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Ten Great Adventure-Game Puzzles

This blog has become, among other things, an examination of good and bad game-design practices down through the years, particularly within the genre of adventure games. I’ve always tried to take the subject seriously, and have even dared to hope that some of these writings might be of practical use to someone — might help designers of the present or future make better games. But, for reasons that I hope everyone can understand, I’ve spent much more time illuminating negative than positive examples of puzzle design. The fact is, I don’t feel much compunction about spoiling bad puzzles. Spoiling the great puzzles, however, is something I’m always loath to do. I want my readers to have the thrill of tackling those for themselves.

Unfortunately, this leaves the situation rather unbalanced. If you’re a designer looking for tips from the games of the past, it certainly helps to have some positive as well as negative examples to look at. And even if you just read this blog to experience (or re-experience) these old games through the sensibility of your humble author here, you’re missing out if all you ever hear about are the puzzles that don’t work. So, when my reader and supporter Casey Muratori wrote to me to suggest an article that singles out some great puzzles for detailed explication and analysis, it sounded like a fine idea to me.

It’s not overly difficult to generalize what makes for fair or merely “good” puzzles. They should be reasonably soluble by any reasonably intelligent, careful player, without having to fall back on the tedium of brute-forcing them or the pointlessness of playing from a walkthrough. As such, the craft of making merely good or fair puzzles is largely subsumed in lists of what not to do — yes, yet more negative reinforcements! — such as Graham Nelson’s “Bill of Player’s Rights” or Ron Gilbert’s “Why Adventure Games Suck and What We Can Do About It.” It’s much more difficult, however, to explain what makes a brilliant, magical puzzle. In any creative discipline, rules will only get you so far; at some point, codification must make way for the ineffable. Still, we’ll do the best we can today, and see if we can’t tease some design lessons out of ten corking puzzles from adventure games of yore.

Needless to say, there will be spoilers galore in what follows, so if you haven’t played these games, and you think you might ever want to, you should absolutely do so before reading about them here. All ten games are found in my personal Hall of Fame and come with my highest recommendation. As that statement would indicate, I’ve restricted this list to games I’ve already written about, meaning that none of those found here were published after 1992. I’ve split the field evenly between parser-driven text adventures and point-and-click graphic adventures. If you readers enjoy and/or find this article useful, then perhaps it can become a semi-regular series going forward.

And now, with all that said, let’s accentuate the positive for once and relive some classic puzzles that have been delighting their players for decades.


1. Getting past the dragon in Adventure

By Will Crowther and Don Woods, public domain, 1977.

How it works: Deep within the bowels of Colossal Cave, “a huge green dragon bars the way!” Your objective, naturally, is to get past him to explore the area beyond. But how to get him out of the way? If you throw your axe at him, it “bounces harmlessly off the dragon’s thick scales.” If you unleash your fierce bird friend on him, who earlier cleared a similarly troublesome snake out of your way, “the little bird attacks the green dragon, and in an astounding flurry gets burnt to a cinder.” If you simply try to “attack dragon,” the game mocks you: “With what? Your bare hands?” You continue on in this way until, frustrated and thoroughly pissed off, you type, “Yes,” in response to that last rhetorical question. And guess what? It wasn’t a rhetorical question: “Congratulations! You have just vanquished a dragon with your bare hands! (Unbelievable, isn’t it?)”

Why it works: In many ways, this is the most dubious puzzle in this article. (I do know how to make an entrance, don’t I?) It seems safe to say that the vast majority of people who have “solved” it have done so by accident, which is not normally a sign of good puzzle design. Yet classic text adventures especially were largely about exploring the possibility space, seeing what responses you could elicit. The game asks you a question; why not answer it, just to see what it does?

This is an early example of a puzzle that could never have worked absent the parser — absent its approach to interactivity as a conversation between game and player. How could you possibly implement something like this using point and click? I’m afraid a dialog box with a “YES” and “NO” just wouldn’t work. In text, though, the puzzle rewards the player’s sense of whimsy — rewards the player, one might even say, for playing in the right spirit. Interactions like these are the reason some of us continue to love text adventures even in our modern era of photo-realistic graphics and surround sound.

Our puzzling design lesson: A puzzle need not be complicated to delight — need barely be a puzzle at all! — if it’s executed with wit and a certain joie de vivre.


2. Exploring the translucent maze in Enchanter

By Marc Blank and David Lebling, Infocom, 1983

How it works: As you’re exploring the castle of the mad wizard Krill, you come upon a maze of eight identical rooms in the basement. Each location is “a peculiar room, whose cream-colored walls are thin and translucent.” All of the rooms are empty, the whole area seemingly superfluous. How strange.

Elsewhere in the castle, you’ve discovered (or will discover) a few other interesting items. One is an old book containing “The Legend of the Unseen Terror”:

This legend, written in an ancient tongue, goes something like this: At one time a shapeless and formless manifestation of evil was disturbed from millennia of sleep. It was so powerful that it required the combined wisdom of the leading enchanters of that age to conquer it. The legend tells how the enchanters lured the Terror "to a recess deep within the earth" by placing there a powerful spell scroll. When it had reached the scroll, the enchanters trapped it there with a spell that encased it in the living rock. The Terror was so horrible that none would dare speak of it. A comment at the end of the narration indicates that the story is considered to be quite fanciful; no other chronicles of the age mention the Terror in any form.

And you’ve found a map, drawn in pencil. With a start, you realize that it corresponds exactly to the map you’ve drawn of the translucent maze, albeit with an additional, apparently inaccessible room located at point P:

B       J
!      / \
!     /   \
!    /     \
!   K       V
!          / \
!         /   \
!        /     \
R-------M       F
 \     /
  \   /
   \ /
    H       P


Finally, you’ve found a badly worn pencil, with a point and an eraser good for just two uses each.

And so you put the pieces together. The Terror and the “powerful spell scroll” mentioned in the book are encased in the “living rock” of the maze in room P. The pencil creates and removes interconnections between the rooms. You need to get to room P to recover the scroll, which you’ll need to defeat Krill. But you can’t allow the Terror to escape and join forces with Krill. A little experimentation — which also causes you to doom the world to endless darkness a few times, but there’s always the restore command, right? — reveals that the Terror moves one room per turn, just as you do. So, your objective must be to let him out of room P, but trap him in another part of the maze before he can get to room B and freedom. You need to give him a path to freedom to get him moving out of room P, then cut it off.

There are many possible solutions. One is to go to room H, then draw a line connecting P and F. Sensing a path to freedom, the Terror will move to room F, whereupon you erase the connection you just drew. As you do that, the Terror moves to room V, but you erase the line between V and M before he can go further, trapping him once again. Now, you have just enough pencil lead left to draw a line between H and P and recover the scroll.

Why it works: Solving this puzzle comes down to working out how a system functions, then exploiting it to do your bidding. (Small wonder so many hackers have found text adventures so appealing over the years!) First comes the great mental leap of connecting these four disparate elements which you’ve found scattered about: an empty maze, a book of legends, a map, and a pencil. Then, after that great “a-ha!” moment, you get the pleasure of working out the mechanics of the Terror’s movements and finally of putting together your plan and carrying it out. Once you understand how everything works, this final exercise is hardly a brain burner, but it’s nevertheless made much more enjoyable by the environment’s dynamism. You feel encouraged to sit down with your map and work out your unique approach, and the game responds as you expect it to.  This simulational aspect, if you will, stands in marked contrast to so many static adventure-game puzzles of the “use X on Y because the designer wants you to” variety.

It’s worth taking note as well of the technology required to implement something like this. It demands a parser capable of understanding a construction as complicated as “draw line from H to P,” a game engine capable of re-jiggering map connections and rewriting room descriptions on the fly, and even a measure of artificial intelligence, including a path-finding algorithm, for the Terror. Nobody other than Infocom could have implemented a puzzle of this dynamic complexity in 1983. I’ve often noted that the keystone of Infocom’s design genius was their subtly advanced technology in comparison to anyone else working in their field; this puzzle provides fine proof of what I mean by that.

Our puzzling design lesson: Technology isn’t everything in game design, but it isn’t nothing either; the tools you choose to work with have a direct impact on the types of puzzles you can attempt. A corollary to this statement is that the technology which goes into design affordances is often far more subtle than that which allows whiz-bang graphics and sound.


3. Getting the babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1984

How it works: You’ve escaped planet Earth just seconds before its destruction at the hands of a Vogon Constructor Fleet. You’re now in the hold of one of the Vogon ships:

Vogon Hold
This is a squalid room filled with grubby mattresses, unwashed cups, and unidentifiable bits of smelly alien underwear. A door lies to port, and an airlock lies to starboard.

There is a satchel here.

In the corner is a glass case with a switch and a keyboard.
It looks like the glass case contains:
an atomic vector plotter

Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

That dispensing machine contains babel fish, which, when inserted into your ear, will allow you to understand the many strange alien languages you’ll soon be encountering. Rather than belabor this famously extended puzzle point by point, I’ll just provide you with a transcript of the steps you need to go through to solve it. In real life, of course, you would spend much more time bumbling and fumbling than does our ideal player here.

>examine machine
The dispenser is tall, has a button at around eye-level, and says "Babel Fish" in large letters. Anything dispensed would probably come out the slot at around knee-level. It bears a small label which reads "Another fine product of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation."

>i
You have:
no tea
a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is
a towel
It looks like your gown contains:
pocket fluff
The Hitchhiker's Guide
an electronic Sub-Etha signaling device
a loose pile of junk mail
a toothbrush
a flathead screwdriver

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and through a small hole in the wall, just under a metal hook.

>remove gown
Okay, you're no longer wearing your gown.

>hang gown on hook
The gown is now hanging from the hook, covering a tiny hole.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, vanishing through the grating of a hitherto unnoticed drain.

>put towel on drain
The towel completely covers the drain.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot zips through the panel, and is gone.

>cover panel with satchel
Okay, the satchel is lying on its side in front of the tiny robot panel.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc. A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.

>put mail on satchel
Okay, the loose pile of junk mail is now sitting on the satchel.

>push button
A single babel fish shoots out of the slot. It sails across the room and hits the dressing gown. The fish slides down the sleeve of the gown and falls to the floor, landing on the towel. A split-second later, a tiny cleaning robot whizzes across the floor, grabs the fish, and continues its breakneck pace toward a tiny robot panel at the base of the wall. The robot plows into the satchel, sending the babel fish flying through the air in a graceful arc surrounded by a cloud of junk mail. Another robot flies in and begins madly collecting the cluttered plume of mail. The babel fish continues its flight, landing with a loud "squish" in your ear.

Why it works: This is easily the most famous text-adventure puzzle of all time, one whose reputation for difficulty was so extreme in the 1980s that Infocom took to selling tee-shirts emblazoned with “I got the babel fish!” In truth, though, its reputation is rather exaggerated. There are other puzzles in Hitchhiker’s which rely heavily — perhaps a little too heavily — on the ability to think with the skewed logic of Douglas Adams. This puzzle, however, really isn’t one of them. It’s certainly convoluted and time-consuming, but it’s also both logical in a non-skewed sense and thoroughly satisfying to work out step by step. From the standpoint of the modern player, its only really objectionable aspects are the facts that you can easily arrive at it without having everything you need to solve it, and that you have a limited amount of tries — i.e., a limited number of spare babel fish — at your disposal. But if you have made sure to pick up everything that isn’t nailed down in the early part of the game, and if you use the save system wisely, there’s no reason you can’t solve this on your own and have immense fun doing so. It’s simply a matter of saving at each stage and experimenting to find out how to progress further. The fact that it can be comfortably solved in stages makes it far less infuriating than it might otherwise be. You always feel like you’re making progress — coming closer, step by step, to the ultimate solution. There’s something of a life lesson here: most big problems can be solved by first breaking them down into smaller problems and solving those one at a time.

Importantly, this puzzle is also funny, fitting in perfectly with Douglas Adams’s comedic conception of a universe not out so much to swat you dead all at once as to slowly annoy you to death with a thousand little passive-aggressive cuts.

Our puzzling design lesson: Too many adventure-game designers think that making a comedy gives them a blank check to indulge in moon logic when it comes to their puzzles. The babel fish illustrates that a puzzle can be both funny and fair.


4. Using the T-removing machine in Leather Goddesses of Phobos

By Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1986

How it works: While exploring this ribald science-fiction comedy, Infocom’s last big hit, you come upon a salesman who wants to trade you something for the “odd machine” he carries. When you finally find the item he’s looking for and take possession of the machine, he gives you only the most cryptic description of its function: “‘It’s a TEE remover,’ he explains. You ponder what it removes — tea stains, hall T-intersections — even TV star Mr. T crosses your mind, until you recall that it’s only 1936.”

Experimentation will eventually reveal that this “tee-remover” is actually a T-remover. If you put something inside it and turn it on, said something becomes itself minus all of the letter Ts in its name. You need to use the machine to solve one clever and rather hilarious puzzle, turning a jar of untangling cream into unangling cream, thereby to save poor King Mitre’s daughter from a tragic fate:

In the diseased version of the legend commonly transmitted on Earth, Mitre is called Midas. The King was granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. His greed caught up with him when he transformed even his own daughter into gold.

King Mitre's wish was, in fact, that everything he touched would turn to forty-five degree angles. No one has ever explained this strange wish; the most likely hypothesis is a sexual fetish. In any case, the tale has a similar climax, with Mitre turning his own daughter into a forty-five degree angle.

This is pretty funny in itself, but the greatest fun offered by the T-remover is in all the other places you can use it: on a tray (“It looks a little like Ray whatsisname from second grade.”); on a rabbit (“A bearded rabbi wearing a prayer shawl leaps out of the machine, recites a Torah blessing, and dashes off in search of a minyan.”); a raft (“It sinks like a stone. I guess a raf doesn’t float nearly as well as a raft.”); a pair of cotton balls (“Let’s just say that some poor male raccoon is speaking in a particularly high-pitched voice.”).

Why it works: The T-removing machine is sometimes held up as another puzzle concept that couldn’t possibly work in any other medium than text. I’m not sure if that’s literally true — later in this very list we’ll see another funny wordplay-based puzzle that does work inside a graphic adventure — but it certainly is true that no responsible producer would agree to pay for all the work required to implement all those one-off, just-for-fun responses in graphics. In text, though, they’re just a matter of an additional sentence or two.

Adventure designer Bob Bates likes to point out that the vast majority of what the player attempts to do will always be wrong; that’s just the nature of the endeavor. When she does one of these wrong things, the designer needs to do as much as possible to entertain her. A later generation would dub this the “juicy” approach to game design: rewarding curiosity and creativity, even if none of it contributes directly to the prosaic task of finishing the game. Steve Meretzky had a great puzzle already with the T-remover, King Mitre, and the untangling/unangling cream. He could have left it at that by coming up with excuses for why you couldn’t put other things in the T-remover. Instead he stayed faithful to his invention and implemented many alternatives alongside the “correct” use of the machine.

Our puzzling design lesson: Don’t ignore the “else” in the “if, then, else” of an adventure game. It makes your game feel like a living world rather than an arbitrary collection of logic gates to be navigated, and shows that you respect your player’s creativity.


5. Escaping the pirate Lafond in Plundered Hearts

By Amy Briggs, Infocom, 1987

How it works: Would I be engaging in too much gender stereotyping if I noted that the puzzles in the only Infocom game to be written by a woman often deal in social intelligence rather than abstract logic? This is another fairly lengthy sequence, so it’s best if I once again just show you what happens if you do everything correctly.

"Welcome, ma petite." Lafond bows you in.

Lafond's Bedroom
Lafond's bedroom shows all the outpourings of his megalomania. Royal hues of
purple and gold weigh down the hangings on the bed and the eastward window, as if trying to smother the moonbeam shining in.

Lafond is leering, lip curled.

A lace-covered table crouches beside a wing-backed chair in one corner. Sitting on the table is a green goblet, a blue goblet and a flagon.

"Have some wine." Lafond pours wine into two glasses, giving a blue one to you. "Drink this down. We have a long night ahead of us." He drains his own.

>drink wine
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

"Good girl," he says, "Let's see more cooperation of this sort."

Suddenly, the door slams open. It is Jamison, coatless, sword bared, his shirt ripped. "Thank God I am not too late. Leave, darling, before I skewer this dog to his bedposts," he cries. The scar on his cheek gleams coldly.

With a yell, Crulley and the butler jump out of the darkness behind him. Nicholas struggles, but soon lies unconscious on the floor.

"Take him to the dungeon," Lafond says, setting down his glass. "You, butler, stay nearby. I do not wish to be disturbed again.

"Now that we are rid of that intrusion, cherie, I will change into something more comfortable. Pour me more wine." He crosses to the wardrobe removing his coat and vest, turned slightly away from you.

>pour wine into green goblet
You fill the green goblet with wine.

"In private, call me Jean, or whatever endearment you choose, once I have approved it." Lafond is looking into the wardrobe.

