GOGathon: Sierra’s Muddled 1991

So far in our journey through the graphic adventure output of Sierra we’ve seen how the first King’s Quest trilogy bedded in the AGI engine before a range of new games explored a wider variety of genres and then the debut of the SCI engine brought about new technical improvements. Further experimentation followed, and 1990 saw the end of Sierra’s EGA graphics era and the dawn of the VGA era.

This included the unveiling of Sierra’s first fully point-and-click-based adventure game, King’s Quest V, which ditched the old text parser in favour of an icon-driven system. In 1991, four new games in very different genres would take this system out for a spin – but who would excel in this brand new world where the mouse ruled supreme, and who would reveal themselves to be stuck in the game design ethos of yesteryear? With LucasArts’ Secret of Monkey Island having released the previous year, this question is all the more important…

Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers

This picks up right where Space Quest III left off. Roger Wilco has saved the Two Guys From Andromeda and dropped them off safely at Sierra’s headquarters, and now he’s set a course back for his home planet of Xenon, which he hasn’t seen since the start of Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge. Stopping off at a bar for a drink, he immediately runs afoul of the Sequel Police – a time-travelling paramilitary force under the command of Vohaul himself, who still lives after a fashion.

When two fighters from a resistance movement who also have time travel capabilities intervene to help Wilco escape, he ends up having to face a crisis in no less than three different parts of his personal timeline – both the EGA throwback realm of Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter and the future excitement of Space Quest X: Latex Babes of Estros and Space Quest XII: Vohaul’s Revenge II.

Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, AKA the Two Guys From Andromeda, enter the SCI1 era here with not so much a bang as a confused “thump”, with a game which leans into their worst habits as game designers. Rather than having any sort of sensible difficulty curve, Space Quest IV drops you off in one of the most difficult areas of the game to deal with, a postapocalyptic version of Xenon that’s the setting for Space Quest XII, where stuff that can kill you is randomly wandering around.

In addition, whilst the previous Space Quest games made it nice and clear where the various exit zones from a screen were, Crowe and Murphy seem to have been so taken by the graphical possibilities of EGA that they went a bit hog-wild, with the unfortunate side effect that it’s not always apparent which part of the screen on the left-hand side of the main intersection (for example) you need to click on to go to the middle of the intersection.

This is a particular annoyance when a puzzle requires you to dash to the middle of the intersection to stow away on one of the Sequel Police’s patrol craft. When I encountered it I kept getting shot, because I kept trying to walk slightly too far towards the top or bottom of the screen and the game interpreted that as me trying to go to one of the other screens. I can well imagine frustrated gamers spending ages trying to get this part, not understanding what they were doing wrong and convinced (like I was) that there was some sort of actual puzzle or other adventure game-based gameplay feature needed to get past the cops.

Similarly, there’s another section late in the game where you have to evade the Sequel Police on a zero-G skating rink, and they just keep shooting you. The difference between what you need to do to keep moving and avoid being shot and what constitutes a fatal error is arbitrarily small there, to the point where it seems like survival is semi-random, and the exit from the rink area requires clicking on an annoyingly small part of the screen (clicking on an area next to it which looks like it should be part of the exit just got me killed).

Between this and the return of annoying arcade sequences, it really feels like Crowe and Murphy, on some level, just plain didn’t like the adventure game format, or at least didn’t like it any more, but were determined to crowbar in twitch-based gameplay which the interface couldn’t really cope with.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t puzzles here – there are, but a lot of them involve an annoying amount of backtracking to get things revolved. On the whole, the game actually feels remarkably short, especially when you view it as a story; I imagine a lot of playing time back in the day got eaten up by people beating their heads against more obtuse puzzles, or having to reload old saved games to acquire information they’d forgotten to jot down earlier, or whatever. I think there’s actually more puzzles described in the parody Space Quest IV Hint Book which you can acquire in the game than in the actual game irself.

On top of all this, the Two Guys’ sense of humour is just plain beginning to get old. Latex Babes of Estros is clearly meant to be a spoof of Infocom’s sci-fi sex comedy text adventure Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but it ends up so dependent on trite sexist jokes which amount to little more than “women, LOL” that it’s not so much a parody of sexist humour so much as it is an extended example of it. There’s also a bit where Roger has to dress up as a woman in order to use someone’s ATM card (since the photo on the card is of a woman with shoulder-length hair, not a dude with short hair), and the execution of it does not do the legwork necessary to not come across as horribly transphobic.

The best gag in the game is probably the way the title bar changes to indicate which time zone you are currently in, and the second best joke is some monochromatic bikers in the Space Quest I cantina bullying Roger for his la-de-da fancy-pants 256 colours and VGA resolution. Otherwise, the humour here consists of a lot of rather tired scraping of the bottom of the barrel, with the same old set of Sierra in-jokes which other Sierra games had thankfully been steering away from somewhat back in full force.

I suspect that the game is as fondly remembered as it is thanks largely to it being another technically impressive achievement on Sierra’s part. The graphics and animation are highly impressive for the era, and the voice acting in the 1992 CD-ROM version is a step above that for King’s Quest V because they actually hired proper voice actors.

Choosing Gary Owens as the narrator, in particular, was an inspired choice – known for his voice talents on Laugh-In and as the voice of Space Ghost (in the original Space Ghost cartoon, not Space Ghost Coast To Coast) or Ren and Stimpy‘s Powdered Toast Man, Owens had a real knack for delivering lines in the overly earnest tone of a 1950s radio announcer. This is just perfect for the campy space opera stylings of Space Quest. At the same time, the audio recording quality is subjected to sufficient compression that I found it annoying to listen to and, at points, couldn’t understand what was said, so early on I switched to the text-only presentation of the game (which, thankfully, was an option – an immediate improvement over the CD-ROM edition of King’s Quest V).

