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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

Origin Sells Out

One day in early June of 1992, a group of executives from Electronic Arts visited Origin Systems’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. If they had come from any other company, the rank and file at Origin might not have paid them much attention. As it was, though, the visit felt a bit like Saddam Hussein dropping in at George Bush’s White House for a fireside chat. For Origin and EA, you see, had a history.

Back in August of 1985, just prior to the release of Ultima IV, the much smaller Origin had signed a contract to piggyback on EA’s distribution network as an affiliated label. Eighteen months later, when EA released an otherwise unmemorable CRPG called Deathlord whose interface hewed a little too closely to that of an Ultima, a livid Richard Garriott attempted to pull Origin out of the agreement early. EA at first seemed prepared to crush Origin utterly in retribution by pulling at the legal seams in the two companies’ contract. Origin, however, found themselves a protector: Brøderbund Software, whose size and clout at the time were comparable to that of EA. At last, EA agreed to allow Origin to go their own way, albeit probably only after the smaller company paid them a modest settlement for breaking the contract. Origin quickly signed a new distribution contract with Brøderbund, which lasted until 1989, by which point they had become big enough in their own right to take over their own distribution.

But Richard Garriott wasn’t one to forgive even a small personal slight easily, much less a full-blown threat to destroy his company. From 1987 on, EA was Public Enemy #1 at Origin, a status which Garriott marked in ways that only seemed to grow pettier as time went on. Garriott built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” — the name of Trip Hawkins, EA’s founder and chief executive, spelled backward — at his Austin mansion of Britannia Manor. Ultima V‘s parser treated the phrase “Electronic Arts” like a curse word; Ultima VI included a gang of evil pirates named after some of the more prominent members of EA’s executive staff. Time really did seem to make Garriott more rather than less bitter. Among his relatively few detail-oriented contributions to Ultima VII were a set of infernal inter-dimensional generators whose shapes together formed the EA logo. He also demanded that the two villains who went on a murder spree across Britannia in that game be named Elizabeth and Abraham. Just to drive the point home, the pair worked for a “Destroyer of Worlds” — an inversion of Origin’s longstanding tagline of “We Create Worlds.”

And yet here the destroyers were, just two months after the release of Ultima VII, chatting amiably with their hosts while they gazed upon their surroundings with what seemed to some of Origin’s employees an ominously proprietorial air. Urgent speculation ran up and down the corridors: what the hell was going on? In response to the concerned inquiries of their employees, Origin’s management rushed to say that the two companies were merely discussing “some joint ventures in Sega Genesis development,” even though “they haven’t done a lot of cooperative projects in the past.” That was certainly putting a brave face on half a decade of character assassination!

What was really going on was, as the more astute employees at Origin could all too plainly sense, something far bigger than any mere “joint venture.” The fact was, Origin was in a serious financial bind — not a unique one in their evolving industry, but one which their unique circumstances had made more severe for them than for most others. Everyone in the industry, Origin included, was looking ahead to a very near future when the enormous storage capacity of CD-ROM, combined with improving graphics and sound and exploding numbers of computers in homes, would allow computer games to join television, movies, and music as a staple of mainstream entertainment rather than a niche hobby. Products suitable for this new world order needed to go into development now in order to be on store shelves to greet it when it arrived. These next-generation products with their vastly higher audiovisual standards couldn’t be funded entirely out of the proceeds from current games. They required alternative forms of financing.

For Origin, this issue, which really was well-nigh universal among their peers, was further complicated by the realities of being a relatively small company without a lot of product diversification. A few underwhelming attempts to bring older Ultima games to the Nintendo Entertainment System aside, they had no real presence on videogame consoles, a market which dwarfed that of computer games, and had just two viable product lines even on computers: Ultima and Wing Commander. This lack of diversification left them in a decidedly risky position, where the failure of a single major release in either of those franchises could conceivably bring down the whole company.

The previous year of 1991 had been a year of Wing Commander, when the second mainline title in that franchise, combined with ongoing strong sales of the first game and a series of expansion packs for both of them, had accounted for fully 90 percent of the black ink in Origin’s books. In this year of 1992, it was supposed to have been the other franchise’s turn to carry the company while Wing Commander retooled its technology for the future. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate, while it had been far from an outright commercial failure, had garnered a more muted response than Origin had hoped and planned for, plagued as its launch had been by bugs, high system requirements, and the sheer difficulty of configuring it to run properly under the inscrutable stewardship of MS-DOS.

Even more worrisome than all of the specific issues that dogged this latest Ultima was a more diffuse sort of ennui directed toward it by gamers — a sense that the traditional approach of Ultima in general, with its hundred-hour play time, its huge amounts of text, and its emphasis on scope and player freedom rather than multimedia set-pieces, was falling out of step with the times. Richard Garriott liked to joke that he had spent his whole career making the same game over and over — just making it better and bigger and more sophisticated each time out. It was beginning to seem to some at Origin that that progression might have reached its natural end point. Before EA ever entered the picture, a sense was dawning that Ultima VIII needed to go in another direction entirely — needed to be tighter, flashier, more focused, more in step with the new types of customers who were now beginning to buy computer games. Ultima Underworld, a real-time first-person spinoff of the core series developed by the Boston studio Blue Sky Productions rather than Origin themselves, had already gone a considerable distance in that direction, and upon its near-simultaneous release with Ultima VII had threatened to overshadow its more cerebral big brother completely, garnering more enthusiastic reviews and, eventually, higher sales. Needless to say, had Ultima Underworld not turned into such a success, Origin’s financial position would have been still more critical than it already was. It seemed pretty clear that this was the direction that all of Ultima needed to go.

But making a flashier next-generation Ultima VIII — not to mention the next-generation Wing Commander — would require more money than even Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld together were currently bringing in. And yet, frustratingly, Origin couldn’t seem to drum up much in the way of financing. Their home state of Texas was in the midst of an ugly series of savings-and-loan scandals that had made all of the local banks gun-shy; the country as a whole was going through a mild recession that wasn’t helping; would-be private investors could see all too clearly the risks associated with Origin’s non-diversified business model. As the vaguely disappointing reception for Ultima VII continued to make itself felt, the crisis began to feel increasingly existential. Origin had lots of technical and creative talent and two valuable properties — Wing Commander in particular was arguably still the hottest single name in computer gaming — but had too little capital and a nonexistent credit line. They were, in other words, classic candidates for acquisition.

It seems that the rapprochement between EA and Origin began at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago at the very beginning of June of 1992, and, as evidenced by EA’s personal visit to Origin just a week or so later, proceeded rapidly from there. It would be interesting and perhaps a little amusing to learn how the rest of Origin’s management team coaxed Richard Garriott around to the idea of selling out to the company he had spent the last half-decade vilifying. But whatever tack they took, they obviously succeeded. At least a little bit of sugar was added to the bitter pill by the fact that Trip Hawkins, whom Garriott rightly or wrongly regarded as the worst of all the fiends at EA, had recently stepped down from his role in the company’s management to helm a new semi-subsidiary outfit known as 3DO. (“Had Trip still been there, there’s no way we would have gone with EA,” argues one former Origin staffer — but, then again, necessity can almost always make strange bedfellows.)

Likewise, we can only wonder what if anything EA’s negotiators saw fit to say to Origin generally and Garriott specifically about all of the personal attacks couched within the last few Ultima games. I rather suspect they said nothing; if there was one thing the supremely non-sentimental EA of this era had come to understand, it was that it seldom pays to make business personal.

Richard and Robert Garriott flank Stan McKee, Electronic Arts’s chief financial officer, as they toast the consummation of one of the more unexpected acquisitions in gaming history at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California.

So, the deal was finalized at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California, on September 25, 1992, in the form of a stock exchange worth $35 million. Both parties were polite enough to call it a merger rather than an acquisition, but it was painfully clear which one had the upper hand; EA, who were growing so fast they had just gone through a two-for-one stock split, now had annual revenues of $200 million, while Origin could boast of only $13 million. In a decision whose consequences remain with us to this day, Richard Garriott even agreed to sign over his personal copyrights to the Ultima franchise. In return, he became an EA vice president; his brother Robert, previously the chief executive in Austin, now had to settle for the title of the new EA subsidiary’s creative director.

From EA’s perspective, the deal got them Ultima, a franchise which was perhaps starting to feel a little over-exposed in the wake of a veritable flood of Origin product bearing the name, but one which nevertheless represented EA’s first viable CRPG franchise since the Bard’s Tale trilogy had concluded back in 1988. Much more importantly, though, it got them Wing Commander, in many ways the progenitor of the whole contemporary craze for multimedia “interactive movies”; it was a franchise which seemed immune to over-exposure. (Origin had amply proved this point by releasing two Wing Commander mainline games and four expansion packs in the last two years, plus a “Speech Accessory Pack” for Wing Commander II, all of which had sold very well indeed.)

As you do in these situations, both management teams promised the folks in Austin that nothing much would really change. “The key word is autonomy,” Origin’s executives said in their company’s internal newsletter. “Origin is supposed to operate independently from EA and maintain profitability.” But of course things did — had to — change. There was an inescapable power imbalance here, such that, while Origin’s management had to “consult” with EA when making decisions, their counterparts suffered no such obligation. And of course what might happen if Origin didn’t “maintain profitability” remained unspoken.

Thus most of the old guard at Origin would go on to remember September 25, 1992, as, if not quite the end of the old, freewheeling Origin Systems, at least the beginning of the end. Within six months, resentments against the mother ship’s overbearing ways were already building in such employees as an anonymous letter writer who asked his managers why they were “determined to eradicate the culture that makes Origin such a fun place to work.” Within a year, another was asking even more heatedly, “What happened to being a ‘wholly owned independent subsidiary of EA?’ When did EA start telling Origin what to do and when to do it? I thought Richard said we would remain independent and that EA wouldn’t touch us?!? Did I miss something here?” Eighteen months in, an executive assistant named Michelle Caddel, the very first new employee Origin had hired upon opening their Austin office in 1987, tried to make the best of the changes: “Although some of the warmth at Origin has disappeared with the merger, it still feels like a family.” For now, at any rate.

Perhaps tellingly, the person at Origin who seemed to thrive most under the new arrangement was one of the most widely disliked: Dallas Snell, the hard-driving production manager who was the father of a hundred exhausting crunch times, who tended to regard Origin’s games as commodities quantifiable in floppy disks and megabytes. Already by the time the Origin had been an EA subsidiary for a year, he had managed to install himself at a place in the org chart that was for all practical purposes above that of even Richard and Robert Garriott: he was the only person in Austin who was a “direct report” to Bing Gordon, EA’s powerful head of development.

On the other hand, becoming a part of the growing EA empire also brought its share of advantages. The new parent company’s deep pockets meant that Origin could prepare in earnest for that anticipated future when games would sell more copies but would also require more money, time, and manpower to create. Thus almost immediately after closing the deal with EA, Origin closed another one, for a much larger office space which they moved into in January of 1993. Then they set about filling up the place; over the course of the next year, Origin would double in size, going from 200 to 400 employees.

The calm before the storm: the enormous cafeteria at Origin’s new digs awaits the first onslaught of hungry employees. Hopefully someone will scrounge up some tables and chairs before the big moment arrives…

And so the work of game development went on. When EA bought Origin, the latter naturally already had a number of products, large and small, in the pipeline. The first-ever expansion pack for an existing Ultima game — an idea borrowed from Wing Commander — was about to hit stores; Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue would prove a weirdly unambitious addition to a hugely ambitious game, offering only a single dungeon to explore that was more frustrating than fun. Scheduled for release in 1993 were Wing Commander: Academy, a similarly underwhelming re-purposing of Origin’s internal development tools into a public-facing “mission builder,” and Wing Commander: Privateer, which took the core engine and moved it into a free-roaming framework rather than a tightly scripted, heavily story-driven one; it thus became a sort of updated version of the legendary Elite, and, indeed, would succeed surprisingly well on those terms. And then there was also Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, developed like its predecessor by Blue Sky up in Boston; it would prove a less compelling experience on the whole than Ultima Underworld I, being merely a bigger game rather than a better one, but it would be reasonably well-received by customers eager for more of the same.

Those, then, were the relatively modest projects. Origin’s two most expensive and ambitious games for the coming year consisted of yet one more from the Ultima franchise and one that was connected tangentially to Wing Commander. We’ll look at them a bit more closely, taking them one at a time.

The game which would be released under the long-winded title of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle had had a complicated gestation. It was conceived as Origin’s latest solution to a problem that had long bedeviled them: that of how to leverage their latest expensive Ultima engine for more than one game without violating the letter of a promise Richard Garriott had made more than a decade before to never use the same engine for two successive mainline Ultima games. Back when Ultima VI was the latest and greatest, Origin had tried reusing its engine in a pair of spinoffs called the Worlds of Ultima, which rather awkwardly shoehorned the player’s character from the main series — the “Avatar” — into plots and settings that otherwise had nothing to do with Richard Garriott’s fantasy world of Britannia. Those two games had drawn from early 20th-century science and adventure fiction rather than Renaissance Faire fantasy, and had actually turned out quite magnificently; they’re among the best games ever to bear the Ultima name in this humble critic’s opinion. But, sadly, they had sold like the proverbial space heaters in the Sahara. It seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were a bridge too far for fans raised on J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord British.

So, Origin adjusted their approach when thinking of ways to reuse the even more expensive Ultima VII engine. They conceived two projects. One would be somewhat in the spirit of Worlds of Ultima, but would stick closer to Britannia-style fantasy: called Arthurian Legends, it would draw from, as you might assume, the legends of King Arthur, a fairly natural thematic fit for a series whose creator liked to call himself “Lord British.” The other game, the first to go into production, would be a direct sequel to Ultima VII, following the Avatar as he pursued the Guardian, that “Destroyer of Worlds” from the first game, from Britannia to a new world. This game, then, was Serpent Isle. Originally, it was to have had a pirate theme, all fantastical derring-do on an oceanic world, with a voodoo-like magic system in keeping with Earthly legends of Caribbean piracy.

This piratey Serpent Isle was first assigned to Origin writer Jeff George, but he struggled to find ways to adapt the idea to the reality of the Ultima VII engine’s affordances. Finally, after spinning his wheels for some months, he left the company entirely. Warren Spector, who had become Origin’s resident specialist in Just Getting Things Done, then took over the project and radically revised it, dropping the pirate angle and changing the setting to one that was much more Britannia-like, right down to a set of towns each dedicated to one of a set of abstract virtues. Having thus become a less excitingly original concept but a more practical one from a development perspective, Serpent Isle started to make good progress under Spector’s steady hand. Meanwhile another small team started working up a script for Arthurian Legends, which was planned as the Ultima VII engine’s last hurrah.

Yet the somewhat muted response to the first Ultima VII threw a spanner in the works. Origin’s management team was suddenly second-guessing the entire philosophy on which their company had been built: “Do we still create worlds?” Arthurian Legends was starved of resources amidst this crisis of confidence, and finally cancelled in January of 1993. Writer and designer Sheri Graner Ray, one of only two people left on the project at the end, invests its cancellation with major symbolic importance:

I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass-roots games in production there… the last one that was conceived, championed, and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda, the end of an era for the game industry in general, as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buyout of Origin.

Brian Martin, one of the last two developers remaining on the Arthurian Legends project, made this odd little memorial to it with the help of his partner Sheri Graner Ray after being informed by management that the project was to be cancelled entirely. Ray herself tells the story: “Before we left that night, Brian laid down in the common area that was right outside our office and I went around his body with masking tape… like a chalk line… we added the outline of a crown and the outline of a sword. We then draped our door in black cloth and put up a sign that said, ‘The King is Dead. Long live the King.’ …. and a very odd thing happened. The next morning when we arrived, there were flowers by the outline. As the day wore on more flowers arrived.. and a candle.. and some coins were put on the eyes… and a poem arrived… it was uncanny. This went on for several days with the altar growing more and more. Finally, we were told we had to take it down, because there was a press junket coming through and they didn’t want the press seeing it.”