>squeeze bottle into green goblet
You squeeze three colorless drops into the green goblet. You sense Lafond
hesitate, then continue primping.

The butler enters, laying a silver tray of cold chicken on the table. "The kitchen wench has gone, your grace. I took the liberty of fetching these
myself." He bows and leaves the room.

"Sprinkle some spices on the fowl, ma petite," Lafond says, donning a long brocade robe, his back to you. "They are hot, but delicious."

>get spices
You take a pinch of spices between your thumb and forefinger.

"Tsk. The cook has gone too far. She shall be 'leaving us' tomorrow." Lafond adjusts the lace at his neck.

>put spices on chicken
You sprinkle some spices on a wing and nibble it. The peppery heat hits you like a wave, leaving you gasping, eyes watering.

Lafond strolls to the table smiling slyly. "But you haven't finished pouring the wine." He tops off both glasses. "Which glass was mine? I seem to have forgotten." He points at the green goblet and smiles in a way that does not grant you confidence. "Is this it?"

>no
You shake your head, teeth clenched.

"Ah yes, of course." Lafond obligingly takes the blue goblet.

He inhales deeply of the bouquet of his wine, then turns to you. "You must think me very naive to fall for such a trick. I saw you pour something into one of these glasses -- although I cannot smell it." He switches goblets, setting the blue goblet into your nerveless grasp and taking up the other, smiling evilly. "Now you will drink from the cup intended for me."

>drink from blue goblet
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

"Good girl," he says. Lafond takes the leather bottle and drops it out the window. "You shall not need this. You may suffer no headaches in my employ."

He lifts his glass to drink, but stops. "Your father, for all his idiotic meddling in other people's business, is not a fool. I doubt you are, either." He calls in the butler, ordering him to empty the green goblet. The man reports no odd taste and returns to his post.

>get spices
You take a pinch of spices between your thumb and forefinger.

Lafond draws near, whispering indecencies. He caresses your lily white neck, his fingers ice-cold despite the tropic heat.

>throw spices at lafond
You blow the spices off your fingertips, directly into Lafond's face. He
sneezes, his eyes watering from the heat of the peppers. Reaching blindly for some wine, he instead upsets the table, shattering a glass. Lafond stumbles cursing out of the room, in search of relief.

>s
You run out -- into the butler's barrel chest and leering grin. You return to the bedroom, the butler following. "The governor said you were not to leave this room."

>z
Time passes...

The butler seems to be having some problems stifling a yawn.

>z
Time passes...


The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

>z
Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

>s
You creep over the prostrate butler.

Why it works: Plundered Hearts is an unusually driven text adventure, in which the plucky heroine you play is constantly forced to improvise her way around the dangers that come at her from every direction. In that spirit, one can almost imagine a player bluffing her way through this puzzle on the first try by thinking on her feet and using her social intuition. Most probably won’t, mark you, but it’s conceivable, and that’s what makes it such a good fit with the game that hosts it. This death-defying tale doesn’t have time to slow down for complicated mechanical puzzles. This puzzle, on the other hand, fits perfectly with the kind of high-wire adventure story — adventure story in the classic sense — which this game wants to be.

Our puzzling design lesson: Do-or-die choke point should be used sparingly, but can serve a plot-heavy game well as occasional, exciting punctuations. Just make sure that they feel inseparable from the narrative unfolding around the player — not, as is the case with so many adventure-game puzzles, like the arbitrary thing the player has to do so that the game will feed her the next bit of story.


6. Getting into Weird Ed’s room in Maniac Mansion

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1987

How it works: In Ron Gilbert’s first adventure game, you control not one but three characters, a trio of teenage stereotypes who enter the creepy mansion of Dr. Fred one hot summer night. Each has a unique skill set, and each can move about the grounds independently. Far from being just a gimmick, this has a huge effect on the nature of the game’s puzzles. Instead of confining yourself to one room at a time, as in most adventure games, your thinking has to span the environment; you must coordinate the actions of characters located far apart. Couple this with real-time gameplay and an unusually responsive and dynamic environment, and the whole game starts to feel wonderfully amenable to player creativity, full of emergent possibilities.

In this example of a Maniac Mansion puzzle, you need to search the bedroom of Weird Ed, the son of the mad scientist Fred and his bonkers wife Edna. If you enter while he’s in there, he’ll march you off to the house’s dungeon. Thus you have to find a way to get rid of him. In the sequence below, we’ve placed the kid named Dave in the room adjacent to Ed’s. Meanwhile Bernard is on the house’s front porch. (This being a comedy game, we won’t question how these two are actually communicating with each other.)

Dave is poised to spring into action in the room next to Weird Ed’s.

Bernard rings the doorbell.

Ed heads off to answer the door.

Dave makes his move as soon as Ed clears the area.

Dave searches Ed’s room.

But he has to hurry because Ed, after telling off Bernard, will return to his room.

Why it works: As graphics fidelity increases in an adventure game, the possibility space tends to decrease. Graphics are, after all, expensive to create, and beautiful high-resolution graphics all the more expensive. By the late 1990s, the twilight of the traditional adventure game as more than a niche interest among gamers, the graphics would be very beautiful indeed, but the interactivity would often be distressingly arbitrary, with little to no implementation of anything beyond the One True Path through the game.

Maniac Mansion, by contrast, makes a strong argument for the value of primitive graphics. This game that was originally designed for the 8-bit Commodore 64 uses its crude bobble-headed imagery in the service of the most flexible and player-responsive adventure design Lucasfilm Games would ever publish over a long and storied history in graphic adventures. Situations like the one shown above feel like just that — situations with flexible solutions — rather than set-piece puzzles. You might never have to do any of the above if you take a different approach. (You could, for instance, find a way to befriend Weird Ed instead of tricking him…) The whole environmental simulation — and a simulation really is what it feels like — is of remarkable complexity, especially considering the primitive hardware on which it was implemented.

Our puzzling design lesson: Try thinking holistically instead of in terms of set-piece roadblocks, and try thinking of your game world as a responsive simulated environment for the player to wander in instead of as a mere container for your puzzles and story. You might be surprised at what’s possible, and your players might even discover emergent solutions to their problems which you never thought of.


7. Getting the healer’s ring back in Hero’s Quest (later known as Quest for Glory I)

By Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Sierra, 1989

How it works: Hero’s Quest is another game which strains against the constrained norms in adventure-game design. Here you create and develop a character over the course of the game, CRPG-style. His statistics largely define what he can do, but your own choices define how those statistics develop. This symbiosis results in an experience which is truly yours. Virtually every puzzle in the game admits of multiple approaches, only some (or none) of which may be made possible by your character’s current abilities. The healer’s lost ring is a fine example of how this works in practice.

The bulletin board at the Guild of Adventurers tells you about the missing ring.

You go to inquire with the healer. Outside her hut is a tree, and on the tree is the nest of a sort of flying lizard.

Hmm, there’s another of these flying lizards inside.

I’ll reveal now that the ring is in the nest. But how to get at it? The answer will depend on the kind of character you’ve built up. If your “throwing” skill is sufficient, you can throw rocks at the nest to drive off the lizard and knock it off the tree. If your “magic” skill is sufficient and you’ve bought the “fetch” spell, you can cast it to bring the nest to you. Or, if your “climb” skill is sufficient, you can climb the tree. If you can’t yet manage any of this, you can continue to develop your character and come back later. Or not: the puzzle is completely optional. The healer rewards you only with six extra gold pieces and two healing potions, both of which you can earn through other means if necessary.

Why it works: This puzzle would be somewhat problematic if solving it was required to finish the game. Although several lateral nudges are provided that the ring is in the nest, it strikes me as dubious to absolutely demand that the player put all the pieces together — or, for that matter, to even demand that the player notice the nest, which is sitting there rather inconspicuously in the tree branch. Because solving the puzzle isn’t an absolute requirement, however, it becomes just another fun little thing to discover in a game that’s full of such generosity. Some players will notice the nest and become suspicious, and some won’t. Some players will find a way to see what’s in it, and some won’t. And those that do find a way will do so using disparate methods at different points in the game. Even more so than Maniac Mansion, Hero’s Quest gives you the flexibility to make your own story out of its raw materials. No two players will come away with quite the same memories.

This melding of CRPG mechanics with adventure-game elements is still an underexplored area in a genre which has tended to become less rather than more formally ambitious as it’s aged. (See also Origin’s brief-lived Worlds of Ultima series for an example of games which approach the question from the other direction — adding adventure-game elements to the CRPG rather than the other way around — with equally worthy results.) Anything adventures can do to break out of the static state-machine paradigm in favor of flexibility and dynamism is generally worth doing. It can be the difference between a dead museum exhibition and a living world.

Our puzzling design lesson: You can get away with pushing the boundaries of fairness in optional puzzles, which you can use to reward the hardcore without alienating your more casual players. (Also, go read Maniac Mansion‘s design lesson one more time.)


8. Blunting the smith’s sword in Loom

By Brian Moriarty, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

How it works: Games like Hero’s Quest succeed by being generously expansive, while others, like Loom, succeed by boiling themselves down to a bare essence. To accompany its simple storyline, which has the rarefied sparseness of allegory, Loom eliminates most of what we expect out of an adventure game. Bobbin Threadbare, the hero of the piece, can carry exactly one object with him: a “distaff,” which he can use to “spin” a variety of magical “drafts” out of notes by tapping them out on an onscreen musical staff. Gameplay revolves almost entirely around discovering new drafts and using them to solve puzzles.

The ancestor of Loom‘s drafts is the spell book the player added to in Infocom’s Enchanter series. There as well you cast spells to solve puzzles — and, in keeping with the “juicy” approach, also got to enjoy many amusing effects when you cast them in the wrong places. But, as we saw in our earlier explication of one of Enchanter‘s puzzles, you can’t always rely on your spell book in that game. In Loom, on the other hand, your distaff and your Book of Patterns — i.e., drafts — is all you have. And yet there’s a lot you can do with them, as the following will illustrate.

Bobbin eavesdrops from the gallery as Bishop Mandible discusses his plan for world domination with one of his lackeys. His chief smith is just sharpening the last of the swords that will be required. Bobbin has a pattern for “sharpen.” That’s obviously not what we want to do here, but maybe he could cast it in reverse…

Unfortunately, he can’t spin drafts as long as the smith is beating away at the sword.

Luckily, the smith pauses from time to time to show off his handwork.

Why it works: Loom‘s minimalist mechanics might seem to allow little scope for clever puzzle design. Yet, as this puzzle indicates, such isn’t the case at all. Indeed, there’s a certain interactive magic, found by no means only in adventures games, to the re-purposing of simple mechanics in clever new ways. Loom isn’t a difficult game, but it isn’t entirely trivial either. When the flash of inspiration comes that a draft might be cast backward, it’s as thrilling as the thrills that accompany any other puzzle on this list.

It’s also important to note the spirit of this puzzle, the way it’s of a piece with the mythic dignity of the game as a whole. One can’t help but be reminded of that famous passage from the Book of Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Our puzzling design lesson: Wonderful games can be and have been built around a single mechanic. If you’ve got a great one, don’t hesitate to milk it for all it’s worth. Also: puzzles can illuminate — or undermine — a game’s theme as well as any other of its aspects can.


9. Teaching the cannibals how to get a head in The Secret of Monkey Island

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

How it works: For many of us, the first Monkey Island game is the Platonic ideal of a comedic graphic adventure: consistently inventive, painstakingly fair, endlessly good-natured, and really, truly funny. Given this, I could have chosen to feature any of a dozen or more of its puzzles here. But what I’ve chosen — yes, even over the beloved insult sword-fighting — is something that still makes me smile every time I think about it today, a quarter-century after I first played this game. Just how does a young and ambitious, up-and-coming sort of cannibal get a head?

Hapless hero Guybrush Threepwood needs the human head that the friendly local cannibals are carrying around with them.

Wait! He’s been carrying a certain leaflet around for quite some time now.

What’s the saying? “If you teach a man to fish…”

Why it works: One might call this the graphic-adventure equivalent of the text-adventure puzzle that opened this list. More than that, though, this puzzle is pure Ron Gilbert at his best: dumb but smart, unpretentious and unaffected, effortlessly likable. When you look through your inventory, trying to figure out where you’re going to find a head on this accursed island, and come upon that useless old leaflet you’ve been toting around all this time, you can’t help but laugh out loud.

Our puzzling design lesson: A comedic adventure game should be, to state the obvious, funny. And the comedy should live as much in the puzzles as anywhere else.


10. Tracking down the pendant in The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes

By Eric Lindstrom and R.J. Berg, Electronic Arts, 1992

How it works: This interactive mystery, one of if not the finest game ever to feature Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, is notable for its relative disinterest in the physical puzzles that are the typical adventure game’s stock in trade. Instead it has you collecting more abstract clues about means, motive, and opportunity, and piecing them together to reveal the complicated murder plot at the heart of the story.

It all begins when Holmes and Watson get called to the scene of the murder of an actress named Sarah Carroway: a dark alley just outside the Regency Theatre, where she was a star performer. Was it a mugging gone bad? Was it the work of Jack the Ripper? Or was it something else? A mysterious pendant becomes one of the keys to the case…

We first learn about Sarah Carroway’s odd pendent when we interview her understudy at the theater. It was a recent gift from Sarah’s sister, and she had always worn it since receiving it. Yet it’s missing from her body.

We find the workplace of Sarah’s sister Anna. She’s also in show biz, a singer at the Chancery Opera House. The woman who shared a box with Sarah during Anna’s performances confirms the understudy’s story about the pendant. More ominously, we learn that Anna too has disappeared.

We track down Anna’s solicitor and surrogate father-figure, a kindly old chap named Jacob Farthington. He tells us that Anna bore a child to one Lord Brumwell some years ago, but was forced to give him up to Brumwell without revealing his parentage. Now, she’s been trying to assert her rights as the boy’s mother.

More sleuthing and a little bit of sneaking leads us at last to Anna’s bedroom. There we find her diary. It states that she’s hired a detective following Sarah’s murder — not, regrettably, Sherlock Holmes — to find out what became of the pendant. It seems that it contained something unbelievably important. “A humble sheet of foolscap, depending on what’s written upon it, can be more precious than diamonds,” muses Holmes.

Yet more detecting on our part reveals that a rather dense blackguard named Blackwood pawned the pendant. Soon he confesses to Sarah’s murder: “I got overexcited. I sliced her to make her stop screaming.” He admits that he was hired to recover a letter by any means necessary by “an old gent, very high tone,” but he doesn’t know his name. (Lord Brumwell, perhaps?) It seems he killed the wrong Carroway — Anna rather than Sarah should have been his target — but blundered onto just the thing he was sent to recover anyway. But then, having no idea what the pendant contained, he pawned it to make a little extra dough out of the affair. Stupid is as stupid does…

So where is the pendant — and the proof of parentage it must have contained — now? We visit the pawn shop where Blackwood unloaded it. The owner tells us that it was bought by an “inquiry agent” named Moorehead. Wait… there’s a Moorehead & Gardner Detective Agency listed in the directory. This must be the detective Anna hired! Unfortunately, we are the second to ask about the purchaser of the pendant. The first was a bit of “rough trade” named Robert Hunt.

We’re too late. Hunt has already killed Gardner, and we find him just as he’s pushing Moorehead in front of a train. We manage to nick Hunt after the deed is done, but he refuses to say who hired him or why — not that we don’t have a pretty strong suspicion by this point.

Luckily for our case, neither Gardner nor Moorehead had the pendant on him at the time of his death. We find it at last in their safe. Inside the pendant, as we suspected, is definitive proof of the boy’s parentage. Now we must pay an urgent visit to Lord Brumwell. Is Anna still alive, or has she already met the same fate as her sister? Will Brumwell go peacefully? We’ll have to play further to find out…

Why it works: Even most allegedly “serious” interactive mysteries are weirdly bifurcated affairs. The game pretty much solves the mystery for you as you jump through a bunch of unrelated hoops in the form of arbitrary object-oriented puzzles that often aren’t all that far removed from the comedic likes of Monkey Island. Even some pretty good Sherlock Holmes games, like Infocom’s Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, wind up falling into this trap partially or entirely. Yet The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes stands out for the way it really does ask you to think like a detective, making connections across its considerable length and breadth. While you could, I suppose, brute-force your way through even the multifaceted puzzle above by visiting all of the locations and showing everything to every suspect, it’s so much more satisfying to go back through Watson’s journal, to muse over what you’ve discovered so far, and to make these connections yourself. Lost Files refuses to take the easy way out, choosing instead to take your role as the great detective seriously. For that, it can only be applauded.

Our puzzling design lesson: Graham Nelson once indelibly described an adventure game as “a narrative at war with a crossword.” I would say in response that it really need not be that way. A game need not be a story with puzzles grafted on; the two can harmonize. If you’re making an interactive mystery, in other words, don’t force your player to fiddle with sliding blocks while the plot rolls along without any other sort of input from her; let your player actually, you know, solve a mystery.


