The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic-Adventure Design (or, Why Ron Gilbert Hated Adventure Games)

31 Jul

In addition to the obvious goals of making a hit game and not getting himself fired, one of Ron Gilbert’s implicit goals in making Maniac Mansion was to force a dialog about the sorry state of the nascent art of graphic-adventure design. Sadly, his message wouldn’t be terribly well-heeded by designers other than his own colleagues at Lucasfilm Games for quite some time. Indeed, I have a theory that there have been far more really bad adventure games created than bad examples of any other gaming genre over the years since Gilbert first tried to set the world on a better path. If that is indeed the case, the causes come largely down to two factors.

The first is that it’s uniquely easy to make an unfair — i.e., a bad — adventure game. Adventures are built not from systems of rules that can clearly be whole or broken, fair or unfair to the player, but rather from reams and reams of hand-crafted content. A designer of a strategy or action game can play her own game to get a good idea of whether it works as it should. A designer of an adventure game, who knows all of the puzzles already, cannot. What separates a good puzzle from one that is too obscure? The only way to find out is to put it in front of people. Thus is adventure design, even more so than other forms of game design, hugely dependent on player feedback — the sort of feedback that’s dangerously easy to dismiss or not solicit at all when the budget starts to go into the red and the calendar starts to slip and everyone just wants to be done with a project already.

The other factor also has to do with feedback, albeit of a slightly different kind, and applies more to graphic than to text adventures. The textual interactive-fiction community, the supposed “amateurs” of the adventure genre, have over the decades developed a rich body of critical theory and best practices explaining how to do text adventures right (not that it’s always followed). The critical dialog around graphic adventures, however, has sadly failed the sub-genre. I get so frustrated when I read reviews of adventure games that tell me that, yes, you’ll probably need to play this one from a walkthrough, but it’s a good game, really it is. No. Just no. Interactivity is the point of games, the thing that sets them apart from every other medium. Why should I play a game from a walkthrough when I can just go watch a movie or read a book? Occasionally there might be a broken game that shines so brightly or innovates so wildly in some other way that it’s worth playing just to appreciate what it tries to be. Even here, though, that appreciation should be tempered with the understanding that what’s being played is still a broken game — a bad game. It’s just broken in more interesting ways than other bad games.

The failure of professional reviewers of the 1980s and 1990s to really address the many problems of the games they wrote about, regardless of the genres in question, isn’t that hard to explain. Not only were the publications they wrote for usually supported by advertisements from the companies whose games they reviewed, but the typical reviewer was harried, given precious little time to cobble together an opinion before the next deadline when the hot new games just had to be inside the magazine to drive sales. Publications that required their reviewers to actually finish the games they wrote about were few and far between. These practical realities plagued the critical dialog around all of the gaming genres, but were, once again, almost uniquely problematic in the case of adventure games. Taken in the context of the mid-1980s, games like (for instance) those in Sierra’s King’s Quest and Space Quest series looked great at first blush, colorful and lively and full of possibility. It took more time than many reviewers were willing and/or able to devote to them to divine their tendency to confound and annoy the player who is earnestly playing them to win, to discern how rotten the game-design meat hidden under all of the audiovisual garnishing really is.

When we turn away from the professionals to look at the everyday players who continued to support the genre despite the constant abuses they suffered, the question of why so few adventure games ever seemed to get called out, to get punished for their bad designs becomes more fraught. It’s honestly hard for me to imagine, but there apparently were fans of the genre who actually enjoyed what most people regarded as its most notorious pitfalls. Others were less enthused, but noted with resignation that “that’s just how adventure games are,” and were apparently more willing to lump it than to leave the genre behind. (For what it’s worth, neither group ever included me. I can remember trying to play Space Quest circa 1988, getting stuck, finally tracking down a walkthrough — no easy task back then — and learning that my problem had been that I’d been standing at the wrong angle whilst examining my space capsule. I just knew right then that that was bullshit, and didn’t play another Sierra game for years.)

The dialog amongst actual designers of graphic adventures has likewise been a historically parched one. Once again, this state of affairs is in marked contrast to the active, ever-questioning conversations that have marked practitioners of the art of text-adventure design for decades now. In the realm of the graphic adventure, bold considerations of the state of the sub-genre by its practitioners, like Ron Gilbert’s own indelible “Why Adventure Games Suck,” have always been thin on the ground. The most thoughtful critical commentary has tended to come from people who dislike conventional adventure games on principle, such as Chris Crawford.

As someone who loves a good adventure game, whether done in text or graphics, maybe I can do my modest little something to change the way we talk about the form’s graphical variant. It seems anyway that this is a good time to try, moving in this blog’s timeline as we are into the late 1980s, when graphic adventures were steadily replacing the old text games in the world of commercial software. Because a concrete example is usually worth a thousand abstract words, I’m going to use as exemplars of all the things one shouldn’t do in a graphic adventure two pieces of terrible design craft from 1986, the year before Ron Gilbert’s frustration with the state of the art led him to try to show the industry a better way with Maniac Mansion.

Space Quest

Space Quest, Chapter 1: The Sarien Encounter was one of the first graphic adventures Sierra released that did not bear the King’s Quest name. As the “Chapter 1” attests, the series was conceived from the beginning as the science-fiction parallel to Roberta Williams’s thriving fantasy franchise. This first chapter, like those that followed, was written by Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, a couple of Sierra staffers who knocked together a demo for a science-fiction comedy in their spare time that made Ken Williams laugh — always an excellent way to get him to green-light a project. You play a less than motivated space janitor whose ship gets attacked by aliens, forcing you to rush to an escape pod to get away to the nearest planet. Despite the obvious similarity of the premise to that of Infocom’s Planetfall, Crowe and Murphy have always maintained that they weren’t even aware of Steve Meretzky’s game at the time that they wrote Space Quest. Its wit isn’t quite as sharp as that of Meretzky, much less Douglas Adams, but it’s silly and good-natured in its knowing stupidity, and if the game that houses it didn’t persist in screwing you over all the time — we’ll get to that shortly — it’d be quite a fun little romp.


Uninvited, the second graphic adventure from ICOM Simulations, is a horror entry, a relatively underrepresented fictional genre in adventure games of its day. Its premise is as classic — not to say clichéd — as they come: you’ve wrecked your car on a deserted country road and stagger up to a creepy old mansion looking for help. Created by largely the same people who had made Déjà Vu, it mixes, sometimes rather jarringly, an unsettling Gothic atmosphere with some of the sarcastic humor of that older game. But, as with Space Quest, I’d have little to really complain about if only this game’s design wasn’t more evil than the mansion that houses it.

I want to say something very clearly: Space Quest and Uninvited are bad games. This really does need to be stated just that baldly. Yes, they have their charms in the form of humor, graphics, atmosphere, even a fair number of puzzles each that don’t suck, that could actually be fun to solve. Yet none of that matters in the face of one overriding reality: an adventure game that cannot be solved unaided, or for that matter that can be solved only through sheer doggedness and refusal to give in to tedium, is a bad game.

There’s going to be a lot of snark in what follows directed at our two victims, at least one of which, Space Quest, is actually quite a beloved title amongst nostalgics of the genre. I’m not apologizing for this. These are bad games whose designers should and could have known better; they should have taken their craft more seriously before selling these things to the public for $35 or more a pop, and they could have found plenty of examples of better game designs to emulate if they’d just looked around. I do, however, want to emphasize that this doesn’t mean that the folks who worked at Sierra or ICOM are bad people. John Williams of Sierra in particular has been a great friend of this blog, passing along all kinds of insights about the business of games in the 1980s and Sierra’s place there, and I’m sure that most everyone else at both companies was just doing what seemed best to them. As always when I write criticism, it isn’t personal.

So, with that said, let the snark begin.


The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic-Adventure Design


1. Making puzzles that aren’t solvable through logic or even intuition, only through brute force.

Bad puzzles — not hard puzzles, but bad puzzles — are deadly to a game. Even a single really bad puzzle spoils a game holistically because it means that the player can never trust the game again. Every puzzle that follows will be accompanied by the question of whether it’s worth spending time on or whether it’s just going to be something stupid again. I’m not saying that every player should always be able to solve every puzzle, but I am saying that recourse to the hints should be followed by a sigh and a nod of understanding, not a cry of “How was I supposed to figure that out?” or, even worse, “I’ve just ‘solved’ this puzzle and I still don’t know what actually happened.” An adventure game’s puzzles can never be taken in isolation from either one another or from the rest of the design as a whole, meaning that an adventure can only be as good as its worst puzzle.

Note that I’m not saying that all adventure games should be easy. A difficult game, aimed at the hardcore, is as defensible a creative choice as any other. Still, a fact that all too many designers never grasp is that it’s possible for a game to be hard as nails and yet also to be rigorously fair. (See, for instance, Infocom’s Spellbreaker in the realm of text adventures, or the Myst series in that of graphic adventures.) The conflation of difficulty with unfairness is perhaps the most persistent fallacy in adventure games. The tedious try-everything-on-everything-else mode of play to which it leads has dogged graphic adventures in particular for decades.

Uninvited is a notable offender here. There is for instance the ghost who’s inexplicably afraid of spiders.



A good adventure-game puzzle leaves the player feeling smart.  A bad puzzle, even if solved unaided, just leaves her feeling persistent. That’s a big difference.


2. Cluttering up the game with so much junk that the player has no idea what to do with it all.

The nonsensical puzzles in Uninvited are only compounded by the deadly combination of a limited player inventory and a huge number of takeable objects. Because so many puzzles just don’t make any sense, you have no way of knowing which seemingly useless items amongst all of the innocuous clutter might actually be useful for something. Thus solving a puzzle like the one described above means not just trying everything you’re carrying on the ghost but actually scurrying back and forth in shifts, each time with a new load of objects to try out.


3. Killing the player constantly and without warning.

Frequent, unforeshadowed deaths have always been such a hallmark of Sierra adventures that it almost seems pointless to discuss the subject much further in that context. It was of course this facet of the original King’s Quest that first caused Ron Gilbert to decide that he “hated adventure games” and wanted to make a better one. Writing about Space Quest on his blog, an adventure-game fan who calls himself The Trickster discusses the alleged “hilarity” of all of the constant death: “It’s a credit to the developers that you not only happily restore and try again, but you do so with a big smile on your face.” I must say that I’m not sure that most of the deaths strike me as all that hilarious, but that’s as may be. You know what would really be a credit to the developers if the deaths truly are so intrinsic to their comedy vision? If they rewound the story each time you died to let you automatically continue instead of having to save every three minutes, that’s what.

It’s not often that anyone manages to out-Sierra Sierra in this department, but, astonishingly, Uninvited just about pulls it off. You encounter a ghost…

I encounter a ghost in Uninvited...

…and this happens the next turn if you don’t do the one arbitrary right thing — and no, trying to just back out of the room again won’t save you.

...and this happens the next turn if I don't do the one arbitrary right thing. You can expect to die and a restore a few dozen times here alone before you figure out how to proceed.

You can expect to die and restore a few dozen times here alone before you figure out how to proceed, if you’re even lucky enough to be carrying the item you need in the first place. If not, hope you have a recent save handy. How is this fun again?


4. Locking the player out of victory without her knowledge.

This is perhaps the most problematic and arguable of these sins, in that it comes down to a question of degree and intention more so than any of the others. Many of the bad examples described elsewhere in this article can precipitate this sin as well, but it’s a notoriously hard problem to work around even when a designer makes other, better choices. Virtually all adventure games of the 1980s, including even the best designs from the textual realm of Infocom, offered plenty of opportunities to lock yourself out of victory in the course of their normal interactivity. Those designs that strain the most mightily to make the walking-dead syndrome impossible, like the later adventures of Lucasfilm Games, are often forced to use contrived means that arguably sacrifice too much of that all-important illusion of freedom.

