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Ten Great Adventure-Game Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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


1. Getting past the dragon in Adventure

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

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

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

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

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


2. Exploring the translucent maze in Enchanter

By Marc Blank and David Lebling, Infocom, 1983

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1984

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

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

There is a satchel here.

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

Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Steve Meretzky, Infocom, 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5. Escaping the pirate Lafond in Plundered Hearts

By Amy Briggs, Infocom, 1987

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

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

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

Lafond is leering, lip curled.

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

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

>drink wine
You empty the blue goblet of wine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>no
You shake your head, teeth clenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>z
Time passes...

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

>z
Time passes...


The butler's eyes are getting heavier.

>z
Time passes...

The butler collapses, head back, snoring loudly.

>s
You creep over the prostrate butler.

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

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


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

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1987

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

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

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

Bernard rings the doorbell.

Ed heads off to answer the door.

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

Dave searches Ed’s room.

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

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

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

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


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

By Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Sierra, 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8. Blunting the smith’s sword in Loom

By Brian Moriarty, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Ron Gilbert, Lucasfilm Games, 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 
 

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Quest for Glory III and IV

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanford and Son make an appearance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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The Sierra Discovery Adventures

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

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

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


Gano Haine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lorelei Shannon and Jane Jensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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The Incredible Machine

As we saw in my previous article, Jeff Tunnell walked away from Dynamix’s experiments with “interactive movies” feeling rather disillusioned by the whole concept. How ironic, then, that in at least one sense comparisons with Hollywood continued to ring true even after he thought he’d consigned such things to his past. When he stepped down from his post at the head of Dynamix in order to found Jeff Tunnell Productions and make smaller but more innovative games, he was making the sort of bargain with commercial realities that many a film director had made before him. In the world of movies, and now increasingly in that of games as well, smaller, cheaper projects were usually the only ones allowed to take major thematic, formal, and aesthetic risks. If Tunnell hoped to innovate, he had come to believe, he would have to return to the guerrilla model of game development that had held sway during the 1980s, deliberately rejecting the studio-production culture that was coming to dominate the industry of the 1990s. So, he recruited Kevin Ryan, a programmer who had worked at Dynamix almost from the beginning, and set up shop in the office next door with just a few other support personnel.

Tunnell knew exactly what small but innovative game he wanted to make first. It was, appropriately enough, an idea that dated back to those wild-and-free 1980s. In fact, he and Damon Slye had batted it around when first forming Dynamix all the way back in 1983. At that time, Electronic Art’s Pinball Construction Set, which gave you a box of (virtual) interchangeable parts to use in making playable pinball tables of your own, was taking the industry by storm, ushering in a brief heyday of similar computerized erector sets; Electronics Arts alone would soon be offering the likes of an Adventure Construction Set, a Music Construction Set, and a Racing Destruction Set. Tunnell and Slye’s idea was for a sort of machine construction set: a system for cobbling together functioning virtual mechanisms of many types out of interchangeable parts. But they never could sell the vaguely defined idea to a publisher, thus going to show that even the games industry of the 1980s maybe wasn’t quite so wild and free as nostalgia might suggest.1

Still, the machine-construction-set idea never left Tunnell, and, after founding Jeff Tunnell Productions in early 1992, he was convinced that now was finally the right time to see it through. At its heart, the game, which he would name The Incredible Machine, must be a physics simulator. Luckily, all those years Kevin Ryan had spent building all those vehicular simulators for Dynamix provided him with much of the coding expertise and even actual code that he would need to make it. Ryan had the basic engine working within a handful of months, whereupon Tunnell and anyone else who was interested could start pitching in to make the many puzzles that would be needed to turn a game engine into a game.

The look of the Mouse Trap board game…

…is echoed by the Incredible Machine computer game.

If Pinball Construction Set and those other early “creativity games” were one part of the influences that would result in The Incredible Machine, the others are equally easy to spot. One need only glance at a screenshot to be reminded of the old children’s board game cum toy Mouse Trap, a simplistic exercise in roll-and-move whose real appeal is the elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style mechanism that the players slowly assemble out of plastic parts in order to trap one another’s pieces — if, that is, the dodgy contraption, made out of plastic and rubber bands, doesn’t collapse on itself instead. But sadly, there’s only one way to put the mousetrap’s pieces together, making the board game’s appeal for any but the youngest children short-lived. The Incredible Machine, on the other hand, would offer the opportunity to build a nearly infinite number of virtual mousetraps.

In contrast to such venerable inspirations, the other game that clearly left its mark on The Incredible Machine was one of the hottest current hits in the industry at the time the latter was being made. Lemmings, the work of a small team out of Scotland called DMA Design, was huge in every corner of the world where computer games were played — a rarity during what was still a fairly fragmented era of gaming culture. A level-oriented puzzle game of ridiculous charm, Lemmings made almost anyone who saw it want it to pick up the mouse and start playing it, and yet managed to combine this casual accessibility with surprising depth and variety over the course of 120 levels that started out trivial and escalated to infuriating and beyond. Its strong influence can be seen in The Incredible Machine‘s similar structure, consisting of 87 machines to build, beginning with some tutorial puzzles to gently introduce the concepts and parts and ending with some fiendishly complex problems indeed. For that matter, Lemmings‘s commercial success, which proved that there was a real market for accessible games with a different aesthetic sensibility than the hardcore norm, did much to make Sierra, Dynamix’s new owner and publisher, enthusiastic about the project.

Like Lemmings, the heart of The Incredible Machine is its robust, hugely flexible engine. Yet that potential would have been for naught had not Tunnell, Ryan, and their other associates delivered a progression of intriguing puzzles that build upon one another in logical ways as you learn more and more about the engine’s possibilities. One might say that, if the wonderful engine is the heart of the game, the superb puzzle design is the soul of the experience — just as is the case, yet again, with Lemmings. In training you how to play interactively and then slowly ramping up the challenge, Lemmings and The Incredible Machine both embraced the accepted best practices of modern game design well before they had become such. They provide you the wonderful rush of feeling smart, over and over again as you master the ever more complex dilemmas they present to you.

To understand how The Incredible Machine actually works in practice, let’s have a look at a couple of its individual puzzles. We’ll begin with the very first of them, an admittedly trivial exercise for anyone with any experience in the game.

