GOGathon: The Dawn of Sierra’s SCI Era

The story so far: after pioneering the graphic adventure game genre with the first three King’s Quest games (with the third one also being the first good graphic adventure game), Sierra decided it was time to branch out a little – releasing adventure games in a range of different genres, including both obvious videogame fare like science fiction to less well-trod territory like police procedural dramas and bawdy sex comedies.

All this was accomplished using the AGI system, which – as I explained at the end of the last article – was developed for the original King’s Quest I and, whilst technically advanced for 1984, clearly wasn’t passing muster by the late 1980s; 1988 would see the debut of a triptych of new games produced using their exciting new SCI engine, and for much of the next decade – until they switched to 3D engines, effectively – Sierra’s adventures would be produced using various updates of SCI, which both allowed for superior graphics and sound card support and included scripting tools useful for adventure game design processes.

But did a superior toolkit yield superior games? Let’s see…

King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

This picks up right where King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human left off. At the end of that game, Prince Alexander had destroyed the three-headed dragon that had been terrorising Daventry, released Princess Rosella from captivity, and returned home to be joyously reunited with his parents King Graham and Queen Valanice, who had never thought to see him alive again after he’d been abducted in infancy. Full of cheer, King Graham picked up his old adventuring cap where it hung on the wall and tossed it to his two children…

Cut to the start of The Perils of Rosella, and it turns out the excitement of the moment and the worry of the last decade or two has been too much for King Graham, for he has a heart attack on the spot. He does not die instantly, but he is left gravely weakened, and naturally the entire royal family is distraught. Weeping by herself, Rosella hears a voice coming from the Magic Mirror which played such a significant role in Graham’s adventures.

The voice belongs to Genesta, the Good Fairy of the far-off realm of Tamir. Genesta tells Rosella that in Tamir there grows a tree whose magical fruit will surely restore Graham to his full strength, and she is willing to magically summon Rosella to Tamir in return for a little service – to which Rosella agrees. (I do feel like it’s a bit of a shame that Rosella doesn’t pick up Graham’s cap from where it was left sadly sitting on the throne room of Daventry Castle to wear it over the course of the game, though I guess it doesn’t quite stylistically match her costume.) On her arrival, she learns that Genesta herself is dying, as a result of the Bad Fairy Lolotte stealing the talisman that is the source of Genesta’s power. Thus, Genesta cannot help Rosella on her quest, and will not be able to return Rosella home; Rosella has just 24 hours to find the fruit, obtain the talisman, get them both back to Genesta, and have Genesta magic her home to Daventry to get the fruit to cure Graham.

So, as with the original King’s Quest, this was a game largely promoted off the back of its technical accomplishments. It was the first commercially available PC game which included sound card support, with Sierra eagerly collaborating with Roland on this; in fact, they hired William Goldstein to do the soundtrack. Whilst console gamers had become used to built-in sound with reasonable output by 1988, this still represented a new advance in the sonic presentation of a videogame, and Sierra rose to the challenge delightfully here.

In addition, the new SCI engine gets to show its stuff here. The text parser now is hidden and only appears when you start typing, allowing more screen real estate to be used for what were some highly advanced graphics for the era. The game could handle varying the size of the character, rather than Rosella being drawn at the same size on every single screen – so on screens depicting wide-ranging views of outdoor areas you’re a smaller size, whereas on screens depicting close-up views in enclosed areas you’re a larger size. Mouse support doesn’t add as much as you’d expect, since the game is still built around using the arrow keys to move and text parser to declare actions, but it does make utilising the game menus much faster and easier.

In addition, the game deserves plaudits for not only including a female protagonist at a time when determined gender-based advertising was already beginning to press the idea that videogames were boys’ toys, but to incorporate one into a series which had previously had an all-male lineup of protagonists. In this Gamergate-blighted era you would get a swathe of hideous people shrieking on all platforms about this, but so far as I can tell the market at the time took this in stride.

