GOGathon: Sierra’s Final Days of Independence

After a very busy 1993, Sierra had a fairly quiet 1994 when it came to releases of their in-house adventure games. Part of this may have been due to the fact that they were not done with their 1993 releases yet; standard practice at the time was to release a game on floppy disk first and, if it performed well enough, greenlight a CD-ROM “talkie” version with voice acting added. With lots of games released on floppy in 1993 and doing pretty well for themselves, a lot of CD-ROM updates needed to come out in 1994.

The market was changing, however; CD-ROM drives were increasingly not just a luxury toy that only owners of truly top-end PCs had, but an integral part of many systems, and with certain CD-ROM-only games (which we’ll note as we go along) released in 1993 selling astonishingly well, it was apparent that the format was fast becoming the default.

New technology created new expectations, and the next crop of Sierra adventures – one coming out in 1994, the rest in 1995 – would try to meet those expectations by taking their graphical presentation to a higher level. The new FMV craze was sweeping the industry, and Sierra would make their own impact there with the first Phantasmagoria and second Gabriel Knight games. They did not, however, put all their graphical eggs in one basket – sensibly, since FMV turned out to be a bit of a short-lived fad. Other adventure games released at around this time looked into the new possibilities offered by 3D graphics, or new ways to incorporate traditional animation into a videogame. And naturally, Roberta Williams led the charge…

King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride

It had become an in-house policy at this point for trusted senior Sierra designers like Roberta Williams or Al Lowe to cook up their projects with the assistance of a junior designer – like Jane Jensen helped with King’s Quest VI or Josh Mandel helped with Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist. Whilst in some quarters it caused a certain level of resentment in terms of fair credit and attribution, at the same time it genuinely seems to have been intended as a means to train up fresh new talent – after all, Jane Jensen got to make Gabriel Knight after making a success of King’s Quest VI, and Josh Mandel was allowed to helm Space Quest 6 with Scott Murphy acting solely in a creative consultant role before Sierra’s bullshit prompted him to quit – but I’ll get into that later this article.


King’s Quest VII, then, was made with Lorelei Shannon, who would go on to make A Puzzle of Flesh, the second Phantasmagoria game. This is not the only Phantasmagoria connection here, though; several elements of the design here would inform Roberta Williams’ approach to the first game in that series, but before that, time for a plot recap…

After King Graham got to rekindle his adventures in King’s Quest V and Prince Alexander got his big encore in King’s Quest VIKing’s Quest VII gives some love to the women of the Daventry royal family (who so far as I can tell are almost the only actual ordinary human beings who live in Daventry, aside from a couple of token peasants, which at least makes their royal status way less problematic).

We catch up with Queen Valanice and Princess Rosella as they’re working on Valanice’s fresh new project: getting Rosella married off, now that Prince Alexander has had his own wedding. As we know from her introduction in King’s Quest II, Valanice is used to husband candidates showing up to rescue her from enchanted otherworldly towers, but alas, poor Rosella doesn’t have any eligible bachelors offering to rescue her from her bedroom, so Valanice has dragged Rosella off on a hunk acquisition tour, which isn’t going brilliantly. (They also seem to be just strolling on foot, which suggests that Sierra have generally odd ideas about how royalty travel.)

Pausing by a pool so that they can take stock of the poor quality of dudemeat the royal families of the region are offering up for Rosella’s perusal, Rosella becomes distracted by a vision of an otherworldly castle which is just different enough from the Disney logo to avoid intellectual property issues, and decides she would rather jump in the lake than listen to Valanice discuss the miserably shallow dating pool any more. Whoops, it’s a portal to another place, and not only is Rosella spirited away to the underground kingdom of the trolls (and turned into a troll herself), but Valanice is dragged into the vortex and dumped in an arid desert region.

As you alternate between playing Valanice and Rosella, it becomes apparent that they are in the strange region of Eldritch, a set of small realms (like the land of Ooga-Booga where the dead live, and the nonsense city-state of Falderol) with the flying land of Etheria, ruled by the fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania, presiding over all. The malevolent fairy Malicia is behind the troubles of the realm; will Rosella be able to turn herself human again, will Valanice be able to track her down, and will the two of them at last be able to say “Bye, Malicia”?

The most immediately apparent thing about King’s Quest VII is that it’s another big leap forward in graphics for Sierra, with some beautiful graphics based around gorgeous hand-drawn animation. It’s said that Ken and Roberta Williams had ambitions for Sierra to be the Disney of videogames – indeed, they were saved in the midst of the early 1980s videogame crash in part thanks to having the licence to do some Disney adaptations – and it’s very apparent that this is a game which very much wants to be a Disney movie; Rosella’s even introduced in the intro movie with her own little princess song! It’s a spin on the standard Disney Princess “I am dissatisfied with the status quo of my life and would like something exciting to shake it up” song. Some dislike this and consider it tonally inconsistent with the series so far, but given the strong emphasis on fairytale whimsy in the games so far  I think it’s actually quite apt.

However, whilst a fun idea in theory, it is a concept which has aged poorly and didn’t come across well at the time. Part of this comes down to some serious hiccups in the development process. Sierra experimented in commissioning outside studios to do animation here; at first, they contacted a Russian animation house who claimed they would be able to do all the animation required within a fairly modest budget, but after work began the animators got back to them and explained they wouldn’t be able to do it all, with the result that in the end three entirely different studios contributed animation, some of whom had absolutely no prior experience doing animation for videogames.

This was inevitably going to be a more expensive way of doing things, and it’s pretty obvious that in the process of reconciling the output of the different studios and work with each of them, Sierra had to cut some corners. The quality of the animation is frankly inconsistent, with some cut scenes looking quite good whilst others are much worse, with some sequences using about a fifth of the frames they’d need to make it look remotely acceptable or some screens having a weirdly slow frame rate. (The animations specific to the first screen you encounter in the land of Ooga-Booga, for instance, are weirdly slow for the most part.) Their sense of priorities also seems to be off – there’a a bunch of superfluous animations which could happily be removed in favour of putting more attention on the truly crucial stuff, but instead they lovingly animate entirely pointless nonsense whilst goofing on some plot-critical parts. It’s just bizarre.

There are also inconsistencies which seem like they would arise more from the brief given to the overseas animators than any error on their own part. The overall style doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether it goes for Disney-style fantasy-realism a la Snow White or Beauty and the Beast or Warner Bros.-esque exaggerated slapstick or something in between, and some of the character designs have issues.

Valanice looks just fine, as does Rosella in her troll form, but human Rosella looks a bit too much like an obvious Disney Princess candidate; if she looked less like one, the deviations from Disney style would feel less incongruous and the lifts from Disney’s house style would be less blatant. In addition, her walk cycle is just plain off, especially when she is in profile: she has this odd little strut and shakes her shoulders in a weird fashion and between that and her huge collar it’s like she’s Leisure Suit Laura moseying her way across the dance floor of a sleazy disco, not a princess on a fantasy adventure. In some other poses, particularly at some levels of zoom, Rosella looks like she has a thick monobrow.

More serious errors can become evident. There’s bits where Rosella or Valanice will stroll right through the scenery, for instance, because they didn’t quite put in the invisible walls correctly, but even when you set aside technical goofs like this, there’s some amazing instances of the game graphically contradicting itself. There’s a bit where Valanice is on the south bank of a river and Attis is on the north bank, and they both exit the screen heading west, and then in the next screen they are both there on the south bank. This is extra-absurd given that on the screen they start off in, there’s a bridge Attis could have happily strolled over to avoid this inconsistency.

