The story so far: Sierra had pioneered a new age of graphic adventure games where the graphics were a major aspect of the game, rather than a nice embellishment on a text adventure, in the form of the King’s Quest games. The AGI engine developed for that series also kicked off other marquee series for the company – Space Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry – and then the object-oriented SCI engine formed the underpinning of a clutch of more technically advanced sequels. Sierra were riding high by the end of the 1980s, made the leap to VGA graphics and a purely point-and-click interface in 1990, suffered growing pains in 1991 and had a 1992 which, whilst inconsistent, at least gave us the best King’s Quest yet.
That King’s Quest was co-designed by a certain Jane Jensen, who having served her apprenticeship under Roberta Williams finally got the chance to do the gothy Anne Rice-ish modern-day occult horror series she’d wanted to do. If Sierra had done nothing else in 1993, the first Gabriel Knight game would still stand as a landmark moment in graphical adventure development, but as it turns out, that wasn’t all they accomplished this year. In fact, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers came out at the end of a year which was very, very busy for Sierra in terms of adventure games coming out under their aegis…
Space Quest V: The Next Mutation
After Space Quest IV, Roger Wilco has decided to better himself by signing up to
Starfleet Starcon Academy, with dreams of becoming a fearless starship captain for the Federation Star Confederacy (uh, bad choice of name, guys). He’s miserably badly suited to the job, of course – but a computer glitch reminiscent of the one from the start of Brazil scrambles the test results, inadvertently giving him a perfect score.
Starcon can’t justify not giving Roger his own command, but super-slick space hero Captain Quirk has taken against Wilco, and pulls strings to ensure Roger ends up captain of the most unimportant, unglamorous, irrelevant ships in the fleet: the garbage scow Eureka. In the process of interstellar rubbish collection, Roger and his crew uncover a sinister plot – someone is distributing dangerous chemicals which cause people to transform into aggressive mutants. Who is behind this conspiracy, and could it have some connection to the dodgy-sounding communications your comms officer Flo intercepted on the Starcon standard channels? Under your leadership, it’s time for the Eureka crew to take out the trash and clean up the galaxy!
For the most part, then, this is an extended Star Trek parody, with visual inspiration from a mixture of the original series, the movies, and The Next Generation. (Naturally, Roger’s the only one stuck with a red shirt.) This was timely; as well as Next Generation entering its final season and Deep Space Nine kicking off, the previous year had seen Interplay releasing Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, which offered a series of scenarios containing a mixture of starship combat and away team missions, the latter of which were done in a point and click style.
The story behind the game is fascinating. Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, the Two Guys From Andromeda, had been increasingly unhappy at Sierra, with their trust in management shaken by an incident during the development of Space Quest IV when, as Scott Murphy described in a legendarily bad-tempered interview from 2006, Williams made them ditch the text parser and switch to the new point-and-click-driven system, despite neither of them wanting to. I suspect part of the reason that the puzzles in Space Quest IV didn’t work so well for me came down to the Two Guys repurposing puzzles designed for a text parser for an icon-driven system, rather than making the effort to appreciate how designing for icon-driven systems differs.
One of the more amusing things about that interview is how Murphy derides point-and-click interfaces and pines for the days of text parser-driven adventures, and cites as two of his favourite adventure games the first two Monkey Island releases – which, of course, were pure point and click and never involved a text parser. Murphy has mellowed considerably since, both on text parsers and on the subject of Mark Crowe himself – as a 2012 interview with the two of them in relation to their decidedly troubled SpaceVenture Kickstarter illustrates.
For it would be between Space Quest IV and V that the team of Crowe and Murphy would be split up, as a result of Murphy accepting a new position at Dynamix – formerly an independent game studio which had been acquired by Sierra as a subsidiary in 1990. This led to a situation not unlike that faced by another beloved SF franchise spawned in the mid-to-late 1980s featuring a starship janitor as its main character.
Just as the writing partnership of Grant Naylor that created Red Dwarf split up (with Doug Naylor continuing work on the TV series and writing a solo tie-in novel, and Rob Grant writing his own solo tie-in novel as an alternate sequel to the last novelisation the two had worked on together), so too did the Two Guys From Andromeda each end up working on a different Space Quest sequel. Space Quest VI would be worked on by Scott Murphy; much to Murphy’s disquiet (especially since he didn’t even find out the game was being developed for a while!), the job of making Space Quest V was farmed out to Dynamix.
On the face of it, Sierra passing off one of their flagship lines to a subsidiary rather than keeping it in-house must have seemed like an odd decision at the time – it would have been unthinkable for them to do something like that with, say, King’s Quest – it makes sense under the circumstances. First off, Dynamix didn’t want for point-and-click credentials of their own, having turned out games like Rise of the Dragon, Heart of China, and The Adventures of Willy Beamish. (I’ve not reviewed those games in this sequence because they’re really Dynamix adventures, not Sierra releases; I’m making an exception for Space Quest V because it was part of a series originating at Sierra, developed using Sierra’s tools, and generally following Sierra’s house style.)
Secondly, whilst Sierra liked to present their games as the products of auteur-designers, the fact was that the Two Guys were working in different companies in different towns at this point. Ultimately, if Sierra wanted to have any continuity in the series at all, they’d need to give the game to one or the other of the Guys From Andromeda.
(While we are on the corporate gossip: Sierra had a weird corporate relationship with Sprint – yes, the telephone company – at this time; they’d previously paid for a few cameos in Leisure Suit Larry 5, in which the operator would say “Thank you for using Sprint!” to Larry or Patti whenever they made a call. Sprint decided to keep that going for Space Quest V, which includes some occasional Sprint references. Most of these are pretty lightly handled and actually make for pretty good jokes – like the Sprint logo appearing when you ring off from a video call – though there is one bit where you can wander in on two guards having a conversation about telephone companies which reads like it could have been scripted by Sprint’s advertising people.)
As it stands, Space Quest V is a substantial improvement over Space Quest IV. The shift to commanding a starship is particularly welcome, and is accomplished in a way which respects the premise of the series up to this point whilst at the same time opening up new possibilities. It’s not like Roger’s doing no janitorial work – one of the first puzzles has you buffing the big Starcon logo on the floor of the Academy rotunda, and the Eureka‘s job is basically janitor work on a cosmic scale – and whilst the adventure soon gets away from trash collection, the same is true of all of Roger’s adventures.
The joy of this setup is that the game can still have Roger doing menial jobs other star captains look down on, but also has a better range of things to do besides that, and that’s really what the series needed at this point to stop the janitor jokes drawing thin. (Lister in Red Dwarf barely paid attention to his job after episode 1, after all.)
The point-and-click system is suitably updated to deal with this change: instead of a single “talk” icon, you have one icon (a speech bubble) to have ordinary conversations with people, and another one (a speech bubble with an exclamation mark inside it) for giving orders. For the most part, this is an excuse to make jokes about how little other people listen to Roger, but it does have a gameplay function when you’re on the bridge of your ship.
The crew of the Eureka are hilariously unenthusiastic about Roger’s command at first, and are full of character; Droole and Flo, the bridge officers, are both blatantly slacking off when you come onto the bridge, before hastily looking busy. The relationships you build with them over the course of the game and the conversations in which they increasingly open up to you is reminiscent of a much more fun and light-hearted predecessor to the crew interactions in the Mass Effect series.
