1989 saw the fifth anniversary of King’s Quest, and with the old AGI game engine well and truly retired and the shiny new SCI engine firing on all cylinders, Sierra were not resting on their laurels. As well as pushing the technical boundaries of graphical point and click adventures, they had also developed the medium to a point where they could reasonably be said to be pushing at their creative boundaries too, and 1989 would prove to be a fantastic year on that front, with five games which each in their own way developed the genre in a different direction and based in a different genre.
Two of these would be sequels to big-name Sierra series, two would initiate series of their own – one much-beloved, one more remembered as a bold experiment that laid the groundwork for better things – and one of them was absolutely terrible. Which is the stinker? Let’s find out?
Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon
At the end of 1987’s Space Quest II, Roger Wilco was left marooned in deep space in an escape pod, resorting to using its hibernation chamber to survive. Space Quest III commences with him waking up to discover that his escape pod has been taken onboard a spacefaring salvage vessel – a robot-maintained, automated trash-collecting ship which unfortunately isn’t configured to be very helpful (or safe) when it comes to unwanted human passengers. After finding and repairing a discarded ship – the Aluminum Mallard – Wilco makes his escape and, after shaking off an unwelcome android out to terminate him for his past errors, stops in to the Monolith Burger space station for a bite to eat.
Fiddling with the Astro Chicken arcade game, Roger discovers a coded message from none other than the Two Guys From Andromeda themselves, who are being held captive on the myserious moon Pestulon and forced to crank out games. (In fact their captores are ScumSoft, which whilst it could have been intended as a slam on LucasArts – whose in-house graphic adventure engine relied on the Scumm system – in context seems more like a spoof of Microsoft and other large, high-pressure work environments.) Can Roger save the galaxy’s favourite adventure game designers from the dull fate ScumSoft have in store for them?
Though perhaps a little more reliant on in-jokes than it needed to be, Space Quest 3 represents a high water mark of the series. In general, Murphy and Crowe tighten up both the puzzle design and the writing considerably from previous episodes, as well as opening out the world a little. Once you escape the trash barge, you get to a more free-roaming section of the game where you can explore various planets, although there’s a sufficiently linear sequence of events that needs to happen which means that this feint at non-linearity is effectively an illusion. In addition, the plot ends up a little directionless after you escape the barge, relying on you realising that you need to get a high score in Astro Chicken to yield the codes message from the Two Guys which tells you want to do next.
Still, Astro Chicken is somewhat less frustrating than the arcade sequence in the first game – there’s a knack to consistently winning at it which you can learn with a little experimentation, and turning the game speed down makes it near-trivial – and by and large the game succeeds at providing that delicious Space Quest comedy whilst also having puzzle design which by and large makes logical sense.
This is also the game where Murphy and Crow master the art of the death screen. Dying in an adventure game can be frustrating, especially when the game makes fun of you for it. With the new SCI system, death scenes were accompanied by a bespoke bit of text for each death and an appropriate illustration. Some Sierra designers had a bad habit of using the text to rather aggressively and rudely mock the player. (This is something which LucasArts took shots at – without naming Sierra directly – when outlining their philosophy of adventure game design in game manuals.)
Murphy and Crowe are not innocent of that, but with Space Quest 3 they do seem to have realised the utility of such screens in both making the deaths more entertaining (getting Roger killed in Space Quest is practically part of the fun, what with the various slapstick ways it can happen) and in terms of helping players avoid the death in future by making sure to specify exactly why the death happened. At its best, this approach nudges you into thinking how you could potentially avoid the outcome in question, helping you to arrive at the solution.
Overall, Space Quest 3 may well be the best entry in the first trilogy of Space Quest adventures, with Murphy and Crowe making excellent use of the new SCI technology straight out of the gate.
The Colonel’s Bequest
Conceived by Roberta Williams herself, who wanted to experiment with creating a game that puts much more emphasis on story and less on puzzles, The Colonel’s Bequest (note the cheeky inclusion of “Quest” in the title!) is the first of the Laura Bow series, set in the 1920s. Laura Bow is a wannabe journalist who, at the time of the game, is a student at Tulane University in New Orleans. (If you visit Tulane in the first Gabriel Knight game, there’s a fun Easter Egg where you can spot a notice about a now-elderly Laura giving a lecture on investigative journalism techniques.)
Term is wrapping up and Laura’s friend Lillian has been invited, along with much of her extended family, to visit her uncle Colonel Henry Dijon (Dijon, of course, being a type of mustard) at his home – that home being Misty Acres. Formerly a sugar plantation in the antebellum period, Misty Acres has fallen far since then; only the house itself, the grounds and outbuildings immediately around it, and a small plot of farmland remains, as the Louisiana swamps reclaim the ground bit by bit. Lillian knows that Laura has a fondness for mysterious and spooky places, and Misty Acres fits the bill perfectly.
Over dinner, Colonel Dijon announces to his assembled guests that he has come to a decision: when he dies, his estate will be divided equally among all those guests present who survive him (aside from Laura, of course, who the Colonel’s never met before and who isn’t a close friend or family member of his). Having instantaneously given almost everyone present a strong motive to kill their fellow guests (because the more of them who snuff it before the Colonel does, the more money whoever survives will get), the Colonel wraps up dinner and the party disperses for the evening.
Laura, however, is too curious to go to bed – she fancies having a bit of a look around. As she does so, she ends up stumbling across the bodies of murdered guests – but whenever she goes to get help, the corpses end up disappearing. As the cast is whittled down one by one and a shadowy figure is seen prowling the grounds, can Laura figure out the intertwined relationships between the various characters, suss out who’s a killer and who’s innocent, survive the night and bring the guilty to justice?
The Colonel’s Bequest is a conscious attempt to produce an adventure game that focuses more on story than it does on puzzles. When it comes to minimising puzzles, it succeeds; the only really significant puzzles in the game relate to a side plot that’s entirely unnecessary to the resolution of the main story, and it’s entirely possible to complete the game without solving anything whatsoever. Whether the game succeeds on the story front is a more complex question.