This would turn out to be the last Space Quest game that both Murphy and Crowe would work on together; Crowe would take the lead design role on Space Quest V, which was outsourced to Dynamix (who had a distribution deal with Sierra for some of their own adventure games like The Adventures of Willy Beamish), whilst Space Quest VI would be mostly designed by Josh Mandel with Scott Murphy supporting him as a “creative consultant” and then diving in to take a more hands-on role in finishing the game off when Mandel and Sierra parted ways.

In retrospect, it really feels like the Two Guys’ design approach was at its best during the EGA era of Sierra games, when the simpler graphics helped avoid clutter and confusion and tighter disk space meant that delivering the amount of story they managed to get across in a game was always impressive. Whilst the brief, rather simplistic stories of previous episodes in the series felt more acceptable in the EGA era, by the VGA period Sierra not only had the tools to tell more involved stories, they already had told more involved stories, so settling for something this short and shallow feels like a step backwards.

(Of course, Sierra-style puzzle design where you could get into an unwinnable state by failing to pick up an object or do something in an area you cannot backtrack to would tend to require games to be shorter – since if the game is short it’s less of a burden to load an older save, do the thing you missed out on, and then get back to the point where you’d progressed to previously. The issues with this older style of game design tend to feed back into each other in this fashion.)

Space Quest IV is doomed, in my eyes at least, by its use of excessive difficulty, random failure, annoying arcade sections and just plain arbitrary nastiness as a means of padding out the game, rather than producing more actual story and puzzles.

Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work

Wait, what’s going on? Wasn’t Leisure Suit Larry III the last time we checked in on Larry Laffer and Passionate Patti? What happened to Leisure Suit Larry 4?

Well, thereby hangs a tale. At the end of the previous game, Larry and Patti had escaped death at the hands of vicious cannibals by breaking the fourth wall, becoming sexy, sophisticated, wealthy software designers for Sierra. This was designed by Al Lowe as a “happily ever after” moment rounding out the original trilogy of games – which meant that when the time came to progress the plot and make a sequel, he was stumped. Lowe was also somewhat deflated after the initial idea for a Larry followup – an online multiplayer take on the game played over dial-up modem, no less! – turned out to be too ambitious to implement at the time, forcing that concept to be abandoned.

As Lowe tells it, after sarcastically telling a colleague he’d got past Leisure Suit Larry 4 and was already on Leisure Suit Larry 5, a lightbulb went on in his head: what if Leisure Suit Larry 4 were deliberately a missing piece in the series? Then he could just start Leisure Suit Larry 5 in media res with Larry and Patti both off doing their own thing, and he wouldn’t need to take up any time telling the story of how they ended up going their separate ways. The long-running series in-joke of Leisure Suit Larry 4: The Missing Floppies was born.

We pick up the story to discover Larry working for a sleazy Los Angeles entertainment company – a former porn production house shifting gear into more softcore stuff intended for cable TV. Larry’s suffering from a bit of amnesia, due to the disappearance of the Leisure Suit Larry 4 floppy disks; even when his memory of Patti comes back to him, he still has no recollection of what happened to end their career as high-flying game designers.

Larry’s role at the company isn’t exactly glamorous (he’s in charge of rewinding all the tapes), but PornProdCorp’s latest endeavour is his chance for a promotion. Larry’s boss Silas Scruemall wants a hot new talent to act as the hostess of America’s Sexiest Home Videos, and he’s decided that the final round of the audition will be the ultimate test: a secret camera situation to assess just how sexy these women are in private. To make it a true challenge, though, whoever’s doing this assessment can’t be particularly sexy themselves – in fact, they need to be the dorkiest, schlubbiest, most pathetic specimen that Scruemall can find in the PornProdCorp office. Larry fits the bill perfectly.

Meanwhile, Passionate Patti’s pianist career has hit some issues, but she’s found an exciting side job: she’s been recruited by the FBI to help them in an undercover investigation of organised crime’s involvement in the music business, poking around at recording studios and radio stations to see what incriminating evidence she’ll be able to find. Little do Patti and Larry realise that the same shadowy hand is behind both the corruption of the music business and PornProdCorp’s sleazy TV output…

Larry 5‘s most immediate and obvious improvement over past episodes in the series is the graphical presentation, which has a lively, cartoonish quality to it which is perfectly suited for the sense of humour Al Lowe deploys here, which combines the sort of cheesy sex comedy that the game franchise was a weird latter-day survival of with a picaresque, off-kilter look at American society under the first Bush administration.

The humour is at its best when it’s satirising the US government’s then-recent attempt to get all moralistic and censorious about popular media, as recent years had seen the furore surrounding the PMRC and other such tensions as various types of media tried to push back against the values of Republican America.

Julius Bigg’s sprawling organised crime conspiracy is so obviously absurd on the face of it – it revolves around using backmasked messages on albums to get kids addicted to porn – and Agent Desmond and the rest of the FBI are so absurdly oversincere in their belief that crude media is a threat to the American way of life that it’s hard not to read the game as mocking those who actually purported to believe in all that. There’s a subplot about CANE – Conservatives Against Nearly Everything – being bribed by the Mob to promote censorship laws which would make the Mafia’s businesses more profitable by shutting down their competitors.

