RSS

Tag Archives: sierra

Betrayal at Krondor

During the 1960s and 1970s, a new type of game began to appear in increasing numbers on American tabletops: the experiential game. These differed from the purely abstract board and card games of yore in that they purported to simulate a virtual world of sorts which lived behind their surface systems. The paradigm shift this entailed was such that for many players these games ceased to be games at all in the zero-sum sense. When a group came together to play Squad Leader or Dungeons & Dragons, there hung over the plebeian kitchen or basement in which they played a shared vision of the beaches of Normandy or the dungeons of Greyhawk. The games became vehicles for exploring the vagaries of history or the limits of the imagination — vehicles, in other words, for living out shared stories.

In retrospect, it was perhaps inevitable that some of the stories generated in this way would make their way out of the gaming sessions which had spawned them and find a home in more traditional, linear forms of media. And, indeed, just such things were happening by the 1980s, as the first novels born from games arrived.

Needless to say, basing your book on a game you’ve played isn’t much of a path to literary respectability. But for a certain kind of plot-focused genre novel — the kind focusing strictly on what people do rather than why they do it — prototyping the whole thing as a game makes a degree of sense. It can keep you honest by forcing your story to conform to a simulated reality that transcends the mere expediency of what might be cool and exciting to write into the next scene. By pushing against authorial fiat and the deus ex machina, it can give the whole work an internal coherency — an honesty, one might even say — that’s too often missing from novels of this stripe.

The most widely publicized early example of the phenomenon was undoubtedly the one which involved a humble insurance salesman named Tom Clancy, who came out of nowhere with a techno-thriller novel called The Hunt for Red October in 1984. The perfect book for a time of resurgent patriotism and military pride in the United States, it found a fan in no less elevated a personage than President Ronald Reagan, who declared it “my kind of yarn.” As the book topped the bestseller charts and the press rushed to draft their human-interest stories on the man who had written it, they learned that Clancy had gamed out its entire scenario, involving a rogue Soviet submarine captain who wishes to defect along with his vessel to the United States, with a friend of his named Larry Bond, using Harpoon, a tabletop wargame of modern naval combat designed by the latter. Clancy’s follow-up novel, a story of open warfare between East and West called Red Storm Rising, was a product of the same gestation process. To the literary establishment, it all seemed extremely strange and vaguely unsettling; to many a wargamer, it seemed perfectly natural.

Another line of ludic adaptations from the same period didn’t attract as much attention from the New York Times Book Review, much less the president, but nevertheless became almost as successful on its own terms. In 1983, TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, decided to make a new series of adventure modules for the game, each of which would feature a different kind of dragon — because, as some of their customers were writing in their letters, the existing Dungeons & Dragons modules “had plenty of dungeons, but not many dragons.” The marketing exercise soon grew into Dragonlance, an elaborately plotted Tolkienesque epic set in a brand new fantasy world — one which, yes, featured plenty of dragons. TSR asked employees Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman to write a trilogy of novels based on the fourteen Dragonlance adventure modules and source books they planned to publish. Thus Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first volume of The Dragonlance Chronicles, was published in the same year as The Hunt for Red October. It promptly became a nerdy sensation, the biggest fantasy novel of the year, spawning a whole new business for TSR as a publisher of paperback novels. In time, said novels would become as big a part of their business as the games on which they were based.

A third, only slightly less heralded example of the games-into-books trend actually predates the two I’ve just mentioned by a couple of years. In the late 1970s, a group of students at the University of California San Diego took up the recently published Dungeons & Dragons. Growing dissatisfied with TSR’s rules, they scrapped them one by one, replacing them with their own home-grown versions. Meanwhile they evolved a world in which to play called Midkemia, complete with its own detailed history, bestiary, sociology, and geography. Forming a little company of their own, as so many Dungeons & Dragons fanatics were doing at the time, they published some of their innovations to modest sales.

Raymond E. Feist

But one of their number named Raymond E. Feist had bigger ambitions. He wrote a novel based on some of the group’s exploits in Midkemia. Calling it simply Magician, he got it published through Doubleday in 1982 as the first volume of The Riftwar Saga. It sold very well, and he’s been writing Midkemia novels ever since.

Unlike the later cases of Tom Clancy and Dragonlance, Magician wasn’t widely publicized or advertised as being the product of a game. It was seen instead as merely the latest entry in an exploding branch of genre fiction: lengthy high-fantasy series inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, often to the point of one-to-one correspondences between characters and plot events, but written in a manner more immediately accessible to the average Middle American reader, with more action, more narrative thrust, less elevated diction, and markedly less digressive songs and poetry. Dragonlance, of course, is an example of the same breed.

I must admit that I’ve personally read only the first book of Feist’s series, and not even to completion at that. This sort of derivative high fantasy doesn’t do much for me as a rule, so I’m not the best person to judge Feist’s output under any circumstances. Anything positive I do say about it runs the risk of damning with faint praise.

To wit: my wife and I used the book as our light bedtime reading, and we made it about two-thirds of the way through before terminal ennui set in and we decided we’d had enough. If that seems like less than a ringing endorsement, know that it’s farther than I generally get with most fantasy novels, including ones with considerably more literary credibility. I thus feel comfortable in saying that at least the early Raymond E. Feist novels are well-crafted examples of their breed, if you happen to like that sort of thing. (I do understand from others that the quality of his work, and particularly of his plotting, began to decline after his first handful of Midkemia novels. Perhaps because he was no longer basing them on his gaming experiences?)

The world of Midkemia is most interesting for our purposes, however, for the computer game it spawned. Yes, a series of novels based on a game got turned back into a very different sort of game. And then, just for good measure, that game got turned into another novel. It’s a crazy old transmedia world.


The more direct origin of Betrayal at Krondor, the game in question, can be traced back to June of 1991 and a chance meeting between John Cutter and Jeff Tunnell at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show. Both names may be familiar to regular readers of these histories.

John Cutter

Cutter had spent several years with Cinemaware, helping to craft many of their most innovative creations, which blended strong narrative elements with play styles that were unorthodox in story-heavy computer games at the time. In late 1990, with Cinemaware in the process of collapsing, he and several colleagues had jumped ship to New World Computing, best known for their Might & Magic series of CRPGs. But he was trapped in a purely administrative role there, without the freedom to create which he had enjoyed at Cinemaware, and was already feeling dissatisfied by the time he met Tunnell at that Summer CES.

Jeff Tunnell

Tunnell, for his part, was the founder of the studio known as Dynamix, now a subsidiary of Sierra Online. They were best known for their 3D graphics technology and the line of vehicular simulators it enabled, but they had fingers in several other pies as well, from adventure games to a burgeoning interest in casual puzzle games.

Recognizing talent when he saw it, Tunnell asked Cutter to leave Southern California, the home of the erstwhile Cinemaware and the current New World, and come to Eugene, Oregon, the home of Dynamix. Not only would he be able to have a creative role there once again, Tunnell promised, but he would be allowed to make whatever game he wanted to. Cutter jumped at the chance.

Once in Eugene, however, he struggled to identify just the right project. His first instinct was to make a point-and-click adventure game in the Sierra mold, but Tunnell, having made three of them in the last couple of years to less than satisfying effect, was feeling burned out on the genre and its limitations, and gently steered him away from it. (Absolute creative freedom, Cutter was learning, is seldom really absolute.)

At last, Tunnell came to Cutter with an idea of his own. He’d been reading a very popular series of fantasy novels by this fellow named Raymond E. Feist, and he thought they’d make a fine CRPG. Dynamix had never dabbled in the genre before, but when had that ever stopped them from trying something new? He suggested that Cutter give the first few of the books a read. If it turned out that he liked them as well and agreed that they’d make a good game, well, perhaps he should ring Feist up and have a chat about just that possibility.