Serpent Isle, on the other hand, was too far along by the time the verdict was in on the first Ultima VII to make a cancellation realistic. It would instead go down in the recollection of most hardcore CRPG fans as the last “real” Ultima, the capstone to the process of evolution a young Richard Garriott had set in motion back in 1980 with a primitive BASIC game called Akalabeth. And yet the fact remains that it could have been so, so much better, had it only caught Origin at a less uncertain, more confident time.

Serpent Isle lacks the refreshingly original settings of the two Worlds of Ultima games, as it does the surprisingly fine writing of the first Ultima VII; Raymond Benson, the head writer on the latter project, worked on Serpent Isle only briefly before decamping to join MicroProse Software. In compensation, though, Serpent Isle is arguably a better game than its predecessor through the first 65 percent or so of its immense length. Ultima VII: The Black Gate can at times feel like the world’s most elaborate high-fantasy walking simulator; you really do spend most of your time just walking around and talking to people, an exercise that’s made rewarding only by the superb writing. Serpent Isle, by contrast, is full to bursting with actual things to do: puzzles to solve, dungeons to explore, quests to fulfill. It stretches its engine in all sorts of unexpected and wonderfully hands-on directions. Halfway in, it seems well on its way to being one of the best Ultima games of all, as fine a sendoff as any venerable series could hope for.

In the end, though, its strengths were all undone by Origin’s crisis of faith in the traditional Ultima concept. Determined to get its sales onto the books of what had been a rather lukewarm fiscal year and to wash their hands of the past it now represented, management demanded that it go out on March 25, 1993, the last day of said year. As a result, the last third or so of Serpent Isle is painfully, obviously unfinished. Conversations become threadbare, plot lines are left to dangle, side quests disappear, and bugs start to sprout up everywhere you look. As the fiction becomes a thinner and thinner veneer pasted over the mechanical nuts and bolts of the design, solubility falls by the wayside. By the end, you’re wandering through a maze of obscure plot triggers that have no logical connection with the events they cause, making a walkthrough a virtual necessity. It’s a downright sad thing to have to witness. Had its team only been allowed another three or four months to finish the job, Serpent Isle could have been not only a great final old-school Ultima but one of the best CRPGs of any type that I’ve ever played, a surefire entrant in my personal gaming hall of fame. As it is, though, it’s a bitter failure, arguably the most heartbreaking one of Warren Spector’s storied career.

Unfashionable though such an approach was in 1993, almost all of the Serpent Isle team’s energy went into gameplay and script rather than multimedia assets; the game looks virtually identical to the first Ultima VII. An exception is the frozen northlands which you visit later in the game. Unfortunately, the change in scenery comes about the time that the design slowly begins to fall apart.

And there was to be one final note of cutting irony in all of this: Serpent Isle, which Origin released without a lot of faith in its commercial potential, garnered a surprisingly warm reception among critics and fans alike, and wound up selling almost as well as the first Ultima VII. Indeed, it performed so well that the subject of doing “more games in that vein,” in addition to or even instead of a more streamlined Ultima VIII, was briefly discussed at Origin. As things transpired, though, its success led only to an expansion pack called The Silver Seed before the end of the year; this modest effort became the true swansong for the Ultima VII engine, as well as the whole era of the 100-hour-plus, exploration-focused, free-form single-player CRPG at Origin in general. The very philosophy that had spawned the company, that had been at the core of its identity for the first decade of its existence, was fading into history. Warren Spector would later have this to say in reference to a period during which practical commercial concerns strangled the last shreds of idealism at Origin:

There’s no doubt RPGs were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn’t seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn’t want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that’s for sure! I couldn’t say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end-graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ any more.” Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.

If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn’t care much about graphics. Even high-end RPGs were pretty plain-jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans. That can work when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – even a few million – but when games start costing many millions, you just can’t make them for a relatively small audience of fans.

If Serpent Isle and its expansion were the last gasps of the Origin Systems that had been, the company’s other huge game of 1993 was every inch a product of the new Origin that had begun to take shape following the worldwide success of the first Wing Commander game. Chris Roberts, the father of Wing Commander, had been working on something called Strike Commander ever since late 1990, leaving Wing Commander II and all of the expansion packs and other spinoffs in the hands of other Origin staffers. The new game took the basic idea of the old — that of an action-oriented vehicular simulator with a strong story, told largely via between-mission dialog scenes — and moved it from the outer space of the far future to an Earth of a very near future, where the international order has broken down and mercenaries battle for control over the planet’s dwindling resources. You take to the skies in an F-16 as one of the mercenaries — one of the good ones, naturally.

Origin and Chris Roberts pulled out all the stops to make Strike Commander an audiovisual showcase; the game’s gestation time of two and a half years, absurdly long by the standards of the early 1990s, was a product of Roberts constantly updating his engine to take advantage of the latest cutting-edge hardware. The old Wing Commander engine was starting to look pretty long in the tooth by the end of 1992, so this new engine, which replaced its predecessor’s scaled sprites with true polygonal 3D graphics, was more than welcome. There’s no point in putting a modest face on it: Strike Commander looked downright spectacular in comparison with any other flight simulator on offer at the time. It was widely expected, both inside and outside of Origin, to become the company’s biggest game ever. In fact, it became the first Origin game to go gold in the United States — 100,000 copies sold to retail — before it had actually shipped there, thanks to the magic of pre-orders. Meanwhile European pre-orders topped 50,000, an all-time record for EA’s British subsidiary. All in all, more than 1.1 million Strike Commander floppy disks — 30 tons worth of plastic, metal, and iron oxide — were duplicated before a single unit was sold. Why not? This game was a sure thing.

The hype around Strike Commander was inescapable for months prior to its release. At the European Computer Trade Show in London, the last big event before the release, Origin put together a mock-up of an airplane hangar. Those lucky people who managed to seize control for few minutes got to play the game from behind a nose cowl and instrument panel. What Origin didn’t tell you was that the computer hidden away underneath all the window dressing was almost certainly much, much more powerful than one you had at home.

Alas, pride goeth before a fall. Just a couple of weeks after Strike Commander‘s worldwide release on April 23, 1993, Origin had to admit to themselves in their internal newsletter that sales from retail to actual end users were “slower than expected.” Consumers clearly weren’t as enamored with the change in setting as Origin and just about everyone else in their industry had assumed they would be. Transporting the Wing Commander formula into a reasonably identifiable version of the real world somehow made the story, which hovered as usual in some liminal space between comic book and soap opera, seem rather more than less ludicrous. At the same time, the use of an F-16 in place of a made-up star fighter, combined with the game’s superficial resemblance to the hardcore flight simulators of the day, raised expectations among some players which the game had never really been designed to meet. The editors of Origin’s newsletter complained, a little petulantly, about this group of sim jockeys who were “ready for a cockpit that had every gauge, altimeter, dial, and soft-drink holder in its proper place. This is basically the group which wouldn’t be happy unless you needed the $35 million worth of training the Air Force provides just to get the thing off the ground.” There were advantages, Origin was belatedly learning, to “simulating” a vehicle that had no basis in reality, as there were to fictions similarly divorced from the real world. In hitting so much closer to home, Strike Commander lost a lot of what had made Wing Commander so appealing.

The new game’s other problem was more immediate and practical: almost no one could run the darn thing well enough to actually have the experience Chris Roberts had intended it to be. Ever since Origin had abandoned the Apple II to make MS-DOS their primary development platform at the end of the 1980s, they’d had a reputation for pushing the latest hardware to its limit. This game, though, was something else entirely even from them. The box’s claim that it would run on an 80386 was a polite fiction at best; in reality, you needed an 80486, and one of the fastest ones at that — running at least at 50 MHz or, better yet, 66 MHz — if you wished to see anything like the silky-smooth visuals that Origin had been showing off so proudly at recent trade shows. Even Origin had to admit in their newsletter that customers had been “stunned” by the hardware Strike Commander craved. Pushed along by the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of Chris Roberts, who never had a passing fancy he didn’t want to rush right out and implement, they had badly overshot the current state of computing hardware.

Of course, said state was always evolving; it was on this fact that Origin now had to pin whatever diminished hopes they still had for Strike Commander. The talk of the hardware industry at the time was Intel’s new fifth-generation microprocessor, which abandoned the “x86” nomenclature in favor of the snazzy new focused-tested name of Pentium, another sign of how personal computers were continuing their steady march from being tools of businesspeople and obsessions of nerdy hobbyists into mainstream consumer-electronics products. Origin struck a promotional deal with Compaq Computers in nearby Houston, who, following what had become something of a tradition for them, were about to release the first mass-market desktop computer to be built around this latest Intel marvel. Compaq placed the showpiece that was Strike Commander-on-a-Pentium front and center at the big PC Expo corporate trade show that summer of 1993, causing quite a stir at an event that usually scoffed at games. “The fuse has only been lit,” went Origin’s cautiously optimistic new company line on Strike Commander, “and it looks to be a long and steady burn.”

But time would prove this optimism as well to be somewhat misplaced: one of those flashy new Compaq Pentium machines cost $7000 in its most minimalist configuration that summer. By the time prices had come down enough to make a Pentium affordable for gamers without an absurd amount of disposable income, other games with even more impressive audiovisuals would be available for showing off their hardware. Near the end of the year, Origin released an expansion pack for Strike Commander that had long been in the development pipeline, but that would be that: there would be no Strike Commander II. Chris Roberts turned his attention instead to Wing Commander III, which would raise the bar on development budget and multimedia ambition to truly unprecedented heights, not only for Origin but for their industry at large. After all, Wing Commander: Academy and Privateer, both of which had had a fraction of the development budget of Strike Commander but wound up selling just as well, proved that there was still a loyal, bankable audience out there for the core series.

Origin had good reason to play it safe now in this respect and others. When the one-year anniversary of the acquisition arrived, the accountants had to reveal to EA that their new subsidiary had done no more than break even so far. By most standards, it hadn’t been a terrible year at all: Ultima Underworld II, Serpent Isle, Wing Commander: Academy, and Wing Commander: Privateer had all more or less made money, and even Strike Commander wasn’t yet so badly underwater that all hope was lost on that front. But on the other hand, none of these games had turned into a breakout hit in the fashion of the first two Wing Commander games, even as the new facilities, new employees, and new titles going into development had cost plenty. EA was already beginning to voice some skepticism about some of Origin’s recent decisions. The crew in Austin really, really needed a home run rather than more base hits if they hoped to maintain their status in the industry and get back into their overlord’s good graces. Clearly 1994, which would feature a new mainline entry in both of Origin’s core properties for the first time since Ultima VI had dropped and Wing Commander mania had begun back in 1990, would be a pivotal year. Origin’s future was riding now on Ultima VIII and Wing Commander III.

(Sources: the book Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from March 13 1992, June 19 1992, July 31 1992, September 25 1992, October 23 1992, November 6 1992, December 4 1992, December 18 1992, January 29 1993, February 12 1993, February 26 1993, March 26 1993, April 9 1993, April 23 1993, May 7 1993, May 21 1993, June 18 1993, July 2 1993, August 27 1993, September 10 1993, October 13 1993, October 22 1993, November 8 1993, and December 1993; Questbusters of April 1986 and July 1987; Computer Gaming World of October 1992 and August 1993. Online sources include “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, “The Stars His Destination: Chris Roberts from Origin to Star Citizen at US Gamer, Shery Graner Ray’s blog entry “20 Years and Counting — Origin Systems,” and an interview with Warren Spector at RPG Codex.

All of the Origin games mentioned in this article are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Rick Loomis Could Use Your Help

Rick Loomis, the founder of Flying Buffalo, is ill with lymphatic cancer. His has been one of the quiet voices of influence behind the culture of gaming, both on the tabletop and on the computer, since the early 1970s. His company pioneered one of if not the first play-by-mail game run on a mainframe computer, the great ancestor to the ubiquitous multi-player online games of today. And, perhaps even more relevantly for readers of this blog in particular, it served as an incubator of writing and design talent — names like Michael Stackpole, Elizabeth Danforth, and Ken St. Andre — that would later leave a mark on such fondly remembered computer games as Wasteland, Neuromancer, and Star Trek: 25th Anniversary among others. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him personally, I know that he’s been considered one of the genuine Nice Guys in his industry for many years.

Unfortunately, the American medical system being what it is, Rick is forced to worry over medical bills and mounting debt during this critical time in his life. Anything you could pitch in to help with that would be greatly appreciated. You can do so at the Go Fund Me campaign set up by his friend Steve Crompton. Thanks!

 
 

Alone in the Dark

Most videogame stories are power fantasies. You spend your time getting ever stronger, ever tougher, ever more formidable as you accumulate experience points, gold, and equipment. Obstacles aren’t things to go around; they’re things you go through. If you can’t get past any given monster, the solution is to go kill some other monsters, then come back when you’re yet more powerful and slay the big beast at last. Life, these games tell us, is or ought to be one unadulterated ride up the escalator of success; a setback just means you haven’t yet risen high enough.

That dynamic held true in 1992 just as much as it usually does today. But during that year there came a well-nigh revolutionary game out of France that upended all of these traditional notions about what the medium of videogames can do and be. It cast you as a painfully ordinary, near-powerless individual adrift in a scary world, with no surefire panaceas in the form of experience points, gold, or portable rocket launchers to look forward to. It was just you and your wits, trapped in a haunted house full of creatures that were stronger than you and badly wanted to kill you. Despite its supernatural elements, this game’s scenario felt more disconcertingly close to real life than that of any of those other games. Here, you truly were alone in the dark. Aren’t we all from time to time?


Any story of how this shockingly innovative game came to be must begin with that of Frédérick Raynal, its mastermind. Born in the south-central French town of Brive-la-Gaillarde in 1966, Raynal was part of the first generation of European youths to have access to personal computers. In fact, right from the time his father first came home with a Sinclair ZX81, he was obsessed with them. He was also lucky: in a dream scenario for any budding hacker, his almost equally obsessed father soon added computers to the product line of the little videocassette-rental shop he owned, thus giving his son access to a wide variety of hardware. Raynal worked at the store during the day, renting out movies and watching them to kill the time — he was a particular fan of horror movies, a fact which would soon have a direct impact on his career — and helping customers with their computer problems. Then, with a nerdy young man’s total obliviousness to proportion, he hacked away most of the night on one or another of the machines he brought home with him. He programmed his very first released game, a platformer called Robix, in 1986 on an obscure home-grown French computer called the Exelvision which his father sold at the store. His father agreed to sell his son’s Exelvision game there as well, managing to shift about 80 units to customers desperate for software for the short-lived machine.

Raynal’s lifestyle was becoming so unbalanced that his family was beginning to worry about him. One day, he ran out of his room in a panic, telling them that all of the color had bled out of his vision. His mother bustled him off to an ophthalmologist, who told him he appeared to have disrupted the photoreceptors in his eyes by staring so long at a monitor screen. Thankfully, the condition persisted only a few hours. But then there came a day when he suddenly couldn’t understand anything that was said to him; he had apparently become so attuned to the language of computer code that he could no longer communicate with humans. That worrisome condition lasted several weeks.

Thus just about everyone around him took it as a good thing on the whole when he was called up for military service in 1988. Just before leaving, Raynal released his second game, this time for MS-DOS machines. Not knowing what else to do with it, he simply posted it online for free. Popcorn was a Breakout clone with many added bells and whistles, the latest entry in a sub-genre which was enjoying new popularity following the recent success of the Taito arcade game Arkanoid and its many ports to home computers and consoles. Raynal’s game could hold its head high in a crowded field, especially given its non-existent price tag. One magazine pronounced it one of the five best arcade games available for MS-DOS, whether commercial or free, and awarded it 21 points on a scale of 20.