The story does an excellent job of working in aspects of Space Quest continuity without making them so extensive as to make the game impenetrable to newcomers. One of the characters you encounter is Ambassador Beatrice Wankmeister – who isn’t as sexualised a character as her absurd name would have you think, but that was established as her name in Space Quest IV, where your son from the future tells you about her. This sets up one of the more quirky deaths Roger can suffer in the series: if Beatrice ends up dying, then obviously Roger Junior will never be born, which means he can’t go back in time to save Roger from the Sequel Police in Space Quest IV, which means Roger disappears in a puff of logic.
Other continuity jokes include WD40 – a female assassin droid, following up from a gag in Space Quest III where an Arnie-esque terminator tries to assassinate you for a bit of mail fraud you committed in Space Quest II. She’s got a somewhat male gazey design (including cone-like robo-titties), but she at least gets to be both a viable threat and, after being blown up, rebuilt, and reprogrammed to be less kill-happy, also ends up being a very capable science officer).
It could be worse. Terminator 3‘s T-X design, whilst avoiding the absurdity of metal boobs, was otherwise more exaggerated. (And for that matter, Seven of Nine was more fetishised in Star Trek: Voyager.) Nonetheless, it is a bit off that all the women in the game – Flo, WD40, Beatrice – end up respectively flirting heavily with, reprogrammed to be obedient to, or in a romance with Roger. I get it – they’re riffing on the way most of the alien women Captain Kirk met ended up falling for him – but it’s still dated badly.
As well as retaining some continuity points from earlier in the series, The Next Mutation continues some traditional gameplay aspects as well. There’s occasional arcade sequences and minigames, like playing 3D Battleships against Quirk (a riff on Star Trek‘s 3D chess that outstays its welcome), but by and large these are much less frustrating than some of the ones that have graced past Space Quest games, Crowe apparently realising that people playing adventure games don’t want success gated behind shakily-implemented twitch-based gameplay.
The death sequences and accompanying messages have less flair than in previous games, though on the other hand the joke was wearing thin by this point anyway, and dialling back on them makes sense – especially since the game seems to be going for a less cruel approach anyway. Instances where you can put the game into an unwinnable state seem extremely rare, and sometimes it seems like an effort has been made to reduce them; for instance, there’s at least one instance where a puzzle requires you to do something which would be in-story irreversible, and needs you to do it correctly – but if you fuck it up, the game tells you and resets the thing in question so you can have another try.
In terms of other improvements, the game has – thank God! – decent pathfinding for the era, and there’s no more “click on the wrong spot of the screen and fall off a winding path” nonsense. That said, it doesn’t always make good use of this. There were few too many points in my playthrough where I would click on something and the game told me that I couldn’t do that from the distance Roger was stood from the object in question – but there was absolutely nothing stopping Roger just walking over and doing it, and in any LucasArts game of the era the main character would just fucking walk over and do it, as they would in any LucasArts game of a considerable number of years prior. It’s a maddening technical gap which is really inexcusable.
There are other flaws. There’s some instances where the art doesn’t make it that clear what’s an irrelevant background detail you don’t need to worry about and what’s an interactable feature you need to look at to complete the game. There’s also a few points where the user interface is a bit fussy about where you need to click; for the very last puzzle, where you have to replace a part in the Goliath to allow its warp drive to work, the clickable zone you need to click on to make it work is annoyingly tiny compared to the artwork in question – frankly, the puzzle should have been solved if you clicked with the missing part on any part of the screen.
There’s at least one puzzle which is a real problem – taking the cloaking device from WD40’s original ship, which you need to survive later on. This is the one instance where I think you can make the game unwinnable – it’s possible to leave the system it’s in without getting it, and it’s far from made clear you are expected to go down and get it now. The actual retrieval of the cloaking device involves a puzzle which relies a lot on annoying trial and error and clicking about that involves no visual clues whatsoever.
On the whole, this accumulation of flaws prevents Space Quest V from being truly excellent – but the charm of the rest of the game elevates it somewhat above much of the rest of the series for me. It doesn’t quite have the simple joy of the early games in the series, but it’s much more solid than IV and it replaces the simplicity of the early games with some actual heart and character. It’s a rather different proposition from the first three games, but at the same time producing a game like them in 1993 would have been weird and incongruous. Space Quest badly needed to decide on a new direction; relying on the old standards couldn’t work forever. The Next Mutation feels, to me, like it offers a direction which should have been followed up on.
It was not to be. In the Murphy-helmed Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier, Murphy would have Roger stripped of his command and busted back to janitor. (Murphy has never been the design lead on a game which didn’t have its main character as a janitor; it feels like a creative rut he can’t really see a way out of.) Some may see this as a back-to-basics move, a necessary correction; to others, it feels regressive and mean-spirited, not to mention a nasty failure to yes-and Crowe’s contributions to the series. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I’ll get into that when I look at Space Quest 6 later in this article series.
Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up Or Slip Out!
Whilst Space Quest saw the Two Guys splitting up, Police Quest had suffered the loss of series creator Jim Walls, and Roberta Williams was increasingly seeking other collaborators in order to shake up King’s Quest, the Leisure Suit Larry series was chugging along in business as usual mode: Al Lowe was in charge, the humour was still risque and occasionally chauvinistic in most of the ways you can expect a 1990s sex comedy to be, and Larry was still trying to get lucky.
This time around, the plot is very much a “back to basics” affair, reverting to the general approach of the first game whilst working in a few ideas which had worked in later games. Gone is more or less all the accumulated continuity around Larry’s relationship with Passionate Patti (she gets mentioned once by the narrator here, but otherwise she vanishes from the series at this point); instead, we kick off with a plot point previously used at the start of Leisure Suit Larry 2: the ol’ “Larry accidentally got on a game show” gag.
Specifically, after an encounter with a TV producer at the beach Larry ends up appearing on Stallions, a highly scripted dating show. Naturally, he’s been picked to lose, so he gets the consolation prize – a two week
all expenses paid some expenses paid stay at La Costa Lotta, an astonishingly shitty health resort. Since Larry isn’t paying his own way, he’s given the worst room in the building and the bare minimum level of service the resort offers. Larry doesn’t care, though: a freebie is a freebie, and the resort is full of highly attractive women… and sufficient men who are more attractive in terms of physique, personality, or moral fibre to ensure that most of the women won’t look at Larry twice. But hey, there’s no accounting for taste, and maybe Larry has a shot with some of them!
In essence, this is a rehash of the basic formula of the original Leisure Suit Larry In the Land of the Lounge Lizards. there’s no real plot beyond Larry careering from woman to woman, usually getting utterly humiliated in his interactions with them, until he finally finds someone who’s willing to get it on with him. As in the first game, you finally attain satisfaction with a woman who resides in a penthouse and is curiously happy to just interact with a random dude who wanders in there (though more of a puzzle is involved this time when it comes to convincing her to take a chance on Larry, which naturally involves items obtained in Larry’s other encounters over the course of the game to solve).
The novelty here, then, is that whilst the first game as made in the mid-1980s using Sierra’s old AGI scripting system, this one has a bunch of technical updates, a new setting (a parody of a 1990s health resort rather than a parody of Las Vegas), a fresh set of women to interact with (with a fresh set of weird personality traits), and substantially more detailed writing than was possible in the earlier game.