That said, I think we should reserve a special layer of Hell for those designs whose dead ends feel not just like byproducts of their puzzles and other interactive possibilities but rather intentional traps inserted in the name of… what, exactly? Increasing the length of the experience to make the player feel she got her money’s worth? Well, I’m not sure most players will thank you. Both Space Quest and Uninvited are riddled with these sorts of pitfalls that seem to arise from sheer, egregious bloody-mindedness.

Space Quest

Midway through Space Quest, for instance, you encounter a fellow who offers to buy your skimmer (yes, the Force is strong with this game). If you accept his offer, all seems well. The 30 buckazoids he gives you is enough to do the needful, and you can continue merrily on through the plot. Until, that is, you get all the way to the climax, where you gradually discover that you seem to be missing something vital. You needed to refuse his initial offer, holding out for a toss-in jetpack that’s key to winning the game.


When you leave your wrecked car in Uninvited, the first scene you encounter is the “Front Yard” above. If amidst all the excitement you happen to neglect to look in the mailbox tucked away in the right side of the frame, that’s it for you. As soon as you go inside, you become a walking dead, albeit of another stripe from the mansion’s inhabitants: the front door locks behind you, rendering the front yard inaccessible forevermore. Many hours later, you might begin to realize that you missed something somewhere. Now, at first glance this may seem a relatively mild sin compared to the perverse intentionality of the Space Quest example above, a simple result of the interactive nature of adventure games. But think again. Why lock the door behind the player at all? After all, it’s not as if you can actually go anywhere else from here. I can think of two reasons, one being that the designers just wanted to be cruel, the other that they thought it would be good for the atmosphere to be trapped inside the house, and never stopped to consider how this would impact the experience of actually playing the game. Neither does them much credit.


5. Indulging in hunt-the-pixel.

In some ways this sin wouldn’t really come into its own until the 1990s, when screen resolutions increased enough and pixels thus became small enough that it was possible to hide that one fiddly little hotspot inside a detailed scene. Most of us with any experience at all with the sub-genre know and loathe what followed: endless bleary-eyed hours spent slowly painting the screen with the mouse, clicking everywhere. Sierra, still working as they were with their wonky arrow-key-and-parser-driven interface and blocky screens filled with primary colors, couldn’t quite manage that delightful experience in the 1980s. But, never fear, they found other ways to make the player’s life hell that were similar in spirit if not quite in detail.

After crash-landing in your escape capsule in Space Quest, you dutifully examine it. Nothing of note there. Right?

Space Quest

Wrong. You have to not just examine it, but be standing at just the right position whilst doing so. Then, you get this:

Space Quest


6. Prioritizing the simulational over the experiential even when it spoils the game.

Adventure games are not simulations. This fact seems fairly self-evident, yet it’s amazing how many designers manage to forget it. Space Quest and Uninvited aren’t about the real experience of a marooned space janitor or a marooned car-crash victim; they’re experiential gaming in one of its purest forms, ideally offering you interesting puzzles and other interactions in a highly artificial but very exciting, atmospheric environment. There’s no need for elements like the timer in Uninvited that dutifully counts down the hours of the night and kills you if you haven’t cracked the case when a certain number of them have passed. The game is perfectly capable of evoking the delicious tension of exploring a haunted house without actually needing to bring the hammer down — an event that only cheapens the atmosphere anyway in making the unseen horrors seen. Ditto the scant few real-time minutes you have to get off the spaceship at the beginning of Space Quest. One could instead escalate the tension via a narratological approach like that pioneered in Infocom’s Ballyhoo, emphasizing the player’s sense of encroaching doom via little things that occur as she crosses certain milestones in her puzzle-solving and exploring. As it is, the hard timers are just one more annoyance to deal with, forcing her to replay yet again even once she’s bypassed all the other pitfalls in order to optimize her path. It adds nothing to her experience.


7. Actively misleading the player about what she needs to do.


At one point in Uninvited you come upon the scene above, of a grinning disembodied head blocking a passage. The description more than implies that it has something to tell you: “It bounces up and down as if trying to tell you something. However, you can’t figure out what it’s trying to say.” Obviously the puzzle here must to be find a way to communicate. Obviously this creature must have some vital information for you. Right?

Well, no. It turns out that it’s simply sitting on top of an item you need, nothing more. If you happen to be carrying a bird in a cage and fling it at the creature, it becomes “utterly fascinated” and “gives chase to eat it.” Nothing anywhere indicates that it has any special fondness for birds, making this yet another example of a completely inexplicable puzzle solution (ref: Sin #1), but whatever. This puzzle destroys your experience as a player even more so than the usual crappy puzzle because, given Uninvited‘s malicious glee in locking you out of victory as subtly as possible (ref: Sin #4), you’re doomed to spend the rest of the game wondering what more you needed to do here before scaring the creature away. In reality, there’s nothing else you can do — but you can’t know that. And so that nagging worry will remain every time you come upon another puzzle, whether it be sensical or nonsensical, leaving you unable to trust that you aren’t about to beat your head against a puzzle you rendered unsolvable hours ago.

I would guess that this puzzle was not intended to be as cruel as it is. I would further guess that the original puzzle did involve communicating with the creature in some way, that it was changed at some point late in the design, but the text was never updated. Possibly no one ever even thought about it. Still, neglect is no more forgivable than malice in game design. If anything, it only goes to illustrate even more what a slipshod development process this game had. If anyone — anyone — had ever really tried to play Uninvited before its release, it’s hard to imagine how this could have gotten through.


8. Making dynamic events that the player may never see essential to victory.

Space Quest

In Space Quest, the wounded scientist you see above may stagger into your spaceship’s library at the very beginning of the game to deliver a vital message. I say “may” because it’s quite unpredictable when or even whether he will make an appearance. If you know he’s coming, you can be sure to meet him by moving in and out of the room a few times and waiting around therein. If you don’t, however, he’s very easy to miss. This missed connection means that through no fault of your own you will get to spend hours playing through the rest of the game, only to arrive at the climax not understanding how to win and not understanding why you don’t understand. Exactly these sorts of timing issues also made Sierra’s Time Zone from four years before virtually insoluble. I can hardly express how dismaying it is to see Sierra still making these basic design blunders.


9. Confusing diegetic and extra-diegetic functions.

Space Quest

For some reason — maybe because the code was already written? — Sierra loved to put little gambling minigames into their adventures. The problem here is that gambling is obviously dictated by chance, and with a built-in advantage to the house at that, and thus the sums you need to earn require either an astronomical run of good luck or an endless, tedious cycle of saving after wins and restoring after losses. If Sierra must include these minigames — and they can actually be kind of fun in limited doses — why not have the game put a thumb on the scales when necessary to make sure you can’t go bankrupt through no fault of your own and that you can always win the money you need to before the whole thing becomes unbearably boring? Far from doing you any such kindnesses, Sierra instead added a little poison pill to Space Quest just to make the experience extra ugly: if the slot machine comes up all death’s heads, guess what happens (ref: Sin #3).


10. Indulging in guess-the-verb.

Just as hunt-the-pixel is confined to graphic adventures, you might think that guess-the-verb applies only to text adventures. You would, alas, be wrong. Both of our suspects today found a way to implement every text-adventure player’s bête noire, each in its own way. Space Quest, like most Sierra adventures of this period, actually combines the mechanics of a graphic and a text adventure by including a primitive parser for issuing commands that leaves much to be desired, but does manage to shoehorn both hunt-the-pixel and guess-the-verb into the same game.


But the real star of the two in this department is Uninvited, which despite offering just eight clickable verbs to choose from still manages to confound and frustrate its player. You might think you need to “operate” the water taps in the bathroom, but, no, you have to “open” and “close” them. Later versions corrected this, proof that a) the difficulty arose from carelessness rather than malice and b) that no one had ever actually played Uninvited before it got released (I think we’ve heard both of these before).


11. Requiring fiddly and arbitrary text inputs without clarifying what is needed.

Again, you might think that this syndrome would be confined to text adventures. Again, you’d be wrong.


At one point in Uninvited you need to enter the combination to a safe. Trouble is, even once you think you’ve figured out what the combination should be you don’t know what format the game expects. (It turns out to be XX-XX-XX, for anyone unwise enough to be playing along at home.) So, you’re left to not only contend with piecing together three numbers from clues spread all over the game and then trying to guess their order, but you can never feel quite sure whether a rejected input was rejected because you actually had the wrong combination or because you didn’t type it in using the exact format the game expects. Would it have killed the designers to allow a range of possible formats? And weren’t graphic adventures supposed to get us beyond stuff like this?


12. Insulting your player, especially after you’re the jerk who’s just capriciously and unfairly killed her.

This is my personal pet peeve.

Space Quest

At the beginning of Space Quest, your ship is beset with marauding bands of space pirates who, if they catch up to you, shoot you down instantly. A message that “you hear footsteps” is the vital clue that you have a few seconds to seek cover, but often, if you’re caught in the middle of an open room, there’s just nowhere to go (ref: Sin #3). After it kills you, the game adds insult to injury via the charming message above. Screw you too, game. No, really. Screw you.


13. Not paying any attention to any of the games anyone else is making.

A quote from Ken Williams, co-founder of Sierra, upon being asked about his own reaction to Lucasfilm’s Maniac Mansion:

We were fairly phobic about playing or studying competitors’ products. I refused to hire anyone who had worked at a competitor, and really didn’t want our team focused on competitors’ products. Sierra always tried to consider ourselves as leaders, and wanted to forge our own path into the world. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of watching what competitors did and then releasing a “me too” product a year later. That’s a formula for disaster.

Even leaving aside the vaguely passive-aggressive quality of these words, I’m rendered speechless. I found this attitude breathlessly wrong-headed back when Scott Adams expressed it, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Ken Williams. What kind of work could one expect from a novelist who never reads novels? From a musician who never listens to music? In the case of games, what you can expect — from the companies helmed by Scott Adams and Ken Williams alike — is a stream of “products” that relentlessly continue to make the same mistakes over and over, blissfully unaware that others have demonstrated how to do it so much better. No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and to imagine that being culturally aware of the very creative form that you’ve chosen to make your career equates to becoming a follower rather than a leader is, to borrow from Ken, “a formula for disaster” in terms of good game design if not the commercial market. I’ve learned again so many times whilst researching for this blog how the best designers, the makers of the best games, are characterized by an openness to the world around them, a willingness to play and study “competitors’ products” that’s just the opposite of the sentiment expressed here, all in order to meld those ideas with their own to create a better whole. See, for instance, Sid Meier, who has always been very forthright about the huge debt his masterpiece Pirates! owes to Danielle Bunten Berry’s innovative but not-quite-there-yet Seven Cities of Gold. A creative form can’t hope to develop without this sort of cultural dialog. This is simply how the culture of creativity works.

Small wonder, then, that so many Sierra games were so broken. It’s a miracle that their track record wasn’t worse. One of the most frustrating things about early graphic adventures is that most of the problems from which they suffered had already been encountered, discussed, and at least to some extent solved by Infocom. After all, graphic and text adventures share enough in common that all but one or two items on this list apply equally to both. Yet here were the graphic-adventure designers starting again from square one, doomed to repeat design mistakes due to their unwillingness to consider the lessons of a closely related sub-genre.

But then, the games industry has always fetishized technological developments at the expense of the fundamentals of good game design. One can’t help but think here of Ken Williams’s longstanding “ten-foot rule” — “If someone says WOW! when they see the screen from ten feet away, you have them sold.” — a philosophy that neatly sums up everything good and bad about Sierra over the course of almost two decades as a leading light in adventure games. In an extended 2007 conversation with Warren Spector, Richard Garriott of Ultima fame described how in his opinion the industry’s obsession with the technology that goes into game-making serves as a continual reset button on the basics of game design.