The interior of Malicia’s house has two doors going to the outside, when the exterior views make it clear there’s only one entrance. Likewise, windows visible on the exterior do not appear on the interior, and the interior side of the front door does not match the exterior side (even having a window which is a different shape from the window in the exterior side!). It’s transparently obvious that either the studio who painted those backgrounds didn’t realise they were exteriors and interiors of the same building, or they were done by different studios who didn’t keep each other in the loop. (To add literal insults to metaphorical injury, both Valanice and Rosella see fit to shame Malicia for her use of makeup if they examine her makeup table while there.)

The graphical problems not only arise from self-evident onscreen errors, but I suspect also led to some cut content. In the latter part of chapter 4 there’s a bunch of talk about Malicia’s malevolent gargoyle looking for you and the troll-king, but it never bothers to actually hunt you; it appears on a single screen, sat still unless you linger too long in its proximity or try to interact with it, and is animated with entirely too few frames even in that context, so I can only assume whichever studio was meant to animate it seriously dropped the ball and a lot of the content related to it had to be cut and smoothed over, but it was too late to adapt the script suitably to account for its near-absence.

(I suspect the responsible animation studio is the one responsible for Ooga-Booga land, which has a lot of really janky animation, and the werewolf in the border between Ooga-Booga and Ceres’ forest, whose main “appear and attack the main character” animation is accomplished with about a dozen frames at most.)

The other thing which very quickly becomes apparent is that the standard Sierra point-and-click interface which has remained more or less unchanged since King’s Quest V is significantly deviated from here, with some major tweaks being made. What’s instantly obvious is that there’s no more verb-selection. Rather than having to choose to look at something, talk to something, touch something, or whatever, you just have a single cursor; you wave it around the screen, click it to get the characters to walk around (some of the “rooms” are even larger than one screen and have actual scrolling, which LucasArts had as far back as Maniac Mansion and Sierra took an astonishingly long time to implement), and when it hovers over something interactable, it sparkles to let you know; inventory objects likewise light up if you wave them over something you can try to use them on.

I’m not as mad about the simplified interface as some Sierra fans were at the time – I think it’s a perfectly reasonable way to present a very story-oriented game in a very accessible, approachable manner, though on the accessibility front it’s a bit one step forwards, two steps back due to the removal of text descriptions – if there is a way to turn subtitles on from within the game, I didn’t find it and the manual for the GOG edition doesn’t describe it.

At the same time, whilst I think it was the right experiment to do at the time in general, I do question the point of doing this experiment with King’s Quest VII. It’s not the King’s Quest bit that bothers me here – I didn’t mind when King’s Quest V went to point-and-click rather than keeping the text parser, after all – so much as the VII bit. Is it realistic to imagine that any true beginners are going to be starting off with a game billed as the seventh instalment of a series? Particularly a series which prides itself on its storytelling credentials, and especially a game which makes very little effort to explain to the player who the main characters are and what their deal is? (I’ll get into that later.)

It also has to be said that this is a system which feels significantly more vulnerable to brute-force puzzle solving, and the highly simplified controls may in part be a necessary by-product of the use of animation; because you can pretty much only attempt a very limited set of things, only that set of things needs to be animated, whereas in previous games if you tried to attempt something incorrect you might at least get an interesting verbal description of what’s going on.

Indeed, this is a much less verbally or textually-oriented game than previous King’s Quest episodes. There’s still plenty of voice acting, of course, but there’s no textual or verbal narration used by the game to describe the scene or convey information to the player directly. Unless the characters on-screen say it or think it to themselves, you don’t hear it. This is, again, something which was a lot like how LucasArts handled their adventures, where rather than an impersonal narrator the descriptions of items you looked at would be conveyed by dialogue from the protagonist and so on, but it goes further than that: because there’s no specific “look at” command, you only very rarely get instances of the characters verbally describing anything too you.

That extends to the inventory system; you can drag inventory items over an “eye” icon at the bottom of the screen, but rather than triggering a verbal description of the item you get a 3D rendering of it popping up which you can move about by dragging the mouse. The inventory and cursor system would later be carried over into the first Phantasmagoria.

The whole setup means that the game is much more dependent on the graphical presentation to convey information to the player, because it backs off from using verbal description as a key tool in that. That’s fine if you have really clear, well-executed graphics, but as I have explained at length above that’s not what the game has, and because the gameplay is relying on you being able to get crucial information from graphics which aren’t particularly up to much, that means the graphical flaws can translate into gameplay problems.

For instance, there’s one puzzle where you have to find the right route to jump across a chasm – the problem being that the “wrong” route is drawn in such a way that the gaps between stepping stones look comfortably smaller than the length of Rosella’s stride, so she should be able to just walk across at that point rather than jumping at all; as it is, crossing there will result in her falling to her death. I can only assume this is the result of the background artist not being properly briefed on what the puzzle is. There’s some dialogue about an updraft at the position you are meant to jump from, but again: it’s a gap she can sodding walk across.

This is not the only part where the lack of verbal or written descriptions of many of the things on the screen hurts the game; it seems to have been made under the assumption that the onscreen graphics are so self-explanatory as to not need further detail, but aside from the obvious accessibility issues this raised, it also means that you can’t get a clarification that what looks like an absolutely bone-dry river bed is, in fact, deep mud that Valanice will drown in if she tries to walk on it.

The simplification of the interface does mean that the game is much less oblique and pointlessly unfair than many preceding games in the series had been, and there’s also examples of this elsewhere in the puzzle structure and game design. There’s a few instances of there being multiple routes to solve a puzzle, for instance, and – in another move that Phantasmagoria would pick up on – the game is divided into chapters (six of them, with you playing Valanice in the odd-numbered chapters and Rosella in the even ones), and when you start a new game you can choose to just dive into a later chapter if you want. When playing it through chapter-by-chapter, you don’t need to necessarily solve every single puzzle – some stuff must be solved to end the chapter you are currently in, but other puzzles can be saved for later chapters. The game also includes the innovation trialled in Leisure Suit Larry 6, in which when you get yourself killed you just get respawned immediately before the thing which killed you, rather than being obliged to reload a saved game.

That said, the execution of some puzzles could also be better. At one point you get a horn you can use to summon a gravedigger to dig a grave for you; in my playthrough, I first blew this in a screen with a big pile of bones, thinking that was the solution to the puzzle in question, only for the gravedigger to show up and explain that I should only blow the horn in spots where I really wanted a grave dug. I reasoned that, since Rosella never said “right here’s fine”, that I wasn’t meant to get the grave dug on that screen – but actually, that’s exactly what I should have been doing, only I didn’t check again because the gravedigger also warns you that bad shit happens if you blow the horn too much (and on some screens, that’s exactly what happens because you “wake the dead”). This is stupid: if someone has done the correct solution to a puzzle, you give them the credit for that and you let them solve the damn puzzle, no two tries crap.

There’s an occasional reliance, particularly in chapters 4 and 5, on puzzles where the solution requires you to keep revisiting a screen until some random thing changes, which is always tedious and annoying, especially when it isn’t necessarily evident that this is all you need to do – you can waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to do something which you could have sorted out faster literally by exiting and re-entering the screen in question a bunch of times until something changed. (In a further “fuck you” to deaf gamers already put out by the lack of subtitles, one of these involves whether or not a particular sound is present on the screen in question.)