Visually speaking, this is another cartoonish presentation for the most part, with more realistic portraits offered of the women you are supposed to try and seduce; there’s something of an improvement over Leisure Suit Larry 5, especially thanks to the higher resolution offered by the new iteration of the SCI system, but nothing astonishing, and in some respects it’s dated badly. There’s a sort of mid-1990s-ish, novelty Windows 3.1 application-y, GeoCities-esque to some of the graphics which looks odd these days. The best thing about it is probably the way Larry is several notches more cartoonish than everyone else – he’s a Nixon-resembling nebbish in a world of hotties.
The major technical advance this time around is voice acting – the first time a Leisure Suit Larry game was given this treatment, which wasn’t a mandatory, guaranteed thing for all Sierra adventure releases at this point – Space Quest V didn’t get it. Luckily, this isn’t some sort of King’s Quest V situation – actual, professional voice actors are used – and far and away the best performances come from Jan Robson as Larry and Neil Ross as the narrator.
Robson’s Larry voice is, as you would expect of the character, super-dorky, but there’s nuances to it. Robson has a real knack of investing it with some endearing aspects to it, like Larry’s little affectation of giggling to himself whenever he introduces himself as “Larry – Larry Laffer” – but also making Larry sound like a heel when he’s thinking or saying something unacceptable.
Ross’s narration voice is also excellently chosen – it’s exactly as smooth and suave-sounding as Larry wishes he was, with an edge of sarcasm suited to Al Lowe’s prose and he’s not coy about shifting into stern disapproval of Larry’s actions, or outright insulting him. Robson and Ross have a sort of fourth wall-breaking double-act going, with Larry reacting to stuff the narrator says or the narrator telling Larry off, which takes the way narration has been handled with the previous games and really adds a bit of extra sparkle to it.
A range of technical innovations are deployed, some of which are Larry specific (the function keys not tied to actual game functions play poop noises), some of which feel like they’re using the game as a testbed for concepts that could be used in other Sierra games. There’s an option you can select to prompt you to save after especially important moments; modern-day players may ask why the game doesn’t just make an auto-save, but given that disk space was often at a premium on systems at this point in time, asking whether you want to save rather than deciding that you should save was actually a civilised way of doing it. You can also set a timer to remind you to save every so often.
One of the innovations is a “hot pixel” – the cursor now has a single pixel highlighted in pink, indicating which part of the cursor is the “hot spot” – thus avoiding creating issues where, because the cursor is quite large compared to some of the stuff you need to click on, you can miss out on ways you can interact with things because you clicked on the wrong part of the item on the screen. This is handy, and would be useful in a bunch of other Sierra games, though equally one could argue that this is a clunky workaround of a problem which is only created because of the game designers making the space to click on to interact with the objects in question unreasonably small in the first place.
In addition, it is a solution which is not evenly applied. The “hand” icon to touch and interact with stuff doesn’t seem to have a hot pixel, for instance, and there’s at least one example of an object to use it with (the control panel for a dumbwaiter in the kitchen) where it’s kind of awkward to figure out which finger you are meant to have over the item to interact with it properly. Inventory items sometimes have a hot pixel, sometimes don’t. It feels like this is an idea hit on late in the development process, too late to implement it consistently.
The game design is also very benign by Sierra standards. So far as I can tell, it’s not actually possible to put the game in an unwinnable state, and the vast majority of game overs allow you to hit a “try again” button which puts you back to where you were just before you took the fatal action. (The one exception is a gag where if you are annoying enough to the resort’s security guard, he presses a button which immediately shuts down the game.) Some of the puzzle design is a little sloppy – there’s at least one instance where to get the result you once you need to apply the same solution again, pointlessly and without variation and without really signalling to the player why it didn’t work the first time around, which is intensely annoying.
Not every aspect of the game is so forward-thinking; as you would expect from a sex comedy written in 1993, there’s some aspects which rely on nasty stereotypes and bigotry. The women Larry tries to score with are almost universally vapid, shallow, and selfish; this would be way more problematic than it is if Larry wasn’t even shallower, more vapid, and more selfish than they are, and you can legitimately read the game as taking the view that Larry has the best shot with this sort of person because his personality flaws drive away anyone who doesn’t have similar personality flaws. This is a long-running feature of the Larry series, where it’s constantly skirting this line between making fun of Larry for being a nasty little sexist and just being nasty and sexist itself.
What’s less intrinsic in the concept, and particularly obnoxious in the game, is the racism (mostly in the form of parody accents), homophobia, and transphobia. The game is quick to use the f-word (the homophobic bundle-of-sticks one, not “fuck”), and Gary, who runs the front desk at the spa, is a lisping stereotype. If you use the zipper icon on him, he’ll reciprocate gladly – prompting a bit where Gary and Larry end up going off into the sunset together in a happy, loving relationship. This is presented exactly like any of the other “game over” bad ends.
On the transphobia side of things, one of the women you seduce turns out to be trans, with an erection which (though concealed by her dress) is practically a third leg, and after a bit where Larry ostentatiously acts sickened by this discovery it is strongly implied she rapes him. It’s a joke based around the idea of trans women “tricking” men into having sex with them, and Larry having a comically exaggerated overreaction to this.
This also ties into a nastier trend in the humour of the game. As in the original Land of the Lounge Lizards, part of the joke is that the majority of the women are either exploiting Larry for their own ends and don’t intend to have sex with him; as far as that aspect goes I’d say “turnabout is fair play”, since Larry is of course trying to exploit them for his own ends, and usually in a sleazy and unappealing manner. There’s also a strand, which feels less OK, where Larry thinks he is going to have regular sex but is then subjected to something he wasn’t expecting or consenting to – a BDSM flogging scene, an enema, electroshock treatment, or getting raped after he decides he doesn’t want to be with his date partner after all. (OK, his decision is based on nasty transphobia, but the correct response to transphobia is stern disapproval and reassessing your Harry Potter appreciation, not rape.)
It’s a real shame that the game is marred in this way. Considering that it is absolutely stuffed to the gills with jokes, there’s plenty of humour in here which doesn’t rely on bigotry; the problem is that the jokes which do cross the line stand out so much that at best they completely take you out of the moment and hurt the flow of the game, at worst you’ll (not unreasonably) consider them sufficiently unforgivable that they completely ruin the game for you.
As far as the comedy not directly related to Larry’s dorkery go, the health resort setting allows the game to spoof a bunch of the health fads of the 1990s – colonic irrigation, liposuction, mud baths, electric shock exercise, all that stuff. Your dream lover, Shamara Payne (or “Sham Payne” – all the women you try to seduce here have names based off wine types), is a high-achieving corporate executive who’s gone a bit New Agey and is trying to “find herself”, and the profound-sounding but ultimately self-serving she comes to with Larry’s inadvertent help essentially boil down to the sort of solipsistic “You are fine the way you are, you do not need to worry about your actions or change in any way and should just pursue your personal pleasure” stuff which some 1990s New Age self-help philosophies boiled down to at the time.