Glad to finally have a clear sense of direction, Cutter did the one thing and then did the other. Feist was very busy, but was himself a long-time computer gamer, having sat down in front of his first Apple II some twelve or thirteen years before. He liked the idea of seeing Midkemia come to life on a computer screen. Although he didn’t have much time for working personally on such a project, he told his agent to make the deal happen if at all possible. So, a contract was signed that gave Dynamix the right to make Midkemia games until January 1, 1995, with Feist given the right of final approval or rejection of each title prior to its release. By one account at least, it was the most expensive literary license yet granted to a game developer, a sign of Feist’s ongoing popularity among readers of fantasy literature.

Another, slightly less welcome sign of same followed immediately after: upon being asked whether he was interested in authoring the game himself, Feist said that his time was money, so he’d need to be paid something beyond the terms of the licensing agreement itself — and, he noted flatly, “you couldn’t afford me.” This posed a dilemma. Cutter believed himself to be a better designer of game systems than a writer, and thus certainly wasn’t going to take on the job personally. Casting about for a likely candidate, his thoughts turned to one Neal Hallford, an enthusiastic young fellow with a way with words whom he’d befriended back at New World Computing.

Neal Hallford

A fresh-out-of-university Hallford had joined New World in the role of writer some months before Cutter himself had arrived. His first assignment there had been to make sense of the poorly translated English text of Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan, a project New World had chosen to outsource to a Japanese developer, with underwhelming results all the way around. After that truly thankless task, he’d worked for a while on Might and Magic III before playing a pivotal role on Planet’s Edge, an ambitious science-fiction CRPG that had tried to do just a little bit too much for its own good. He was just finishing that project when his old friend John Cutter called.

Like Cutter before him, Hallford found Dynamix’s offer difficult to refuse. Eugene struck him as idyllic by contrast with the crowded, smoggy streets of Los Angeles; meanwhile Dynamix’s offices enjoyed the well-deserved reputation of being just about the most stylish and comfortable in the entire industry, vastly outdistancing even the parent company of Sierra in that respect. Certainly they compared favorably with the chaotic jumble of tightly packed cubicles that was the domain of New World. Thus on Halloween Day, 1991, Hallford shook hands with his old colleagues there for the last time and hopped into his Geo Metro for the drive north.

Upon Hallford’s arrival in Eugene, Cutter pulled him into his office and kept him there for a week, while the two hashed out exactly what game they wanted to make and wrote the outline of a script. Hallford still remembers that week of frenzied creativity as “one of the best weeks of my life.” These two friends, different in talents and personality but unified in their vision for the game, would do the vast majority of the creative heavy lifting that would go into it. Broadly stated, Cutter would be the systems guy while Hallford would be the story guy, yet their visions would prove so simpatico that they’d seldom disagree on much of anything at all.

Jeff Tunnell had initially fallen in love with a Midkemia novel called Silverthorn, and the original plan he’d pitched to Cutter had been to make the game a fairly straightforward adaptation of that book’s plot. But such a thing is inherently problematic, for reasons I’ve had ample cause to discuss in earlier articles. Players who buy the game because they read and liked the novel — who are, after all, the whole reason for making a licensed game at all from a business perspective — won’t be excited about stepping through a plot they already know. At the same time, it’s all too easy from the design side to make a game where victory hinges on taking all of the same idiosyncratic, possibly irrational actions as the protagonists of the novel. And so you end up with a game that bores one group of players to tears, even as it frustrates another group who don’t happen to know what Character A needs to do in Situation B in order to replicate the novel’s story.

The biggest appeal of the Midkemia novels, Hallford believed, was indeed the world itself, with its detailed culture and geography and its cast of dozens of well-established characters. It would be better, he thought, to set a brand new story there, one that would let Feist’s many fans meet up with old friends in familiar locales, but that wouldn’t force them to step by rote through a plot they already knew. During the crash course on Midkemia which he’d given himself in the few weeks before starting at Dynamix — like Cutter, he’d come to Feist fandom cold — Hallford had identified a twenty-year “hole” in the chronology where he and Cutter could set a new story: just after A Darkness at Sethanon, the concluding volume in the original Riftwar Cycle that had started the ball rolling. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Feist was willing to entrust this young, unproven writer with creating something really new in his world. Betrayal at Krondor was off and running.

Hallford may have come to Midkemia late, but his dogged determination to capture the world exactly as it existed in the novels would come to a large degree to define the project. He calls himself a “born fanboy” by nature. Thus, even though he wasn’t quite of Feist’s hardcore fandom, he had enormous empathy for them. He points back to an experience from his youth: when, as a dedicated Star Trek fan, he started to read the paperback novels based on the television series which Pocket Books published in the 1980s. I read them as well, and can remember that some of them were surprisingly good as novels, at least according to my adolescent sensibilities, while also managing to capture the spirit of the series I saw on television. Others, however… not so much. Hallford points to one disillusioning book in particular, which constantly referred to phasers as “ray guns.” It inculcated in him a sense that any writer who works in a beloved universe owes it to the fans of said universe — even if he’s not really one of them — to be as true to it as is humanly possible.

So, Hallford wrote Betrayal at Krondor with Feist’s fans constantly in mind. He immersed himself in Feist’s works to the point of that he was almost able to become the novelist. The prose he crafted, vivid and effective within its domain, really is virtually indistinguishable from that of its inspiration, whose own involvement was limited to an early in-person meeting and regular phone conversations thereafter. Yet the latter became more rather than less frequent as the project wore on; Feist found his enthusiasm for the game increasing in tandem with his surprise at how earnestly Hallford tried to capture his novels and the extent to which he was managing to succeed with only the most limited coaching. The fan verdict would prove even more telling. To this day, many of them believe that it was Feist himself who scripted Betrayal at Krondor.

But Betrayal of Krondor is notable for more than Neal Hallford’s dedicated fan service. It’s filled to bursting with genuinely original ideas, many of which flew in the face of contemporary fashions in games. Not all of the ideas work — some of them rather pull against one another — but the game’s boldness makes it a bracing study in design.

Following the lead of GUI advocates working with other sorts of software, game designers in the early 1990s were increasingly embracing the gospel of the “mode-less” interface: a single master screen on which everything takes place, as opposed to different displays and interfaces for different play states. (For an excellent example of how a mode-less interface could be implemented in the context of a CRPG, see Origin Systems’s Ultima VII.) Cutter and Hallford, however, pitched this gospel straight into the trash can without a second thought. Betrayal at Krondor has a separate mode for everything.

The closest thing it has to a “home” screen must be the first-person exploration view, which uses 3D graphics technology poached from Dynamix’s flight simulators. But then, you can and probably often will move around from an overhead map view as well. When interesting encounters happen, the screen is given over to text with clickable menus, or to storybook-style illustrated dialog scenes. When you get in a fight, that’s also displayed on a screen of its own; combat is a turn-based affair played on a grid that ends up vaguely resembling the Battle Chess games by Interplay. (Thankfully, it’s also tactically interesting and satisfying.) And then when you come upon a locked chest, you’re dumped into yet another new mode, where you have to work out a word puzzle in order to open it, because why not? All of these modes are accompanied by different styles of graphics: 3D graphics on the main exploration screen, a no-frills Rogue-like display for the overhead movement view, pixel art with the story scenes, digitized real-world actors with the dialog scenes, the sprite-based isometric view that accompanies combat, etc.

The first-person exploration view.

The overhead view.

A bit of exposition. Could this be a side quest before us?

The combat view.

A puzzle chest. The answer to this one, for the record, is “die.” Later riddles get much more complicated, but the mechanics of the puzzles ingeniously prevent them from ever becoming completely insoluble. Many a player has had a significant other who couldn’t care less about the rest of the game, but loves these puzzle chests…

This mishmash of approaches can make the game feel like a throwback to the 1980s, when genres and their established sets of best practices were not yet set in stone, and when many games that may strike us as rather odd mashups today were being produced. We can certainly see John Cutter’s roots in Cinemaware here; that company made a career out of ignoring the rules of ludic genre in favor of whatever systems best conveyed the fictional genre they were attempting to capture. By all rights, Betrayal at Krondor ought not to work, as so many of Cinemaware’s games tended not quite to work. All of these different modes and play styles — the puzzle chests in particular seem beamed in from a different game entirely — ought to add up to a hopelessly confusing muddle. Somehow, though, it does work; Betrayal at Krondor actually isn’t terribly hard to come to grips with initially, and navigating its many modes soon becomes second nature.