Each time you get one of those major technology influxes, the quality of the graphics goes way up but the gameplay goes back to the simplest again because the bells and whistles have become so much cooler that you don’t need any depth. However, to compete with that [technologically pioneering title] you have to add depth, and to compete with that you have to add more depth, etc., until the next big technological advancement, when everything resets again back to that lowest common denominator of gameplay.

The arrival of marvelous new technologies for making graphic adventures — the ICOM engine, Sierra’s AGI, Lucasfilm’s SCUMM — served to blow away a growing library of design wisdom as if it had never existed, leading to games like Space Quest and Uninvited that tried to survive on the bells and whistles of their technological gimmicks alone. Back in the late 1980s, with the punters eager to show off the audiovisual capabilities of their new 16-bit machines, perhaps that was good enough. But in the context of today it certainly isn’t, leaving us with nothing more than — one more time, with feeling — two really bad adventure games.


14. Not soliciting player feedback.

Not listening to your peers is one thing, but not listening to your own players is quite another. This is the deadliest sin of all, the most surefire way to make a bad adventure game.

The adventure genre is sometimes characterized as a contest between designer and player, but that’s entirely the wrong way to look at it, for in such a contest the deck must always be hopelessly stacked in favor of the designer. It’s simplicity itself to design an unwinnable adventure game: just include some necessary interaction that’s so bizarre, so obscure that no player would ever try it. We as players are dependent on the designer’s good-faith willingness to play fair with us, her ability to pose problems that are satisfyingly challenging but reasonable and solvable. That’s a tough balance to find, one that can only be attained by putting a game in front of lots of eyes, getting lots and lots of player feedback. Testing is vital to any other form of game, but with adventures it can mean everything. A terrible adventure can become a great one following just a few weeks of testing. In no other genre is the line between success and failure so fine. Tell me whether and how much testing an adventure has received and I can generally tell you, right there and then, whether it’s an adventure that’s worth playing.

Sierra’s testing process for Space Quest can be summed up easily: there wasn’t one. No, really. It wasn’t until 1987’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards that Sierra started putting their games through a testing period. Even afterward, testing was too often shortened or dropped when market pressures demanded. I don’t have the same specific knowledge of ICOM, but given Uninvited‘s constant crimes against its player I’d be shocked to learn that they bothered to collect any feedback at all on it.

Much as I hate to always be using Infocom as a bludgeon with which to beat Sierra and others, I have to make note of the huge contrast between Sierra on the one hand and Infocom on the other when it comes to testing. Infocom had by far the most extensive and serious testing program in the industry. By 1985 their internal testing department numbered around ten employees, who would spend many hours each with each new game. This would be followed by two rounds of outside testing involving a total of about fifteen to twenty loyal Infocom customers. Sierra, in contrast, did… nothing. This meant that they had no idea how people were actually experiencing the games they made. Sierra’s technology was looking pretty snazzy by the late 1980s, Infocom’s (at least at first glance) pretty moldy, but can you guess which company made better games?


(The first three Space Quest games — and, in another package, the last three — can be purchased from Uninvited is available on Steam.)


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110 Responses to The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic-Adventure Design (or, Why Ron Gilbert Hated Adventure Games)

  1. Anonymous

    July 31, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    s/what you can except/what you can expect/

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 1, 2015 at 6:31 am


    • Michael

      September 7, 2015 at 9:37 pm

      I’m probably late to the party with my 2 cents, but this topic is a pet peeve of mine. Space Quest II was one of my first games ever on a PC when I was but a wee 10-year-old, shortly followed by SQ1, and I loved them to death. I finished both games without help from a walkthrough and without ever having had a single english lesson in my life (my mother tongue is Swiss German). How hard could these games have been, really? Never will I forget e.g. that flesh eating plant which just gulped you up on that alien planet when you walked nearby. I screamed in shock at first before laughing out loud and after that I was very much getting the point that I was stranded in this dangerous, unhospitable world, and it sent warm shivers down my spine. Much has been lamented in later years about the unfairness and questionable design choices of those earlier Sierra adventures and I too, in part, see, where those people are coming from. I never agreed though that dying in Sierra games was only just a frustrating experience to me. It was in no small part the looming possibility of a gruesome death which made me care about those games. How did the later, more sensible design philosophies (with some notable exceptions like Lucasfilm/-arts, of course) improve upon the adventure genre, really? By giving us the dreaded pixel hunt (which, granted, you address as well)? Wandering endless rooms, all alike and mostly bare of anything interesting, just because increasing disk space allowed for it? Heroes who refused to do anything even remotely interesting or dangerous with a snarky “That would just be stupid”? To hell I said! If I want to jump off a cliff, the game better let me do it! And how is it that everybody was suddenly so quick to dismiss dying and retrying as bad game design in adventure games, when barely anybody ever felt the same with action, arcade games or platformers like Mario (I know, you in particular are not fond of those genees, but many people were), where you died a thousand deaths by turtle shells who just hit you out of freaking nowhere? What was so hard to grasp about the concept of “save early, save often”? It took two keystrokes to save a Sierra game, for pete’s sake! In reality, the playtime lost in an adventure game was generally much less than in other games where you had to start at the beginning of a level / mission / whatever. This goes even more so for interactive fiction, where you could basically breeze through half the game from your memory, without even having to wait for your alter ego to traverse a screen.

      Sorry for the rant though! I enjoy your blog immensely, keep up the good work!

      • Peter Piers

        February 1, 2016 at 6:49 pm

        I like your points about saving. “Save early / save often” was also a requirement in most of Infocom’s games, and would remain a good idea for quite a while later. Curses!, anyone? That from 1993?

        • Johannes Paulsen

          August 26, 2016 at 4:13 pm

          Yes, but remember, this was also at a time when disk space was at a premium, players were limited to an eight-character filename, and didn’t have a handy “browse” menu to check metadata if they didn’t recall what the names represented.

          Frankly, Infocom was one of the more egregious practitioners for some of those sins. Some of the earlier games were terrible with the “game has become unwinnable” issue.

      • Pawel

        March 17, 2018 at 5:13 pm

        Same here. SQ1 great game! no walkthrough needed at any point. I have spend long time on the planet trying to figure out how to kill mechanic spider. It was possible to kill it with a rock or lure it into a cave with monster and hide so they killed each other. Walkthroughs ruin games. You can spend 2 hours with a walkthrough or 3 weeks without one. I was 13 and from Poland . Had to play with dictionary.

  2. Howard Lewis Ship

    July 31, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    There’s a typo where you say “except” rather than “expect”.

    • iPadCary

      July 31, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      That’s your takeaway from all this ….?

      Examplary work, as per usual, Jimmy!
      Incendentally, I tweeted Ron Gilbert the link to this article.
      Hopefully, he’ll respond here.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 1, 2015 at 6:31 am


      • iPadCary

        August 1, 2015 at 2:42 pm

        My pleasure, Sir!

  3. Dominia

    July 31, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Brought back some memories. Not all of them good. For the exact reasons you specified. Great post.

  4. Guybrush

    July 31, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    Good article. I feel like I’ve seen almost all these problems in games outside the adventure category as well.

  5. Keith Palmer

    August 1, 2015 at 12:39 am

    When you got to the first LucasArts adventure and specifically contrasted it to the Sierra graphics adventures, I did contemplate a bit how you hadn’t been talking about those previous games since King’s Quest 1. I suppose this post is that much more of an explanation than that you’re trying to get through each year of history in only so much real time and have to pick and choose what you look at. (In any case, I have to admit the Sierra adventures were where I started really twigging to how there were other computers, with other games, than the one my family had, although that might have helped make the LucasArts adventures that much more interesting to me when I did have a chance to play the mid-period ones.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 1, 2015 at 7:53 am

      It’s a bit of this and a bit of that really. Contrary to what you might think from this article, I do prefer to focus on good games that I actually like. Also, I’m not sure how much there really is to *say* about about, say, each new iteration of King’s Quest. The articles would just devolve into the same litany of complaints, over and over.

      That said, my next couple of articles will be going back to Sierra, one to look at how they continued to recover from their near-death during the mid-1980s largely via games based on the AGI engine, and the other on a certain leisure-suit-wearing fellow who just cannot be ignored. :)

      It’s not that I think Sierra’s entire catalog is worthless — not at all — but I generally find that the games that were created a bit further from the core bubble of SQ/KQ/PQ/LSL are more interesting and better designed. I think the Quest for Glory games, for instance, do what they do superbly. So, going forward I suspect I’ll be writing in-depth articles largely about games like those that I can unabashedly celebrate rather than the more core series, but will continue to keep tabs on Sierra as a business concern and the huge technical innovations they continually brought to the industry thanks to Ken Williams’s “ten-foot rule.”

      • James

        August 3, 2015 at 4:26 am

        YAY! Looking forward to you discussing more Sierra games. :)

      • jay

        August 3, 2015 at 9:34 am


        A really wonderful series.

      • Alex Freeman

        August 8, 2015 at 3:33 am

        Hey, I love your website, Maher, and am a long-time reader of it, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with some of your points, particularly about Space Quest:

        “Frequent, unforeshadowed deaths have always been such a hallmark of Sierra adventures that it almost seems pointless to discuss the subject much further in that context. It was of course this facet of the original King’s Quest that first caused Ron Gilbert to decide that he ‘hated adventure games’ and wanted to make a better.”
        What unforeshadowed deaths are there in the original King’s Quest? I’ve played it and didn’t notice any.

        “4. Locking the player out of victory without her knowledge.
        Midway through Space Quest, for instance, you encounter a fellow who offers to buy your skimmer…”
        I actually agree with that point. When I played the game, I first just said yes to the offer but a little later, just on a whim, I decided to restore and see what would happen if I turned down the offer. I was quite surprised to find out that I got a jetpack. I thought it was a REALLY good thing I did that!

        “5. Indulging in hunt-the-pixel.
        After crashing-landing in your escape capsule in Space Quest, you dutifully examine it. Nothing of note there. Right? Wrong. You have to not just examine it, but be standing at just the right position whilst doing so.”
        Hmm.. I don’t remember that being a problem for me, I must have gotten lucky.

        “6. Prioritizing the simulational over the experiential even when it spoils the game.
        Ditto the scant few real-time minutes you have to get off the spaceship at the beginning of Space Quest.”
        I completely disagree with you there. I easily got out in time on my first try (well, not counting deaths due to other things like getting shot) because there’s plenty of time. I would argue a time limit does a better job of adding a sense of urgency and suspense. Granted, that can be taken too far, but I wouldn’t say Space Quest does that.

        “8. Making dynamic events that the player may never see essential to victory.
        In Space Quest, the wounded scientist you see above may stagger into your spaceship’s library at the very beginning of the game to deliver a vital message. I say ‘may’ because it’s quite unpredictable when or even whether he will make an appearance.”
        I guess I must have gotten lucky there too because the scientist appearing was never a problem for me.

        “9. Confusing diegetic and extra-diegetic functions…”
        I totally agree with you there. I remember thinking it was so stupid to have a luck-based game in the game. As if that weren’t bad enough, you can be robbed without warning if you win!

        “10. Indulging in guess-the-verb.
        Space Quest, like most Sierra adventures of this period, actually combines the mechanics of a graphic and a text adventure by including a primitive parser for issuing commands that leaves much to be desired, but does manage to shoehorn both hunt-the-pixel and guess-the-verb into the same game.”
        I strongly disagree with you there. SIerra’s parser wasn’t as sophisticated as Infocom’s but having to guess the verb in a Sierra game is as rare for me as it is in an Infocom game.