Raynal was soon receiving letters at his military posting from all over the world. “Popcorn has made my life hell!” complained one player good-naturedly. Another wrote that “I caught acute Popcornitus. And, it being contagious, now my wife has it as well.” When Raynal completed his service in the summer of 1989, his reputation as the creator of Popcorn preceded him. Most of the companies in the French games industry were eager to offer him a job. His days working at his father’s computer store, it seemed, were behind him. The Lyon-based Infogrames, the most prominent French publisher of all, won the Raynal sweepstakes largely by virtue of its proximity to his hometown.

Yet Raynal quickly realized that the company he had elected to join was in a rather perilous state. An ambitious expansion into many European markets hadn’t paid off; in fact, it had very nearly bankrupted them. Bruno Bonnell, Infogrames’s co-founder and current chief executive, had almost sold the company to the American publisher Epyx, but that deal had fallen through as soon as the latter had gotten their first good look at the state of his books. It seemed that Infogrames would have to dig themselves out of the hole they’d made. Thus Bonnell had slashed costs and shed subsidiaries ruthlessly just to stay alive. Now, having staunched the worst of the bleeding, he knew that he needed as many talented programmers as he could get in order to rebuild his company — especially programmers like Raynal, who weren’t terribly assertive and were naive enough to work cheap. So, Raynal was hired as a programmer of ports, an unglamorous job but an absolutely essential one in a European market that had not yet consolidated around a single computer platform.

Bonnell, for his part, was the polar opposite of the shy computer obsessive he had just hired; he had a huge personality which put its stamp on every aspect of life at Infogrames. He believed his creativity to be the equal of anyone who worked for him, and wasn’t shy about tossing his staff ideas for games. He called one of them, which he first proposed when Raynal had been on the job for about a year, In the Dark. A typically high-concept French idea, its title was meant to be taken literally. The player would wander through a pitch-dark environment, striking the occasional match from her limited supply, but otherwise relying entirely on sound cues for navigation. Bonnell and Raynal were far from bosom buddies, then or ever, but this idea struck a chord with the young programmer.

As Raynal saw it, the question that would make or break the idea was that of how to represent a contiguous environment with enough verisimilitude to give the player an embodied sense of really being there in the dark. Clearly, a conventional adventure-game presentation, with its pixel graphics and static views, wouldn’t do. Only one approach could get the job done: 3D polygonal graphics. Not coincidentally, 3D was much on Raynal’s mind when he took up Bonnell’s idea; he’d been spending his days of late porting an abstract 3D puzzle game known as Continuum from the Atari ST to MS-DOS.

I’ve had occasion to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this burgeoning new approach to game-making in previous articles, so I won’t rehash that material here. Suffice to say that the interest so many European programmers had in 3D reflected not least a disparity in the computing resources available to them in comparison to their American counterparts. American companies in this period were employing larger and larger teams, who were filling handfuls of floppy disks — and soon CD-ROMs — with beautiful hand-drawn art and even digitized snippets of real-world video. European companies had nothing like the resources to compete with the Americans on those terms. But procedurally-generated 3D graphics offered a viable alternative. At this stage in the evolution of computer technology, they couldn’t possibly be as impressively photorealistic as hand-drawn pixel art or full-motion video, but they could offer far more flexible, interactive, immersive environments, with — especially when paired with a French eye for aesthetics — a certain more abstracted allure of their own.

This, then, was the road Raynal now started down. It was a tall order for a single programmer. Not only was he trying to create a functional 3D engine from scratch, but the realities of the European market demanded that he make it run on an 80286-class machine, hardware the Americans by now saw as outdated. Even Bonnell seemed to have no confidence in Raynal’s ability to bring his brainstorm to fruition. He allowed Raynal to work on it only on nights and weekends, demanding that he spend his days porting SimCity to the Commodore CDTV.

An artist named Didier Chanfray was the closest thing to a partner and confidante which Raynal had at Infogrames during his first year of working on the engine. It was Chanfray who provided the rudimentary graphics used to test it. And it was also Chanfray who, in September of 1991, saw the full engine in action for the first time. A character roamed freely around a room under the control of Raynal, able to turn about and bend his body and limbs at least semi-realistically. The scene could be viewed from several angles, and it could be lit — or not — by whatever light sources Raynal elected to place in the room. Even shadows appeared; that of the character rippled eerily over the furniture in the room as he moved from place to place. Chanfray had never seen anything like it. He fairly danced around Raynal’s desk, pronouncing it a miracle, magic, alchemy.

In the meantime, Bruno Bonnell had negotiated and signed a new licensing deal — not exactly a blockbuster, but something commensurate with a rebuilding Infogrames’s circumstances.


Something tentacled and other-worldly, it seems, got into the water at Infogrames from the start: Didier Chanfray provided this very Lovecraftian concept drawing for Raynal’s game long before the conscious decision was made to turn it a Lovecraft pastiche. Raynal kept the sketch tacked on the wall beside his desk throughout the project as a reminder of the atmosphere he was going for.

The American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who died well before the advent of the computer age in 1937, was nowhere near as well-known in 1991 as he is today, but his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos” of extra-dimensional alien beings, terrifying by virtue of their sheer indifference to humanity and its petty morality, had already made appearances in games. The very first work of ludic Lovecraftia would appear to be the 1979 computer game Kadath, an odd sort of parser-less text adventure. Two years later, at the height of the American tabletop-RPG craze, a small company called Chaosium published Call of Cthulhu, a game which subverted the power fantasy of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons in much the same way that Raynal’s project would soon be subverting that of so many computer games. Still, although Call of Cthulhu was well-supported by Chaosium and remained reasonably popular by the standards of its niche industry throughout the 1980s and beyond, its success didn’t lead to any Lovecraftian onslaught in the realm of digital games. The most notable early example of the breed is Infocom’s very effective 1987 interactive fiction The Lurking Horror. But, being all text at a time when text adventures were becoming hard sells, it didn’t make much commercial impact.

Now, though, Bonnell believed the time had come for a more up-to-date Lovecraftian computer game; he believed such a thing could do well, both in France and elsewhere.

Lovecraft had long had a strong following in France. From the moment his books were first translated into the language in 1954, they had sold in considerable numbers. Indeed, in 1991 H.P. Lovecraft was about as popular in France as he was anywhere — arguably more popular on a per-capita basis than in his native land. The game of Call of Cthulhu too had long since been translated into French, giving a potential digital implementation of it as much natural appeal there as in its homeland. So, Bonnell approached Chaosium about licensing their Call of Cthulhu rules for computers, and the American company agreed.

When viewed retrospectively, it seems a confusing deal to have made, one that really wasn’t necessary for what Infogrames would ultimately choose to do with Lovecraft. When Lovecraft died in obscurity and poverty, he left his literary estate in such a shambles that no one has ever definitively sorted out its confusing tangle of copyright claimants; his writing has been for all intents and purposes in the public domain ever since his death, despite numerous parties making claims to the contrary. Prior to publishing their Lovecraft tabletop RPG, Chaosium had nevertheless negotiated a deal with Arkham House, the publisher that has long been the most strident of Lovecraft’s copyright claimants. With that deal secured, Chaosium had promptly trademarked certain catchphrases, including “Call of Cthulhu” itself, in the context of games. Yet as it turned out Infogrames would use none of them; nor would they draw any plots directly from any of Lovecraft’s published stories. Like the countless makers of Lovecraftian games and stories that would follow them, they would instead draw from the author’s spirit and style of horror, whilst including just a few of his more indelible props, such as the forbidden book of occult lore known as the Necronomicon.

The first Lovecraftian game Infogrames would make would, of course, be the very game that Frédérick Raynal had now spent the last year or so prototyping during his free time. By the time news of his work reached Bonnell, most of Infogrames’s staff were already talking about it like the second coming. While the idea that had inspired it had been wonderfully innovative, it seemed absurd even to the original source of said idea to devote the best 3D engine anyone had ever seen to a game that literally wouldn’t let you see what it could do most of the time. It made perfect sense, on the other hand, to apply its creepy visual aesthetic to the Lovecraft license. The sense of dread and near-powerlessness that was so consciously designed into the tabletop RPG seemed a natural space for the computer game as well to occupy. It was true that it would have to be Call of Cthulhu in concept only: the kinetic, embodied, real-time engine Raynal had created wasn’t suitable for the turn-based rules of the tabletop RPG. For that matter, Raynal didn’t even like the Chaosium game all that much; he considered it too complicated to be fun.

Still, Bonnell, who couldn’t fail to recognize the potential of Raynal’s project, put whatever resources he could spare from his still-rebuilding company at the mild-mannered programmer’s disposal: four more artists to join Chanfray, a sound designer, a second programmer and project manager. When the team’s first attempts at writing an authentic-feeling Lovecraftian scenario proved hopelessly inadequate, Bonnell hired for the task Hubert Chardot, a screenwriter from 20th Century Fox’s French division, a fellow who loved Lovecraft so much that he had turned his first trip to the United States into a tour of his dead hero’s New England haunts. One of Chardot’s first suggestions was to add the word “alone” to the title of the game. He pointed out, correctly, that it would convey the sense of existential loneliness that was such an integral part of Lovecraftian horror — even, one might say, the very thing that sets it apart from more conventional takes on horror.

You can choose to enter the mansion as either of two characters.

The game takes place in the 1920s, the era of Lovecraft himself and of most of his stories (and thus the default era as well for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu game). It begins as you arrive in the deserted Louisiana mansion known as Derceto, whose owner Jeremy Hartwood has recently hanged himself. You play either as Edward Carnby, a relic hunter on the trail of a valuable piano owned by the deceased, or as Emily Hartwood, the deceased’s niece, eager to clear up the strange rumors that have dogged her uncle’s reputation and to figure out what really went down on his final night of life. The direction in which the investigation leads you will surprise no one familiar with Lovecraft’s oeuvre or Chaosium’s RPG: occult practices, forbidden books, “things man was never meant to know,” etc. But, even as Chardot’s script treads over this ground that was well-worn already in the early 1990s, it does so with considerable flair, slowly revealing its horrifying backstory via the books and journals you find hidden about the mansion as you explore. (There is no in-game dialog and no real foreground story whatsoever, only monsters and traps to defeat or avoid.) Like most ludic adaptations of Lovecraft, the game differs markedly from its source material only in that there is a victory state; the protagonist isn’t absolutely guaranteed to die or become a gibbering lunatic at the end.

One of the in-game journals, which nails the spirit and style of Lovecraft perfectly. As I noted in an earlier article about the writer, the emotion he does better than any other is disgust.

Yet Chaosium wasn’t at all pleased when Infogrames sent them an early build of the game for their stamp of approval. It seems that the American company had believed they were licensing not just their trademarks to their French colleagues, nor even the idea of a Lovecraft game in the abstract, but rather the actual Call of Cthulhu rules, which they had expected to see faithfully implemented. And, indeed, this may have been Bonnell’s intention when he was making the deal — until Raynal’s 3D engine had changed everything. Chaosium, who had evidently been looking forward to an equivalent of sorts to the Gold Box line of licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, felt betrayed. After some tense negotiation, they agreed to let Alone in the Dark continue without the Call of Cthulhu name on the box; some editions would include a note saying the game had been “inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft,” while others wouldn’t even go that far. In return for Chaosium’s largess on this front, Infogrames agreed to make a more conventional adventure game that would make explicit use of the Call of Cthulhu trademarks.

Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet, the fruit of that negotiation, would prove a serviceable game, albeit one that still didn’t make much direct use of the tabletop rules. But, whatever its merits, it would come and go without leaving much of a mark on an industry filled to bursting with graphical adventures much like it in terms of implementation. Alone in the Dark, on the other hand, would soon be taking the world by storm — and Chaosium could have had their name on it, a form of advertisement which could hardly have failed to increase their commercial profile dramatically. Chalk it up as just one more poor decision in the life of a company that had a strange talent for surviving — Chaosium is still around to this day — without ever quite managing to become really successful.

Infogrames got their first preview of just what an impact Alone in the Dark was poised to make in the spring of 1992, when Dany Boolauck, a journalist from the French videogame magazine Tilt, arrived to write a rather typical industry puff piece, a set of capsule previews of some of the company’s current works-in-progress. He never got any further than Alone in the Dark. After just a few minutes with it, he declared it “the best game of the last five years!” and asked for permission to turn the capsule blurb about it into a feature-length article, complete with a fawning interview with Raynal. (He described him in thoroughly overwrought terms: as a reincarnation of The Little Prince from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved novella of the same name.) In a “review” published in the summer of 1992, still a couple of months before Infogrames anticipated releasing the game, he gave it 19 of 20 stars, gushing over its “exceptional staging” and “almost perfect character movement,” calling it “a revolution in the field of play” that “people must buy!”

Bruno Bonnell was pleased with the positive press coverage, but less thrilled by Boolauck’s portrayal of Raynal as the game’s genius auteur. He called in his introverted young programmer, who seemed a bit befuddled by all the attention, and told him to scrub the words “a Frédérick Raynal creation” from the end credits. Alone in the Dark, he said, was an Infogrames creation, full stop. Raynal agreed, but a grievance began to fester in his heart.

Thanks to Bonnell’s policy of not advertising the individuals behind Infogrames’s games, Raynal’s name didn’t spread quite so far and wide as that of such other celebrated gaming auteurs as Éric Chahi, the mastermind of Another World, France’s standout game from the previous year. Nevertheless, upon its European release in September of 1992, Raynal’s game stood out on its own terms as something special — as an artistic creation that was not just fun or scary but important to its medium. As one would expect, the buzz started in France. “We review many games,” wrote one magazine there. “Some are terrible, some mediocre, some excellent. And occasionally there comes along the game that will revolutionize the world of microcomputers, one that causes sleepless nights, one that you cannot tear yourself away from, can only marvel at. We bid welcome now to the latest member of this exclusive club: Alone in the Dark.” By the end of 1992, the game was a hit not only in France but across most of Europe. Now for America.

Bonnell closed a deal with the American publisher Interplay for distribution of the game there. Interplay had also published Another World, which had turned into a big success Stateside, and the company’s head Brian Fargo was sure he saw similar potential in Alone in the Dark. He thus put the game through his company’s internal testing wringer, just as he had Another World; the French studios had their strengths, but such detail work didn’t tend to be among them. Raynal’s game became a much cleaner, much more polished experience thanks to Interplay’s QA team. Yet Bonnell still had big international ambitions for Infogrames, and he wasn’t willing to let such a remarkable game as this one share with Another World the fate of becoming known to American players simply as an Interplay title. Instead he convinced Fargo to accept a unique arrangement. Interplay and Infogrames each took a stake in a new shared American subsidiary known as I-Motion, under which imprint they published Alone in the Dark.

The game took North America by storm in early 1993, just as it had Europe a few months earlier. It was that rarest of things in games, a genuine paradigm shift; no one had ever seen one that played quite like this. Worldwide, it sold at least 400,000 copies, putting Infogrames on the map in the United States and other non-European countries in the process. Indeed, amidst the international avalanche of praise and punditry, perhaps the most gratifying press notice of all reached Frédérick Raynal’s ears from all the way off in Japan. Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Super Mario Bros. and many other iconic Nintendo classics, proclaimed Alone in the Dark to be, more so than any other game, the one he wished he could have come up with.


Arguably the creepiest visual in the game is the weird mannequin’s head of your own character. Its crudely painted expression rather smacks of Chucky the doll from the Child’s Play horror films.

Seen from the perspective of a modern player, however, the verdict on Alone in the Dark must be more mixed. Some historically important games transcend that status to remain vital experiences even today, still every bit as fun and playable as the day they were made. But others — and please forgive me the hoary old reviewer’s cliché! — haven’t aged as well. This game, alas, belongs to the latter category.