Sierra had a tendency towards very self-referential humour – like how at the end of Leisure Suit Larry 3 Larry and Patti break the fourth wall, find themselves at Sierra, and become game designers. There were points where this went a bit far, like the designers were on the verge of forgetting that they were producing games for people who hadn’t actually played all their previous games, but Shape Up Or Slip Out! is actually quite nicely self-contained. The one really significant example of self-referential comedy is actually a really good one – bar musician Burgundy sometimes performs Cell Block Love, a country song that’s very obviously a rendition of the romance plot between Sonny Bonds and his childhood friend-turned-prostitute-turned-wife Marie in the first three Police Quest games.
It turns out, then, that Leisure Suit Larry was one of the more consistent Sierra series; much like the preceding games, Shape Up Or Slip Out! is a mixture of wry parody of the shitty attitudes expressed by Larry with the occasional serious misstep into just endorsing them, with a mass of jokes of what some of them are more clever you’d think, some of them are just as cheap as you’d expect, and a pinch are horrible and, if they don’t outright ruin the game for you, will probably leave a bad taste in your mouth unless you are the sort of person who still thinks bigotry is funny.
Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist
Once upon a time in the West, all young Freddy Pharkas wanted to do was be a badass gunslinger. But a teenage duel with Kenny the Kid saw him lose an ear; rattled by this encounter with mortality, he reconsidered this career path and decided to pursue his other passion – pharmacology. As a newly-qualified pharmacist, he soon had a thriving business running the drug store in the sleepy Old West town of Coarsegold.
Trouble has come to Coarsegold, however – a series of disasters has beset the town and people are upping stakes and leaving. Freddy’s chemical concoctions might help to a certain extent – but to truly save the town and get to the bottom of this skullduggery, he’s going to need to pick up his guns again and take a more hands-on approach.
Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist was originally released in 1993 as a floppy disk-only release, but it was a surprise hit and ended up getting a CD-ROM release with added voice acting in 1994. The floppy disk version is the one to play, however – the voiceovers for the CD-ROM cut a lot of the text, including almost all the descriptive text in the inventory, because the team were massively rushed for time, and as a result is missing not only a chunk of the jokes, but also a heap of clues and hints. (The GOG release allows you to boot up in either the floppy or CD-ROM version.)
The game was a collaboration between Al Lowe and Josh Mandel, the latter of whom had previously provided writing support for The Dagger of Amon-Ra. It’s a comedy game, but as a Western parody the comedic style is by and large less sexual than Leisure Suit Larry. (There is a Larry joke, however; the game was promoted as a chance to “meet Leisure Suit Larry’s great-great-granduncle”, and many assumed this meant Freddy was the family member in question – but then late in the game one “Zircon” Jim Laffer shows up in town bearing a much closer resemblance to Larry in appearance and behaviour.)
It’s well-remembered, but I am strongly of the opinion that there’s some rose-tinted glasses being applied to people’s recollections of the game: it’s a major step down from other Sierra creations of the same vintage, both in technical presentation and overall game design and execution. Graphically, it has an endearing, cartoonish style, but set next to literally any of Sierra’s other 1993 adventure games it’s a clear step down, and in fact I think it’s the most graphically unimpressive Sierra game since Space Quest IV.
There’s other aspects of the game which make it feel like a substantially contracted version of what may have intended to be a larger game originally. For instance, you can open the front door of the church, but can’t go inside, which makes me think there were entire interiors which they just didn’t have time to implement, and in general the game is rather sparse and short by the standard of Sierra adventures of this era.
Or, possibly, Mandel and Lowe spent the time they could have used developing the game to a finished state adding utterly unnecessary racism. The chef at Ma’s Cafe is a racial caricature of a Chinese man. This is after early on in the game the “drug store Indian” who Pharkas hires to stand outside his shop talks to Freddy about how comprehensively the US government had broken all its treaties with the Native American peoples during Westward expansion. Later, you encounter a racial caricature of an actual Indian Indian, who after the end of the game becomes a shaman of a Native American tribe because the type of Indian he is seems to vary from scene to scene depending on what flavour of racism the scene requires.
As with Leisure Suit Larry 6, the game’s throwing so many jokes at you that there’s plenty of gags that don’t rely on racism, but having those present do mar the whole thing. Unlike Larry 6, the game is much more keen to indulge in Sierra’s customary in-jokes which you’d only pick up on if you had played a broad variety of other Sierra adventures (an expensive prospect at the time, but much more viable these days).
When the co-conspirators behind Coarsegold’s troubles are talking to each other, for instance, they mull over options for murdering Freddy and one of them ponders using a cursed Egyptian dagger – a reference to The Dagger of Amon-Ra. There’s the Jim Laffer thing. There’s a bit where when you cross the old bridge out of town a plank falls from it, and the narration warns you that you might only have three crossings left. In fact, you have an unlimited number; the bridge is a riff on the infamous King’s Quest II bridge which collapsed if you crossed it too often, without telling you how many crossings you had.
Perhaps the wildest joke here is the Cedric cameo – yes, that annoying little owl from King’s Quest V is back, but despite being rattler country he isn’t here to warn you about a poooisonous snake or make racist comments. Instead, he just perches on the bridge one of the times you cross it, and if you examine him or try to interact with him the game makes cracks about how he’s probably waiting for an adventurer who’s out exploring the desert, because he’s too much of a coward to go along. If you leave and then come back, Cedric has been killed by the local buzzards and is being eaten by them.
Now, to be fair, while kind of brutal this joke does cut to one of the perennial complaints about Cedric. I think his cowardice would be more forgivable if it kept him out of trouble, and his tendency to get into trouble would be more forgivable if it came in the context of him regularly trying to help out, so each instance of him making a situation worse would be balanced out by instances of him saving King Graham. The problem is that Cedric all those negative personality traits without the corresponding positives: his cowardice doesn’t keep him out of trouble, and his tendency to get into trouble just throws further roadblocks in the way of the quest.
What’s really notable here is how savage a joke this is about a Roberta Williams game in a Sierra-published adventure. We know Roberta must have had something of a sense of humour about the less well-received aspects of earlier King’s Quest games, because there’s a bunch of wry references to them in the pawn shop in King’s Quest VI, but this was a particularly harsh crack. I wonder who made the joke, and whether it would have flown if Al Lowe, a Sierra veteran who’d worked with Robert and Ken Williams since back in the early, wilder days of the company, wasn’t attached to this project.
The thing is, it’s kind of rich of this game to make fun of the quirks of earlier Sierra adventures when it brings back a bunch of their flaws, to an extent which Space Quest V and Leisure Suit Larry 5 largely managed to avoid. There is some absolutely horrible game design in here, which largely broke my enthusiasm for the game. Some people are bugged by the pharmacology-based puzzles, which are effectively a form of copy protection which requires you to perform chemistry procedures from the manual in order to accomplish your goals. (Sierra were apparently unaware of how widespread unsupervised access to photocopiers had become by this point in time and thought this was actually effective.) Personally, I like them, but that’s because they bring back fond memories of chemistry practicals in years gone by, though equally this sort of recipe-based gameplay had already been done to better effect in King’s Quest III.
No, what broke my enjoyment of the game was the horse fart puzzle. The horse fart puzzle is the first major problem you have to solve in the game after the initial round of puzzles, which all just involve you filing prescriptions. It’s a simple enough concept: someone has sneakily tainted the horses’ drinking water in town, and the poor things are farting up a shitstorm, and you have to stop this before their farts render the town uninhabitable. Ha ha, very Blazing Saddles. Great.