The game is ostensibly a detective story, and so a great emphasis is placed on gathering information and clues. The tale unfolds over the course of a single night, with the clock advancing by a quarter of an hour in response to various triggers, and as time goes by characters will stroll around doing stuff and having conversations. Whilst this gives a real sense that this is a living place where stuff is always happening, it also means you can potentially miss a lot of important information if you don’t overhear the right conversations. (On the plus side, the advancement of time offers a useful cue to save the game; if you make a point of saving whenever time progresses, you’ll be able to swiftly jump back to any particular major decision point reasonably easily.)
The downside of this system is that, in keeping with the whole Agatha Christie-ness of proceedings, the number of NPCs diminishes as time goes by – which means that if you’ve grown tired of the game and just want to push through and get things done you can have a frustrating time wandering around until you finally trigger time advancing (since a lot of the triggers of time advancing are connected to NPC action, so the less NPCs there are performing actions, the less triggers there are). In addition, the principle that the NPCs are actively walking around to a schedule is inconsistently applied. There’ll be points where you see the killer’s silhouette walking past a window in a matter which you’d think would allow you to quickly catch up with them, or at least seek clues as to their passing, but these are merely here for effect.
Another structural issue with the game is the perils of the manor house. Although there aren’t any full on narrow pathway puzzles of the sort that were the bread and butter of the AGI era, there’s still some ways in which Laura can get herself killed, presumably to avoid the player feeling that the game is too safe and inert. The problem is that these include traps which remain active all games – like bannisters which, if you stand too close to them, you clumsily fall through, and a chandelier which falls on you if you walk directly underneath it. There is no way to make these safe – you have to watch out for them all game, and it gets tedious doing so.
Perhaps the most significant structural problem with the game, however, is that you don’t really do anything with the information you collect, with the result that you can gather an awful lot of it but, potentially, still not understand anything. In a departure from previous Sierra games, you do not have a running score displayed during the game; instead, after you reach one of the two endings, you get the opportunity to review Laura’s notes. This will indicate where you have missed things (and a score indication is also provided at that point), which may help you to figure out other things you could be looking at on your next playthrough.
The downside of all this is that it gives you credit for finding the clues, but doesn’t require you to actually do anything with them. Even by the standards of detectives, who by and large tend to be rather reactive sorts, Laura Bow is astonishingly passive; her only activities prior to the ending of the game which don’t involve wandering around observing stuff are related to the treasure hunt side quest. Without performing any assessment of whether you’ve actually understood the implications of what you’ve seen, the game isn’t really offering a detective experience, because detectives don’t just gather clues – they also interpret them and come up with plans of action based on them. The only significant choice you get to make with the main plot is, frankly, so arbitrary that you could make it based off a coin toss.
Although an impressive technical accomplishment in terms of the activities of NPCs, the passage of time, and most particularly the visual and sonic evocation of the mansion and the plantation grounds themselves, which really evoke the air of gradual decay nicely, the actual writing feels like a major weakness of the game. The identity of the (main) killer is basically an arbitrary last-minute ass-pull, relying heavily on tired-out tropes about mental illness, and the game is a little too obvious about its strategy of spreading the motives for murder around thick for the sake of keeping you guessing until the end. Most of the characters are extremely shallow stereotypes; for crying out loud, there’s a butler called Jeeves and a sexy French maid called Fifi (used as an opportunity by Sierra to throw in some sleazy titillating scenes more tonally appropriate to a Leisure Suit Larry game).
And then there’s Celie. Celie is the daughter of slaves who worked on the plantation back in the day, and appears to be of an age where she might actually have been one of those slaves. In the canon ending she ends up the Colonel’s sole heir – the events of the game having churned through the rest – which is arguably a form of restorative justice. The problem is that she’s such a crudely-drawn racial stereotype – one which seems to be drawn from patronising paternalism rather than active malice, but a stereotype nonetheless – that any goodwill arising from the limited extent to which Sierra gets it right ends up wiped out by the extent to which they get it very, very wrong. (She supposedly practices voodoo! This has literally nothing to do with anything in the game, but we apparently had to be told it anyway.) I was worried that it’d turn out that the Colonel was a slave owner himself, but no; he was too young to have been a Civil War participant and his own military career was focused around the Spanish-American War.
Actually, the characterisation is a perfect example of how the game makes a technically impressive framework but then fails to populate it with sufficiently deep content to make anything of it. You can talk extensively to the various NPCs in the game about a wide range of subjects – in fact, you can TELL them about stuff, SHOW them items, and ASK about subjects (and if you TELL or ASK about two individuals, you’ll converse about the relationship between them). Unfortunately, the NPCs almost never have anything interesting to say, so all the effort undertaken to provide this framework is wasted!
I’d put The Colonel’s Bequest in the same category as the first King’s Quest: it’s a game which arguably needed to be made to lay the groundwork for later triumphs, but which, now that we have the later games, isn’t really worth revisiting in and of itself. In particular, the combination of sleuthing and atmospheric scares, with the passage of time being used as a subtle indication of how you’re progressing through the game, would be reflected in later games like the first Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria.
Quest For Glory I: So You Want To Be A Hero
Originally titled Hero’s Quest before trademark issues with the Heroquest board game prompted a rebrand, the Quest For Glory series was helmed by the Coles – Lori Ann Cole, who tended to focus on writing and game design, and her husband Corey Cole, who tended to focus on the programming side of things. The Coles were very keen tabletop RPG fans – he’d sold one of his homebrew modules to Judge’s Guild, back when they were producing third-party D&D materials, and the two of them had produced an RPG newsletter earlier in the 1980s.