For the most part, Rosella gets to be just as adventurous as Graham and Alexander were in past episodes of the game – cave-crawling, swamp-hopping, snake-charming, tomb raiding, and even grave-robbing at points, and whilst the game only lets her rack up one kill (and then by accident), this is actually reasonably consistent with the previous games’ general disapproval of needless killing. There is one puzzle which involves you doing domestic chores for the Seven Dwarves, though in a surprisingly progressive move they handsomely pay you for your work rather than expecting you to do labour for them for free.

You’re a woman in fairytale land, of course, so being threatened with marriage is part of the territory. In this case, the threat comes from Lolotte’s attempt to marry you off to her dorky son Edgar – however, in a nice plot twist, Edgar smuggles a key to your room under the guise of a romantic gesture, enabling you to escape and launch your climactic bid on Lolotte’s life.

The implication is that Edgar isn’t the Nice Guy Lolottte’s dialogue has made him out to be so far, but is actually a decent human being – a guy who is nice, if you will. Giving you the means to escape means that he clearly doesn’t actually want you to be forcibly married to him, and suggests that he only talked up how much he liked you to stop Lolotte from murdering you out of hand. On top of that, he seems less than distraught when you end up slaying Lolotte. He does end up asking you to marry him when Genesta transforms him into a handsome form at the end of the game (later games will imply that his original form was not his own natural look but a distorted form Lolotte had inflicted upon him), but he also takes rejection gracefully when you say “er, sorry, this is a bit too sudden plus I need to go fix my dad, let’s be friends though?”

The major downside of the game is that Roberta Williams repeats most of the game design errors she’d displayed in the previous games, with the game being riddled with annoying tightrope/staircase screens and oblique or outright nonsensical puzzles. (I suspect that the game is another casualty of Sierra making decent money out of running hint lines and selling hint books – thus creating a perverse economic incentive to make the game absurdly difficult to maximise use of both.

At least one puzzle makes absolutely no sense. There’s a cave behind a waterfall which you’re supposed to just guess is there, but if you swim towards the waterfall the force of the current drives you back. The solution is that you are meant to wear the crown you get from the frog prince, which allows you to turn into a wittle fwoggy and swim against the current and get to the cave.

Setting aside the bad story logic here – how does Rosella know that the cave is even there? – I’m fairly sure that this puzzle makes no sense. OK, sure, frogs are decent swimmers – but even so, I am fairly sure that a current forceful enough to drag a human being around is also going to carry enough force to fling a frog aside – in fact, because the frog has much less mass than the human being, they’ll experience more acceleration from the force of the current (even when their smaller volume is taken into account). After that bit, there’s an annoying puzzle where there’s an extremely fiddly maze where, entirely randomly, sometimes a troll will appear and kill you, and the only way to get through is to savescum it so that you avoid the troll spawning.

Other flaws of the game include entire parts which you need to play through by swimming into the deep ocean, where any normal person would expect there to be nothing but the edge of the map, a bunch of puzzles which require you to find a randomly-spawning NPC, at least one instance of a puzzle which becomes unsolvable if you make a single wrong guess whilst working through it, and a whole heap of infuriating staircase puzzles. (There’s an utterly bizarre tweak made to the control system when navigating some spiral stairs here, where halfway around the spiral the “up” and “down” keys will suddenly switch orientation in terms of which direction they guide Rosella in. This really fucking doesn’t help.)

There isn’t a “Rumpelstiltskin” puzzle here, but by and large if there was an aspect of King’s Quest puzzle design which bugged you in the previous episodes, it will be represented here. The thing which bugs me most is the near-total lack of story logic – sure, Rosella needs to be eaten by the whale to find the golden bridle to put on the unicorn, but how does she know ahead of time that being eaten by a whale is a sensible thing to do? It’s this slack grasp of story logic which, at this stage of her career, I feel was Roberta Williams’ great failing as a game designer, though she would at least get a handle on it by the time she did Phantasmagoria.

Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking For Love (In Several Wrong Places)

Al Lowe’s second trip into the sordid and frequently pathetic world of Larry Laffer finds Larry learning an important lesson: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. After the sexual encounter with the mysterious Eve he more or less literally accidentally stumbled into at the end of the last game, we rejoin Larry as he’s mowing Eve’s lawn in front of her handsome Los Angeles townhouse. Unfortunately, he’s overestimated just how into him Eve was; when Eve arrives to find this dude she barely remembers doing a bit of uninvited gardening, she tells him in no uncertain terms that he’s a creep and he needs to leave, immediately.

Larry’s a pathetic chump, but he’s not a full-blown incel, so he actually listens to Eve and realises that he hasn’t found true love after all. He decides to see if he can do so in LA, and through a mixture of luck and flat-out deceit ends up winning the lottery and a luxury cruise. However, in the middle of some last-minute shopping before the cruise, you end up obtaining an innocuous musical instrument which happens to contain a microfilm containing valuable secrets – secrets that the USSR is extremely interested to obtain. Little does Larry know that he’s going to have to put a lot of energy by the KGB, or even worse by the agents of the information broker who’d intended to sell those secrets to the Soviets – the diabolical mastermind Dr Nonookee, who runs his espionage network from his secret base inside a volcano on placid Nontoonyt Island…

It’s sort of a forerunner to Austin Powers in some respects, and the level of comedy and sexual innuendo more or less matches that. The diversion away from overt sexual comedy and fuzzy 8-bit cheesecake illustrations to a somewhat tamer style of comedy was necessary to get the game into videogame stores, which had refused to stock the previous game as a result of its content. Shifting gear into a James Bond parody, in that sense, was actually quite clever: after all, the Bond franchise and its imitators are barely less explicit than the original Land of the Lounge Lizards anyway, whose rude material was mostly in the form of textual jokes. Graphically speaking you don’t see anything which would bump a movie up from, say, a 15 certificate to 18 in that game, and you see even less in this game – toplessness is strictly limited to tiny pixellated representations of such – but thematically speaking you’re spending more time trying not to get killed than trying to get laid this time around.

There’s a slight problem here in that, from a strictly in-universe perspective, Larry doesn’t know that he’s in danger from the KGB, leading the player to direct him to do all sorts of nonsense which you only know to do because you’ve seen Larry get killed when he didn’t do it in earlier playthroughs. This is an issue solved somewhat by the writing, though could still be dealt with better by more solid plotting. You see, the narration this time around has a bit more pep, with the narrator directly addressing Larry and breaking the fourth wall from time to time. That breaking of the fourth wall does a great job of avoiding the impression that the game narratively approves of some of Larry’s more dubious activities – the narration isn’t afraid to call him out when he’s being a creep – and also is self-aware enough of being an adventure game that exploiting knowledge gained via character death feels more legitimate than it otherwise would.

Indeed, to a certain extent the game is less a parody of James Bond and similar so much as it’s a satire of adventure games themselves – a comparatively new format to be spoofing, but even so by 1988 the genre had enough quirks to make such a parody viable. There’s a bit where Larry buys an absurdly huge cup of cola (it’s almost taller than him), and the game narrates him pondering how to carry it before deciding to just jam it in his pocket, which it depicts him doing. “Pocket physics” jokes in adventure games are a well-worn angle, but I suspect that this is the first example of such.

Elsewhere in the game there’s one screen which offers a delicious parody of the “narrow pathway” sequences in other Sierra games; the pathway is incredibly narrow, but there’s no way for Larry to actually fall off, with Larry saving himself from falling in increasingly cartoonish ways. (Then there’s an actual tightrope puzzle late in the game, losing all goodwill Lowe might have earned by applying this much-deserved mockery to Sierra’s foibles.)

These represent the funniest aspects of the game; other parts of its comedy have dated more poorly. The way all the women in the game are basically presented based on Larry’s desire to sleep with them gets really old really quickly. It feels substantially more inappropriate here than in the original game, I think because in the original game Larry is hanging around in locations where everyone’s looking for sexual encounters and it’s generally understood that everyone is going to be appraising everyone else on that basis, so it’s somehow appropriate.

