going to come back to haunt her. She’s interesting and capable, but frustrating. She lets us indulge our desire to be mean and short with people and also our desire to leave those urges behind. Jenny shouldn’t have to deal with a murder, a dirty secret, and weird science she can’t understand. Neither should today’s kids, but they do.
At first, I wondered what the point of Finklestein’s frame narrative was. I don’t particularly care about him—he’s the kind of author I’d find tiring to read in real life. But setting aside the mechanical benefit of letting him struggle with choices and play with breaking the fourth wall, the frame narrative also puts the game in conversation with the field of children’s fiction, regardless of medium. Finklestein is an author within a game, creating a story for young readers that he wants to treat as delicate children, but those readers reject that interpretation. Adults spot the interesting dilemma Finklestein is in, children get to boo at Finklestein’s attempted babying, and everyone gets a fun and exciting adventure story.
Jenny LeClue: Detectivú is only the first part of the story—the game ends on a cliffhanger with no indication of when (or frankly if) we can expect part two. Perhaps all this interesting commentary on children’s fiction will be unraveled in part two. But Jenny LeClue as it stands is a wonderful example of what a middle grade game can look like—a bit snarky, a bit contemplative, and engaged with audiences of all ages.
Read the rest of the Grow Up series.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.
There will be a sequel. It’s already been working on 😉
Thanks for helping me to see the game in a different way! I hadn’t thought of it as a middle-grade work.