(Once again, my thanks to Casey Muratori for suggesting this article. And thank you to Mike Taylor and Alex Freeman for suggesting some of the featured puzzles.)

 
 

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Quest for Glory III and IV

The VGA remake of Quest for Glory I. By this point, Sierra’s graphics exceeded the quality of most Saturday-morning cartoons, and weren’t far off the standard set by feature films, being held back more by the technical limitations of VGA graphics than those of the artists doing the drawing.

Quest for Glory, Lori Ann and Corey Cole’s much-loved series of adventure/CRPG hybrids, took a year off after its second installment, while each half of the couple designed an educational game for Sierra’s Discovery Series. After finishing her Discovery game Mixed-Up Fairy Tales, a less ambitious effort aimed at younger children than Corey’s The Castle of Dr. Brain, Lori headed a remake of the first Quest for Glory, using VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface in place of EGA and a parser. While opinions vary as to the remake’s overall worthiness — I’m personally fonder of the original version, as is Corey Cole — no one could deny that it looked beautiful in 256 colors. Sierra was, like many other media producers at the time, operating in a short-lived intermediate phase between analog and fully-digital production techniques, which gave the work a look unique to this very specific period. For example, most of the characters in the Quest for Glory I remake were first sculpted in clay by art director Arturo Sinclair, then digitized and imported into the game. One can only hope that contemporary gamers took the time to appreciate the earthy craftsmanship of his work. Sierra and much of their industry would soon fall down the full-motion video rabbit hole, and the 3D Revolution as well was just over the horizon, poised to offer all sorts of exciting new experiential possibilities but also to lose almost as much in the way of aesthetic values. It would, in other words, be a long time before games would look this good again.

Thankfully, the era of hand-drawn — or hand-sculpted — art at Sierra would last long enough to carry through the next two Quest for Glory games as well. Much else, though, would conspire against them, and in my opinion neither the third nor the fourth game is as strong as either of the first two. Today we’ll have a look at these later efforts’ strengths and failings and the circumstances that led to each.


Well before starting work on the very first Quest for Glory, Lori Ann Cole had sketched out a four-game plan for the series as a whole. It would see the player’s evolving hero visiting four different cultural regions of a fantasy world, all drawn from cultures of our own world, in adventures where the stakes would get steadily higher. The first two games had thus covered medieval Germany and the Arab world, and the last two were slated to go to the murky environs of Eastern Europe and the blazing sunshine of mythic Greece. In fact, Quest for Glory II ends with an advertisement of sorts for the “upcoming” Quest for Glory III: Shadows of Darkness, the Eastern European game. Yet almost as soon as the second game was out the door, the Coles started to have misgivings. To go with its milieu drawn from Romanian and Slavic folklore and the Gothic-horror tradition, Shadows of Darkness was to have a more unfriendly, foreboding approach to gameplay as well. The Coles planned to make “aloneness, suspicion, and paranoia,” as Corey puts it, the hallmarks of the game. They didn’t want to abandon that uncompromising vision, but neither were they sure that their players were ready for it.

Shortly before leaving Sierra to join Origin Systems, staff writer Ellen Guon suggested that the third game could easily be set in Africa instead, following up on an anecdote mentioned by one of the characters in passing in Quest for Glory II — thus extending the series’s arc from four to five games and postponing the “dark” entry until a little later. The Coles loved the idea, and Quest for Glory III: The Wages of War was born. Sure, making it did interfere with some of the thematic unities Lori had built into the series; its entries had been planned to correspond with the four classical elements of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water, as well as the four cardinal compass directions and the four seasons. But perhaps that was all a little too matchy-matchy anyway…

Other, less welcome changes were also in the offing: the new game’s gestation was immediately impacted by the removal of Corey Cole from most of the process. Corey had originally been hired by Sierra in a strictly technical role — specifically, for his expertise in programming the Atari ST and the Motorola 68000 CPU at its heart. His first assigned task had been to help port Sierra’s then-new SCI game engine to that platform, and he was still regarded around the office as the resident 68000 expert. Thus when Sierra head Ken Williams cooked up a scheme to bring their games to the Sega Genesis, a videogame console that with an optional CD-ROM accessory was also built around the 68000, it was to Corey that he turned. So, while Lori worked on Quest for Glory III alone, Corey struggled with what turned out to be an impossible task. The Genesis’s memory was woefully inadequate, and its graphics were limited to 64 colors from a palette of 512, as opposed to the 256 colors from a palette of 262,144 of the VGA graphics standard for which Sierra’s latest computer games were coded. Wiser heads finally prevailed and the whole endeavor was cancelled, freeing up Corey to reform his design partnership with Lori.

This happened, however, only in the final stages of Quest for Glory III‘s development. Among fans today, this game is generally considered the weakest link in the series, and the absence of Corey Cole is often cited as a primary reason. I’ll return to the impact his absence may have had, but first I’d like to mention what the game undeniably does right: the setting.

It’s often forgotten that Egypt, that birthplace of so much of human civilization, is a part of Africa; this essential fact, though, Lori Ann Cole didn’t neglect. The western part of the game’s map, where you begin, feels like an outlying outpost of Egyptian culture, complete with the pyramids and other monumental architecture we know from our history books. As you travel eastward, the savanna turns into jungle, and the societies you meet there become reflections of tribal Africa. It’s all drawn — both metaphorically, through the writing, and literally, through the graphics — with considerable charm and skill. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular isn’t a region we see depicted very often in games, and still less often with this degree of sympathy. As I noted in my first article on the Quest for Glory series, there’s a travelogue quality that runs through its entirety, showing us our own world’s many great and varied cultures through the lens of these fantasy adventures. The third game, suffice to say, upholds that tradition admirably.

Also welcome is the theme of the game. In contrast to most computer games, this one has you trying to prevent a war rather than win one. The aforementioned Egyptian and tribal African cultures have have been set at odds by a combination of prejudices, misunderstandings, and — this being a fantasy game and all — the odd evil wizard. It’s up to you to play the peacemaker. “You start getting a better and better idea of just how senseless war is,” says Corey, “and how everybody loses by it.” Of course, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance about an allegedly anti-war game in which you spend so much of your time mowing down monsters by decidedly violent means, but props for effort.

In fact, any criticism of Quest for Glory should be tempered by the understanding that what the Coles did with this series was quite literally unprecedented, and, further, that no one else has ever tried to do anything quite like it since. While plenty of vintage CRPGs, dating all the way back to Wizardry, allowed you to move your characters from game to game, the Quest for Glory series is a far more complex take on a role-playing game than those simple monster bashers, with character attributes affecting far more aspects of the experience than combat alone — even extending into a moral dimension via a character’s “honor” attribute and the associated possibility to change to the prestige class of Paladin. It must have been tempting indeed to throw out the past and force players to start over with new characters each time the Coles started working on the next game in the series, but they doggedly stuck to their original vision of four — no, make that five — interlinked games that could all feature the very same custom hero, assuming the player was up to the task of buying and playing all of them.

But, fundamental to the Coles’ conception of their series though it was, this approach did have its drawbacks, which were starting to become clear by the time of Quest for Glory III. Corey Cole himself has admitted that “the play balance — both pacing and combat difficulty — and of course the freshness of the concept were strongest in Quest for Glory I.” Certainly that’s the entry in this hybrid series that works best as a CRPG, providing that addictive thrill of seeing your character slowly getting stronger, able to tackle monsters and challenges he couldn’t have dreamed of in the beginning. The later games are hampered by the well-known sense of diminishing returns that afflicts so many RPGs at higher levels; it’s much more fun in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons as well to advance from level 1 to level 8 than it is from level 8 to level 16. Even when you find that you need to spend time training in order to meet some arbitrary threshold — more on that momentarily — your character in the later Quest for Glory games never really feels like he’s going anywhere. The end result is to sharply reduce the importance of the most unique aspect of the series as it wears on. For this player anyway, that also reduces a big chunk of the series’s overall appeal. I haven’t tried it, but I suspect that these games may actually be more satisfying to play if you don’t import your old character into each new one, but rather start out fresh each time with a weaker hero and enjoy the thrill of building him up.

Sanford and Son make an appearance.

Quest for Glory III also disappoints in other ways.The first two games had been loaded with alternative solutions and approaches of all stripes, full of countless secrets and Easter eggs. Quest for Glory III is far less generous on all of these fronts. There just isn’t as much to do and discover outside the bounds of those things that are absolutely necessary to advance the plot. And one of the three possible character classes you can play, the Thief, has markedly fewer interesting things to do than the others even in the course of doing that much. The whole game feels less accommodating and rewarding — less amenable to your personal choices, one might say — than what came before. It plays, in other words, more like just another Sierra adventure game and less like the uniquely rich and flexible experience the first two games are.

This lack of design ambition can to some degree be attributed to the absence of Corey Cole for most of the design process. Corey was generally the “puzzle guy” in the partnership, dealing with all the questions of smaller-scale interactivity, while Lori was the “story gal,” responsible for the wide-angle plotting.  And indeed, when I asked Corey about his own impressions of the game in relation to its predecessors, he acknowledged that “certainly Quest for Glory III is lighter on puzzles, while having just as much story as Quest for Glory II.”

Yet Corey’s absence isn’t the only reason that the personality of the series began to morph with this third installment. The most obvious change between the second and third game — blindingly obvious to anyone who plays them back to back — is the move from a parser-based to a pure point-and-click interface. I trust that I don’t need to belabor how this could remove some of the scope for player creativity, and especially what it might mean for the many little secrets for which the first two games are so known. I’m no absolute parser purist — my opinion has always been that the best interface for any given game is entirely contextual, based upon the type of experience the designer is trying to create — but I can’t help but feel that Quest for Glory lost something when it dumped the parser.

One issue with Quest for Glory III that may actually be a subtle, inadvertent byproduct of the switch to point-and-click is a certain aimlessness that seems baked into the design. Too much of the story is predicated on unmotivated wandering over a map that’s not at all suited to more methodical exploration.

I hate the Quest for Glory III overland map with a passion. Unique locations aren’t signaled on it, but it’s nevertheless vital that you thoroughly explore it, meaning you’re forced to click on any formation that looks interesting in the hope that it’s more than decorative, a process which disappoints and frustrates more often than not. And while you’re wandering around in this random fashion, you’re constantly being attacked by uninteresting monsters and being forced to engage in tedious combat. Note that what you see above is only the first of several screens full of this sort of thing.

When I played Quest for Glory III, I eventually wound up in that dreaded place known to every adventure player: where you’ve exhausted all your leads and are left with no idea what the game expects from you next. This was, however, a feeling new to me in the course of playing this particular series. When I turned with great reluctance to a walkthrough — I’d solved the first two games entirely on my own — I learned that I was expected to train my skills up to a certain level in order shake the plot back into gear.

But how, you ask, can such problems be traced back to the loss of the parser? Well, Corey has mentioned how Lori — later, he and Lori — attempted to restore some of the sense of spontaneity and surprise that had perhaps been lost alongside the parser through the use of “events”: “Instead of each game scene having one specific thing that happens in it, our scenes change throughout the game. Sometimes the passage of time triggers a new event, and sometimes it’s the result of the ripple effect of player actions. It was supposed to feel organic.” When this approach works well, it works wonderfully well in providing a dynamic environment that seems to unfold spontaneously from the player’s perspective, just the way a good interactive story should. That’s the best-case scenario. The worst case is when you haven’t done whatever arbitrary action is needed to get a vital event to fire, and you’re left to wander around wondering what’s next. Finally, when you peek at a walkthrough, the mechanisms behind it all are revealed in the ugliest, most mimesis-annihilating way imaginable. I understand what Quest for Glory III wants to do, and I wholeheartedly approve. But there needed to be more work done to avoid dead spots — whether in the form of more possible triggers or just of more nudges to tell the player what the game expects from her — or, ideally, both.

Another odd Quest for Glory tradition was to give each game in the series a new combat system. Quest for Glory III tried to add a bit more strategy to the affair with buttons for “swing,” “dodge,” “thrust,” and “parry,” but in my experience at least simply mashing down the swing button works as well as anything else. Thus another Quest for Glory tradition: that of none of these multifarious combat systems ever being completely satisfying.

Still, whatever the game’s failings, few players or reviewers in its own time seemed to notice. Upon its release in September of 1992 — just four months after the Quest for Glory I remake — Quest for Glory III was greeted with solid sales and positive reviews, a reception which stands in contrast to its contemporary reputation as the weakest link in the series. With this affirmation of their efforts and with Corey now free of distractions, the Coles plunged right into the fourth game. Quest for Glory IV would prove the most ambitious and the most difficult entry in the series — and, in my opinion anyway, its greatest waste of potential.

The game officially known simply as Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness — Sierra inexplicably dropped the Roman numeral this time and this time only — is indeed often spoken of as the “dark” entry of the series, but that claim strikes me as, at most, relative. My skepticism begins with the unbelievably cheesy subtitle, which put my wife right off the game before she saw more than the title screen. (“Someone should tell those people that darkness doesn’t make shadows…”) Banal subtitles, perhaps (hopefully?) delivered with an implied wink and nudge, had become something of a series trademark by this point — Trial by Fire? The Wages of War? Cliché much? — but this was taking things to a whole other level.

Dr. Brain fans will presumably be pleased to meet his alter ego Dr. Cranium in Quest for Glory IV. (Frankie, for the record, is a female Frankenstein whose “assets” Dr. Cranium very much approves of.)

To speak more substantively (or at least less snarkily), the “dark” aspects of the game come to the fore intermittently at best. I’ve played games which I’ve found genuinely scary; this is not one of them. It certainly includes plenty of horror tropes, but it’s difficult to take any of it all that seriously. This is a game that features Dr. Brain channeling Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a game where you fight a killer rabbit lifted out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a game where you win the final battle against the evil wizard by telling him the Ultimate Joke and taking advantage when he collapses into laughter. From the Boris Karloff imitator guarding the gates to the villain’s castle to Igor the hunchbacked gravedigger, this is strictly B-movie horror — or, perhaps better said, a parody of B-movie horror. It’s hard to imagine anyone losing sleep over this game.

In fact, I was so nonplussed by its popularly accepted “dark” label that I asked Corey what he thought about it, and was gratified to find that he at least partially agreed with me:

Maybe a better word would be “unforgiving.” A Quest for Glory III theme is friendship and the need to work together with others. In Quest for Glory IV, we turned that around 180 degrees. The player would start out on his own, mistrusted by everyone. Through the course of the game, he will gradually win people’s trust and once again have allies by the end. This is not an easy theme for players new to the series to handle.

Lori Ann Cole elaborated on the same idea in a contemporary interview:

You’ll be very much alone [in Quest for Glory IV]. In Trial by Fire, you had a lot of friends to help you. You always had a place to go back to to rest. You always had a place of safety until the very end of the game. Once you get into Shadows of Darkness, you’re not going to have any sanctuary. You won’t be able to trust anyone because nobody will trust you.

It’s true that a few subplots here strain toward a gravitas unlike anything else the Coles have ever attempted. In particular, the vampire named Katrina can be singled out as a villain who isn’t just Evil for the sake of it. She’s kidnapped a little girl from the village that is your center of operations, and one of your quests is to rescue her. In the course of doing so, you learn that the kidnapping was motivated by Katrina’s desperate, very human desire for family and companionship in her isolated castle. You end up killing her, of course, but her story is often praised — justifiably on the whole, if sometimes a bit too effusively — as a benchmark for intelligent characterization in games.

Structurally, Quest for Glory IV is most reminiscent of the first game in the series. You arrive in the village of Mordavia, part of a region that goes by the same name, which has been plagued of late by vampires, ghosts, mad scientists, and most of the other inhabitants of the Hammer Horror oeuvre. As you solve the villagers’ considerable collection of problems one by one, they go from being spit-in-your-food hostile to lauding you as the greatest hero in the land. In the best tradition of the series, and in contrast to some of the most commonly voiced complaints about Quest for Glory III, much of the game is nonlinear, and some of it is entirely optional.

The combat system in Quest for Glory IV owes a lot to the Street Fighter franchise of standup-arcade, console, and computer games, which were among the most popular of the era. Corey Cole considers it the best combat engine in the history of the series; opinions among fans are more divided. For those not interested in street-fighting their way through a Quest for Glory game, the Coles did make it possible for the first time to turn on an auto-combat mode.

Sadly, though, the game is nowhere near as playable as Quest for Glory I, II, or to some extent even III. This fault arises not from doing too little but rather from attempting to do too much. At the risk of being accused of psychoanalyzing its designers, I will note that the Coles had clearly been psyching themselves up to make this game for a long time — that, even as it was being pushed back to make room for Quest for Glory III, it had long since come to loom over their conception of the series as the Big Statement. Even when they were giving interviews to promote the finished Quest for Glory III, the conversation would keep drifting into their plans for the fourth game. “It will be a very intense game to design,” said Corey in one of those interviews, a comment that could be taken to reflect either excitement or trepidation — or, more likely, both. This was to be the place where the series departed from being easygoing light fantasy to become something more challenging, both thematically and in terms of its puzzles and other mechanics.