This would be a perfectly tolerable puzzle if it were not for the deeply annoyingly tight time limit – in fact, the two time limits. First, there is the time limit for improvising a gas mask in a somewhat implausible fashion in order to not choke and die. (You get no animation of Freddy actually choking on horse farts and dying, just as you rarely get an animation when a time limit runs out in this game – the screen just abruptly goes back and the narrator pops up to explain what happened. This is another thing which makes me think this game was half-finished and released in a rush.)
Then there’s a second time limit to solve the problem before the town gets too farted-up to save. The time you are given is tight enough that unless you know more or less exactly what you need to do – and some of the steps in this process are far from intuitive – you’re going to have to restore an absolute ton as you keep dying of horse farts. It feels like a cheap gambit to up the playing duration of the game, perhaps to cover for how short and sparse it is.
A particularly irritating thing about the horse fart time limit situation is that chances are it’s the first time in the game you’ve had any chance of doing any significant exploring outside of your pharmacy, so you don’t know where anything is and, if you don’t resort to a walkthrough, you’d need to spend a bunch of times dying as you explore the town, fail to find the bits you need, and/or find them but don’t figure out how to put them together quickly enough. You can look around town a bit before you enter your pharmacy for the first time, but this is a Sierra game; if you have played enough Sierra adventures to understand the in-jokes in this, you expect to be punished if you do not do what the game wants you to do at any particular point, and at the start of the game it makes it clear you are meant to go open up your pharmacy.
It’s pretty astonishing, really, that Sierra could spend decade at this point making graphical adventure games, but key designers on their team still make goofs like not realising that adventure game players appreciate the chance to look around, take in the scenery, poke at stuff and generally play at their own pace! Another thing which is enraging about it is how pointless the time limits are. You could take them out and barely change the structure of the game; you could just make the gas mask a prerequisite to approach the horses to collect their farts, and then you have all the same puzzles but a much kinder approach.
It also highlights some dubious puzzle logic. Freddy needs to fill his alcohol lamp so he can do some gas spectroscopy in order to correctly work out what’s causing the horses to fart, in order to synthesise the correct anti-fart medicine. Freddy has a bunch of money from Smithie the blacksmith paying off his tab before leaving town. There is a bar open in town with plenty of spirits for sale. So… you just go buy some spirits, right? No! When you put money down at the bar, despite knowing he needs some very high-proof alcohol to burn in his alcohol lamp, Freddy buys some decidedly non-flammable beer! Instead, you have to go into the back yard of the bar, where on the disused stagecoach a small splodge of yellow represents an elixir, which is highly alcoholic in its own right. The beer is a solution to a later puzzle which Freddy doesn’t know about yet, in which context his decision makes way more sense, but they clearly hadn’t figured out how to communicate this adequately here.
Fortunately, the next crisis to hit the town is substantially more sedate – there’s a terrifying stampede bearing down which, if Freddy doesn’t stop it, will wipe out Coarsegold… eventually. Because it’s a stampede of snails. But there’s still a time limit – though a longer one – despite the fact you are explicitly told you’ve got a week and a half to solve the problem! Also, the puzzle solution here is incredibly obtuse – it relies on you knowing that some people call bottle openers “church keys”, which I feel like is Lowe or Mandel taking some bit of local slang and assuming it’s far more well-known and widely understood than it actually is. It also requires you to know that slugs and snails are attracted to alcohol, when surely a salt-based solution would occur to more people. (Sodium chloride is even listed in the manual!)
A lot of the sections of the game seem to follow on from each other in a disjointed fashion – like how you go straight from the snail situation to helping someone down off an anthill, or how if after you solve that puzzle you go straight to talk to the sheriff, Freddy tells the sheriff that people are having tummy troubles, without anyone yet complaining to Freddy about their stomach issues. It feels like a bunch of expository material and other connecting matter got left on the cutting room floor, along with a lot of the story logic stuff about when Freddy finds about and can act on particular information (though Sierra had a long-standing issue, as I’ve discussed before, with designing games where the protagonists can act on information they haven’t learned, ruining the internal consistency of the story).
There’s even one of those fucking traps where you can become unable to beat the game if you progress too far without getting a particular item! If you don’t get the Nitrous Oxide from the barber before the rioting gunslingers sweep into Main Street, you can’t loop around and get it afterwards. This is astonishing this late into Sierra’s life, when Al Lowe was on hand and had made games that avoided this trap before.
Some people claim that Freddy Pharkas was one of the best Sierra adventures of this era: I cannot agree. It isn’t completely terrible, and in fact it has some good qualities – the “hot pixel” idea is implemented here much more consistently and usefully, for instance. Still, the game is too obviously rushed, too obviously incomplete; I think it really needed another pass or two on the design to really deepen it and iron out the bad Sierra habits, and a bit more time to give it the graphical treatment it deserved, and then it might have lived up to some of its promise.
Still… rushing this one out the door wasn’t the worst decision Sierra made in 1993…
Police Quest IV: Open Season
As previously recounted, Police Quest creator Jim Walls left Sierra late in the production process of Police Quest III: The Kindred. He ended up joining Tsunami Games, an upstart development studio founded by an exodus of disgruntled Sierra employees (including Sierra’s former chief financial officer Edmond Heinbockel), where he produced Blue Force – essentially a riff on Police Quest with a new endearingly doofy protagonist in a new endearingly doofy small town. It sank without trace and is probably best experienced by watching the Level 0 NPCs take it on.
Come 1992 and another police figure was leaving his job: Daryl F. Gates, longstanding head of the LAPD, the man who liked to take credit for SWAT, DARE, and the CRASH teams, an individual whose career stands, by itself, as a powerful argument for police defunding and/or outright abolition, had been hounded out of his post as a result of the Rodney King beating and the ensuing riots.
This gave Sierra head honcho Ken Williams a terrible, terrible idea…
Yes, Police Quest IV: Open Season abandons Jim Walls’ name, along with the charming setting of Lytton he’d developed over the past three games; instead, the game would be set in Los Angeles, and Daryl F. Gates’ name would be splashed across the cover art in HUGE LETTERS. He even appears in the game as the LAPD chief – it’s one thing for Police Quest to sell itself to customers as offering a fantasy of spending a little time in the shoes of a police officer, it’s another thing for the supposed auteur of an episode in the series to use it to indulge his fantasy of still being a police officer.
I’m not going to go too deep into the ins and outs of this horrible decision on Ken Williams’ part, since Jimmy Maher has already given the definitive account of the behind the scenes story of that and the resentment it caused at Sierra, and I am more interested here in focusing on the game which resulted from Gates’ recruitment rather than regurgitating details of the recruitment itself. Suffice to say that although Gates is credited as the “author”, the game is effectively ghost-written, with most of the actual game design work done by Tammy Dargan and Gates in effect acting as a creative consultant. By all accounts, Dargan’s values were about as far from Gates’ as you can get, but I guess she had a job to do and she had to knuckle down and produce something Gates was comfortable in signing off on and whew, ouch, it’s a doozy.