Each puzzle begins with three things: with a goal; with an incomplete machine already on the main board, consisting of some selection of immovable parts; and with some additional parts waiting off on the right side of the screen, to be dragged onto the board where we will. In this case, we need to send the basketball through the “hoop” — which is, given that there is no “net” graphic in the game’s minimalist visual toolkit, the vaguely hole-shaped arrangement of pieces below and to the right of where the basketball stands right now. Looking to the parts area at the far right, we see that we have three belts, three hamster wheels, and three ramp pieces to help us accomplish our goal. The score tallies at the bottom of the screen have something or other to do with time and number of puzzles already completed, but feel free to do like most players and ignore them; the joy of this game is in making machines that work, not in chalking up high scores. Click on the image above to see what happens when we start our fragment of a machine in its initial state.

Not much, right? The bowling ball that begins suspended in mid-air simply falls into the ether. Let’s begin to make something more interesting happen by putting a hamster cage below the falling ball. When the ball drops on top of it, the little fellow will get spooked and start to run.


His scurrying doesn’t accomplish anything as long as his wheel isn’t connected to any other parts. So, let’s stretch a belt from the hamster wheel to the conveyor belt just above and to its right.


Now we’re getting somewhere! If we put a second hamster wheel in the path of the second bowling ball, and connect it to the second conveyor belt, we can get the third bowling ball rolling.


And then, as you’ve probably surmised, the same trick can be used to send the basketball through the hoop.

Note that we never made use of the three ramp pieces at our disposal. This is not unusual. Because each puzzle really is a dynamic physics simulation rather than a problem with a hard-coded solution, many of them have multiple solutions, some of which may never have been thought of by the designers. In this quality as well The Incredible Machine is, yet once more, similar to Lemmings.

The game includes many more parts than we had available to us in the first puzzle; there are some 45 of them in all, far more than any single puzzle could ever use. Even the physical environment itself eventually becomes a variable, as the later puzzles begin to mess with gravity and atmospheric pressure.

We won’t look at anything that daunting today, but we should have a look at a somewhat more complicated puzzle from a little later in the game, one that will give us more of a hint of the engine’s real potential.

In tribute to Mouse Trap (and because your humble correspondent here just really likes cats), this one will be a literal game of cat and mouse, as shown above. We need to move Mort the Mouse from the top right corner of the screen to the vaguely basket-like enclosure at bottom left, and we’ll have to use Pokey the Cat to accomplish part of that goal. We have more parts to work with this time than will fit in the parts window to the right. (We can scroll through the pages of parts by clicking on the arrows just above.) So, in addition to the two belts, one gear, one electric motor, two electric fans, and one generator shown in the screenshot below, know that we also have three ramp pieces at our disposal.

Already with the starting setup, a baseball flips on a household power outlet, albeit one to which nothing is initially connected.

We can connect one of the fans to the power outlet to blow Mort toward the left. Unfortunately, he gets stuck on the scenery rather than falling all the way down to the next level.


So, we need to alter the mouse’s trajectory by using one of our ramp pieces; note that these, like many parts, can be flipped horizontally and stretched to suit our needs. Our first attempt at placing the ramp does cause Mort to fall down to the next level, and he then starts running away from Pokey toward the right, as we want. But he’s not fast enough to get to the end of the pipe on which he’s running before Pokey catches him. This is good for Pokey, but not so good for us — and, needless to say, least good of all for Mort. (At least the game politely spares us the carnage that ensues after he’s caught by making him simply disappear.)


A little more experimentation and we find a placement of the ramp that works better.


Now we just have to move the mouse back to the left and into the basket. The most logical approach would seem to be to use the second fan to blow him there. Simple enough, right? Getting it running, however, will be a more complicated affair, considering that we don’t have a handy mains-power outlet already provided down here and that our fan’s cord won’t stretch anywhere near as far as we need it to in order to utilize the outlet above. So, we begin by instead plugging our electric motor into the second socket of the outlet we do have, and belting it up to the gear that’s already fixed in place.


So far, so good. Now we mesh the gear from our box of parts to the one that’s already on the board, and belt it up to our generator, which provides us with another handy power outlet right where we need it.


Now we place our second fan just right, and… voila! We’ve solved the puzzle with two ramp pieces to spare.


The experience of working through the stages of a solution, getting a little closer each time, is almost indescribably satisfying for anyone with the slightest hint of a tinkering spirit. The Incredible Machine wasn’t explicitly pitched as an educational product, but, like a lot of Sierra’s releases during this period, it nevertheless had something of an educational — or at least edutational — aura, what with its bright, friendly visual style and nonviolent premise (the occasional devoured mouse excepted!). There’s much to be learned from it — not least that even the most gnarly problems, in a computer game or in real life, can usually be tackled by breaking them down into a series of less daunting sub-problems. Later on, when the puzzles get really complex, one may question where to even start. The answer, of course, is just to put some parts on the board and connect some things together, to start seeing what’s possible and how things react with one another. Rolling up the old sleeves and trying things is better than sitting around paralyzed by a puzzle’s — or by life’s — complexity. For the pure tinkerers among us, meanwhile, the game offers a free-form mode where you can see what sort of outlandish contraption you can come up with, just for the heck of it. It thus manages to succeed as both a goal-oriented game in the mode of Lemmings and as a software toy in the mode of its 1980s inspirations.

As we’ve already seen, Jeff Tunnell Productions had been formed with the intention of making smaller, more formally innovative games than those typically created inside the main offices of Dynamix. It was tacitly understood that games of this stripe carried with them more risk and perhaps less top-end sales potential than the likes of Damon Slye’s big military flight simulators; these drawbacks would be compensated for only by their vastly lower production costs. It’s thus a little ironic to note that The Incredible Machine upon its release on December 1, 1992, became a major, immediate hit by the standard of any budget. Were it not for another of those aforementioned Damon Slye simulations, a big World War II-themed extravaganza called Aces of the Pacific that had been released just days before it, it would actually have become Dynamix’s single best-selling game to date. As it was, Aces of the Pacific sold a few more absolute units, but in terms of profitability there was no comparison; The Incredible Machine had cost peanuts to make by the standards of an industry obsessed with big, multimedia-rich games.