In the end credits the narration (all in text – the Larry games didn’t merit the talkie treatment at this point in time) points out that basically nothing changes as a result of the action of this game – the backmasked message plan is dropped since you can’t really play a CD backwards as easily as you can vinyl, the legislation goes nowhere, and generally nothing you did really mattered aside from Larry and Patti catching up with each other.

Whilst most of the game is reasonably endearing, there’s some sour notes here and there. Both Larry and Patti’s plots include some horrible racist jokes; Larry’s comes with a side order of being insulting to immigrants, and Patti’s includes an honest-to-goodness blackface gag. There’s a gynecology sequence I suspect many players will want to skip. The tendency for Larry’s fantasies to revolve around Patti whilst Patti’s revolve around astonishingly wealthy billionaires feels kind of misogynistic. Larry gets to ogle some sexy women, but there isn’t quite an equivalent parade of beefcake for Patti to enjoy.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the game, since it is a major pillar of the plot as opposed to a passing joke, is the way Larry’s entire plot revolves around him secretly recording sexual encounters with people, which is a creepy and shitty thing to do. On the one hand, Larry’s exactly the sort of character you’d expect to do something like that, and it’s presented an idea cooked up by a sleazy Mafia-connected TV producer; on the other hand, the narration presents it as all a big laugh and fails to engage with how creepy it is.

That’s a shame, because some of the other humour in the game is pretty good. One of the ways people amused themselves in earlier Leisure Suit Larry games, when they were stuck on puzzles, was just typing in instructions for Larry to do various rude things to see what the response from the text parser would be. Realising that this fun would be gone, Lowe instead implements a “zipper” icon in the icon-based point-and click system, to be used when you want to try and have sex with something. (This followed up on a joke in Space Quest IV in addition to visually examining stuff you could also, with the appropriate icons, lick or taste it.) Neatly, both Larry and Patti can use this, so you can encourage them to go fuck any particular object or person in the game all day long (and usually get an amusing response from your attempts to do so).

On the social commentary side of things, the game has inadvertently become more relevant in recent years as the result of the election of Donald Trump. Larry has to go to Atlantic City to interview one of the hostess candidates, and the entire section is largely an extended riff on Trump’s gaudy, tasteless projects there.

One aspect of the game which proved divisive on its release is how easy it is. This easiness is the result of Al Lowe’s attempt to present the game as an “interactive cartoon”, as well as Lowe making an admirable attempt to rise to the challenge set by LucasArts in terms of presenting an adventure game where it is impossible to die or get the game into an unwinnable state. At it best, this means that puzzles have a range of alternate solutions available to them, and you can screw up all sorts of things and still get to the end of the game (at the cost of not getting a perfect score). There’s even a welcome element of non-linearity, with Larry and Patti being able to choose which of their destinations they go to next for most of the game.

At the same time, in some respects Lowe takes this too far. Whilst all of the puzzles have alternate solutions, none of them feel much like an accomplishment because they tend to be rather obvious. Because each of the little episodes in the non-linear section has to be largely self-contained (since they can’t rely on anything you did or acquired in episodes you might not have played yet), they’re all individually a little shallow.

Nonetheless, given that I criticised Space Quest IV so much for failing to evolve its design style, I think Al Lowe deserves a little kudos at least for trying something different. It’s also interesting that a section of the fanbase kicked back against the easier gameplay – Sierra fans liked that the games were difficult sometimes. The trick would seem to be to add in that difficulty whilst remaining fair and avoiding design habits which damage the story or otherwise aren’t fun. As it stands, Larry 5 combines cheesy, crude lowbrow comedy, a few smarter laughs, some content which has dated poorly, and some content which Lowe should have known better than to include even back in 1991, and produces from it a flawed but mostly fun diversion.

Police Quest III: The Kindred

Jesse Bains, the Death Angel, has breathed his last, and Sonny Bonds and his sweetheart Marie are happily married. Sonny’s hard work has paid off: he’s made Sergeant and spends much of his time behind a desk, supervising the work of the traffic patrol. At the end of a busy day at work, Bonds is shocked by the news that Marie has been brutally attacked in the darkened parking lot of the local shopping mall, where she works. (I mean she works in a retail job at the mall – she hasn’t gone back to sex work.)

Marie is alive, but is in critical condition in hospital. The chain of command decides, in defiance of all common sense, to assign the murder investigation to Bonds, transferring him to a detective’s role in the homicide division and giving him as a partner Pat Morales, a bad-tempered and rude subordinate of his from the traffic division. As they look into it, they realise that they are dealing with a dangerous cult, operating at the direction of Michael Bains, brother to Jesse and intent on revenge…

All of the Police Quest games are a bit awkward in their own way, and this one is no exception. As I’ve covered in discussing the previous two, Jim Walls had no game design background when he was hired by Sierra, and he needed more experienced hands to work alongside him to help him see the first two games past the finish line. That’s all well and good, considering that the whole point of hiring Jim – a retired highway patrol officer – was to draw on his experience and perspective.

However, Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel came out in 1987. You would think that being immersed in working at Sierra alongside the talented minds there would have caused Jim Walls to catch up a little. Perhaps it’s not enough time to be a full-blown professor of game design, but it’s surely enough time to get a handle on the process and reach the point where he’d be able to design one of these games without training wheels.

This isn’t how it turned out. It’s unclear what exactly prompted it, but Jim Walls left Sierra late in the production process of the game. A fresh-faced new recruit by the name of Jane Jensen, who’d also been working on the edutainment title EcoQuest, was brought in to punch up the writing and try and get the game into a finished state – a trial by fire which would help pave the way to her being given the chance to helm the Gabriel Knight series.