There’s a bit where Larry has to passably cross-dress in order to evade some KGB spies, but then if he rocks up to the local airport still wearing a bikini the military police arrest him for public crossdressing, and I’m torn on whether that’s a transphobic joke or a legitimate representation of real-world oppression. (There’s a very effeminate television producer on the game who is essentially a big ol’ homophobic cartoon, which is more unambiguously problematic.) Perhaps the most off-colour joke comes in the airport, where security is very lax and as Larry you can muck about and look in people’s luggage… resulting in you sooner or later finding a bomb, which goes off. Turning airline terrorism into a joke would have been tasteless and unsympathetic enough in the 1980s, but in this post-9/11 age feels especially off-colour.

Perhaps the dodgiest direction that the game could have gone in, but which Lowe actually manages to retrieve, is in the depiction of “native women” on tropical islands in the Pacific. The inhabitants of Nontoonyt Island verge on being racial caricatures, but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re just a bunch of Caucasians living out some sort of Martin Denny holiday fantasy; their leader, Keneewauwau, is a parody of Sierra head honcho Ken Williams himself, Larry is challenged to gain acceptance within the tribe by having to demonstrate his command of assembly language, and by and large they’re more interested in clearing out Dr Nonookee so they can sort out a land deal to turn the island into a tourist trap themselves.

It’s broadly possible to read the entire thing as a broad parody of the tendency in “exotica”-type media (so beloved of swingin’ bachelors of decades past like Larry) of the 1950s, 1960s, and to a lesser extent even up to the 1980s, of featuring sexually liberated “natives” who were actually white people so as to better sell a fetishised, romanticised fantasy to an America which wasn’t actually all that keen on interracial sex… but it’s also possible that Lowe was just lazily regurgitating some tropes and they happened to fall out in a less offensive configuration than they might otherwise have fallen into.

So, the plot alternates between being endearingly silly and embarrassingly dated; how does the gameplay stack up? Well, Lowe has admitted in recent interviews that at this point the Sierra designers were more or less making it up as they went along when it came to game design principles, but with this game he seems to have been fumbling his way towards a more solid approach to game design than Sierra had displayed previously. In the earlier stages of the game in general – which have a bit more polish than the later sections – absurd puzzle solutions that you’d never think of are rarer than typical for Sierra, and whilst there are situations where failing to pick something up earlier on will leave the game in an unwinnable state do come up, it’s usually obvious what the thing you are missing is.

I was able to get through the infamous cruise ship segment without consulting a walkthrough once, and yes it did require a lot of reloads to figure out what I needed to do and what I needed to avoid and then a final reload to play it through from the beginning to do everything in the right order, but the sense of accomplishment involved in solving it was undeniable – and a sense I wouldn’t have had if I’d solved one of the more arbitrary puzzles in the game, or if I’d solved one of the puzzles where the only real skill involved is remembering to pick something up on a previous screen.

Later on in the game, however, sloppier puzzle design and well-worn Sierra bad habits start creeping in, with the final island being particularly frustrating for this. It doesn’t help that there’s some points in the game where the parser gets absurdly fussy – a result of a parser error which Sierra were only able to identify the day before the game shipped and so couldn’t fix.

Perhaps part of the reason the game ended up rushed towards the end is its sheer ambition – it feels like easily the largest adventure Sierra had made yet. In addition, Lowe throws in some somewhat involved cut scenes, which I guess is him taking the more powerful scripting utilities in SCI and running wild with them, though some of them drag on a little longer than they really need to in order to get the joke across.