Corey got his start at Sierra working on the Atari ST ports of their games, but it’s not hard to see why he and Lori would soon be given the chance to helm their own series. As we’ve seen from the Police Quest series, Ken Williams was very big on bringing in people who didn’t necessarily have a videogame design background to expand Sierra’s range. The Coles were conversant enough with programming technicalities through Corey’s programming work and game design principles through their tabletop RPG experience that they didn’t need to have their hands held to the same extent that Jim Walls did when making the Police Quest games. (Not Jim’s fault – as I mentioned in the previous articles, he had absolutely no prior experience and was solely brought on partly for his real-life knowledge, partly because promoting the games as his work was a good selling point.)
At the same time, coming from an RPG background meant that they’d picked up ideas from an entirely different game design tradition, and the idea of the series as pitched to Sierra by Lori played to that strength. The essential idea was to produce a hybrid game – blending the character customisation, improvement through experience, and combat of an RPG with the presentation and puzzles of a more typical Sierra adventure game. Playing up to Sierra’s love of doing ongoing series of games, it was proposed that the game would include an export system, so that if you successfully completed a game in the series you could export your character and use them (along with the skills, spells, attributes and treasures they’d obtained) in the next game.
So You Want To Be a Hero is the game tasked with pioneering this new approach. It casts you as the eponymous Hero (who you get to name), with a choice of character classes between fighter, wizard, and thief. (Annoyingly, there isn’t a choice of genders.) Having completed a correspondence course to become an adventurer, you set off on your first quest, and decide to visit the village of Spielburg, nestled in a lush mountain valley.
Spielburg is beset with problems, but they all have a common root – a curse laid on the area by the witch Baba Yaga. Thanks to this curse, the son and daughter of good Baron Stefan have been lost, monsters prowl the forest, and an army of brigands has made their base in the valley. Even Yorick, the Baron’s jester, has gone missing! With the head of the local adventurer’s guild now too old and sleepy to do much adventuring, it’s down to you to sort things out.
Blending game genres is a tricky business – some of them have axioms which end up tripping each other up – but this first Quest For Glory is an extremely successful merging of the two genres. One of the really nice things about it is that a lot of the puzzles in the game have alternate solutions – indeed, the format chosen forces this to be the case, because of course any particular problem needs to be solvable by a thief, or a wizard, or a fighter, unless it is a problem unique to that particular class. As such, many plot-critical parts of the game have solutions available through at least two routes – often the choice is between the traditional Sierra-style puzzle-solving route or the use of fighting, magic, or thief skills.
The RPG elements of the game are kept comparatively simple, so the game is nice and approachable even if you aren’t a hardcore RPG player – it’s very much a Sierra adventure with RPG elements as opposed to a CRPG with some adventure game influence. This is likely the Coles making a virtue out of necessity – after all, the SCI engine was designed to handle adventure games primarily, though it actually handles the RPG elements they include remarkably well by and large.
My major criticism on this front is the combat system, where it isn’t always very apparent what the difference between a successful or an unsuccessful dodge is, or whether your Dazzle spell – actually one of the best combat spells – has actually taken effect. It does not, to my eyes, look like this is down to an intrinsic limitation of the engine, so much as it’s just that the combat animations are a bit rudimentary and uninformative, and the explanation of how combat work isn’t clear. That said, perhaps some of my frustration came down to playing through as a wizard, where for much of the early game even goblins posed a significant problem for me in fights until my stats hit a point where I could dispatch them with confidence.
On the other hand, unlike a great many RPGs of the era the game does give you the option to simply escape from combat, and it usually works 100% of the time (I didn’t test it on every fight). Between this and the capacity to avoid fights a lot of the time, the shortcomings of the combat system aren’t too much of a drag on the rest of the game.
As far as the actual RPG system goes, it’s based on the Coles’ own homebrewed system but takes some influences from early editions of RuneQuest – as did most RPG system of this vintage with any taste. In particular, the division of attributes and skills is highly reminiscent of RuneQuest, as is the way skills increase with practice and use, and also in the way that if they choose characters can invest a bit of their starting skills into out-of-class abilities, so a fighter or thief could learn a bit of magic (for example). The game generally plays smoothest if you stay in your lane for the most part, but having the option is nice.
The better-skills-through-practice system means that you could come at the game in a boring way by grinding at particular bits of it ad nauseum, but by and large it’s more enjoyable to go around and just tackle what is within your capabilities to tackle. There are enough different things going on in the valley that, in the early game at least, if you find yourself stuck on one task you can go away and try plugging away at a different strand. (If nothing else, the process of mapping the valley and figuring out where everything will likely entail a certain amount of work.)
Largely, the distinction between character types is most evident in the early game; all characters will face the challenge of rescuing the Baron’s lost kids and foiling Baba Yaga in the late game, but how they establish themselves will be quite different. The fighter will likely cultivate their fighting skills through sparring and training, as well as fighting monsters. (Most characters will likely do a reasonable share of monster-hunting, especially for the sake of getting some baseline combat competence to tackle the later games in the series, but the fighter will tend to do more and fight more fearsome enemies.) The thief will cultivate their skills by working their trade, tracking down the local thieves’ guild, getting a licence to practice, and plundering unwary townsfolk’s homes to obtain money to fund the rest of their quest. The wizard will doubtless focus on obtaining spells – in particular, spells you find here can be used in later episodes of the series, and that includes some spells that characters who begin in the later episodes won’t necessarily have available to them.
In terms of the adventure game aspects, there’s a few “how was I meant to guess that?” moments but by and large the Coles do a great job of avoiding the bad habits of past Sierra games. For instance, they understand Sierra’s games well enough to make good use of the medium – for instance, most of the death messages which arise from scripted events (as opposed to fights) are quite good at explaining why you died and hinting and what you might need to do to avoid this, and while there is a mini-game here, only one class will encounter it (it’s a little wizard’s pastime that the wizard Hero gets to play at one point) and you do not need to do it to finish the game, and it’s not too frenetic and twitch-based at that. Mazes of narrow ledges that you must direct the character across with the keyboard controls are absent. The mere fact that many problems have alternate means of approach helps avoid a lot of the game design problems of Sierra adventures.