So, they just kept cramming more and more stuff into it. The setting doesn’t have the laser focus of the earlier games in the series, all of which portrayed fairly faithfully the myths and legends of a very specific real-world culture. Quest for Glory IV, despite including some monsters drawn from real Eastern European folklore, is more interested in Western pop culture’s idea of Transylvania than any real place — a land of shadows and creatures that go bump in the night and “I vant to bite yer neck.” Then, because the parade of Gothic-horror clichés apparently wasn’t enough, the Coles added H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos to the mix (or, as the manual calls him, “P.H. Craftlove”). The two make decidedly uneasy bedfellows. Gothic horror, as expressed best in Bram Stoker’s ultimate Gothic novel Dracula, takes place, explicitly or implicitly, in an essentially moral universe drawing heavily from Christianity, in which Good and Evil, God and the Devil, are real entities at war with one another, thus setting up the narratives of sin and redemption which predominate. Lovecraftian horror, on the other hand, posits an utterly uncaring, amoral universe, in which Good and Evil are meaningless concepts, mere ephemera of the deluded human imagination. To combine the two in one work of fiction is… problematic.

For all that one has to wonder whether any fans of this heretofore genial series were truly saying to themselves, “You know, what these games really need to be is harder,” the Coles’ determination to make this entry more difficult than its predecessors isn’t invalid in itself. In trying to make their harder game, however, they sometimes fall into the all too typical trap of making a game that’s not so much more difficult as less fair. The CRPG aspects are yet further de-emphasized in favor of more puzzles, some of which push the bounds of realistic solubility. And, for the first time in the series’s history, there are irrecoverable dead ends to wander into scattered across the design, along with other situations that seem like dead ends. The latter arise because the design once again relies heavily on “events” that the player triggers without being aware how she does so — and, once again, this isn’t a bad thing at all in theory, but in practice it’s too easy to get stuck in a cul de sac with no idea how to prod the plotting machinery into motion again.

Greatly exacerbating all of these issues — indeed, virtually indistinguishable from them, given that it’s often unclear which design infelicities are intentional and which are not — are all the bugs. Even today, when patch after patch has been applied, the game remains a terrifyingly unstable edifice. If your (emulated?) machine runs just a little bit too slow or too fast, it will crash at random points with a cryptic “Error 47” or “Error 52.” But far worse are the hidden bugs that can ruin your game while letting you play on for hours without realizing anything is wrong. The most well-known of these involves a vital letter that’s supposed to show up at your hotel, but that, for reasons that are still imperfectly understood even after all these years, sometimes fails to do so. If you’re unfortunate enough to have this happen to you, it will only be much, much later, when you can’t figure out what to do next and finally turn to a walkthrough, that you realize you have to all but start over from scratch.

In my experience, an adventure game must establish a bond of trust with its player to be enjoyable. My dominant emotion when playing Quest for Glory IV, however, was just the opposite. I mistrusted the design, and mistrusted the implementation of the design even more, asking myself at every turn whether I’d broken anything, whether this latest problem I was having was a legitimate puzzle or a bug. When you have to meta-game your way through a game, relying on FAQs and walkthrough to tiptoe around all its pitfalls, it’s awfully hard to engage with the story and atmosphere.

Still, I can be thankful that I first played Quest for Glory IV a quarter-century after its original release, after all those patches had already been applied. The game that shipped on December 31, 1993, was in a truly unconscionable, very probably unwinnable condition. This wasn’t, I should emphasize, the fault of the Coles, who would have given anything to have a few more months with their baby. But Sierra was having an ugly year financially, and decided that the game simply had to be released before the year was out for accounting reasons, come what may. If there was any justice in the world, they would have been rewarded with a class-action lawsuit for knowingly selling a product that was not just flawed but outright broken. To give you a taste of what gamers unwise enough to buy Quest for Glory IV in its original incarnation got to go through, I’d like to quote at some length from the review by Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s regular adventure columnist.

My difficulties began after the game was installed and it simply refused to run, period. A call to the Sierra tech line revealed that Shadows of Darkness, as released, was not compatible with the AMI BIOS (not exactly an obscure one). This was related to the special 32-bit protected mode under which the software operates. Fortunately, a patch was available, and I quickly got it online.

After the patch was applied, the game finally came up. Unfortunately, it came up silent. The 32-bit protected mode grabs all of upper memory for itself, so nothing can be loaded high, and a bare-bones DOS boot disk is necessary. This made it impossible to load in the Gravis Ultrasound Roland emulator, and I found that with the Sound Blaster emulator loaded low, the game again wouldn’t run. So, I had to play with no sound or music, which explains why there is no commentary on either.

I ran from a boot disk without sound, and for a while everything was fine. However, the further into the game, the slower it was in saving and restoring. Actual disk access was quite speedy, but waiting for the software to make up its mind to go to disk took a long time, often a minute or more. Some online folk complained of waiting three minutes or longer to restore a saved game. It was usually faster to quit the game, rerun it, and then restore a position. For saving, of course, you just had to wait it out.

Regardless of the frustrations, I got through the game [playing as] a Paladin and a Mage, and then moved on to the Thief. Three quarters of the way along, the game crashed in the swamp whenever I tried to open the Mad Monk’s tomb. This turned out to be a “random error” that might or might not show up. It hadn’t done so with the other two heroes, but this time it reared its ugly head.

Well, Sierra had a patch that fixed both this problem and the interminable waits for saves and restores (this patch, by the way, came out some time after the first one I had gotten). There was only one drawback: because of the extensive changes made to the files, my saved games were no good and I had to start over again from the beginning.

So, I started my Thief over. By day 11 in the game, all the quests had been finished, the five rituals collected, and it was just a matter of waiting for a certain note to appear in my room one morning (this note initiates the end of the game). On day 26, I was still waiting for it. Nothing could make it appear, even replaying from some earlier positions. Either the trigger for this event was not set, or somehow it was turned off. I had no way of knowing, and, with that in mind, I had no inclination to start from scratch again. This also happened to other players who were running characters other than Thieves, and we all eventually abandoned those games.

A way around the dead-end problem was worked out by Sierra. The key is spending enough nights in your room at the inn to hear several “voice dreams,” and, most importantly, hearing the weeping from the innkeeper’s room one midnight (you are awakened by this; don’t stay up waiting for it). These events must happen before you rescue Tanya.

Once those situations have occurred, it should be safe to rescue the girl. I tried this in my Thief game, and after spending two extra nights in my room, the problem was cleared up and I finished the game with the Thief. So, if you have been waiting around for that note, and it hasn’t shown, follow the above procedure and you should be able to continue on with the game.

Scorpia’s last two paragraphs in particular illustrate what I mean when I say that you can’t really hope to play Quest for Glory IV so much as meta-game your way through it with the aid of walkthroughs. She was extremely lucky to have been among the minority with online access at the time of the game’s release, and thus able to download patches and discuss the game’s multiple points of entrapment with other players. Most would only have been able to plead with Sierra’s support personnel and hope for a disk to arrive in the mail a week or two later.

What ought to have been the exciting climactic battle of Quest for Glory IV was so buggy in the original release that the game was literally impossible to complete. It’s remained one of the worst problem spots over the years since, requiring multiple FAQ consultations to tiptoe through all the potential problems. Have I mentioned how exhausting and disheartening it is to be forced to play this way?

Some months after the bug-ridden floppy-based release, Sierra published Quest for Glory IV on CD-ROM, in a version that tried to clean up the bugs and that added voice acting. It accomplished the former task imperfectly; as already noted, plenty of glitches still remain even in the version available for digital download today, not least among them the mystery of the never-appearing letter. The latter task, however, it accomplished superlatively. In a welcome departure from the atrocious voice acting found in their earliest CD-ROM products, Sierra put together a team of top-flight acting professionals, headed by the dulcet Shakespearian tones of John Rhys-Davies — a veteran character actor of many decades’ standing who’s best known today as Gimli the dwarf in Peter Jackson’s Lords of the Rings films — as the narrator and master of ceremonies. Rhys-Davies, who had apparently signed the contract in anticipation of a quick-and-easy payday, was shocked at the sheer volume of text he was expected to voice, and took to calling the game “the CD-ROM from hell” after spending days on end in the studio. But he persevered. Indeed, he and the other actors quite clearly had more than a little fun with it. The bickering inhabitants of the Mordavia Inn are a particular delight. These voice actors obviously take their roles with no seriousness whatsoever, preferring to wander off-script into broad semi-improvised impersonations of Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, and Rodney Dangerfield. Would you think less of me if I admitted that they’re my favorite part of the game?

Of course, one could argue that Sierra’s decision to devote so many resources to this multimedia window dressing, while still leaving so many fundamental problems to fester in the core game, is a sad illustration of their misplaced priorities in this new age of CD-ROM-based gaming. The full story of just what the hell was going on inside Sierra at this point, leading to this imperfect and premature Quest for Glory IV as well as even worse disasters like their infamously half-finished 1994 release Outpost, is an important one that needs to be told, but one best reserved for a later article of its own.

For now, suffice to say that Quest for Glory IV was made to suffer for its failings, with a number of outright bad reviews in a gaming press that generally tended to publish very little of that sort of thing, and with far worse word of mouth among ordinary gamers. For a long time, its poor reception seemed to have stopped the series in its tracks, one game short of Lori Ann Cole’s long-planned climax. When a transformed Sierra, under new owners with new priorities, finally allowed that fifth and final game to be made years later, it would strike the series’s remaining fans as a minor miracle, even as the technology it employed was miles away from the trusty old SCI engine that had powered the series’s first four entries.

The critical consensuses on Quest for Glory III and IV have neatly changed places in the years since that last entry in the series was published. The third game was widely lauded back in the day, the fourth about as widely panned as the timid gaming press ever dared. But today, it’s the third game that is widely considered to be the series’s weakest link, while the fourth is frequently called the very best of them all. As someone who finds them both to be more or less flawed creations in comparison to what came before, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Nevertheless, I do find this case of switched places intriguing. I think it says something about the way that so many play games — especially adventure games — today: with FAQ and walkthrough at the ready for the first sign of trouble. There’s of course nothing wrong with choosing to play this way; I’ve gone on record many times saying there is no universally right or wrong way to play any game, only those ways which are more or less fun for you. And certainly the fact that you can now buy the entire Quest for Glory series for less than $10 — much less when it goes on sale! — impacts the way players approach the games. No one worries too much about rushing through a game they’ve bought for pocket change, but might be much more inclined to play a game they’ve spent $50 on “honestly.” All of which is as it may be. I will only say that, as someone who does still hate turning to a walkthrough, the more typical modern way of playing sometimes dismays me because of the way it can — especially when combined with the ever-distorting fog of nostalgia — lead us to excuse or entirely overlook serious issues of design in vintage games.

But lest I be too harsh on these two middle — middling? — entries in this remarkable series of games, I should remember that they were produced in times of enormous technological change, in a business environment that was changing just as rapidly, and that those realities were often in conflict with their designers’ own best intentions. Corey Cole:

Lori has commented that we started at Sierra almost completely clueless, and had to figure out how to design a Sierra-style game “from scratch.” Then, armed with that knowledge, we confidently started work on the next game, only to have Sierra pull the rug out from under us. Each time the technology and management style changed, we had to rework many of the techniques we had developed to make our previous games.

They may be, in the opinion of this humble reviewer anyway, weaker than their predecessors, but neither Quest for Glory III nor IV is without its interest. If you’d like to see the progression of one of the most unique long-term projects in the history of gaming, by all means, have a look and decide for yourself.

(Sources: Questbusters of May 1992, September 1992, December 1992, September 1993, February 1994; Sierra’s InterAction magazine from Fall 1992, Summer 1993, and Holiday 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1993 and April 1994; the readme file included with Sierra’s 1998 Quest for Glory Collection; documents and other materials included in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Most of all, my thanks go to Corey Cole for once again allowing me to pepper him with questions, even though he knew beforehand that my opinion of these two games wasn’t as overwhelmingly positive as it had been the last time around.

The entire Quest for Glory series is available for purchase as a package on GOG.com. And by all means check out the Coles’ welcome return to game design in the spirit of Quest for Glory, the recently released Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. I don’t often get to play games that aren’t “on the syllabus,” as a friend of mine puts it, but I made time for this one, and I’m so glad I did. In my eyes, it’s the best thing the Coles have ever done.)

 
 

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The Sierra Discovery Adventures

Among the most rewarding hidden gems in Sierra’s voluminous catalog must be the games of the Discovery Series, the company’s brief-lived educational line of the early 1990s. Doubtless because of that dreaded educational label, these games are little-remembered today even by many hardcore Sierra fans, and, unlike most of the better-known Sierra games, have never been reissued in digital-download editions.

In my book, that’s a real shame. For reasons I’ve described at exhaustive length by now in other articles, I’m not a big fan of Sierra’s usual careless approach to adventure-game design, but the games of the Discovery Series stand out for their lack of such staple Sierra traits as dead ends, illogical puzzles, and instant deaths, despite the fact that they were designed and implemented by the very same people who were responsible for the “adult” adventure games. These design teams were, it seems, motivated to show children the mercy they couldn’t be bothered to bestow upon their adult players. While it’s true that even the Discovery games weren’t, as we’ll see, entirely free of regrettable design choices, these forgotten stepchildren ironically hold up far better today than most of their more popular siblings. For that reason, they’re well worth highlighting as part of this ongoing history.

I’ve already written about the Discovery Series’s two Dr. Brain games, creative and often deceptively challenging puzzle collections that can be enjoyed by adults as easily as by children. Today, then, I’d like to complete my coverage. Although some of the other Discovery games were aimed at younger children, and are thus outside the scope of our usual software interests, three others could almost have been sold as regular Sierra adventure games. So, I’ll use this article to look at this trio more closely — the first of which in particular is a true classic, in my opinion the best Sierra adventure of any stripe released during 1992.


Gano Haine

One of the ways in which Sierra stood out in a positive way from their peers was their willingness to employ women in the roles of writer and designer. At a time when almost no one else in the computer-games industry had any women in prominent creative roles, Sierra’s gender balance approached fifty-fifty at times.

Gano Haine, one of these female designers, was also a fine example of what we might call a second-generation adventure designer — someone who had seen the genre evolve from the perspective of a player in the 1980s, and was now ready to make her own mark on it in the 1990s. She took a roundabout route into the industry. A mother and junior-high teacher of fifteen years standing, hers was a prominent voice in the Gamers Forum on CompuServe in the latter 1980s. She wrote extensively there about the good and bad of each game she played. “I don’t think it’s something you do to yourself on purpose,” she said of her adventure-game addiction. “I soon realized that I needed to find a way to make it a profession or I’d starve.” Luckily, Sierra hired her, albeit initially only as an informal consultant. Soon, though, she moved to Oakhurst, California, to become a full-time Sierra game designer. That happened in 1991, just as the Discovery Series was being born.

Everyone among the designers, whether a wizened veteran or a fresh-faced recruit, was given an opportunity to pitch an idea for the new line. The stakes were high because those whose pitches were not accepted would quite probably wind up working in subservient roles on those projects which had been given the green light. Yet Haine was motivated by more than personal ambition when she offered up her idea. One teenage memory that had never left her came to the fore.

I worked a lot in children’s summer camps. There was a beach where we took the children every Wednesday, a beautiful beach, with rocks and glittering sand. I remember once we sat on the rocks and watched a whole school of porpoises jumping in the waves.

Anyway, the next season when we went there, the whole beach was covered with litter. As I walked down to the water with the kids, I looked down, and there was human sewage running across the sand and into the ocean. To see that beautiful place trashed was tremendously painful to me.

Thus was born EcoQuest: an adventure game meant to teach its young players about our precious, fragile natural heritage. After her idea was accepted, Haine was assigned Jane Jensen, a former Hewlett Packard programmer and frustrated novelist who had been hired at almost the same time as her, to work with her as co-designer. This meant that EcoQuest would not only have a female lead designer, but would become the first computer game in history that was the product of an all-female design team.

Thinking, as Sierra always encouraged their designers to do, in terms of an all-new game’s series potential, Haine and Jensen created a young protagonist named Adam. Adam’s father is an ecologist who spends his life traveling the globe dealing with various environment catastrophes, and his lonely son tags along, finding his friends among the animals living in the places they visit.

In light of the disturbing memory that had spawned the series, the first game had always been destined to take place in the ocean. Adam gets recruited by one of his anthropomorphic animal friends, a dolphin named Delphineus, to search for Cetus, the great sperm whale whom all of the other undersea creatures look to for guidance, but who’s now gone missing. (One guess which species of bipedal mammal is responsible…) The game was therefore given the subtitle of The Search for Cetus to join the EcoQuest series badge.