One reason for this is doubtless also the reason for much else that’s good about the game: its unusually extended testing period. When development was reaching what everyone thought to be its final stages, Dynamix sent the game to outside testers for what was expected to be a three-month evaluation period. Even this much usability testing would have been more than most studios were doing at this time. But the project, as so many game-development projects tend to do, ran way longer than expected, and three months turned into nine months of constant player feedback. While our universe isn’t entirely bereft of games that seem to have sprung into being fully-formed, by far the most good games attain that status only gradually, through repeated iterations of testing and feedback. Betrayal at Krondor came by its goodness in exactly this hard, honest way. Unlike a dismaying number of games from its time, this game feels like one that’s actually been played — played extensively — before it got released. The niggling problems that dog even many good games from the early 1990s (such as the infuriating inventory management and rudderless combat of Ultima VII) are almost completely absent here. Instead the game is full of thoughtful little touches to head off annoyance, the sort of touches that can only come from real player feedback.

The final verdict on its mishmash of graphical approaches, on the other hand, must be less positive. Betrayal at Krondor wasn’t a notably attractive game even by the standards of its day, and time has done it no favors; the project desperately needed a strong art director able to impose a unified aesthetic vision. The parts of it that have aged the worst by far are those employing digitized actors, who look almost unbelievably ludicrous, cutting violently against any sense of Tolkienesque grandeur Hallford’s prose might be straining to evoke. Most store-bought Halloween costumes look higher rent than this bunch of survivors of an explosion at the Loony Tunes prop department. John Cutter acknowledges the problems:

We digitized a lot of the actors, and we assumed they were going to be so pixelated that the makeup and costumes didn’t have to look that great. They just kind of had to be… close. But by the time we launched the game the technology had improved… yeah. You could see the elastic bands on the fake beards. It was pretty bad. I wasn’t crazy about a lot of the graphics in the game.

Tellingly, the use of digitized actors was the one place where Betrayal at Krondor didn’t blaze its own trail, bowing instead to contemporary trends.



For all of Betrayal at Krondor‘s welcome willingness just to try lots of stuff, its approach to story remains its most memorable and interesting quality of all. This aspect of the game was so front and center in the mind of John Cutter that, when he wrote a brief few paragraphs of “Designer Notes” for the manual, it came to occupy more than half the space:

We decided the game should be an interactive story. Characters would be multidimensional and capable of stirring the player’s emotions. The story would be carefully plotted with lots of surprises, a good mix of humor and pathos, and abundant amounts of mystery and foreshadowing to keep the player intrigued.

Balancing play against plot is the most confounding job any game designer can face on a fantasy role-playing game. In Betrayal at Krondor, we have integrated our plot so that it provides ample gaming opportunities, while also giving the player a sense of time, place, and purpose. This is achieved by making an onscreen map available to the player at all times, and by creating short-term goals — the nine chapters in the game — which give us a unique opportunity to tell a progressive story that still gives the player plenty of freedom to explore and adventure without being confined to a scripted plot.

In thus “balancing play against plot,” Cutter and Hallford were attempting to square a circle that had been bedeviling game designers for a long time. All of the things that mark a rich story — characters with agendas of their own; big reveals and shocking turns; the classic narrative structure of rising action, climax, and denouement; dramatic confrontations with expressive dialog — cut against the player’s freedom to go wherever and do whatever she wants. As a designer, says the conventional wisdom, you can’t have it all: you must rather stake out your spot on a continuum where at one end the player does little more than click her way through a railroaded plot line, and at the other she does absolutely anything she wants, but does it in a world bereft of any larger meaning or purpose. Adventure games tend to lean toward the set-piece-storytelling end of the continuum, CRPGs toward open-ended interactivity.

Even CRPGs from around the time of Betrayal at Krondor which are written expansively and well, such as Ultima VII, generally send you wandering through other people’s stories rather than your own. Each city you explore in that game is full of little story stubs revolving around the inhabitants thereof rather than yourself; your role is merely to nudge these dramas of others along to some sort of resolution before you disappear again. Your larger agenda, meanwhile, boils down to the usual real or metaphorical collecting of pieces to assemble the big whatsit at the end — a series of actions which can be done in any order precisely because they’re so simplistic in terms of plot. You’re in the world, but never really feel yourself to be of it.

Cutter and Hallford, however, refused to accept the conventional wisdom embodied by even so markedly innovative a CRPG as Ultima VII. They were determined to deliver the best of both worlds — an adventure-game-like plot and CRPG-like freedom — in the same game. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t quite work as a whole. Nevertheless, the attempt is well worth discussing.

Betrayal at Krondor positively trumpets its intentions via the metaphors which its user interface employs. Once again ignoring all of the fashions of its time, which emphasized the definitively non-textual aesthetic of the interactive movie, this game presents itself as an interactive book with an enthusiasm worthy of the 1980s heyday of bookware. The overriding look of the game, to the extent it has one amidst all its clashing graphical styles, is of an illuminated manuscript, ink on yellowing parchment. The story is told in a literary past tense, save points become “bookmarks,” and, as Cutter himself noted in the extract above, the whole experience is divided into nine neat “chapters.”

The game is relentless about describing every single event using full sentences worthy of one of Feist’s novels. Sometimes the end result can verge on the ridiculous. For example, every single time you search the body of an opponent you’ve just killed — something you’ll be doing an awful lot of, what with this being a CRPG and all — you’re greeted with a verbose missive:

Owyn looked for supplies. Feeling like a vulture, he turned the body this way and that as he searched for anything that might be of value to them on their journey. All in all, he supposed that if he were the dead man, it wouldn’t matter to him any longer what happened to his belongings.

Every character has the exact same feeling when searching a dead body, despite very different personalities. This is one of many places where Betrayal at Krondor‘s verbosity winds up undercutting rather than strengthening its sense of mimesis.

Of course, you can and quickly will learn to click right through this message and its one or two random variations each time you search a corpse. But it remains an amusing sign of just how committed Cutter and Halford were to their “interactive storybook” concept in even the most repetitive, mechanical areas of their creation. (Imagine what Pac-Man would be like if the title character stopped to muse about his actions every time he swallowed a power pill and killed another ghost…)

All of this past-tense verbosity has an oddly distancing effect. You don’t feel like you’re having an adventure so much as reading one — or possibly writing one. You’re held at a remove even from the characters in your party, normally the primary locus of player identification in a game like this one. You don’t get to make your own characters; instead you’re assigned three of them who fulfill the needs of the plot. And, while you can guide their development by earning experience points, improving their skills, and buying them new spells and equipment, you don’t even get to hang onto the same bunch through the whole game. Characters are moved in and out of your party from chapter to chapter — again, as the needs of each chapter’s plot requires. The final effect almost smacks of a literary hypertext, as you explore the possibility space of a story rather than actually feeling yourself to be embodying a role or roles in that story. This is certainly unique, and not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just… a little strange in relation to what we tend to think of CRPGs as being. These are, after all, role-playing games.

As I’ve described it so far, Betrayal at Krondor sounds more akin to the typical Japanese than the Western CRPG. The former tend to lie much closer to the set-piece-story end of our continuum of design; they provide a set, fairly linear plot to walk through, generally complete with predefined characters, rather than the degree of world simulation and open-ended exploration that marks the Western tradition. (A Japanese CRPG is, many a critic has scoffed, just a linear story in which you have to fight a battle to see each successive scene.) Yet Betrayal at Krondor actually doesn’t fit comfortably with that bunch either. For, as Cutter also notes above, he and his design partner were determined to “give the player plenty of freedom to explore and adventure without being bound to a scripted plot.”

