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Ten Great Adventure-Game Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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


1. Getting past the dragon in Adventure

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

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

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

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

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


2. Exploring the translucent maze in Enchanter

By Marc Blank and David Lebling, Infocom, 1983

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1984

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

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

There is a satchel here.

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

Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5. Escaping the pirate Lafond in Plundered Hearts

By Amy Briggs, Infocom, 1987

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

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

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

Lafond is leering, lip curled.

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

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

>drink wine
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>no
You shake your head, teeth clenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>z
Time passes...

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

>z
Time passes...


The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

>z
Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

>s
You creep over the prostrate butler.

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

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


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

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1987

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

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

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

Bernard rings the doorbell.

Ed heads off to answer the door.

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

Dave searches Ed’s room.

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

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

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

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


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

By Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Sierra, 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8. Blunting the smith’s sword in Loom

By Brian Moriarty, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 
 

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Quest for Glory III and IV

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanford and Son make an appearance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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So You Want to Be a Hero?

Lori Ann and Corey Cole

Lori Ann and Corey Cole

Rule #1 is “The Player Must have Fun.” It’s trivially easy for a game designer to “defeat” players. We have all the tools and all the power. The trick is to play on the same side as the players, to tell the story together, and to make them the stars.

That rule is probably the biggest differentiator that made our games special. We didn’t strive to make the toughest, hardest-to-solve puzzles. We focused on the characters, the stories, and making the player the star.

— Corey Cole

It feels thoroughly appropriate that Corey and Lori Ann Cole first met over a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The meeting in question took place at Westercon — the West Coast Science Fantasy Conference — in San Francisco in the summer of 1979. Corey was the Dungeon Master, leading a group of players through an original scenario of his own devising that he would later succeed in getting published as The Tower of Indomitable Circumstances. But on this occasion he found the pretty young woman who was sitting at his table even more interesting than Dungeons & Dragons. Undaunted by mere geography — Corey was programming computers for a living in Southern California while Lori taught school in Arizona — the two struck up a romantic relationship. Within a few years, they were married, settling eventually in San Jose.

They had much in common. As their mutual presence at a convention like Westercon will attest, both the current and the future Cole were lovers of science-fiction and fantasy literature and its frequent corollary, gaming, from well before their first meeting. Their earliest joint endeavor — besides, that is, the joint endeavor of romance — was The Spellbook, a newsletter for tabletop-RPG aficionados which they edited and self-published.

Corey also nurtured an abiding passion for computers that had long since turned into a career. After first learning to program in Fortran and COBOL while still in high school during the early 1970s, his subsequent experiences had constituted a veritable grand tour of some of the most significant developments of this formative decade of creative computing. He logged onto the ARPANET (predecessor of the modern Internet) from a terminal at his chosen alma mater, the University of California, Santa Barbara; played the original Adventure in the classic way, via a paper teletype machine; played games on the PLATO system, including the legendary proto-CRPGs Oubliette and DND that were hosted there. After graduating, he took a job with his father’s company, a manufacturer of computer terminals, traveling the country writing software for customers’ installations. By 1981, he had moved on to become a specialist in word-processing and typesetting software, all the while hacking code and playing games at home on his home-built CP/M computer and his Commodore PET.

When the Atari ST was introduced in 1985, offering an unprecedented amount of power for the price, Corey saw in it the potential to become the everyday computer of the future. He threw himself into this latest passion with abandon, becoming an active member of the influential Bay Area Atari Users Group, a contributor to the new ST magazine STart, and even the founder of a new company, Visionary Systems; the particular vision in question was that of translating his professional programming experience into desktop-publishing software for the ST.

Interestingly, Corey’s passion for computers and computer games was largely not shared by Lori. Like many dedicated players of tabletop RPGs, she always felt the computerized variety to be lacking in texture, story, and most of all freedom. She could enjoy games like Wizardry in bursts with friends, but ultimately found them far too constraining to sustain her interest. And she felt equally frustrated by the limitations of both the parser-driven text adventures of Infocom and the graphical adventures of Sierra. Her disinterest in the status quo of computer gaming would soon prove an ironic asset, prompting her to push her own and Corey’s games in a different and very worthwhile direction.

By early 1988, it was becoming clear that the Atari ST was doomed to remain a niche platform in North America, and thus that Corey’s plan to get rich selling desktop-publishing software for it wasn’t likely to pan out. Meanwhile his chronic asthma was making it increasingly difficult to live in the crowded urban environs of San Jose. The Coles were at one of life’s proverbial crossroads, unsure what to do next.