The size comparisons are indeed telling. Aces of the Pacific had shipped on three disks, while Tunnell’s previous project, the interactive cartoon The Adventures of Willy Beamish, had required six. The Incredible Machine, by contrast, fit comfortably on a single humble floppy, a rarity among games from Dynamix’s parent company Sierra especially, from whose boxes sometimes burst forth as many as a dozen disks, who looked forward with desperate urgency to the arrival of CD-ROMs and their 650 MB of storage. The Incredible Machine needed less than 1 MB of space in all, and its cost of production had been almost as out of proportion with the Sierra norm as its byte count. It thus didn’t take Dynamix long to ask Jeff Tunnell Productions to merge back into their main fold. With the profits The Incredible Machine was generating, it would be best to make sure its developers remained in the Dynamix/Sierra club.

There was much to learn from The Incredible Machine‘s success for any student of the evolving games industry who bothered to pay attention. Along with Tetris and Lemmings before it, it provided the perfect template for “casual” gaming, a category the industry hadn’t yet bothered to label. It could be used as a five-minute palate-cleanser between tasks on the office computer as easily as it could become a weekend-filling obsession on the home computer. It was a low-investment game, quick and easy to get into and get out of, its premise and controls obvious from the merest glance at the screen, yet managed to conceal beneath its shallow surface oceans of depth. At the same time, though, that depth was of such a nature that you could set it aside for weeks or months when life got in the way, then pick it up and continue with the next puzzle as if nothing had happened. This sort of thing, much more so than elaborate interactive movies filmed with real actors on real sound stages —  or, for that matter, hardcore flight simulators that demanded hours and hours of practice just to rise to the level of competent — would prove to be the real future of digital games as mass-market entertainments. The founding ethos of the short-lived entity known as Jeff Tunnell Productions — to focus on small games that did one thing really, really well — could stand in for that of countless independent game studios working in the mobile and casual spaces today.

Still, it would be a long time before The Incredible Machine and games like it became more than occasional anomalies in an industry obsessed with cutting-edge technology and size, both in megabytes and in player time commitment. In the meantime, developers who did realize that not every gamer was thirsting to spend dozens of hours immersed in an interactive Star Wars movie or Lord of the Rings novel could do very well for themselves. The Incredible Machine was the sort of game that lent itself to almost infinite sequels once the core engine had been created. With the latter to hand, all that remained for Tunnell and company was to churn out more puzzles. Thus the next several years brought The Even More! Incredible Machine, a re-packaging of the original game with an additional 73 puzzles; Sid & Al’s Incredible Toons, which moved the gameplay into more forthrightly cartoon territory via its titular Tom & Jerry ripoffs; and The Incredible Machine 2 and The Incredible Toon Machine, which were just what they sounded like they would be. Being the very definition of “more of the same,” these aren’t the sort of games that lend themselves to extended criticism, but certainly players who had enjoyed the original game found plenty more to enjoy in the sequels. Along the way, the series proved quietly but significantly influential as more than just one of the pioneers of casual games in the abstract: it became the urtext of the entire genre of so-called “physics simulators.” There’s much of The Incredible Machine‘s influence to be found in more than one facet of such a modern casual mega-hit as the Angry Birds franchise.

For his part, Jeff Tunnell took away from The Incredible Machine‘s success the lesson that his beloved small games were more than commercially viable. He spent most of the balance of the 1990s working similar territory. In the process, he delivered two games that sold even better than The Incredible Machine franchise — in fact, they became the two best-selling games Dynamix would ever release. Trophy Bass and 3-D Ultra Pinball are far from the best-remembered or best-loved Dynamix-related titles among hardcore gamers today, but they sold and sold and sold to an audience that doesn’t tend to read blogs like this one. While neither is a brilliantly innovative design like The Incredible Machine, their huge success hammers home the valuable lesson, still too often forgotten, that many different kinds of people play many different kinds of games for many different reasons, and that none of these people, games, or reasons is a wrong one.

(Sources: Sierra’s InterAction news magazine of Fall 1992 and Winter 1992; Computer Gaming World of March 1992 and April 1993; Commodore Microcomputers of November/December 1986; Matt Barton’s interviews with Jeff Tunnell in Matt Chat 200 and 201; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.

All of the Incredible Machine games are available for purchase in one “mega pack” from GOG.com.)


  1. That, anyway, is the story which both Jeff Tunnell and Kevin Ryan tell in interviews today, which also happened to be the only one told in an earlier version of this article. But this blog’s friend Jim Leonard has since pointed out the existence of a rather obscure children’s game from the heyday of computerized erector sets called Creative Contraptions, published by the brief-lived software division of Bantam Books and created by a team of developers who called themselves Looking Glass Software (no relation to the later, much more famous Looking Glass Studios). It’s a machine construction set in its own right, one which is strikingly similar to the game which is the main subject of this article, even including some of the very same component parts, although it is more limited in many ways than Tunnell and Ryan’s creation, with simpler mechanisms to build out of fewer parts and less flexible controls that are forced to rely on keystrokes rather than the much more intuitive affordances of the mouse. One must assume that Tunnell and Ryan either reinvented much of Creative Contraptions or expanded on a brilliant concept beautifully in the course of taking full advantage of the additional hardware at their disposal. If the latter, there’s certainly no shame in that. 

 

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The Dynamic Interactive Narratives of Dynamix

By 1990, the world of adventure games was coming to orient itself after the twin poles of Sierra Online and LucasFilm Games. The former made a lot of games, on diverse subjects and of diverse quality, emphasizing always whatever new audiovisual flash was made possible by the very latest computing technology. The latter, on the other hand, made far fewer and far less diverse but more careful games, fostering a true designer’s culture that emphasized polish over flash. In their attitudes toward player-character death and dead ends, toward puzzle design, toward graphics style, each company had a distinct personality, and adventure-game fans lined up, as they continue to do even today, as partisans of one or the other.

Yet in the vast territory between these two poles were many other developers experimenting with the potential of adventure games, and in many cases exploring approaches quite different from either of the two starring players. One of the more interesting of these supporting players was the Oregon-based Dynamix, who made five adventure or vaguely adventure-like games between 1988 and 1991 — as many adventure-like games, in fact, as LucasFilm Games themselves managed to publish during the same period. Despite this relative prolificacy, Dynamix was never widely recognized as an important purveyor of adventures; they enjoyed their greatest fame in the very different realm of 3D vehicular simulations. There are, as we’ll see, some pretty good reasons for that to be the case; for all their surprisingly earnest engagement with interactive narrative, none of the five games in question managed to rise to the level of a classic. Still, they all are, to a one, interesting at the very least, which is a track record few other dabblers in the field of adventure games can lay claim to.