Chapter 5 involves a lot of tedious backtracking between the surface world and Etheria to pad out the game, along with at least one really absurd bug. You see, there’s a screen with a werewolf on it in the borderland between Attis and Ceres’ forest and Ooga-Booga; Valanice can only cross it once, going from the Ceres’ forest side to the Ooga-Booga side, using an expendable item, though after a few more puzzles she soon gets the means to avoid it by going via Etheria, which is a little tedious. Except… if, once you’ve gotten to that stage of the game, you start on the Ceres side, walk across, get killed, and then hit the retry button, Valanice spawns on the Ooga-Booga side of the screen, allowing her to walk off that side and reach the outskirts of Ooga-Booga, rather than spawning on the Ceres side! They very obviously just didn’t QA test this option, assuming that nobody would try to cross the werewolf section after getting past it the first time around.

There’s at least one instance of a puzzle where you have to remember something a character did two chapters ago, towards the end of the chapter in question, which was quite an involved chapter at that. In previous games which allowed you to make multiple save games, it would have been easy to go back and remind yourself of the procedure; King’s Quest VII, however, only allows one “bookmark” per game, and so does not allow that. (Even starting at the beginning of the chapter in question would require you to do a bunch of crap to get to the necessary point.) The bookmark system is another instance of misguided accessibility: I can see the point in a game for beginners, I don’t think anyone into PC gaming enough to want to play King’s Quest VII in the first place needs to have their hand held to this extent by a save system.

In early, pre-patch versions of the game, the time limit involved in carrying a lit firecracker in your pocket in one section was broken, so that there would be insufficient time to carry the firecracker to the section you need to use it – but because of the way the death system respawns you where you died with the firecracker returned to your inventory and the timer restarted, you could muddle through by continuously exploding and re-exploding. This got patched, but you would think that Sierra would have made every single timer-based situation in their games comprehensively airtight and thoroughly tested after the debacle of the span of time a bit earlier when all their SCI games got released with broken timers.

(To summarise that situation: one of the problems of developing for PCs with this era is that, without a single, standardised architecture, you had to calibrate the game for a bunch of different processor speeds. SCI games calibrated themselves by having an invisible character called “Fred” walk from one side of the screen to the other, and measuring how long it took: that set a benchline for how all the times in the game needed to be adjusted to work properly. The fact that a company as big as Sierra wasn’t, as standard, testing their games on PCs of a bunch of different processing speeds is pretty ridiculous, of course, but I guess they assumed that having Fred present saved the need to do that.)

There is one puzzle where you must play a harp to play a section of a tune the fairies play to you, which if you do not have a really good ear for music is going to be really difficult for you to figure out. LucasArts’ Loom had included music-based spellcasting previously, but had also included adjustable features to assist tone-deaf players, and in this game it’s really unclear which section of the tune you should be playing or which note you should take as the first note in the sequence, because it cycles.

The writing and worldbuilding is quite fun here, and whilst the graphics have their limitations they do a great job of supporting them. The trolls are really endearing – a fun little monster society which has odd ways and culinary tastes which would be disgusting to us, but who are basically friendly and serve a benign purpose in the world by tending to the local volcano to make sure it doesn’t wreck the whole of Eldritch. Matilda, an elderly troll who was the Troll-King’s nanny when he was a child, and Rosella have some particularly fun interactions – once it’s clear that Rosella has no plan of marrying the King (and therefore probably isn’t part of Malicia’s plan to control him), she quickly becomes a friendly ally and brings Rosella up to speed on what’s going on in the underground kingdom of the trolls. She also turns out to be this awesome multiclass nanny-wizard who uses her magic to help Rosella regain her human form and slip away to figure out what’s going on.

In terms of the overall world design, there’s some interesting symbolism going on – Ceres and Attis’ realm of abundant life is next to Ooga-Booga, the land of death, the underworld of the trolls has links to both Ooga-Booga and Falderol, a sort of realm of imagination, and the first area that Valanice shows up in is a desert realm reminiscent of a mashup of pre-Columbian civilisations and modern-day Looney Tunes cartoons – a sort of fantastical Americana.

Etheria floats above all this and is the realm of fairies and, via a curious means of access, the Fates (and they don’t do the hackneyed maiden/mother/crone breakdown for Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos – instead Atropos is the youngest and, whilst it’s hard to tell which of Clotho and Lachesis is oldest, I think Lachesis is the older one). To access the land of dreams and talk to Queen Mab, Valanice must go to sleep – but the only place she can do that is in Ooga-Booga, a realm of death, on a couch shaped like a coffin. There may also be a seasonal angle – the brightness of Ceres and Attis’ realm and Falderol being spring, the desert region being summer, Ooga-Booga being autumn (with its Halloween motifs) and the troll underground being winter – a time to stay inside in the warm rather than roving in the outdoors.

It’s pretty weird that the Greek-style rulers of Etheria, who live in close proximity with the likes of the Fates in a realm where the fertility of the Earth is attended to by Ceres and Attis, are “Oberon and Titania”, not Zeus and Hera, which their design is clearly meant to suggest, but given that there were some odd religious sensitivities going on in Sierra (some staff were too Christian to want to work on Al Lowe games, because Leisure Suit Larry is just that much of an affront to the Lord) there may be a behind the scenes story there.

However, even the setting and story, possibly the strongest aspect of the game, have some significant faults. The backstory explanation in the manual (at least in the version obtained from GOG) is incredibly slight, and if you didn’t already know who Rosella and Valanice were, the introduction to the game itself offers you little clue beyond “generic queen and princess”. At the end of the game, the plot points about who Edgar is, how Rosella knows him, and his past history with Lolotte will simply be lost on anyone who hadn’t played King’s Quest IV. This would have been substantially alleviated if Rosella had talked or thought about Edgar and her earlier adventures a bit more earlier in the game, but she simply doesn’t.

A perfect time would have been right at the start – whilst discussing her marriage options with Valanice, Rosella might talk about her adventure facing off against Lolotte and how Edgar proposed to her at the end of that game, but she turned him down because it was too abrupt, and the two might have spent a moment wondering what the hell happened to Edgar after that.

Then during the game Rosella, Valanice, or both could have learned that Oberon and Titania had a son called Prince Edgar who’d been kidnapped as a youth by an evil fairy, returned after having the curse lifted, but then disappeared shortly after his return, and from that Rosella or Valanice could have realised that this Edgar must be the same Edgar that had previously been in King’s Quest IV, since the timelines would broadly line up. That would have nicely established the disappearance of Edgar as an ongoing mystery and would have clearly communicated to new players what Edgar’s history with Rosella was.

This doesn’t happen, though. Instead, the game just dumps all of these plot points on you in Chapter 6, ensuring that the conclusion of the plot is as confusing as it can possibly be for anyone who has not played the previous games. The writing of the game simply assumes that you have dutifully kept up with the plot up to this point, which is fine if you want to create another episode in a sequence which strongly assumes you have either played through or read up on the plot of the previous games, but is absolutely the wrong call if you want to make a game which is accessible to newcomers to your series.

As is often the case with King’s QuestThe Princeless Bride finds Roberta Williams and her team experimenting with a bunch of interesting ideas for ways to push the adventure game format forward, but it would require future games to take the results of these experiments and deploy them more smoothly. There genuinely is a lot to like about the game, but it’s endearing more for what it’s trying to be than for it what it actually ends up being; it is yet another example of a Sierra adventure which is really interesting in theory but a pain in practice.

Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier

After the events of Space Quest V, you’d have thought that Roger would have been lauded as a hero. Nope: he might have saved the galaxy, but he broke an absolute shitton of StarCon regulations in the process of doing so, and after a swift court-martial he has his rank and command roughly yanked away from him and he is demoted back down to Janitor Second Class.