Sierra was by no means immune to the allure of the trendy, and certainly there was a whiff of just that to making this game at this time. The first international Earth Day had taken place on April 22, 1990, accompanied by a well-orchestrated media campaign that turned a spotlight — arguably a brighter spotlight than at any earlier moment in history — onto the many environmental catastrophes that were facing our planet even then. This new EcoQuest series was very much of a piece with Earth Day and the many other media initiatives it spawned. Still, the environmental message of EcoQuest isn’t just a gimmick; anthropomorphic sea creatures aside, it’s very much in scientific earnest. Haine and Jensen worked with the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, California, to get the science right, and Sierra even agreed to donate a portion of the profits to the same organization.

There’s a refreshing sweetness to the game that some might call naivete, an assumption that the most important single factor contributing to the pollution of our oceans is simple ignorance. For example, Adam meets a fishing boat at one point whose propeller lacks a protective cage to prevent it from injuring manatees and other ocean life. He devises a way of making such a cage and explains its importance to the fisherman, who’s horrified to learn the damage his naked propeller had been causing and more than happy to be given this solution. The only glaring exception to the rule of human ignorance rather than malice is the whaling ship that, it turns out, has harpooned poor Cetus.

The message of The Search for Cetus would thus seem to be that, while there are a few bad apples among us, most people want to keep our oceans as pristine as possible and want the enormous variety of species which live in them to be able to survive and thrive. Is this really so very naive? From my experience, at any rate, most people would react just the same as the fisherman in an isolated circumstance like his. It’s the political and financial interests that keep getting in the way, preventing large-scale change by inflaming passions that have little bearing on the practicalities at hand. Said interests are obviously outside the scope of this children’s adventure game, but the same game does serve as a reminder that many things in this world aren’t really so complicated in themselves; they’re complicated only because some among us insist on making them so, often for disingenuous purposes.

Yet The Search for Cetus is never as preachy as the paragraph I’ve just written. Jane Jensen would later go on to become one of the most famed adventure designers in history through her trilogy of supernatural mysteries starring the reluctant hero Gabriel Knight. The talent for characterization that would make those games so beloved is also present, at least in a nascent form, in The Search for Cetus. From an hysterical hermit crab to a French artiste of a blowfish, the personalities are all a lot of fun. “The characters’ voices and personalities are used to humanize their plight,” said Jensen, “giving a voice to the faceless victims of our carelessness.” Most critically, the characters all feel honestly cute or comic or both; The Search for Cetus never condescends to its audience. This is vitally important to the goal of getting the game’s environmental message across because children can smell adult condescension from a mile away, and it’s guaranteed to make them run screaming.

The techniques the game uses to educate in a natural-feeling interactive context are still worthy of study today. For example, a new verb is added to the standard Sierra control panel: “recycle.” This comes to function as a little hidden-object game-within-the-game, as you scan each screen for trash, getting a point for every piece that you recycle. Along the way, you’ll be astonished both by the sheer variety of junk that makes its way into our oceans and the damage it causes: plastic bags suffocate blowfish, organic waste causes algae to grow out of control, plastic six-pack rings entangle swordfish and dolphins, balloons get eaten by turtles, bleach poisons the water, tar and oil kills coral. In the non-linear middle section of the game, you solve a whole series of such problems for the ocean’s inhabitants, learning a great deal about them in the process. You even mark a major chemical spill for cleanup. The game refuses to throw up its hands at the scale of the damage humanity has done; its lesson is that, yes, the damage is immense, but we — and even you, working at the individual level — can do something about it. This may be the most important message of all to take away from The Search for Cetus.

The game isn’t hard by any means, but nor is it trivial. Jane Jensen:

Gano and I are both Sierra players, so when we started to design our first Sierra game, we designed a game that we would want to play. The puzzles in EcoQuest are traditional Sierra adventure-game puzzles, with an ecological and educational slant. You can’t die in the game, but other than that, it’s a real Sierra adventure. Because it is aimed at an older audience, the gameplay isn’t simplified like Mixed-Up Mother Goose or Fairy Tales. The puzzles are challenging, and lots of fun.

Thus the concessions to the children that were expected to become the primary audience take the form not of complete infantilization, but rather a lack of pointless deaths, a lack of unwinnable states, and a number of optional puzzles which score points but aren’t required to finish the game. Many outside Sierra’s rather insular circle of designers, of course, would call all of these things — especially the first two — simply good design, full stop.

Released in early 1992, The Search for Cetus did well enough that Sierra funded a CD-ROM version with voice acting to supplement the original floppy-based version about a year later. And they funded a further adventure of young Adam as well, which was also released in early 1993. In Lost Secret of the Rainforest, he and his father head for the Amazon, where they confront the bureaucrats, poachers, and clear-cutters that threaten another vital ecosystem’s existence.

With this second game in the series, Sierra clearly opted for not fixing what isn’t broken: all of the educational approaches and program features we remember from the original, from the anthropomorphic animals to the recycling icon, make a return. There’s even a clever new minigame this time around, involving an “ecorder,” a handheld scanner that identifies plants and animals and other things you encounter and provides a bit of information about them. So, in addition to hunting for toxic trash, you’re encouraged to try to find everything in the ecorder’s database as you explore the jungle.

Unfortunately, though, it just doesn’t all come together as well as it did the first time around. Jane Jensen didn’t work on Lost Secret, leaving the entirety of the game in the hands of Gano Haine, who lacked her talent for engaging characters and dialog. She obviously strove mightily, but the results too often come across as labored, unfunny, and/or leaden. (Haine did mention in an interview that, responding to complaints from some quarters that the text in Search for Cetus was too advanced for some children, she made a conscious attempt to simplify the writing in the sequel; this may also have contributed to the effect I’m describing.)

The puzzle design as well is unbalanced, being fairly straightforward until a scene in the middle which seems to have been beamed in from another game entirely. This scene, in which Adam has been captured by a group of poachers and needs to escape, all but requires a walkthrough to complete for players of any age, combining read-the-author’s mind puzzles with the necessity for fiddly, pinpoint-precise clicking and timing. And then, after you clear that hurdle, the game settles back down into the old routine, running on to the end in its old straightforward manner, as if it nothing out of the way had ever happened. It’s deeply strange, and all by itself makes Lost Secret difficult to recommend with anything like the same enthusiasm as its predecessor. It’s not really a bad game on the whole — especially if you go into it forewarned about its one truly bad sequence — but it’s not a great one either.

The poacher named Slaughter has a pink-river dolphin carcass hanging over his door, book stands made from exotic horns, a jaguar-skin rug on his floor, and a footstool made from an elephant’s foot. Laying it on just a bit thick, perhaps?

And on that somewhat disappointing note, the EcoQuest series ended. The science behind the two games still holds up, and the messages they impart about environmental stewardship are more vital than ever. From the modern perspective, the infelicities in the games’ depiction of environmental issues mostly come in their lack of attention to another threat that has become all too clear in the years since they were made: the impact global warming is having on both our oceans and our rain forests. This lack doesn’t, however, invalidate anything that EcoQuest does say about ecological issues. The second game in particular definitely has its flaws, but together the two stand as noble efforts to use the magic of interactivity as a means of engagement with pressing real-world issues — the sort of thing that the games industry, fixated as it always has been on escapist entertainment, hasn’t attempted as much as it perhaps ought to. “Environmental issues are very emotional,” acknowledges Gano Haine, “and you inevitably contact people who have very deep disagreements about those issues.” Yet the EcoQuest series dares to present, in a commonsense but scientifically rigorous way, the impact some of our worst practices are having on our planet, and dares to ask whether we all couldn’t just set politics aside and try to do that little bit more to make the situation better.

In that spirit, I have to note that some of the most inspiring aspects of the EcoQuest story are only tangentially related to the actual games. A proud moment for everyone involved with the series came when Sierra received a letter from a group of kids in faraway Finland, who had played The Search for Cetus and been motivated to organize a cleanup effort at a polluted lake in their neighborhood. Meanwhile the research that went into making the games caused the entire company of Sierra Online to begin taking issues of sustainability more seriously. They started printing everything from game boxes to pay stubs on recycled paper; started reusing their shipping pallets; started using recycled disks; started sorting their trash and sending it to the recycler. They also started investigating the use of water-based instead of chemical-based coatings for their boxes, soybean ink for printing, and fully biodegradable materials for packing. No, they didn’t hesitate to pat themselves on the back for all this in their newsletter (which, for the record, was also printed on recycled paper after EcoQuest) — but, what the hell, they’d earned it.

The words they wrote in their newsletter apply more than ever today: “It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Saving the planet isn’t a passing fad. It’s critical, for our own future and for the future of our children.” One can only hope that the games brought some others around to the same point of view — and may even continue to do so today, for those few who discover them moldering away in some archive or other.


Lorelei Shannon and Jane Jensen

Pepper’s Adventures in Time, the third and final adventure game released as part of the Discovery Series, was a very different proposition from EcoQuest. Its original proposer wasn’t one of Sierra’s regular designers, but rather Bill Davis, the veteran television and film animator who had been brought in at the end of the 1980s to systematize the company’s production processes to suit a new era of greater audiovisual fidelity and exploding budgets. His proposal was for a series called Twisty History, which would teach children about the subject by asking them to protect history as we know it from the depredations wrought by the evil inventor of a time machine. Because Davis wasn’t himself a designer, the first game in the planned series became something of a community effort, a collaboration that included Gano Haine and Jane Jensen as well as Lorelei Shannon and Josh Mandel. (That is, for those tracking gender equality in real time, three female designers and one male.)

Lockjaw has been captured by a spoiled brat of a Royalist!

The star of the series, as sketched by Bill Davis and filled in by the design team, is a girl named Pepper Pumpernickel, a spunky little thing who doesn’t take kindly to the opposite sex telling her what she can and can’t do. Her costar is Lockjaw, her pet dog. Davis:

We’d recently lost a dog to leukemia, had gone through an extended period of mourning, and had decided it was time to adopt. So my wife and son headed for our favorite adoption agency, the local animal shelter. They came home with a German shepherd/terrier mix. The terrier turned out to be Staffordshire terrier. For those in the dark, as we were, Staffordshire terrier is synonymous with “pit bull.” Anyway, she turned out to be a lovable little mutt with a bit of an attitude. Thirty pounds of attitude, to be precise. Well, as I was sitting at the drawing board designing characters for Twisty, she shoved her attitude up my behind and into the game proposal.

Lockjaw threatens at times to steal the game from Pepper — as, one senses, he was intended to. The player even gets to control him rather than Pepper from time to time, using his own unique set of doggie verbs, like a nose icon for sniffing, a paw icon for digging, and a mouth icon for eating — or biting. It’s clear that the designers really, really want you to be charmed by their fierce but lovable pooch, but for the most part he is indeed as cute as they want him to be, getting himself and Pepper into all kinds of trouble, only to save the day when the plot calls for it.

Ben Franklin’s doctrine of sober industriousness has been corrupted into hippie indolence. It’s up to Pepper to right the course of history as we know it.

Otherwise, the theme of this first — and, as it would turn out, only — game in the series is fairly predictable for a work of children’s history written in this one’s time and place. Pepper travels back to “Colonial” times, that semi-mythical pre-Revolutionary War period familiar to every American grade-school student, when Ben Franklin was flying his kite around, Thomas Paine was writing about the rights of the citizen, and the evil British were placing absurd levies on the colonists’ tea supply. (Perish the thought!)

While its cozily traditional depiction of such a well-worn era of history doesn’t feel as urgent or relevant as the environmental issues presented by EcoQuest, the game itself is a lot of fun. The script follows the time-tested cartoon strategy of mixing broad slapstick humor aimed at children with subtler jokes for any adults who might be playing along: referencing Monty Python, poking fun at the tedious professors we’ve all had to endure. Josh Mandel had worked as a standup comedian before coming to Sierra, and his instinct for the punchline combined with Jane Jensen’s talent for memorable characterization can’t help but charm.

The puzzle design too is pretty solid, with just a couple of places that could have used a bit more guidance for the player and/or a bit more practical thinking-through on the part of the designers. (Someone really should have told the designers that fresh tomatoes and ketchup aren’t remotely the same thing when it comes to making fake blood…) And, once again, the games does a good job of blending the educational elements organically into the whole. This time around, you have a “truth” icon you can use to find out what is cartoon invention and what is historically accurate; the same icon provides more background on the latter. You use what you have (hopefully) learned in this way to try to pass a quiz that’s presented at the end of each chapter, thus turning the study of history into a sort of scavenger hunt that’s more entertaining than one might expect, even for us jaded adults.

What had been planned as the beginning of the Twisty History series was re-badged as the one-off Pepper’s Adventures in Time just before its release in the spring of 1993. This development coincided with the end of the Discovery Series as a whole, only two years after it had begun. Sierra had just acquired a Seattle software house known as Bright Star Technology, who were henceforward to constitute their official educational division. Bright Star appropriated the character of Dr. Brain, but the rest of the budding collection of series and characters that constituted the Discovery lineup were quietly retired, and the designers who had made them returned to games meant strictly to entertain. And so passed into history one of the most refreshing groups of games ever released by Sierra.

(Sources: the book Jane Jensen: Gabriel Knight, Adventure Games, and Hidden Objects by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, and June 1993; Compute! of January 1993; Questbusters of March 1992; materials in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. And my thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.

Feel free to download EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, EcoQuest: Lost Secret of the Rainforest, and Pepper’s Adventures in Time from this site, in a format that will make them as easy as possible to get running using your platform’s version of DOSBox or ScummVM.)

 
 

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The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes

In 1989, Trip Hawkins reluctantly decided to shift Electronic Arts’s strategic focus from home computers to videogame consoles, thereby to “reach millions of customers.” That decision was reaching fruition by 1992. For the first time that year, EA’s console games outsold those they published for personal computers. The whole image of the company was changing, leaving behind the last vestiges of the high-toned “software artists” era of old in favor of something less intellectual and more visceral — something aimed at the mass market rather than a quirky elite.

Still, corporate cultures don’t change overnight, and the EA of 1992 continued to release some computer games which were more in keeping with their image of the 1980s than that of this new decade. One of the most interesting and rewarding of these aberrations — call them the product of corporate inertia — was a game called The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, whose origin story doesn’t exactly lead one to expect a work of brilliance but which is in fact one of the finest, most faithful interpretations of the legendary detective in the deerstalker cap ever to make its way onto a monitor screen.

The initial impetus for Lost Files was provided by an EA producer named Christopher Erhardt. After studying film and psychology at university, Erhardt joined the games industry in 1987, when he came to Infocom to become the in-house producer for their latter-day lineup of graphical games from outside developers, such as Quarterstaff, BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, and Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur. When Infocom was shuttered in 1989, he moved on to EA in the same role, helming a number of the early Sega Genesis games that did so much to establish the company’s new identity. His success on that front gave him a fair amount of pull, and so he pitched a pet idea of his: for a sort of computerized board game that would star Sherlock Holmes along with a rotating cast of suspects, crimes, and motives, similar to the old 221B Baker Street board game as well as a classic computer game from Accolade called Killed Until Dead. It turned out that EA’s management weren’t yet totally closed to the idea of computer games that were, as Erhardt would later put it, “unusual and not aimed at the mass market” — as long, that is, as they could be done fairly inexpensively.

Mythos Software. On the top row are James Ferguson, Elinor Mavor, and Scott Mavor. On the bottom row are John Dunn and David Wood.

In order to meet the latter condition, Erhardt enlisted a tiny Tempe, Arizona, company known as Mythos Software — not to be confused with the contemporaneous British strategy-games developer Mythos Games. This Mythos was being run by one James Ferguson, its fresh-out-of-university founder, from the basement of his parents’ house. He was trying to break into the wider world of software development that lay outside the bounds of the strictly local contracts he had fulfilled so far; his inexperience and eagerness ensured that Mythos would work cheap. And in addition to cut-rate pricing, Ferguson had another secret weapon to deploy: an artist named Scott Mavor who had a very special way with pixel graphics, a technique that EA’s in-house employees would later come to refer to as “the Mavor glow.” The highly motivated Mythos, working to Erhardt’s specifications, created a demo in less than two weeks that was impressive enough to win the project a tentative green light.

Eric Lindstrom and R.J. Berg.

Another EA employee, a technical writer named Eric Lindstrom, saw the demo and suggested turning what had been planned as a computerized board game into a more narratively ambitious point-and-click adventure game. When Erhardt proved receptive to the suggestion, Lindstrom put together the outline of a story, “The Mystery of the Serrated Scalpel.” He told Erhardt that he knew the perfect person to bring the story to life: one of his colleagues among EA’s manual writers, a passionate Sherlock Holmes aficionado — he claimed to have read Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete canon of Holmes stories “two or three times” — named R.J. Berg.