Arcticfox, Dynamix’s breakout hit, arrived when Electronic Arts was still nursing the remnants of Trip Hawkins’s original dream of game developers as rock stars, leading to lots of strange photos like this one. This early incarnation of Dynamix consisted of (from left to right) Kevin Ryan, Jeff Tunnell, Damon Slye, and Richard Hicks.

Like a number of other early software developers, Dynamix was born on the floor of a computer shop. The shop in question was The Computer Tutor of Eugene, Oregon, owned and operated in the early 1980s by a young computer fanatic named Jeff Tunnell (the last name is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, like “Raquel” — not like “tunnel”). He longed to get in on the creative end of software, but had never had the patience to progress much beyond BASIC as a programmer in his own right. Then came the day when one of his regular customers, a University of Oregon undergraduate named Damon Slye, showed him a really hot Apple II action game he was working on. Tunnell knew opportunity when he saw it.

Thus was born a potent partnership, one not at all removed from the similar partnership that had led to MicroProse Software on the other coast. Jeff Tunnell was the Wild Bill Stealey of this pairing: ambitious, outgoing, ready and willing to tackle the business side of software development. Damon Slye was the Sid Meier: quiet, a little shy, but one hell of a game programmer.

Tunnell and Slye established their company in 1983, at the tail end of the Ziploc-bag era of software publishing, under the dismayingly generic name of The Software Entertainment Company. They started selling the game that had sparked the company, which Slye had now named Stellar 7, through mail order. The first-person shoot-em-up put the player in charge of a tank lumbering across the wire-frame surface of an enemy-infested planet. It wasn’t the most original creation in the world, owing a lot to the popular Atari quarter-muncher Battlezone, but 3D games of this sort were unusual on the Apple II, and this one was executed with considerable aplomb. A few favorable press notices led to it being picked up by Penguin Software in 1984, which in turn led to Tunnell selling The Computer Tutor in order to concentrate on his new venture. (Unbeknownst to Tunnell and Slye at the time, Stellar 7 was purchased and adored by Tom Clancy, author of one of the most talked-about books of the year. “It is so unforgiving,” he would later say. “It is just like life. It’s just perfect to play when I’m exercising. I get on my exercycle, start pedaling, pick up the joystick, and I’m off…”)

But the life of a small software developer just as the American home-computer industry was entering its first slump wasn’t an easy one. Tunnell signed contracts wherever he could find them to keep his head above water: releasing Sword of Kadash, an adventure/CRPG/platformer hybrid masterminded by another kid from The Computer Tutor named Chris Cole; writing a children’s doodler called The Electronic Playground himself with a little help from Damon Slye; even working on a simple word processor for home users.

In fact, it was this last which led to the company’s big break. They had chosen to write that program in C, a language which wasn’t all that common on the first generation of 8-bit microcomputers but which was officially blessed as the best way to program a new 16-bit audiovisual powerhouse called the Commodore Amiga. Their familiarity with C gave Tunnell’s company, by now blessedly renamed Dynamix, an in with Electronic Arts, the Amiga’s foremost patron in the software world, who were looking for developers to create products for the machine while it was still in the prototype phase. Damon Slye thus got started programming Arcticfox on an Amiga that didn’t even have a functioning operating system, writing and compiling his code on an IBM PC and sending it over to the Amiga via cable for execution.

Conceptually, Arcticfox was another refinement on the Battlezone/Stellar 7 template, another tooling-around-and-shooting-things-in-a-tank game. As a demonstration of the Amiga’s capabilities, however, it was impressive, replacing its predecessors’ monochrome wire-frame graphics with full-color solids. Reaching store shelves in early 1986 as part of the first wave of Amiga games, Arcticfox was widely ported and went on to sell over 100,000 copies in all, establishing Dynamix’s identity as a purveyor of cutting-edge 3D graphics. In that spirit, the next few years would bring many more 3D blast-em games, with names like Skyfox II, F-14 Tomcat, Abrams Battle Tank, MechWarrior, Deathtrack, and A-10 Tank Killer.

Yet even in the midst of all these adrenaline-gushers, Jeff Tunnell was nursing a quiet interest in the intersection of narrative with interactivity, even as he knew that he didn’t want to make a traditional adventure game of either the text or the graphical stripe. Like many in his industry by the second half of the 1980s, he believed the parser was hopeless as a long-term sell to the mass market, while the brittle box of puzzles that was the typical graphic adventure did nothing for him either. He nursed a dream of placing the player in a real unfolding story, partially driving events but partially being driven by them, like in a movie. Of course, he was hardly alone at the time in talking about “interactive movies”; the term was already becoming all the rage. But Dynamix’s first effort in that direction certainly stood out from the pack — or would have, if fate had been kinder to it.

Jeff Tunnell still calls Project Firestart the most painful single development project he’s ever worked on over the course of more than three decades making games. Begun before Arcticfox was published, it wound up absorbing almost three years at a time when the average game was completed in not much more than three months. By any sane standard, it was just way too much game for the Commodore 64, the platform for which it was made. It casts the player as a “special agent” of the future named Jon Hawking, sent to investigate a spaceship called the Prometheus that had been doing controversial research into human genetic manipulation but has suddenly stopped communicating. You can probably guess where this going; I trust I won’t be spoiling too much to reveal that zombie-like mutants now roam the ship after having killed most of the crew. The influences behind the story Tunnell devised aren’t hard to spot — the original Alien movie being perhaps foremost among them — but it works well enough on its own terms.

In keeping with Tunnel’s commitment to doing something different with interactive narrative, Project Firestart doesn’t present itself in the guise of a traditional adventure game. Instead it’s an action-adventure, an approach that was generally more prevalent among British than American developers. You explore the ship’s rooms and corridors in real time, using a joystick to shoot or avoid the monsters who seem to be the only life remaining aboard the Prometheus. What makes it stand out, however, is the lengths Dynamix went to to make it into a real unfolding story with real stakes. As you explore, you come across computer terminals holding bits and pieces of what has happened here, and of what you need to do to stop the contagion aboard from spreading further. You have just two hours, calculated in real playing time, to gather up all of the logs you can for the benefit of future researchers, make contact with any survivors from the crew who might have managed to hole up somewhere, set the ship’s self-destruct mechanism, and escape. You’re personally expendable; if you exceed the time limit, warships that are standing by will destroy the Prometheus with you aboard.