Today, in an era when 3D graphics have long since ceased to impress us simply for existing at all, those of Alone in the Dark are pretty painful to look at, all jagged pixels sticking out everywhere from grotesquely octagonal creatures. Textures simply don’t exist, leaving everything to be rendered out of broad swatches of single colors. And the engine isn’t even holistically 3D: the 3D characters move across pasted-on pre-rendered backgrounds, which looks decidedly awkward in many situations. (On the other hand, it could have been worse: Raynal first tried to build the backgrounds out of digitized photographs of a real spooky mansion, a truly unholy union that he finally had to give up on.) Needless to say, a comparison with the lovingly hand-drawn pixel art in the adventure games being put out by companies like LucasArts and Sierra during this period does the crude graphics found here no favors whatsoever. Some of the visuals verge on the unintentionally comical; one of the first monsters you meet was evidently meant to be a fierce dragon-like creature, but actually looks more like a sort of carnivorous chicken. (Shades of the dragon ducks from the original Atari Adventure…)

Dead again! Killed by… Prince during his Purple Rain period?

Then, too, the keyboard-only controls are clunky and unintuitive, and they aren’t made any less awkward by a fixed camera that’s constantly shifting about to new arbitrary locations as you move through the environment; some individual rooms have as many as nine separate camera angles. This is confusing as all get-out when you’re just trying to get a sense of the space, and quickly becomes infuriating when you’re being chased by a monster and really, really don’t have time to stop and adjust your thinking to a new perspective.

The more abstract design choices also leave something to be desired. Sudden deaths abound. The very first room of the game kills you when you step on a certain floorboard, and every book is either a source of backstory and clues or an instant game-ender; the only way to know which it is is to save your game and open it. Some of the puzzles are clever, some less so, but even those that are otherwise worthy too often depend on you standing in just the right position; if you aren’t, you get no feedback whatsoever on what you’re doing wrong, and are thus likely to go off on some other track entirely, never realizing how close you were to the solution. This fiddliness and lack of attention to the else in the “if, then, else” dynamic of puzzle design is a clear sign of a game that never got sufficiently tested for playability and solubility. At times, the game’s uncommunicativeness verges on the passive-aggressive. You’ll quickly grow to loathe the weirdly stilted message, “There is a mechanism which can be triggered here,” which the game is constantly spitting out at you as you gaze upon the latest pixelated whatsit. Is it a button? A knob? A keyhole? Who knows… in the end, the only viable course of action is to try every object in your inventory on it, then go back and start trying all the other objects you had to leave lying around the house thanks to your character’s rather brutal inventory limit.

Fighting is a strange, bloodless pantomime.

Yes, one might be able to write some of the game’s issues off as an aesthetic choice — as merely more ways to make the environment feel unsettling. Franck de Girolami, the second programmer on the development team as well as its project leader, has acknowledged using the disorienting camera consciously for just that purpose: “We realized that the camera angles in which the player was the most helpless were the best to bring in a monster. Players would instantly run for a view in which they felt comfortable.” While one does have to admire the team’s absolute commitment to the core concept of the game, the line between aesthetic choice and poor implementation is, at best, blurred in cases like this one.

And yet the fact remains that it was almost entirely thanks to that same commitment to its core concept that Alone in the Dark became one of the most important games of its era. Not a patch on a contemporary like Ultima Underworld as a demonstration of the full power and flexibility of 3D graphics — to be fair, it ran on an 80286 processor with just 640 K of memory while its texture-mapped, fully 3D rival demanded at least an 80386 with 2 MB — it remained conceptually unlike anything that had come before in daring to cast you as an ordinary mortal, weak and scared and alone, for whom any aspirations toward glory quickly turn into nothing more than a desperate desire to just escape the mansion. For all that it threw the Call of Cthulhu rules completely overboard, it retained this most fundamental aspect of its inspiration, bringing Chaosium’s greatest innovation to a digital medium for the first time. It’s not always impossible to kill the monsters in Alone in the Dark — often it’s even necessary to do so — but, with weapons and ammunition scarce and your health bar all too short, doing so never fails to feel like the literal death struggle it ought to. When you do win a fight, you feel more relieved than triumphant. And you’re always left with that nagging doubt in the back of the mind as you count your depleted ammo and drag your battered self toward the next room: was it worth it?


The legacy of this brave and important game is as rich as that of any that was released in its year, running along at least three separate tracks. We’ll begin with the subsequent career of Frédérick Raynal, its original mastermind.

The seeds of that career were actually planted a couple of weeks before the release of Alone in the Dark, when Raynal and others from Infogrames brought a late build of it to the European Computer Trade Show in London. There he met the journalist Dany Boolauck once again, learning in the process that Boolauck had switched gigs: he had left his magazine and now worked for Delphine Software, one of Infogrames’s French competitors. Delphine had recently lost the services of their biggest star: Éric Chahi, the auteur behind the international hit Another World. As his first assignment in his own new job, Boolauck had been given the task of replacing Chahi with a similarly towering talent. Raynal struck him as the perfect choice; he rather resembled Chahi in many respects, what with his very French aesthetic sensibility, his undeniable technical gifts, and his obsessive commitment to his work. Boolauck called in Paul de Senneville, the well-known composer who had launched Delphine Software as a spinoff from his record label of the same name, to add his dulcet voice to the mix. “We wish to place you in a setting where you will be able to create, where you will not be bullied, where we can make you a star,” said the distinguished older gentleman. “We want to give free rein to the fabulous talent you showed in Alone in the Dark.” When Raynal returned to Lyon to a reprimand from Bruno Bonnell for letting his game’s planned release date slip by a week, the contrast between his old boss and the possible new one who was courting him was painted all too clearly.

Much to Raynal’s dismay, Bonnell was already pushing him and the rest of the team that had made the first Alone in the Dark to make a sequel as quickly as possible using the exact same engine. One Friday just before the new year, Bonnell threw his charges a party to celebrate what he now believed would go down in history as the year when his struggling company turned the corner, thanks not least to Raynal’s game. On the following Monday morning, Raynal knocked on Bonnell’s office door along with three other members of the newly christened Alone in the Dark 2 team, including his most longstanding partner Didier Chanfray. They were all quitting, going to work for Delphine, Raynal said quietly. Much to their surprise, Bonnell offered to match Delphine’s offer, the first overt sign he’d ever given that he understood how talented and valuable they really were. But his counteroffer only prompted Delphine to raise the stakes again. Just after New Years Day, Bonnell bowed out of the bidding in a huff: “You want to leave? Goodbye!”

A couple of weeks later, the videogame magazine Génération 4 held an awards ceremony for the previous year’s top titles at Disneyland Paris. Everyone who had been involved with Alone in the Dark, both those who still worked at Infogrames and those who didn’t, was invited. When, as expected, it took the prize for top adventure game, Bruno Bonnell walked onto the stage to accept the award on behalf of his company. The departure of Raynal and crew being the talk of the industry, the room held its collective breath to see what would happen next. “My name is Bruno Bonnell,” he said from behind the rostrum. “I’d like to thank God, my dog, my grandmother, and of course the whole team at Infogrames for a beautiful project.” And with that he stumped offstage again.

It hadn’t been a particularly gracious acceptance speech, but Raynal and his colleagues nonetheless had much to feel good about. Dany Boolauck and Paul de Senneville were true to their word: they set Raynal up with a little auteur’s studio all his own, known as Adeline Software. They even allowed him to run it from Lyon rather than joining the rest of Delphine in Paris.

Naturally, all of the Alone in the Dark technology, along with the name itself and the Chaosium license (whatever that was worth), stayed with Infogrames. Raynal and his colleagues were thus forced to develop a new engine in the style of the old and to devise a fresh game idea for it to execute. Instead of going dark again, they went light. Released in 1994, Little Big Adventure (known as Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure in North America) was a poetic action-adventure set in a whimsical world of cartoon Impressionism, consciously conceived by Raynal as an antidote to the ultra-violent Doom mania that was sweeping the culture of gaming at the time. He followed it up in 1997 with Little Big Adventure 2 (known as Twinsen’s Odyssey in North America). Although both games were and remain lovely to look at, Raynal still struggled to find the right balance between the art and the science of game design; both games are as absurdly punishing to play as they are charming to watch, with a paucity of save points between the countless places where they demand pin-point maneuvering and split-second timing. This sort of thing was, alas, something of a theme with the French games industry for far too many years.

This, then, is one legacy of Alone in the Dark. Another followed on even more directly, taking the form of the two sequels which Infogrames published in 1993 and 1994. Both used the same engine, as Bruno Bonnell had demanded in the name of efficiency, and both continued the story of the first game, with Edward Carnby still in the role of protagonist. (Poor Emily Hartwood got tossed by the wayside.) But, although Hubert Chardot once again provided their scripts, much of the spirit of the first game got lost, as the development team began letting the player get away with much more head-to-head combat. Neither sequel garnered as many positive reviews or sales as the original game, and Infogrames left the property alone for quite some time thereafter. A few post-millennial attempts to revive the old magic, still without the involvement of Raynal, have likewise yielded mixed results at best.

But it’s with Alone in the Dark‘s third legacy, its most important by far, that we should close. For several years, few games — not even its own sequels — did much to build upon the nerve-wracking style of play it had pioneered. But then, in 1996, the Japanese company Capcom published a zombie nightmare known as Resident Evil for the Sony Playstation console. “When I first played Resident Evil,” remembers Infogrames programmer Franck de Girolami, “I honestly thought it was plagiarism. I could recognize entire rooms from Alone in the Dark.” Nevertheless, Resident Evil sold in huge numbers on the consoles, reaching a mass market the likes of which Alone in the Dark, being available only on computers and the 3DO multimedia appliance, could never have dreamed. In doing so, it well and truly cemented the new genre that became known as survival-horror, which had gradually filtered its way up from the obscure works of a poverty-stricken writer to a niche tabletop RPG to a very successful computer game to a mainstream ludic blockbuster. Culture does move in mysterious ways sometimes, doesn’t it?

(Sources: the books La Saga des Jeux Vidéo by Daniel Ichbiah, Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry, Volume 1 by Shannon Appelcline, and Alone in the Dark: The Official Strategy Guide by Johan Robson; Todd David Spaulding’s PhD thesis H.P. Lovecraft & The French Connection: Translations, Pulps, and Literary History”; Computer Gaming World of February 1993; Amiga Format of June 1991; Edge of November 1994; Retro Gamer 98. Online sources include Adventure Europe‘s interview with Frédérick Raynal, Just Adventure‘s interview with Hubert Chardot, and the video of Frédérick Raynal’s Alone in the Dark postmortem at the 2012 Game Developers Conference. Note that many of the direct quotations in this article were translated by me into English from their French originals.

The original Alone in the Dark trilogy is available as a package download at GOG.com.)

 
 

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Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

Fair warning: spoilers for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers are to be found herein!

In 1989, a twenty-something professional computer programmer and frustrated horror novelist named Jane Jensen had a close encounter with King’s Quest IV that changed her life. She was so inspired by the experience of playing her first adventure game that she decided to apply for a job with Sierra Online, the company that had made it. In fact, she badgered them relentlessly until they finally hired her as a jack-of-all-trades writer in 1990.

Two and a half years later, after working her way up from writing manuals and incidental in-game dialog to co-designing the first EcoQuest game with Gano Haine and the sixth King’s Quest game with Roberta Williams, she had proved herself sufficiently in the eyes of her managers to be given a glorious opportunity: the chance to make her very own game on her own terms. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition; she was to be given carte blanche by the biggest adventure developer in the industry at the height of the genre’s popularity to make exactly the game she wanted to make. Small wonder that she would so often look back upon it wistfully in later years, after the glory days of adventure games had become a distant memory.

For her big chance, Jensen proposed making a Gothic horror game unlike anything Sierra had attempted before, with a brooding and psychologically complex hero, a detailed real-world setting, and a complicated plot dripping with the lore of the occult. Interestingly, Jensen remembers her superiors being less than thrilled with the new direction. She says that Ken Williams in particular was highly skeptical of the project’s commercial viability: “Okay, I’ll let you do it, but I wish you’d come up with something happier!”

But even if Jensen’s recollections are correct, we can safely say that Sierra’s opinion changed over the year it took to make Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. By the time it shipped on November 24, 1993, it fit in very well with a new direction being trumpeted by Ken Williams in his editorials for the company’s newsletter: a concerted focus on more “adult,” sophisticated fictions, as exemplified not only by Sins of the Fathers but by a “gritty” new Police Quest game and another, more lurid horror game which Roberta Williams had in the works. Although the older, more lighthearted and ramshackle [this, that, and the other] Quest series which had made Sierra’s name in adventure games would continue to appear for a while longer, Williams clearly saw these newer concepts as the key to a mass market he was desperately trying to unlock. Games like these were, theoretically anyway, able to appeal to demographics outside the industry’s traditional customers — to appeal to the sort of people who had hitherto preferred an evening in front of a television to one spent in front of a monitor.

Thus Sierra put a lot of resources into Sins of the Fathers‘s presentation and promotion. For example, the box became one of the last standout packages in an industry moving inexorably toward standardization on that front; in lieu of anything so dull as a rectangle, it took the shape of two mismatched but somehow conjoined triangles. Sierra even went so far as to hire Tim Curry of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, Mark Hamill of Star Wars, and Michael Dorn of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the CD-ROM version’s voice-acting cast.

Jane Jensen with the first Gabriel Knight project’s producer and soundtrack composer Robert Holmes, who would later become her husband, and the actor Tim Curry, who provided the voice of Gabriel using a thick faux-New Orleans accent which some players judge hammy, others charming.

In the long run, the much-discussed union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood that led studios like Sierra to cast such high-profile names at considerable expense would never come to pass. In the meantime, though, the game arrived at a more modestly propitious cultural moment. Anne Rice’s Gothic vampire novels, whose tonal similarities to Sins of the Fathers were hard to miss even before Jensen began to cite them as an inspiration in interviews, were all over the bestseller lists, and Tom Cruise was soon to star in a major motion picture drawn from the first of them. Even in the broader world of games around Sierra, the influence of Rice and Gothic horror more generally was starting to make itself felt. On the tabletop, White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade was exploding in popularity just as Dungeons & Dragons was falling on comparatively hard times; the early 1990s would go down in tabletop history as the only time when a rival system seriously challenged Dungeons & Dragons‘s absolute supremacy. And then there was the world of music, where dark and slinky albums from bands like Nine Inch Nails and Massive Attack were selling in the millions.

Suffice to say, then, that “goth” culture in general was having a moment, and Sins of the Fathers was perfectly poised to capitalize on it. The times were certainly a far cry from just half a decade before, when Amy Briggs had proposed an Anne Rice-like horror game to her bosses at Infocom, only to be greeted with complete incomprehension.

Catching the zeitgeist paid off: Sins of the Fathers proved, if not quite the bridge to the Hollywood mainstream Ken Williams might have been longing for, one of Sierra’s most popular adventure games of its time. An unusual number of its fans were female, a demographic oddity it had in common with all of the other Gothic pop culture I’ve just mentioned. These female fans in particular seemed to get something from the game’s brooding bad-boy hero that they perhaps hadn’t realized they’d been missing. While games that used sex as a selling point were hardly unheard of in 1993, Sins of the Fathers stood out in a sea of Leisure Suit Larry and Spellcasting games for its orientation toward the female rather than the male gaze. In this respect as well, its arrival was perfectly timed, coming just as relatively more women and girls were beginning to use computers, thanks to the hype over multimedia computing that was fueling a boom in their sales.

But there was more to Sins of the Father‘s success than its arrival at an opportune moment. On the contrary: the game’s popularity has proved remarkably enduring over the decades since its release. It spawned two sequels later in the 1990s that are almost as adored as the first game, and still places regularly at or near the top of lists of “best adventure games of all time.” Then, too, it’s received an unusual amount of academic attention for a point-and-click graphic adventure in the traditional style (a genre which, lacking both the literary bona fides of textual interactive fiction and the innate ludological interest of more process-intensive genres, normally tends to get short shrift in such circles). You don’t have to search long in the academic literature to find painfully earnest grad-student essays contrasting the “numinous woman” Roberta Williams with the “millennium woman” Jane Jensen, or “exploring Gabriel as a particular instance of the Hero archetype.”