Then one day they got a call from Carolly Hauksdottir, an old friend from science-fiction fandom — she wrote and sang filk songs with them — who happened to be working now as an artist for Sierra On-Line down in the rural paradise of Oakhurst, California. It seemed she had just come out of a meeting with Sierra’s management in which Ken Williams had stated emphatically that they needed to get back into the CRPG market. Since their brief association with Richard Garriott, which had led to their releasing Ultima II and re-releasing Ultima I, Sierra’s presence in CRPGs had amounted to a single game called Wrath of Denethenor, a middling effort for the Apple II and Commodore 64 sold to them by an outside developer. As that meager record will attest, Ken had never heretofore made the genre much of a priority. But of late the market for CPRGs showed signs of exploding, as evidenced by the huge success of other publishers’ releases like The Bard’s Tale and Ultima IV.  To get themselves a piece of that action, Ken stated in his typical grandiose style that Sierra would need to hire “a published, award-winning, tournament-level Dungeon Master” and set him loose with their latest technology. Corey and Lori quickly reasoned that The Tower of Indomitable Circumstances had been published by the small tabletop publisher Judges Guild, as had their newsletter by themselves; that Corey had once won a tournament at Gen Con as a player; and that together they had once created and run a tournament scenario for a Doctor Who convention. Between the two of them, then, they were indeed “published, award-winning, tournament-level Dungeon Masters.” Right?

Well, perhaps they weren’t quite what Ken had in mind after all. When Corey called to offer their services, at any rate, he sounded decidedly skeptical. He was much more intrigued by another skill Corey mentioned in passing: his talent for programming the Atari ST. Sierra had exactly one programmer who knew anything about the ST, and was under the gun to get their new SCI engine ported over to that platform as quickly as possible. Ken wound up hiring Corey for this task, waving aside the initial reason for Corey’s call with the vague statement that “we’ll talk about game design later.”

What with Corey filling such an urgent need on another front, one can easily imagine Ken’s “later” never arriving at all. Corey, however, never stopped bringing up game design, and with it the talents of his wife that he thought would make her perfect for the role. While he thought that the SCI engine, despite its alleged universal applicability, could never be used to power a convincing hardcore CRPG of the Bard’s Tale/Ultima stripe, he did believe it could serve very well as the base for a hybrid game — part CRPG, part traditional Sierra adventure game. Such a hybrid would suit Lori just fine; her whole interest in the idea of designing computer games was “to bring storytelling and [the] interesting plot lines of books and tabletop role-playing into the hack-and-slash thrill of a computer game.” Given the technological constraints of the time, a hybrid actually seemed a far better vehicle for accomplishing that than a hardcore CRPG.

So, while Corey programmed in Sierra’s offices, Lori sat at home with their young son, sketching out a game. In fact, knowing that Sierra’s entire business model revolved around game series rather than one-offs, she sketched out a plan for four games, each taking place in a different milieu corresponding to one of the four points of the compass, one of the four seasons, and one of the four classical elements of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. As was typical of CRPGs of this period, the player would be able to transfer the same character, evolving and growing in power all the while, into each successive game in the series.

With his established tabletop-RPG designer still not having turned up, Ken finally relented and brought Lori on to make her hybrid game. But the programmer with whom she was initially teamed was very religious, and refused to continue when he learned that the player would have the option of choosing a “thief” class. And so, after finishing up some of his porting projects, Corey joined her on what they were now calling called Hero’s Quest I: So You Want to Be a Hero. Painted in the broadest strokes, he became what he describes as the “left brain” to Lori’s “right brain” on the project, focusing on the details of systems and rules while Lori handled the broader aspects of plot and setting. Still, these generalized roles were by no means absolute. It was Corey, for instance, an incorrigible punster — so don’t incorrige him! — who contributed most of the horrid puns that abound throughout the finished game.