See, Jim Walls’ worldview was a cop’s worldview, but it’s the worldview of a fairly benign cop who means well and wants to see the best in people. Sure, villains like Jesse Bains and other hardened criminals in the first three Police Quest games are not all that sympathetic, but this is leavened with a genuine public service ethos and a feeling that most people a police officer encounters on the job are basically alright. Jim Walls was a traffic cop – and yes, that did entail some annoying driving sequences in the first and third game, but it also fed into the general ethos of the games in question, and you get the impression that he is basically a nice person who means well and genuinely just wants to see people drive safely and not endanger others, and though aware of the nastier side of the police takes the “a few bad apples” view rather than seeing that some of the negative aspects of policing may be inherent to the conception of the police as an institution.
If Jim Walls came across as a cuddly “straight-laced square uncle” of a cop, Daryl F. Gates was a snarling asshole cop, and seemed to present being a snarling asshole cop as a virtue. Whereas Jim Walls was on the front lines in the highway patrol, Gates was the chief of his department, answerable to nobody (seriously – they had to put in reforms after he quit to allow the Mayor and City Council to exert more authority over the police chief). And if Open Season is any indication of his worldview, he was a police chief who considered entire swathes of the community he was theoretically supposed to protect to be a mass of snarling subhumans. South Central is depicted as some sort of hideous wasteland, occupied by racial stereotypes; it makes the racist jokes in Leisure Suit Larry 6 and Freddy Pharkas seem innocuous by comparison.
In addition to airing a siege mentality emblematic of the systemic problems of “the police” as an institution, the game is also a monument to Gates’ colossal ego. SWAT gets mentioned. The DARE program gets mentioned. The CRASH unit is significant to the plot. Hell, the receptionist on the front desk at the Parker building mentions that he’s been reading Chief: My Life In the LAPD, Gates’ autobiography. As mentioned previously, he appears himself as chief of the LAPD. This shitty game is to Gates’ LAPD career what the statue in Shelley’s poem was to Ozymandias: a monument boasting of the magnificent accomplishments of Gates when, decades later, SWAT is a tool for dangerous Internet pranks, DARE is a joke in its own right, the CRASH unit is disbanded and Gates’ name is associated with the worst in American policing.
So, what is Police Quest IV actually about? It starts you astonishingly abruptly. The manual – at least in the version downloadable from GOG.com – consists of about 50 or so pages of a condensed version of the LAPD handbook, which is good for verisimilitude but is an astonishing amount of text to expect someone to read to play a game, doesn’t explain how to play the game, and which only has a tiny fraction of relevant information in it, none of which is actually needed to complete the game so it doesn’t even serve a copy protection function.
You would expect, under such circumstances, that there would be some form of in-game intro to introduce you to the protagonist and ease you into things, but nope. Short title sequence, then bam, you are placed at a murder scene. Specifically, you are placed in the role of LAPD homicide detective John Carey, whose best friend and ex-partner on the force Bob Hickman has been found dead in an alleyway in South Central. Hickman was an undercover cop in the specialist anti-gang CRASH team, so there’ll be no shortage of suspects in his murder, but as the investigation progresses it turns out to be something much darker than a gangland reprisal.
The writing is terse and flavourless, reminiscent of, well, someone churning out text for a game they are not enthused about writing for and where their heart isn’t in it. As well as being astonishingly racist, a lot of the depictions of black people in the game just don’t ring true – the names are all very slightly off. Take, for instance, the rich hip-hop artist who ends up with a dead cop on his lawn at one point in the game: he’s called Yo Money, which sounds to me less like a name an early 1990s rapper would choose for themselves and more like a name that someone who was broadly aware of rap music but wasn’t really in touch with its zeitgeist would choose. There is a Korean convenience store owner called “Kim Chee”, that’s the level we are talking about here. (There’s also a bunch of homophobia when you go down to Hollywood and Vine for good measure, and transphobia when it comes to the actual identity of the killer.)
Daryl Gates tried to distance himself from some of the dialogue and story elements of the game after it was released in light of the controversy involved, but if you’re going to let someone release a game with your name as prominently included as it is here and you aren’t going to exercise some editorial control then there’s no good way out here: either you approved the content, in which case your disavowal of responsibility isn’t honest, or you didn’t, in which case your claiming of credit isn’t honest.
I feel like the level of casual racism I’ve been pinging in Sierra’s games over the course of these reviews is usually the result of a sort of West Coast cluelessness, with most of Sierra’s team being fairly progressively-minded sorts but, with some exceptions, whitebread as heck and not having many friends who aren’t white, and possessed of a somewhat naive idea of where to draw the line (and, in the case of Al Lowe, that sort of “equal opportunity offensiveness” attitude that a lot of 1990s-2000s comedy had, without taking into account that some types of offensiveness play into established structures of prejudice and privilege and some don’t).
When you get away from the various stereotypes and prejudices fuelling the writing, you’re still not away from the Daryl Gates baggage; as I mentioned above, he put a lot of effort here into touting his achievements, and it’s fascinating to see them show up here knowing how future developments would go. It’s pretty wild to see the characters talking up what awesome dudes the CRASH teams are when, ahaha, that whole scheme did not end well to the extent that entire multi-season TV shows were inspired by the fact that it did not end well.
Even beyond the Daryl Gates connection and the horrible bigotry, there’s issues with the writing here – mainly that it is either terminally dull or makes absolutely no sense. John Carey is a dull, lifeless cipher next to Sonny Bonds, and the world he lives in slams between humdrum and mundane on the one hand and absolutely absurd on the other, and the lackadaisical, linear gameplay plays into this.
On the “dull” side of the equation, previous episodes of Police Quest were finicky for the amount of minor procedural stuff they expected you to do, like the nonsense in Police Quest I about walking around your character to check all your tyres before you drive, but the regular bits of absolutely flavourless paperwork that Open Season expects you to do is infuriating. There’s also some mandatory firearms practice you need to do down at the range using a shooting system which, true to Police Quest II, is a tedious chore and isn’t even used in the game when you actually shoot at bad guys. It’s also the spot where the game glitched out on my playthrough, freezing when I tried to leave the firing range, and between this and the other irritations I’ve outlined above and am going to go into below, I gave up on playing it all the way through and just watched the Level 0 NPCs playthrough.
On the absurd side of things, when you go visit Bob’s home, his wife seems appropriately despondent, but his daughter seems entirely happy, and this extremely variable handle on how human beings act and behave continues throughout the game. At the start of Tuesday you get yelled at by your boss for shoving a journalist on-camera. As well you should be, because roughing up the press doesn’t look good… except you have to do it; the game gives you no other option to get away from the journalist and continue play. It was bad enough getting told off or slapped with a game over in previous Police Quest games for breaching department policy – it’s infuriating getting told off here for something you had no option to avoid.
The most dickish thing the Lieutenant does, however, is the bit where he tracks down Carey whilst he’s off-duty and drags him to a city council meeting (outside of his duty hours!) to be interviewed (or berated) in front of the councillors and media. This involves no actual gameplay – you just get put there and yelled at and, though you can try to answer the questions if you like, there’s no real choice given to you about how you answer.
It’s utterly ridiculous – there’s absolutely no good reason why a front-line detective should be dragged into this discussion at all when the police department has a) people in leadership positions who could go answer these questions anyway like, say, Chief Gates, who would be in a far better position to comment on departmental policy than rank-and-file officers, and b) actual people whose job it is to make media statements and the like, who are mentioned in the manual.