Perhaps the best comedy in the game comes when Lowe finds ways to work jokes into the actual process of interacting with the game. For instance, the options menu allows you to enter a “Trite phrase” – the default is “Have a nice day!” – for shop clerks and similar functionaries to use in the game from time to time, an interesting instance of a comedy videogame not just telling jokes to the player but inviting the player to come up with something themselves. (I went for a cheap Rick & Morty reference so that people would randomly say “Wubba wubba lub dub!” to me during the game.) There’s another such instance when Larry is unexpectedly caught up on a television dating show, where you have to input his answers; the actual input you give doesn’t matter, but it’s a golden opportunity for the player to be a bit silly and really embarrass Larry in front of a national audience of millions.

With the original Land of the Lounge Lizards being so widely pirated that Sierra ended up selling more copies of the strategy guide than the game itself, Looking For Love is unafraid to shill strategy guides itself. It’s sufficiently shameless that whenever you get a gameover you get a screen with two buttons on it: “Keep On Muddling” gives you the usual Restore/Restart/Quit options, whilst the other button gives you the details on how to buy a strategy guide for the game. That said, the few puzzles where I think you actually would need a strategy guide to be able to solve it are that way because of accidents with the parser (as mentioned above) and similar artifacts of the game being rushed. Sure, Sierra may have been making it all up as they want along – but Al Lowe, at least, seemed to be taking notes.

Police Quest II: The Vengeance

As the title implies, the second Police Quest game features the return of Jesse Bains, the infamous “Death Angel” who was the villain of the first game. Since putting away Bains, Sonny Bonds’ promotion from uniformed beat officer to full-time detective has come through, and he’s working Homicide; we join him as he comes into work at the start of his shift to learn that Jesse Bains has escaped from prison, taking a guard hostage. As Bonds participates in the pursuit it becomes clear that Bains has no intention of lying low and staying quiet – instead, he’s out to tear a bloody streak of vengeance across the city of Lytton, and as the cop responsible for apprehending him originally Bonds is surely on Bains’ list…

In principle, The Vengeance is another Jim Walls-authored effort. As with the preceding In Pursuit of the Death Angel, Sierra had to bring in a more experienced game designer to help with the process of getting the game finished. In the previous game that was Al Lowe; this time around, it was Mark Crowe of Space Quest fame. The previous game is rather shaky in a lot of respects, particularly in the way it’s remarkably fussy about the minutiae of police procedure to an extent that just isn’t fun, and in terms of its plot it feels like it barely hangs together; my hunch is that Al Lowe had to jump in fairly late in the design process, once it became apparent that Walls was floundering, leaving Lowe with not much time to do heart surgery on the game to get something functional out of it.

By comparison, my suspicion is that Mark Crowe was attached to The Vengeance from the start – Sierra having realised the error of expecting Walls to master the art of game design entirely unsupervised – and the end result is a greatly superior game. It helps that the game seems to have a reasonably consistent aesthetic vision – basically, it lifts the aesthetic style and high-octane action of the hot police thrillers of the era like Miami Vice or Lethal Weapon, but leans on Jim Walls’ real-life experience to add a level of realism to affairs.

Sonny’s current standing in his career ends up being a big help; fundamentally, whilst I am sure the real life work of homicide detectives is frequently as dull as any other job, the murder beat simultaneously represents the more exciting end of police work and at the same time represents a type of police work most of us can get behind. You might query how uniformed cops carry out their jobs, dispute the necessity of traffic laws, or think that narcotics cops are spinning their wheels in a losing effort to enforce Prohibition-esque laws which shouldn’t exist anyway, but unless your ethical compass is way out of line you’re not going to see murder as a minor or forgivable crime and you’re going to want murders to be investigated and perpetrators brought to justice.

This aspect, to me, means that the game feels a bit less incongruous in the current political era than the previous game did. I fundamentally feel like playing a homicide detective rather than a uniformed officer is less politically contentious. It seems to me that in many – if not most – of the police killings protested by Black Lives Matters, it’s uniformed cops or SWAT teams who have been involved, not plainclothes detectives. Furthermore, even in a radical rearrangement of society which didn’t require as significant a police present as we currently know, it feels like the job of homicide detective would still be justifiable. Even if we tackled and successfully solved underlying social reasons which may make murder more common, I don’t believe we can remove it from the equation entirely, and in general I think people are more supportive of the need for homicide detectives than they are for the need of a uniformed semi-militarised force imposing order on the streets.