So, as a hit in its day and a hit still today with both the fans and the academics, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers must be a pretty amazing game, right? Well… sure, in the eyes of some. For my own part, I see a lot of incongruities, not only in the game itself but in the ways it’s been received over the years. It strikes me as having been given the benefit of an awful lot of doubts, perhaps simply because there have been so very few games like it. Sins of the Fathers unquestionably represents a noble effort to stretch its medium. But is it truly a great game? And does its story really, as Sierra’s breathless press release put it back in the day, “rival the best film scripts?” Those are more complicated questions.

But before I begin to address them, we should have a look at what the game is all about, for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of Gabriel Knights’s acquaintance.

Our titular hero, then, is a love-em-and-leave-em bachelor who looks a bit like James Dean and comes complete with a motorcycle, a leather jacket, and the requisite sensitive side concealed underneath his rough exterior. He lives in the backroom of the bookshop he owns in New Orleans, from which he churns out pulpy horror novels to supplement his paltry income. Grace Nakamura, a pert university student on her summer holidays, works at the bookshop as well, and also serves as Gabriel’s research assistant and verbal sparring partner, a role which comes complete with oodles of sexual tension.

Gabriel’s bedroom. What woman wouldn’t be excited to be brought back here?

Over the course of the game, Gabriel stumbles unto a centuries-old voodoo cult which has a special motivation to make him their latest human sacrifice. While he’s at it, he also falls into bed with the comely Malia, the somewhat reluctant leader of the cult. He learns amidst it all that not just voodoo spirits but many other things that go bump in the night — werewolves, vampires, etc. — are in fact real. And he learns that he’s inherited the mantle of Schattenjäger — “Shadow Hunter” — from his forefathers, and that his family’s legacy as battlers of evil stretches back to Medieval Germany. (The symbolism of his name is, as Jensen herself admits, not terribly subtle: “Gabriel” was the angel who battled Lucifer in Paradise Lost, while “Knight” means that he’s, well, a knight, at least in the metaphorical sense.) After ten days jam-packed with activity, which take him not only all around New Orleans but to Germany and Benin as well — Sins of the Fathers is a very generous game indeed in terms of length — Gabriel must choose between his love for Malia and his new role of Schattenjäger. Grace is around throughout: to serve as the good-girl contrast to the sultry Malia (again, the symbolism of her name isn’t subtle), to provide banter and research, and to pull Gabriel’s ass bodily out of the fire at least once. If Gabriel makes the right choice at the end of the game, the two forge a tentative partnership to continue the struggle against darkness even as they also continue to deny their true feelings for one another.

As we delve into what the game does well and poorly amidst all this, it strikes me as useful to break the whole edifice down along the classic divide of its interactivity versus its fiction. (If you’re feeling academic, you can refer to this dichotomy as its ludological versus its narratological components; if you’re feeling folksy, you can call it its crossword versus its narrative.) Even many of the game’s biggest fans will admit that the first item in the pairing has its problematic aspects. So, perhaps we should start there rather than diving straight into some really controversial areas. That said, be warned that the two things are hard to entirely separate from one another; Sins of the Fathers works best when the two are in harmony, while many of its problems come to the fore when the two begin to clash.

Let’s begin, though, with the things Sins of the Fathers gets right in terms of design. While I don’t know that it is, strictly speaking, impossible to lock yourself out of victory while still being able to play on, you certainly would have to be either quite negligent or quite determined to manage it at any stage before the endgame. This alone shows welcome progress for Sierra — shows that the design revolution wrought by LucasArts’s The Secret of Monkey Island was finally penetrating even this most stalwart redoubt of the old, bad way of making adventure games.

Snarking aside, we shouldn’t dismiss Jensen’s achievement here; it’s not easy to make such an intricately plot-driven game so forgiving. The best weapon in her arsenal is the use of an event-driven rather than a clock-driven timetable for advancing the plot. Each of the ten days has a set of tasks you must accomplish before the day ends, although you aren’t explicitly told what they are. You have an infinite amount of clock time to accomplish these things at your own pace. When you eventually do so — and even sometimes when you accomplish intermediate things inside each day — the plot machinery lurches forward another step or two via an expository cut scene and the interactive world around you changes to reflect it. Sins of the Fathers was by no means the first game to employ such a system; as far as I know, that honor should go to Infocom’s 1986 text adventure Ballyhoo. Yet this game uses it to better effect than just about any game that came before it. In fact, the game as a whole is really made tenable only by this technique of making the plot respond to the player’s actions rather than forcing the player to race along at the plot’s pace; the latter would be an unimaginable nightmare to grapple with in a story with this many moving parts. When it works well, which is a fair amount of the time, the plot progression feels natural and organic, like you truly are in the grip of a naturally unfolding story.

The individual puzzles that live within this framework work best when they’re in harmony with the plot and free of typical adventure-game goofiness. A good example is the multi-layered puzzle involving the Haitian rada drummers whom you keep seeing around New Orleans. Eventually, a victim of the voodoo cult tells you just before he breathes his last that the drummers are the cult’s means of communicating with one another across the city. So, you ask Grace to research the topic of rada drums. Next day, she produces a book on the subject filled with sequences encoding various words and phrases. When you “use” this book on one of the drummers, it brings up a sort of worksheet which you can use to figure out what he’s transmitting. Get it right, and you learn that a conclave is to be held that very night in a swamp outside the city.

Working out a rada-drum message.

This is an ideal puzzle: complicated but not insurmountable, immensely satisfying to solve. Best of all, solving it really does make you feel like Gabriel Knight, on the trail of a mystery which you must unravel using your own wits and whatever information you can dig up from the resources at your disposal.

Unfortunately, not all or even most of the puzzles live up to that standard. A handful are simply bad puzzles, full stop, testimonies both to the fact that every puzzle is always harder than its designer thinks it is and to Sierra’s disinterest in seeking substantive feedback on its games from actual players before releasing them. For instance, there’s the clock/lock that expects you to intuit the correct combination of rotating face and hands from a few scattered, tangential references elsewhere in the game to the number three and to dragons.

Even the rather brilliant rada-drums bit goes badly off the rails at the end of the game, when you’re suddenly expected to use a handy set of the drums to send a message of your own. This requires that you first read Jane Jensen’s mind to figure out what general message out of the dozens of possibilities she wants you to send, then read her mind again to figure out the exact grammar she wants you to use. When you get it wrong, as you inevitably will many times, the game gives you no feedback whatsoever. Are you doing the wrong thing entirely? Do you have the right idea but are sending the wrong message? Or do you just need to change up your grammar a bit? The game isn’t telling; it’s too busy killing you on every third failed attempt.

Other annoyances are the product not so much of poor puzzle as poor interface design. In contrast to contemporaneous efforts from competitors like LucasArts and Legend Entertainment, Sierra games made during this period still don’t show hot spots ripe for interaction when you mouse over a scene. So, you’re forced to click on everything indiscriminately, which most of the time leads only to the narrator intoning the same general room description over and over in her languid Caribbean patois. The scenes themselves are well-drawn, but their muted colors, combined with their relatively low resolution and the lack of a hot-spot finder, constitute something of a perfect storm for that greatest bane of the graphic adventure, the pixel hunt. One particularly egregious example of the syndrome, a snake scale you need to find at a crime scene on a beach next to Lake Pontchartrain, has become notorious as an impediment that stops absolutely every player in her tracks. It reveals the dark flip side of the game’s approach to plot chronology: that sinking feeling when the day just won’t end and you don’t know why. In this case, it’s because you missed a handful of slightly discolored pixels surrounded by a mass of similar hues — or, even if you did notice them, because you failed to click on them exactly.

You have to click right where the cursor is to learn from the narrator that “the grass has a matted appearance there.” Break out the magnifying glass!

But failings like these aren’t ultimately the most interesting to talk about, just because they were so typical and so correctable, had Sierra just instituted a set of commonsense practices that would have allowed them to make better games. Much more interesting are the places that the interactivity of Sins of the Fathers clashes jarringly with the premise of its fiction. For it’s here, we might speculate, that the game is running into more intractable problems — perhaps even running headlong into the formal limitation of the traditional graphic adventure as a storytelling medium.

Take, for example, the point early in the game when Gabriel wants to pay a visit to Malia at her palatial mansion, but, as a mere civilian, can’t get past the butler. Luckily, he happens to have a pal at the police department — in fact, his best friend in the whole world, an old college buddy named Mosely. Does he explain his dilemma to Mosely and ask for help? Of course not! This is, after all, an adventure game. He decides instead to steal Mosely’s badge. When he pays the poor fellow a visit at his office, he sees that Mosely’s badge is pinned, as usual, to his jacket. So, Gabriel sneaks over to turn up the thermostat in the office, which causes Mosely to remove the jacket and hang it over the back of his chair. Then Gabriel asks him to fetch a cup of coffee, and completes the theft while he’s out of the room. With friends like that…

Gabriel is turned away from Malia’s door…

…but no worries, he can just figure out how to steal a badge from his best friend and get inside that way.

In strictly mechanical terms, this is actually a clever puzzle, but it illustrates the tonal and thematic inconsistencies that dog the game as a whole. Sadly, puzzles like the one involving the rada drums are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, you’re dealing instead with arbitrary roadblocks like this one that have nothing whatsoever to do with the mystery you’re trying to solve. It becomes painfully obvious that Jensen wrote out a static story outline suitable for a movie or novel, then went back to devise the disconnected puzzles that would make a game out of it.

But puzzles like this are not only irrelevant: they’re deeply, comprehensively silly, and this silliness flies in the face of Sins of the Fathers‘s billing as a more serious, character-driven sort of experience than anything Sierra had done to date. Really, how can anyone take a character who goes around doing stuff like this seriously? You can do so, I would submit, only by mentally bifurcating the Gabriel you control in the interactive sequences from the Gabriel of the cut scenes and conversations. That may work for some — it must, given the love that’s lavished on this game by so many adventure fans — but the end result nevertheless remains creatively compromised, two halves of a work of art actively pulling against one another.

Gabriel sneaks into the backroom of a church and starts stealing from the priests. That’s normal behavior for any moodily romantic protagonist, right? Right?

It’s at points of tension like these that Sins of the Fathers raises the most interesting and perhaps troubling questions about the graphic adventure as a genre. Many of its puzzles are, as I already noted, not bad puzzles in themselves; they’re only problematic when placed in this fictional context. If Sins of the Fathers was a comedy, they’d be a perfectly natural fit. This is what I mean when I say, as I have repeatedly in the past, that comedy exerts a strong centrifugal pull on any traditional puzzle-solving adventure game. And this is why most of Sierra’s games prior to Sins of the Fathers were more or less interactive cartoons, why LucasArts strayed afield from that comfortable approach even less often than Sierra, and, indeed, why comedies have been so dominant in the annals of adventure games in general.

The question must be, then, whether the pull of comedy can be resisted — whether compromised hybrids like this one are the necessary end result of trying to make a serious graphic adventure. In short, is the path of least resistance the only viable path for an adventure designer?

For my part, I believe the genre’s tendency to collapse into comedy can be resisted, if the designer is both knowing and careful. The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, released the year before Sins of the Fathers, is a less heralded game than the one I write about today, but one which works better as a whole in my opinion, largely because it sticks to its guns and remains the type of fiction it advertises itself to be, eschewing goofy roadblock puzzles in favor of letting you solve the mystery at its heart. By contrast, you don’t really solve the mystery for yourself at all in Sins of the Fathers; it solves the mystery for you while you’re jumping Gabriel through all the irrelevant hoops it sets in his path.

But let’s try to set those issues aside now and engage with Sins of the Fathers strictly in terms of the fiction that lives outside the lines of its interactivity. As many of you doubtless know, I’m normally somewhat loathe to do that; it verges on a tautology to say that interactivity is the defining feature of games, and thus it seems to me that any given game’s interactivity has to work, without any qualifiers, as a necessary precondition to its being a good game. Still, if any game might be able to sneak around that rule, it ought to be this one, so often heralded as a foremost exemplar of sophisticated storytelling in a ludic context. And, indeed, it does fare better on this front in my eyes — not quite as well as some of its biggest fans claim, but better.

The first real scene of Sins of the Fathers tells us we’re in for an unusual adventure-game experience, with unusual ambitions in terms of character and plot development alike. We meet Gabriel and Grace in medias res, as the former stumbles out of his backroom bedroom to meet the latter already at her post behind the cash register in the bookstore. Over the next couple of minutes, we learn much about them as people through their banter — and, tellingly, pretty much nothing about what the real plot of the game will come to entail. This is Bilbo holding his long-expected party, Wart going out to make hay; Jane Jensen is settling in to work the long game.

As Jensen slowly pulls back the curtain on what the game is really all about over the hours that follow, she takes Gabriel through that greatest rarity in interactive storytelling, a genuine internal character arc. The Gabriel at the end of the game, in other words, is not the one we met at the beginning, and for once the difference isn’t down to his hit points or armor class. If we can complain that we’re mostly relegated to solving goofy puzzles while said character arc plays out in the cut scenes, we can also acknowledge how remarkable it is for existing at all.

Jensen is a talented writer with a particular affinity for just the sort of snappy but revealing dialog that marks that first scene of the game. If anything, she’s better at writing these sorts of low-key “hang-out” moments than the scenes of epic confrontation. It’s refreshing to see a game with such a sense of ease about its smaller moments, given that the talents and interests of most game writers tend to run in just the opposite direction.

Then, too, Jensen has an intuitive understanding of the rhythm of effective horror. As any master of the form from Stephen King to the Duffer Brothers will happily tell you if you ask them, you can’t assault your audience with wall-to-wall terror. Good horror is rather about tension and release — the horrific crescendos fading into moments of calm and even levity, during which the audience has a chance to catch its collective breath and the knots in their stomachs have a chance to un-clench. Certainly we have to learn to know and like a story’s characters before we can feel vicarious horror at their being placed in harm’s way. Jensen understands all these things, as do the people working with her.

Indeed, the production values of Sins of the Fathers are uniformly excellent in the context of its times. The moody art perfectly complements the story Jensen has scripted, and the voice-acting cast — both the big names who head it and the smaller ones who fill out the rest of the roles — are, with only one or two exceptions, solid. The music, which was provided by the project’s producer Robert Holmes — he began dating Jensen while the game was in production, and later became her husband and constant creative partner — is catchy, memorable, and very good at setting the mood, if perhaps not hugely New Orleans in flavor. (More on that issue momentarily.)

Still, there are some significant issues with Sins of the Fathers even when it’s being judged purely as we might a work of static fiction. Many of these become apparent only gradually over time — this is definitely a game that puts its best foot forward first — but at least one of them is front and center from the very first scene. To say that much of Gabriel’s treatment of Grace hasn’t aged well hardly begins to state the case. Their scenes together often play like a public-service video from the #MeToo movement, as Gabriel sexually harasses his employee like Donald Trump with a fresh bottle of Viagra in his back pocket. Of course, Jensen really intends for Gabriel to be another instance of the archetypal charming rogue — see Solo, Han, and Jones, Indiana — and sometimes she manages to pull it off. At far too many others, though, the writing gets a little sideways, and the charming rogue veers into straight-up jerk territory. The fact that Grace is written as a smart, tough-minded young woman who can give as good as she gets doesn’t make him seem like any less of a sleazy creep, more Leisure Suit Larry than James Dean.

I’m puzzled and just a little bemused that so many academic writers who’ve taken it upon themselves to analyze the game from an explicitly feminist perspective can ignore this aspect of it entirely. I can’t help but suspect that, were Sins of the Fathers the product of a male designer, the critical dialog that surrounds it would be markedly different in some respects. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this double standard is justified or not in light of our culture’s long history of gender inequality.

As the game continues, the writing starts to wear thin in other ways. Gabriel’s supposed torrid love affair with Malia is, to say the least, unconvincing, with none of the naturalism that marks the best of his interactions with Grace. Instead it’s in the lazy mold of too many formulaic mass-media fictions, where two attractive people fall madly in love for no discernible reason that we can identify. The writer simply tells us that they do so, by way of justifying an obligatory sex scene or two. Here, though, we don’t even get the sex scene.