The project’s footing inside EA was constantly uncertain. Christopher Erhardt says he “felt like I was playing the Princess Bride, and the dread pirate Roberts was coming It was always, ‘Yep – we may cancel it.'” But in the end the team was allowed to complete their point-and-click mystery, despite it being so utterly out of step with EA’s current strategic focus, and it was quietly released in the fall of 1992.

I find the critical dialog that followed, both in the immediate wake of Lost Files‘s release and many years later in Internet circles, to be unusually interesting. In particular, I’d like to quote at some length from Computer Gaming World‘s original review, which was written by Charles Ardai, one of the boldest and most thoughtful — and most entertaining — game reviewers of the time; this I say even as I find myself disagreeing with his conclusions far more often than not. His review opens thus:

If there is any character who has appeared in more computer games than Nintendo’s plump little goldmine, Mario, it has to be Sherlock Holmes. There have been almost a dozen Holmes-inspired games over the years, one of the best being Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which is currently available in two different CD-ROM editions from ICOM. Other valiant attempts have included Imagic’s Sherlock Holmes in Another Bow, in which Holmes took a sea voyage with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Thomas Edison, and Houdini, among others; and Infocom’s deadly serious Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels.

The difference between Holmes and Mario games, however, is that new Mario games are always coming out because the old ones sold like gangbusters, while new Sherlock Holmes games come out in spite of the fact that their predecessors sold like space heaters in the Sahara. It is noteworthy that, until ICOM, no company had ever released more than one Sherlock Holmes game, while all the Mario games come from the same source. It is also worth noting that the Holmes curse is not limited to games: the last few Holmes movies, such as Without a Clue and Young Sherlock Holmes, were not exactly box-office blockbusters.

The paradox of Sherlock Holmes can be stated so: while not that many people actually like the original Sherlock Holmes stories, everyone seems to think that everyone else adores them. Like Tarzan and Hawkeye, Holmes is a literary icon, universally known and much-beloved as a character in the abstract — not, however, as part of any single work. Finding someone who has actually read and enjoyed the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Fenimore Cooper, or Arthur Conan Doyle requires the patience of Diogenes. Most people know the character from television and the movies, at best; at worst, from reviews of television shows and movies they never bothered to see.

So, why do new Holmes adaptations surface with such regularity? Because the character is already famous and the material is in the public domain (thereby mitigating the requisite licensing fees associated with famous characters of more recent vintage. Batman or Indiana Jones, for instance.) Another answer is that Sherlock Holmes is seen as bridging the gap between entertainment and literature. Game companies presumably hope to cash in on the recognition factor and have some of the character’s ponderous respectability rub off on their product. They also figure that they can’t go wrong basing their games on a body of work that has endured for almost a century.

Unfortunately for them, they are wrong. There are only so many copies of a game that one can sell to members of the Baker Street Irregulars (the world’s largest and best-known Sherlock Holmes fan club), and a vogue for Victoriana has never really caught on among the rest of the game-buying population. The result is that, while Holmes games have been good, bad, and indifferent, their success has been uniformly mediocre.

This delightfully cynical opening gambit is so elegantly put together that one almost hesitates to puncture its cogency with facts. Sadly, though, puncture we must. While there were certainly Sherlock Holmes games released prior to Lost Files that flopped, there’s no evidence to suggest that this was the fault of the famous detective with his name on the box, and plenty of evidence to the contrary: that his name could, under the right circumstances, deliver at least a modest sales boost. In addition to the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective CD-ROM productions, a counter-example to Ardai’s thesis that’s so huge even he has to acknowledge it — the first volume of that series sold over 1 million units — there’s also the Melbourne House text adventure Sherlock; that game, the hotly anticipated followup to the bestselling-text-adventure-of-all-time The Hobbit, likely sold well over 100,000 units in its own right in the much smaller market of the Europe of 1984. Even Infocom’s Riddle of the Crown Jewels, while by no means a smash hit, sold significantly better than usual for an Infocom game in the sunset of the company’s text-only era. (Nor would I describe that game as “deadly serious” — I could go with “respectful” at most — but that’s perhaps picking nits.)

Still, setting aside those inconvenient details, it’s worth considering this broader question of just why there have been so many Sherlock Holmes games over the years. Certainly the character doesn’t have the same immediate appeal with the traditional gaming demographic as heavyweight properties like Star Wars and Star Trek, Frodo Baggins and Indiana Jones — or, for that matter, the born-in-a-videogame Super Mario. The reason for Sherlock’s ubiquity in the face of his more limited appeal is, of course, crystal clear, as Ardai recognizes: he’s in the public domain, meaning anyone who wishes to can make a Sherlock Holmes game at any time without paying anyone.1

If you’re going to do Sherlock Holmes, you just have to get the fog right.

As such, Holmes occupies a nearly unique position in our culture. He’s one of the last great fictional icons, historically speaking, who’s so blessedly free of intellectual-property restrictions. Absolutely everyone, whether they’ve ever read a story or seen a film featuring him or not, knows him. The only characters with a remotely similar degree of recognizability who postdate him are Dracula, the Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan — and neither of the latter two at least presents writers with quite the same temptation to tell new story after story after story.

As is noted in Lost Files‘s manual, Sherlock Holmes has become such an indelible part of our cultural memory that when we see him we experience a sort of vicarious nostalgia for a London none of us ever knew: “Gas lamps, the sound of horses’ hooves, steam locomotives, and romantic street cries. And then there is the atmosphere of that cozy room in Baker Street: Holmes in his armchair before a roaring coal fire, legs stretched out before him, listening with Dr. Watson to yet another bizarre story.” One might say that Sherlock Holmes gets the chronological balance just right, managing to feel both comfortably, nostalgically traditional and yet also relevant and relatable. In contrast to the Victorian scenery around him, his point of view as a character feels essentially modern, applicable to modern modes of storytelling. I’m not sure that any other fictional character combines this quality to quite the same extent with a freedom from copyright lawyers. These factors have fostered an entire creative subculture of Sherlockia which spans the landscape of modern media, dwarfing Arthur Conan Doyle’s canonical four novels and 56 short stories by multiple orders of magnitude.

The relative modernity of Sherlock Holmes is especially important in the context of interactive adaptations. The player of any narrative-driven game needs a frame of reference — needs to understand what’s expected of her in the role she’s expected to play. Thankfully, the divide between Sherlock Holmes and the likes of C.S.I. is a matter of technology rather than philosophy; Sherlock too solves crimes through rationality, combining physical evidence, eyewitness and suspect interviews, and logical deduction to reach a conclusion. Other legendary characters don’t share our modern mindset; it’s much more difficult for the player to step into the role of an ancient Greek hero who solves problems by sacrificing to the gods or an Arthurian knight who views every event as a crucible of personal honor. (Anyone doubtful of Sherlock Holmes’s efficacy in commercial computer games should have a look at the dire commercial history of Arthurian games.)

With so much material to make sense of, post-Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes get sorted on the basis of various criteria. One of these is revisionism versus faithfulness. While some adaptations go so far as to transport Sherlock and his cronies hook, line, and sinker into our own times, others make a virtue out of hewing steadfastly to the character and setting described by Arthur Conan Doyle. This spirit of Sherlockian fundamentalism, if you will, is just one more facet of our long cultural dialog around the detective, usually manifesting as a reactionary return to the roots when other recent interpretations are judged to have wandered too far afield.

No matter how much the Sherlockian fundamentalists kick and scream, however, the fact remains that the Sherlock Holmes of the popular imagination has long since become a pastiche of interpretations reflecting changing social mores and cultural priorities. That’s fair enough in itself — it’s much of the reason why Doyle’s timeless sleuth remains so timeless — but it does make it all too easy to lose sight of Holmes and Watson as originally conceived in the stories. Just to cite the most obvious example: Holmes’s famous deerstalker cap is never mentioned in the text of the tales, and only appeared once in the illustrations that originally accompanied them (that instance being a picture drawn by Sidney Paget for “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”). The deerstalker became such an iconic part of the character only after it was sported by the actor Basil Rathbone as an item of daily wear — an odd choice for the urban Holmes, given that it was, as the name would imply, a piece of hunting apparel normally worn by sporting gentlemen in the countryside — in a long series of films, beginning with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939.

Although Lost Files doesn’t go so far as to forgo the deerstalker — there are, after all, limits to these things — it does generally try to take its cue from the original stories rather than the patchwork of interpretations that followed them. Berg:

I definitely aimed for Holmesian authenticity. I’d like to think that, if he were alive, Doyle would like the game. After all, the characters of Holmes and Watson have been manipulated quite a bit by the various media they’ve appeared in, especially the films. For example, the Watson of Lost Files is definitely Doyle’s Watson, competent and intelligent, rather than the bumbling character portrayed in many of the movies. I also wanted to retain Holmes’s peculiar personality. He’s really not that likable a character; he’s arrogant, a misogynist, and extremely smug.

This spirit of authenticity extends to the game’s portrayal of Victorian London. There are, I’ve always thought, two tiers when it comes to realistic portrayals of real places in fiction. Authors on the second tier have done a whole lot of earnest research into their subject, and they’re very eager to show it all to you, filling your head with explicit descriptions of things which a person who actually lived in that setting would never think twice about, so ingrained are they in daily existence. Authors on the top tier, by contrast, have seemingly absorbed the setting through their pores, and write stories that effortlessly evoke it without beating you over the head with all the book research they did to reach this point of imaginative mastery.

Indeed, Sherlock. Leaving the cozy environs of 221B Baker Street.

Lost Files largely meets the latter bar as it sends you around to the jewelers and tobacconists, theaters and pubs, opulent mansions and squalid tenements of fin-de-siècle London. The details are there for when you need them or decide to go looking for them; just try mousing around the interior of 221B Baker Street. (“A typical sitting-room chair. The sheen of its wine-red velveteen covering shows that it is well-used. A dark purple silk dressing gown with a rolled collar is carelessly crumpled on the seat and the antimacassar requires changing.”) More impressive, though, is the way that the game just breathes its setting in that subtle way that can only be achieved by a writer with both a lighter touch and countless hours of immersion in the period at his command. For example Berg spent time reading Charles Dickens as well as Arthur Conan Doyle in order to capture the subtle rhythms of Victorian English in his conversations. This version of Holmes’s London isn’t the frozen-in-amber museum exhibit it sometimes comes off as in other works of Sherlockia. “We wanted a dirty game,” says Eric Lindstrom. “We wanted people to feel that people were burning coal, that they could see who was walking in the streets. Just as it was in London at the time.”

There is, however, one important exception to the game’s rule of faithfulness to the original stories: Lost Files presents a mystery that the reader can actually solve. In light of the place Holmes holds in our cultural memory as the ultimate detective, one of the great ironies of Doyle’s stories is that they really aren’t very good mysteries at all by the standard of later mystery fiction — a standard which holds a good mystery to be an implicit contest between writer and reader, in which the reader is presented with all the clues and challenged to solve the case before the writer’s detective does so. Doyle’s stories cheat egregiously by this standard, hiding vital evidence from the reader, and often positing a case’s solution on a chain of conjecture that’s nowhere near as ironclad as the great detective presents it to be. Eric Lindstrom:

The [original] stories do not work the way we are used to today. They are not whodunnits; whodunnits only became popular later. Readers have virtually no way of finding out who the culprit is. Sometimes the offender does not even appear in the plot. These are adventure stories narrated from the perspective of Dr. Watson.

For obvious reasons, Lost Files can’t get away with being faithful to this aspect of the Sherlock Holmes tradition. And so the mystery it presents is straight out of Arthur Conan Doyle — except that it plays fair. Notably, you play as Holmes himself, not, as in the original stories, as Watson. Thus you know what Holmes knows, and the game can’t pull the dirty trick on you, even if it wanted to, of hiding information until the big reveal at the end. Many other works of Sherlockia — even the otherwise traditionalist ones — adapt the same approach, responding to our post-nineteenth-century perception of what a good mystery story should be.

And make no mistake: “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel” is a very good mystery indeed. I hesitate to spoil your pleasure in it by saying too much, and so will only state that what begins as the apparently random murder of an actress in an alley behind the Regency Theatre — perhaps by Jack the Ripper, leaving Whitechapel and trying his hand in the posher environs of Mayfair? — keeps expanding in scope, encompassing more deaths and more and more Powerful People with Secrets to Keep. As I played, I was excited every time I made a breakthrough. Even better, I felt like a detective, to perhaps a greater extent than in any computer game I’ve ever played. Among games in general, I can only compare the feeling of solving this mystery to that of tackling some of the more satisfying cases in the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective tabletop game.

Part of the reason the mystery comes together so well is just down to good adventure-game design principles, of the sort which eluded so many other contemporary practitioners of the genre. Berg:

The idea was to produce a game that was different from existing adventures, which I frankly felt were often tedious. We wanted to eliminate the elements that tend to detract from the reality of the experience — things like having to die in order to learn some crucial information, constantly having to re-cover the same territory, and the tendency to simply pick up and use every object you encounter. We wanted to give players a deeper experience.

So, there are none of the dreaded adventure-game dead ends in Lost Files. More interestingly, the design does, as Berg alludes above, mostly eschew the typical use-unlikely-object-in-unlikely-place model of gameplay. Tellingly, the few places where it fails to do so are the weakest parts of the game.

As I’ve noted before, the classic approach to the adventure game, as a series of physical puzzles to solve, can be hugely entertaining, but it almost inevitably pushes a game toward comedy, often in spite of its designers’ best intentions. Most of us have played alleged interactive mysteries that leave you forever messing about with slider puzzles and trivial practical problems of the sort that any real detective would solve in five minutes, just by calling for backup. In Infocom’s Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels, for example, you learn that a stolen ruby is hidden in the eye of the statue of Lord Nelson on top of Nelson’s Column, and then get to spend the next little while trying to get a pigeon to fetch it for you instead of, you know, just telling Inspector Lestrade to send out a work crew. Lost Files does its level best to resist the siren call of the trivial puzzle, and, with only occasional exceptions, it succeeds. Thereby is the game freed to become one of the best interactive invocations of a classic mystery story ever. You spend your time collecting and examining physical evidence, interviewing suspects, and piecing together the crime’s logic, not solving arbitrary road-block puzzles. Lost Files is one of the few ostensibly serious adventure games of its era which manages to maintain the appropriate gravitas throughout, without any jarring breaks in tone.

This isn’t to say that it’s po-faced or entirely without humorous notes; the writing is a consistent delight, filled with incisive descriptions and flashes of dry wit, subtle in all the ways most computer-game writing is not. Consider, for example, this description of a fussy jeweler: “The proprietor is a stern-looking woman, cordial more through effort than personality. She frequently stares at the cleaning girl who tidies the floor, to make sure she is still hard at work.” Yes, this character is a type more than a personality — but how deftly is that type conveyed! In two sentences, we come to know this woman. I’d go so far as to call R.J. Berg’s prose on the whole better than that of the rather stolid Arthur Conan Doyle, who tended to bloviate on a bit too much in that all too typical Victorian style.

The fine writing lends the game a rare quality that seems doubly incongruous when one considers the time in which it was created, when multimedia was all the rage and everyone was rushing to embrace voice acting and “interactive movies.” Ditto the company which published it, who were pushing aggressively toward the forefront of the new mass-media-oriented approach to games. In spite of all that, darned if Lost Files doesn’t feel downright literary — thoughtful, measured, intelligent, a game to take in slowly over a cup of tea. Further enhancing the effect is its most unique single technical feature: everything you do in the game is meticulously recorded in an in-game journal kept by the indefatigable Dr. Watson. The journal will run into the hundreds of onscreen “pages” by the time you’re all done. It reads surprisingly well too; it’s not inconceivable to imagine printing it out — the handy option to print it or save it to a file is provided — and giving it to someone else to read with pleasure. That’s a high standard indeed, one which vanishingly few games could meet. But I think that The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes just about manages it.

Having given so much praise to Lindstrom and Berg’s design and writing, I have to give due credit as well to Mythos Software’s efforts to bring it all to life. The interface of Lost Files is thoroughly refined and pleasant to work with, a remarkable achievement considering that this was the first point-and-click graphic adventure to be made by everyone involved. An optional but extremely handy hotspot finder minimizes the burden of pixel hunting, and the interface is full of other thoughtful touches, like a default action that is attached to each object; this saves you more often than not from having to make two clicks to carry out an action.

Finally, praise must be given to Scott Mavor’s “Mavor glow” graphics as well. To minimize the jagged edges typical of pictures drawn in the fairly low resolution of 256-color VGA graphics, Mavor avoided sharp shifts in color from pixel to pixel. Instead he blended his edges together gradually, creating a lovely, painterly effect that does indeed almost seem to glow. Scott’s mother Elinor Mavor, who worked with him to finish up the art in the latter stages of the project:2

Working with just 256 colors, Scott showed me how he created graduating palettes of each one, which allowed him to do what he called “getting rid of the dots” in each scene. To further mute the pixels, he kept the colors on the darker side, which also enhanced the Victorian mood.