Their means of accomplishing that relies once again on the chapter system. Each chapter begins and ends with a big helping of set-piece plot and exposition. In between, though, you’re free to go your own way and take your time in satisfying the conditions that will lead to the end of the chapter. In the first chapter, for example, your assignment is to escort a prisoner across much of the map to the capital city of Krondor. How and when you do so is up to you. The map is filled with encounters and quests, most of which have nothing to do with your central mission. And when you eventually do finish the chapter and continue on with the next, the same map gets repopulated with new things to do. This is the origin of a claim from Dynamix’s marketing department that Betrayal at Krondor is really nine CRPGs in one. In truth, it doesn’t quite live up to that billing. Only a subsection of the map is actually available to you in most chapters, much of it being walled off by impenetrable obstacles or monsters you can’t possibly kill. Even the repopulation that happens between chapters is far from comprehensive. Still, it’s an impressively earnest attempt to combine the pleasures of set-piece plotting with those of an emergent, persistent virtual world.

And yet the combination between set-piece storytelling and emergent exploration always feels like just that: a combination rather than a seamless whole. Cutter and Hallford didn’t, in other words, truly square this particular circle. There’s one massive block of cognitive dissonance standing at the center of it all.

Consider: you’re told at the beginning of the first chapter that your mission of escorting your prisoner to the capital is urgent. Political crisis is in the air, war clouds on the horizon. The situation demands that you hurry to Krondor by the shortest, most direct path. And yet what do you do, if you want to get the most out of the game? You head off in the opposite direction at a relaxed doddle, poking your nose into every cranny you come across. There’s a tacit agreement between game and player that the “urgent” sense of crisis in the air won’t actually evolve into anything until you decide to make it do so by hitting the next plot trigger. Thus the fundamental artificiality of the story is recognized at some level by both game and player, in a way that cuts against everything Betrayal at Krondor claims to want to be. This isn’t really an interactive storybook; it’s still at bottom a collection of gameplay elements wired together with chunks of story that don’t really need to be taken all that seriously at the end of the day.

The same sense of separation shows itself in those lengthy chapter-beginning and -ending expository scenes. A lot of stuff happens in these, including fights involving the characters ostensibly under your control, that you have no control over whatsoever — that are external to the world simulation. And then the demands of plot are satisfied for a while, and the simulation engine kicks back in. This is no better or worse than the vast majority of games with stories, but it certainly isn’t the revolution some of the designers’ claims might seem to imply.

Of course, one might say that all of these observations are rather more philosophical than practical, of more interest to game designers and scholars than the average player; you can suspend your disbelief easily enough and enjoy the game just as it is. There are places in Betrayal at Krondor, however, where some of the knock-on effects of the designers’ priorities really do impact your enjoyment in more tangible ways. For this is a game which can leave you marooned halfway through, unable to move forward and unable to go back.

Dead ends where the only option is to restore are normally less associated with CRPGs than adventure games; they played a big role in all but killing that genre as a commercial proposition by the end of the 1990s. CRPGs are usually more forgiving thanks to their more simulation-oriented nature — but, sadly, Betrayal at Krondor is an exception, due to a confluence of design decisions that all seem perfectly reasonable and were all made with the best of intentions. It thus provides a lesson in unexpected, unintended consequences — a lesson which any game designer would be wise to study.

The blogger Chet Bolingbroke, better known as The CRPG Addict, made these comments recently in the context of another game:

One of the notable features of CRPGs in contrast to some other genres is that they almost always support a Plan B. When one way of playing doesn’t work out, you can almost always resort to a more boring, more banal, grindier method of getting something done. I tend to mentally preface these fallback plans with “I can always…” Having a tough time with the final battle? “I can always reload again and again until the initiative rolls go my way.” Can’t overcome the evil wizard at your current level? “I can always grind.” Running out of resources? “I can always retreat from the dungeon, head back to town and buy a ton of healing potions.”

The most frustrating moments in CRPGs are when you suddenly find yourself with no way to finish “I can always” — when there is no Plan B, when luck alone will never save you, when there isn’t even a long way around.

This is precisely the problem which the player of Betrayal at Krondor can all too easily run into. Not only does the game allow you to ignore the urgent call of its plot, but it actually forces you to do so in order to be successful. If you take the impetus of the story seriously and rush to fulfill your tasks in the early chapters, you won’t build up your characters sufficiently to survive the later ones. Even if you do take your time and explore, trying to accrue experience, focusing on the wrong skills and spells can leave you in the same boat. By the time you realize your predicament, your “Plan B” is nonexistent. You can’t get back to those encounters you skipped in the earlier, easier chapters, and thus can’t grind your characters out of their difficulties. There actually are no random encounters whatsoever in the game, only the fixed ones placed on the map at the beginning of each chapter. I’m no fan of grinding, so I’d normally be all in favor of such a choice, which Cutter and Hallford doubtless made in order to make the game less tedious and increase its sense of narrative verisimilitude. In practice, though, it means that the pool of available money and experience is finite, meaning you need not only to forget the plot and explore everywhere in the earlier chapters but make the right choices in terms of character development there if you hope to succeed in the later ones.

On the whole, then, Betrayal at Krondor acquits itself better in its earlier chapters than in its later ones. It can be a very immersive experience indeed when you first start out with a huge map to roam, full of monsters to battle and quests to discover. By the time said map has been repopulated three or four times, however, roaming across its familiar landmarks yet again, looking for whatever might be new, has begun to lose some of its appeal.

And then, as Neal Hallford would be the first to admit, Betrayal at Krondor is written above all for Raymond E. Feist fans, which can be a bit problematic if you don’t happen to be among them. This was my experience, at any rate. As an outsider to Feist’s universe, watching characters I didn’t know talk about things I’d never heard of eventually got old. When an “iconic” character like Jimmy the Hand shows up, I’m supposed to be all aflutter with excitement, but instead I’m just wondering who this latest jerk in a terrible costume is and why I should care. In my view, the game peaks in Chapter 3, which takes the form of a surprisingly complex self-contained murder mystery; this is a place where the game does succeed in integrating its set-piece and emergent sides to a greater extent than elsewhere. If you elect to stop playing after that chapter, you really won’t miss that much.


As I noted already, Betrayal at Krondor ran dramatically over time and over budget. To their credit, Dynamix’s management didn’t push it out the door in an unfinished state, as was happening with so many other games during this period of transition to larger and more complex productions. Yet everyone, especially poor Neal Hallford, felt the pressure of getting it done. Not only did he write almost every word of the considerable amount of text in the game, but he also wrote much of the manual, and somehow even wound up on the hook for the puff pieces about it in Sierra’s customer newsletter. After weeks of virtually living at the office, he collapsed there one day, clutching at his chest. His colleagues rushed him to the hospital, believing he must be having a heart attack even though he was still in his twenties. It turned out that he wasn’t, but the doctor’s orders were clear: “You’re not going back to work for a week. Get some rest and eat something proper. No pizza. No soft drinks. It’s either this or next time you leave work it’ll be in a hearse.” Such are the perils of commercial game development.

Betrayal at Krondor finally shipped on June 15, 1993, an inauspicious time in the history of CRPGs. Origin Systems was about to take the Ultima series in a radically different direction after a less than overwhelming response to Ultima VII; Sir-Tech was about to put their equally long-running Wizardry series on ice for similar reasons; SSI was facing dwindling sales of their Dungeons & Dragons games and was on the verge of losing the once-coveted license; other publishers were quietly dropping less prominent franchises and would-be franchises. The several years to come would be remembered by CRPG fans as the Dark Age of their favored genre; relatively few of games of this stripe would be released at all, and those that were would be greeted by the marketplace with little enthusiasm.

Initially, Dynamix’s first CRPG performed about as well as you might expect in this environment. Despite some strong reviews, and despite whatever commercial advantages the Feist license brought with it, sales were slow. Cutter and Hallford had gone into Betrayal at Krondor imagining it to be only the first entry in a new series, but it soon appeared unlikely that a sequel would come to pass. Sierra, Dynamix’s parent company, was having an ugly year financially and wasn’t in the mood to make another expensive game in a passé genre, while Jeff Tunnell, the man who had had the original idea for Betrayal at Krondor, had stepped down from day-to-day management at Dynamix in favor of running a smaller subsidiary studio. Cutter and Hallford begged their new bosses to give the game time before making any final decisions, noting that good reviews and positive word of mouth among fans of the novels could yet pay dividends. The leadership team responded by laying Cutter off.