Throughout the game, cinematic touches are used to build tension and drama. For example, when you step out of an elevator to the sight of your first dead body, a stab of music gushes forth and the “camera” cuts to a close-up of the grisly scene. Considering what a blunt instrument Commodore 64 graphics and sound are, the game does a rather masterful job of ratcheting up the dread, whilst managing to sneak in a plot twist or two that even people who have seen Alien won’t be able to anticipate. Ammunition is a scarce commodity, leaving you feeling increasingly hunted and desperate as the ship’s systems begin to fail and the mutants relentlessly hunt you down through the claustrophobic maze of corridors. And yet, tellingly, Project Firestart diverges from the British action-adventure tradition in not being all that hard of a game in the final reckoning. You can reasonably expect to win within your first handful of tries, if perhaps not with the most optimal ending. It’s clearly more interested in giving you a cinematic experience than it is in challenging you in purely ludic terms.

Project Firestart was finally released in 1988, fairly late in the day for the Commodore 64 in North America and just as Tunnell was terminating his publishing contract with Electronic Arts under less-than-entirely-amicable terms and signing a new deal with Mediagenic. It thus shipped as one of Dynamix’s last games for Electronic Arts, received virtually no promotion, and largely vanished without a trace; what attention it did get came mostly from Europe, where this style of game was more popular in general and where the Commodore 64 was still a strong seller. But in recent years it’s enjoyed a reevaluation in the gaming press as, as the AV Club puts it, “a forgotten ’80s gem” that “created the formula for video game horror.” It’s become fashionable to herald it as the great lost forefather of the survival-horror genre that’s more typically taken to have been spawned by the 1992 Infogrames classic Alone in the Dark.

Such articles doubtless have their hearts in the right place, but in truth they rather overstate Project Firestart‘s claim to such a status at the same time that they rather understate its weaknesses. While the mood of dread the game manages to evoke with such primitive graphics and sound is indeed remarkable, it lacks any implementation of line of sight, and thus allows for no real stealth or hiding; the only thing to do if you meet some baddies you don’t want to fight is to run into the next room. If it must be said to foreshadow any future classic, my vote would go to Looking Glass Studio’s 1994 System Shock rather than Alone in the DarkSystem Shock too sees you gasping with dread as you piece together bits of a sinister story from computer terminals, even as the monsters of said story hunt you down. But even on the basis of that comparison Project Firestart remains more of a formative work than a classic in its own right. Its controls are awkward; you can’t even move and shoot at the same time. And, rather than consisting of a contiguous free-scrolling world, its geography is, due to technical limitations, segmented into rooms which give the whole a choppy, disconnected feel, especially given that they must each be loaded in from the Commodore 64’s achingly slow disk drive.

Accessing a shipboard computer in Project Firestart.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Project Firestart‘s protracted and painful gestation followed by its underwhelming commercial performance, Dynamix themselves never returned to this style of game. Yet it provided the first concrete manifestation of Jeff Tunnell’s conception of game narrative as — appropriately enough given the name of his company — a dynamic thing which provokes the player as much as it is provoked by her. Future efforts would gradually hew closer, on a superficial level at least, to the form of more traditional adventure games without abandoning this central conceit.

That said, the next narrative-oriented Dynamix game would still be an oddball hybrid by anyone’s standard. By 1989, Dynamix, like an increasing number of American computer-game developers, had hitched their wagon firmly to MS-DOS, and thus David Wolf: Secret Agent appeared only on that platform. It was intended to be an interactive James Bond movie.

But intention is not always result. To accept Dynamix’s own description of David Wolf as an interactive movie is to be quite generous indeed. It’s actually a non-interactive story, presented as a series of still images with dialog overlaid, interspersed with a handful of vehicular action games that feel like fragments Dynamix just happened to have lying around the office: a hang-glider sequence, a jet-fighter sequence, a car chase, the old jumping-out-of-an-airplane-without-a-parachute-just-behind-a-villain-who-does-have-one gambit. If you succeed at these, you get to watch more static story; if you fail, that’s that. Or maybe not: in a telling statement as to what was really important in the game, Dynamix made it possible to bypass any minigame at which you failed with the click of a button and keep right on trucking with the story. In a perceptive review for Computer Gaming World magazine, Charles Ardai compared David Wolf to, of all things, the old arcade game Ms. Pac-Man. The latter featured animated “interludes” every few levels showing the evolving relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man. These served, Ardai noted, as the icing on the cake, a little bonus to reward the player’s progress. But David Wolf inverted that equation: the static story scenes were now the cake. The game existed “just for the sheer joy of seeing digitized images on your PC.”

Our hero David Wolf starts salivating over the game’s lone female as soon as he sees her picture during his mission briefing, and he and the villains spend most of the game passing her back and forth like a choice piece of meat.

These days, of course, seeing pixelated 16-color digitizations on the screen prompts considerably less joy, and the rest of what’s here is so slight that one can only marvel at Dynamix’s verve in daring to slap a $50 suggested list price on the thing. The whole game is over within an hour or so, and a cheesy hour it is at that; it winds up being more Get Smart than James Bond, with dialog that even Ian Fleming would have thought twice about before committing to the page. (A sample: “Garth, I see your temper is still intact. Too bad I can’t say the same for your sense of loyalty.”) It’s difficult to tell to what extent the campiness is accidental and to what extent it’s intentional. Charles Ardai:

The viewer isn’t certain how to take the material. Is it a parody of James Bond (which is, by now, self-parodic), a straight comic adventure (imitation Bond as opposed to parody), or a serious thriller? It is hard to take the strictly formula plot seriously, but several of the scenes suggest that one is supposed to. I suspect that the screenwriters never quite decided which direction to take, and hoped to be able to do with a little of each. This can’t possibly work. You can’t both parody a genre and, at the same time, place yourself firmly within that genre because the resulting self-parody looks embarrassingly unwitting. Certainly you can’t do this and expect to be taken seriously. Airplane! couldn’t ask us to take seriously its disaster plot and Young Frankenstein didn’t try to make viewers cry over the monster’s plight, but this is what the designers of David Wolf seem to be doing.

