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Ten Great Adventure-Game Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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


1. Getting past the dragon in Adventure

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

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

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

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

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


2. Exploring the translucent maze in Enchanter

By Marc Blank and David Lebling, Infocom, 1983

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1984

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

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

There is a satchel here.

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

Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5. Escaping the pirate Lafond in Plundered Hearts

By Amy Briggs, Infocom, 1987

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

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

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

Lafond is leering, lip curled.

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

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

>drink wine
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>no
You shake your head, teeth clenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>z
Time passes...

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

>z
Time passes...


The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

>z
Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

>s
You creep over the prostrate butler.

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

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


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

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1987

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

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

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

Bernard rings the doorbell.

Ed heads off to answer the door.

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

Dave searches Ed’s room.

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

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

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

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


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

By Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Sierra, 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8. Blunting the smith’s sword in Loom

By Brian Moriarty, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 
 

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The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Lindstrom and R.J. Berg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backstage at the opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  2. Scott Mavor died of cancer in 2008 

 
 

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