        • Jimmy Maher

          August 8, 2015 at 7:10 am

          In the first King’s Quest, if you don’t line up your character pixel-perfect with the bridge going into the castle on the first screen of the game, you fall into the moat and die. The pattern continues like that throughout the game — the infuriating maze that is trying to get up the beanstalk, the underwater sequence, etc.

          As far as the rest… horses for courses, I suppose. :) Glad you like the blog in general!

          • Alex Freeman

            August 9, 2015 at 1:06 am

            OK, I think I see what you mean. You’re referring to the arcade-like aspect of King’s Quest. I thought you meant deaths without warning like getting killed for picking something up when you’d have no reason at all to think picking it up would kill you or dying the instant you enter some room.

            If, by the underwater sequence, you mean how you can drown after diving into the water in the well if you stay underwater too long, I don’t think I’d actually count that, though, since it’s well known there’s a limit one can hold one’s breath. I’d say a better example would actually be diving into the swamp in Space Quest 2 since you have to tell Roger Wilco to hold his breath before diving in even though it should be a given he’d do something that obvious on his own.

          • Calthaer

            July 15, 2016 at 3:59 pm

            Well, there was that time in King’s Quest when you have to roll away a stone and get the dagger in a hole underneath…the stone only moves one way, and if you’re standing in the way of it when you move it – you die. But why aren’t you pushing the stone away from wherever you happen to be standing? I wholeheartedly agree with everything in this article.

        • Pinkhair

          January 10, 2017 at 9:43 am

          From what I recall, at least a few of the Sierra games included a full list of all verbs required to win the game in the manual. (The only one I have a manual handy to confirm is KQIV.)

          Of course, as much as I liked that game it had a couple of terrible bits too- the whale tongue, the invisible whistle…

          • Lisa H.

            January 10, 2017 at 7:46 pm

            Invisible bridle, maybe? IIRC the whistle is quite visible, although since it’s just a sparkle on the screen it’s frustrating to try to guess what noun to use to pick it up if you don’t already know what it is.

            There is a list of possible verbs in the manual, but I don’t know if it’s a complete one (certainly not all of them are necessary). The manual doesn’t present them that way, in any case: “King’s Quest IV understands a wide variety of verbs such as”. I suppose some of them are specific enough that their presence in the list might provide a hint in some cases (“bait”, for instance).

  6. hizam mohd

    August 1, 2015 at 2:53 am

    i remember the first legend of kyrandia and one of the last few puzzles was being in a room with books of names and what i thought was their attributes. so i tried pulling books based on the order i met each characters and all. nothing works and i just got stuck.

    a decade later found a walkthrough in the internet that mentions the solution was to pull out the books with first character of the title to spell ‘open’. duh.

    i still think its an awesome game though.

  7. Rahul

    August 1, 2015 at 3:16 am


    I agree with all of your points.

    Space Quest is still a lot of fun. Because it breaks all the rules and doesn’t care because it’s about being a ridiculous satirical sci-fi comedy, not a great game. The unfairness is part of what’s so memorable about it. Who doesn’t remember the random death by Sarien on each screen of the Arcada? Or how they blithely messed with the player by having things on the map that serve no purpose but to kill you? I’m talking about you, random hole in the wall! It was crude, but there was more there than just “bad game design” . There was intent.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 1, 2015 at 7:15 am

      I’m not quite sure I can agree you about the intentionality of Space Quest’s design choices. If I could manage to see it as a sort of Kafka-esque statement on the absurdities of life or at least of science fiction, I could manage to give it credit for artistry if not playability. But the fact is that almost all of the Sierra games of the 1980s functioned exactly this way. This means that Sierra was either employing an awful lots of Kafka fans or else there was something else going on, like a blind acceptance that this was how they had always made adventure games, going all the way back to Mystery House, and there was no reason to change.

      I also can’t see it as a satire. Satire uses humor to say something about its target and/or about the world. All of the callbacks in Space Quest just serve as goofy homages, shout-outs to nerd culture. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — as I said, it has a likeable enough personality when it’s not screwing you over — but I do think we should be careful not to credit it with a sophistication it doesn’t really evince. Douglas Adams (at times) wrote satire; Space Quest, much as it may resemble his work at first glance, is just broad comedy.

  8. Mike

    August 1, 2015 at 3:18 am

    So I agree with most of this article… but when it goes off about how bad Space Quest is, and how it violates every rule of game design, well, like I say: on the one hand, I agree. On the other hand, Space Quest being bad wasn’t at all my lived experience.

    And here’s the key thing about my experience: Space Quest came out when I was 10 years old.

    At 10 years old, I had all the time in the world and not a lot of money. So if I spent $39 for a game, I sure as heck didn’t want it to be over quickly. I wanted to play it a lot, over a period of months. And for a game like adventure games, that means it needed to be unfair.

    That puzzle the article talks about where you had to be standing in the right place when examining the pod? I did stumble on that, eventually, and it was super-exciting. It didn’t feel unfair, it felt like I’d just made a new discovery of something I thought I’d mined out already. That dude who offers to buy your skimmer, but who’ll go on to offer a jetpack if you turn him down? I didn’t just make a decision willy-nilly! I saved, and made both decisions, and took the one that worked out better. The random timed events? I encountered them eventually, replaying those parts of the games over and over.

    The fun for ten-year-old me playing games like this (and the similarly unfair and beloved-by-me Zorks) was that I could be sitting at school, and suddenly I’d have an idea about something that maybe I hadn’t tried, and I’d get home and rush to the computer and try that thing out, and maybe I hadn’t even played it for weeks, because I was so hopelessly stuck on it, but now here I am, loading it up again, getting more “fun” out of it.

    (It is literally the case that I played most adventure games, on and off, for years. I’m actually not sure I’ve ever finished any of the Zork games to this day, but I put countless hours into each of the first three, over nearly a decade.)

    As an adult, of course, I have zero patience for that, and can fully appreciate that these designs really are deeply awful. But when I was a kid, these “broken” things were actually plusses for me. An elegant game with a more-finite set of actions, clearly defined choices, and no way to get hopelessly stuck over and over would have been a disappointingly short game that failed to engage me over months and years. The broken-ness was a big part of the appeal.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 1, 2015 at 7:40 am

      It is important to consider these games in the context of their times, so thanks for providing some. And I do agree that it’s very hard for us to recapture as modern adults the ways kids in the 1980s actually experienced many games, and that this can create a disconnect. (It’s one I tried pretty hard to address in my article on Ultima IV: That’s another game with some unfortunate design choices that nevertheless changed the lives of many of its original players.)

      I would just say, however, that I think there were other, better ways even back then for adventure games to give you much the experience you describe. Maniac Mansion, for instance, is far from trivial despite being generally fair, being full of intricate chains of interdependent puzzles that require quite some thought and, shall we say, “background processing” during the day to solve. And then of course there’s all of the different characters you can choose, with each combination offering a new set of challenges. I’d even argue that Maniac Mansion sends a youngster a better message about the world: that it’s complicated and intricate and often baffling, but if you apply yourself you can figure it out and make a place for yourself by using your head. Sierra games, in contrast, just say that if you use your head in another way, beating it relentlessly against enough brick walls, eventually you’ll get somewhere. Okay, I suppose both apply sometimes. :)

    • Lex Spoon

      August 12, 2015 at 2:01 pm

      I’m struggling with the same conflict. I agree with the individual points about good game design, but Space Quest I usually list as one of the better Sierra text-adventure games. In part, I liked it for the immersion. For comparison, in the day I’d put Below the Root, Robot Odyssey, and Starflight also way up the list. In all of these, it felt like I was exploring an interesting universe.

      To contrast, I remember Hitchiker’s Guide being much worse than any of the Quest games. I remember Myst (a little later) being very beautiful, but not feeling immersive at all–it seemed like a completely crazy collection of puzzles. And Zork I found very sterile and lifeless. Now, I played all of these anyway!

      To call out one point in particular, I’m impressed how little the save/reload cycle has been addressed over time. I recently played Assassin’s Creed and realized how nice it can be when a game is designed so that you can always undo anything, and thus you never have to hit save or reload manually. It’s a problem with most games even through today.

  9. Peter Piers

    August 1, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Graham Nelson’s Bill of Player Rights.

    The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic-Adventure Design.

    These are the two documents every game desginer – mostly adventure game designers, of course, but not JUST them – should have on the wall just atop their working desk. Framed. Written in BIG font type. With some neon around it.

  10. Oql

    August 1, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    Actually Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy are both on record (in various interviews, podcasts, etc.) saying they hadn’t heard about Planetfall until well after Space Quest I came out.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 2, 2015 at 7:49 am

      That’s… wow. That’s one hell of a coincidence then. I could see two games independently coming up with the idea of a science-fiction comedy that begins aboard a doomed spaceship under attack, what with the popularity of Douglas Adams and those iconic opening scenes of Star Wars. But to have the protagonist also be a space janitor? Yeah… wow.

      But I have no reason to doubt their word, so I’ll make some edits to the article. Thanks!

      • Pedro Timóteo

        August 2, 2015 at 8:55 am

        My guess is that the idea of playing as a janitor just meant to both writing teams “not a conventional hero”.

        Also, SQ goes out of its way to make your character a loser (“that’s right, a janitor. And not a good one.”), who regularly sleeps while on shift, which I don’t remember Planetfall doing (in it, you were mostly bullied by your superior — in SQ, you don’t even have one as an in-game character).

      • whomever

        August 3, 2015 at 4:49 pm

        I think Janitor is a pretty obvious choice, as it occupies the default role of “low level service schlub” in US culture; it’s either that or fast-food cook (see, eg, Spongebob Squarepants), but that makes little sense in the context of a spaceship.

        • Andrew

          August 8, 2015 at 7:58 pm

          Red Dwarf (the BBC TV series) also goes down that route – I’m not sure if Lister (third-class technician) qualifies as a ‘space janitor’ but it’s close. He’s definitely the lowest ranked human on the ship.

          • Iggy Drougge

            August 9, 2015 at 12:09 am

            Isn’t also the protagonist of Future Wars a window polisher?

  11. Joule

    August 1, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Well, I suppose that depends on how you define “amateur” and “professional”, right? On one hand, strictly speaking, professional refers to whether it is one’s profession, but on the other hand, it is also used to mean “meeting or exceeding high standards”. So a professionally made adventure game — that is to say, a probably-commercial one made as the goal of some people’s jobs — could be decidedly unprofessional in its standards.

    The etymology of “amateur” probably applies here :P

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 2, 2015 at 7:54 am

      Yeah, that’s kind of why I put “amateur” in quotes. ;)

  12. picklefactory

    August 1, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Ken Williams: “We were fairly phobic about playing or studying competitors’ products. I refused to hire anyone who had worked at a competitor, and really didn’t want our team focused on competitors’ products.”

    Garth Marenghi: “I’m one of the few people you’ll meet who’s written more books than they’ve read.”

    • Brian Bagnall

      August 2, 2015 at 12:03 am

      A fellow Darkplace fan! I invariably rewatch that series every few years.

  13. picklefactory

    August 1, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    I had the same reaction to King’s Quest V that you did to Space Question (I think I’m a bit younger than you and that may account for it). Someone told me about the cheese after I’d gotten somehow most of the way through the game, and I just remember thinking: “This game is bullshit.”

    I think this is why games like Dark Souls and Nethack can be attractive — the game isn’t upfront about exactly how it works, but once you’ve learned a game mechanic or a rule, the game always abides by it.

  14. Dave Grebe

    August 1, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    Sierra deserves special mention for those one screen mazes that don’t relate to the picture on screen in any meaningful way. The King’s Quest beanstalk was the first but at least that one was avoidable. Those mazes alone keep me from playing most Sierra games to this day.