Such wild vacillations in tone are typical of amateur writers who haven’t yet learned to control their wayward pens. They’re thus all too typical as well of the “programmer-written” era of games, before hiring real writers became standard industry practice. David Wolf wouldn’t be the last Dynamix game to suffer from the syndrome.

The cast of David Wolf manages the neat trick of coming off as terrible actors despite having only still images to work with. Here they’re trying to look shocked upon being surprised by villains pointing guns at them.

But for all its patent shallowness, David Wolf is an interesting piece of gaming history for at least a couple of reasons. Its use of digitized actors, albeit only in still images, presaged the dubious craze for so-called “full-motion-video” games that would dominate much of the industry for several years in the 1990s. (Tellingly, during its opening credits David Wolf elects to list its actors, drawn along with many of the props they used from the University of Oregon’s theatrical department, in lieu of the designers, programmers, and artists who actually built the game; they have to wait until the end scroll for recognition.) And, more specifically to the context of this article, David Wolf provides a further illustration of Jeff Tunnell’s vision of computer-game narratives that weren’t just boxes of puzzles.

Much of the reason David Wolf wound up being such a constrained experience was down to Dynamix being such a small developer with fairly scant resources. Tunnell was therefore thrilled when an arrangement with the potential to change that emerged.

At some point in late 1989, Ken Williams of Sierra paid Dynamix a visit. Flight simulations and war games of the sort in which Dynamix excelled were an exploding market (no pun intended!) at the time, one which would grow to account for 35.6 percent of computer-game sales by the second half of 1990, dwarfing the 26.2 percent that belonged to Sierra’s specialty of adventure games. Williams wanted a piece of that exploding market. He was initially interested only in licensing some of Dynamix’s technology as a leg-up. But he was impressed enough by what he saw there — especially by a World War I dog-fighting game that the indefatigable Damon Slye had in the works — that the discussion of technology licensing turned into a full-on acquisition pitch. For his part, Jeff Tunnell, recognizing that the games industry was becoming an ever more dangerous place for a small company trying to go it alone, listened with interest. On March 27, 1990, Sierra acquired Dynamix for $1.5 million.

In contrast to all too many such acquisitions, neither party would come to regret the deal. Even in the midst of a sudden, unexpected glut in World War I flight simulators, Damon Slye’s Red Baron stood out from the pack with a flight model that struck the perfect balance between realism and fun. (MicroProse had planned to use the same name for their own simulator, but were forced to go with the less felicitious Knights of the Sky when Dynamix beat them to the trademark office by two weeks.) Over the Christmas 1990 buying season, Red Baron became the biggest hit Dynamix had yet spawned, proving to Ken Williams right away that he had made the right choice in acquiring them.

Williams and Tunnell maintained a relationship of real cordiality and trust, and Dynamix was given a surprising amount of leeway to set their own agenda from offices that remained in Eugene, Oregon. Tunnell was even allowed to continue his experiments with narrative games, despite the fact that Sierra, who were churning out a new adventure game of their own every couple of months by this point, had hardly acquired Dynamix with an eye to publishing still more of them.

And so Dynamix’s first full-fledged adventure game, with real interactive environments, puzzles, and dialog menus, hit the market not long after the acquisition was finalized. Rise of the Dragon had actually been conceived by Jeff Tunnell before David Wolf was made, only to be shelved as too ambitious for the Dynamix of 1988. But the following year, with much of the technical foundation for a real adventure game already laid down by David Wolf, they had felt ready to give it a go.

Rise of the Dragon found Dynamix once again on well-trodden fictional territory, this time going for a Bladerunner/Neuromancer cyberpunk vibe; the game’s setting is the neon-lit Los Angeles of a dystopic future of perpetual night and luscious sleaze. You play a fellow stamped with the indelible name of Blade Hunter, a former cop who got himself kicked off the force by playing fast and loose with the rules. Now, he works as a private detective for whoever can pay him. When the game begins, he’s just been hired by the mayor to locate his drug-addicted daughter, who has been swallowed up by the city’s underworld. As a plot like that would indicate, this is a game that very much wants to be edgy. King’s Quest it isn’t.

There are a lot of ideas in Rise of the Dragon, some of which work better than others, but all of which reflect a real, earnest commitment to a more propulsive form of interactive narrative than was typical of the new parent company Sierra’s games. Jeff Tunnell:

Dynamix adventures have an ongoing story that will unfold even if the player does nothing. The player needs to interact with the game world to change the outcome of that story. For example, if the player does nothing but sit in the first room of Dragon, he will observe cinematic “meanwhile cutaways” depicting the story of drug lord Deng Hwang terrorizing the futuristic city of Los Angeles with tainted drug patches that cause violent mutations. So the player’s job is to interact with the world and change the outcome of the story to one that is more pleasing and heroic.

The entire game runs in real time, with characters coming and going around the city on realistic schedules. Dialog is at least as important as object-based puzzle-solving, and characters remember how you treat them to an impressive degree. This evolving web of relationships, combined with a non-linear structure and multiple solutions to most dilemmas, creates a possibility space far greater than the typical adventure game, all set inside a virtual world which feels far more alive.

The interface as well goes its own way. The game uses a first-person rather than third-person perspective, a rarity in graphic adventures of this period. And, at a time when both Sierra and Lucasfilm Games were still presenting players with menus of verbs to click on, Rise of the Dragon debuted a cleaner single-click system: right-clicking on an object will examine it, left-clicking will take whatever action is appropriate to that object. Among its other virtues, the interface frees up screen real estate to present the striking graphics to maximum effect. Instead of continuing to rely on live actors, Dynamix hired veteran comic-book illustrator Robert Caracol to draw most of the scenery with pen and ink for digitization. Combined with the jump from 16-color EGA to 256-color VGA graphics, the new approach results in art worthy of a glossy, stylized graphic novel. Computer Gaming World gave the game a well-deserved “Special Award for Artistic Achievement” in their “Games of the Year” awards for 1990.

Just to remind us of who made the game, a couple of action sequences do pop up, neither of them all that notably good or bad. But, once again, failing at one of them brings an option to skip it and continue with the story as if you’d succeeded. Indeed, the game as a whole evinces a forgiving nature that’s markedly at odds both with its hard-bitten setting and with those other adventure games being made by Dynamix’s parent company. It may be possible to lock yourself out of victory or run out of time to solve the mystery, but you’d almost have to be willfully trying to screw up in order to do so. That Dynamix was able to combine this level of forgivingness with so much flexibility in the narrative is remarkable.