My main gripe with the game on a game design basis is the way the day-night cycle is handled. I don’t mind that it exists and for the most part it’s quite nice, but I do find it annoying that there’s no mechanic for allowing time to elapse when you want to do so. For instance, you might discover that two bandits are meeting at a secret rendezvous at midday – but you can’t just go there and type “wait until midday”, you have to dick around while the time passes until they show up. (Walking between the relevant screen and a neighbouring screen over and over again will do it, but it’s annoying that you have to resort to this – especially, as can happen, in situations where you cannot afford to miss the correct time.)
So much for game design – what of the content, the worldbuilding and world design? Well, here’s an area where Quest For Glory truly passes with flying colours. Lori clearly has a tabletop RPG fanatic’s knack for worldbuilding, but – at least for this introduction – manages to avoid the tendency to make the lore too thick and stodgy. The town of Spielburg feels a little sparse, though that’s largely because there’s a number of buildings there which never had anything implemented for them, but were intended to – Lori’s original design having to be trimmed back to the essentials due to the constraints of the era. The parts which are implemented, however, manage to feel rich and characterful; it’s really nice to begin the adventure by walking into this down that’s full of distinctive charm.
The game takes the opportunity to introduce us to a few recurring NPCs, such as Erasmus, a grumpy wizard who becomes a useful source of information over the series, and his familiar – the adorable rat Fenrus. (Erasmus and Fenrus are favourites of the Coles, having originated as characters in a comic strip they did for their RPG fanzine.) We also get some insight into features of the world, such as the way humans and some nonhumans live together peacefully. Spielburg is home to a centaur family, for instance, and the couple who run the inn in Spielburg are a pair of “Katta” – super adorably-drawn cat people, whose association with the Arabian Nights-influenced setting of the second game in the series was surely an influence on the design of the khajit in the Elder Scrolls series.
One nice bit of worldbuilding here is the figure of Erana – a now-deceased sorceress who is still well-remembered in the region thanks to both the magical grove that bears her name and the peacekeeping spell she cast on the town; as the series progresses, you come across more instances of Erana having travelled in the same locales you have and having left the world behind a better place than she found it, so through this small, simple addition to the setting, a bunch of important things are accomplished:
- The setting is invested with a sense of history – important things were accomplished by people in the past.
- The setting is invested with an enduring sense of place – someone has travelled the way you have gone before, the world didn’t just spring into existence to provide a backdrop for your personal journey.
- The player is provided with an interesting example of a hero of the past, and implicitly invited to measure their own achievements against Erana’s and ponder whether you as much of a hero as she was.
- The player’s achievements are not overshadowed by Erana’s, because she’s dead and cannot act but the Hero can.
At the same time, Lori’s writing also displays a playful sense of humour, and more particularly a diverse sense of humour. Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, aside from gruesomely advocating pedophilia, is so focused on puns that it very quickly becomes tiresome. In a more Sierra-based context, a lot of the jokes in Sierra’s games are in-jokes about other Sierra games, to the point where it can start to feel redundant. Here we have some puns and references, and some in-jokes, but also a range of other jokes as well, and the puns and references relate to an impressively broad cross-section of fan culture.
Moreover, the humour is well-judged. The world depicted in Quest For Glory can be enjoyably grim, but also have funny elements, but the funny parts don’t undermine the dark parts. Baba Yaga is perhaps the best example of this, with her poetic spells and her pet bat and spider sniggering away as she talks to you.
Taken as a package, So You Want To Be a Hero is an excellent implementation of the hybrid adventure-RPG concept, lays important groundwork for the rest of the series, and is a great game in its own right – easily one of my favourite Sierra games of the 1980s, and perhaps my actual favourite one.
After playing Cold War espionage for laughs in the second Leisure Suit Larry game, Sierra offered a more serious take on the subject. Casting you as Commander John Westland, the rather Shatner-looking guy on the box art and a covert ops specialist with the US Navy, the game opens as Westland enjoys a vacation in Tahiti. However, a Soviet-backed Islamist terrorist faction in Tunisia has abducted the US’s ambassador to “the Middle East” (the whole Middle East, apparently), and tensions between the superpowers are rising.
Westland is ordered back to the Pentagon, where he is tasked with participating in Operation ICEMAN. The plan is to get Westland to the vicinity of the terrorist compound via submarine, allowing Westland to attempt a landing via SCUBA, make contact with the CIA agent in the location (a woman who will be “disguised as a Muslim”, as the briefing officer puts it), and mount a daring rescue of the ambassador.
The above makes the game sound more interesting than it is. As it turns out, you will spend by far the majority of the game on the submarine voyage – and of the remainder of the game, a surprising portion is spent swanning about on the beach on Tahiti aimlessly until you get the order to come back to Washington. And it’s not taken up with exciting underwater action like Prisoner of Ice so much as it’s occupied with very finicky gameplay based on steering the submarine, decoding messages, and… er… doing mundane chores in the spare parts workshop. And playing a dice game with a sailor.
To understand why the game is like this, we need to look at its credited author and designer – Jim Walls. We’ve encountered Jim before – he’s the ex-cop with absolutely no game design or computer programming experience who got recruited by Ken Williams on the strength of his prior life experience as a police officer, so that he could make the Police Quest games. One may ask what business Walls had making Codename: ICEMAN, when on his previous two games he needed more experienced Sierra designers to hold his hand and turn his disorganised notes into an actual game.
Answer: he had absolutely no business whatsoever making this game.
Nonetheless, he got to make it, I guess because he was a friend of Ken’s and got given more slack than perhaps he should have. A “Bob Stewart” of the US Navy is credited with providing helpful advice. That’s the sort of consultancy role which, really, should have been Walls’ role on the Police Quest games – acting as a pool of information and suggestions about the subject at hand, but not given final responsibility for turning that information into an enjoyable gameplay experience.