But over time, Betrayal at Krondor continued to sell steadily if not spectacularly. Then a genuine surge in sales came in early 1994, when a CD-ROM-based version featuring a lovely soundtrack and enhanced if still less than lovely graphics was released, just as the influential magazine Computer Gaming World was crowning the game the best CRPG of the previous year. Dynamix now made a belated attempt to start work on a sequel, asking Neal Hallford to helm it. But he considered the budget they were proposing to be inadequate, the time frame for development far too compressed. He turned it down, and left the company shortly thereafter. Dynamix would never make a second CRPG, whether set in Midkemia or anywhere else.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Feist had been profoundly impressed by Betrayal at Krondor, and now took the ludic possibilities of his series of novels much more seriously than he had before seeing it. As soon as the Dynamix license expired at the beginning of 1995, he began to shop the property around once again. Initially, however, he found no one willing to pay his price, what with the current state of the CRPG market. While interactive Midkemia was thus in limbo, Sierra came up with another, cheaper idea for capitalizing on the first game’s slow-burning success. Lacking the Midkemia license, they decided to leverage the first half of the Betrayal at Krondor name instead, releasing the in-house-developed Betrayal in Antara in 1997. It copied some of the interface elements and gameplay approaches of its predecessor, but moved the action to a generic fantasy world, to less satisfying effect.

And yet the story still wasn’t over. Feist had finally found a buyer for the Midkemia rights in 1996 in the form of a publisher known as 7th Level, who signed a studio known as PyroTechnix to make a direct sequel to Betrayal at Krondor at last. But when 7th Level ran into financial difficulties, Sierra of all publishers bought back the rights, along with PyroTechnix’s development contract. The latter completed the game and saw it released under the Sierra imprint in 1998. Feist played a much more active role on Return to Krondor, the game in question, than he had on Betrayal at Krondor, yet the result once again pales in comparison to the first Midkemia game, perhaps because Cutter and Hallford once again played no role. Its mixed reception marks the last official implementation of Midkemia on a computer to date, excepting only a brief-lived MMORPG.

Two of Feist’s later books, 1998’s Krondor: The Betrayal and 2000’s Krondor: Tear of the Gods, were based upon the first and second Midkemia computer game respectively. Thus Midkemia completed its long, strange transmedia journey from game to book to game to book again. Feist continued to churn out Midkemia books until 2013, when he announced that that year’s appropriately named Magician’s End, the 30th (!) entry in the series, would be the last. The later books, however, didn’t sell in the same quantities as the earlier ones, bearing as they did the stale odor of a series long past its sell-by date.

For many of us, Betrayal at Krondor will always remain the most memorable entry in the exercise in competent derivation that is Midkemia as a whole; the game is ironically much more innovative in its medium than the novels which spawned it are in theirs. Indeed, it’s thoroughly unique, a welcome breath of bold originality in a genre usually content to rely on the tried and true, a game which doesn’t work perfectly but perhaps works better than it has any right to. As a writer, I can only applaud a game which takes its writing this seriously. If it’s not quite the revolutionary amalgamation of narrative and interactivity that its creators wanted it to be, it’s still a heck of a lot more interesting than your average dungeon crawl.

(Sources: the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Winter 1992 and June 1993; Compute! of December 1993; Computer Gaming World of February 1993, April 1994, June 1994, August 1996, and October 1998; Electronic Games of October 1992 and June 1993; Questbusters of November 1991, August 1992, April 1993, and August 1993; Retro Gamer 84; Dragon of January 2004; the CD-ROM Today bundled CD-ROM of August/September 1994. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interviews with Neal Hallford, Jeff Tunnell, and John Cutter in Matt Chat episodes 191, 192, 201, 291, 292, and 293; Neal Hallford’s blog series Krondor Confidential; the “History of Midkemia Press” on the same publisher’s website.

Betrayal at Krondor and Betrayal in Antara are available as a package purchase at GOG.com.)

 
 

Tags: , ,

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working out a rada-drum message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel is turned away from Malia’s door…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel with Professor Infodump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Tags: , ,

Chief Gates Comes to Oakhurst: A Cop Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Daryl F. Gates

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

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

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

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

The Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts burns, 1965.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags: , ,

The Mortgaging of Sierra Online

The Sierra Online of the 1980s and very early 1990s excelled at customer relations perhaps more than anything else. Through the tours of their offices (which they offered to anyone who cared to make the trip to rural Oakhurst, California), the newsletter they published (which always opened with a folksy editorial from their founder and leader Ken Williams), and their habit of grouping their games into well-delineated series with predictable content, they fostered a sense of loyalty and even community which other game makers, not least their arch-rivals over at LucasArts, couldn’t touch — this even though the actual games of LucasArts tended to be much better in design terms. Here we see some of the entrants in a Leisure Suit Larry lookalike contest sponsored by Sierra. (Yes, two of the contestants do seem suspiciously young to have played a series officially targeted at those 18 and older.) Sadly, community-building exercise like these would become increasingly rare as the 1990s wore on and Sierra took on a different, more impersonal air. This article will chronicle the beginning of those changes.

“The computer-game industry has become the interactive-entertainment industry.”

— Ken Williams, 1992

Another even-numbered year, another King’s Quest game. Such had been the guiding rhythm of life at Sierra Online since 1986, and 1992 was to be no exception. Why should it be? Each of the last several King’s Quest installments had sold better than the one before, as the series had cultivated a reputation as the premier showcase of bleeding-edge computer entertainment. Once again, then, Sierra was prepared to pull out all the stops for King’s Quest VI, prepared to push its development budget to $1 million and beyond.

This time around, however, there were some new and worrisome tensions. Roberta Williams, Sierra’s star designer, whose name was inseparable from that of King’s Quest itself in the minds of the public, was getting a little tired of playing the Queen of Daventry for the nation’s schoolchildren. She had another, entirely different game she wanted to make, a sequel to her 1989 mystery starring the 1920s girl detective Laura Bow. So, a compromise was reached. Roberta would do Laura Bow in… The Dagger of Amon Ra and King’s Quest VI simultaneously by taking a sort of “executive designer” role on both projects, turning over the nitty-gritty details to assistant designers.

Thus for the all-important King’s Quest VI, Sierra brought over Jane Jensen, who was fresh off the task of co-designing the rather delightful educational adventure EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus with Gano Haine. Roberta Williams described her working relationship with her new partner in a contemporary interview, striking a tone that was perhaps a bit more condescending than it really needed to be in light of Jensen’s previous experience, and that was oddly disparaging toward Sierra’s other designers to boot:

I took on a co-designer for a couple of reasons: I wanted to train Jane because I didn’t want Sierra to be dependent on me. Someone else needs to know how to do a “proper” adventure game. We’re all doing a good job from a technology standpoint, but not on design. In my opinion, the best way to learn it properly is side by side. Overall, it was a positive experience, and it was very good for the series because Jane brought in some new ideas. She learned a lot, too, and can take what she’s learned to help create her new games.

There’s something of a consensus among fans today that the result of this collaboration is the best overall King’s Quest of them all. This strikes me as a fair judgment. While it’s not a great adventure game by any means, King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow isn’t an outright poor one either in terms of writing or design, and this is sufficient for it to clear the low bar of the previous games in the series. The plot is still reliant on fairy-tale clichés: a princess imprisoned in a tower, a prince who sets out to rescue her, a kingdom in turmoil around them. Yet the writing itself is more textured and coherent this time around, the implementation is far more complete (most conceivable actions yield custom messages of some sort in response), the puzzles are generally more reasonable, and it’s considerably more difficult than it was in the earlier games to wander into a walking-dead situation without knowing it. Evincing a spirit of mercy toward its players of a sort that Sierra wasn’t usually known for, it even has a branching point where you can choose from an easier or a harder pathway to the end of the game. And when you do get to the final scene, there are over a dozen possible variants of the ending movie, depending on the choices you’ve made along the way. Again, this degree of design ambition — as opposed to audiovisual ambition — was new to the series at the time.