Weaving the illusion of continuous-tone artwork with all those little “dots” made us buggy-eyed after a long day’s work. One night, I woke up, went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and the world just pixilated in front of me. Scary imprints on my retinas had followed me away from the computer monitor, rendering my vision as a pointillistic painting à la George Seurat.

While the graphics of its contemporaries pop out at you with bright, bold colors, the palette of Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes smacks more of the “brown sauce” of the old masters — murky, mysterious, not initially jaw-dropping but totally in keeping with the mood of the script. As you, playing the diligent detective, begin to scan them carefully, the pictures reveal more and more details of the sort that are all too easy to overlook at a quick glance. It makes for an unusually mature aesthetic statement, and a look that can be mistaken for that of no other game.

Backstage at the opera.

Given all its strengths, I find it surprising that Lost Files has gotten more than its share of critical flak over the years. I have a theory as to why that should be, but before I get to that I’ll let one of the naysayers share his point of view. Even after admitting that the story is “a ripping yarn,” the graphics atmospheric, the period details correct, and the writing very good, Charles Ardai concludes his review thusly:

Don’t get me wrong: the dialogue is well-written, the choices are entertaining, and in most cases the actions the game requires the player to perform are very interesting. The story is good and the game is a pleasure to watch. Yet, that is what one does — watch.

This game wants, more than anything in the world, to be a Sherlock Holmes movie. Though it would be a very good one if it were, it is not. Therefore, it is deeply and resoundingly unsatisfying. The plot unfolds quite well, with plenty of twists, but the player has no more control over it than he would if he were reading a novel. The player is, at best, like an actor in a play. Unfortunately, said actor has not been given a copy of the script. He has to hit his marks and say his lines by figuring out the cues given by the other characters and reading his lines off the computer equivalent of cue cards.

If this is what one wants — a fine Sherlock Holmes pastiche played out on the computer screen, with the player nominally putting the lead character through his paces — fine. “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel” delivers all that one could hope for in that vein. If one wants a game — an interactive experience in which one’s decisions have an effect on what happens — this piece of software is likely to disappoint.

The excellent German podcast Stay Forever criticized the game along similar — albeit milder — lines in 2012. And in his mostly glowing 2018 review of the game for The Adventure Gamer joint-blogging project, Joe Pranevich as well noted a certain distancing effect, which he said made him feel not so much like he was playing Sherlock Holmes and solving a mystery as watching Sherlock do the solving. The mystery, he further notes — correctly — can for the most part be solved by brute force by the patient but obtuse player, simply by picking every single conversation option when talking to every single character and showing each of them every single object you’ve collected.

At the extreme, criticisms like these would seem to encroach on the territory staked out by the noted adventure-game-hater Chris Crawford, who insists that the entire genre is a lie because it cannot offer the player the ability to do anything she wants whenever she wants. I generally find such complaints to be a colossal bore, premised on a misunderstanding of what people who enjoy adventure games find most enjoyable about them in the first place. But I do find it intriguing that these sorts of complaints keep turning up so often in the case of this specific game, and that they’re sometimes voiced even by critics generally friendly to the genre. My theory is that the mystery of Lost Files may be just a little bit too good: it’s just enticing enough, and just satisfying enough to slowly uncover, that it falls into an uncanny valley between playing along as Sherlock Holmes and actually being Sherlock Holmes.

But of course, playing any form of interactive fiction must be an imaginative act on the part of the player, who must be willing to embrace the story being offered and look past the jagged edges of interactivity. Certainly Lost Files is no less interactive than most adventure games, and it offers rich rewards that few can match if you’re willing to not brute-force your way through it, to think about and really engage with its mystery. It truly is a game to luxuriate in and savor like a good novel. In that spirit, I have one final theory to offer you: I think this particular graphic adventure may be especially appealing to fans of textual interactive fiction. Given its care for the written word and the slow-build craftsmanship of its plotting, it reminds me more of a classic Infocom game than most of the other, flashier graphic adventures that jostled with it for space on store shelves in the early 1990s.

Which brings me in my usual roundabout fashion to the final surprising twist in this very surprising game’s history. After its release by a highly skeptical EA, its sales were underwhelming, just as everyone had been telling Christopher Erhardt they would be all along. But then, over a period of months and years, the game just kept on selling at the same slow but steady clip. It seemed that computer-owning Sherlock Holmes aficionados weren’t the types to rush out and buy games when they were hot. Yet said aficionados apparently did exist, and they apparently found the notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure game intriguing when they finally got around to it. (Somehow this scenario fits in with every stereotype I carry around in my head about the typical Sherlock Holmes fan.) Lost Files‘s sales eventually topped the magical 100,000-unit mark that separated a hit from an also-ran in the computer-games industry of the early- and mid-1990s.

It wasn’t a very good idea, but they did it anyway. R.J. Berg on a sound stage with an actress, filming for the 3DO version of Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. Pictures like this were in all the games magazines of the 1990s. Somehow such pictures — not to mention the games that resulted from them — seem far more dated than Pong these days.

Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes may not have challenged the likes of John Madden Football in the sales sweepstakes, but it did make EA money, and some inside the company did notice. In 1994, they released a version for the 3DO multimedia console. For the sake of trendiness, this version added voice acting and inserted filmed footage of actors into the conversation scenes, replacing the lovely hand-drawn portraits in the original game and doing it no new aesthetic favors in the process. In 1996, with the original still selling tolerably well, most of the old team got back together for a belated sequel — The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Rose Tattoo — that no one would ever have dreamed they would be making a couple of years before.

But then, almost everything about the story of Lost Files is unlikely, from EA of all companies deciding to make it — or, perhaps better said, deciding to allow it to be made — to a bunch of first-time adventure developers managing to put everything together so much better than many established adventure-game specialists were doing at the time. And how incredibly lucky for everyone involved that such a Sherlock Holmes devotee as R.J. Berg should have been kicking around writing manuals for EA, just waiting for an opportunity like this one to show his chops. I’ve written about four Sherlock Holmes games now in the course of this long-running history of computer gaming — yet another measure of the character’s cultural ubiquity! — and this one nudges out Riddle of the Crown Jewels to become the best one yet. It just goes to show that, no matter how much one attempts to systematize the process, much of the art and craft of making games comes down to happy accidents.

(Sources: Compute! of April 1993 and June 1993; Computer Gaming World of February 1993; Questbusters of September 1988 and December 1992; Electronic Games of February 1993. Online sources include Elinor Mavor’s remembrances of the making Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, the comprehensive Game Nostalgia page on the game, the Stay Forever podcast episode devoted to the game, Joe Pranevich’s playthrough for The Adventure Gamer, the archived version of the old Mythos Software homepage, and Jason Scott’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents.

Feel free to download Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes from right here, in a format designed to be as easy as possible to get running under your platform’s version of DOSBox or using ScummVM.)


  1. There have been occasional questions about the extent to which Sherlock Holmes and his supporting cast truly are outside all bounds of copyright, usually predicated on the fact that the final dozen stories were published in the 1920s, the beginning of the modern copyright era, and thus remain protected. R.J. Berg remembers giving “two copies of the game and a really trivial amount of money” to Arthur Conan Doyle’s aged granddaughter, just to head off any trouble on that front. When a sequel to Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1996, no permission whatsoever was sought or demanded. 

  2. Scott Mavor died of cancer in 2008 

 
 

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Whither the Software Artist? (or, How Trip Hawkins Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Consoles)

One of the places we ran the “Can a computer make you cry?” [advertisement] was in Scientific American. Scientific American readers weren’t even playing videogames. Why the hell are you wasting any of this really expensive advertising? You’re competing with BMW for that ad.

— Trip Hawkins (EA Employee #1)

Consumers were looking for a brand signal for quality. They didn’t lionize the game makers as these creators to fawn over. They thought of the game makers almost as collaborators in their experience. So apostatizing didn’t make sense to the consumers.

— Bing Gordon (EA Employee #7)

In the ’80s that was an interesting experiment, that whole trying-to-make-them-into-rock-stars kind of thing. It was certainly a nice way to recruit top talent. But the reality is that computer programmers and artists and designers are not rock stars. It may have worked for the developers, but I don’t think it had any impact on consumers.

— Stewart Bonn (EA Employee #19)

One of the stories that gamers most love to tell each other is that of Electronic Arts’s fall from grace. If you’re sufficiently interested in gaming history to be reading this blog, you almost certainly know the story in the broad strokes: how Trip Hawkins founded EA in 1982 as a haven for “software artists” doing cutting-edge work; how he put said artists front and center in rock-star-like poses in a series of iconic advertisements, the most famous of which asked whether a computer could make you cry; how he wrote on the back of every stylish EA “album cover” not about EA as a company but as “a collection of electronic artists who share a common goal to fulfill the potential of personal computing”; and how all the idealism somehow dissipated to give us the EA of today, a shambling behemoth that crushes more clever competitors under its sheer weight as it churns out sequel after sequel, retread after retread. The exact point where EA became the personification of everything retrograde and corporate in gaming varies with the teller; perhaps the closest thing to a popular consensus is the rise of John Madden Football and EA Sports in the early 1990s, when the last vestiges of software artistry in the company’s advertisements were replaced by jocks shouting, “It’s in the game!” Regardless of the specifics, though, everyone agrees that It All Went Horribly Wrong at some point. The story of EA has become gamers’ version of a Biblical tragedy: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Of course, as soon as one starts pulling out Bible quotes, it profits to ask whether one has gone too far. And, indeed, the story of EA is often over-dramatized and over-simplified. Questions of authenticity and creativity are always fraught; to imagine that anyone is really in the arts just for the art strikes me as hopelessly naive. The EA of the early 1980s wasn’t founded by artists but rather by businessmen, backed by venture capitalists with goals of their own that had little to do with “fulfilling the potential of personal computing.” Thus, when the software-artists angle turned out not to work so well, it didn’t take them long to pivot. This, then, is the history of that pivot, and how it led to the EA we know today.


Advertising is all about image making — about making others see you in the light in which you wish to be seen. Without realizing that they were doing anything of the sort, EA’s earliest marketers cemented an image into the historical imagination at the same time that they failed in their more practical task of crafting a message that resonated with the hoped-for customers of their own time. The very same early EA advertising campaign which speaks so eloquently to so many today actually missed the mark entirely in its own day, utterly failing to set the public imagination afire with this idea of programmers and game designers as rock stars. When Trip Hawkins sent Bill Budge — the programmer of his who most naturally resembled a rock star — on an autograph-signing tour of software stores and shopping malls, it didn’t lead to any outbreak of Budgomania. “Nobody would ever show up,” remembers Budge today, still wincing at the embarrassment of sitting behind a deserted autograph booth.

Nor were customers flocking into stores to buy the games EA’s rock stars had created. Sales remained far below initial projections during the eighteen months following EA’s official launch in June of 1983, and the company skated on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy on multiple occasions. While their first year yielded the substantial hits Pinball Construction Set, Archon, and One-on-One, 1984 could boast only one comparable success story, Seven Cities of Gold. Granted, four hits in two years was more than plenty of other publishers managed, but EA had been capitalized under the expectation that their games would open up whole new demographics for entertainment software. “The idea was to make games for 28-year-olds when everybody else was making games for 13-year-olds,” says Bing Gordon, Trip Hawkins’s old university roommate and right-hand man at EA. When those 28-year-olds failed to materialize, EA was left in the lurch.

For better or for worse, One-on-One is the spiritual forefather of the unstoppable EA Sports lineup of today.

The most important architect of EA’s post-launch retrenchment was arguably neither Trip Hawkins nor Bing Gordon, but rather Larry Probst, who left the free-falling Activision to join EA as vice president for sales in 1984. Probst, who had worked at the dry-goods giants Johnson & Johnson and Clorox before joining Activision, had no particular attachment to the idea of software artists. He rather looked at the business of selling games much as he had that of selling toilet paper and bleach. He asked himself how EA could best make money in the market that existed rather than some fanciful new one they hoped to create. Steve Peterson, a product manager at EA, remembers that others “would still talk about how we were trying to create new forms of entertainment and break new boundaries.” But Probst, and increasingly Trip Hawkins as well, had the less high-minded goal of “going public and being a billion-dollar company.”

Probst had the key insight that distribution, more so than software artists or perhaps even product quality in the abstract, was the key to success in an industry that, following a major downturn in home computing in general in 1984, was only continuing to get more competitive. EA therefore spurned the existing distribution channels, which were nearly monopolized by SoftSel, the great behind-the-scenes power in the software industry to which everyone else was kowtowing; SoftSel’s head, Robert Leff, was the most important person in software that no one outside the industry had ever heard of. Instead of using SoftSel, EA set up their own distribution network piece by painful piece, beginning by cold-calling the individual stores and offering cut-rate deals in order to tempt them into risking the wrath of Leff and ordering from another source.

Then, once a reasonable distribution network was in place, EA leveraged the hell out of it by setting up a program of so-called “Affiliated Labels” — other publishers who would pay EA instead of a conventional distributor like SoftSel to get their products onto store shelves. It was a well-nigh revolutionary idea in game publishing, attractive to smaller publishers because EA was ready and able to help out with a whole range of the logistical difficulties they were always facing, from packaging and disk duplication to advertising campaigns. For EA, meanwhile, the Affiliated Labels yielded huge financial rewards and placed them in the driver’s seat of much of the industry, with the power of life and death over many of their smaller ostensible competitors.

Unsurprisingly, Activision, the only other publisher with comparable distributional clout, soon copied the idea, setting up a similar program of their own. But even as they did so, EA, seemingly always one step ahead, was becoming the first American publisher to send games — both their own and those of others — directly to Europe without going through a European intermediary like Britain’s U.S. Gold label.

There was always something a bit contrived, in that indelible Silicon Valley way, about how EA chose to present themselves to the world. Here we have Bing Gordon, head of technology Greg Riker, and producer Joe Ybarra indulging in some of the creative play which, an accompanying article is at pains to tell us, was constantly going on around the office.

Larry Probst’s strategy of distribution über alles worked a treat, yielding explosive growth that more than made up for the company’s early struggles. In 1986, EA became the biggest computer-game publisher in the United States and the world, with annual revenues of $30 million. Their own games were doing well, but were assuming a very different character from the “simple, hot, and deep” ideal of the launch — a phrase Trip Hawkins had once loved to apply to games that were less stereotypically nerdy than the norm, that he imagined would be suitable for busy young adults with a finger on the pulse of hip pop culture. Now, having failed to attract that new demographic, EA adjusted their product line to appeal to those who were already buying computer games. A case in point was The Bard’s Tale, EA’s biggest hit of 1985, a hardcore CRPG that might take a hundred hours or more to complete — fodder for 13-year-olds with long summer vacations to fill rather than 28-year-olds with jobs and busy social calendars.

If “simple, hot, and deep” and programmers as rock stars had been two of the three pillars of EA’s launch philosophy, the last was the one written into Hawkins’s original mission statement as “stay with floppy-disk-based computers only.” Said statement had been written, we should remember, just as the first great videogame fad, fueled by the Atari VCS, was passing its peak and beginning the long plunge into what would go down in history as the Great Videogame Crash of 1983. At the time, it certainly wasn’t only the new EA who believed that the toy-like videogame consoles were the past, and that more sophisticated personal computers, running more sophisticated games, were the future. “I think that computer games are fundamentally different from videogames,” said Hawkins on the Computer Chronicles television show. “It becomes a question of program size, when you want to know how good a program can I have, how much can I do with it, and how long will it take before I’m bored with it.” This third pillar of EA’s strategy would take a bit longer to fall than the others, but fall it would.

The origins of EA’s loss of faith in the home computer in general as the ultimate winner of the interactive-entertainment platform wars can ironically be traced to their decision to wholeheartedly endorse one computer in particular. In October of 1984, Greg Riker, EA’s director of technology, got the chance to evaluate a prototype of Commodore’s upcoming Amiga. His verdict upon witnessing this first truly multimedia personal computer, with its superlative graphics and sound, was that this was the machine that could change everything, and that EA simply had to get involved with it as quickly as possible. He convinced Trip Hawkins of his point of view, and Hawkins managed to secure Amiga Prototype Number 12 for the company within weeks. In the months that followed, EA worked to advance the Amiga with if anything even more enthusiasm than Commodore themselves: developing libraries and programming frameworks which they shared with their outside developers; writing tools internally, including what would become the Amiga’s killer app, Deluxe Paint; documenting the Interchange File Format, a set of standard specifications for sharing pictures, sounds, animations, and music across applications. All of these things and more would remain a part of the Amiga platform’s basic software ecosystem throughout its existence.

When the Amiga finally started shipping late in 1985, EA actually made a far better public case for the machine than Commodore, taking out a splashy editorial-style advertisement just inside the cover of the premiere issue of the new AmigaWorld magazine. It showed the eight Amiga games EA would soon release and explained “why Electronic Arts is committed to the Amiga,” the latter headline appearing above a photograph of Trip Hawkins with his arm proprietorially draped over the Amiga on his desk.