Evidently, Jim decided to put a lot of energy into the submarine controls on the game, to the point where much of the game is spent playing a sort of submarine simulator. Now, that’s not a terrible idea – vehicle sim games exist and have their niche, Quest For Glory was allowed to do a hybrid game too, though I suspect there’s less audience overlap than there would be between adventure games and CRPGs.
In addition, the submarine simulator in this game is just kind of bad; I suspect if you compared it to sub simulators of a similar vintage, produced in engines built from the ground up to support the genre rather than hacked into a scripting engine which was really optimised to run adventure games, it’s pretty fucking terrible. People complain that it is too complex, but I suspect that actually, by the standards of sub sims, it’s actually too rudimentary – but its guiding principles are communicated so poorly, its control setup is so garishly absurd, the demands it makes of the player are so precise, and the sea battle system is so horribly arbitrary and difficult, that it has a superficial appearance of complexity. In short, the simulation isn’t complex so much as it’s inaccessible and badly communicated.
The submarine simulation bit was, in fact, bad enough that it made this game the first in this series where I didn’t even bother to finish it. I got to the first submarine part, had a hard time, looked up a walkthrough, saw just how long the submarine section took, and gave up. However, I think I experienced more than enough of the game to be able to criticise the rest based on Let’s Plays.
The thing is, the submarine simulation stuff isn’t all that’s wrong with the game. The actual adventure game part is quite poor too. The submarine section is easily the worst in this respect, but there are significant flaws in the Tahiti/Washington sections preceding it and the Tunisia section following it too.
All the sections are plagued by a simply sloppy implementation of the SCI system as it existed at the time. Some quality-of-life improvements which had successfully made their way into Quest For Glory and other recent games, and worked just fine in them, break here.
For instance, games in this era had started bringing in features like your character automatically opening unlocked doors to go through them when you had them walk up to them, rather than obliging you to type “open door”, but this is applied inconsistently here. Quest For Glory had some useful pathfinding stuff, where if you typed in a command the Hero would, sometimes, walk over automatically to the right part of the screen and carry the action out. There’s an attempt at this here, but unfortunately the pathfinding often leaves something to be desired; when I played there was a bit where John was stood directly in front of his closet in his hotel room, and I typed “open closet”, and then he walked in a weird little circle before returning to exactly where he started and opened the closet.
Similarly, most Sierra games of this vintage had a functionality where if you typed “look” by itself you got a description of the general area you were in, but by and large they seem to have entirely forgotten to do this for this game. In many locations it will just give you a description of some random object in the room, rather than the room description. I’m not an SCI programmer, but I am willing to bet that this sort of bug results either from the room description being mislabelled in the code or, more likely, simply being absent.
Where the game does bother to show you text, it isn’t very informative. The death screens largely seem to be afterthoughts rather than providing useful information, and there’s points where the game will outright just give you incorrect information. Perhaps the worst example turned up when I watched Level 0 NPCs’ Let’s Play of this game, when the game tells you that a certain briefcase is empty when in fact it isn’t, there’s an envelope in it you have to take (and which is even – badly – shown on the screen depicting the interior of the briefcase). Blatantly, they simply didn’t correctly implement different descriptions of the briefcase interior depending on whether you’ve taken the envelope from it or not. Given that Sierra were usually very good at catching that sort of thing, I strongly suspect that the game either didn’t have their usual playtesting process or was rushed through it in order to meet a shipping date.
Astonishingly, the Sierra text parser – by this point reasonably sophisticated – seems to actually have suffered a substantial setback in terms of the range of inputs it understands in this game, with the game often demanding that a particular turn of phrase be used in contexts where other Sierra games of this vintage (or, indeed, earlier vintages) would have accepted a range of alternatives. For instance, there’s a woman at the bar in Tahiti who asks you to buy her a drink and says she’s drinking Mai Tais, but you pretty much have to type in “buy girl drink” to do this – “order a mai tai” wouldn’t work, whereas I’d bet in even the earliest Leisure Suit Larry game it would have. Additionally, the game has a really bad habit of referring to stuff by alternate names (like the radio operator as “radio jockey”) which it then doesn’t understand when you try to use them themselves, which is particularly awkward in a game that’s so waist-deep in military jargon and slang as this one.
Part of the parser’s fussiness may arise from it being used as a form of copy protection. You can’t do CPR on the young volleyball player at the start of the game or board the submarine unless you type the exact phrasing from the manual into the parser – identical rephrasings won’t work. Indeed, a large amount of the information required to solve the game is in the manual.
In King’s Quest III this sort of thing was rather fun because the relevant bit of the manual was framed as a charming fairytale spellbook. More particularly, it was only used in one bit of the game – the bit where you are brewing spells – and then you’re done. It doesn’t happen repeatedly, over and over and over again, over the entire course of the game, because of course that’s totally redundant as copy protection – if someone’s gotten access to the manual, they can do the submarine entry bit just as easily as they can do the first aid.
Likewise, the first two Police Quest games do this a lot, but I was willing to be a bit lenient about it there because you at least had the interest factor of being guided through the life of a police officer by Walls, a subject he obviously knew extremely well. Here it’s simply tedious because it’s all second-hand information filtered through Walls – we aren’t getting a first-hand taster of what it’s like to do any of this, we’re just sitting through Jim geeking out over navy crap.
(Walls is clearly one of those people who get extremely giddy for military protocol and consider the act of formally saluting the flag as you board a submarine in your dainty little dress uniform as being a big fucking deal, rather than the vapid mucking-about in silly costumes it actually is. You don’t actually get a game over if you don’t salute the flag, but the step is listed in the boarding procedure and I bet that the lack of negative consequences for not doing so is an oversight rather than a deliberate design decision.)