It is not possible to say for certain just how much Jensen contributed to the game’s overall design, though it’s possible to make guesses here and there. There’s a puzzle in here which involves plotting the murders on a city map and realising that there’s a pattern there which, if it isn’t a Jensen idea, surely helped inspire the celebrated Serpent Rouge puzzle which many regard as the best part of Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned – the “sacred” puzzle equivalent to the “damned” cat moustache puzzle, if you will.

More broadly, there’s a lot of points in the game where the writing suddenly becomes substantially better than the terse and rather flavourless material which Walls often defaults to, and I guess that’s the difference between lines which Jensen was able to do a revision pass on or composed herself out of whole cloth and those which she had to leave as they stood.

That said, I think it would be accurate to say that this is a Jane Jensen game with Jim Walls’ name on it; I really feel like had Jensen been given a blank slate to work with and a full development cycle, the end result would have been a very different game – and a much better one at that. As it stands, regardless of how much she did or did not write at which stage of the game, the consensus is that she was only an assistant on the project at most until Jim exited Sierra, at which point she was left with a partly-finished game to polish up and a deadline to meet.

I don’t hold it against her at all that the end result is a bit of a mess, not least because the most frustrating parts of the game reek of Jim Walls’ approach as seen in the previous two games. Walls’ insistence that repetitive bureaucracy counts as gameplay is alive and well here, and whereas Police Quest II had veered away from turning the entire game into an exercise in looking up what to do from the descriptions of police procedure in the manual, this game puts a big emphasis on it. There’s an extent to which this acts as crafty copy protection, but there’s a point where this is simply redundant.

Another Police Quest I staple that makes an unwelcome return is driving. In fact, even though it’s less easy to get yourself killed in a road accident in this game, it’s actually substantially more awkward to navigate and steer. I don’t know why they thought the driving system here was at all acceptable, but it’s just absolutely terrible.

Perhaps the most Jim Walls-y section of the game is the first in-game day, where you don’t do any cool Homicide detective stuff whatsoever but are just bodding about as a Sergeant managing the traffic division. There’s some bureaucracy relating to that, but the day takes a weird turn partway through where you end up having to go out and do generic traffic cop stuff like in the first game due to lack of personnel, so it doesn’t really feel like you’re all that in charge.

In particular, after dealing with one incident the game seems to expect you to then spend the rest of the shift patrolling the highway, but this makes no sense: you were only called out there to respond to a situation where one of your officers required your supervision for something, that’s resolved, why would you be spending your time patrolling when your role is more supervisory?

This is in the context of a setup which is, in general, really bad at prompting you as to what the game expects you to do next. All too often you’re nudged into this awkward guessing game where you have to just wander around until the game either relents and gives you a pointer or you accidentally end up where the game wanted you to go, rather than being able to work out where you’re meant to go next for yourself.

It is at least not as pedantic as the first game in the series, where even a minor failure to follow every particular of police procedure would lead to a game over; minor lapses still allow you to complete the game, just with a lower score. Still, for a game which prides itself on realism (it requires you to go visit a judge twice to do a raid on a suspect site, the first time to get a warrant and the second time to get a judicial order to get authorisation to raid it), the game’s lapses in realism can be really weird. When you arrive at a scene you get a little caption coming up telling you the current time, which is useful in some circumstances but in other instances creates plot holes – I caught at least one instance of Sonny going back in time.

Discovering one of your colleagues is a traitor requires you to act in an underhanded way, in an unsanctioned investigation, without involving Internal Affairs until you have damning evidence in your hand. This seems unrealistic.

By and large radioing to Dispatch is not implemented – though it seems that this was intended as there was a radio in your car – and there can be situations where to get crucial information you need Sonny to type in queries into his dashboard computer… while he’s driving. I realise the dangers of texting and driving weren’t generally known at this time, but come on, Jim, you’re meant to be a professional. The lack of radio use means that you can’t do stuff like radioing into headquarters to get a warrant and a SWAT team sorted out, which is something you could do in the previous game, which means that Lytton’s police department, despite all this superior tech, has actually gone backwards in terms of the extent to which they use their technology.

I am pretty sure Sonny being put in charge of the attempted murder investigation into Marie’s situation is a major violation of the series’ supposed dedication to being at least semi-realistic. In addition, you find out about Michael Bains so late that having the cult connected to Jesse Bains feels like a pointless callback, as well as a rather over-used trope in the series.

On the one hand, there’s a nice subplot where you can use things which are special to Marie to help encourage her recovery, but on the other hand victimising her again just feels like a cheap way to give Sonny some motivation – just as cheap as outright fridging her but without having the courage to actually go through with it and have something have long-term bad consequences for Sonny as opposed to just a minor inconvenience.

Frankly, if you just skilled the entire first day and have the game kick off with Sonny still working Homicide like in Police Quest II, I don’t think anyone would have minded – it’s not like fans were clamouring for Sonny to get a nice desk job, and you can then just kick off the game with him being assigned to investigate the homicides, no personal connection needed because it’s his job.

The game also has fairly extensive bugs. There’s one early on where if you don’t go in your office to obtain the Disciplinary Action Form on Pat Morales before you go do the shift briefing, the game gets confused and it keeps telling you there’s something in your in tray when you look at it, but when you try to pick it up it tells you there’s nothing there. There’s just Schrodinger’s Form, both in and not in your in-tray. So far as I can tell, this won’t stop you completing the game, but it’s annoying.