There is one reason and one reason alone to include this scene: so that neo-Nazi Dennis Walker, a suspect you have been trying to pin down, can try to attack and kill you so you can arrest him. This is astonishingly silly – why didn’t he get jumped on by the security people at the council meeting when he tried to attack you? Why, for that matter, was he able to take an enormous (though graphically indistinct) melee weapon into the meeting at all?
What’s particularly annoying about this sequence is that it means you talk Walker into custody through nothing but sheer luck, rather than doing any of the detective work you might have expected needing to do as a police detective in a game called Police Quest which bills itself about being a police detective. This isn’t even malevolent, aggressive policing of the sorts Gates was infamous for; this is policing by accident, with a solution falling into your lap.
I can only assume they had to cut some material here involved in tracing down Walker in a more detective-like fashion due to lack of time or funds, but even then it’s done in a clumsy, artless fashion. There is already a bit earlier in the game where Walker has his girlfriend try and stab you when you visit his swastika-strewn home, and almost no plot elapses between this and the town hall meeting, so why not just take out the girlfriend, have him try to attack you in his home, and have you arrest him right then and there?
The last act of the game more or less entirely takes leave of its senses. To get to the endgame you have to deliberately drink some drugged tea given to you by the killer, which sounds like a massive breach of police procedure which Jim Walls would have absolutely hosed the player for. In a stunning example of the “policing by accident” thing combining with some truly absurd puzzle logic, you find the killer’s lair by obtaining some rope, which only appears after you’ve had the tea in the movie theatre, and then using the rope to leash a stray dog, who then runs off to the house where the killer is.
Not only does this not in any sense resemble police work, but it’s a complete abandonment of any sort of sensible story logic. Why is Carey even tasked with sorting out this dog, rather than letting animal control professionals do it? Why does the rope only appear after you have drunk the tea, when there is no possible causal link between the two? And why did the design team on this game not realise that getting to the endgame in this fashion makes all the police work you’ve done so far largely pointless, because the solution just falls into your lap by sheer chance? It’s kind of bizarre, given that Tammy Dargan used to work on America’s Most Wanted and Daryl F. Gates used to be the fucking chief of police of one of America’s major cities, that the game has such an astonishingly loose grasp of what police work entails.
In terms of technical execution, the game is 50% ahead of its time, 50% malfunctional and crappy. The graphical quality of the game is astonishing for 1993; the resolution’s not great by modern standards, but between the photographic backgrounds and videoed actors it’s a clear prototype of the approach which would later be taken with FMV-powered games like Gabriel Knight 2 and the Phantasmagoria series. This was the first game to use the new SCI2 engine, which would be used going forwards, supporting higher resolutions and generally expanding the graphical possibilities of the games, as well as supporting 32-bit systems.
It’s just the shame that the game never shows you anything you’d ever want to see; when it isn’t being utterly gratuitous, like showing you the mangled corpse of a small child, it’s showing you something drably, miserably dull. In addition, a lot of the animation cycles on the characters just aren’t up to much; you can tell which scenes really had a lot of work done on them and which scenes had their associated motion filmed in a hurry, because in the latter everyone seems weirdly stiff. There’s a really weird bit where the receptionist at the local social services place is also a part-time psychologist – like they only had time to record one NPC so they combined the roles – and I suspect there was a lot of similar corner-cutting when it came to recording the actors and doing the rotoscoping. The graphics also let themselves down in some particular scenes; there’s an ambush sequence where the “someone shooting a gun” effect looks outright terrible. (This is after the point where I gave up playing the game, but I watched the Level 0 NPCs playing through it and it looks like a horribly fiddly section to play through as well.)
The music ranges from forgettably mediocre to actively horrible. Take the bit where you go to the cinema – just check out the horrible MIDI horn on the music at about 10 minutes and 50 seconds into this section of the Level 0 NPCs’ playthrough, it’s absolutely hideous. The game also runs slowly – there’s long pauses even when you do relatively minor things, even running DOSBox on a fairly high-end gaming computer, and I can only conclude there’s some really clunky code under the hood that’s to blame for that.
Whereas previous Police Quest games allow you to make mistakes and then punish you for them, Police Quest IV by and large doesn’t permit this – it will object whenever you do something it doesn’t want, or won’t let you progress until you’ve covered the bases it wants you to cover. Whilst this does help it avoid getting into a situation where the game is unwinnable, it also exposes just how fussy and constrained the design actually is. For a game which is also quite fussy about paperwork early on, it’s also very willing to allow (and, indeed, require) you do bizarre nonsense which is in no respect in keeping with police procedure. There’s the “drinking the drugged tea” thing, for one, and for another some of the puzzles require you to give away or dispose of actual evidence in order to progress, which seems highly illegal to me.
I have to concur with the Level 0 NPCs here: between the “official” Police Quest IV and Blue Force, which was in effect Jim Walls doing Police Quest IV without the benefit of owning the Police Quest IP, Blue Force genuinely seems like the better game, with a superior story. Blue Force, for all its flaws, at the very least isn’t a tidal wave of hatred and the story actually hangs together in some respect until right up to the very end. It has heart, and a stab at emotions other than withering disgust for the scum clogging the streets, and non-police characters who are not depicted as a loathesome shower of shit.
Conversely, Police Quest IV resembles less a videogame and more a fever dream, a Brass Eye joke that’s somehow become reality. It’s no surprise that this was the death knell for Police Quest as an adventure game series; the next entry in the series, Police Quest: SWAT, would pivot into being a strategy game with some adventure elements, and after some mutations (and the gradual departure of Daryl Gates) the SWAT series eventually dropped the Police Quest name and mutated into a first-person shooter series, which I guess in some ways is a better genre for conveying the experience of American policing than an adventure game.
It’s ironic that the killer’s called Mitchell, because frankly I’d rather play a point-and-click adaptation of Mitchell, the miserable mid-1970s Joe Don Baker cop movie of MST3K fame, than engage with this heap of cold porridge masquerading as a videogame.
Quest For Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness
At the end of Quest For Glory III: Wages of War, right as you were enjoying your victory over the forces of the Demon King with your friends in Fricana you were teleported away by shadowy unknown forces. At the start of Shadows of Darkness you find yourself in a sinister, Gigeresque cave; after a little effort to escape you find yourself in the land of Moldavia.
This is a valley surrounded by mountains that in some respects is similar to Spielburg, the locale of the first Quest For Glory game: there’s a quaint little town where most of the citizens live, there’s a nearby castle where the ruler lives, there’s forest all around stalked by monsters, and Baba Yaga’s set up her hut somewhere in the countryside.
Baba Yaga is the least of your problems, however – in fact, she’s keeping her head down and minding her own business. For Moldavia is an intensely magical land – it was the original home of Erana, the heroic sorceress whose great deeds you’ve encountered traces of during your previous adventures, after all – and over time that magic has attracted trouble. Worst of all, the Cult of Avzool once made its headquarters here and tried to summon their liege – one of the Dark Ones who exist outside the world and are always seeking ways of breaking in. They were foiled by the efforts of Erana – but their efforts had lingering consequences. The touch of the Dark One persists in the world in Moldavia, and it has warped the land and made the monsters there even more fearsome.