If you really screw up, Rise of the Dragon is usually kind enough to tell you so.

But there are flies in the ointment that hold the game back from achieving classic status. Perhaps inevitably given the broad possibility space, it’s quite a short game on any given playthrough, and once the story is known the potential interest of subsequent playthroughs is, to say the least, limited. Of course, this isn’t so much of a problem today as it was back when the game was selling for $40 or more. Other drawbacks, however, remain as problematic as ever. The interface, while effortless to use in many situations, is weirdly obtuse in others. The inventory system in particular, featuring a paper-doll view of Blade Hunter and employing two separate windows in the form of a “main” and a “quick” inventory, is far too clever for its own good. I also find it really hard to understand where room exits are and how the environment fits together. And the writing is once again on the dodgy side; it’s never entirely clear whether Blade Hunter is supposed to be a real cool cat (like the protagonist of Neuromancer the novel) or a lovable (?) loser (like the protagonist of Neuromancer the game). Add to these issues an impossible-to-take-seriously plot that winds up revolving around an Oriental death cult, plus some portrayals of black and Chinese people that border on the outright offensive, and we’re a long way from even competent comic-book fiction.

Still, Rise of the Dragon in my opinion represents the best of Jeff Tunnell’s experiments with narrative games. If you’re interested in exploring this odd little cul-de-sac in adventure-gaming history, I recommend it as the place to start, as it offers by far the best mix of innovation and playability, becoming in the process the best all-around expression of just where Tunnell was trying to go with interactive narrative.

Heart of China, the early 1991 follow-up to Rise of the Dragon, superficially appears to be more of the same in a different setting. The same engine and interface are used, including a couple more action-based mini-games to play or skip, with the genre dance taking us this time to a 1930s pulp-adventure story in the spirit of Indiana Jones. The most initially obvious change is the return to a heavy reliance on digitized “actors.” Dynamix wound up employing some 85 separate people on the business end of their cameras in a production which overlapped with that of Rise of the Dragon, with its beginning phases stretching all the way back into 1989. Thankfully, the integration of real people with computer graphics comes off much better than it does in David Wolf, evincing much more care on the part of the team responsible. Heart of China thus manages to become one of the less embarrassing examples of a style of graphics that was all but predestined to look hopelessly cheesy about five minutes after hitting store shelves.

I’m not sure if this is Really Bad Writing that expects to be taken seriously or Really Bad Writing that’s trying (and failing) to be funny. I’m quite sure, however, that it’s Really Bad Writing of some sort.

When you look more closely at the game’s design, however, you see a far more constrained approach to interactive storytelling than that of its predecessor. You play a down on-his-luck ex-World War I flying ace named “Lucky” Jake Masters. (If there was one thing Dynamix knew how to do, it was to create stereotypically macho names.) He’s running a shady air-courier cum smuggling business out of Hong Kong when he’s enlisted by a wealthy “international business tycoon and profiteer” to rescue his daughter, who’s been kidnapped by a warlord deep inside the Chinese mainland. (If there was one thing Dynamix didn’t know how to do, it was to create plots that didn’t involve rescuing the daughters of powerful white men from evil Chinese people.) The story plays out in a manner much more typical of a plot-heavy adventure game — i.e., as a linear series of acts to be completed one by one — than does that of its predecessor. Jeff Tunnell’s commitment to his original vision for interactive narrative was obviously slipping in the face of resource constraints and a frustration, shared by some of his contemporaries who were also interested in more dynamic interactive storytelling, that gamers didn’t really appreciate the extra effort anyway. His changing point of view surfaces in a 1991 interview:

From a conceptual standpoint, multiple plot points are exciting. But when you get down to the implementation, they can make game development an absolute nightmare. Then, after all of the work to implement these multiple paths and endings, we’ve found that most gamers never even discover them.

When the design of Heart of China does allow for some modest branching, Dynamix handles it in rather hilariously passive-aggressive fashion: big red letters reading “plot branch” appear on the screen. Take that, lazy gamers!

That Lucky’s a real charmer, alright.

Heart of China bears all the signs of a project that was scaled back dramatically in the making, a game which wound up being far more constrained and linear than had been the original plan. Yet it’s not for this reason that I find it to be one of the more unlikable adventure games I’ve ever played. The writing is so ludicrously terrible that one wants to take the whole thing as a conscious B-movie homage of the sort Cinemaware loved to make. But darned if Dynamix didn’t appear to expect us to take it seriously. “It has more depth and sensibility than I’ve ever seen in a computer storytelling game,” said Tunnell. It’s as if he thought he had made Heart of Darkness when he’d really made Tarzan the Ape-Man. The ethnic stereotyping manages to make Rise of the Dragon look culturally sensitive, with every Chinese character communicating in the same singsong broken English. And as for Lucky Jake… well, he’s evidently supposed to be a charming rogue just waiting for Harrison Ford to step into the role, but hitting those notes requires far, far more writerly deftness than anyone at Dynamix could muster. Instead he just comes off as a raging asshole — the sort of guy who creeps out every woman he meets with his inappropriate comments; the sort of guy who warns his friend-with-benefits that she’s gained a pound or two and thus may soon no longer be worthy of his Terrible Swift Sword. For all these reasons and more, I can recommend Heart of China only to the truly dedicated student of adventure-game history.

The third and final point-and-click adventure game created by Jeff Tunnell and Dynamix is in some ways the most impressive of them all and in others the most disappointing, given that it turns into such a waste of potential. Tunnell took a new tack with The Adventures of Willy Beamish, deciding to create a light-hearted comedic adventure that would play like a Saturday-morning cartoon. Taking advantage of a lull in Hollywood’s cartoon-production factories, he hired a team of professional animators of the old-school cell-based stripe, veterans of such high-profile productions as The Little Mermaid, Jonny Quest, and The Simpsons, along with a husband-and-wife team of real, honest-to-God professional television writers to create a script. Dynamix’s offices came to look, as a Computer Gaming World preview put it, like a “studio in the golden age of animation,” with animators “etching frantically atop the light tables” while “pen-and-pencil images of character studies, backgrounds, and storyboard tests surround them on the office walls.” The team swelled to some fifty people before all was said and done, making Willy Beamish by far the most ambitious and expensive project Dynamix had ever tackled.