Perhaps as a consequence of Jim being super interested in this stuff, his application of realism to the situation is, shall we say, rather selective. As others have noted, the submarine section is extensively padded out by sequences where you essentially have to do a crew member’s job for them. In a pure submarine simulation game, where you don’t necessarily have one single protagonist but get to take on different roles on the submarine as and when required, that’s more acceptable, but in a game where you identify with one single character that’s frankly a stretch.
Westland taking overall command of the submarine is just about acceptable because his cover is as the Executive Officer and the Captain got ill; Westland wasting time doing the job of perfectly capable, trained crew is a bit more of a stretch. It’s bizarre how many of the guys on this submarine just plain don’t bother doing their jobs. As I understand it, in real life this results in you being court-martialled and/or disappeared from the records, your relatives told you are dead, whilst your organs are harvested for transplant into powerful government officials to sustain their evil life.
There’s an even more ludicrous bit surrounding the dice game you get into with one of the crew, in order to acquire both a glass bottle and an electronic device which allows you to avoid a really annoying maze at one point later in the game. You don’t need to engage with the dice game to finish the game, but it’s highly advisable to do so – but annoyingly, if you save too often during it the game detects this and stops you, which is frankly irritating. If someone wants to beat your game badly enough to savescum like that, maybe let them win the game? The thing is that you considerably outrank this old fart considerably, so why can’t you just order him to hand over the bottle?
(As far as minigames during the course of the adventure game portion of ICEMAN go, there’s also a driving sequence towards the end which seems, based on Let’s Play videos of it, to be absolutely ridiculous, though at least you get an option to hit a button and skip that.)
Of course, when other people try to do their jobs, they fuck up and you have to check their work anyway. You can’t trust that anyone is keeping the equipment on the submarine in good nick – you have to check it and if it’s wrong, it’s not on them to fix it, it’s on you. There’s a bit in the Pentagon where one of the guards forgets to give you your ID card back, and if you forget to demand it back you’ve got the game into an unwinnable state. But you don’t find that out for some hours. And if you demand your ID back, you need to check it to make sure he gave you the right card back. (Surely, at this point, he needs to be arrested and interrogated, because at that point you’re going beyond simple incompetence into full-blown sabotage? I mean, we’re under a Republican administration in this era, isn’t standard operating procedure for this sort of mistake to have the person at fault exsanguinated to provide fresh, delicious blood for Dick Cheney to drink?)
Then again, maybe other people would do better at their job if you shared information with them properly. For instance, in the Tahiti section you end up banging Stacy, a woman who turns out to be your CIA contact in Tunisia. (How she is able to establish a cover identity in Tunisia in that a matter of mere days, we are not told.) If you are particularly rigorous, you can also find one of her earrings, which includes microfilm which, when looked at in a microfilm viewer on the submarine, gives you the offset needed to decrypt code transmissions from the CIA giving you crucial information at some points on the game.
Now, this should be obvious to Westland when an enormous picture of Stacy gets shown during his briefing from the CIA. Shouldn’t he say to the CIA briefing officer “Hey, I met that agent, they dropped an earring with this microfilm in it, here it is”? And for that matter, why wouldn’t the CIA briefing officer give you the information to decode the CIA transmissions during your briefing, rather than relying on you running into Stacy and obtaining the earring? (I assume the encounter in Tahiti was engineered by the CIA because the idea of it being a coincidence is just way too implausible.)
Yes, this is nitpicking, but this is precisely the sort of nitpicking which is invited when the game itself is so very, very nitpicky at times. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to Walls’ application of realism here – he always goes full-blown realistic fuck-this-up-and-die when it is inconvenient for the player, but never, ever allows that realism to make things more convenient for you. This absolutely goes into overdrive in the submarine section. Is there some aspect of your job which is boring, frustrating, or fiddly? You have to do it. Is there some aspect of someone else’s job which is boring, frustrating, or fiddly? Chances are you will have to do it too!
There’s other problems with the writing too. The Tahiti section offers you absolutely no direction whatsoever in terms of what you are supposed to be doing. Jim Walls also has a really weird sense of causality, although admittedly this is something he shares with most of Sierra. For some reason, and despite the fact that Westland in real life would almost certainly get away with it, you get a game over if you walk away from a particular screen rather than rescuing a volleyball player who’s drowning in the ocean. (Walls seems keen on giving out game overs not just for situations which objectively bring Westland’s mission to an end, but also for actions he morally disapproves of.)
The downfall of Codename: ICEMAN isn’t just that it’s an adventure game blended with a submarine sim: it’s a bad adventure fused at the hip with a bad sim. Anyone who wanted a submarine simulation had superior options to look to. Those who wanted an adventure game found that the adventure game sections were badly implemented, especially compared to Sierra’s other games of the era. In Quest For Glory, where the elements of different game genres supported and elevated each other in such a way which yielded an adventure-RPG blend which allowed adventure game fans to enjoy gentle RPG mechanics in an easy, accessible format and allowed CRPG fans to savour an adventure game with a more RPG-like diversity of solutions to challenges. Here, the different genres just trip each other up.
The market punished Sierra for having the temerity to torment innocent players with this abomination. Codename: ICEMAN sold appallingly badly, with the result that its planned sequel, Codename: PHOENIX, was cancelled.
It’s worth stressing how much of an achievement in total failure this is. As has become very apparent over the course of this series, Sierra loved sequels, and – at least as far as their 1980s graphical adventures went – it was astonishingly rare for a game not to get some form of sequel or remake. The Black Cauldron (not covered in this series because it’s not available on GOG and I’d prefer to review it after finally reading the dang books) didn’t, but I suspect that is because it was the product of a Disney licence which expired. Gold Rush didn’t, at least under Sierra, but it at least had enough love to inspire a much more recent remake. (I’ve skipped that one because it is also not available on GOG, and because it’s not actually got that great of a reputation.) In addition, so far as I can tell neither of those two games were intended to be the start of a series.