Assigned to the Deepship 86, Roger bimbles about aimlessly on shore leave with no clearly communicated motive until he gets in some trouble, from which he is rescued by Corpsman Stellar Santiago. After more meandering, it becomes apparent that Santiago has become the victim of a villainous medical experiment, and to save her Roger must get himself shrunk down to go on a Fantastic Voyage-esque, er, fantastic voyage into her body to tackled the nefarious nanomachines that threaten to take it over. Thus, he must face – The Spinal Frontier.

(Originally, the plan was for this game to have the subtitle Where In Corpsman Santiago Is Roger Wilco?, as a spoof of the Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? edutainment series, but Brøderbund pitched a fit and the title was changed.)

As I’ve previously recounted, the Two Guys From Andromeda’s game design partnership split up after Space Quest IV. Mark Crowe ended up leaving Sierra to work at Dynamix, a subsidiary company, and Space Quest V would be farmed out to them, with Crowe taking the lead on the design – Scott Murphy, the other Guy From Andromeda, didn’t find out a fifth Space Quest was even on the cards until he was accidentally shown a beta version Dynamix had sent up for approvals.

Space Quest 6 was not meant to be a Scott Murphy game either, though it was eventually billed as one. Originally, Scott was only attached to the project as a creative consultant, and the lead designer was one Josh Mandel, who had previously served a design apprenticeship helping implement The Dagger of Amon Ra and Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist.

Both Josh and Scott have given their side of the story in terms of what happened next, but it essentially comes down to the changing company culture at Sierra and Josh’s increasing unhappiness with it. Whilst Sierra in its earlier years had been a rather freewheeling, hard-working/hard-partying sort of place, the writing was on the wall. In 1987 Sierra had gone public, meaning that it was no longer 100% Ken Williams’ baby; Ken had a board of directors to answer to, and as the videogame industry became a bigger deal and more people with managerial experience as opposed to game design experience joined the board, and as more middle management were recruited to keep an increasingly labyrinthine company structure functional, a more standard corporate ethos came in. (Aspects of this were already evident by the time Space Quest III was being made, with the depiction of ScumSoft’s totalitarian horrors in that being inspired by the changes made to Sierra’s internal culture.)

Many long-time staffers felt that fun and camaraderie were draining away and cubicles and bureaucracy were taking their place, and it’s evident from Josh’s interview that he was one of them. This was exacerbated by a situation he outlined in his interview (and repeated in interviews for The Sierra Adventure), in which after negotiating a new contract with him, which included a specific clause that he would have his choice of producer (Mark Hood) on his next game project, Sierra management decided to renege on the deal.

That’s straight-up breach of contract, and between that and an astonishingly snotty and unprofessional response from the manager Josh raised the matter with, Mandel came to the not unreasonable conclusion that if they were happy to flat-out go back on their word on one aspect of a negotiated contract, they could no longer be trusted to honour any of it, and he resigned more or less immediately. This is completely understandable on his part, and you would think that Sierra would be a little more careful about not committing actual legal torts against the person currently in charge of making a new episode of one of their flagship series, but there you go.

The result of this is that Scott Murphy got put in charge of the project and was ultimately given sole credit on the cover and promotional materials (though Josh’s name is in the end credits), inheriting the game at a point when Josh had done a significant amount of design work already – so far as I can tell from their comments he already had at least a first draft of the puzzle structure done, but had only just begun on writing the in-game text – but at a point where Scott still had ample opportunity to add his own fingerprints, make significant decisions, and change a bunch of stuff up.

The end result is a game which neither Josh nor Scott is fond of, though they have chosen to express that in extremely different ways. In retrospect, Josh has expressed the view that he wasn’t happy with some of the puzzles and would have probably made changes to some of them had he stayed on the project and (as we shall see) also describes how changes made by Murphy to his design broke parts of the game.

Scott, who strikes me as the sort of guy who never saw a bridge he didn’t at least think about burning, has been about as rude about Space Quest 6 as he has been about Space Quest V, to the point of decrying the entire shrink-and-go-inside-Stellar joke and claiming that the game was designed “around a lame joke on a title of another company’s game series, which was about as stupid an idea as I’ve ever heard of”, about as strong a condemnation as he could manage of Josh’s contributions without mentioning Josh by name. (It’s also really, really fucking rich for him to complain about the joke, given the daft jokes some of the earlier Space Quest games were designed around.)

Even if Scott hadn’t done those interviews over the years, however, it may have been possible to infer his feelings about Josh’s original design, because his main game design contribution here seems to have been to hack out great bleeding chunks of material, with the result that the game that shipped is incredibly bad at explaining itself or conveying its narrative, or even making internal narrative sense.

Josh Mandel had past form in going all-out to make sure there were lots of written descriptions of things in his adventure games, and made sure to use those to provide useful hints and narrative to the players so they weren’t just pointless throwaway jokes. There had been prior issues with Al Lowe – another Sierra veteran designer who, based off his experience, really should have known goddamn better – cutting a lot of Josh’s text from the CD-ROM version of Freddy Pharkas, with the result that it pulled a bunch of clues.

By contrast, Scott Murphy – to put it charitably – had adopted a more laconic style in his previous game designs. A lack of in-game motivation and adequate descriptive text was a problem in some of the first four Space Quest games, come to think of it, so now we know which of the Guys From Andromeda we can blame for that. It is quite evident, simply from the state of Space Quest 6, that there is a bunch of clarifying material and narrative connecting tissue which Murphy simply did not implement, in part because he simply didn’t understand Josh’s original design document.

The start of the game is chronic for this – the whole drive of the first act involves you getting a hotel room on Polysorbate LX, but it’s not even remotely clear why you would want such a thing. Sure, you’re here for shore leave, but what is the point of getting a hotel room for shore leave when your own quarters on the ship are a) free and b) a teleport zap away? It is never mentioned or explained that Roger even wants a hotel room, at that, unless you have him walk in and ask for one, and it’s still not really explained why he wants one given the above.

The barman in this area seems very happy to continuously make you drinks without you ever paying for them, though that’s fair since he never gives you the drink either. It makes all the interactions with him very, very odd and nonsensical – as if Mandel had developed the barman in his first draft so far, but then Murphy just implemented him as-is rather than thinking through how that actually comes across on a narrative level and realising it needed extra polish.

This is far from the last point where it feels like a lot of connecting scenes and explanatory material got cut; this goes on right to the ending. Murphy seriously disliked Mandel’s original intended ending (a parody of the final scene of Planet of the Apes, with in place of the Statue of Liberty a statue of Leisure Suit Larry), but in cutting it out replaced it with, essentially, nothing – just a disappointing teaser for what was coming in Space Quest VII, which got cancelled.

In between the beginning and end, a morass of confusion reigns. There’s a bit where the shuttle you are on is supposed to strand you by flying into a space-time anomaly, but that isn’t animated or graphically depicted at all – the screen just fades to black and the narration mentions you fell into the anomaly. I can’t play that bit without being reminded of the astonishing can’t-be-assed-ness of the “teleported between worlds” sequence in Outlaw of Gor; Crow’s quip at 26 seconds on that video applies as much to this game as it does the movie. Some puzzles, like the PTS sequence, are more or less not explained at all and must be solved by trial and error.

There’s characters you interact with briefly on Deepship 86 and you are left with the sense that you probably were supposed to have had a more detailed introduction to them, but it was cut. (I do like the leader of the Deepship 86 crew, Commander Kielbasa – he’s a lion dude who is very clearly a parody of the lion dudes in Wing Commander, and his commander’s chair on the bridge is a big kitty bed.)

Unforgivably, one of the characters this is a problem with is Stellar herself, who as your motivating factor in the game is pretty damn important to the plot. She just shows up and Roger acts like he’s known her for ages, but you’ve never met her before this game and there’s no real explanation of who she is. Josh was apparently going to include some more scenes with her covering that (as well as scenes with Beatrice, your Space Quest V love interest and the woman destined to bear your son), but of course Scott cut them.