Another bug exists quite late in the game, where if you enter the Homicide Office after a certain point the last significant conversation you had with the Captain there replays – a sure sign that Sierra didn’t clear the flag that kicks off this conversation, didn’t expect you to come back to the Homicide Office, and didn’t do enough playtesting to catch this problem. Other issues are not outright bugs but still point to an awkward technical implementation. In some of the scenes the exit zone can be a bit too small – I had trouble getting Sonny to leave his bedroom at the start of the second day, for instance.

It’s a shame, because in some other respects is the game’s a pretty impressive technical accomplishment. The soundtrack has music contributed by Jan Hammer, who was responsible for the Miami Vice theme. Graphically speaking, there’s a mixture of drawn artwork and rotoscoped photos which achieves a surprising level of realism for 1991, though it’s a pity that a lot of the stuff the graphics depict is dull as ditchwater, and I could have done without the shot of Jim Walls proudly displaying his crotch which comes up whenever he pops up to do narration or explain why you just got killed or otherwise game over’d.

Overall, the plot of the game is a muddled mess, failing to commit either wholly to the villains being a cult who happen to peddle crack as a side hustle or a crack gang who do cult shit to look spooky and badass. For that matter, the betrayal that happens at the end (which will get you a Game Over unless you get that report into Internal Affairs) makes very, very little sense, because it happens when the traitor in question is cornered in the basement of a crackhouse you’ve raided and which is swarming with cops, so the odds of successfully getting away are pretty minimal.

Apparently the novelisation of the game added in some actual motivations for the traitor in question, but you get absolutely nothing here, adding a confusing note to an ending to the game which is otherwise rather lacklustre – there’s no real sense of climax here, you just do a bunch of crimefighting and then it just sort of ends, like Dennis Reynolds’ movie concept without the penetration.

Jim Walls would go on to design Blue Force for Tsunami Games, an outfit set up by a group of ex-Sierra staffers, which was essentially a continuation of his vision for Police Quest by other means. The fourth official Police Quest game, however, would be attributed to… someone else. But we’ll get into that quagmire later.

Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood

Christy Marx’s second and final game for Sierra is the followup to Conquests of Camelot. Rather than continuing the Arthurian myth – which would have probably necessitated playing through the carnage of Camlann and the grim buildup to it, perhaps an interesting exercise but a hard sell to the market – this game takes on the legend of Robin Hood.

This probably wasn’t an attempt to hop on the bandwagon of the Robin Hood craze kicked off by Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves‘ massive success in the box office – though it’s certainly an instance of good timing. The development timeline rules that out, especially considering the depth of research that Marx prided herself on doing in the process of producing these games. That level of research is well-reflected here in the visuals and the overall style of the game, which takes extensive inspiration from history without feeling excessively bound by it.

Overall, Marx’s approach to the legend is reminiscent of that of Robin of Sherwood; as in that show, what we get here is a mixture of historically-informed adventure and low-key fantasy with pagan undercurrents. The basic scenario is broadly familiar from other recent renditions of the myth: King Richard got himself captured by Leopold of Austria on the way back from the Third Crusade, and an outrageous ransom is being demanded for his release. Prince John, who is ruling England in Richard’s absence, has no intention of sending the ransom when the money could enrich him and his cronies.

In Sherwood Forest, a band of outlaws – including famed names like Little John, Alan-a-Dale, Friar Tuck, Much the Miller’s Son, Will Scarlet, and their intrepid leader Robin Hood – intend to do something about this. One and all have been driven into outlawry unjustly, because they all are loyal to King Richard and would see him returned. Well, if Prince John’s cronies like Sheriff of Nottingham or the Abbot of St. Mary’s, who between them exert a corrupt sway over the secular and ecclesiastical authorities in Nottingham, are going to drive innocent men into outlaws, outlaws is what they’ll get – brave, sneaky, adventurous, cunning outlaws who’ll rob the Sheriff, Abbot, and Prince blind, and use the proceeds to pay the King’s ransom and restore justice to the land!

Marx offers an interesting feminist twist on the legend when it comes to the role of Marian. Far from the passive, blushing Maid Marian of some renditions of the myth, acting as a damsel in distress all too often, here we’re dealing with Lady Marian – a noblewoman who, as part of the political power structure of the Kingdom, is not without her own influence and contacts. Marian would also see King Richard returned to power, and in the early phases of the game acts to recruit Robin to her cause, such that he’s effectively acting as a secret operative in her service. True to the story, they fall deeply in love in the course of these interactions, and Marian is refreshingly direct in terms of her flirtations with Robin.

Marian is acting not off her own bat, but as a trusted agent of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine – Richard and John’s mother, who historically outlived Richard . This is an apt choice; as one of the most skilled political operators in the period, as well as having one of the most colourful and adventurous histories of any noblewoman of her era, Eleanor recruiting outlaws to act as her black ops forces (with Marian as Eleanor’s point of contact to allow plausible deniability) is both an entertaining an idea and plausibly feels like something she might have considered doing. Although Eleanor never comes “onstage”, the way she is referred to by Marian and King Richard makes it plain that she is a powerful individual in her own right, a power behind the throne who exerts an active influence on the story through her agents.

It’s through Marian that a whiff of pagan magic enters the story – for as well as being a noblewoman and a politician, Marian is also secretly part of a lineage of forest-priestesses with a close spiritual connection to Sherwood Forest. Through Marian’s direction, Robin makes contact with the Green Man to seek his blessing, allowing him to seek refuge with the very trees of the forest themselves, and it is strongly implied that Marian and Robin are brought together by hidden forces.