The fans often credit this relative improvement completely to Jensen’s involvement. And this judgment as well, unkind though it is toward Roberta Williams, is not entirely unfounded, even if it should be tempered by the awareness that Jensen’s own later games for Sierra would all have significant design issues of their own. Many of the flaws that so constantly dogged Roberta’s games in particular were down to her insistence on working at a remove from the rest of the people making them. Her habit was to type up a design document on her computer at home, then give it to the development team with instructions to “call if you have any questions.” For all practical purposes, she had thus been working as an “executive designer” long before she officially took on that role with King’s Quest VI. This method of working tended to result in confusion and ultimately in far too much improvisation on the part of her teams. Combined with Sierra’s overarching disinterest in seeking substantive feedback from players during the development process, it was disastrous more often than not to the finished product. But when the time came for King’s Quest VI, Jane Jensen was able to alleviate at least some of the problems simply by being in the same room with the rest of the team every day. It may seem unbelievable that this alone was sufficient to deliver a King’s Quest that was so markedly better than any of the others — but, again, it just wasn’t a very high bar to clear.

For all that it represented a welcome uptick in terms of design, Sierra’s real priority for King’s Quest VI was, as always for the series, to make it look and sound better than any game before. They were especially proud of the opening movie, which they outsourced to a real Hollywood animation studio to create on cutting-edge graphics workstations. When it was delivered to Sierra’s offices, the ten-minute sequence filled a well-nigh incomprehensible 1.2 GB on disk. It would have to be cut down to two minutes and 6 MB for the floppy-disk-based release of the game. (It would grow again to six minutes and 60 MB for the later CD-ROM release.) A real showstopper in its day, it serves today to illustrate how Sierra’s ambitions to be a major media player were outrunning their aesthetic competencies; even the two-minute version manages to come off as muddled and overlong, poorly framed and poorly written. In its time, though, it doubtless served its purpose as a graphics-and-sound showcase, as did the game that followed it.

My favorite part of the much-vaunted King’s Quest VI introductory movie are the sailors that accompany Prince Alexander on his quest to rescue Princess Cassima. All sailors look like pirates, right?

A more amusing example of the company’s media naiveté is the saga of the King’s Quest VI theme song. Sierra head Ken Williams, who like many gaming executives of the period relished any and all linkages between games and movies, came up with the idea of including a pop song in the game that could become a hit on the radio, a “Glory of Love” or “I Will Always Love You” for his industry. Sierra’s in-house music man Mark Seibert duly delivered a hook-less dirge of a “love theme” with the distressingly literal title of “Girl in the Tower,” then hired an ersatz Michael Bolton and Celine Dion to over-emote it wildly. Then, Sierra proceeded to carpet-bomb the nation’s radio stations with CD singles of the song, whilst including an eight-page pamphlet in every copy of the game with the phone numbers for all of the major radio stations and a plea to call in and request it. Enough of Sierra’s loyal young fans did so that many a program director called Ken in turn to complain about his supremely artificial “grass-roots” marketing strategy. His song was terrible, they told him (correctly), and sometimes issued vague legal threats regarding obscure Federal Communications Commission laws he was supposedly violating. Finally, Ken agreed to pull the pamphlet from future King’s Quest VI boxes and accept that he wasn’t going to become a music as well as games impresario. Good Taste 1, Sierra 0. Rather hilariously, he was still grousing about the whole episode years later: “In my opinion, the radio stations were the criminals for ignoring their customers, something I believe no business should ever do. Oh, well… the song was great.”

The girl in the tower. Pray she doesn’t start singing…

While King’s Quest VI didn’t spawn a hit single, it did become a massive hit in its own right by the more modest sales standards of the computer-games industry. In fact, it became the first computer game in history to be certified gold by the Software Publishers Association — 100,000 copies sold — before it had even shipped, thanks to a huge number of pre-orders. Released in mid-October of 1992, it was by far the hottest game in the industry that Christmas, with Sierra struggling just to keep up with demand. Estimates of its total sales vary widely, but it seems likely that it sold 300,000 copies in all at a minimum, and quite possibly as many as 500,000 copies.

But for all its immediate success, King’s Quest VI was a mildly frustrating project for Sierra in at least one way. Everyone there agreed that this game, more so than any of the others they had made before, was crying out for CD-ROM, but too few consumers had CD-ROM drives in their computers in 1992 to make it worthwhile to ship the game first in that format. So, it initially shipped on nine floppy disks instead. Once decompressed onto a player’s hard drive, it filled over 17 MB — this at a time when 40 MB was still a fairly typical hard-disk size even on brand-new computers. Sierra recommended that players delete the 6 MB opening movie from their hard disks after watching it a few times just to free up some space. With stopgap solutions like this in play, there was a developing sense that something had to give, and soon. Peter Spears, author of an official guide to the entire King’s Quest series, summed up the situation thusly:

King’s Quest VI represents a fin de siecle, the end of an era. It is a game that should have been — needed to be — first published on CD-ROM. For all of its strengths and gloss, it is ill-served being played from a hard drive. If only because of its prominence in the world of computer entertainment, King’s Quest VI is proof that the era of CD playing is upon us.

Why? It is because imagination has no limits, and current hardware does. There are other games proving this point today, but King’s Quest has always been the benchmark. It is the end of one era, and when it is released on CD near the beginning of next year, it should be the beginning of another. Kill your hard drives!

Sierra had been evangelizing for CD-ROM for some time by this point, just as they earlier had for the graphics cards and sound cards that had transformed MS-DOS computers from dull things suitable only for running boring business applications into the only game-playing computers that really mattered in the United States. But, as with those earlier technologies, consumer uptake of CD-ROM had been slower than Sierra, chomping at the bit to use it, would have liked.

Thankfully, then, 1993 was the year when CD-ROM, a technology which had been around for almost a decade by that point, finally broke through; this was the year when the hardware became cheap enough and the selection of software compelling enough to power a new wave of multimedia excitement which swept across the world of computing. As with those graphics cards and sound cards earlier on, Sierra’s relentless prodding doubtless played a significant role in this newfound consumer acceptance of CD-ROM. And not least among the prods was the CD-ROM version of King’s Quest VI, which boasted lusher graphics in many places and voices replacing text absolutely everywhere. The voice acting marked a welcome improvement over the talkie version of King’s Quest V, the only previous game in the series to get a release on CD-ROM. The fifth game had apparently been voiced by whoever happened to be hanging around the office that day, with results that were almost unlistenably atrocious. King’s Quest VI, on the other hand, got a professional cast, headed by Robby Benson, who had just played the Beast in the hit Disney cartoon of Beauty and the Beast, in the role of Prince Alexander, the protagonist. Although Sierra could all too often still seem like babes in the woods when it came to media aesthetics, they were slowly learning on at least some fronts.

In the meantime, they could look to the bottom line of CD-ROM uptake with satisfaction. They shipped just 13 percent of their products on CD-ROM in 1992; in 1993, that number rose to 36 percent. Already by the end of that year, they had initiated their first projects that were earmarked only for CD-ROM. The dam had burst; the floppy disk was soon to be a thing of the past as a delivery medium for games.

This ought to have been a moment of unabashed triumph for Sierra in more ways than one. Back in the mid-1980s, when the company had come within a whisker of being pulled under by the Great Home Computer Crash, Ken Williams had decided, against the conventional wisdom of the time, that the long-term future of consumer computing lay with the operating systems of Microsoft and the open hardware architecture inadvertently spawned by the original IBM PC. He’d stuck to his guns ever since; while Sierra did release some of their games for other computer platforms, they were always afterthoughts, mere ways to earn a little extra money while waiting for the real future to arrive. And now that future had indeed arrived; Ken Williams had been proved right. The monochrome cargo vans of 1985 had improbably become the multimedia sports cars of 1993, all whilst sticking to the same basic software and hardware architecture.