The Vengeance also boasts major gameplay improvements over the original game, and in particular hits a much better balance between realism and fun than the previous game did. Yes, you still need to check your gun in at the lockers at the prison when you visit – but only the once, rather than making it the repetitive chore it was in the first game – and you don’t need to make Sonny walk around his car before you drive this time. The game instead concentrates on more interesting activities like scuba diving for clues in a river, lifting fingerprints and blood spatter evidence from a crime scene, and other aspects of clue-collecting and sleuthing of more immediate plot significance. The conceptually interesting but dull in execution driving sequences of the preceding game are entirely absent – when you drive from A to B you just get animation of you driving along in your car – which is both a welcome development and a logical one (homicide cops don’t cruise around town at random looking out for trouble typically).

The game is actually remarkably tolerant of you missing evidence; whilst it is entirely possible to get stuck if you play especially poorly, you absolutely do not have to find each and every piece of evidence you could have found in order to beat the game, and indeed it’s often possible to get the same evidence through different routes. (For instance, evidence that Bains may have been around Marie’s can be found in one location, prompting you to go check in on her, but if you don’t find it you could still end up going to visit her anyway, since she asks you to swing by and visit in an earlier scene.) In general, so long as you broadly have enough evidence to guide you to the next scene, the game will forgive you for not picking up everything. (This just goes to show that, as I keep saying, GUMSHOE isn’t as innovative as it thinks it is – it just codifies the principle as a hard rule rather than making it a guiding principle of scenario design.)

There are, in fact, only two respects I’d say that The Vengeance backslides into the pedantry of the previous game, one merely irritating, one infuriating. The irritating one is your field kit. The field kit itself is a perfectly fine idea – it’s a little kit containing all of the stuff you need to collect evidence from crime scenes. Acquiring it for the first time is a slight annoyance because you need to look behind a counter to find the storage bins the field kits are kept in and they don’t appear onscreen, effectively requiring you to search in just the right spot of the screen – an annoying puzzle reminiscent of the worst of Sierra, but you’re told about it in the manual so my hunch is that it was a form of secondary copy protection.

No, the really irritating thing about your field kit is that Sonny insists on putting it in the trunk of his car whenever he drives anywhere, rather than just carrying it on his person like the entire rest of his inventory. (From a realism perspective he could just place it on the back seat or something.) This requires you to do an irritating dance retrieving the field kit every time you arrive at a crime scene and every time you leave. This feels pointless and could have been cut to no real detriment to the game.

The infuriating bit of fussiness is your gun training. There’s a noticeboard in the homicide office showing people’s shooting range scores, and if Sonny examines it he’ll notice that he’s behind – but no matter how much time you spend on the gun range, the game never tells you that you’ve done enough. In fact, no amount of practice will cause you to materially improve – what you need to do, and admittedly the game tips you off about this if you pay attention and the manual tells you as well – is use the firing range to check the adjustment of your gun sights, and tweak it appropriately if your sights are off. If your sights are off, then if you get into a situation where you need to use your gun you’ll die.

There’s three things which make this part of the game really annoying to me. The first is that you never get feedback to tell you that your gun skills are up to par – you do get feedback to the effect that your sights are properly aligned, but your standing in the shooting range stats, so far as I can tell, never improves. This means that if you don’t realise that the game only cares about your sights being properly aligned, it’s giving you mixed messages and flagging a potentially serious problem you can’t actually solve. The second is that the firing range minigame is just kind of clunky and dull, making it annoying to interact with. The third is that your sights go out of alignment without warning, so you need to check whenever you go out otherwise you get killed. (Seriously, if the gunsights are physically drifting that much in the course of the day I question the quality of parts used there. What are they making the sights out of, soft cheese?) If you just do it once at the start of the game – the only time you score points for it – it’s not enough.