  15. Andrew Plotkin

    August 1, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    I have a long-standing theory — I should put “theory” in quotes, because it’s pulled out of my butt rather than any kind of systematic investigation — I never even played most of Sierra’s games —

    Let me start again.

    I have a long-standing theory that the third-person graphical adventure genre, the Lucas/Sierra group, took a turn towards comedy *because* of this early history with lousy design.

    The players and the authors all knew there was a problem, even if they didn’t conceptualize it as a design problem. The stereotype of the ridiculously-unsolvable adventure game was well embedded in computer-user culture. While Infocom was somewhat tarred with the same brush, I think there was a general understanding that Infocom was somehow doing a better job.

    Without a conceptual framework like a “player’s bill of rights”, how do you deal with a flawed design process? Self-satire. You play up the silly nature of the game’s situations and solutions. That leads to a comedic approach to the whole writing process, and you wind up with a subgenre that’s mostly (though not universally) comedy.

    …Or maybe it’s just that Ron Gilbert liked writing comedy and the schtick stuck. Like I said, this is not a deeply-researched theory.

    • Brian Bagnall

      August 2, 2015 at 12:13 am

      Maybe you are laying down some Ron Gilbert bait here to elicit a reply from him, but I’ve heard him say pretty much the same thing. It’s the absurd puzzles that undermine serious games in his view. Why would someone in a realistic game be jamming his pockets full of every item he comes across? The only way it works is with self aware comedy. Not sure if I agree with him. Players of the genre just accept it the way the 1 vs 12 trope is accepted in kung fu movies.

      • Pedro Timóteo

        August 2, 2015 at 9:10 am

        Glbert has addressed the “pick up everything that isn’t nailed down” issue on his blog, where he says it’s important to introduce the problems *before* their solutions. In other words, if there’s a locked door, the player goes looking for a key, but it doesn’t make sense to find and pick up a key before you’ve seen a door.

        I’ve also seen other, more recent games where your character refuses to pick up random items (“what would I do with a…?”) before he/she knows of a need for them.

      • Scott S.

        August 13, 2015 at 11:33 am

        Agreed. There’s no joy in simply running around and picking everything up unless there’s a purpose for everything (or if you have an ‘unlimited’ inventory), much like there’s no joy in throwing every object at a puzzle in order to find a solution, esp. when the relationship between the object(s) and the problem isn’t obvious. That approach results in pure joyless games like Atari’s SwordQuest games.

        As for tropes in games or movies, they’re only ‘acceptable’ because people keep paying for them (ie they work, financially). Tropes are nothing more than a bag of excuses that lazy writers reach into, instead of putting some effort into creating something original. When you see a busload of people dangling off a bridge in the latest action movie, you know you’ve already seen this movie before and only the names have changed.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 2, 2015 at 8:04 am

      Yeah, as Brian said, Ron Gilbert actually has addressed this very issue from time to time. He doesn’t see the genre’s fixation on comedy as stemming from bad game design so much as the absurdity of most of what you do in an adventure game, particularly one of the collect-and-use-stuff-on-other-stuff stripe favored by Lucasfilm and to some extent Sierra. I think he would say that that sort of cartoon logic just jars horribly if the fictional premise is itself not cartoonish.

      I can see what he’s talking about, much as I feel a bit sad to see the genre limited so much in what it can be and do. I remember playing Syberia some years ago. It wanted to be a wistful meditation on a lost Europe that never really was, and succeeded pretty well until suddenly you were constructing fishing rods to pull things out of fountains and the like. Major, major disconnect between gameplay and story/atmosphere.

      On the other hand, I do think the “dude, it’s just a comedy!” defense is used far too often to excuse puzzles that don’t make sense and bad design in general…

  16. Grismath

    August 1, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Great article!

  17. Markus Peter

    August 2, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Adventure Games managed for years to actually give players’ the feeling, it’s their own fault if they don’t figure it out. Which is probably the reason, why deficiencies such as these have been tolerated for so long.

    I remember, this only changed for me the day when I actually managed to play through my first game without any kind of walkthroughs, when I actually noticed the immense difference in satisfaction I had about the game vs other adventures I played before.

  18. shemthepen

    August 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    An excellent article here, but I’d say #4 is far and away the worst of these issues. The idea of being locked out of victory for some minor point that you missed way back at the beginning is infuriating. I can take deaths, bad parsers, illogical puzzles, etc but #4 is quite literally a game breaker to me.

    I think KQ5 had a point where you had to catch a rat or something and if you missed it you were screwed. As soon as I found that out, it ruined the whole experience because every puzzle was tainted with the possibility that I already missed the solution. It ruined the fun.

    Maniac Mansion is first game I think of that ups the challenge/complexity and might even throw in some dead ends, but it makes the experimentation fun.

    • Andrew Plotkin

      August 3, 2015 at 1:19 am

      But as Jimmy says, #4 is the most arguable. It’s the “sin” that was clearly *not* a matter of poor testing, or inattentive design, or failure to look at other adventure games. Infocom wrote games this way on purpose; everybody did.

      There’s an attitude shift which is both obvious and hard to describe. The obvious: you played the game with restarts and restores and a collection of save files. That’s how it worked. The real difference… something about the difference between a flashlight and a lit room. Is the entire game sequence “live” in your mind, or only the spot you’re looking at?

      Certainly if you assume the game is written one way and your assumption is violated, that puts a big spike in your experience. But that’s not a failure of game design; it’s a failure of genre communication.

      You can imagine a player who refused to leave a room while solving a puzzle. “If all the parts of the solution aren’t visible on the spot, the puzzle is unfair.” (I have heard someone describing Myst as a bad game for this reason.) That’s the kind of attitude shift we’re talking about.

      • Duncan Stevens

        August 3, 2015 at 1:54 pm

        But as Jimmy says, #4 is the most arguable. It’s the “sin” that was clearly *not* a matter of poor testing, or inattentive design, or failure to look at other adventure games. Infocom wrote games this way on purpose; everybody did.

        My possibly uninformed impression (because I played very few non-Infocom games back in the day) is that Infocom was somewhat less egregious about this. If you followed the “pick up everything that isn’t nailed down” approach, which is something most players learn to do pretty quickly for reasons of convenience if nothing else, you were usually safe. There were other ways of locking yourself out of victory, but usually they involved wasting a resource (in a way that wasn’t even useful) or leaving a puzzle obviously unsolved before leaving an area in a one-way fashion. (E.g., the beginning of Sorcerer, where you do need to solve a puzzle to get an object before you go to the area where the bulk of the game happens. It’s not blindingly obvious that you’ll need the object, but it’s reasonably clear in the usual “here’s a puzzle, I should solve it” way.) Some of Infocom’s games allowed you to solve a puzzle the “wrong” way, but there was often a warning to that effect (e.g., opening the box in Enchanter).

        There were some not-so-good exceptions, but the bulk of them, in my memory, were in the early games. Zork III’s earthquake, Zork I’s “squeaky room” (game unsolvable if you don’t bring in the right object), and Zork II’s “fluoresce” spell are the ones that come to mind. (Deadline and Suspended are in many ways much worse, but the game model there is so different that the comparison is almost irrelevant.)

        • Jimmy Maher

          August 3, 2015 at 2:25 pm

          Oddly, some of the bad habits from the early days did begin to creep back into the latter Infocom games. Beyond Zork is particularly bad about this. See for instance the mother and baby hungus puzzle. Just about *everyone* is going to want to save the baby right away, and thus lock themselves out of solving the crocodile’s eye puzzle. It’s so blatant that it almost does feel deliberately malicious in the same way as the puzzles I described in this article proper. It’s particularly problematic because Beyond Zork in the early going never really gives any indication that it’s going to be *that* kind of game — until suddenly it is.

          My own theory, which I’ll be getting to in proper detail when I turn back to Infocom in just a few more articles now, is that suddenly being expected to produce twice as many games with the same personnel had a real effect on Infoocm’s legendarily thorough *processes* for making adventure games — how could it not, really? — and stuff like this, along with some just generally bad puzzles in the likes of Hollywood Hijinx and Nord and Bert, were the result.

          • Duncan Stevens

            August 3, 2015 at 3:01 pm

            See for instance the mother and baby hungus puzzle

            Ah, I’d forgotten that one. And you’re right–I did exactly that, and had to backtrack much later. (It’s an easy trap to fall into because saving the baby hungus is a relatively simple puzzle–it’s obvious what to do as soon as you have the levitation wand–whereas the crocodile’s tear puzzle is pretty hard and relies on all sorts of unforeseeable stuff happening. I’d call it the worst puzzle in the game by a mile.)

  19. Steve

    August 2, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    “That’s a tough balance to find, one that can only be attained by putting a game in front of lots of eyes, getting lots and lots of player feedback.”

    I vaguely remember Ron Gilbert saying in an interview somewhere that one of his Putt-Putt adventure games was made according to its game design document, and that it didn’t need significant changes due to testing. I might misremember this though, and I’m not able to find that quote. In any case, if that was true, it would probably not apply to complex adventure games like Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle.

  20. LoneCleric

    August 5, 2015 at 4:13 am

    Reading this, I was suddenly reminded of Red Dwarf’s episode “Back to Reality”…

    ANDY: Yeah, a very popular game is Red Dwarf. It’s got a two year waiting list. Only got 20 machines. So! How did you get killed, then?
    KRYTEN: Some kind of squid.
    ANDY: The _despair_ squid?! There’s no way that should have killed you! Why didn’t you use the laser cannons? It’s obvious!
    KRYTEN: Starbug doesn’t — didn’t have a laser cannon capability.
    ANDY: You twonk! Use the laser cannons on the crashed … wotsit … Esperanto. That’s how you get out of it!
    RIMMER: _How_ were we supposed to know that, you Brummie git?
    ANDY: Esperanto. That’s a clue, isn’t it? Esperanto — hope. Hope defeats despair. Despair — the Despair Squid. It’s a blatant clue, isn’t it? Blatant! If you didn’t get that you must have been playing like puddings!

    • Peter Piers

      February 1, 2016 at 7:24 pm

      Ah, Red Dwarf in its heyday did so many things right – and did them so well! That’s a great example right there.

  21. Jason Dyer

    August 6, 2015 at 12:11 am

    You can buy Uninvited from Steam.

    Posts like this would make me wish you’d write more adventure games, except I haven’t got round to King of Shreds and Patches yet. (On my queue!)

    I think “beatable without a walkthrough” criterion is kind of tricky, since if you keep adding accommodations you eventually drain all the difficulty. So you restrict to some players; just how exclusive a club?

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 6, 2015 at 5:42 am

      Thanks! Replaced the download with a Steam link.

      I don’t at all say that every player should always be able to solve every puzzle. Sometimes you get hung up. It happens to me like everyone else. As I wrote: “I’m not saying that every player should always be able to solve every puzzle, but I am saying that recourse to the hints should be followed by a sigh and a nod of understanding, not a cry of ‘How was I supposed to figure that out?’ or, even worse, ‘I’ve just ‘solved’ this puzzle and I still don’t know what actually happened.'” Either of the latter reactions is a sure sign that you’re playing a Bad Adventure Game.