And yet Ken was feeling more doubtful than triumphant. While he remained convinced that CDs were the future of game delivery, he was no longer so convinced that MS-DOS was the only platform that mattered. On the contrary, he was deeply concerned by the fact that, while MS-DOS-based computers had evolved enormously in terms of graphics and sound and sheer processing power, they remained as cryptically hard to use as ever. Just installing and configuring one of his company’s latest games required considerable technical skill. His ambition, as he told anyone who would listen, was to build Sierra into a major purveyor of mainstream entertainment. Could he really do that on MS-DOS? Yes, Microsoft Windows was out there as well — in fact, it was exploding in popularity, to the point that it was already becoming hard to find productivity software that wasn’t Windows-based. But Windows had its own fair share of quirks, and wasn’t really designed for running high-performance games under any circumstances.

Even as MS-DOS and Windows thus struggled with issues of affordability, approachability, and user-friendliness in the context of games, new CD-based alternatives to traditional computers were appearing almost by the month. NEC and Sega were selling CD drives as add-ons for their TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis game consoles; Philips had something called CD-i; Commodore had CDTV; Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, had split away from his old company to found 3DO; even Tandy was pushing a free-standing CD-based platform called the VIS. All of these products were designed to be easy for ordinary consumers to operate in all the ways a personal computer wasn’t, and they were all designed to fit into the living room rather than the back office. In short, they looked and operated like mainstream consumer electronics, while personal computers most definitely still did not.

But even if one assumed that platforms like these were the future of consumer multimedia, as Ken Williams was sorely tempted to do, which one or two would win out to become the standard? The situation was oddly similar to that which had faced software makers like Sierra back in the early 1980s, when the personal-computer marketplace had been fragmented into more than a dozen incompatible platforms. Yet the comparison only went so far: development costs for the multimedia software of the early 1990s were vastly higher, and so the stakes were that much higher as well.

Nevertheless, Ken Williams decided that the only surefire survival strategy for Sierra was to become a presence on most if not all of the new platforms. Just as MS-DOS had finally, undeniably won the day in the field of personal computers, Sierra would ironically abandon their strict allegiance to computers in general. Instead, they would now pledge their fealty to CDs in the abstract. For Ken had grander ambitions than just being a major player on the biggest computing platform; he wanted to be a major player in entertainment, full stop. “Sierra is an entertainment company, not a software company,” he said over and over.

So, at no inconsiderable expense, Ken instituted projects to port the SCI engine that ran Sierra’s adventure games to most of the other extant platforms that used CDs as their delivery medium. In doing so, however, he once again ran into a problem that Sierra and other game developers of the early 1980s, struggling to port their wares to the many incompatible platforms of that period, had become all too familiar with: the fact that every platform had such different strengths and weaknesses in terms of interface, graphics, sound, memory, and processing potential. Just because a platform of the early 1990s could accept software distributed on CD didn’t mean it could satisfactorily run all of the same games as an up-to-date personal computer with a CD-ROM drive installed. Corey Cole, who along with his wife Lori Ann Cole made up Sierra’s most competent pair of game designers at the time, but who was nevertheless pulled away from his design role to program a port of the SCI engine to the Sega Genesis with CD drive:

The Genesis CD system was essentially identical to the Genesis except for the addition of the CD. It had inadequate memory for huge games such as the ones Sierra made, and it could only display 64 colors at a time from a 512 color palette. Sierra games at the time used 256 colors at a time from a 262,144 color palette. So the trick became how to make Sierra games look good in a much smaller color space.

Genesis CD did supply some tricks that could be used to fake an expanded color space, and I set out to use those. The problem was that the techniques I used required a lot of memory, and the memory space on the Genesis was much smaller than we expected on PCs at the time. One of the first things I did was to put a memory check in the main SCI processing loop that would warn me if we came close to running out of memory. I knew it would be close.

Sierra assigned a programmer from the Dynamix division to work with me. He had helped convert Willy Beamish to the Genesis CD, so he understood the system requirements well. However, he unintentionally sabotaged the project. In his early tests, my low-memory warning kicked in, so he disabled it. Six months later, struggling with all kinds of random problems (the hard-to-impossible kind to fix), I discovered that the memory check was disabled. When I turned it back on, I learned that the random bugs were all caused by insufficient memory. Basically, Sierra games were too big to fit on the Genesis CD, and there was very little we could do to shoehorn them in. With the project now behind schedule, and the only apparent solution being a complete rewrite of SCI to use a smaller memory footprint, Sierra management cancelled the project.

While Corey Cole spun his wheels in this fashion, Lori Ann Cole was forced to design most of Quest for Glory III alone, at significant cost to this latest iteration in what had been Sierra’s most creative and compelling adventure series up to that point.

The push to move their games to consoles also cost Sierra in the more literal sense of dollars and cents, and in the end they got absolutely no return for their investment. Some of the porting projects, like the one on which Corey worked, were abandoned when the target hardware proved itself not up to the task of running games designed for cutting-edge personal computers. Others were rendered moot when the entire would-be consumer-electronics category of multimedia set-top boxes for the living room — a category that included CD-i, CDTV, 3DO, and VIS — flopped one and all. (Radio Shack employees joked that the VIS acronym stood for “Virtually Impossible to Sell.”) In the end, King’s Quest VI never came out in any versions except those for personal computers. Ken Williams’s dream of conquering the living room, like that of conquering the radio waves, would never come to fruition.

The money Sierra wasted on the fruitless porting projects were far from the only financial challenge they faced at the dawn of the CD era in gaming. For all that everyone at the company had chafed against the restrictions of floppy disks, those same restrictions had, by capping the amount of audiovisual assets one could practically include in a game, acted as a restraint on escalating development budgets. With CD-ROM, all bets were off in terms of how big a game could become. Sierra felt themselves to be in a zero-sum competition with the rest of their industry to deliver ever more impressive, ever more “cinematic” games that utilized the new storage medium to its full potential. The problem, of course, was that such games cost vastly more money to make.

It was a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Ken Williams was convinced that games had the potential to appeal to a broader demographic and thus sell in far greater numbers than ever before in this new age of CD-ROM. Yet to reach that market he first had to pay for the development of these stunning new games. Therein lay the rub. If this year’s games cost less to make but also come with a much lower sales cap than next year’s games, the old financial model — that of using the revenue generated by this year’s games to pay for next year’s — doesn’t work anymore. Yet to scale back one’s ambitions for next year’s games means to potentially miss out on the greatest gold rush in the history of computer gaming to date.

As if these pressures weren’t enough, Sierra was also facing the slow withering of what used to be another stable source of revenue: their back catalog. In 1991, titles released during earlier years accounted for fully 60 percent of their sales; in 1992, that number shrank to 48 percent, and would only keep falling from there. In this new multimedia age, driven by audiovisuals above all else, games that were more than a year or two old looked ancient. People weren’t buying them, and stores weren’t interested in stocking them. (Another chicken-or-the-egg situation…) This forced a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot mentality toward development, increasing that much more the perceived need to make every game look and sound spectacular, while also instilling a countervailing need to release it quickly, before it started to look outdated. Sierra had long been in the habit of amortizing their development costs for tax and other accounting purposes: i.e., mortgaging the cost of making each game against its future revenue. Now, as the size of these mortgages soared, this practice created still more pressure to release each game in the quarter to which the accountants had earmarked it. None of this was particularly conducive to the creation of good, satisfying games.

At first blush, one might be tempted to regard what came next as just more examples of the same types of problems that had always dogged Sierra’s output. Ken Williams had long failed to instill the culture and processes that consistently lead to good design, which had left well-designed games as the exception rather than the rule even during the company’s earlier history. Now, though, things reached a new nadir, as Sierra began to ship games that were not just poorly designed but blatantly unfinished. Undoubtedly the most heartbreaking victim of these pressures was Quest for Glory IV, Corey and Lori Ann Cole’s would-be magnum opus, which shipped on December 31, 1993 — the last day of the fiscal quarter to which it had been earmarked — in a truly woeful condition, so broken it wasn’t even possible to complete it. Another sorry example was Outpost, a sort of SimCity in space that was rendered unplayable by bugs. And an even worse one was Alien Legacy, an ambitious attempt to combine strategy with adventure gaming in a manner reminiscent of Cryo Interactive’s surprisingly effective adaptation of Dune. We’ll never know how well Sierra’s take on the concept would have worked because, once again, it shipped unfinished and essentially unplayable.