Marian’s occult ways are implied to be a continuation of the druid religion, but the druids were abolished in the early years of Roman rule; then there were centuries during which a mixture of local Celtic paganism and imported religious ways from across the Empire existed, with different cults and fads coming into style and falling out of fashion, then a conversion to Christianity, then a mass import of Germanic/Norse-style paganism by the Saxons, then a reconversion to Christianity, which was done and dusted for centuries by the time this story unfolds.

Survivals of paganism outside of traditions recontextualised with a Christian outlook are already a bit of a stretch under such circumstances; for those survivals to reflect the faith of the druids, rather than any of the numerous other forms of paganism which had risen and fallen in the thousand years since the druids, are implausible, at least from a strictly historical perspective.

Marx, however, is not working from a strictly historical perspective here; she’s working with one foot in history and one foot in the world of myth and legend, and the latter gives her the artistic licence to do what she wants here. The inclusion of a Spiral Dance as a feature of Marian’s forest-priestess practices suggests the influence of modern feminist Wicca, after all, and Marx clearly has done enough research to realise that this is essentially a modern concept.

However, this is not the only bit in which Marx’s telling of the story throws in a modern reference – when Robin is pretending to be a jewellery merchant he takes on the name “Gucci of Beverley”, and Christy and other Sierra designers can be encountered at the town fair. Conquests of the Longbow really embraces the idea that any retelling of a legend has to take into account both the format it’s being presented in and the audience it’s being presented to, so in this light working in some feminist themes and broadening the story to include spiritual concepts extending beyond orthodox Christianity is fair enough.

In addition, Marian has this particular syncretic take on the whole forest-priestess thing, claiming that these practices are in honour of the Queen of Heaven and equating that figure with the Virgin Mary. To me, this is a crucial thematic link with Conquests of Camelot; if you’ll remember, at the start of that you have an England where Mithras and Christ are worshipped side by side, but by the end of the game the old pagan powers tell Arthur that the time has come for them to fade away into the background for a while, and at the end the symbol of Mithras vanishes but, notably, the altar is not destroyed – a depiction which further gets across the idea that that the pagan powers are hidden, not destroyed. Marian’s approach seems to be a development of this idea.

Another departure from history is the inclusion of a witch burning instigated by the corrupt local Abbot – the Church was much more keen on burning heretics in the late 12th Century and didn’t believe witchcraft was a thing, and only turned to witch-burning in a big way in subsequent centuries when the Inquisition ran out of easier parties to persecute. However, Marx avoids perpetuating the “burning times” myth of mass burnings of actual pagan practitioners during the medieval period by making it clear that this is an aberrant activity on the part of the Abbot – unpopular with the locals, not sanctioned by the Church, and indeed something which the Abbot is eventually punished for.

In terms of gameplay, Conquests of the Longbow is a massive improvement over Conquests of Camelot, with the game both offering a respectable amount of material and doing much better at giving you pointers as to what you should be doing, as well as presenting what is by and large a fairly reasonable learning curve. Progress early on is reasonably easy; later puzzles are more involved, but not to an absurd extent, and there’s a pretty clear logic to them. At points you can use your horn to summon your outlaws, which among other things is a device used to seek their advice on strategies and recruit them to help you out with a task – since some challenges aren’t viable for you to tackle just on your own.

There seems to be some influence here from Quest For Glory II. As with that game, the action is split up by days, but whereas in that game the days pass by inexorably, here they automatically finish once you’ve done a certain number of things (an aspect perhaps also influenced by The Colonel’s Bequest). Police Quest III also uses the idea, though it’s a bit jankier in there – partly because it’s bad at prompting you as to what you need to be doing, partly because sometimes the stuff you do in a day doesn’t really feel like a full day’s work, whereas it’s more believable that Robin’s trekking through Sherwood Forest and other matters eat up time here.

The day-by-day progress lends welcome structure to things. Each morning finds Robin facing the day back at his camp; each evening finds him bantering with his outlaws about the day’s events, a good opportunity for the game to both give you feedback on how you are doing and pointers for what you may need to do next. (If the worst happens and Robin gets himself killed, you get a brief scene of the Merry Men mournfully musing about Robin’s fate, and usually their conversation will give you a pointer as to where you went wrong and what you might try doing differently.)

Speaking of which, whilst it is possible to get a game over or a bad ending as a result of failing to do something in an earlier day, it will usually be fairly evident when you’ve messed up doing something important, and the day-by-day structure offers a useful approach to structure your saved games: if you make sure to save at the start of each day, at the very least, then it won’t take that long for you to get back to the part of the game you want a do-over on.

Another feature that shows the influence of Quest For Glory II is the end sequence. As in that game, it’s in the form of an audience with the local ruler, in which various NPCs give their opinion of your actions and you are rewarded accordingly. Conquests of the Longbow takes this concept and then adds its own twist: far from being a celebratory audience, this is a trial for your life; you and the outlaws have been captured, but the returning King Richard arrives in Nottingham and insists on presiding over your trial.

Several outcomes are possible – depending on factors like whether or not you saved Marian’s life when it’s imperilled, how much money you were able to contribute to the ransom (it could range from an absolute pittance to almost two-thirds of the money needed to free Richard), whether you were a chivalrous sort who genuinely only used violence against the wicked and treated everyone else kindly or more of a bully, how well you did romancing Marian, and so on.