Whereas In Pursuit of the Death Angel sometimes ended up getting clumsy with its use of the text parser – with the game often switching between interpreting input as commands being issued to the player’s character and words said by the character to others within a scene – The Vengeance generally deploys the parser much better. In fact, it actually makes an important innovation – implementing an “Ask (Character) About (Subject)” command, which is naturally useful for puzzles based on interrogating suspects on specific subjects, and more generally feels like a more directed way of handling character interactions than the much more generic “talk to (Character)“.

As mentioned, the style of the game overall hovers somewhere between the dry realism (leavened with the occasional bit of Al Lowe ribaldry or humorous incidents inspired by Jim Walls’ own experiences) of the original game and the more action-packed approach of material like Miami Vice. This is tied in cleverly with the progress of the plot, so early on in the game you’re mostly doing standard procedural stuff and the action quotient increases over the span of the game, and you only engage with a really major diversion from standard procedure towards the end of the game (in a situation where matters have become so urgent that it’s understandable that you’d go in without backup).

Speaking of backup, you get your very own partner this time around; in classic buddy cop fashion, he’s basically useless (since, after all, if he did anything of significance that’d take spotlight away from Sonny as the protagonist), though having him around is important in situations where you’d be expected to bring backup. He’s also fun to talk to, which is important for an NPC who’ll be tagging along with you throughout the entire game.

In fact, characterisation in general is better this time than in the previous game. Marie as a character is toned down somewhat this time; she is still a two-dimensional “protagonist’s sweetheart” character (having given up prostitution thanks to Sonny’s good influence, blech), but that’s a whole dimension more than she had in the previous game. Bains wasn’t a particularly well-developed character in the previous game, but this time around he’s much more of a presence – not because of his personality (which is still rather shallowly presented), but because of his actions. You spend much of the game wading through the wake of his mayhem, and the occasional times he does pop up in person are heart-stoppingly terrifying – not least because they’re usually associated with elevated risk of game over. (Sierra’s willingness to kill off the player character helped here – arbitrary though some of the deaths here are, a LucasArts-style “you can’t ever get killed” design would have robbed this game of much of its tension.)

The worst bit of writing in the game is probably the aeroplane hijack that happens when you take a flight to Steelton. (Jesus, another airline terrorism angle? What was in the water at Sierra in 1988?) It’s carried out by stereotypical racist cartoons of airline terrorists of the era – think less extreme Islamism and al-Qaeda, think more that particular flavour of socialist-tinged militarism which the PLO and various splinter factions therefrom partook in – and as well as being an irritating moment where you can be abruptly killed if you didn’t adjust your sights before leaving for the airport, the plan doesn’t make sense.

They want to hijack the plane and take it to Egypt, but it’s an intercity domestic flight, not an international flight, so the odds of the plane making it all the way from the US West Coast to North Africa is remote. (Bear in mind that this was pre-9/11, so the idea of terrorists hijacking a plane with the intent of destroying it as a weapon was strictly theoretical and not in line with how airline terrorism tended to go in the era in question.)

It’s a weird non sequitur which feels like it serves no real purpose beyond providing an odd spike in the action slightly too soon and embroiling you in a situation which, realistically speaking, should at the very least take up the rest of your day, if not weeks to unravel, entirely derailing the Bains investigation, though then again on a realistic basis Bonds shouldn’t be on the Bains case anyway for a plethora of reasons but he is anyway. At best, it provides a gatekeeping moment to ensure you don’t get too deep into the Steelton section before realising your gunsight isn’t aligned correctly so you can’t gun down Bains and win the game, but the need for it could be avoided entirely by removing the need to adjust your sights altogether.

Still, by and large this is easily a superior game to In Pursuit of the Death Angel, and based on what I’ve heard of where the series would go next, may well be the best Police Quest game in the series – but I’ll get to that when I get to the later games.

They Blinded Us With SCI-ence!