The expositional scenes he doesn’t cut featuring Stellar Santiago are stunningly dull and overlong, so not only was he cutting a lot, he was showing astonishingly shit judgement of what to cut and what to keep. This is particularly evident with the jokes and parodies; there’s Borg jokes in the dialogue – like someone calls you Borg Breath – but there’s also the Bjorn in the game, a parody of the Borg, so shouldn’t it be Bjorn Breath? (Except then the joke wouldn’t land so well.) There’s two entirely separate starships which are the butt of Alien jokes. It feels like in the rush to cram in as many references as possible to different franchises into this game, little care or attention was given to which jokes were treading on each others’ toes.

(On those Alien jokes, we get an extra dose of sexism: at one point Roger encounters a woman astronaut called “Wriggley” who is meant to be inspired by Ripley from Alien but talks like Generic Flirty Bimbo Character #346. Great, wonderful, we get some sexism as a side dish.)

The plot in general makes very little sense, even accounting for the lack of exposition – Santiago is the one who was needed for the dodgy medical experiment in the first place, it feels like it would have made far more sense to just kidnap her, rather than going after Roger Wilco for the sake of luring her into a trap, and indeed it really feels like the big bad was originally planning to do something with Roger himself before the development team changed up the plot but forgot to adjust those parts.

There’s cyberjack ports built into all the ComPosts (communication posts) on Deepship 86, and interface features clearly designed to allow their use, but you never actually use them. You eventually use the cyberjack port on a completely different computer, somewhere else. Sure, that makes sense in some respects – it’s the Information Superhighway (depicted as a literal highway), accessing it from any terminal anywhere is the point. But strongly suggests that there was some cyberjack action planned for Deepship 86 too which was simply cut; the ports in the ComPosts are literally gaping holes where a puzzle used to be.

Then, of course, there’s the infamous datacorder puzzle. The clues to solve this one were originally intended to be included in the game in a comic CD-ROM owned by one of the NPCs, but after Scott Murphy took over the project he cut that content. It was only thanks to him having a chat with Josh Mandel shortly before shipping that he mentioned this – to Josh’s horror, partly because Josh had exerted a bunch of work on making the comic and partly because it was the crucial clue needed to solve the puzzle. In the end the clues had to be printed in the manual, which made it come across like an increasingly anachronistic copy protection puzzle when it was nothing of the sort.

Murphy’s total failure to realise what information was crucial to complete the game suggests that either he was not given enough time by Sierra management to properly familiarise himself with the puzzle structure, or his head just wasn’t in a place where he was able to really go over Josh Mandel’s design document (which we know must have existed, because making such a document was standard practice) in order to get up to speed.

Whilst some have been inclined to be kind to Murphy, since he had to take on the lead designer job when he wasn’t expecting to at short notice, I feel less charitable, partly because the resulting game is so shitty and partly because it isn’t true that he had no influence or input on the game prior to that. For instance, that ending Mandel had planned? Murphy hated it, and expressed that he hated it before Josh left the project, and Murphy hating it was enough to prompt Josh to scrap it and start working on alternatives before he quit. You can’t disclaim all responsibility for a project which you are attached to as a consultant and, in that capacity, are exerting that level of editorial opinion on.

If Scott didn’t understand the design when he stepped in, then that is in part a failure on Scott’s part to do the job he was doing on the project before Josh left in the first place, because as a creative consultant he should have been looking over and providing that creative consulting on Josh’s entire design document. If he didn’t know about this stuff, it’s because he didn’t care to know about this stuff until he had no choice but to interact with it.

Speaking of stuff that Scott Murphy didn’t particularly care for and didn’t want to properly address or interact with, let’s talk about the elephant in the room when it comes to the writing here: the way the game treats Space Quest V is absolutely appalling, to the point where it feels like it goes beyond a mere retcon or a continuity jump (as Leisure Suit Larry had done several times without issue) and into a full-on “fuck you” to Mark Crowe and Dynamix for making it and for any fan who enjoyed it, which is pretty rich given that Space Quest V was comfortably the best game in the series.

This shitty attitude is expressed in the opening cut scene, which is Roger’s court-martial that takes away his Captain status, one of the defining features of Space Quest V. Roger is charged with, among other things, being involved in an “unauthorised sequel”, which really says it all. Likewise, Roger’s bedroom has various souvenirs of his past adventures… for the first four games. There is, very specifically, not one single reference to Space Quest V among these treasures. Admittedly, this was also true in the Space Quest 6 demo that was completed under Josh’s watch – a minigame using locations and other resources from the main game but telling an entirely separate story – but what would be an innocuous oversight in a game which otherwise didn’t mention Space Quest V becomes much more of a problem in a game which begins with a cut scene deliberately retconning the previous game away when it comes to Roger’s character development.

Of course, there is a remote chance that Josh intended the court martial to come across this way too, but I am fairly confident that this is a Scott thing – after all, he was the one who actually saw the thing implemented, if he had had any issues with its overall tone then he could have changed it. Scott Murphy has made absolutely no bones, either in the 2006 interview I linked above or elsewhere, about how much he dislikes Space Quest V, whereas so far as I can tell Josh Mandel, whilst he hasn’t exactly sung its praises to the heavens, at the very least has remained polite about it over the years. (Indeed, he was a contributing writer to its manual, so he’s got a credit on it.) In addition, as I’ve mentioned, Scott cut a massive amount of material that Josh had written for the game and was generally quite sparse with the writing. Surely, if Josh had put in extraneous Space Quest V cracks that Scott didn’t necessarily agree with, those would have been among the material that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Let’s face it: it’s fucking Scott’s fault, isn’t it? If you had to pick which of the two creative leads on this game would a) have an enormous, obnoxious, ugly grudge against Space Quest V and want to comprehensively trash it, and b) have the combination of an absolute lack of self-restraint or consideration and the astonishing rudeness and spite necessary to actually go ahead and put that in a game submitted for publication, rather than just taking his lumps and maybe making a minor passing joke or two and just concentrate on making the best possible Space Quest 6 he could, you’d point to Scott, not Josh. Mr. Murphy, Mr. Mandel, if you’re reading this I am willing to hear you out if you want to refute me, especially if you have receipts to hand, but absent any further evidence on this point the balance of probability points firmly towards Scott and I am just going to carry on here as though he were personally responsible, either for writing the scene in the first place or for approving the scene after Josh did it.

The whole thing suggests the game is highly invested in the idea of Roger being a bumbling, lowly goof, rather than anyone who gets a shred of respect, but it just comes across as pointless humiliation for humiliation’s sake. It’s a completely pointless humiliation too because even when he was a Captain in Space Quest V, he still ends up being talked back to by his peers and doing all the dirty work.

The disappearance of the entire Space Quest V supporting cast feels particularly shitty. I’d gotten to like Cliffy, Droole, Flo, WD40, and the ship’s pet facehugger Spike; Beatrice had potential given her status as an Ambassador, and we know we’re destined to have a kid with her anyway so working in another love interest when we know damn well that the writers aren’t going to go with polyamory as a solution is at best pointless, at worst a threat to outright retcon away Space Quest IV too. (When Roger first meets Stellar there’s some dialogue to the effect that he doesn’t entirely understand why he likes Beatrice to begin with, which feels like a jab at her admittedly shallow characterisation in Space Quest V at best, a threat to just toss continuity in the toilet and abandon the last story Murphy and Crowe had worked on together entirely at worst.)