Trip Hawkins with an Amiga

But it all turned into an immense disappointment. Initially, Commodore priced the Amiga wrong and marketed it worse, and even after they corrected some of their worst mistakes it perpetually under-performed in the American marketplace. For Hawkins and EA, the whole episode planted the first seeds of doubt as to whether home computers — which at the end of the day still were computers, requiring a degree of knowledge to operate and associated in the minds of most people more with work than pleasure — could really be the future of interactive entertainment as a mass-media enterprise. If a computer as magnificent as the Amiga couldn’t conquer the world, what would it take?

Perhaps it would take a piece of true consumer electronics, made by a company used to selling televisions and stereos to customers who expected to be able to just turn the things on and enjoy them — a company like, say, Philips, who were working on a new multimedia set-top box for the living room that they called CD-I. The name arose from the fact that it used the magical new technology of CD-ROM for storage, something EA had been begging Commodore to bring to the Amiga to no avail. EA embraced CD-I with the same enthusiasm they had recently shown for the Amiga, placing Greg Riker in personal charge of creating tools and techniques for programming it, working more as partners in CD-I’s development with Philips than as a mere third-party publisher.

Once again, however, it all came to nought. CD-I turned into one of the most notorious slow-motion fiascos in the history of the games industry, missing its originally planned release date in the fall of 1987 and then remaining vaporware for years on end. In early 1989, EA finally ran out of patience, mothballing all work on the platform unless and until it became a viable product; Greg Riker left the company to go work for Microsoft on their own CD-ROM research.

CD-I had cost EA a lot of money to no tangible result whatsoever, but it does reveal that the idea of gaming on something other than a conventional computer was no longer anathema to them. In fact, the year in which EA gave up on CD-I would prove the most pivotal of their entire history. We should therefore pause here to examine their position in 1989 in a bit more detail.

Despite the frustrating failure of the Amiga and CD-I to open a new golden age of interactive entertainment, EA wasn’t doing badly at all. Following years of steady growth, annual revenue had now reached $63 million, up 27 percent from 1988. EA was actively distributing about 100 titles under their own imprint, and 250 more under the imprint of the various Affiliated Labels, who had become absolutely key to their business model, accounting for some 45 percent of their total revenues. About 80 percent of their revenues still came from the United States, with 15 percent coming from Europe — where EA had set up a semi-independent subsidiary, the Langley, England-based EA Europe, in 1987 — and the remainder from the rest of the world. The company was extremely diversified. They were producing software for ten different computing platforms worldwide, had released 40 separate titles that had earned them at least $1 million each, and had no single title that accounted for more than 6 percent of their total revenues.

What we have here, then, is a very healthy business indeed, with multiple revenue streams and cash in the bank. The games they released were sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes mediocre; EA’s quality standards weren’t notably better or worse than the rest of their industry. “We tried to create a brand that fell somewhere between Honda and Mercedes,” admits Bing Gordon, “but a lot of the time we shipped Chevy.” Truth be told, even in the earliest days the rhetoric surrounding EA’s software artists had been a little overblown; many of the games their rock stars came up with were far less innovative than the advertising that accompanied them. The genius of Larry Probst had been to explicitly recognize that success or failure as a games publisher had as much to do with other factors as it did with the actual games you released.

For all their success, though, no one at EA was feeling particularly satisfied with their position. On the contrary: 1989 would go down in EA’s history as the year of “crisis.” As successful as they had become selling home-computer software, they remained big fish in a rather small pond, a situation out of keeping with the sense of overweening ambition that been a part of the company’s DNA since its founding. In 1989, about 4 million computers were being used to play games on a regular or semi-regular basis in American homes, enough to fuel a computer-game industry worth an estimated $230 million per year. EA alone owned more than 25 percent of that market, more than any competitor. But there was another, related market in which they had no presence at all: that of the videogame consoles, which had returned from the dead to haunt them even as they were consolidating their position as the biggest force in computer games. The country was in the grip of Nintendo mania. About 22 million Nintendo Entertainment Systems were already in American homes — a figure accounting for 24 percent of all American households — and cartridge-based videogames were selling to the tune of $1.6 billion per year.

Unlike many of their peers, EA hadn’t yet suffered all that badly under the Nintendo onslaught, largely because they had already diversified away from the Commodore 64, the low-end 8-bit computer which had been the largest gaming platform in the world just a couple of years before, and which the NES was now in the process of annihilating. But still, the future of the computer-games industry in general felt suddenly in doubt in a way that it hadn’t since at least the great home-computer downturn of 1984. A sizable coalition inside EA, including Larry Probst and most of the board of directors, pushed Trip Hawkins hard to get EA’s games onto the consoles. Fearing a coup, he finally came around. “We had to go into the [console-based] videogame business, and that meant the world of mass-market,” Hawkins remembers. “There were millions of customers we were going to reach.”

But through which door should they make their entrance? Accustomed to running roughshod over his Affiliated Labels, Hawkins wasn’t excited about the prospect of entering Nintendo’s walled garden, where the shoe would be on the other foot, thanks to that company’s infamously draconian rules for its licensees. Nintendo’s standard contract demanded that they receive the first $12 from every game a licensee sold, required every game to go through an exhaustive review process before publication, and placed strict limits on how many games a licensee was allowed to publish per year and how many units they were allowed to manufacture of each one. For EA, accustomed to being the baddest hombre in the Wild West that was the computer-game marketplace, this was well-nigh intolerable. Bing Gordon insists even today that, thanks to all of the fees and restrictions, no one other than Nintendo was doing much more than breaking even on the NES during this, the period that would go down in history as the platform’s golden age.

So, EA decided instead to back a dark horse: the much more modern Sega Genesis, which hadn’t even been released yet in North America. It was built around the same 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU found in computers like the Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh, with audiovisual capabilities not all that far removed from the likes of the Amiga. The Genesis would give designers and programmers who were used to the affordances of full-fledged computers a far less limiting platform than the NES to work with, and it offered the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a brand-new market, as opposed to the saturated NES platform. The only problem was that Sega’s licensing fees were comparable to those of Nintendo, even though they could only offer their licensees access to a much more uncertain pool of customers.

Determined to play hardball, Hawkins had a team of engineers reverse-engineer the Genesis, sufficient to let them write games for it with or without Sega’s official development kit. Then he met with Sega again, telling them that, if they refused to adjust their licensing terms, he would release games on the console without their blessing, forcing them to initiate an ugly court battle of the sort that was currently raging between Nintendo and Atari if they wished to bring him to heel. That, he was gambling, was expense and publicity of a sort which Sega simply couldn’t afford. And Sega evidently agreed with his assessment; they accepted a royalty rate half that being demanded by Nintendo. By this roundabout method, EA became the first major American publisher to support the new console, and from that point forward the two companies became, as Hawkins puts it, “good partners.”

EA initially invested $2.5 million in ten games for the Genesis, some of them original to the console, some ports of their more popular computer games. They started shipping the first of them in June of 1990, ten months after the Genesis itself had first gone on sale in the United States. This first slate of EA Genesis titles arrived in a marketplace that was still starving for quality games, just as Hawkins had envisioned it would be. Among them was the game destined to become the face of the new, mass-market-oriented EA: John Madden Football, a more action-oriented re-imagining of a 1988 computer game of the same name.

John Madden Football debuted as a rather cerebral, tactics-heavy computer game in 1988, just another in an EA tradition of famous-athlete-endorsed sports games stretching back to 1983’s (Dr. J and Larry Bird Go) One-on-One. No one in 1988 could have imagined what it would come to mean in the years to come for either its publisher or its spokesman/mascot, both of whom would ride it to iconic heights in American pop culture.

The Sega Genesis marked the third time EA had taken a leap of faith on a new platform. It was the first time, however, that their faith paid off. About 25 percent of the games EA sold in 1990 were for the Genesis. And when the console really started to take off in 1991, fueled not least by their own games, EA was there to reap the rewards. In that year, four of the ten best-selling Genesis games were published by EA. At the peak of their dominance, EA alone was publishing about 35 percent of all the games sold for the Genesis. Absent the boost their games gave it early on, it’s highly questionable whether the Genesis would have succeeded at all in the United States.

In the beginning, few of EA’s outside developers had been terribly excited about writing for the consoles. One of them remembers Hawkins “reading us the riot act” just to get them onboard. Indeed, Hawkins claims today that about 15 percent of EA’s internal employees were so unhappy with the new direction that they quit. Certainly his latest rhetoric could hardly have been more different from that of 1983:

I knew we had to let go of our attachment to machines that the public did not want to buy, and support the hardware that the public would embrace. I made this argument on the grounds of delivering customer satisfaction, and how quality is in the eye of the beholder. If the customer buys a Genesis, we want to give him the best we can for the machine he bought and not resent the consumer for not buying a $1000 computer.

By this point, Hawkins had finally bit the bullet and done a deal with Nintendo, who, in the face of multiple government investigations and lawsuits over their business practices, were becoming somewhat more generous with both their competitors and licensees. When games like Skate or Die, a port of a Commodore 64 hit that just happened to be perfect for the Nintendo and Sega demographics as well, started to sell in serious numbers on the consoles, Hawkins’s developers’ aversion started to fade in the face of all that filthy lucre. Soon the developers of Skate or Die were happily plunging into a sequel which would be a console exclusive.

Even the much-dreaded oversight role played by Nintendo, in which they reviewed every game before allowing it to be published, proved less onerous than expected. When Will Harvey, the designer of an action-adventure called The Immortal, finally steeled himself to look at Nintendo’s critique thereof, he was happily surprised to find the list of “suggestions” to be very helpful on the whole, demonstrating real sensitivity to the effect he was trying to achieve. Even Bing Gordon, who had been highly skeptical of getting into bed with Nintendo, had to admit in the end that “the rating system is fair. On a scale from zero to a hundred, where zero meant the system was totally manipulated for Nintendo’s self-interest and a hundred meant that it was absolutely democratic, they’d probably get a ninety. I’ve seen a little bit of self-interest, but this is America, the land of self-interest.”

Although EA cut their Nintendo teeth on the NES, it was on the long-awaited follow-up console, 1991’s Super Nintendo, that they really began to thrive. That machine boasted capabilities similar to those of the Sega Genesis, meaning EA already had games ready to port over, along with developers with considerable expertise in writing for a more advanced species of console. Just in time for the Christmas of 1991, EA released a new version of John Madden FootballJohn Madden Football ’92 — simultaneously on the Super Nintendo and the Genesis. The sequel had been created, according to the recollections of several EA executives, against the advice of market researchers and retailers: “All you’re going to do is obsolete our old game.” But Trip Hawkins remembered how much, as a kid, he had loved the Strat-O-Matic Football board game, for which a new set of player and team cards was issued every year just before the beginning of football season, ensuring that you could always recreate in the board game the very same season you were watching every Sunday on television. So, he ignored the objections of the researchers and the retailers, and John Madden Football ’92 became an enormous hit, by far the biggest EA had yet enjoyed on any platform — thus inaugurating, for better or for worse, the tradition of annual versions of gaming’s most evergreen franchise. Like clockwork, we’ve gotten a new Madden every single year since, a span of time that numbers a quarter-century and change as of this writing.

All of this had a transformative effect on EA’s bottom line, bringing on their biggest growth spurt yet. Revenues increased from $78 million in 1990 to $113 million in 1991; then they jumped to $175 million in 1992, accompanied by a two-for-one stock split that was necessary to keep the share price, which had been at $10 just a few years before, from exceeding $50. In that year, six of the fifteen most popular console games, across all platforms, were published by EA. Their Sega Genesis games alone generated $77 million, 18 percent more than the entirety of the company’s product portfolio had managed in 1989. This was also the first year that EA’s console games in the aggregate outsold their offerings for computers. They were leaving no doubt now as to where their primary loyalty lay: “The 16-bit consoles are far better for games than PCs. The Genesis is a very sophisticated machine…” The disparity between the two sides of the company’s business would only continue to get more pronounced, as EA’s sales jumped by an extraordinary 70 percent — to $298 million — in 1993, a spurt fueled entirely by console-game sales.

But, despite all their success on the consoles, EA — and especially their founder, Trip Hawkins — continued to chafe under the restrictions of the walled-garden model of software distribution. Accordingly, Hawkins put together a group inside EA to research the potential for a CD-ROM-based multimedia set-top box of their own, one that would be used for more than just playing games — sort of a CD-I done right. “The Japanese videogame companies,” he said, “are too shortsighted to see where this is going.” In contrast to their walled gardens, his box would be as open as possible. Rather than a single new hardware product, it would be a set of hardware specifications and an operating system which manufacturers could license, which would hopefully result in a situation similar to the MS-DOS marketplace, where lots of companies competed and innovated within the bounds of an established standard. The marketplace for games and applications as well on the new machine would be far less restricted than the console norm, with a more laissez-faire attitude to content and a royalty fee of just $3 per unit sold.

In 1991, EA spun off the venture under the name of 3DO. Hawkins turned most of his day-to-day responsibilities at EA over to Larry Probst in order to take personal charge of his new baby, which took tangible form for the first time with the release of the Panasonic “Real 3DO Player” in late 1993. It and other implementations of the 3DO technology managed to sell 500,000 units worldwide — 200,000 of them in North America — by January of 1995. Yet those numbers were still a pittance next to those of the dedicated game consoles, and the story of 3DO became one of constant flirtations with success that never quite led to that elusive breakthrough moment. As 3DO struggled, Hawkins’s relations with his old company worsened. He believed they had gone back on promises to support his new venture wholeheartedly; “I didn’t feel like I was leaving EA, but it turned out that way,” he says today with lingering bitterness. The long, frustrating saga of 3DO wouldn’t finally straggle to a bankruptcy until 2003.

EA, meanwhile, was flying ever higher absent their founder. Under Larry Probst — always the most hard-nosed and sober-minded of the executive staff, the person most laser-focused on the actual business of selling videogames — EA cemented their reputation as the conservative, risk-averse giant of their industry. This new EA was seemingly the polar opposite of the company that had once asked with almost painful earnestness if a computer could make you cry. And yet, paradoxically, it was a place still inhabited by a surprising number of the people who had come up with that message. Most prominent among them was Bing Gordon, who notes cryptically today only that “people’s ideals get tested in the face of love or money.” Part of the problem — assuming one judges EA’s current less-than-boldly-innovative lineup of franchises to be a problem — may be a simple buildup of creative cruft that has resulted from being in business for so long. Every franchise that debuts in inspiration and innovation, then goes on to join John Madden Football on the list of EA perennials, sucks some of the bandwidth away that might otherwise have been devoted to the next big innovator.

In the summer of 1987, when EA was still straddling the line between their old personality and their new, Trip Hawkins wrote the following lines in their official newsletter — lines which evince the keenly felt tension between art and commerce that has become the defining aspect of EA’s corporate history for so many in the years since:

Unfortunately, simply being creative doesn’t always mean you’ll be wildly successful. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Lots of people would still rather go see Porky’s Revenge IV, ignoring well-produced movies like Amadeus or Chariots of Fire. As a result, film producers take fewer risks, and we get less variety, and pretty soon the Porky’s and Rambo clones are all you can find on a Friday night. Software developers have the same problem. (To this day, all of us M.U.L.E. fans wonder why the entire world hasn’t fallen in love with our favorite game.)

The only way to solve the problem is to do it together. On our end, we’ll keep innovating, researching, experimenting with new ways to use this new medium; on your end, you can support our efforts by taking an occasional risk, by buying something new and different… maybe Robot Rascals, or Make Your Own Murder Party.

You may be very pleasantly surprised — and you’ll help our software artists live to innovate another day.

Did EA go the direction they did because of gamers’ collective failure to support their most innovative, experimental work? Does it even matter if so? The more pragmatic among us might note that the EA of today is delivering games that millions upon millions of people clearly want to play, and where’s the harm in that?

Still, as we look upon this industry that has so steadfastly refused to grow up in so many ways, there remain always those pictures of EA’s first generation of software artists — pictures that, yes, are a little pretentious and a lot contrived, but that nevertheless beckon us to pursue higher ideals. They’ve taken on an identity of their own now, quite apart from the history of the company that once splashed them across the pages of glossy lifestyle magazines. Long may they continue to inspire.

(Sources: the book Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Harvard Business School’s case study “Electronic Arts in 1995”; ACE of April 1990; Amazing Computing of July 1992; Computer Gaming World of March 1988, October 1988, and June 1989; MicroTimes of April 1986; The One of November 1988; Electronic Arts’s newsletter Farther from Summer 1987; AmigaWorld premiere issue; materials relating to the Software Publishers Association included in the Brøderbund archive at the Strong Museum of Play; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Computer Games.” Online sources include “We See Farther — A History of Electronic Arts” at Gamasutra, “How Electronic Arts Lost Its Soul” at Polygon, and Funding Universe‘s history of Electronic Arts.)

 
 

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