This first clutch of SCI games came out largely in late 1988 – King’s Quest IV in September, Larry II and Police Quest II in November – in a tight cluster of releases. This was generally consistent with Sierra’s workflow – on checking release dates it seems to me that, whilst it wasn’t a universal rule (game release dates get delayed from time to time, after all), Sierra seem to have tended to release their adventure games late in the year, when autumnal shifts in the weather make staying indoors playing a rather involved videogame more appealing and with enough lead-in to Christmas to get a healthy word-of-mouth buzz established prior to the holiday season.

However, whether intentional or not, it seems to me that releasing all of these games in a little cluster like this would have had a beneficial side-effect for Sierra’s marketing. It allowed them to showcase the technical advances of SCI across a nice cross-section of their game lines, with the emphasis on sequels in particular allowing a direct comparison with the AGI-driven previous entries in the respective series. (Space Quest III came out in March 1989, and part of me wonders whether it was supposed to come out in this cluster but got delayed – perhaps due to Mark Crowe needing to pull double-duty keeping Police Quest II on track.)

Much as the jump in visual quality from VHS to DVD is easier to see than the jump from DVD to Blu-Ray and much easier to perceive than the jump from Blu-Ray to 4K (to my mind, at least), the sort of technical leap we’re talking about here would have been extremely noticeable to gamers of the era, and would have gone a long way towards keeping Sierra at the head of the pack. They may or may not have been specifically thinking of Maniac Mansion at the time, but aside from retaining the text parser (which at least is something you can argue for as being a game design choice rather than a mere technical limitation), the debut of SCI certainly allowed Sierra to keep pace with LucasArts during the decade to come.

Speaking of LucasArts, what were they doing whilst all this was going on? Well, it seems to me that in general LucasArts prioritised quality over quantity more than Sierra did – even when you set aside games by other developers published through Sierra, Sierra tended to release more games than LucasArts did, and produced way more adventure games than LucasArts did. Rather than producing a clutch of adventures in a diverse range of genres for 1988, as Sierra did, LucasArts instead produced a single game – Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders – which generally continues the quirky, comedic, modern day high weirdness style of Maniac Mansion and turns it into a globe-trotting, planet-hopping mystery. One of the last LucasArts adventures where it’s possible to get the game into an unplayable state, I still feel it has somewhat better writing and a more interesting and involved story than Sierra’s output at this time – but it’s a photo finish, with Sierra having caught up appreciably.

What particularly stands out for me is the disparity between King’s Quest IV and the other two SCI games from this year, with Roberta Williams continuing to indulge her franchise’s worst habits in game design here whilst Al Lowe and Mark Crowe (and maybe Jim Walls) were making significant improvements to the Sierra house style and produced sequels which, though both had their flaws, were significant improvements over their predecessors. That said, I wonder whether Williams was in a bit of a bind – after all, the loyal King’s Quest fanbase had come to expect a certain style, and it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious from the perspective of 1988 how much you could alter the overall design process of the games without alienating that fanbase.

People were clearly invested in Williams’ storytelling style – reportedly, when Sierra showed previews of the intro to King’s Quest IV at a convention, King Graham’s heart attack had some viewers in tears – whereas other series had less baggage. It’s notable that by this point Williams had begun a policy of splitting her attention between King’s Quest entries and more experimental efforts, an approach she’d keep up for much of the rest of her tenure in Sierra. 1987 saw her producing an adventure game for younger children, Mixed-Up Mother Goose, and in the future she’d work on efforts like the Agatha Christie-esque Laura Bow mysteries and horror-oriented efforts like Phantasmagoria and Shivers – these final efforts arguably being a return to her horror roots as expressed in the original Mystery House. Perhaps these diversions were necessary for her to undertake experiments with themes and storytelling approaches which wouldn’t be suitable for the King’s Quest – whimsical at its best, arbitrary at its worst.

Nor would Williams be the only writer to experiment in diversifying the style of Sierra’s adventures. In my next article in this series, I’ll tackle Sierra’s significant adventure game output of 1989 – taking in five games, each in a distinct and different genre, each by a different core writer.