Less than hardcore though they envisioned their hybrid to be, Lori and Corey nevertheless wanted to do far more than simply graft a few statistics and a combat engine onto a typical Sierra adventure game. They would offer their player the choice of three classes, each with its own approach to solving problems: through combat and brute force in the case of the fighter, through spells in the case of the magic user, through finesse and trickery in the case of the thief. This meant that the Coles would in effect have to design Hero’s Quest three times, twining together an intricate tapestry of differing solutions to its problems. Considering this reality, one inevitably thinks of what Ron Gilbert said immediately after finishing Maniac Mansion, a game in which the player could select her own team of protagonists but one notably free of the additional complications engendered by Hero’s Quest‘s emergent CRPG mechanics: “I’m never doing that again!” The Coles, however, would not only do it again — in fact, four times more — but they would consistently do it well, succeeding at the tricky task of genre blending where designers as talented as Brian Moriarty had stumbled.

Instead of thinking in terms of “puzzles,” the Coles preferred to think in terms of “problems.” In Hero’s Quest, many of these problems can be treated like a traditional adventure-game puzzle and overcome using your own logic. But it’s often possible to power through the same problem using your character’s skills and abilities. This quality makes it blessedly difficult to get yourself well-and-truly, permanently stuck. Let’s say you need to get a fish from a fisherman in order to get past the bear who’s blocking your passage across a river. You might, in traditional adventure-game style, use another item you found somewhere to repair his leaky boat, thus causing him to give you a fish as a small token of his appreciation. But you might also, if your character’s intelligence score is high enough, be able to convince him to give you a fish through logical persuasion alone. Or you might bypass the whole question of the fish entirely if your character is strong and skilled enough to defeat the bear in combat. Moriarty’s Beyond Zork tries to accomplish a superficially similar blending of the hard-coded adventure game and the emergent CRPG, but does so far less flexibly, dividing its problems rather arbitrarily into those soluble by adventure-game means and those soluble by CRPG means. The result for the player is often confusion, as things that ought to work fail to do so simply because a problem fell into the wrong category. Hero’s Quest was the first to get the blending right.

Based on incremental skill and attribute improvements rather than employing the more monolithic level-based structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the core of the Hero’s Quest game system reached back to a system of tabletop rules the Coles had begun formulating years before setting to work on their first computer game. It has the advantage of offering nearly constant feedback, a nearly constant sense of progress even if you happen to be stuck on one of the more concrete problems in the game. Spend some time bashing monsters, and your character’s “weapons use” score along with his strength and agility will go up; practice throwing daggers on the game’s handy target range, and his “throwing” skill will increase a little with almost every toss. Although you choose a class for your character at the outset, there’s nothing preventing you from building up a magic user who’s also pretty handy with a sword, or a fighter who knows how to throw a spell or two. You’ll just have to sacrifice some points in the beginning to get a start in the non-core discipline, then keep on practicing.


If forced to choose one adjective to describe Hero’s Quest and the series it spawned as a whole, I would have to go with “generous” — not, as the regular readers among you can doubtless attest, an adjective I commonly apply to Sierra games in general. Hero’s Quest‘s generosity extends far beyond its lack of the sudden deaths, incomprehensible puzzles, hidden dead ends, and generalized player abuse that were so typical of Sierra designs. Departing from Sierra’s other series with their King Grahams, Rosellas, Roger Wilcos, and Larry Laffers, the Coles elected not to name or characterize their hero, preferring to let their players imagine and sculpt the character each of them wanted to play. Even within the framework of a given character class, alternate approaches and puzzle — er, problem — solutions abound, while the environment is fleshed-out to a degree unprecedented in a Sierra adventure game. Virtually every reasonable action, not to mention plenty of unreasonable ones, will give some sort of response, some acknowledgement of your cleverness, curiosity, or sense of humor. Almost any way you prefer to approach your role is viable. For instance, while it’s possible to leave behind a trail of monstrous carnage worthy of a Bard’s Tale game, it’s also possible to complete the entire game without taking a single life. The game is so responsive to your will that the few places where it does fall down a bit, such as in not allowing you to choose the sex of your character — resource constraints led the Coles to make the hero male-only — stand out more in contrast to how flexible the rest of this particular game is than they do in contrast to most other games of the period.

Hero's Quest's unabashedly positive message feels particularly bracing in this current Age of Irony of ours.

Hero’s Quest‘s message of positive empowerment feels particularly bracing in our current age antiheroes and murky morality.