To add insult to injury, the scene doesn’t even get its facts right. One of the mitigating factors which stops him from being punished more severely is his safe return of the Eureka – except that doesn’t happen in Space Quest V, the Eureka blows up at the end, it’s the substantially more valuable Goliath that Roger returns. It’s a bit rich for Scott Murphy to be so nasty about Space Quest V (both here and in subsequent interviews) when it’s clear that he either didn’t play the game or didn’t pay enough attention to catch this particular continuity error.

UPDATE: 6th April 2021.

Out of the blue, some clarification on this point has come up: Josh Mandel e-mailed me about it, and was nice enough to let me quote his e-mail here in order to correct the record. In the previous version of this article, I phrased the above paragraph based on the assumption that the Eureka/Goliath goof was 100% Murphy’s fault. Apparently, that’s not the case. Take it away, Josh…

While I have really no argument with anything you say about the game and its development, I just wanted to set the record straight about one single, solitary thing.

The confusion in the opening cartoon, where they talk about the Eureka when they should’ve been talking about the Goliath, was my mistake. Purely my mistake. How it happened, I’m not sure, because I’d played SQ5 more than once, and I knew the plot well. So the best excuse I can make is the cliched “brain fart.”

One could reasonably argue that, in the many many months that the game was in development after I left, SOMEbody should’ve picked up on it and corrected it, because since we don’t see anyone’s mouth moving, it would be very easy to change the line. But nobody should’ve had to correct it in the first place.

Very embarrassing, because I liked SQ5 a lot (being a Star Trek fan, and there are no shortage of ST jokes in SQ6, including the scene in question, being a reference to the scene at the beginning of ST4, where Kirk is busted back down to Captain from Admiral).

I guess I should add that it’s true that my design did not include any SQ5 characters. But other than Roger himself, it also didn’t include any SQ4, SQ3, SQ2, or SQ1 characters, either — with one cameo’d exception: Fester Blatz in the chip store.

Anyway, I just wanted it to be clear in YOUR mind about the Eureka/Goliath mix-up. I own that one.

To be honest, even with this clarification I’m still inclined to put some of the blame on Scott, based on the point Josh makes about the game having been a team effort. Ultimately, Scott was the guy who finalised the script for the game and was taking the lead for the latter part of the project, and it’s him who gets the big credit on the final product. Even if he wasn’t to blame for introducing the error in the first place – and Josh has made it very clear that’s on him – he and the rest of the team working on writing and continuity share the blame for letting it ride.

At the end of the day, my beef with the way Space Quest 6 treats Space Quest V doesn’t hinge on that one line – it’s to do with the entire way the trial sequence comes across, and the fact that after the sequence, Space Quest 6 does its utmost to pretend that Space Quest V didn’t exist, so I don’t think this undermines my point all that much.

Right, back to the article…

UPDATE ends.

Either way, it means that not only does it give clear signs that Scott Murphy didn’t take the time to properly understand the design document for Space Quest 6, but he didn’t really understand the plot of Space Quest V either, which wouldn’t be a problem had he simply ignored the events of that game but becomes very evident when he went with a script directly referring to it (and, to add injury to insult, referred to it specifically to trash it).

I’m far from the only person out there who is royally fucked off by the game’s absolutely uncalled-for retconning away of Space Quest V and dumping on its legacy; I heartily recommend the rant that the Level 0 NPCs deliver for the first five minutes or so of this episode of their playthrough of the game if you want more venting about largely the same subjects.

It’s not just Space Quest V that gets insulted here. In general, the game is much more keen to say mean things about the player than Space Quest V was, picking up a tradition begun in the earlier Space Quest games and had become outright obnoxious by Space Quest IV. Between this and the game’s horrible attitude about Space Quest V, we now know the answer to a great mystery; namely,”which of the Two Guys From Andromeda is the asshole?” Sure, some of this might have come from Mandel instead of Scott – but Scott was at the helm when the game shipped, Scott applied his name to it, Scott had final approval on the script (Josh having left with only a fraction of the writing done), and Scott had acted as creative consultant from the start. If he didn’t want the game to be this harsh, he had ample opportunity to enforce a course change, just as he forced Josh to abandon his planned ending.

There’s also a sense of snobbish disapproval combined with mild trepidation about the popularity of faster-paced, more action-oriented games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat; there’s a parody fighting game here as an arcade sequence – which, fortunately, is trivially easy to beat once you’ve solved some puzzles, because the implementation certainly isn’t fun to play without cheating – entitled Stooge Fighter 3, with the characters all being members of the Three Stooges. (The demo also includes cracks at “More Dull Kombat“.)

This was in keeping with a growing sense of divisiveness in the videogame hobby at the time, with adventure fans developing a sense of superiority over devotees of more action-oriented fare that was increasingly accompanied by a worry that those games would kill off adventure games. As we’ve seen from The Sierra Adventure, the demise of the adventure game as a multimillion dollar budget enterprise may have been due to the fact that action-oriented games sold comparably well or better but could be made more cheaply, but at the same time the notion that more thoughtful games in general went extinct at the time just isn’t true – we’re talking about the era when Baldur’s Gate and Fallout became hits, after all. It is notable that CRPGs included actual game mechanics and gameplay deeper than a puzzle structure and a point-and-click interface, suggesting perhaps that increasing consumer weariness with the gameplay of traditional point and click adventures not really advancing enormously beyond Monkey Island compared to the gameplay of other genres may have been a factor in the genre’s decline.

As my last slam here on the writing, I’ll note that the sense of humour here is just a bit more juvenile and a lot more simplistic than Space Quest V; whereas the Eureka there is shaped like a Dustbuster, which is funny because it’s connected to its function, the Deepship 86 is shaped like a jockstrap for no good reason aside from the fact that underwear is funny.

As the game progresses some technical faults become apparent. There’s a puzzle where Roger has to open the doors to a shuttlebay by holding a prosthetic arm in one hand so he can reach to press two buttons at once; when you enact this solution they don’t have Roger walk over to the right position by the door to do it, so he just stands wherever he was stood and mimes doing it there, and it works anyway. It looks ridiculous.

There’s also some pretty lousy pathfinding, with Roger regularly getting in characters’ ways (especially in the more cramped areas), and sometimes disentangling yourself doesn’t go so smoothly. There’s a bit towards the end of the game where you are meant to break open a barrier to progress to the next part of the screen, but they did the invisible walls wrong and I was able to just walk past it, with Roger helpfully pathfinding around.

The game would occasionally just freeze on me for no apparent reason, often in situations where Roger’s motion is constrained somehow, which suggests something is off with the scripting there. It’s particularly irritating because I was saving much less frequently than I would precisely because the game includes the feature trialled in King’s Quest VII and Leisure Suit Larry 6 of the game letting you start again just before you got yourself killed, but since the game didn’t include an autosave system (something which King’s Quest VII could have done with too) I wasn’t protected from losing progress to a sudden crash.

However, aside from these issues on the technical side of things Space Quest 6 is actually quite impressive. The graphics are a mixture of hand-drawn 2D animation, like a toned down version of that used for King’s Quest VII, and prerendered 3D scenery and animation, and the integration of the two types of graphics is much smoother and nicer than even Hollywood was managing at this point in time. The return of Gary Owens as the narrator is welcome, and even though Roger’s occasional fourth wall-breaking interactions with the narrator are a joke lifted from Leisure Suit Larry 6, it’s a pretty funny joke and it is delivered well here.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Space Quest 6 is that you can see all the tools and ingredients for making a much better game strewn around the place, but they don’t come together into anything remotely enjoyable. It is a bad way for the series to go out, and especially unfortunate since Space Quest V had offered the best story and some of the strongest gameplay the series had to offer.