Each of these games had had real potential if they had only been allowed to realize it. One certainly didn’t need to be an expert in marketing or anything else to see how profoundly unwise it was in the long run to release them in such a state. While each of them met an arbitrary accounting deadline, thus presumably preventing some red ink in one quarter, Sierra sacrificed long-term profits on the altar of this short-term expediency: word quickly got around among gamers that the products were broken, and even many of those who were unfortunate enough to buy them before they got the word wound up returning them. That Sierra ignored such obvious considerations and shoved the games out the door anyway speaks to the pressures that come to bear as soon as a company goes public, as Sierra had done in 1988. Additionally, and perhaps more ominously, it speaks to an increasing disconnect between management and the people making the actual products.

Through it all, Ken Williams, who seemed almost frantic not to miss out on what he regarded as the inflection point for consumer software, was looking to expand his empire, looking to make Sierra known for much more than adventure games. In fact, he had already begun that process in early 1990, when Sierra acquired Dynamix, a development house notable for their 3D-graphics technology, for $1 million in cash and some stock shenanigans. That gambit had paid off handsomely; Dynamix’s World War II flight simulator Aces of the Pacific became Sierra’s second biggest hit of 1992, trailing only the King’s Quest VI juggernaut whilst — and this was important to Ken — appealing to a whole different demographic from their adventure games. In addition to their flight simulators, Dynamix also spawned a range of other demographically diverse hits over this period, from The Incredible Machine to Front Page Sports: Football.

With a success story like that in his back pocket, it was time for Ken to go shopping again. In July of 1992, Sierra acquired Bright Star Technology, a Bellevue, Washington-based specialist in educational software, for $1 million. Ken was convinced that educational software, a market that had grown only in fits and starts during earlier years, would become massive during the multimedia age, and he was greatly enamored with Bright Star’s founder, a real bright spark himself named Elon Gasper. “He thinks, therefore he is paid,” was Ken’s description of Gasper’s new role inside the growing Sierra. Bright Star also came complete with some innovative technology they had developed for syncing recorded voices to the mouths of onscreen characters — perhaps not the first problem one thinks of when contemplating a CD-ROM-based talkie of an adventure game, but one which quickly presents itself when the actual work begins. King’s Quest VI became the first Sierra game to make use of it; it was followed by many others.

Meanwhile Bright Star themselves would deliver a steady stream of slick, educator-approved learning software over the years to come. Less fortunately, the acquisition did lead to the sad demise of Sierra’a in-house “Discovery Series” of educational products, which had actually yielded some of their best designed and most creative games of any stripe during the very early 1990s. Now, the new acquisition would take over responsibility for a “second, more refined generation of educational products,” as Sierra’s annual report put it. But in addition to being more refined — more rigorously compliant with established school curricula and the latest pedagogical theories — they would also be just a little bit boring in contrast to the likes of The Castle of Dr. Brain. Such is the price of progress.

Sierra’s third major acquisition of the 1990s was more complicated, more expensive, and more debatable than the first two had been. On October 29, 1993, they bought the French developer and publisher Coktel Vision for $4.6 million. Coktel had been around since 1985, unleashing upon European gamers such indelibly (stereotypically?) French creations as Emmanuelle: A Game of Eroticism, based on a popular series of erotic novels and films. But by the early 1990s, Coktel was doing the lion’s share of their business in educational software. In 1992, estimates were that 50 to 75 percent of the software found in French schools came from Coktel. The character known as Adi, the star of their educational line, is remembered to this day by a whole generation of French schoolchildren.

Sierra had cut a deal more than a year before the acquisition to begin distributing Coktel’s games in the United States, and had made a substantial Stateside success out of Gobliiins, a vaguely Lemmings-like puzzle game. That proof of concept, combined with Coktel’s educational line and distributional clout in Europe — Ken was eager to enter that sprawling market, where Sierra heretofore hadn’t had much of a footprint — convinced the founder to pull the trigger.

But this move would never quite pan out as he had hoped. Although the text and voices were duly translated, the cultural idiom of Adi just didn’t seem to make sense to American children. Meanwhile Coktel’s games, which mashed together disparate genres like adventure and simulation with the same eagerness with which they mashed together disparate presentation technologies like full-motion video and 3D graphics, encountered all the commercial challenges that French designs typically ran into in the United States. Certainly few Americans knew what to make of a game like Inca; it took place in the far future of an alternate history where the ancient Incan civilization had survived, conquered, and taken to the stars, where they continued to battle, Wing Commander-style, with interstellar Spanish galleons. (The phrase “what were they smoking?” unavoidably comes to mind…) Today, the games of Coktel are remembered by American players, if they’re remembered at all, mostly for the sheer bizarreness of premises like this one, married to puzzles that make the average King’s Quest game seem like a master class in good adventure design. Coktel’s European distribution network undoubtedly proved more useful to Sierra than the company’s actual games, but it’s doubtful whether even it was useful to the tune of $4.6 million.

Inca, one of the strangest games Sierra ever published — and not really in a good way.

Ken Williams was playing for keeps in a high-stakes game with all of these moves, as he continued to do as well with ImagiNation, a groundbreaking, genuinely visionary online service, oriented toward socializing and playing together, which stubbornly refused to turn a profit. All together, the latest moves constituted a major shift in strategy from the conservative, incrementalist approach that had marked his handling of Sierra since the company’s near-death experience of the mid-1980s. From 1987 — the year the recovering patient first managed to turn a profit again — through 1991, Sierra had sold more games and made more money each year. The first of those statements held true for 1992 as well, as sales increased from $43 million to within a whisker of $50 million. But profits fell off a cliff; Sierra lost almost $12.5 million that year alone. Sales increased impressively again in 1993, to $59.5 million. Yet, although the bottom line looked less ugly, it remained all too red thanks to all of the ongoing spending; the company lost another $4.5 million that year.

In short, Ken Williams was now mortgaging Sierra’s present against its future, in precisely the way he’d sworn he’d never do again during those dark days of 1984 and 1985. But he felt he had to make his play for the big time now or never; CD-ROM was a horse he just had to ride, hopefully all the way to the nerve center of Western pop culture. And so he did something else he’d sworn he would never do: he left Oakhurst, California. In September of 1993, Ken and Roberta and select members of Sierra’s management team moved to Bellevue, Washington, to set up a new “corporate headquarters” there; sales and marketing would gradually follow over the months to come. Ken had long been under pressure from his board to move to a major city, one where it would be easier to recruit a “first-rate management team” to lead Sierra into a bold new future. Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle that was close to Microsoft, Nintendo of America, and of course Sierra’s own new subsidiary of Bright Star, seemed as good a choice as any. Ken promised Sierra’s creative staff as well as their fans that nothing would really change: most of the games would still be made in the cozy confines of Oakhurst. And he spoke the truth —  at least in literal terms, at least for the time being.

Nevertheless, something had changed. The old dream of starting a software company in the woods, the one which had brought a much younger, much shaggier Ken and Roberta to Oakhurst in 1980, had in some very palpable sense run its course. Sierra had well and truly gone corporate; Ken and Roberta were back in the world they had so consciously elected to escape thirteen years before. Oh, well… the arrows of both revenue and profitability at Sierra were pointing in the right direction. One more year, Ken believed, and they ought to be in the black again, and in a stronger position in the marketplace than ever at that. Chalk the rest of it up as yet one more price of progress.

(Sources: the book Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, Holiday 1993, Spring 1994, and Fall 1994; The One of April 1989; ACE of May 1989; Game Players PC Entertainment of Holiday 1992; Compute! of May 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1992; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. An online source was the Games Nostalgia article on King’s Quest VI. 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.)

 

Tags: , ,

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.)

 
 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,