  22. Infinitron

    August 6, 2015 at 8:31 am

  23. Duncan Stevens

    August 9, 2015 at 1:10 am

    One design flaw that appears on Gilbert’s list, and on Graham’s Bill of Rights, but not here is learning-by-death. I tend to agree with its omission. There are certainly some forms of it that are simply bad design, as in Graham’s example–you need to disarm a bomb, you don’t know where it is, you wait around for it to explode, then restart and go to the right place to disarm it. But there are plenty of well-crafted puzzles in the canon that no one could realistically solve on the first try through, whether because they require failure (most likely, a whole lot of failures) to get the premise of the puzzle (see: Sorcerer coal mine, Spellbreaker sand room) or because they require trial and error to flesh out the problem you’re facing (see: Sorcerer glass maze, the bulk of Spider and Web). The difference between these puzzles and Graham’s example is sufficiently fuzzy that I can’t call “no learning by death required” a design rule–at least, not a rule that the best puzzle designers consistently follow.

    • Duncan Stevens

      August 9, 2015 at 1:23 am

      I should have noted that Graham does acknowledge that some forms of this are worse than others, and cited disarm-the-bomb as the worst form. I just can’t draw a clear line between puzzles that are inherently unsolvable on the first try and those that are functionally impossible without trial and error.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 9, 2015 at 12:11 pm

      Like you, I’m not comfortable with making learning by death a hard-and-fast sin, as there are successful, thoughtful designs that rely on it. Probably the canonical example is the original Infocom mystery trilogy, which are really meta-puzzles of a sort, all about learning how the holistic dynamic system of the game runs and how to steer it where necessary to get the outcome desired. While Deadline has some other design problems typical of Infocom’s early games, I’d be hard-pressed to call either The Witness or Suspect bad or unfair games. Provided they’re approached with the understanding of just what sort of games they are, they can be hugely enjoyable for some us. (Some people obviously find them less so, which is of course fine. The early mysteries have always been the most polarizing of all the Infocom games.) The more recent All Things Devours is another example of this style of play working really well.

      Making a game of this sort is tricky, requiring a great deal of care and forethought. It’s very important that the dynamic system that is the game remain relatively constrained so that replaying many times doesn’t become too much of a chore and the combinatorial explosion of moving pieces doesn’t become overwhelming. The Infocom mysteries, for instance, all take place in the course of a single night or day in a single house. The 128 K Z-Machine was actually very useful to Infocom for these designs in particular, forcing them to keep everything very *tight*. Magnetic Scrolls’s Corruption is a good example of what an unholy, nearly insoluble mess this style of game can turn into without the requisite care.

      Parts of Maniac Mansion provide a good if more limited version of this kind of play in the realm of graphic adventures; I believe I even made a comparison to the Infocom mysteries at one point in my article on Maniac Mansion. I don’t off-hand know of a lot of other graphic adventures that try to duplicate this model of play, which may be because the interactive possibilities of graphic adventures have always been more constrained than text games, and, oddly and somewhat dishearteningly, actually tended to grow more rather than less constrained as the years went by. (Maniac Mansion is in many ways that most complex adventure game in design terms that Lucasfilm would ever make.) But, given Maniac Mansion to illustrate that the approach *can* work in graphic adventures, I wouldn’t label it a hard-and-fast design sin.

      Anyway, learning by death does often come into play in connection with Sins #3 and #4 and possibly others. For instance, in the example I cite from Uninvited, you wander into a hallway and are killed by a ghost. You then get to spend a lot of time restoring and trying different objects on the ghost in the one turn you have available until something works. This is learning by death at its most irritating, but, hey, we’ve already got another sin to brand it with. :)

      • Duncan Stevens

        August 10, 2015 at 1:30 am

        Varicella is another example of a game that’s not solvable, as a practical matter, on the first try, but the world is constrained enough that exploring it and learning about all the dynamic events doesn’t feel tedious. At least, it didn’t to me. (It helps if the writing is good.) And then there’s Rematch, which is even more constrained, for obvious reasons.

        I’ve always had mixed feelings about the mystery trilogy–they owe a lot to the can-you-beat-this-incredibly-hard-game mainframe era, particularly Deadline. But, as you say, once you accept the premise, the design (mostly) plays fair. And while there are well-designed games that can reasonably be solved on the first attempt without any save games–Babel and Sunset Over Savannah probably qualify–I’m not sure most players approach gameplay that way anyway. “Let’s see what happens if I try this apparently dangerous action” is part of the player’s toolbox; I doubt most players give the question of whether they could have finished the game without any save/restore a second’s thought.

  24. Scott S.

    August 13, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    Glad to see you pointing out Sierra’s adventure games (and deservedly so). I remember playing both KQ and SQ and never solving either, and only getting so far in LSL before spending more money for the hint book to finish it. Which makes me wonder how much influence the then-new side business of selling hint books had with a game’s design, if any. Did some companies intentionally throw in near-impossible problems to force people to buy the accompanying hint book?

    The last adventure game I played was Epyx’s Robots of Dawn, which was guilty of a few of these design sins (Ex: you can find a blaster that doesn’t seem to have any purpose. There’s also an object in a safe that requires 2 objects to obtain, but the item inside has no value to solving the game.). Though I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on the RoD, as it was Epyx’s only (text) adventure game, it did claim to be based on the book. Having read the book, there’s no direct comparison between the two other than the characters and setting. In other words, knowing the book won’t help in solving the game.

    I’d love to see an article that takes the same approach to every adventure game (both text and graphic), pointing out all the serious flaws with each. Btw, a great site with solutions to most of them is CASA (Classic Adventures Solution Archive) –

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 17, 2015 at 8:00 am

      I don’t think anyone at Sierra was Machiavellian or unethical enough to consciously design games to force customers to buy hints books, but I think their existence did quite possibly create a more subtle, perhaps unconscious bias. Hint books were very cheap to make, with profit margins actually better than the games themselves when all was said and done. They became a huge revenue center for Sierra, as they had for Infocom before. I’ve heard claims that hints books for some Sierra games actually outsold the games themselves from time to time — presumably because pirates get frustrated too.

      • Peter Piers

        February 1, 2016 at 7:59 pm

        Hint books as copy protection, what a concept!

    • Michael Davis

      November 14, 2015 at 2:05 pm

      “I’d love to see an article that takes the same approach to every adventure game (both text and graphic), pointing out all the serious flaws with each”

      That would be a LONG article

  25. Dan Fabulich

    August 16, 2015 at 6:12 am

    I get so frustrated when I read reviews of adventure games that tell me that, yes, you’ll probably need to play this one from a walkthrough, but it’s a good game, really it is. No. Just no. Interactivity is the point of games, the thing that sets them apart from every other medium. Why should I play a game from a walkthrough when I can just go watch a movie or read a book?

    I’ve had this passage banging around in my brain for weeks now; I just can’t agree with you.

    1) Where I work, we distinguish between “game design” and “victory design.” Victory design has to do with how you win (or lose) the game, e.g. solving puzzles, getting the ending you want, taking risks. Game design includes victory design, but also includes everything else that goes into the play experience.

    For example, if the game is fun to play with as a “toy” but unfair to win, it has bad victory design, but it’s a step too far to call it altogether a “bad game.” It would probably be a better game if it had better victory design, but games are more than just victory models.

    2) Echoing Lex Brown, I hold Space Quest in the same regard as I do Infocom’s Hitchhiker: games that are fun to play with a hint guide, but not much fun without one.

    That’s different from games that are only fun to follow with a walkthrough, games whose puzzles are all so cruel/absurd as to be unplayable as designed.

    Games that require a hint guide are worth playing, in parts, and even the broken puzzles are often worth playing with a few additional hints, and even the truly unsolvable stuff can be breezed over to get to other parts of the game that are worth playing.

    I won’t go as far as Rahul and suggest that SQ games were “intended” to be played with their hint guides, any more than Hitchhiker was intended to be played with a hint guide, but I think that’s how a lot of people played and enjoyed those games.

    If you played Hitchhiker’s with its InvisiClues in hand (and frankly, I hope you did; they’re brilliantly funny in their own right), then I claim that even you don’t believe that an adventure game with some broken puzzles is inherently bad.

    I say this even agreeing with you that one bad puzzle breaks the player’s trust that the game is playing fair. But, if you’ve got a hint book, and the game is enjoyable enough, it can be OK to mistrust the puzzle designer.

    3) Does Space Quest have any puzzles worth solving? Taking just SQ1, these puzzles are good, or at least good enough:

    Escaping the ship (after finding the keycard)
    The tentacle grate (taking advantage of the 3D [2.5D?] medium)
    The Spider Droid/Orat puzzles (which can be solved together)
    Once on the Deltaur, getting to the Star Generator (with multiple solutions!)

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 16, 2015 at 8:50 am

      1. This is a hair that I just can’t split. Game design and victory design are one and the same to me because an adventure that I can’t complete without running into bad puzzles and being forced after much frustration and wasted time to turn to a walkthrough will always leave me with a sour taste in my mouth. Thus to me it will always be a *bad game*, whatever its other merits. It feels like a personal betrayal to me of a sacred trust. It literally makes me *angry*.

      2. Hitchhiker’s keeps coming up, so I’d like to offer a brief defense. Yes, it breaks a lot of the rules of design that Infocom had spent a lot of time sorting out. However, there’s an intentionality about its design that I think is very different from the general obliviousness to good design principles and lack of testing that led to Uninvited and Space Quest. And even at that I think its unfairness is often exaggerated. The most oft-cited example of same, the need to feed the dog for no apparent reason at the very beginning of the game, is itself not quite a fair complaint. It’s actually possible to feed the dog later on, during Ford’s vignette, after the need *has* become apparent. Infocom was thoughtful enough to notice how cruel that puzzle was and took the time to build in another way around it. Do you really think Sierra would have done the same?

      Hitchhiker’s is a very difficult game, and definitely not a good model for any beginning designer, but I don’t think it’s insoluble or enjoyable only with a hint book. Figuring out something like its occasional habit of lying to you is a hell of a lot more fun than getting all the way to the end of Space Quest without a vital item and not knowing why because the scientist never showed up and, hey, them’s the breaks, chum. One of these is clever and subversive. The other is just cruel.

      3. I agree that Space Quest does have some good puzzles. The problem is that it also has so many really bad ones, which spoil even the good. I can never really hunker down and *enjoy* trying to solve a puzzle because I’m always suspicious that either a) this is itself just another terrible, unfair puzzle I’ll never be able to figure out; or b) I don’t have something I need to solve this puzzle because I fell victim to some earlier terrible, unfair puzzle or because some random event was never triggered or because I didn’t stand at the right angle when I examined the damn escape capsule. This, again, is why I cannot separate game design from victory design. A single bad ingredient spoils the whole pot. Once I’ve lost trust in a game, I simply can’t enjoy it.

      • Dan Fabulich

        August 17, 2015 at 4:11 am

        I exaggerate only slightly when I say that nobody finished Hitchhiker’s without hints. (Did you?)

        I agree that when I read the InvisiClues, I sometimes said, “ah, I see how someone could have figured that out, even though I didn’t” or, better, I revealed only part of the puzzle and said, “oh, wait, I get it now” and solved it.

        But sometimes, like growing the plant, I said, “What a bad puzzle. No reasonable person would come up with that solution given the clues in the text.” When that happens, I, too, feel the rage.

        But it’s not just finishing the game that requires hints; you can’t even escape the Heart of Gold without the atomic vector plotter, which requires having solved both the babel fish puzzle and the poetry puzzle.

        You called out the poetry puzzle as a guess-the-verb violation in your 2013 review. But it’s actually worse than that. You also have to realize that the captain has only read you one verse, and so I’m sure most players (as I did) tried typing in the third word of the second line of the poem. And woe betide you if you did it like this: “type gabbleblotchits”, to which the game replies, “I don’t know the word “gabbleblotchits”.” You see, you have to ‘type “gabbleblotchits”‘ with quotation marks to even be granted the courtesy of dying unfairly. (Ask yourself: was it really necessary that the case explode on every wrong guess?)

