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How many software developer characters in popular culture can you think of, past and present? How many game designers? How many female game designers under 18? If you have anyone left in mind at all (and the headline didn’t ruin it for you), you probably caught Clarissa Explains It All in the 90s.
Update: Not so much on Hulu anymore, sorry.
Throughout the show’s five-season run, Clarissa created weird, wonderful games and prototypes she used to explain her world to the people closest to her. This article celebrates the highlights (and lowlights) of her run in game design.
Clarissa reveals the intensity of the Darling sibling rivalry with a revenge simulator in the show’s pilot. In this anti-endless runner (if you like), Clarissa attempts to catch her brother, Ferguson—who is running down the street in a straitjacket—with large helium balloons tied to a hook. If she succeeds, he floats upward off screen, meeting the game’s win condition.
While the player tries to catch Ferguson, a helium meter slowly decreases at the bottom of the screen. It’s clear that this is the amount of time before the player’s game is over. If you think about it, there’s only one way for a kid flying away on a decreasing helium supply to end. This is the first of many times Clarissa will casually explore the idea of maybe killing her brother.
Nightmare on Shadow Lane
To scare away her eccentric aunt Mafalda, Clarissa concocts a plan to “haunt” her own house, which she explains to her best friend, Sam, with a Maniac Mansion-inspired graphical adventure game.
Nightmare on Shadow Lane features such horrors as “The Devil’s Dust Bunnies,” an alligator suspended from the ceiling (likely her tiny pet alligator, Elvis), and a murderous giant turkey known as The Poultrygeist. Nightmare was a big missed opportunity for LucasArts.
Clarissa and Ferguson come together for one of their rare concerted efforts when they suspect their parents are considering a third child.
To illustrate how difficult a new baby makes life, Clarissa creates Baby Bomber, a stork-flying, baby-dropping physics game. As the player drops baby Fergusons and Clarissas into the family (shoe-shaped) home, their parents are pushed further and further until they’re finally driven out of the home completely. Needless to say, Baby Bomber affects absolutely nothing in the show’s real world.
With school picture day fast approaching, Clarissa creates this burning building sim to demonstrate the importance of her fashion freedom to her mother, Janet.
To win Blaze-O-Rama (shout-out to all the O-Ramas of yesteryear), Janet must navigate a fire ladder to the window with the right version of Clarissa in it. The correct one, naturally, is the one wearing the funky outfit. The other Clarissas turn out to be green aliens, apparently undeserving of rescue.
“That was very manipulative,” Janet exclaims afterward. 10/10.
After taking an IQ test in school, Ferguson learns he’s near the top of his age group in intelligence. He devises a plan to compete on a trivia show in hopes of becoming rich and powerful. Clarissa schemes to sabotage his efforts, just to be safe.
To convince Ferguson to use a nonsensical study plan, Clarissa shows him a falling objects game in which he swallows books whole to devour their knowledge. Don’t struggle too hard to make sense of that last bit; this is almost certainly the shakiest game usage in the entire series. To muddle the concept further, Ferguson tells Clarissa he can feel himself getting smarter, and plays the game a second time.
Untitled Home Defense Game
When troubled young Sam needs to stay with the Darling family while his father leaves town—a story we’ll hear again about troubled young Shawn Hunter in just a few short years—Clarissa and Ferguson are dismayed at the attention their parents show him (sitcom friends are just the worst).
Clarissa creates a game to help them choose cartoon-style traps they can set to keep Sam out of the house. The player can cut the electricity, trip a coiled spring welcome mat, and dump buckets of water to get the pesky disadvantaged boy to leave. The Home Alone videogame had been released less than six months prior, and the similarities are not subtle.
The Darlings never have to use any of these traps, as Sam walks into Clarissa’s room while they’re playing the game. Great work, kids.
Get to Know Me
When mother Janet takes an interest in spending quality time, Clarissa explains maybe not being the best person by creating a no-lose trivia game, hoping her mom will decide she knows her daughter plenty well and leave her alone.
Clarissa’s game backfires on her once again when Janet gets credit for the last question and wins the game before she’s had time to choose an answer.
As Clarissa’s interest in writing begins to take center stage, an episode is devoted to a poetry assignment, in which she develops a software application capable of doing her work. It wows students and faculty alike with the following verse:
“Gray cube, rectangular light,
sunshine open close open
outside outside outside
Instead of celebrating what would still be an impressive feat of linguistic programming, Clarissa wrestles with the ethical dilemma of taking credit for her application’s work. She eventually acknowledges the program at a banquet, and has her computer deliver a reading.
Blind Date Bash-O-Rama
As Clarissa gets older, the topics of her games shift from primarily harming her brother to more mature issues, like dating and driving. She readily tackles the challenges facing older teens, while keeping her youthful sense of mischief alive in her games. This is the most apparent in Blind Date Bash-O-Rama.
In this fighting game you may as well call “Date Fighter II’: Champion Edition,” Clarissa takes on various monsters that show up hoping for a date and leave with a good ass-kicking. Obvious influences aside, BDB-O-R looks like actual, legitimate fun. If they’d released it in stores, it would have been on my 1993 Christmas list.
Clarissa’s final game of the show’s five-season run is a loosely Mario Kart-style racer developed mostly to convince everyone that her plans to start riding a motorcycle are safe and totally reasonable. She is surprised at her own inability to complete a race without wiping out.
Although this is another good-looking game, I think Blind Date Bash-O-Rama should be remembered as the spiritual conclusion to the Darling games series.
As Clarissa became a young adult, game development eventually gave way to her fledgling writing career, disappearing for good early in the final season. Though game dev was not always crucial to the plot, its presence in the show served to introduce young viewers to a practice much less common and much less accessible at the time. In addition, Clarissa’s use of design to explore difficult issues and explain her perspective to those around her demonstrated initiative toward aspirations the real-world game industry still grapples with today.
Where are all the modern game creators in pop culture? Gaming is here to stay and all aspects of the game industry are now widely accepted as legitimate—if tumultuous—career paths. It’s surprising that game development still hasn’t been done this well on TV since Clarissa left for college.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.