Indeed, Hero’s Quest is such a design outlier from the other Sierra games of its era that I contacted the Coles with the explicit goal of coming to understand just how it could have come out so differently. Corey took me back all the way the mid-1970s, to one of his formative experiences as a computer programmer and game designer alike, when he wrote a simple player-versus-computer tic-tac-toe game for a time-shared system to which he had access. “Originally,” he says, “it played perfectly, always winning or drawing, and nobody played it for long. After I introduced random play errors by the computer, so that a lucky player could occasionally win, people got hooked on the game.” From this “ah-ha!” moment and a few others like it was born the Coles’ Rule #1 for game design: “The player must always have fun.” “We try to remember that rule,” says Corey, “every time we create a potentially frustrating puzzle.” The trick, as he describes it, is to make “the puzzles and challenges feel difficult, yet give the player a chance to succeed after reasonable effort.” Which leads us to Rule #2: “The player wants to win.” “We aren’t here to antagonize the players,” he says. “We work with them in a cooperative storytelling effort. If the player fails, everybody loses; we want to see everyone win.”

Although their professional credits in the realm of game design were all but nonexistent at the time they came to Sierra, the Coles were nevertheless used to thinking about games far more deeply than was the norm in Oakhurst. They were, for one thing, dedicated players of games, very much in tune with the experience of being a player, whether sitting behind a table or a computer. Ken Williams, by contrast, had no interest in tabletop games, and had sat down and played for himself exactly one computerized adventure game in his life (that game being, characteristically for Ken, the ribald original Softporn). While Roberta Williams had been inspired to create Mystery House by the original Adventure and some of the early Scott Adams games, her experience as a player never extended much beyond those primitive early text adventures; she was soon telling interviewers that she “didn’t have the time” to actually play games. Most of Sierra’s other design staff came to the role through the back door of being working artists, writers, or programmers, not through the obvious front door of loving games as a pursuit unto themselves. Corey states bluntly that “almost nobody there played [emphasis mine] games.” The isolation from the ordinary player’s experience that led to so many bad designs was actually encouraged by Ken Williams; he suggested that his staffers not look too much at what the competition was doing out of some misguided desire to preserve the “originality” of Sierra’s own games.

But the Coles were a little different than the majority of said staffers. Corey points out that they were both over thirty by the time they started at Sierra. They had, he notes, also “traveled a fair amount,” and “both the real-life experience and extensive tabletop-gaming experience gave [us] a more ‘mature’ attitude toward game development, especially that the designer is a partner to the player, not an antagonist to be overcome.” Given the wealth of experience with games and ideas about how games ought to be that they brought with them to Sierra, the Coles probably benefited as much from the laissez-faire approach to game-making engendered by Ken Williams as some of the others designers perhaps suffered from the same lack of direction. Certainly Ken’s personal guidance was only sporadic, and often inconsistent. Corey:

Once in a while, Ken Williams would wander through the development area — it might happen two or three times in a day, or more likely the visits might be three weeks apart. Everyone learned that it was essential to show Ken some really cool sequence or feature that he hadn’t seen before. You only showed him one such sequence because you needed to reserve two more in case he came back the same day.

Our first (and Sierra’s first) Producer, Guruka Singh Khalsa, taught us the “Ken Williams Rule” based on something Robert Heinlein wrote: “That which he tells you three times is true.” Ken constantly came up with half-baked ideas, some of them amazing, some terrible, and some impractical. If he said something once, you nodded in agreement. Twice, you sat up and listened. Anything he said three times was law and had to be done. While Ken mostly played a management role at Sierra, he also had some great creative ideas that really improved our games. Of course, it takes fifteen seconds to express an idea, and sometimes days or weeks to make it work. That’s why we ignored the half-baked, non-repeated suggestions.

The Coles had no affinity for any of Sierra’s extant games; they considered them “unfair and not much fun.” Yet the process of game development at Sierra was so unstructured that they had little sense of really reacting against them either.  As I mentioned earlier, Lori didn’t much care for any of the adventure games she had seen, from any company. She wouldn’t change her position until she played Lucasfilm Games’s The Secret of Monkey Island in 1990. After that experience, she became a great fan of the Lucasfilm adventures, enjoying them far more than the works of her fellow designers at Sierra. For now, though, rather than emulating existing computerized adventure or RPG games, the Coles strove to re-create the experience of sitting at a table with a great storytelling game master at its head.