        I checked the hints because the game appeared to be broken. The hints clarified the quotation syntax. The hints explained that I needed to hear the second “verse (not line) of the poem.” It gave me what I needed without completely spoiling the answer.

        Without those hints, Hitchhiker’s is a game that isn’t worthy of your trust, or anyone else’s.

        But here’s the thing! Hitchhiker’s is a great game despite its untrustworthy puzzles. Everybody loves the jokes, the lying parser, the metaphysical inventory.

        It is worth the trouble of playing Hitchhiker’s with the InvisiClues. It’s a good game with some bad puzzles.

        Your philosophy that “one bad puzzle spoils the game” doesn’t leave room for planting fuzz in a flowerpot.

        I, for one, am grateful that one bad puzzle can only spoil my trust in the puzzles, not the whole play experience. I’m grateful, specifically, to InvisiClues, the “third way” between self-flagellation and walkthroughs.

        You’re right about Uninvited, though. That game was just bad, bad, bad. :-)

        • Jimmy Maher

          August 17, 2015 at 7:30 am

          I’m actually not sure I’d say that I for one “love” Hitchhiker’s, but it is a massively important work formally, critically, and historically. It’s one of very, very few that made my Hall of Fame because they simply couldn’t be ignored on the basis of these factors alone, even as they push hard against my requirements that games play fair and don’t waste the player’s time. (The original Adventure, for what it’s worth, is another.) I’m not sure I agree with you completely on the insolubility of some of the puzzles, but that’s as may be. As I did try to clarify in my own article on Hitchhiker’s, it’s very much a problematic outlier, a game that breaks the rules but is so subversively brilliant that it can’t be just lumped into the category of Bad Game and dismissed. I would even go so far as to say that playing Hitchhiker’s is almost fundamental to fully understanding the medium of interactive fiction. Just please don’t model your own designs after it, authors! It really is one in a million.

          So, you can call it the exception that proves the rule, or just another example of my Infocom bias showing through, as you like. ;) I would just say that we should remember that, as you so correctly noted, Hitchhiker’s problematic aspects are indivisible from its brilliant aspects. If you “fixed” Hitchhiker’s to make it fair, you would lose what makes Hitchhiker’s an important game touched with genius — mad genius yes, but genius nonetheless. “Fixing” it must entail turning it into an entirely different, less interesting game. I submit that Space Quest and Uninvited, on the other hand, could be fixed to become perfectly serviceable adventure games by going through them with an eye to my list of sins, that they would lose nothing in the process and would end up much better games. (As noted in the article, if all of the silly deaths are really so integral to Space Quest, just rewind the game automatically after they happen. This was easily possible with Sierra’s technology.) The frustrating thing about both games is that they were hardly losers from the start. Both had the potential to be really enjoyable games: Space Quest with its good-natured silliness and some puzzles that *are* really inspired, Uninvited with its chilling atmosphere and some pretty good puzzles in its own right.

          As I said in reply to one or two other comments, I think that those who would make of Space Quest a subversive game whose design sins are intentional are reaching, looking for a sophistication that just isn’t there. Hitchhiker’s, on the other hand, really *is* subversive. There may very well be an equivalent in the realm of graphic adventures, but neither of these games are it — and, really, there needn’t be more than one, just as there’s just one Hitchhiker’s.

          As for my own experience with Hitchhiker’s: it was actually the first Infocom game I ever played, found under the Christmas tree along with my new Commodore 64, disk drive, and monitor in 1984. (I must have been a good boy that year. The other game I got was a Sid Meier creation; between Hitchhiker’s and that I was pretty much doomed for life right there.) I of course never had a chance. I think I may have got as far as the Vogon Hold before buying the hint book a week or two later. I then proceeded to comprehensively spoil the entire game.

          I first played it again about fifteen years later, and seem to recall finishing it unaided. But my earlier playthrough, which remained etched in my memory to an unusual degree as my first experience with adventure games, doubtless was a huge help.

  26. ShadowAngel

    August 26, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    I still don’t get why Adventures are expected to be the complete opposite of every other genre that exists in gaming.
    No deaths, no game over, no challenges.
    Imagine for a moment how games like Mega Man or Contra would look like, if Lucas Arts designed them:
    No Game Over, you get plenty of lives, power ups at every corner, straight linear level design that points you in the right direction, easy to beat bosses (in Mega Man’s case pointing directly at what weapon to use)
    How much fun would that be?
    It would be boring and after you beat Mega Man on your very first try, you’d be annoying at wasting money.

    While i do agree that some Sierra adventures had some really dreadful dead ends and game overs, at least it was challenging, you had to use your brain and i think Trial and Error makes a lot of sense in the Adventure genre.

    I recently played Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and while i consider it a great game that does Indy justice, it’s just way too easy, linear and obvious. The biggest riddle are the 3 stones and how to align them and that is easily figured out since the game basically tells you what to do. I felt like playing a game on autopilot that tells me what to do, when and where to do it and i felt actually bored by it.

    I don’t really get, why adventures should be easy and linear with no challenge at all.

    • Christina Nordlander

      September 1, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      I think you are wrong to say that LucasArts games have “straight linear […] design that points you in the right direction” and clues that blatantly tell you how to solve puzzles. As far as I can tell, LucasArts’ ethos, once it came into maturity as a game-developing company, was to provide challenges without resorting to deaths, game overs, or unfair puzzles.

      There were puzzles in “Maniac Mansion” or “Day of the Tentacle” (for example) that had me stumped for weeks or months, and accordingly gave me a great deal of satisfaction when I solved them.

    • Michael Davis

      November 14, 2015 at 2:13 pm

      “I still don’t get why Adventures are expected to be the complete opposite of every other genre that exists in gaming.”

      Because adventure games literally are the opposite of the arcade genre. The point of an adventure game is to go on an adventure. The point of an arcade game is to test your reflexes. They’re just not the same. Comparing Mega Man to Monkey Island is asinine.

    • Sebastian Redl

      January 21, 2019 at 12:51 pm

      > I still don’t get why Adventures are expected to be the complete opposite of every other genre that exists in gaming.
      > No deaths, no game over, no challenges.

      But look at modern games in general. They have clearly absorbed some of the same design philosophy. Autosaves, infinite lives. The penalty of failing some challenge is being set back a few game seconds, minutes at most. Here’s the challenge you failed, try again. You don’t need to first play the entire rest of the game again, just so you get another chance at this one challenge.

      As for the “no challenges” part, the simple fact is that the failure mode of adventures (or generally cerebral puzzle games) CAN be different from any given action game. Not getting past a puzzle is perfectly acceptable failure, there’s no need to kill the player for it. Whereas not dodging the bullets in a bullet hell game *has* to have a death, or at least equivalent (resetting the current sequence maybe), because what else would the failure mode be?

  27. Troels Pleimert

    September 3, 2015 at 10:40 am

    While it does not negate your point, I would like to point out that the scientist’s appearance in Space Quest is *not* random. He will *always* appear if you exit the cartridge room to the left, then reenter from the same door. *Always.*

    • Michael Davis

      November 14, 2015 at 2:13 pm

      And how is that fun?

    • Peter Piers

      February 2, 2016 at 12:28 am

      In a failing ship, overrun with enemies, what possible motivation could you have to re-enter the room in the first place? Won’t you want to just keep moving? Isn’t it counter-intuitive to go back to a room that was fully explored?

      I do believe this is Jimmy’s point. I agree 100%.

  28. Miguel Martinez

    October 5, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    Awesome article, thanks a lot!!

  29. Brian Bagnall

    October 15, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    I hope you do articles on Uninvited and the other Macware adventure games!

  30. Peter Piers

    February 1, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    The state of Sierra game design is another way in which Gabriel Knight broke ground, especially for Sierra. I’m not sure of the chronology, but eventually even they would realise their game design sins. King’s Quest 7, Leisure Suit Larry 7 (mind you, the deaths in Leisure Suit Larry were always more fun than not, and the only LSL where you can seriously get into an unwinnable situation without realising is LSL2. The others are a bit more forgiving), Phantasmagoria, even Space Quest 6.

    I’m just bringing it up because Sierra’s getting a lot of heat, and that heat is definitely deserved, but the leopard did change its stripes. That deserves recognition.

  31. Kyle

    August 25, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    With respect to Ken Williams not wanting his employees to play other adventure games:

    On the one hand, it does sound crazy to not know what your competition is doing. On the other hand, you can end up with entire genres that just ossify into the same game released yearly by everyone. Or worse, games that continually chase after what everyone else is doing, to continual design and technology revision that ruin it in the process.

    I think it’s important that every now and again, someone tries to reinvent the wheel in gaming. Maybe they’ll discover a path not taken. A path which wouldn’t have been found if their baseline assumptions had already been set due to excessive exposure to what a game in this genre “should be”.

    But, then again, as we used to yell at a friend of mine who always tried “unorthodox” strategies in cooperative games, which usually resulted in all our deaths, “Being different for the sake of being different doesn’t make sense when it’s retarded!” We were teenagers then, but I don’t think we’ve ever articulated it better.

  32. Biff Rapper

    February 12, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    Sorry you hate adventure games insulting you, but the way Space Quest ribbed you or picked at you for failing was one of its most charming aspects!

  33. DZ-Jay

    March 18, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    >> “… decide that he “hated adventure games” and wanted to make a better.”

    Should it be “a better one”?

    >> “You can expect to die and a restore a few dozen times…”

    Seems like “a restore” should lose the article.

    For what it’s worth, I enjoy the Space Quest series, in spite of not having a true nostalgic connection, since I started playing them in the early part of the millennium as an adult.

    As I recall, the authors of Space Quest have openly admitted that the multiple deaths and the learn-by death mechanics were indeed a problem within Sierra that nobody seemed to want to do anything about, probably because they could get away with it, probably because of being accustomed to it (related to their insular bubble of design, not exploring outside their own confines), and probably because it sold hint books.

    They then admit that they actively sought to punish players directly and spectacularly as a sarcastic, reductio absurdum critique on the entire genre. From this came not only the obligatory Sierraesque insta-death at every corner, but a grossly graphic and often hilarious means of death, accompanied by an equally snarky remark about the player’s abilities — all with the aim of delighting the player: if you were already expecting to die often (you bought a Sierra game after all), by george let us have fun with it and die in spectacular fashion. As the forum commenter quoted by you attests, it worked in conveying this style and in fulfilling its goal.

    Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of wrong in the Space Quest games that I truly despise and wish would have been excised during design. However, in my opinion at least, there is much more fun to them as a whole — even inspite of, and at times because of, the insta-deaths and the snark — much more than you let up in your article.

    Therefore, I wouldn’t call them “bad games,” as much as “seriously flawed” yet “good games” on their own right. Judging by their place in nostalgic canon and popular culture, I am not the only one.

    To just reject them out right as “bad games” without actually balancing the many other qualities that make up for your “14 deadly sins,” is like a film critic lambasting Hollywood movies in general because they fail to all be pretentiously ponderous artsy cinematic masterpieces of storytelling.

    Not all movies have to be art house films following Fellini’s vision, just like not all adventure games have to fit within Infocom’s formulae. Sorry to sa this way, get over it.


    • Jimmy Maher

      March 18, 2017 at 5:17 pm


  34. DZ-Jay

    March 18, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    By the way, just to tone down my last comment above, I do appreciate your work and all you do to bring these stories to light. I appreciate that you are sharing your measured opinion, taken not only of experience, but of careful examination of the genre and its historical context. That is a wonderful thing.

    However, it just seems that you sometimes punish a game mostly for not fitting within an idealize picture of interactive fiction you have concocted, and that your bias translates into open hostility to anything deviating from this model. At times, this bias may appear arbitrary, as your continuous justification of Infocom games when pointing out how they violate some deadly sins in equal measure.