Then there’s ICEMAN – a game that, despite having been intended from the start to be the start of a brand new military espionage-themed series, sold so poorly that Sierra made the decision to cancel its sequel during a time when they basically didn’t cancel the sequels to their adventure games, and a game so unloved by fan and critic alike that nobody’s even considered a remake. As I hope I’ve established above, this poor reception is entirely justified. The great mystery of ICEMAN is not why it didn’t sell – it’s why it was put up for sale in the state it is in in the first place.
Leisure Suit Larry III: Passionate Patti In Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals
After customers complained that the second game in the series had toned down the “sex” part of the “sex comedy” formula, Al Lowe decided to get back to basics, at least for the first half of this game. Once again, Larry’s happy ending from the previous game is arbitrarily undone; we left him having saved Nontoonyt Island from the clutches of supervillain Dr. Nonookie, marrying local girl Kalalau, and begin with Kalalau divorcing him so she can take up with her new partner (a “lesbian ex-cannibal amazon” with a rewarding career in casino slot machine repair, apparently).
In the intervening time between the two games, Kalalau’s people (in keeping with the joke in the last game where they’re basically middle-class white Americans enjoying an “exotic” island fantasy life rather than actual Pacific Islanders) have formed a corporation to exploit their homeland to the hilt, turning it into a soulless holiday resort. Larry had been given a marketing job, but now he’s no longer married to the tribal chief’s daughter, he’s cut loose.
In a weirdly admirable moment, far from allowing himself to get depressed or angry about all this, Larry assesses his situation objectively: he is newly single on a luxury holiday island, where a substantial proportion of the visitors and inhabitants are attractive women interested in casual sex. Swapping his Hawaiian shirt for his characteristic leisure suit, Larry decides to get back into his old hedonistic ways and enjoy as many sexual encounters as he has the opportunity to.
The first part of this game bears a strong resemblance to the action of the first game, then – Larry wanders around, encountering various women and attempting to convince them to sleep with him, and often they turn out to be surprisingly willing to do exactly that provided you do a little favour for them here and there.
There’s a risk in this sort of gameplay of depicting women as machines where you put kindness tokens in and sex comes out, but on the other hand there’s at least one sexual encounter which doesn’t work on that basis at all. (Larry happens to inadvertently pander to his lawyer’s fetish, and she aggressively jumps his bones.) In addition, the game takes a somewhat less sordid, seedy tone than the original game did with its treatment of this subject matter. The original Land of the Lounge Lizards had a slightly shaming tone to affairs – shaming Larry for being such a loser with unwarranted self-confidence, and at points it risks shaming women for being sexually active. Here the game still acknowledges that Larry is basically a shallow horndog, as are many of the women he encounters, but it doesn’t seem to feel that there’s anything wrong with that – people at this sort of holiday resort tend to be after casual sex, and as long as the participants are all adults and everyone’s consenting (and everyone unambiguously is here) there’s nothing wrong with that.
The game takes something of a turn halfway through, when Larry finally has sex with Passionate Patti (introduced in the previous game under the name of Polyester Patti before Lowe thought better of that nickname). As it turns out, when you’re a basically kind of shallow person like Larry, your ideal match is someone similarly uncomplicated. Patti doesn’t sleep with Larry until he’s become hyper-buff, for instance, and then decides he’s the love of her life because his sexual technique is actually pretty good.
(Lowe avoids the usual “dorky dude is an unsatisfying sex partner” joke here – it turns out you don’t get around as much as Larry has over the course of this series without learning a thing or two. The failure of Larry’s previous sexual encounters during this game is nothing to do with poor technique on his part and everything to do with the action being interrupted by some sort of hilarious accident each time.)
The upshot of this is that as Patti is drifting off to sleep, she remembers that she needs to call her current boyfriend to break it off with him, now that she’s realised that she doesn’t want to be with anyone other than Larry. She mumbles the boyfriend’s name – “Arnold” – as she dozes off, and Larry gets the wrong end of the stick and assumes she was thinking about someone else throughout their entire encounter. (Reminder: Larry has become unusually muscly prior to this.) Larry’s masculinity turns out to be as fragile as anyone’s, but rather than lose his temper he decides to just sadly slip away and become a hermit in the island’s bamboo forest.
This is the spur for the game’s much-advertised feature of switching focus character from Larry to Patti (the title bar at the top of the screen even reads “Passionate Patti” instead of “Leisure Suit Larry”), as you go through a more traditional adventure game scenario to try and find him. (This includes a somewhat overlong and annoying maze section.)
On the one hand, it’s in some respects pleasing that Patti can behave in a decidedly Larry-esque fashion in this segment – you can go to the “Chip ‘n’ Dale’s” male stripper revue and hit on Dale, for instance – because goodness knows too much comedy even today relies on a tied dichotomy of men being the horned-up pursuers of sex and women being the passive dispensers of sex, rather than people who seek out titillation in their own right.
On the other hand, there are some differences in how the game depicts Patti as a player character rather than Larry which are more problematic. For one thing, her sprite is designed in a way more titillating way than Larry’s is, even after he gets buff from exercise in the gym. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s not enormously titillating – as far as pixellated lewdness goes there’s less in this game than even in the supposedly toned-down second game – but some thought was given to how her boobs jiggle when she walks.)
For another, a lot of the jokes in the narration during her section involve lewd comments about her past sexual exploits, but Larry doesn’t get that treatment. Similarly, there’s thought given to implementing her underwear as inventory items and puzzle solutions, which seems intended to be generally titillating, and is a notable difference because you’d have thought that over the course of two and a half games there’s been ample opportunity to turn Larry’s pants into the focus of a puzzle, or a joke, or a joke-puzzle, but it never happens.