Looking beyond issues of pure design, another sign of the Coles’ relatively broad experience in life and games can be seen in their choice of settings. Rather than settling for the generic “lazy Medieval” settings so typical of Dungeons & Dragons-derived computer games then and now, they planned their series as a hall of windows into some of the richest myths and legends of our own planet. The first game, which corresponded in Lori’s grand scheme for the series as a whole to the direction North, the season Spring, and the element Earth, is at first glance the most traditional of the series’s settings. This choice was very much a conscious one, planned to help the series attract an initial group of players and get some commercial traction; bullish as he was on series in general, Ken Williams wasn’t particularly noted for his patience with new ones that didn’t start pulling their own weight within a game or two. Look a little closer, though, and even the first game’s lush fantasy landscape, full of creatures that seem to have been lifted straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, stands out as fairly unique. Inspired by an interest in German culture that had its roots in the year Corey had spent as a high-school exchange student in West Berlin back in 1971 and 1972, the Coles made their Medieval setting distinctly Germanic, as is highlighted by the name of the town around which the action centers: Spielburg. (Needless to say, the same name is also an example of the Coles’ love of puns and pop-culture in-joking.) Later games would roam still much further afield from the lazy-Medieval norm. The second, for instance, moves into an Arabian Nights milieu, while still later ones explore the myths and legends of Africa, Eastern Europe, and Greece. The Coles’ determination to inject a little world music into the cultural soundtracks of their mostly young players stands out as downright noble. Their series doubtless prompted more than a few blinkered teenage boys to begin to realize what a big old interesting world there really is out there.

Hero's Quest

Of course, neither the first Hero’s Quest nor any of the later ones in the series would be entirely faultless. Sierra suffered from the persistent delusion that their SCI engine was a truly universal hammer suitable for every sort of nail, leading them to incorporate action sequences into almost every one of their adventure games. These are almost invariably excruciating, afflicted with slow response times and imprecise, clumsy controls. Hero’s Quest, alas, isn’t an exception from this dubious norm. It has an action-oriented combat engine so unresponsive that no one I’ve ever talked to tries to do anything with it but just pound on the “attack” key until the monster is dead or it’s obviously time to run away. And then there are some move-exactly-right-or-you’re-dead sequences in the end game that are almost as frustrating as some of the ones found in Sierra’s other series. But still, far more important in the end are all the things Hero’s Quest does right, and more often than not in marked contrast to just about every other Sierra game of its era.

Hero’s Quest was slated into Sierra’s release schedule for Christmas 1989, part of a diverse lineup of holiday releases that also included the third Leisure Suit Larry game from the ever-prolific Al Lowe and something called The Colonel’s Bequest, a bit of a departure for Roberta Williams in the form of an Agatha Christie-style cozy murder mystery. With no new King’s Quest game on offer that year, Hero’s Quest, the only fantasy release among Sierra’s 1989 lineup, rather unexpectedly took up much of its slack. As pre-orders piled up to such an extent that Sierra projected needing to press 100,000 copies right off the bat just to meet the holiday demand, Corey struggled desperately with a sequence — the kobold cave, for those of you who have played the game already — that just wouldn’t come together. At last he brokered a deal to withhold only the disk that would contain that sequence from the duplicators. In a single feverish week, he rewrote it from scratch. The withheld disk was then duplicated in time to join the rest, and the game as a whole shipped on schedule, largely if not entirely bug-free. Even more impressively, it was, despite receiving absolutely no outside beta-testing — Sierra still had no way of seriously evaluating ordinary players’ reactions to a game before release — every bit as friendly, flexible, and soluble as the Coles had always envisioned it to be.

Hero's Quest

The game became the hit its pre-orders had indicated it would, its sales outpacing even the new Leisure Suit Larry and Roberta Williams’s new game by a comfortable margin that holiday season. The reviews were superlative; Questbusters‘s reviewer pronounced it “honestly the most fun I’ve had with any game in years,” and Computer Gaming World made it their “Adventure Game of the Year.” While it would be nice to attribute this success entirely to the public embracing its fine design sensibilities, which they had learned of via all the fine reviews, its sales numbers undoubtedly had much to do with its good fortune in being released during this year without a King’s Quest. Hero’s Quest was for many a harried parent and greedy child alike the closest analogue to Roberta Williams’s blockbuster series among the new releases on store shelves. The game sold over 130,000 copies in its first year on the market, about 200,000 copies in all in its original version, then another 100,000 copies when it was remade in 1992 using Sierra’s latest technology. Such numbers were, if not quite in the same tier as a King’s Quest, certainly nothing to sneeze at. In creative and commercial terms alike, the Coles’ series was off to a fine start.