Roger Wilco’s official adventures ended here; efforts to make a game internally referred to as Space Quest VII: The Return To Roman Numerals were underway by 1996, but as the decade came to a close and Sierra cooled on adventure games the project was cancelled, and then the closure of Sierra as a development house put paid to it. Subsequent owners of the IP have seen fit to simply rerelease it in various forms.

Murphy and Crowe would look past their differences and team up again to make SpaceVenture, a new SF-comedy point-and-click adventure very much framed as a spiritual successor to Space Quest. The Two Guys, however, seem to have had pretty significant problems getting this project off the ground; after raising half a million on Kickstarter to produce the game in 2012, the production process has been rocky.

At first, the delays came down to the fact that the Two Guys had been beset by a run of luck which is as crappy as any Roger Wilco has suffered and much less funny, with various family members having significant health crises. Chris Pope, their main helper on the project, had to take on outside work to pay his bills because he couldn’t justify staying on the project without pay any more, which severely impacted the development time. Still, that was the case in 2015; the project still hasn’t got its shit in order some five years later, and as of the time of writing (late July 2020) backers are still waiting on a promised beta release of the game.

The updates sound increasingly bullshitty; before the July beta testing plan, they were talking in March about doing a full release of the game in June, without any mention of the beta testing phase which is not only standard practice these days in but was also a specific Kickstarter reward backers had opted into, and it was not unreasonably pointed out that even if the beta had released in March, which it didn’t, expecting the Two Guys to amass beta testing feedback and implement it in time for a June release felt like an extraordinarily long shot, and that’s putting it charitably. Less charitably, given the amount of time needed to do a proper round of testing and the track record of the project so far, it was bullshit, and was clearly bullshit even before any delays arising from 2020 disruptions.

Whether the beta will indeed release this July is anyone’s guess; whether the game will be remotely worth the wait once it actually release is likewise an open question. It will be a real shame if the Two Guys cap off their legacy with a disappointing game, especially a disappointing game that tries as hard as SpaceVenture does to trade off their past Space Quest glories; it would be a deeply unfortunate coda to the history of the franchise. However, between putting out a game which flagrantly disrespected its predecessor and then putting out interviews in which he trashed a full third of the Space Quest franchise’s output, Scott Murphy seems to have made it his business to damage his own legacy for quite some time now. This is where that started.

(April 2021 update: The beta eventually dropped in August 2020. As of the most recent update on the Kickstarter page – February 2021 – the Two Guys have been forced to go back and rework the save/load system, since that functionality is apparently causing severe issues. So whilst some variety of playable thing exists, whether it will ever be in a state where all of its basic functions and features work reasonably consistently is stull up in the air.)

Shivers

Once upon a time, eccentric researcher and minor member of the British nobility Sir Hubert Windlenot left Britain – where he had destroyed his social and scientific reputation with his embrace of crank theories – to reinvent himself in America. Obtaining a minor post at a provincial university which hadn’t gotten the memo about him being turfed out of the Royal Society in disgrace, he wasn’t content, but then he hit on his master project: a museum which would showcase his pseudoscientific fringe theories!

Soon enough he had picked out a site near Mt. Pleasant, Ohio to establish his dream – Professor Windlenot’s Museum of the Strange and Unusual. In keeping with Windlenot’s eccentric character and the bizarre nature of the exhibits, the museum was designed itself to be an enigma, full of puzzles and conundrums to test the wits of visitors. It was a mammoth undertaking, and the epic construction project – hindered by Windlenot’s tendency to hire and fire contractors on a whim and not give any of them full details of the project so as to keep his secrets – dragged on for years. The museum never opened for business, the townsfolk wrote off any high hopes they had of getting some tourist trade coming in for it, and they eventually forgot about Windlenot and his museum, having seen through the Professor just as his peers and colleagues in Britain had done.

It would have ended there – except, alas, Windlenot’s eccentric researches proved to be the proverbial broken clock that comes right twice a day. For among his various acquisitions for the museum, he had managed to come across one real, genuine set of magical artifacts – the ten earthenware jars made by the Zapana, a (fictional) pre-Columbian culture who had used the jars to capture the Ixupi, a set of malevolent spirits. And in 1980, whilst he was away on an expedition, some teens out for cheap thrills broke into the museum and opened the jars – freeing the Ixupi. Their fate was sealed, and when he returned to the museum, Windlenot fell victim to the Ixupi too.

Fast forward to the present (well, the present in 1995). You and your fellow “teenagers” (by which I mean teens played by actors who are clearly in their mid-20s at the youngest) are always pulling pranks on each other, but this time around the other four members of your crew have really pulled out the stops: they’ve only gone and locked you in the grounds of the museum, daring you to stay the night! As the four of them drive off into the darkness, you take stock of your surroundings; eventually making your way inside the museum, you encounter Windlenot’s unquiet spirit, who explains to you what must be done: you need to find the ten vases and their corresponding lids which imprison the Ixupi, and then use them to recapture the wayward entities.

Shivers was primarily designed by Marcia Bales, and was her debut as a game designer; she had previously been a project manager at Bright Star, an edutainment software house which had been acquired by Sierra previously. With Roberta Williams willing to do a bit of creative consultant input (in between her duties on Phantasmagoria), Bales still had a pretty daunting task ahead of her, especially since she was being asked to make a type of game Sierra had never done before.

Specifically, Ken Williams gave Bales the brief of making a game in the style of Myst. Myst was not the first game in the “first-person 3D slideshow” mode of adventure games, of which Dark FallScratches, and Barrow Hill would be later examples; The 7th Guest had come out some months previously, and in fact Shivers resembles that game more than it does Myst in a number of key areas which I’ll note as I go on. Both games were massive sellers, to the extent that they were credited with driving the home adoption of CD-ROM drives in PCs, and in particular the strong sales of Myst demonstrated that The 7th Guest was not a one-off fluke – others could replicate the same success that Virgin managed, so why shouldn’t Sierra?

As with both The 7th Guest and MystShivers relies on the use of prerendered 3D graphics to a large extent – achieving what was at the time a cutting-edge look without requiring any great rendering capability on the part of the home user’s machine. That said, both of Shivers‘ predecessors had made some use of full motion video with real actors to accomplish some cut scenes – The 7th Guest did so very prominently, whilst Myst was a bit more sparing with it. Seeing how Sierra already had their FMV setup in place for the production of Phantasmagoria, it’s no surprise to see them slip some in here too, mostly for the purpose of the intro and ending videos and to realise the few human ghosts you encounter during your exploration of the museum – this latter being a parallel to The 7th Guest‘s use of FMV to present its hauntings.

For the most part, the puzzle design feels like it comes more from The 7th Guest‘s school of thought than Myst‘s. It has been a while since I played Myst, but from what I remember of its puzzles they were all by and large pretty rooted in figuring out the underlying logic of the strange technology on this island. The puzzles in Shivers are occasionally like that, but the game is much more eager to include puzzles which feel like they were copied out of a generic puzzle book and implemented in-game, rather than puzzles which were really rooted in the setting, with Windlenot’s love of puzzles being a figleaf over this.

Some of the puzzles are outright hideous to work out; there’s a pinball puzzle and a “Chinese chequers” puzzle which you’d need to do some fairly extensive working-out to solve, and Bales herself has noted in retrospect that this was the wrong call – it hurts the pacing of the game and means it takes too long to progress, bogging you down as you bash your head against one puzzle or another. Even if you work out what you are meant to do straight away in those puzzles – and chances are you won’t unless you have a sneaky walkthrough to hand – actually implementing that solution still takes too long.