Pacing also starts to become a significant problem as the game wears on. Admittedly, this is not always so much because the writer in Jane Jensen isn’t aware of its importance to effective horror as because pacing in general is just so darn difficult to control in any interactive work, especially one filled with road-blocking puzzles like this one. Even if we cut Jensen some slack on this front, however, sequences like Gabriel’s visit to Tulane University, where he’s subjected to a long non-interactive lecture that might as well be entitled “Everything Jane Jensen Learned about Voodoo but Can’t Shoehorn in Anywhere Else,” are evidence of a still fairly inexperienced writer who doesn’t have a complete handle on this essential element of storytelling and doesn’t have anyone looking over her shoulder to edit her work. She’s done her research, but hasn’t mastered the Zen-like art of letting it subtly inform her story and setting. Instead she infodumps it all over us in about the most unimaginative way you can conceive: in the form of a literal classroom lecture.

Gabriel with Professor Infodump.

The game’s depiction of New Orleans itself reveals some of the same weaknesses. Yes, Jensen gets the landmarks and the basic geography right. But I have to say, speaking as someone who loves the city dearly and has spent a fair amount of time there over the years, that the setting of the game never really feels like New Orleans. What’s missing most of all, I think, is any affinity for the music that so informs daily life in the city, giving the streets a (literal) rhythm unlike anywhere else on earth. (Robert Holmes’s soundtrack is fine and evocative in its own right; it’s just not a New Orleans soundtrack.) I was thus unsurprised to learn that Jensen never actually visited New Orleans before writing and publishing a game set there. Tellingly, her depiction has more to do with the idiosyncratic, Gothic New Orleans found in Anne Rice novels than it does with the city I know.

The plotting too gets more wobbly as time goes on. A linchpin moment comes right at the mid-point of the ten days, when Gabriel makes an ill-advised visit to one of the cult’s conclaves — in fact, the one he located via the afore-described rada-drums puzzle — and nearly gets himself killed. Somehow Grace, of all people, swoops in to rescue him; I still have no idea precisely what is supposed to have happened here, and neither, judging at least from the fan sites I’ve consulted, does anyone else. I suspect that something got cut here out of budget concerns, so perhaps it’s unfair to place this massive non sequitur at the heart of the game squarely on Jensen’s shoulders.

But other problems with the plotting aren’t as easy to find excuses for. There is, for example, the way that Gabriel can fly from New Orleans to Munich and still have hours of daylight at his disposal when he arrives on the same day. (I could dismiss this as a mere hole in Jensen’s research, the product of an American designer unfamiliar with international travel, if she hadn’t spent almost a year living in Germany prior to coming to Sierra.) In fact, the entirety of Gabriel’s whirlwind trip from the United States to Germany to Benin and back home again feels incomplete and a little half-baked, from its cartoonish German castle, which resembles a piece of discarded art from a King’s Quest game, to its tedious maze inside an uninteresting African burial mound that likewise could have been found in any of a thousand other adventure games. Jensen would have done better to keep the action in New Orleans rather than suddenly trying to turn the game into a globetrotting adventure at the eleventh hour, destroying its narrative cohesion in the process.

Suddenly we’re in… Africa? How the hell did that happen?

As in a lot of fictions of this nature, the mysteries at the heart of Sins of the Fathers are also most enticing in the game’s earlier stages than they have become by its end. To her credit, Jensen knows exactly what truths lie behind all of the mysteries and deceptions, and she’s willing to show them to us; Sins of the Fathers does have a payoff. Nevertheless, it’s all starting to feel a little banal by the time we arrive at the big climax inside the voodoo cult’s antiseptic high-tech headquarters. It’s easier to be scared of shadowy spirits of evil from the distant past than it is of voodoo bureaucrats flashing their key cards in a complex that smacks of a Bond villain’s secret hideaway.

The tribal art on the wall lets you know this is a voodoo cult’s headquarters. Somehow I never expected elevators and fluorescent lighting in such a place…

Many of you — especially those of you who count yourselves big fans of Sins of the Fathers — are doubtless saying by now that I’m being much, much too hard on it. And you have a point; I am holding this game’s fiction to a higher standard than I do that of most adventure games. In a sense, though, the game’s very conception of itself makes it hard for a critic to avoid doing so. It so clearly wants to be a more subtle, more narratively and thematically rich, more “adult” adventure game that I feel forced to take it at its word and hold it to that higher standard. One could say, then, that the game becomes a victim of its own towering ambitions. Certainly all my niggling criticisms shouldn’t obscure the fact that, for all that its reach does often exceed its grasp, it’s brave of the game to stretch itself so far at all.

That said, I can’t help but continue to see Sins of the Fathers more as a noble failure than a masterpiece, and I can’t keep myself from placing much of the blame at the feet of Sierra rather than Jane Jensen per se. I played it most recently with my wife, as I do many of the games I write about here. She brings a valuable perspective because she’s much, much smarter than I am but couldn’t care less about where, when, or whom the games we play came from; they’re strictly entertainments for her. At some point in the midst of playing Sins of the Fathers, she turned to me and remarked, “This would probably have been a really good game if it had been made by that other company.”

I could tell I was going to have to dig a bit to ferret out her meaning: “What other company?”

“You know, the one that made that time-travel game we played with the really nerdy guy and that twitchy girl, and the one about the dog and the bunny. I think they would have made sure everything just… worked better. You know, fixed all of the really irritating stuff, and made sure we didn’t have to look at a walkthrough all the time.”

That “other company” was, of course, LucasArts.

One part of Sins of the Fathers in particular reminds me of the differences between the two companies. There comes a point where Gabriel has to disguise himself as a priest, using a frock stolen from St. Louis Cathedral and some hair gel from his own boudoir, in order to bilk an old woman out of her knowledge of voodoo. This is, needless to say, another example of the dissonance between the game’s serious plot and goofy puzzles, but we’ve covered that ground already. What’s more relevant right now is the game’s implementation of the sequence. Every time you visit the old woman — which will likely be several times if you aren’t playing from a walkthrough — you have to laboriously prepare Gabriel’s disguise all over again. It’s tedium that exists for no good reason; you’ve solved the puzzle once, and the game ought to know you’ve solved it, so why can’t you just get on with things? I can’t imagine a LucasArts game subjecting me to this. In fact, I know it wouldn’t: there’s a similar situation in Day of the Tentacle, where, sure enough, the game whips through the necessary steps for you every time after the first.

Father Gabriel. (Sins of the fathers indeed, eh?)

This may seem a small, perhaps even petty example, but, multiplied by a hundred or a thousand, it describes why Sierra adventures — even their better, more thoughtful efforts like this one — so often wound up more grating than fun. Sins of the Fathers isn’t a bad adventure game, but it could have been so much better if Jensen had had a team around her armed with the development methodologies and testing processes that could have eliminated its pixel hunts, cleaned up its unfair and/or ill-fitting puzzles, told her when Gabriel was starting to sound more like a sexual predator than a laid-back lady’s man, and smoothed out the rough patches in its plot. None of the criticisms I’ve made of the game should be taken as a slam against Jensen, a writer with special gifts in exactly those areas where other games tend to disappoint. She just didn’t get the support she needed to reach her full potential here.

The bitter irony of it all is that LucasArts, a company that could have made Sins of the Fathers truly great, lacked the ambition to try anything like it in lieu of the cartoon comedies which they knew worked for them; meanwhile Sierra, a company with ambition in spades, lacked the necessary commitment to detail and quality. I really don’t believe, in other words, that Sins of the Father represents some limit case for the point-and-click adventure as a storytelling medium. I think merely that it represents, like all games, a grab bag of design choices, some of them more felicitous than others.

Still, if what we ended up with is the very definition of a mixed bag, it’s nevertheless one of the most interesting and important such in the history of adventure games, a game whose influence on what came later, both inside and outside of its genre, has been undeniable. I know that when I made The King of Shreds and Patches, my own attempt at a lengthy horror adventure with a serious plot, Sins of the Fathers was my most important single ludic influence, providing a bevy of useful examples both of what to do and what not to do. (For instance, I copied its trigger-driven approach to plot chronology — but I made sure to include a journal to tell the player what issues she should be working on at any given time, thereby to keep her from wandering endlessly looking for the random whatsit that would advance the time.) I know that many other designers of much more prominent games than mine have also taken much away from Sins of the Fathers.

So, should you play Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers? Absolutely. It’s a fascinating example of storytelling ambition in games, and, both in where it works and where it fails, an instructive study in design as well. A recent remake helmed by Jane Jensen herself even fixes some of the worst design flaws, although not without considerable trade-offs: the all-star cast of the original game has been replaced with less distinctive voice acting, and the new graphics, while cleaner and sharper, don’t have quite the same moody character as the old. Plague or cholera; that does seem to be the way with adventure games much of the time, doesn’t it? With this game, one might say, even more so than most of them.

The big climax. Yes, it does look a little ridiculous — but hey, they were trying.

(Sources: the book Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Summer 1993, and Holiday 1993; Computer Gaming World of November 1993 and March 1994. Online sources include “The Making of… The Gabriel Knight Trilogy” from Edge Online; an interview with Jane Jensen done by the old webzine The Inventory, now archived at The Gabriel Knight Pages; “Happy Birthday, Gabriel Knight from USgamer; Jane Jensen’s “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. Academic pieces include “Revisiting Gabriel Knight” by Connie Veugen from The Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet Volume 7; Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers: The Numinous Woman and the Millennium Woman” by Roberta Sabbath from The Journal of Popular Culture Volume 31 Issue 1. And, last but not least, press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is available for purchase both in its original version and as an enhanced modern remake.)

 
 

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Chief Gates Comes to Oakhurst: A Cop Drama

One day in late 1992, a trim older man with a rigid military bearing visited Sierra Online’s headquarters in Oakhurst, California. From his appearance, and from the way that Sierra’s head Ken Williams fawned over him, one might have assumed him to be just another wealthy member of the investment class, a group that Williams had been forced to spend a considerable amount of time wooing ever since he had taken his company public four years earlier. But that turned out not to be the case. As Williams began to introduce his guest to some of his employees, he described him as Sierra’s newest game designer, destined to make the fourth game in the Police Quest series. It seemed an unlikely role based on the new arrival’s appearance and age alone.

Yet ageism wasn’t sufficient to explain the effect he had on much of Sierra’s staff. Josh Mandel, a sometime stand-up comic who was now working for Sierra as a writer and designer, wanted nothing whatsoever to do with him: “I wasn’t glad he was there. I just wanted him to go away as soon as possible.” Gano Haine, who was hard at work designing the environmental-themed EcoQuest: Lost Secret of the Rainforest, reluctantly accepted the task of showing the newcomer some of Sierra’s development tools and processes. He listened politely enough, although it wasn’t clear how much he really understood. Then, much to her relief, the boss swept him away again.

The man who had prompted such discomfort and consternation was arguably the most politically polarizing figure in the United States at the time: Daryl F. Gates, the recently resigned head of the Los Angeles Police Department. Eighteen months before, four of his white police officers had brutally beaten a black man — an unarmed small-time lawbreaker named Rodney King — badly enough to break bones and teeth. A private citizen had captured the incident on videotape. One year later, after a true jury of their peers in affluent, white-bread Simi Valley had acquitted the officers despite the damning evidence of the tape, the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 had begun. Americans had watched in disbelief as the worst civil unrest since the infamously restive late 1960s played out on their television screens. The scene looked like a war zone in some less enlightened foreign country; this sort of thing just doesn’t happen here, its viewers had muttered to themselves. But it had happened. The final bill totaled 63 people killed, 2383 people injured, and more than $1 billion in property damage.

The same innocuous visage that was now to become Sierra’s newest game designer had loomed over all of the scenes of violence and destruction. Depending on whether you stood on his side of the cultural divide or the opposite one, the riots were either the living proof that “those people” would only respond to the “hard-nosed” tactics employed by Gates’s LAPD, or the inevitable outcome of decades of those same misguided tactics. The mainstream media hewed more to the latter narrative. When they weren’t showing the riots or the Rodney King tape, they played Gates’s other greatest hits constantly. There was the time he had said, in response to the out-sized numbers of black suspects who died while being apprehended in Los Angeles, that black people were more susceptible to dying in choke holds because their arteries didn’t open as fast as those of “normal people”; the time he had said that anyone who smoked a joint was a traitor against the country and ought to be “taken out and shot”; the time when he had dismissed the idea of employing homosexuals on the force by asking, “Who would want to work with one?”; the time when his officers had broken an innocent man’s nose, and he had responded to the man’s complaint by saying that he was “lucky that was all he had broken”; the time he had called the LAPD’s peers in Philadelphia “an inspiration to the nation” after they had literally launched an airborne bombing raid on a troublesome inner-city housing complex, killing six adults and five children and destroying 61 homes. As the mainstream media was reacting with shock and disgust to all of this and much more, right-wing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh trotted out the exact same quotes, but greeted them with approbation rather than condemnation.

All of which begs the question of what the hell Gates was doing at Sierra Online, of all places. While they were like most for-profit corporations in avoiding overly overt political statements, Sierra hardly seemed a bastion of reactionary sentiment or what the right wing liked to call “family values.” Just after founding Sierra in 1980, Ken and Roberta Williams had pulled up stakes in Los Angeles and moved to rural Oakhurst more out of some vague hippie dream of getting back to the land than for any sound business reason. As was known by anyone who’d read Steven Levy’s all-too-revealing book Hackers, or seen a topless Roberta on the cover of a game called Softporn, Sierra back in those days had been a nexus of everything the law-and-order contingent despised: casual sex and hard drinking, a fair amount of toking and even the occasional bit of snorting. (Poor Richard Garriott of Ultima fame, who arrived in this den of iniquity from a conservative neighborhood of Houston inhabited almost exclusively by straight-arrow astronauts like his dad, ran screaming from it all after just a few months; decades later, he still sounds slightly traumatized when he talks about his sojourn in California.)

It was true that a near-death experience in the mid-1980s and an IPO in 1988 had done much to change life at Sierra since those wild and woolly early days. Ken Williams now wore suits and kept his hair neatly trimmed. He no longer slammed down shots of tequila with his employees to celebrate the close of business on a Friday, nor made it his personal mission to get his nerdier charges laid; nor did he and Roberta still host bathing-suit-optional hot-tub parties at their house. But when it came to the important questions, Williams’s social politics still seemed diametrically opposed to the likes to Daryl Gates. For example, at a time when even the mainstream media still tended to dismiss concerns about the environment as obsessions of the Loony Left, he’d enthusiastically approved Gano Haines’s idea for a series of educational adventure games to teach children about just those issues. When a 15-year-old who already had the world all figured out wrote in to ask how Sierra could “give in to the doom-and-gloomers and whacko commie liberal environmentalists” who believed that “we can destroy a huge, God-created world like this,” Ken’s brother John Williams — Sierra’s marketing head — offered an unapologetic and cogent response: “As long as we get letters like this, we’ll keep making games like EcoQuest.”

So, what gave? Really, what was Daryl Gates doing here? And how had this figure that some of Ken Williams’s employees could barely stand to look at become connected with Police Quest, a slightly goofy and very erratic series of games, but basically a harmless one prior to this point? To understand how all of these trajectories came to meet that day in Oakhurst, we need to trace each back to its point of origin.


Daryl F. Gates

Perhaps the kindest thing we can say about Daryl Gates is that he was, like the young black men he and his officers killed, beat, and imprisoned by the thousands, a product of his environment. He was, the sufficiently committed apologist might say, merely a product of the institutional culture in which he was immersed throughout his adult life. Seen in this light, his greatest sin was his inability to rise above his circumstances, a failing which hardly sets him apart from the masses. One can only wish he had been able to extend to the aforementioned black men the same benefit of the doubt which other charitable souls might be willing to give to him.