At the instant of Hero’s Quest‘s release, Sierra was just embarking on a major transition in their approach to game-making. Ken Williams had decided it was time at last to make the huge leap from the EGA graphics standard, which could display just 16 colors onscreen from a palette of 64, to VGA, which could display 256 colors from a palette of 262,144. To help accomplish this transition, he had hired Bill Davis, a seasoned Hollywood animator, in the new role of Sierra’s “Creative Director” in July of 1989. Davis systematized Sierra’s heretofore laissez-faire approach to game development into a rigidly formulated Hollywood-style production pipeline. Under his scheme, the artists would now be isolated from the programmers and designers; inter-team communication would happen only through a bureaucratic paper trail.

The changes inevitably disrupted Sierra’s game-making operation, which of late had been churning out new adventure games at a rate of about half a dozen per year. Many of the company’s resources for 1990 were being poured into King’s Quest V, which was intended, as had been the norm for that series since the beginning, to be the big showpiece game demonstrating all the company’s latest goodies, including not only 256-color VGA graphics but also a new Lucasfilm Games-style point-and-click interface in lieu of the old text parser. King’s Quest V would of course be Sierra’s big title for Christmas. They had only two other adventure games on their schedule for 1990, both begun using the older technology and development methodology well before the end of 1989 and both planned for release in the first half of the new year. One, an Arthurian game by an established writer for television named Christy Marx, was called Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail (thus winning the prize of being the most strained application of Sierra’s cherished “Quest” moniker ever). The other, a foray into Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller territory by Police Quest designer Jim Walls, was called Code-Name: ICEMAN. Though they had every reason to believe that King’s Quest V would become another major hit, Sierra was decidedly uncertain about the prospects of these other two games. They felt they needed at least one more game in an established series if they hoped to maintain the commercial momentum they’d been building up in recent years. Yet it wasn’t clear where that game was to come from; one side effect of the transition to VGA graphics was that art took much longer to create, and games thus took longer to make. Lori and Corey were called into a meeting and given two options. One, which Lori at least remembers management being strongly in favor of, was to make the second game in their series using Sierra’s older EGA- and parser-driven technology, getting it out in time to become King’s Quest V‘s running mate for the Christmas of 1990. The other was to be moved in some capacity to the King’s Quest V project, with the opportunity to return to Hero’s Quest only at some uncertain future date. They chose — or were pushed into — the former.

Despite using the older technology, their second game was, at Davis’s insistence, created using the newer production methodology. This meant among other things that the artists, now isolated from the rest of the developers, had to create the background scenes on paper; their pictures were then scanned in for use in the game. I’d like to reserve the full details of Sierra’s dramatically changed production methodology for another article, where I can give them their proper due. Suffice for today to say that, while necessary in many respects for a VGA game, the new processes struck everyone as a strange way to create a game using the sharply limited EGA color palette. By far the most obvious difference they made was that everything seemed to take much longer. Lori Ann Cole:

We got the worst of both worlds. We got a new [development] system that had never been tried before, and all the bugs that went with that. And we were doing it under the old-school technology where the colors weren’t as good and all that. We were under a new administration with a different way of treating people. We got time clocks; we had to punch in a number to get into the office so that we would work the set number of hours. We had all of a sudden gone from this free-form company to an authoritarian one: “This is the hours you have to work. Programmers will work over here and artists will work over there, and only their bosses can talk to one another; you can’t talk to the artist that’s doing the art.”

Some of the Coles’ frustrations with the new regime came out in the game they were making. Have a close look at the name of Raseir, an oppressed city — sort of an Arabian Nights version of Nineteen Eighty-Four — where the climax of the game occurs.

Scheduled for a late September release, exactly one year after the release of the first Hero’s Quest, the second game shipped two months behind schedule, coming out far too close to Christmas to have a prayer of fully capitalizing on the holiday rush. And then when it did finally ship, it didn’t even ship as Hero’s Quest II.

Quest for Glory II

In 1989, the same year that Sierra had released the first Hero’s Quest, the British division of the multi-national toys and games giant Milton Bradley had released HeroQuest, a sort of board-gameified version of Dungeons & Dragons. They managed to register their trademark on the name for Europe shortly before Sierra registered theirs for Europe and North America. After the board game turned into a big European success, Milton Bradley elected to bring it to North America the following year, whilst also entering into talks with some British developers about turning it into a computer game. Clearly something had to be done about the name conflict, and thanks to their having registered the trademark first Milton Bradley believed they had the upper hand. When the bigger company’s lawyers came calling, Sierra, unwilling to get entangled in an expensive lawsuit they probably couldn’t win anyway, signed a settlement that not only demanded they change the name of their series but also stated that they couldn’t even continue using the old name long enough to properly advertise that “Hero’s Quest has a new name!” Thus when Hero’s Quest and its nearly finished sequel were hastily rechristened Quest for Glory, the event was announced only via a single four-sentence press release.