Willy Beamish looked amazing in its time, and still looks just fine today, especially given that its style of hand-drawn cell-based animation is so seldom seen in the post-Pixar era. Look at the amount of detail in this scene!

What Tunnell got for his money was, as noted, darned impressive at first glance. Many companies — not least Sierra with their latest King’s Quest — were making noises about bringing “interactive cartoons” to computer monitors, but Dynamix was arguably the first to really pull it off. Switching to a third-person perspective in keeping with the cartoon theme, every frame was fussed-over to a degree that actually exceeded the likes of The Simpsons, much less the typical Saturday-morning rush job. Tunnel would later express some frustration that the end result may have been too good; he suspected that many people were mentally switching gears and subconsciously seeing it the way they might a cartoon on their television screen, not fully registering that everything they were seeing was playing on their computer. Today, all of this is given a further layer of irony by the way that 3D-rendered computer animation has all but made the traditional cell-based approach to cartoon animation used by Willy Beamish into a dead art. How odd to think that a small army of pencil-wielding illustrators was once considered a sign of progress in computer animation!

The game’s story is a deliberately modest, personal one — which in an industry obsessed with world-shaking epics was a good thing. The young Willy Beamish, a sort of prepubescent version of Ferris Bueller, wants to compete for the Nintari Championship of videogaming, but he and his dubiously named pet frog Horny are at risk of being grounded thanks to a bad mark in his music-appreciation class. From this simple dilemma stems several days of comedic chaos, including a variety of other story beats that involve his whole family. The tapestry was woven together with considerable deftness by the writers, whose experience with prime-time sitcoms served them well. It’s always a fine line between a precocious, smart-Alecky little boy and a grating, bratty one, but The Adventures of Willy Beamish mostly stays on the right side of it. For once, in other words, a Dynamix game has writing to match its ambition.

Horny the Frog springs into action.

Unfortunately, the game finds a new way to go off the rails. Rise of the Dragon and Heart of China had combined smart design sensibilities with dodgy writing; Willy Beamish does just the opposite. Like Rise of the Dragon, it runs in real time; unlike Rise of the Dragon, you are given brutally little time to accomplish what you need to in each scene. The game winds up playing almost like a platformer; you have to repeat each scene again and again to learn what to do, then execute perfectly in order to progress. Worse, it’s possible to progress without doing everything correctly, only to be stranded somewhere down the line. The experience of playing Willy Beamish is simply infuriating, a catalog of all the design sins Dynamix adventure games had heretofore been notable for avoiding. I have to presume that all those animators and writers caused Dynamix to forget that they were making an interactive work. As was being proved all over the games industry at the time, that was all too easy to do amidst all the talk about a grand union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

Sierra had been a little lukewarm on Dynamix’s previous adventure games, but they gave Willy Beamish a big promotional push for the Christmas 1991 buying season, even grabbing for it the Holy Grail of game promotion: a feature cover of Computer Gaming World. While I’m tempted to make a rude comment here about Dynamix finally making a game that embraced Sierra’s own design standards and them getting excited about that, the reality is of course that the game just looked too spectacular to do anything else. Sierra and Dynamix were rewarded with a solid hit that racked up numbers in the ballpark of one of the former’s more popular numbered adventure series. In 1993, Willy Beamish would even get a re-release as a full-fledged CD-ROM talkie, albeit with some of most annoying children’s voices ever recorded.

Willy Beamish has a “trouble meter” that hearkens back to Bureaucracy‘s blood-pressure monitor, except this time it’s presumably measuring the blood pressure of the adults around you. If you let it get too high, you get shipped off to boarding school.

But it had been a hugely expensive product to create, and it’s questionable whether its sales, strong though they were, were actually strong enough to earn much real profit. At any rate, Jeff Tunnell, the primary driver behind Dynamix’s sideline in adventure games, suddenly decided he’d had enough shortly after Willy Beamish was finished. It seems that the experience of working with such a huge team had rubbed him the wrong way. He therefore resigned the presidency of Dynamix to set up a smaller company, Jeff Tunnell Productions, “to return to more hands-on work with individual products and to experiment in product genres that do not require the large design teams necessitated by [his] last three designs.” It was all done thoroughly amicably, and was really more of a role change than a resignation; Jeff Tunnell Productions would release their games through Dynamix (and, by extension, Sierra). But Tunnell would never make another adventure game. “After doing story-based games for a while,” he says today, “I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to continue to do. I think there is a place for story in games, but it’s…. hard.” Dynamix’s various experiments with interactive narrative, none of them entirely satisfying, apparently served to convince him that his talents were better utilized elsewhere. Ironically, he made that decision just as CD-ROM, a technology which would have gone a long way toward making his “interactive movies” more than just an aspiration, was about to break through into the mainstream at last.

Still, and for all that it would have been nice to see everything come together at least once for him, I don’t want to exaggerate the tragedy, especially given that the new Jeff Tunnell Productions would immediately turn out a bestseller and instant classic of a completely different type. (More on that in my next article!) If the legacy of Dynamix story games is a bit of a frustrating one, Tunnell’s vision of interactive narratives that are more than boxes of puzzles would eventually prove its worth across a multiplicity of genres. For this reason at the very least, the noble failures of Dynamix are worth remembering.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of July 1988, December 1989, May 1990, February 1991, September 1991, October 1991, November 1991, March 1992, February 1994, and May 1994; Sierra’s news magazines of Summer 1990, Spring 1991, Summer 1991, Fall 1991, and June 1993; InfoWorld of March 5 1984; Apple Orchard of December 1983; Zzap! of July 1989; Questbusters of August 1991; Video Games and Computer Entertainment of May 1991; Dynamix’s hint books for Rise of the Dragon, Heart of China, and The Adventures of Willy Beamish; Matt Barton’s interviews with Jeff Tunnell in Matt Chat 199 and 200; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.

You can download emulator-ready Commodore 64 disk images of Project Firestart and a version of David Wolf: Secret Agent that’s all ready to go under DOSBox from right here. Rise of the Dragon, Heart of China, and The Adventures of Willy Beamish — and for that matter Red Baron — are all available for purchase on GOG.com.)

 

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