If you do very badly, Robin may end up hanged after all, if you do very well he can be raised to the nobility and given Marian’s hand in marriage, and there’s a couple of intermediate outcomes in there too. Beyond these four endings, however, there’s a real sense that everything you did over the course of the game truly mattered. It’s very nicely accomplished, gives a sense that the story is respecting the player’s decisions about how to play Robin which games still struggle to manage even today.

As well as adding a certain level of replay value – “Let’s see how badly you can fuck up and still get to the end” can be an amusing way to approach the game once you’ve gotten the best ending – this approach also means that the gentler puzzle difficulty isn’t so much of an issue. Precisely because there are multiple ways to resolve any particular situation (there has to be, otherwise that structure for the end sequence wouldn’t make sense!), a beginner will likely be able to muddle their way through to the end and at least get some sort of ending, and it will typically be fairly evident where you could have done better, allowing you to focus your second try on improving in those areas.

Although some Sierra games of this vintage did away with the score readout at the top of the screen, Conquests of the Longbow retains it, and indeed gives you three types of scores. You have a running total of the ransom money you have accumulated for King Richard so far, which is a constant reminder of your overall goal. One of the most satisfying bits of the game is when you finally discover the true Queen’s Knight who is acting as the courier to get the money you’ve stolen to Queen Eleanor and hand over the money to him, and the counter goes down to “0”. This is then followed by some delicious tension as you wait to find out whether this is enough, since so far as I can tell you can’t raise the full 100,000 Marks demanded by Leopold all by yourself and you don’t know how much the Queen has raised from other sources.

Another readout you get at the top is the total number of outlaws in your band. This is less significant – there’s no tactical skirmish-type gameplay in here where you direct your little paramilitary force – but it’s still a useful reminder that you are not just in this by yourself, you’re a leader of men who you can call on for their support but who also depend on you not to needlessly throw away their lives. In general, if you manage to increase that number through recruitment, it feels like a positive step, if the number goes down as a result of enemy action it makes you want to see if there was a way you could have avoided that.

Your traditional points total, as always in a Sierra game, useful for tipping the player off when something they did had a positive result, though you do not have to get every single point to complete the game or even to get the best outcome at the end. In particular, Marx makes the welcome decision to allow you to adjust the difficulty of, and even outright turn off, most of the minigames like archery or climbing a tower while defenders dump rocks on you or stuff like that, so if you find Sierra’s inclusion of arcade-style minigames infuriating you can deactivate them at the cost of forgoing the points you would have earned for playing through them.

The main exception to this is the implementation of Nine Mens’ Morris – an ancient boardgame that Robin can play against a former Crusader turned monk in order to gamble for a useful item. As well as offering a whiff of authenticity, the game is also rather fun to tinker with in its own right, and since it’s a strategy game rather than something driven by twitch-based reflexes it’s reasonable enough that it’s not counted as an “arcade” sequence. The original game even came with a Nine Man’s Morris board as one of the handouts, so you could play the game at home either for the sake of it or to play through some strategies for yourself before committing to them in the actual game.

On the whole, I would say that Conquests of the Longbow is the best Sierra adventure I have played up to this point – and I’m including not just the earlier episodes of this series in that, but also the Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria games I’d played earlier. As well as being a major improvement over Conquests of the Longbow in more or less every area in which that game fell short, it’s also a striking example of a Sierra game which very much didn’t fall into the pitfalls people ascribe to Sierra adventures.

It’s a real shame that Christy Marx hasn’t produced any more point-and-click followups, instead largely shifting away from the gaming industry back to her usual television stamping ground (save for some writing for Zynga’s Hidden Chronicles series of hidden object games). She’s resisted calls to do a new Conquests game (or a spiritual followup along similar lines but staying away from IP currently owned by Activision), but she has been reluctant to do so largely because of the amount of research she feels she’d need to do in order to do the concept justice. Given the results of that research here, I can see why she wouldn’t want to spoil the legacy of this exceptional game, and can only be grateful that she graced us with this classic.

Quantity vs. Quality, and the Same Old Shit Scenario

LucasArts’ sole adventure release of this year was Monkey Island 2: Lechuck’s Revenge, a game which is the technical equal of Sierra’s 1991 crop and in some respects has them beat. It’s rather amazing, for instance that LucasArts had managed to implement a “scrolling camera” effect to allow rooms in games to sprawl out beyond a single screen, and indeed had this as a feature of their adventures from as early as Maniac Mansion, but Sierra still didn’t have scrolling in their games.

In addition, the story and writing in Monkey Island 2 are top notch, and the game offers a truly sprawling experience compared to the often terse stories of many Sierra adventures which obtained gameplay longevity through obtuseness, rather than having especially involved content.

I would summarise the difference between Sierra and LucasArts’ outputs in 1991 as a matter of quantity vs. quality. Sure, LucasArts were a smaller studio and couldn’t compete with Sierra on the quantity front anyway – but that meant that for their adventure games to stand out they really needed to shower love on them and get behind those releases, because an adventure game which outright bombed would threaten the entire future of adventure game development at LucasArts.

Conversely, Sierra could throw a bunch of darts at the board and end up with a mixed bag like the one which arose this year, where we ended up getting a mild disaster in the form of Police Quest III, a masterpiece in the form of Conquests of the Longbow, and some mixed results in between.

(In addition to these new games, the “remake” process they began with 1990’s new edition of King’s Quest I continued, with similarly lukewarm results. The VGA version of Space Quest I applies new graphics to the same puzzle structure of the original, with no real improvements and the occasional area where the new art obscures what’s going on compared to the clarity possessed by the EGA version. The VGA version of Leisure Suit Larry In the Land of the Lounge Lizards takes much the same approach, though the cartoony art style is at least more interesting than the rather bland graphics on the Space Quest remake.)