So, a veritable perfect storm of circumstances had conspired to undermine the commercial prospects of the newly rechristened Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire. Sierra’s last parser-driven 16-color game, it was going head to head with the technological wonder that was King’s Quest V — another fantasy game to boot. Due to its late release, it lost the chance to pick up even many or most of the scraps King’s Quest V might have left it. And finally, the name change meant that the very idea of a Quest for Glory II struck most Sierra fans as a complete non sequitur; they had no idea what game it was allegedly a sequel to. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable that Quest for Glory II performed as well as it did. It sold an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 copies — not quite the hit its predecessor had been, but not quite the flop one could so easily imagine the newer game becoming under the circumstances either. Sales were still strong enough that this eminently worthy series was allowed to continue.


As a finished game, Quest for Glory II betrays relatively little sign of its difficult gestation, even if there are perhaps just a few more rough edges in comparison to its predecessor. The most common complaint is that the much more intricate and linear plot this time out can lead to a fair amount of time spent waiting for the next plot event to fire, with few concrete goals to achieve in the meantime. This syndrome can especially afflict those players who’ve elected to transfer in an established character from the first game, and thus have little need for the grinding with which newbies are likely to occupy themselves. At the same time, though, the new emphasis on plot isn’t entirely unwelcome in light of the almost complete lack of same in the first game, while the setting this time out of a desert land drawn from the Arabian Nights is even more interesting than was that of the previous game. The leisurely pace can make Quest for Glory II feel like a sort of vacation simulator, a relaxing computerized holiday spent chatting with the locals, sampling the cuisine, enjoying belly dances and poetry readings, and shopping in the bazaars. (Indeed, your first challenge in the game is one all too familiar to every tourist in a new land: converting the money you brought with you from Spielburg into the local currency.) I’ve actually heard Quest for Glory II described by a fair number of players as their favorite in the entire series. If push comes to shove, I’d probably have to say that I slightly prefer the first game, but I wouldn’t want to be without either of them. Certainly Quest for Glory II is about as fine a swan song for the era of parser-driven Sierra graphical adventures as one could possibly hope for.

The combat system used in the Quest for Glory games would change constantly. The one found in the second game is a little more responsive and playable than its predecessor.

The combat system used in the Quest for Glory games would change constantly from game to game. The one found in the second game is a little more responsive and playable than its predecessor.

Had more adventure-game designers at Sierra and elsewhere followed the Coles’ lead, the history of the genre might have been played out quite differently. As it is, though, we’ll have to be content with the games we do have. I’d hugely encourage any of you who haven’t played the Quest for Glory games to give them a shot — preferably in order, transferring the same character from game to game, just as the Coles ideally intended it. Thanks to our friends at GOG.com, they’re available for purchase today in a painless one-click install for modern systems. They remain as funny, likable, and, yes, generous as ever.

We’ll be returning to the Coles in due course to tell the rest of their series’s story. Next time, though, we’ll turn our attention to the Apple Macintosh, a platform we’ve been neglecting a bit of late, to see how it was faring as the 1990s were fast approaching.

Hero's Quest

(Sources: Questbusters of December 1989; Computer Gaming World of September 1990 and April 1991; Sierra’s newsletters dated Autumn 1989, Spring 1990, Summer 1991, Spring 1992, and Autumn 1992; Antic of August 1986; STart of Summer 1986; Dragon of October 1991; press releases and annual reports found in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Online sources include Matt Chats 173 and 174; Lori Ann Cole’s interview with Adventure Classic Gaming; Lori and Corey’s appearance on the Space Venture podcast; and various entries on the Coles’ own blog. But my biggest resource at all has been the Coles themselves, who took the time to patiently answer my many nit-picky questions at length. Thank you, Corey and Lori! And finally, courtesy of Corey and Lori, a little bonus for the truly dedicated among you who have read this far: some pages from an issue of their newsletter The Spell Book, including Corey’s take on “Fantasy Gaming Via Computer” circa summer 1982.)

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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