All Your History: Adventure Games Part 2
When Will Crowther turned his love of caving into a simple text game, he never intended for it to start a trend. But as his Colossal Cave Adventure spread from computer to computer, it did anyway. Several knock-offs and copycats followed, including Infocom’s Zork, which brought the idea of the text adventure to the next level. But it took a fan designing her own game by hand in her kitchen to reinvent the genre. Mystery House was created by Roberta Williams, and programmed by her husband Ken. The interactive murder mystery was the first adventure game to include graphics of any kind. Crude though they were, they paved the way for the genre’s future. After releasing several more games under the company name On-Line Systems, the biggest computer company in the world asked for their help. IBM was about to launch the PCjr [PC Junior], a low-cost machine meant for a broad audience. They wanted a great game to help sell it, so they contracted On-Line Systems in Nineteen Eighty-Two. What they got couldn’t save the PCjr, but in many ways changed the course of gaming forever.
Even though IBM’s PCjr was meant to be a cheap machine, the company wanted to show that it could still be a quality graphical device. So whatever On-Line Systems was going to make, IBM wanted it to look good. To ensure that, they threw seven hundred thousand dollars at the husband-and-wife team — at that time, a gigantic budget for a single game. With it, Roberta and Ken hired a gigantic team: six entire people.
Also in Nineteen Eighty-Two, On-Line Systems changed names to Sierra On-Line. The newly-minted Sierra had their work cut out for them, but with IBM’s backing, they went for broke. For one thing, Sierra developed their own scripting language, the Adventure Game Intepreter, or AGI [ay-gee-eye]. This allowed the programming team to very easily build out a huge world without having to hardcode it all. For another, and in stark contrast to other computer games, this one would have sixteen whole colors. But most important of all was the perspective: third-person. For the first time in a PC game, players would actually be able to see the character they controlled. The innovation helped players feel like they were actually a part of the world, since their character was right there in it.
And that was just the technical side of things. Roberta upped her own game by crafting a detailed world populated with charming characters. She perfectly captured the sense of a fairy tale adventure in a magical world that could appeal equally to adults and children. Her puzzles were also great brain-twisters. To solve them, players would have to explore the world to find items that could later be combined into something that would get them past the obstacle.
In the end, Nineteen Eighty-Three’s King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown went down as one of the most successful failures in the medium’s history. It was a failure in that it did not help sell the PCjr, and in fact, IBM’s machine was a commercial flop. But Sierra went on to port King’s Quest to other, more successful home computers, and the result was a windfall. Players and critics alike agreed that the game was a masterpiece. Where arcade games were all about twitch-reactions and violent mayhem, King’s Quest was a thoughtful, deliberately-paced affair with a fantastic sense of atmosphere. Its emphasis on story, character, and writing was unprecedented, and was one of the earliest examples that video games were more than just kids’ toys. And its bright, colorful world proved that home computers could be entertainment devices on their own, just as much as a dedicated console.
It should go without saying that the game was an absolutely massive financial success. Artistically, technically, and commercially, King’s Quest forever altered the course of the medium. And, not surprisingly, for Sierra as well. Overnight, Sierra became a leading game developer, one that would help define PC gaming for the next decade.
But despite the graphical revolution that was King’s Quest, the actual user interface was largely unchanged. Players would still have to type in text and hope that the game could actually understand what they meant. Still, armed with nothing but a Qwerty keyboard, what else could players do?
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Apple Computer and their new Macintosh machine revolutionized computing forever by deveoloping a graphical user interface that used bleeding-edge technology: a mouse. Using this ‘mouse,’ users could point at any graphical object on the screen and ‘click’ it. It didn’t take long at all for this technology to be applied to games, and the adventure genre was among the first to adopt it.
Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Enchanted Sceptres from Silicon Beach Software brought point-and-click into exploration. Now, instead of having to guess the right words, players could just point to the item they wanted to interact with. A huge part of adventure game development up to this time was spent on making text parsers smarter and smarter; now, parsers simply weren’t necessary. Despite the innovation, Enchanted Sceptres wasn’t considered a particularly good game, and didn’t sell well. It was the following year’s Deja Vu from ICOM Simulations that popularized the idea of point-and-click in adventure games, and cemented the interface as the future of the genre.
With the mouse-based adventure quickly taking off as a dominant genre of PC gaming, other companies began to jump onboard. In Nineteen Eighty-Six, Lucasfilm Games, the interactive arm of George Lucas’ media empire, tried their hand at the adventure genre. Basing it on the Jim Henson film Labyrinth, which was produced by Lucas, the game mixed the old interface with the new. Players would still have to use a verb and a noun, but this time, the choices were actually presented for them onscreen — all they had to do was pick which. However, the game followed the standard movie tie-in curse and didn’t do very well. But it wouldn’t be the last time Lucasfilm made an adventure game.
In the meantime, Sierra continued its dominance of both the adventure genre and PC gaming as a whole. Their massively successful King’s Quest had become a franchise all its own, and in the mid-Eighties, more Quests started to show up, each with its own style. Space Quest was a comedy adventure, following the exploits of hapless space janitor Roger Wilco as he cleaned up the messes of the galaxy. Police Quest, meanwhile, was a much more serious look at police procedure and case-solving. Leisure Suit Larry was a raunchy romp about a middle-aged virgin looking to get lucky. While intended for a more adult crowd, it was so juvenile in its approach that it didn’t actually have anything racy in it. Each of these games sold well and became long-running series, and alongside King’s Quest, helped propel Sierra to the peak of the industry. And this despite the fact that Sierra still refused to go point-and-click; all these games still used old-fashioned text parsers. After all, if you’re the top dog, why bother with what the little guys are using?
And then the little guys created the adventure game that every other adventure game aspired to be.
Tune in next time to find the secret of LucasArts