Still, by the standards of a 1980s sex comedy, the game has aged surprisingly better than, say, Porky’s or Revenge of the Nerds or even Land of the Lounge Lizards. It is not absent of potentially offensive jokes, but on the other hand Lowe also seems to be tiring somewhat of the whole “tee hee so transgressive” things because he seems to derive a certain enjoyment from making the player think they’re about to see more than they actually do – if you play this game to get your rocks off the joke is undoubtedly on you.
I was a little concerned when at the beginning the disclaimer includes a mention of “ethnic humor”, but this is actually the setup for one of the better jokes: one of the seedy nightlife spots Larry can visits is a shitty comedy club, complete with shitty stand-up comedian, and he starts his act by asking the audience to name their three favourite ethnic groups so he can tell jokes about them; the game then invites you to name three ethnicities, and then deploys your input in the stand-up’s jokes madlibs-style.
Not only does the game offer you the chance to subvert the joke by putting something daft in the boxes, but it’s also a sly deconstruction of Borscht belt-style racist jokes where the comedy is so shallow and the jokes so stale that they aren’t recognisably connected to any specific racial stereotype at all and you can just substitute in one ethnicity name for another and the jokes would be just as intelligible. This is surprisingly clever, which I guess is the secret of Al Lowe’s success – applying a more sly and thoughtful approach to absurd material than you’d necessarily expect.
By and large, the gameplay here is pretty good, with some quirks. There’s an arcade section when you’re playing as Patti, but Lowe adopts the one good idea from Codename: ICEMAN and allows you to hit F8 to skip the sequence. (Would that you could skip more of Codename: ICEMAN than just the driving minigame that way!) You won’t get a perfect score as a result, but you’ll at least avoid the arcade sequence, which by this point had become the subject of sufficient complaints that I think Sierra started bringing in a policy where they needed to be skippable (or at least have their difficulty adjusted) from this point forwards.
Another awkward bit of the game is the exercise sequence, where you have to make Larry buff by performing a few reps on a range of different exercise machines. So far, so good, except the controls on it are, at best, poorly explained, and it was a bit of a muddle to play through.
It’s also worth warning people here that the exact number of reps you need to do on the machines depends on the CPU speed of your computer – which is a potential pitfall if you’re trying to play the game on a modern machine, since it will require you to do an absolutely absurd number of reps as a result of computer CPU speeds being astronomically faster these days than even the best 1989 had to offer.
My last reservation about the game has to do with the ending, which involves a certain amount of breaking of the fourth wall and visits to the Sierra offices. There’s no getting around the fact that this is the exact same joke that the Two Guys From Andromeda used to finish off Space Quest III, and while Lowe’s delivery here is a bit more amusing – I particularly like the bit where you run into Roberta Williams directing the infamous King’s Quest IV “whale tongue” puzzle – it still feels like he’s well and truly out of ideas. (That said, this part became inadvertently prophetic – whilst the idea of game development being just like movie production was clearly absurd in 1989, a few years later Roberta would be pushing the boundaries of FMV games in the form of Phantasmagoria.)
As we’ll see when we come back to Larry, Lowe ended up having to take drastic action to carry the story forwards from what seems to be a pretty definitive close here.
Leisure Suit Larry vs. Leather Jacket Indy
By the close of the 1980s Sierra had well and truly established themselves at the peak of the graphical adventure genre. Their combination of point-and-click and parser input was beginning to feel a bit clunky, and several games out there had pioneered alternatives by this point – LucasArts had produced several such games, French developers Delphine were just coming onto the market using their own point-and-click system, for instance – but it wasn’t so behind the curve as to seem absurd that they hadn’t updated yet.
Moreover, as we see above, the games Sierra produced during this timespan – many of which, amazingly, had personnel shared between their various teams – provided a more diverse portfolio of adventures than anyone else was providing, and had made Sierra the biggest publisher of point-and-click adventures in terms of volume. By this point, they were also publishing adventures by other development studios, like the Manhunter games (which I haven’t covered here because I want to focus on game series that originated as Sierra creations), allowing Sierra to further cement their reputation as the go-to place for adventure games and allowing the developers in question to get their games in front of a ready-made audience hungry for Sierra-style adventure.
However, LucasArts (at this point still known as Lucasfilm Games – they’d rename themselves in the following year) were slowly but surely building up both expertise and a reputation. Maniac Mansion and Zak McCracken had been minor but not overwhelming successes – but they were successful enough that, when Lucasfilm decided to go on a multimedia blitz to produce tie-in material for their major movie release of 1989, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a graphic adventure adaptation of the movie was greenlit alongside the more expected action-based game.
The graphic adventure version of Last Crusade would be LucasArts’ biggest commercial success of the 1989s, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a good adventure game in its own right – particularly notable for offering multiple solutions to puzzles, with different ratings on the “Indy Quotient” scale based on whether you used wit and guile or brute force to get through adding replay value – and of course being tied to one of the most famous movie franchises of the era didn’t hurt at all.
For many this would be their first encounter with a LucasArts adventure game – and it whetted their appetite for more. (I don’t have sales data, but I would be unsurprised to learn that those dusty copies of Maniac Mansion or Zak McCracken started moving off the shelves a little faster in the wake of Last Crusade‘s success.) More importantly, these sorts of sales numbers put Last Crusade at the same sort of level of commercial success (and thus cultural visibility) as the major Sierra adventures from this year: we’re talking Space Quest or Leisure Suit Larry numbers, not Codename: ICEMAN.
As the 1990s dawned, then, LucasArts unexpectedly found themselves producing adventure games which seemed to match Sierra’s in terms of popularity and impact, even if they couldn’t match Sierra in terms of sheer volume. Come 1990, LucasArts would put out a little game called The Secret of Monkey Island, and whilst not everyone considers that the greatest point-and-click adventure of all time, I’d say there’s very few people who’d say it doesn’t deserve to be somewhere on the genre’s “best ever” list. Would Sierra produce anything of comparable quality? In the next article we’ll be finding out.