Now, though the Boyars of Moldavia have long since died out, some new master resides in the castle, and the villagers make sure to hang plenty of garlic in their homes. A haunted swamp has established itself where the sole pass out of the valley used to be, so it’s extremely difficult for anyone to enter or leave. The people are suspicious of strangers, but you’re going to need to cut through that suspicion, be a hero, and foil the plans of whoever it was that brought you here in the first place. And you’re going to be short of allies, for the land of Moldavia is a world without heroes…
With Moldavia presenting a fantasy version of Transylvania, Shadows of Darkness is the horror-themed episode of the Quest For Glory series. It came out alongside the first Gabriel Knight game, but it feels like it’s largely serving a rather different school of horror from that; if the Gabriel Knight series tapped the same zeitgeist as Vampire: the Masquerade, this is more of a Ravenloft deal, influenced more by vintage horror movies than then-fashionable modern-day gothic occult horror (and with just a punch of Lovecraftian tropes for extra spice).
It’s also something of a return to the style of the original game, with exploring and mapping the forest being a significant component, much less in the way of tight deadlines, and no “overland map”-style features. Pseudo-Transylvania is much closer to pseudo-Germany than it is pseudo-Arabia or pseudo-Africa, and so the cultural parallels between Moldavia and Spielburg make sense, and actually help the story because it gives us an instant handle on just how much has gone wrong in Moldavia.
Perhaps the best example of this is the return of the Adventurer’s Guild – a lynchpin of the first two games which was notably absent from Wages of War, I suspect because of the tight release schedule of that game. Whereas there simply wasn’t a Guild in Fricana, here there is one – but it’s abandoned, and its building has been left dilapidated. You can obtain the key to it through, and taking possession and signing your name in the logbook (a tradition held over from the first two games) feels like an important first step in making things right.
Speaking of tight release schedules and making things right, the original release of Shadows of Darkness was apparently incredibly buggy as a result of Sierra’s inflexible policy on release schedules at the time. Patches were released and eventually most of the bugs were ironed out, though some do report some things not working brilliantly even now.
In addition, even if most of the bugs have been squished in the currently-available version, it’s also rather evident that a lot of corners have been cut. There’s several sequences where the Hero “jumps” between stepping stones in a rather awkward, clearly stiffly-scripted fashion or where there’s an animation of them climbing up onto a ledge but later when they climb down they just teleport down, because no animation of them climbing down was done. A lot of the forest scenes are recycled, sometimes in ways which clearly don’t reflect the written area description (most particularly, the descriptions refer to a road which simply isn’t visible on the screens in question). It’s not quite as bad as Wages of War – the end-game celebration is meatier here, and you don’t have really obvious issues like an entire half a city just not being implemented – but it shows.
There’s some ableism in the depiction of Igor (a hunchback with learning difficulties and lackey of local mad scientist Dr. Cranium, ancestor of Dr. Brain of Castle of Dr. Brain fame), and the werewolf “gypsies” are drawn a bit like racial stereotypes and talk about their way of life in a way which genuinely makes me think that Lori and Corey Cole thought that Romani people are mythic figures, not an actual ethnicity that actual people belong to and has been the target of actual genocide. That said, Igor is at least presented as a benign figure who runs his own business (he’s a headstone-carver and gravedigger) and is respected and appreciated by the fellow townsfolk, and the Moldavian’s antiziganist prejudices are depicted as a bad thing, so whilst clumsily handled, this far from Sierra’s worst awkward depiction of racial diversity from this year.
The writing also has some nice twists to it; the plotline around Tanya, the innkeeper’s daughter who’s become a vampire by mistake, and the monster who’s befriended her is heartbreaking, and the entwining of the Hero’s destiny with Erana’s is also interesting. The return of Baba Yaga is a rewarding bit of continuity for long-time players of the series.
On the whole, I would say that whilst Shadows of Darkness does not quite hit the level of the first two Quest For Glory games, it’s certainly closer to them in quality than it is to Wages of War, which was a significant step down. The fifth game in the series would take substantially longer to come out, and be rather different in style to the others, but that’s a story for later…
1993: The Golden Age of Point-and-Click?
Sierra were not the only point-and-click adventure creators who had a busy 1993. LucasArts broke with their usual one-adventure-a-year model here to release two games, both of which are regarded as top-tier classics of the LucasArts era: Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max Hit the Road. Both were comedy games, and it’s interesting how most of the Sierra games I’ve covered this year have either been overtly comedic in style (and the others have strong comedy streaks).
It’s no surprise, given the influence of those two LucasArts games and the franchises I’ve listed here, that there’s been a tendency for point-and-click adventures to default to comedy – I think comedy is often an easy safe harbour for the genre to resort to, since it allows you to write puzzle solutions based around jokes and puns or sheer randomness rather than having to follow a more rigorous and realistic puzzle structure, and it means if the player does something wrong you can at least give them a laugh in consolation.
That said, there’s one adventure released by Sierra this year which raised the bar in terms of the subject matter which a point-and-click adventure could handle, the depth with which it could handle it, and the genres available to the field aside from comedy – that being the first Gabriel Knight game, which despite some issues (like the handling of race and an annoying “enter this room unprepared and die” situation with a poooisonous snake) still stands up better than pretty much any of the games I’ve covered here aside from Quest For Glory IV (which may benefit somewhat from fond memories of earlier games in the series) and Space Quest V – which, of course, was not actually developed in-house by Sierra and so was not a product of the Sierra design process.
Technologically, Sierra and LucasArts seem to have been on a par at this point – though it’s rather striking to note that whilst Lucasarts had included scrolling screens as standard in their point-and-click adventures since Maniac Mansion, Sierra still was working to the “static screen” standard this late. It’s clear, though, that LucasArts was able to deliver a much better hit/miss ratio with their adventures, at the cost of quantity. The creative process at Sierra may be partly to blame here; by 1993, it had become standard policy at Sierra to get games out on schedule come hell or high water, because company creative director Bill Davis, having come in from other creative industries, was used to situations where that was vital.
It was pretty much the opposite of the oft-quoted Miyamoto philosophy that a late game is eventually good, but a bad game is always bad; it was the utter ruination of some projects like Outpost, whose released version was absolutely horrible and was even lacking functionality shown to games journalists in demo versions earlier, and we’ve seen in this article and previous ones how it impacted Sierra’s adventure games. It’s the sort of approach which is good for the bottom line in the short term, but bad in the long term both for creative satisfaction and for how people view your legacy, and a risky approach which can create horrible word of mouth and sink a game’s prospects in the short to medium term.
The result for 1993 is that Sierra would release two classics (Gabriel Knight and Space Quest V, which is a strong contender for best in the series), two games which were pretty solid but didn’t hit the top tier either because of seriously distasteful missteps (Leisure Suit Larry 6) or bugs and hurried implementation (Quest For Glory IV), one mediocre game with an astonishingly over-generous critical reputation (Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist), and one crime against humanity (Police Quest IV).
Sierra would never have another adventure-heavy year as this one; at first, this would be due to a good chunk of the next brace of adventures they’d produce being ambitious enough or significant enough departures from past precedent that, management policies be damned, it just wasn’t possible to make them as fast as they used to, but soon this would also reflect a cooldown of the adventure market. But we’ve got several articles in the series left to go before we reach the end of the road…