    I love the idea of Infocom, almost as a romantic and platonic notion. I love the very idea of thoughtful puzzle design and an intricate story with equally interesting characters. However, I cannot help but think that even as a child, I didn’t quite gave their games the same dedication I did to others’. For as much as I loved the Hitchhiker’s books and wanted to play the game, I never did get anywhere far before giving up. Likewise for Deadline, which I tried repeatedly to solve, only to get bored by the details of having to figure out the proper sequence of actions.

    Nonetheless, I recall these games fondly and hold Infocom in a very high regard (much higher than, say, the likes of Sierra), but for whatever it is worth, when taking some time to play a game, I always end up firing up DOSBox and going back to the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry games for a bit of fun and enjoyment. That such deeply flawed games instill such passion and dedication on many fans, in spite of their punishing mechanics and in the face of open, obvious, and very reasonable criticism against them, should say something rather loudly to their credit. Yet you do not.

    I noticed you went out of your way to offer such justifications for other “bad” games in previous articles, as a way of explaining their importance and sustained popularity. Yet in this article you seem to be saying that Space Quest has *nothing* at all to offer to the chronology of interactive fiction other than to serve as a model of bad design; and that its place in the pantheon of influential games is *specifically* to pose as an example of what is wrong with the genre. If this is truly how you feel, I find it rather disappointing and more than a bit unfair.

    I respect your opinion greatly, which is why I follow your writings with such interest, and I still enjoy your articles even when I disagree with their conclusions or views. :)

    Best regards,

  35. Yotam Barnoy

    May 9, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Many interesting points here.

    One place where I do think Sierra games offer more than their LucasArts counterparts is the sense of tension. Taking away death definitely removes a sense of dread, of being in a threatening world. Rewinding wouldn’t necessarily be the same, since it doesn’t provide an appropriate penalty, but it’s not clear what the penalty should be. In an action game, replaying the same section of the game is tedious, but it still challenges the players’ skills. Adventure games are all about knowledge, and so rewinding is tedious and provides no extra challenge to the player. One idea I had was to have an abstract penalty, in the form of a score, where each death deducts from the score. The score would serve no purpose other than to motivate not dying and building up tension. This mechanism, together with rewinding, would hopefully keep tension without the overly punitive measure of death. In today’s world, maintaining a certain score would be displayed on your Steam profile as part of an achievement, to give it more artificial value.

    Another interesting dynamic though is that of replays. I think adventure games have some replay value, in the sense that you can go back to the game and enjoy the story, or just poke around and messing with things. The primary purpose of an adventure game is clearly to provide a challenge in the first play-through, but you can also enjoy coming back to the game for a 2nd, 3rd time etc. The game then becomes a ‘walking simulator’ through the story, serving up sights and nostalgia (if available) without the head-scratching. Using a walkthrough is sort of like a hybrid of this ‘walking simulator’ mode and some light challenge (it has to be light, since you’re constantly tempted to use the walkthrough for any tough puzzles). Other kinds of games have a hard time providing this replay experience, since the challenge will always be there. Ironically, the un-replayability of adventure games means that they can provide this low-challenge stroll on second plays (or using walkthroughs), and I think this is where the sins of adventure game design become immaterial, and the mainstream Sierra games start to shine: “Oh, silly Roberta, making it so you can’t walk past the bridge more than 3 times. How quaint.” I think this is where most Sierra fans are, replaying their favorite games every once in a while and finding no major faults, since they already know the solutions. In fact, once you know where the death scenes are, the grotesque deaths really are kind of fun. Sierra games are thus almost built to be played in retrospect or with a walkthrough.

  36. Steve

    June 2, 2017 at 5:47 am

    I enjoyed this article very much. While I found myself agreeing with the commenters who said they were happy to play these kind of games as kids in the 80’s (and thus perhaps could be considered a “success” considering their time), these days my reaction to them is the same as yours: “Screw You, Game.”

    Anyways, I found it interesting that Trinity, the one game (to this point in the blog, at least) for which you had nothing critical to say actually violates a couple of these rules…

    2. Cluttering up the game with so much junk … compounded by the deadly combination of a limited player inventory.

    This one is pretty apparent, as there are four or five “big ticket” items that especially weigh you down, meaning you can usually only carry two at one time. And since you can only visit each White Door once without reloading, figuring out which things you’ll need can be a tedious trial-and-error game of saving & restoring (especially if you visit the doors in the wrong order).

    The worst instance is the Los Alamos level, where you actually CAN’T carry all the items you need at one time; this means there are several extra layers of trial-and-error as you make sure you drop certain items in specific places later to be certain you have enough time to complete the level.

    The inventory limit was completely unnecessary and arbitrary. The game is a magical fantasy with anthropomorphic animals and science-defying puzzles; I don’t think anyone is going to complain that carrying a meteorite, shovel, and birdcage at the same time violates the laws of physics!

    Speaking of birdcage, the second rule violation was No. 7, which mirrors your example quite serendipitously:

    If you happen to be carrying a bird in a cage and fling it at the creature, it becomes “utterly fascinated” and “gives chase to eat it.” … This puzzle destroys your experience as a player even more so than the usual crappy puzzle because … you’re doomed to spend the rest of the game wondering what more you needed to do here before scaring the creature away. In reality, there’s nothing else you can do — but you can’t know that. And so that nagging worry will remain every time you come upon another puzzle, whether it be sensical or nonsensical, leaving you unable to trust that you aren’t about to beat your head against a puzzle you rendered unsolvable hours ago.

    The puzzle in Trinity that caused this reaction for me (and perhaps I’m alone on this one) is with the caged macaw. You can’t use the cage for anything else until you release the macaw, but because this game is very particular with its objects (no red herrings, particularly with its living creatures), I was certain I had to find a specific location requiring a bird.

    Of course, eventually I could not advance in the story without solving another puzzle with that same cage, so the rest of the game I was left with this sense that I’d put it in an unwinnable state…

    [Obviously the macaw does help you solve another problem, but only passively. It’s impossible to know that was its only use.]

    At any rate, even though Trinity did violate these “sins” (at least as I interpret them), I still agree it is the best game Infocom ever made, and love it quite a bit. I guess sometimes we overlook flaws if we enjoy a game enough, which certainly illuminates a lot of the defenses of Space Quest here in the comments!

  37. UnlovedNecro

    July 1, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    I think there’s something to be said for different types of game players. When I was ~10 years old with SQ1, I was playing it more like a sandbox environment… an immersive, imaginary open-world that I’d roam around and casually poke a button or pull a lever to randomly see what happens. I mentally didn’t have any task-orientated goals per se, until I ran out of places to explore and some obstacle was blocking the next area to see. If I poked the wrong button and died, then I’d laugh and restore. It wasn’t infuriating to me because I didn’t take it as a setback to a goal (because I generally wasn’t playing with a goal-oriented mindset) and I didn’t feel that I had “lost” or been wronged. I didn’t experience it as a “puzzle game” and “here’s the puzzle before me to solve”… the puzzles were just cool little “activities” to experience while I was roaming around my imaginary world.

    It seems like as people get older, they get more into the “I don’t have much time, just give me my task and I’ll go do it” type mentality. I read a blog post from a father of two young children who was trying to share quality time with them by playing a video game together. As an adult, he only saw a list of tasks and goals to accomplish… but his children were playing make-believe with the characters, coming up with personal stories and conversations and whatnot (like when kids play with dolls together) and the father was lamenting his own lost imagination for that. He eventually gave up trying to keep his kids “on task” for the game goals, and joined them in playing-with-dolls with the game characters.

  38. eliddell

    January 25, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    “Nothing anywhere indicates that it has any special fondness for birds”

    Except the location being labeled “12-cat”, maybe? (I agree that the remainder of the text is misleading, though.)

  39. Captain N

    March 20, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    The first sin about puzzles not solvable through logic or intuition but through brute force is very true. But also, a lot of the puzzles punished you for experimenting. You might be able to use objects only once and then they are depleted. Too bad if it was the right object on the wrong item.

    Another thing that is often mentioned is the so called Moon Logic puzzles. We tend to forget that these early games were created by some very smart/intelligent people (some of whom were MIT alumni) and they do tend to think in very quirky ways. Many puzzles were kind of friendly competitions between gamemakers on who can be the most cloudcuckoolandish. Thinking in weird or quirky ways tends to be a badge of honor amongst these types.

    Many of the games had an absurdist logic to their puzzles, due to everyone trying to ape Douglas Adams’ style, thanks to that one very successful Infocom title and that one infamous puzzle concerning a fish.

    The puzzles tended to focus less on immersing yourself in the story/adventure and “what you would do if you were really there” to ” can you read the gamemaker’s warped mind?”. The aforementioned Infocom title was notorious for this.

  40. David C

    September 25, 2018 at 4:12 am

    Can’t agree really, in this post you do come across a little as an “IF Fanboi” to the exclusion of most everything else. I found everything I’ve played from the IF canon to be a curiosity. “They don’t make them like these anymore”. But ultimately, they are little more than relics from the period; an unfortunate byproduct of a genre that originated from limited hardware resources and then went on about four years past a reasonable use by date.
    Sierra on the other hand where stretching the tech and making games that nobody had made before. And sadly not many have been made since. As some of the posts mentioned SQ is very beatable by a child – I beat it minus hints at age eleven.I found SQ – and still do – find SQ far more satisfying than trying to scribble a map out for a Zork maze that adds nothing to the story, gameplay or other game mechanics.
    My two cents.

  41. Chris

    November 24, 2018 at 2:22 am

    Please play The Fairy Tale Adventure 1986, still among the best.

  42. Wouter

    March 13, 2019 at 8:19 am

    Old post but one that I felt I had to support! I’ve been slowly reading through this entire archive of excellent articles, and I knew I was in for both a good read and a long comments section when I read the opening to this article.

    I completely agree with Jimmy’s point of view here. I never liked playing Sierra games as a kid, we had a few of them but I always preferred anything coming out of Lucasfilm over them. An example of losing trust in a game for me is a body of water in any Sierra game: will I immediately drown when I walk in? Will I get eaten by a crocodile or a shark? Or do I NEED to get in and swim five screens of sea from exactly this screen to find an island that is essential for completing the game? Only one way to find out! I don’t mind dying in an adventure game, but I like knowing I probably will so I can save just to see the death animation for fun rather than needing to save to take a gamble. I don’t see knowing when to save as a particularly rewarding exercise.

    I do see that a lot of people seem to enjoy being treated like this, they take their pleasure with a bit of pain perhaps. Maybe a game being “good” or “bad” is more subjective. I take Ron’s list – and Jimmy’s examples to illustrate it – as a good measure for how fair a game is. And like Jimmy, to me a game is only good if it’s fair. To each their own I suppose!

  43. Guest

    October 3, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    Are objects allowed in the text window? Can I hit an object/person in the game?

  44. Ben

    November 29, 2022 at 10:44 pm

    crashing-landing -> crash-landing

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 2, 2022 at 3:44 pm


  45. Daragh Wickham

    July 14, 2024 at 3:19 am

    I absolutely loved Space Quest IV as a kid. The immersion, comedy and tech to me… Unparalleled at that time in my life. Never did finish it though, I couldn’t get past the space mall bit but *man* did I have fun playing it!

    Anyway, played it again years later as an adult and got to the last act. Turns out I didn’t have the mental/wisdom wherewithal to record a code in a time machine from the start of the game which made it unwinnable.

    Consulting a walkthrough proved useless as the code you need at the end is procedurally generated when you first board said time machine near the start of the game, under duress as well I might add!

    I was gutted. It’s kind of hilarious as a gag in retrospect but yeah… didn’t feel so funny at the time.


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