Long before he himself became the head of the LAPD, Gates was the hand-picked protege of William Parker, the man who has gone down in history as the architect of the legacy Gates would eventually inherit. At the time Parker took control of it in 1950, the LAPD was widely regarded as the most corrupt single police force in the country, its officers for sale to absolutely anyone who could pay their price; they went so far as to shake down ordinary motorists for bribes at simple traffic stops. To his credit, Parker put a stop to all that. But to his great demerit, he replaced rank corruption on the individual level with an us-against-them form of esprit de corps — the “them” here being the people of color who were pouring into Los Angeles in ever greater numbers. Much of Parker’s approach was seemingly born of his experience of combat during World War II. He became the first but by no means the last LAPD chief to make comparisons between his police force and an army at war, without ever considering whether the metaphor was really appropriate.

Parker was such a cold fish that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who served as an LAPD officer during his tenure as chief, would later claim to have modeled the personality of the emotionless alien Spock on him. And yet, living as he did in the epicenter of the entertainment industry — albeit mostly patrolling the parts of Los Angeles that were never shown by Hollywood — Parker was surprisingly adept at manipulating the media to his advantage. Indeed, he became one of those hidden players who sometimes shape media narratives without anyone ever quite realizing that they’re doing so. He served as a consultant for the television show Dragnet, the first popular police drama, which all but placed a halo above the heads of the officers of the LAPD. The many shows that followed it cemented a pernicious cliché of the “ideal” cop that can still be seen, more than half a century later, on American television screens every evening: the cop as tough crusader who has to knock a few heads sometimes and bend or break the rules to get around the pansy lawyers, but who does it all for a noble cause, guided by an infallible moral compass that demands that he protect the “good people” of his city from the irredeemably bad ones by whatever means are necessary. Certainly Daryl Gates would later benefit greatly from this image; it’s not hard to believe that even Ken Williams, who fancied himself something of a savvy tough guy in his own right, was a little in awe of it when he tapped Gates to make a computer game.

But this wasn’t the only one of Chief Parker’s innovations that would come to the service of the man he liked to describe as the son he’d never had. Taking advantage of a city government desperate to see a cleaned-up LAPD, Parker drove home policies that made the city’s police force a veritable fiefdom unto itself, its chief effectively impossible to fire. The city council could only do so “for cause” — i.e., some explicit failure on the chief’s part. This sounded fair enough — until one realized that the chief got to write his own evaluation every year. Naturally, Parker and his successors got an “excellent” score every time, and thus the LAPD remained for decades virtually impervious to the wishes of the politicians and public it allegedly served.

The Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts burns, 1965.

As Parker’s tenure wore on, tension spiraled in the black areas of Los Angeles, the inevitable response to an utterly unaccountable LAPD’s ever more brutal approach to policing. It finally erupted in August of 1965 in the form of the Watts Riots, the great prelude to the riots of 1992: 34 deaths, $40 million in property damage in contemporary dollars. For Daryl Gates, who watched it all take place by Parker’s side, the Watts Riots became a formative crucible. “We had no idea how to deal with this,” he would later write. “We were constantly ducking bottles, rocks, knives, and Molotov cocktails. It was random chaos. We did not know how to handle guerrilla warfare.” Rather than asking himself how it had come to this in the first place and how such chaos might be prevented in the future, he asked how the LAPD could be prepared to go toe to toe with future rioters in what amounted to open warfare on city streets.

Chief Parker died the following year, but Gates’s star remained on the ascendant even without his patron. He came up with the idea of a hardcore elite force for dealing with full-on-combat situations, a sort of SEAL team of police. Of course, the new force would need an acronym that sounded every bit as cool as its Navy inspiration. He proposed SWAT, for “Special Weapons Attack Teams.” When his boss balked at such overtly militaristic language, he said that it could stand for “Special Weapons and Tactics” instead. “That’s fine,” said his boss.

Gates and his SWAT team had their national coming-out party on December 6, 1969, when they launched an unprovoked attack upon a hideout of the Black Panthers, a well-armed militia composed of black nationalists which had been formed as a response to earlier police brutality. Logistically and practically, the raid was a bit of a fiasco. The attackers got discombobulated by an inaccurate map of the building and very nearly got themselves hemmed into a cul de sac and massacred. (“Oh, God, we were lucky,” said one of them later.) What was supposed to have been a blitzkrieg-style raid devolved into a long stalemate. The standoff was broken only when Gates managed to requisition a grenade launcher from the Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton and started lobbing explosives into the building; this finally prompted the Panthers to surrender. By some miracle, no one on either side got killed, but the Panthers were acquitted in court of most charges on the basis of self-defense.

Yet the practical ineffectuality of the operation mattered not at all to the political narrative that came to be attached to it. The conservative white Americans whom President Nixon loved to call “the silent majority” — recoiling from the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the hippie era, genuinely scared by the street violence of the last several years — applauded Gates’s determination to “get tough” with “those people.” For the first time, the names of Daryl Gates and his brainchild of SWAT entered the public discourse beyond Los Angeles.

In May of 1974, the same names made the news in a big way again when the SWAT team was called in to subdue the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical militia with a virtually incomprehensible political philosophy, who had recently kidnapped and apparently converted to their cause the wealthy heiress Patty Hearst. After much lobbying on Gates’s part, his team got the green light to mount a full frontal assault on the group’s hideout. Gates and his officers continued to relish military comparisons. “Here in the heart of Los Angeles was a war zone,” he later wrote. “It was like something out of a World War II movie, where you’re taking the city from the enemy, house by house.” More than 9000 rounds of ammunition were fired by the two sides. But by now, the SWAT officers did appear to be getting better at their craft. Eight members of the militia were killed — albeit two of them unarmed women attempting to surrender — and the police officers received nary a scratch. Hearst herself proved not to be inside the hideout, but was arrested shortly after the battle.

The Patty Hearst saga marked the last gasp of a militant left wing in the United States; the hippies of the 1960s were settling down to become the Me Generation of the 1970s. Yet even as the streets were growing less turbulent, increasingly militaristic rhetoric was being applied to what had heretofore been thought of as civil society. In 1971, Nixon had declared a “war on drugs,” thus changing the tone of the discourse around policing and criminal justice markedly. Gates and SWAT were the perfect mascots for the new era. The year after the Symbionese shootout, ABC debuted a hit television series called simply S.W.A.T. Its theme song topped the charts; there were S.W.A.T. lunch boxes, action figures, board games, and jigsaw puzzles. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be like Daryl Gates and the LAPD — not least their fellow police officers in other cities: by July of 1975, there were 500 other SWAT teams in the United States. Gates embraced his new role of “America’s cop” with enthusiasm.

In light of his celebrity status in a city which worships celebrity, it was now inevitable that Gates would become the head of the LAPD just as soon as the post opened up. He took over in 1978; this gave him an even more powerful nationwide bully pulpit. In 1983, he applied some of his clout to the founding of a program called DARE in partnership with public schools around the country. The name stood for “Drug Abuse Resistance Education”; Gates really did have a knack for snappy acronyms. His heart was perhaps in the right place, but later studies, conducted only after the spending of hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, would prove the program’s strident rhetoric and almost militaristic indoctrination techniques to be ineffective.

Meanwhile, in his day job as chief of police, Gates fostered an ever more toxic culture that viewed the streets as battlegrounds, that viewed an ass beating as the just reward of any black man who failed to treat a police officer with fawning subservience. In 1984, the Summer Olympics came to Los Angeles, and Gates used the occasion to convince the city council to let him buy armored personnel carriers — veritable tanks for the city streets — in the interest of “crowd control.” When the Olympics were over, he held onto them for the purpose of executing “no-knock” search warrants on suspected drug dens. During the first of these, conducted with great fanfare before an invited press in February of 1985, Gates himself rode along as an APC literally drove through the front door of a house after giving the occupants no warning whatsoever. Inside they found two shocked women and three children, with no substance more illicit than the bowls of ice cream they’d been eating. To top it all off, the driver lost control of the vehicle on a patch of ice whilst everyone was sheepishly leaving the scene, taking out a parked car.

Clearly Gates’s competence still tended not to entirely live up to his rhetoric, a discrepancy the Los Angeles Riots would eventually highlight all too plainly. But in the meantime, Gates was unapologetic about the spirit behind the raid: “It frightened even the hardcore pushers to imagine that at any moment a device was going to put a big hole in their place of business, and in would march SWAT, scattering flash-bangs and scaring the hell out of everyone.” This scene would indeed be played out many times over the remaining years of Gates’s chiefdom. But then along came Rodney King of all people to inadvertently bring about his downfall.

King was a rather-slow-witted janitor and sometime petty criminal with a bumbling reputation on the street. He’d recently done a year in prison after attempting to rob a convenience store with a tire iron; over the course of the crime, the owner of the store had somehow wound up disarming him, beating him over the head with his own weapon, and chasing him off the premises. He was still on parole for that conviction on the evening of March 3, 1991, when he was spotted by two LAPD officers speeding down the freeway. King had been drinking, and so, seeing their patrol car’s flashing lights in his rear-view mirror, he decided to make a run for it. He led what turned into a whole caravan of police cars on a merry chase until he found himself hopelessly hemmed in on a side street. The unarmed man then climbed out of his car and lay face down on the ground, as instructed. But then he stood up and tried to make a break for it on foot, despite being completely surrounded. Four of the 31 officers on the scene now proceeded to knock him down and beat him badly enough with their batons and boots to fracture his face and break one of his ankles. Their colleagues simply stood and watched at a distance.

Had not a plumber named George Holliday owned an apartment looking down on that section of street, the incident would doubtless have gone down in the LAPD’s logs as just another example of a black man “resisting arrest” and getting regrettably injured in the process. But Holliday was there, standing on his balcony — and he had a camcorder to record it all. When he sent his videotape to a local television station, its images of the officers taking big two-handed swings against King’s helpless body with their batons ignited a national firestorm. The local prosecutor had little choice but to bring the four officers up on charges.


The tactics of Daryl Gates now came under widespread negative scrutiny for the first time. Although he claimed to support the prosecution of the officers involved, he was nevertheless blamed for fostering the culture that had led to this incident, as well as the many others like it that had gone un-filmed. At long last, reporters started asking the black residents of Los Angeles directly about their experiences with the LAPD. A typical LAPD arrest, said one of them, “basically consisted of three or four cops handcuffing a person, and just literally beating him, often until unconscious… punching, beating, kicking.” A hastily assembled city commission produced pages and pages of descriptions of a police force run amok. “It is apparent,” the final report read, “that too many LAPD patrol officers view citizens with resentment and hostility.” In response, Gates promised to retire “soon.” Yet, as month after month went by and he showed no sign of fulfilling his promise, many began to suspect that he still had hopes of weathering the storm.

At any rate, he was still there on April 29, 1992. That was the day his four cops were acquitted in Simi Valley, a place LAPD officers referred to as “cop heaven”; huge numbers of them lived there. Within two hours after the verdict was announced, the Los Angeles Riots began in apocalyptic fashion, as a mob of black men pulled a white truck driver out of his cab and all but tore him limb from limb, all under the watchful eye of a helicopter that was hovering overhead and filming the carnage.

Tellingly, Gates happened to be speaking to an adoring audience of white patrons in the wealthy suburb of Brentwood at the very instant the riots began. As the violence continued, this foremost advocate of militaristic policing seemed bizarrely paralyzed. South Los Angeles burned, and the LAPD did virtually nothing about it. The most charitable explanation had it that Gates, spooked by the press coverage of the previous year, was terrified of how white police officers subduing black rioters would play on television. A less charitable one, hewed to by many black and liberal commentators, had it that Gates had decided that these parts of the city just weren’t worth saving — had decided to just let the rioters have their fun and burn it all down. But the problem, of course, was that in the meantime many innocent people of all colors were being killed and wounded and seeing their property go up in smoke. Finally, the mayor called in the National Guard to quell the rioting while Gates continued to sit on his hands.

Asked afterward how the LAPD — the very birthplace of SWAT — had allowed things to get so out of hand, Gates blamed it on a subordinate: “We had a lieutenant down there who just didn’t seem to know what to do, and he let us down.” Not only was this absurd, but it was hard to label as anything other than moral cowardice. It was especially rich coming from a man who had always preached an esprit de corps based on loyalty and honor. The situation was now truly untenable for him. Incompetence, cowardice, racism, brutality… whichever charge or charges you chose to apply, the man had to go. Gates resigned, for real this time, on June 28, 1992.

Yet he didn’t go away quietly. Gates appears to have modeled his post-public-service media strategy to a large extent on that of Oliver North, a locus of controversy for his role in President Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal who had parlayed his dubious celebrity into the role of hero to the American right. Gates too gave a series of angry, unrepentant interviews, touted a recently published autobiography, and even went North one better when he won his own radio show which played in close proximity to that of Rush Limbaugh. And then, when Ken Williams came knocking, he welcomed that attention as well.

But why would Williams choose to cast his lot with such a controversial figure, one whose background and bearing were so different from his own? To begin to understand that, we need to look back to the origins of the adventure-game oddity known as Police Quest.


Ken Williams, it would seem, had always had a fascination with the boys in blue. One day in 1985, when he learned from his hairdresser that her husband was a California Highway Patrol officer on administrative leave for post-traumatic stress, his interest was piqued. He invited the cop in question, one Jim Walls, over to his house to play some racquetball and drink some beer. Before the evening was over, he had started asking his guest whether he’d be interested in designing a game for Sierra. Walls had barely ever used a computer, and had certainly never played an adventure game on one, so he had only the vaguest idea what his new drinking buddy was talking about. But the only alternative, as he would later put it, was to “sit around and think” about the recent shootout that had nearly gotten him killed, so he agreed to give it a go.

The game which finally emerged from that conversation more than two years later shows the best and the worst of Sierra. On the one hand, it pushed a medium that was usually content to wallow in the same few fictional genres in a genuinely new direction. In a pair of articles he wrote for Computer Gaming World magazine, John Williams positioned Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel at the forefront of a new wave of “adult” software able to appeal to a whole new audience, noting how it evoked Joseph Wambaugh rather than J.R.R. Tolkien, Hill Street Blues rather than Star Wars. Conceptually, it was indeed a welcome antidote to a bad case of tunnel vision afflicting the entire computer-games industry.

In practical terms, however, it was somewhat less inspiring. The continual sin of Ken Williams and Sierra throughout the company’s existence was their failure to provide welcome fresh voices like that of Jim Walls with the support network that might have allowed them to make good games out of their well of experiences. Left to fend for himself, Walls, being the law-and-order kind of guy he was, devised the most pedantic adventure game of all time, one which played like an interactive adaptation of a police-academy procedure manual — so much so, in fact, that a number of police academies around the country would soon claim to be employing it as a training tool. The approach is simplicity itself: in every situation, if you do exactly what the rules of police procedure that are exhaustively described in the game’s documentation tell you to do, you get to live and go on to the next scene. If you don’t, you die. It may have worked as an adjunct to a police-academy course, but it’s less compelling as a piece of pure entertainment.

Although it’s an atypical Sierra adventure game in many respects, this first Police Quest nonetheless opens with what I’ve always considered to be the most indelibly Sierra moment of all. The manual has carefully explained — you did read it, right? — that you must walk all the way around your patrol car to check the tires and lights and so forth every time you’re about to drive somewhere. And sure enough, if you fail to do so before you get into your car for the first time, a tire blows out and you die as soon as you drive away. But if you do examine your vehicle, you find no evidence of a damaged tire, and you never have to deal with any blow-out once you start driving. The mask has fallen away to reveal what we always suspected: that the game actively wants to kill you, and is scheming constantly for a way to do so. There’s not even any pretension left of fidelity to a simulated world — just pure, naked malice. Robb Sherwin once memorably said that “Zork hates its player.” Well, Zork‘s got nothing on Police Quest.

Nevertheless, Police Quest struck a modest chord with Sierra’s fan base. While it didn’t become as big a hit as Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, John Williams’s other touted 1987 embodiment of a new wave of “adult” games, it sold well enough to mark the starting point of another of the long series that were the foundation of Sierra’s marketing strategy. Jim Walls designed two sequels over the next four years, improving at least somewhat at his craft in the process. (In between them, he also came up with Code-Name: Iceman, a rather confused attempt at a Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller that was a bridge too far even for most of Sierra’s loyal fans.)