One wonders what would have resulted had Sierra decided to concentrate their efforts behind superior projects like Conquests of the Longbow (I’m sure Jane Jensen would have been able to make some fantastic contributions to that!) rather than allowing struggling ones like Police Quest III to limp to completion, sucking up resources as they do so and yielding a horribly substandard product by the end of the process.

(Of course, the risk there would be that Sierra would have failed to judge which games should sink or swim, cancelling Conquests of the Longbow and Leisure Suit Larry 5 as the more experimental games for the year whilst throwing good resources after bad in Police Quest III…)

Another thing that Monkey Island 2 did was experiment with game structure a bit, with the middle act of the game involving a trek around a bunch of different islands to gather the segments of the map that will guide Guybrush to the legendary treasure of Big Whoop, an injection of non-linearity which contrasted with the comparative linearity of The Secret of Monkey Island.

Conversely, it seems to me that the two weaker games that Sierra put out this year – Space Quest IV and Police Quest III – are flawed largely because of their designers’ continued clinging to bad game design habits which had, by this point, become widely recognised and criticised in journals about gaming (here’s where I yet again link Ron Gilbert’s Why Adventure Games Suck article), and which had successful games come out largely as an exercise in proving that A Better Way Is Possible (Monkey Island, whilst it is not exclusively about sticking it to Sierra – it’d be a poor game if it spent more time razzing the competition than delivering a fun experience – is largely the way it is as a deliberate reaction to Sierra’s excesses).

Meanwhile, the best adventure of this crop is easily Conquests of the Longbow which is by Christy Marx, who as a comparative outsider hadn’t been as steeped in Sierra’s internal culture and groupthink as those who’d been plugging away there since the mid-1980s. The flawed but fun runner-up is Leisure Suit Larry 5, a welcome attempt by Al Lowe to break himself out of the usual Sierra design ethos and do something different which might have been improved had Lowe spent some time studying how other adventure game producers had tackled similar issues so as to not waste energy reinventing the wheel.

Why is it that Space Quest IV and Police Quest III are let down by problems which are also apparent in Space Quest I and Police Quest I, and which Ron Gilbert and others had done such good work in unpacking, analysing, and providing alternatives to? I was astonished to discover the answer when I was finalising this article and stumbled across Jimmy Maher’s article offering his perspective on the worst habits of the adventure game genre, The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic-Adventure Design, which is consciously designed to follow up on and build on Ron Gilbert’s original article.

The entire thing is worth a read, but the major revelation for me was this quote from Ken Williams, which reveals that Sierra were ignoring the advances made by competitors in the field because they had a deliberate policy of ignoring the competition. Here’s the words, right out of Ken’s mouth; the context is Ken being asked about how Sierra responded to Maniac Mansion:

We were fairly phobic about playing or studying competitors’ products. I refused to hire anyone who had worked at a competitor, and really didn’t want our team focused on competitors’ products. Sierra always tried to consider ourselves as leaders, and wanted to forge our own path into the world. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of watching what competitors did and then releasing a “me too” product a year later. That’s a formula for disaster.

Maher’s own objection to this pretty much hits the nail on the head:

What kind of work could one expect from a novelist who never reads novels? From a musician who never listens to music? In the case of games, what you can expect — from the companies helmed by Scott Adams and Ken Williams alike — is a stream of “products” that relentlessly continue to make the same mistakes over and over, blissfully unaware that others have demonstrated how to do it so much better.

There’s a line in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, in one of the “talking heads” interview sections, where Marenghi smugly declares “I’m one of the few people you’ll meet who’s written more books than they’ve read”. It is, perhaps, one of Matthew Holness’ greatest line deliveries in the show (and that’s saying something, since his performance as Garth is a real tour de force); in a single sentence, he’s able to sum up the astonishing combination of arrogant egotism and blithe ignorance which makes Marenghi such a bitingly vicious satire of hack writers who are convinced they’re much more clever than they actually are.

Amazingly, this attitude from Ken Williams actually tries to make a virtue of that level of deliberate ignorance – anyone at Sierra who actually followed this boneheaded policy would have ended up writing more adventure games than they played. The arrogant assumption that your competitors have nothing to offer you aside from ideas you’ll be slammed for copying if you touch them tacitly assumes that there is no middle line between influence and plagiarism, and assumes that one can arrive at best practice purely by working by oneself and that other parties have nothing to offer you in terms of a dialogue about game design philosophy.

It is notable that Ken himself, to my knowledge, never designed an adventure game himself, because this quote seems to show a complete lack of understanding of game design as an artform where the techniques other people develop could usefully be either borrowed from or reacted to in order to improve your own work. I 100% agree with Maher when he says “A creative form can’t hope to develop without this sort of cultural dialog. This is simply how the culture of creativity works.”

The policy of deliberate ignorance is not just bad from a game design perspective: it is almost certainly responsible for Sierra clinging to the text parser for longer than they really should have, after multiple other developers had cooked up perfectly serviceable icon-driven interaction systems, as well as apparent technical oversights like not including scrolling scenes in their games.

If you do not keep an eye on where the cutting edge is, you may find it’s already gone for your jugular and left you bleeding out on the floor, obsolete and irrelevant. Sierra hadn’t reached that point yet – but by the late 1990s their fumbled transition into the 3D era would contribute to their demise as producers of adventure games.