But shortly after completing Police Quest 3: The Kindred, Walls left Sierra along with a number of other employees to join Tsunami Media, a new company formed right there in Oakhurst by Edmond Heinbockel, himself a former chief financial officer for Sierra. With Walls gone, but his Police Quest franchise still selling well enough to make another entry financially viable, the door was wide open — as Ken Williams saw it, anyway — for one Daryl F. Gates.


Daryl Gates (right) with Tammy Dargan, the real designer of the game that bears his name.

Williams began his courtship of the most controversial man in the United States by the old-fashioned expedient of writing him a letter. Gates, who claimed never even to have used a computer, much less played a game on one, was initially confused about what exactly Williams wanted from him. Presuming Williams was just one of his admirers, he sent a letter back asking for some free games for some youngsters who lived across the street from him. Williams obliged in calculated fashion, with the three extant Police Quest games. From that initial overture, he progressed to buttering Gates up over the telephone.

As the relationship moved toward the payoff stage, some of his employees tried desperately to dissuade him from getting Sierra into bed with such a figure. “I thought it’s one thing to seek controversy, but another thing to really divide people,” remembers Josh Mandel. Mandel showed his boss a New York Times article about Gates’s checkered history, only to be told that “our players don’t read the New York Times.” He suggested that Sierra court Joseph Wambaugh instead, another former LAPD officer whose novels presented a relatively more nuanced picture of crime and punishment in the City of Angels than did Gates’s incendiary rhetoric; Wambaugh was even a name whom John Williams had explicitly mentioned in the context of the first Police Quest game five years before. But that line of attack was also hopeless; Ken Williams wanted a true mass-media celebrity, not a mere author who hid behind his books. So, Gates made his uncomfortable visit to Oakhurst and the contract was signed. Police Quest would henceforward be known as Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest. Naturally, the setting of the series would now become Los Angeles; the fictional town of Lytton, the more bucolic setting of the previous three games in the series, was to be abandoned along with almost everything else previously established by Jim Walls.

Inside the company, a stubborn core of dissenters took to calling the game Rodney King’s Quest. Corey Cole, co-designer of the Quest for Glory series, remembers himself and many others being “horrified” at the prospect of even working in the vicinity of Gates: “As far as we were concerned, his name was mud and tainted everything it touched.” As a designer, Corey felt most of all for Jim Walls. He believed Ken Williams was “robbing Walls of his creation”: “It would be like putting Donald Trump’s name on a new Quest for Glory in today’s terms.”

Nevertheless, as the boss’s pet project, Gates’s game went inexorably forward. It was to be given the full multimedia treatment, including voice acting and the extensive use of digitized scenes and actors on the screen in the place of hand-drawn graphics. Indeed, this would become the first Sierra game that could be called a full-blown full-motion-video adventure, placing it at the vanguard of the industry’s hottest new trend.

Of course, there had never been any real expectation that Gates would roll up his sleeves and design a computer game in the way that Jim Walls had; celebrity did have its privileges, after all. Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: Open Season thus wound up in the hands of Tammy Dargan, a Sierra producer who, based on an earlier job she’d had with the tabloid television show America’s Most Wanted, now got the chance to try her hand at design. Corey Cole ironically remembers her as one of the most stereotypically liberal of all Sierra’s employees: “She strenuously objected to the use of [the word] ‘native’ in Quest for Glory III, and globally changed it to ‘indigenous.’ We thought that ‘the indigenous flora’ was a rather awkward construction, so we changed some of those back. But she was also a professional and did the jobs assigned to her.”

In this case, doing so would entail writing the script for a game about the mean streets of Los Angeles essentially alone, then sending it to Gates via post for “suggestions.” The latter did become at least somewhat more engaged when the time came for “filming,” using his connections to get Sierra inside the LAPD’s headquarters and even into a popular “cop bar.” Gates himself also made it into the game proper: restored to his rightful status of chief of police, he looks on approvingly and proffers occasional bits of advice as you work through the case. The CD-ROM version tacked on some DARE propaganda and a video interview with Gates, giving him yet one more opportunity to respond to his critics.

Contrary to the expectations raised both by the previous games in the series and the reputation of Gates, the player doesn’t take the role of a uniformed cop at all, but rather that of a plain-clothes detective. Otherwise, though, the game is both predictable in theme and predictably dire. Really, what more could one expect from a first-time designer working in a culture that placed no particular priority on good design, making a game that no one there particularly wanted to be making?

So, the dialog rides its banality to new depths for a series already known for clunky writing, the voice acting is awful — apparently the budget didn’t stretch far enough to allow the sorts of good voice actors that had made such a difference in King’s Quest VI — and the puzzle design is nonsensical. The plot, which revolves around a series of brutal cop killings for maximum sensationalism, wobbles along on rails through its ever more gruesome crime scenes and red-herring suspects until the real killer suddenly appears out of the blue in response to pretty much nothing which you’ve done up to that point. And the worldview the whole thing reflects… oh, my. The previous Police Quest games had hardly been notable for their sociological subtlety — “These kinds of people are actually running around out there, even if we don’t want to think about it,” Jim Walls had said of its antagonists — but this fourth game takes its demonization of all that isn’t white, straight, and suburban to what would be a comical extreme if it wasn’t so hateful. A brutal street gang, the in-game police files helpfully tell us, is made up of “unwed mothers on public assistance,” and the cop killer turns out to be a transvestite; his “deviancy” constitutes the sum total of his motivation for killing, at least as far as we ever learn.

One of the grisly scenes with which Open Season is peppered, reflecting a black-and-white — in more ways than one! — worldview where the irredeemably bad, deviant people are always out to get the good, normal people. Lucky we have the likes of Daryl Gates to sort the one from the other, eh?

Visiting a rap record label, one of a number of places where Sierra’s pasty-white writers get to try out their urban lingo. It goes about as well as you might expect.

Sierra throws in a strip bar for the sake of gritty realism. Why is it that television (and now computer-game) cops always have to visit these places — strictly in order to pursue leads, of course.

But the actual game of Open Season is almost as irrelevant to any discussion of the project’s historical importance today as it was to Ken Williams at the time. This was a marketing exercise, pure and simple. Thus Daryl Gates spent much more time promoting the game than he ever had making it. Williams put on the full-court press in terms of promotion, publishing not one, not two, but three feature interviews with him in Sierra’s news magazine and booking further interviews with whoever would talk to him. The exchanges with scribes from the computing press, who had no training or motivation for asking tough questions, went about as predictably as the game’s plot. Gates dismissed the outrage over the Rodney King tape as “Monday morning quarterbacking,” and consciously or unconsciously evoked Richard Nixon’s silent majority in noting that the “good, ordinary, responsible, quiet citizens” — the same ones who saw the need to get tough on crime and prosecute a war on drugs — would undoubtedly enjoy the game. Meanwhile Sierra’s competitors weren’t quite sure what to make of it all. “Talk about hot properties,” wrote the editors of Origin Systems’s internal newsletter, seemingly uncertain whether to express anger or admiration for Sierra’s sheer chutzpah. “No confirmation yet as to whether the game will ship with its own special solid-steel joystick” — a dark reference to the batons with which Gates’s officers had beat Rodney King.

In the end, though, the game generated decidedly less controversy than Ken Williams had hoped for. The computer-gaming press just wasn’t politically engaged enough to do much more than shrug their shoulders at its implications. And by the time it was released it was November of 1993, and Gates was already becoming old news for the mainstream press. The president of the Los Angeles Urban League did provide an obligingly outraged quote, saying that Gates “embodies all that is bad in law enforcement—the problems of the macho, racist, brutal police experience that we’re working hard to put behind us. That anyone would hire him for a project like this proves that some companies will do anything for the almighty dollar.” But that was about as good as it got.

There’s certainly no reason to believe that Gates’s game sold any better than the run-of-the-mill Sierra adventure, or than any of the Police Quest games that had preceded it. If anything, the presence of Gates’s name on the box seems to have put off more fans than it attracted. Rather than a new beginning, Open Season proved the end of the line for Police Quest as an adventure series — albeit not for Sierra’s involvement with Gates himself. The product line was retooled in 1995 into Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT, a “tactical simulator” of police work that played suspiciously like any number of outright war simulators. In this form, it found a more receptive audience and continued for years. Tammy Dargan remained at the reinvented series’s head for much of its run. History hasn’t recorded whether her bleeding-heart liberal sympathies went into abeyance after her time with Gates or whether the series remained just a slightly distasteful job she had to do.

Gates, on the other hand, got dropped after the first SWAT game. His radio show had been cancelled after he had proved himself to be a stodgy bore on the air, without even the modicum of wit that marked the likes of a Rush Limbaugh. Having thus failed in his new career as a media provocateur, and deprived forevermore of his old position of authority, his time as a political lightning rod had just about run out. What then was the use of Sierra continuing to pay him?


Ken and Roberta Williams looking wholesome in 1993, their days in the hot tub behind them.

But then, Daryl Gates was never the most interesting person behind the games that bore his name. The hard-bitten old reactionary was always a predictable, easily known quantity, and therefore one with no real power to fascinate. Much more interesting was and is Ken Williams, this huge, mercurial personality who never designed a game himself but who lurked as an almost palpable presence in the background of every game Sierra ever released as an independent company. In short, Sierra was his baby, destined from the first to become his legacy more so than that of any member of his actual creative staff.

Said legacy is, like the man himself, a maze of contradictions resistant to easy judgments. Everything you can say about Ken Williams and Sierra, whether positive or negative, seems to come equipped with a “but” that points in the opposite direction. So, we can laud him for having the vision to say something like this, which accurately diagnosed the problem of an industry offering a nearly exclusive diet of games by and for young white men obsessed with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings:

If you match the top-selling books, records, or films to the top-selling computer-entertainment titles, you’ll immediately notice differences. Where are the romance, horror, and non-fiction titles? Where’s military fiction? Where’s all the insider political stories? Music in computer games is infinitely better than what we had a few years back, but it doesn’t match what people are buying today. Where’s the country-western music? The rap? The reggae? The new age?

And yet Williams approached his self-assigned mission of broadening the market for computer games with a disconcerting mixture of crassness and sheer naivete. The former seemed somehow endemic to the man, no matter how hard he worked to conceal it behind high-flown rhetoric, while the latter signified a man who appeared never to have seriously thought about the nature of mass media before he started trying to make it for himself. “For a publisher to not publish a product which many customers want to buy is censorship,” he said at one point. No, it’s not, actually; it’s called curation, and is the right and perhaps the duty of every content publisher — not that there were lines of customers begging Sierra for a Daryl Gates-helmed Police Quest game anyway. With that game, Williams became, whatever else he was, a shameless wannabe exploiter of a bleeding wound at the heart of his nation — and he wasn’t even very good at it, as shown by the tepid reaction to his “controversial” game. His decision to make it reflects not just a moral failure but an intellectual misunderstanding of his audience so extreme as to border on the bizarre. Has anyone ever bought an adventure game strictly because it’s controversial?

So, if there’s a pattern to the history of Ken Williams and Sierra — and the two really are all but inseparable — it’s one of talking a good game, of being broadly right with the vision thing, but falling down in the details and execution. Another example from the horse’s mouth, describing the broad idea that supposedly led to Open Season:

The reason that I’m working with Chief Gates is that one of my goals has been to create a series of adventure games which accomplish reality through having been written by real experts. I have been calling this series of games the “Reality Role-Playing” series. I want to find the top cop, lawyer, airline pilot, fireman, race-car driver, politician, military hero, schoolteacher, white-water rafter, mountain climber, etc., and have them work with us on a simulation of their world. Chief Gates gives us the cop game. We are working with Emerson Fittipaldi to simulate racing, and expect to announce soon that Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who locked up Charles Manson, will be working with us to do a courtroom simulation. My goal is that products in the Reality Role-Playing series will be viewed as serious simulations of real-world events, not as games. If we do our jobs right, this will be the closest most of us will ever get to seeing the world through these people’s eyes.

The idea sounds magnificent, so much so that one can’t help but feel a twinge of regret that it never went any further than Open Season. Games excel at immersion, and their ability to let us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes — to become someone whose world we would otherwise never know — is still sadly underutilized.

I often — perhaps too often — use Sierra’s arch-rivals in adventure games LucasArts as my own baton with which to beat them, pointing out how much more thoughtful and polished the latter’s designs were. This remains true enough. Yet it’s also true that LucasArts had nothing like the ambition for adventure games which Ken Williams expresses here. LucasArts found what worked for them very early on — that thing being cartoon comedies — and rode that same horse relentlessly right up until the market for adventures in general went away. Tellingly, when they were asked to adapt Indiana Jones to an interactive medium, they responded not so much by adjusting their standard approach all that radically as by turning Indy himself into a cartoon character. Something tells me that Ken Williams would have taken a very different tack.

But then we get to the implementation of Williams’s ideas by Sierra in the form of Open Season, and the questions begin all over again. Was Daryl Gates truly, as one of the marketers’ puff pieces claimed, “the most knowledgeable authority on law enforcement alive?” Or was there some other motivation involved? I trust the answer is self-evident. (John Williams even admitted as much in another of the puff pieces: “[Ken] decided the whole controversy over Gates would ultimately help the game sell better.”) And then, why does the “reality role-playing” series have to focus only on those with prestige and power? If Williams truly does just want to share the lives of others with us and give us a shared basis for empathy and discussion, why not make a game about what it’s like to be a Rodney King?

Was it because Ken Williams was himself a racist and a bigot? That’s a major charge to level, and one that’s neither helpful nor warranted here — no, not even though he championed a distinctly racist and bigoted game, released under the banner of a thoroughly unpleasant man who had long made dog whistles to racism and bigotry his calling card. Despite all that, the story of Open Season‘s creation is more one of thoughtlessness than malice aforethought. It literally never occurred to Ken Williams that anyone living in South Los Angeles would ever think of buying a Sierra game; that territory was more foreign to him than that of Europe (where Sierra was in fact making an aggressive play at the time). Thus he felt free to exploit a community’s trauma with this distasteful product and this disingenuous narrative that it was created to engender “discussion.” For nothing actually to be found within Open Season is remotely conducive to civil discussion.

Williams stated just as he was beginning his courtship of Daryl Gates that, in a fast-moving industry, he had to choose whether to “lead, follow, or get out of the way. I don’t believe in following, and I’m not about to get out of the way. Therefore, if I am to lead then I have to know where I’m going.” And here we come to the big-picture thing again, the thing at which Williams tended to excel. His decision to work with Gates does indeed stand as a harbinger of where much of gaming was going. This time, though, it’s a sad harbinger rather than a happy one.

I believe that the last several centuries — and certainly the last several decades — have seen us all slowly learning to be kinder and more respectful to one another. It hasn’t been a linear progression by any means, and we still have one hell of a long way to go, but it’s hard to deny that it’s occurred. (Whatever the disappointments of the last several years, the fact remains that the United States elected a black man as president in 2008, and has finally accepted the right of gay people to marry even more recently. Both of these things were unthinkable in 1993.) In some cases, gaming has reflected this progress. But too often, large segments of gaming culture have chosen to side instead with the reactionaries and the bigots, as Sierra implicitly did here.

So, Ken Williams and Sierra somehow managed to encompass both the best and the worst of what seems destined to go down in history as the defining art form of the 21st century, and they did so long before that century began. Yes, that’s quite an achievement in its own right — but, as Open Season so painfully reminds us, not an unmixed one.

(Sources: the books Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing by Joe Domanick and Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko; Computer Gaming World of August/September 1987, October 1987, and December 1993; Sierra’s news magazines of Summer 1991, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, Holiday 1993, and Spring 1994; Electronic Games of October 1993; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of February 26 1993. Online sources include an excellent and invaluable Vice article on Open Season and the information about the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial found on Famous American Trials. And my thanks go out yet again to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.

The four Police Quest adventure games are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

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