Even worse, some puzzles won’t bloody go away. There’s a recurring puzzle you need to solve a variant of each and every time you enter one of the elevators in the game. Whilst most puzzles stay solved once you have solved them once, the elevator puzzles must be done each and every time you use an elevator. This is weird because for the most part the design works on the model that solving a puzzle gives you access to whatever it was the puzzle was gatekeeping – an area of the museum, an item, whatever – and you get to keep that access forevermore once you have solved the puzzle. The elevators are a weird exception, and it’s astonishingly annoying to have to keep solving variants on a puzzle you have already solved to continue to have access to something you have successfully accessed before.

What I think is the really strong point of the design – which is then sabotaged by one really horrible decision which makes it horrible to engage with – is the actual mechanic for sorting out the Ixupi. As you go along and piece together what’s going on you learn that each of the Ixupi is associated with a different substance or elemental force – there’s an ash one, a metal one, an electricity one, and so on. Each of the ten has had its vessal and the lid that goes on top of its vessal hidden around the museum somewhere.

For each Ixupi, you need to track down its vessal and the corresponding lid, consult the Zapana symbol on it and figure out which element it denotes, work out from that where the Ixupi in question is hiding, and then use the vessal to capture it. There’s a wrinkle in that some of the Ixupi can leap about from place to place in the museum; for instance the Ixupi of ceremonial ashes can be found either in some cremated remains in the “tombs and burial rites” segment of the museum or in the ashes in the fireplace in Windlenot’s study, so if you already roused the spook in one of those, odds are it’s hustled off to the other one.

That’s a fun concept, because it means there’s all sorts of activities involved which can all provide both a sense of progress and actual progress towards completing the game. You’re exploring the building, unlocking areas, gaining an understanding of the mystery figuring out where the jars and lids are, searching for the crucial information on how to interpret the symbols to figure out which Ixupi the jar corresponds to, and catch the Ixupi. Fun, right?

The thing which makes this much less fun than it really should be is the absolutely horrible inventory system, in which you can only carry one item at a time (jars with captured Ixupi inside them excepted). You can carry a jar. You can carry a lid. You can carry a jar with its corresponding lid, once you put them together. And that’s it.

Bales herself has acknowledged that this was a bad call, and another factor which makes the game much more slow and awkward and annoying to deal with. If you were allowed to just carry the damn lids and jars with you and combine them in your inventory as you go along, it wouldn’t take away any appreciable challenge from the game (so long as you remembered to take notes on where things were), it would just spare you an awful lot of annoying backtracking as you put jars and lids together. You would still need to solve all the puzzles you presently need to solve in the game; you’d just have a smoother experience. It’s a terrible decision all round.

Another issue with the game is the lack of threat. You see, in principle the Ixupi are dangerous and will feed on your life force if you prod them too much; each time you nudge an Ixupi without confronting it with its designated jar, it will take some of your life force, and if it is one which has multiple places it can inhabit it may go jump to one of those. The thing is, if you are saving the game regularly – as you will want to anyway (ideally with multiple saved games since individual saves will occasionally become corrupt, at least when run under ScummVM) – you can just reload whenever you encounter an Ixupi and avoid losing the life force, and since they don’t make an effort to actively hunt you throughout the museum you will be safe like that.

If you just want a spooky collection of puzzles with an occasional archaeological and pseudoscience theme, Shivers is pretty decent; it’s a pretty atmospheric game, with a great musical score and some nice in-game documents you can discover and read to unravel the multilayered tragedy that has happened here. It’s particularly nice how you can reconstruct the movements of the two teens who broke in here back in 1980 and released the Ixupi, right down to the scattered bits and pieces that the ill-fated Beth dropped as she tried to flee for her life.

Nonetheless, compared to Sierra’s two other major horror releases of 1995 – Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within – Shivers can feel a little tame. It’s more of a haunted house amusement than a true horror story, and if you go into it wanting that and some brain-teasing puzzles it’s not out-and-out bad, but a few bad design decisions here and there make it much more of an awkward and frustrating game than it needs to be.

Torin’s Passage

The world of Strata is a strange place, for it is not one world but five – five concentric spheres, with vast Phenocrysts extending between the layers. The Phenocrysts capture and distribute light to the lower layers, but can do even more than that; long ago, in the era known as the Unity Period, the ruler of the Lands Above (the outermost sphere) known as King Tor the First invented “erresdy powder”, an astonishing alchemical preparation which allows people to teleport through the crystals. Through this, instant travel for all between the worlds became possible, and the five worlds lived harmoniously.

Time passed. Friction and ill feeling increased. The worlds drifted apart not physically but socially and politically. The Phenocryst network was increasingly neglected. And eventually, disaster struck: forces unknown struck out and murdered the King and Queen of the Lands Above, and their infant child vanished into the night.

Years later, young Torin Fahrman lives on a quaint little farm on the outskirts of Crystal City in the Lands Above. One day, quite without warning, his parents are spirited away in a flashy display of terrifying magic. A mysterious stranger tells Torin that the culprit is the sorceress Lycentia – who for her evil was banished to the Lands Below, as the residents of the Lands Above think of the four inner worlds of Strata. Little does Torin know that his journey will go deeper than he thinks – all the way down to the innermost world, Tenebrous, and the place within that, the mysterious Null Void…

Torin’s Passage is a family friendly comic fantasy romp, with lots of laughs and a few serious themes slipped in here and there. It’s by Al Lowe, which caused a bunch of consternation at the time because Al was primarily known for Leisure Suit Larry, which is about as not-family-friendly as you can possibly hope to get, but people didn’t give Al credit there: it’s a much gentler story than you usually expect from him, and whilst his comedy was always a bit cleverer than it was given credit for, he’d also worked on early family fare like the Black Cauldron game.

Lowe’s been pretty open about his inspiration for the game; he’d taken his daughter to see Mrs. Doubtfire in the cinema and he noticed that there were two types of laughter breaking out in the screening – there’d be the stuff that the kids found funny, and then there were the jokes which went over their heads but which hit the spot with their parents. He thought that this was something which Sierra was missing in their portfolio at the time – they had their edutainment titles which would amuse kids and bug the shit out of parents, and they had adventure games which were generally appropriate for young teens or tweens on up but were essentially inaccessible to younger kids, but they’d become short on games which parents and kids could play together and both enjoy it.

Torin’s Passage is therefore a much gentler and kinder adventure game than we are used to from Sierra, but it’s still got its challenges and is a satisfying play whatever age you are. Lowe hits on an absolutely genius idea for incorporating an in-game hint system in an adventure game without the player just blazing through the hints and ruining the fun for themselves; there’s a hint button you can press, and each time you press it you get a progressively more direct hint about how to solve your most immediate problem. (This was in keeping with the style of Sierra’s classic-era hint books, which had their hints printed in invisible ink and you used a pen to reveal them bit by bit so you could get juuust the right amount of help you needed without spoilering yourself.)

The bit which stops this feature being a “win game” button you just mash is the timer; each and every time you do something which earns points in the game, the hint button rises from the bottom-of-screen control panel to reveal an hourglass. You can’t get a hint until the hourglass retracts, making the button pressable again. This means hints only become available if you have reached a point where you have not made any material progress towards solving the game for a sustained period of time, and become unavailable again as soon as you start progressing again.

(You also lose points for using the hint button, but frankly Sierra adventure point scores had ceased to be meaningful years previously and by this point had become a really weird holdover from their early days that Sierra clung to long after everyone else realised that “points” in an adventure game make no sense.)

This is a really nice design idea; I am slightly surprised that Sierra went with it, given that historically their official hint books had done good business, but I guess by 1995 the Internet, whilst not absolutely ubiquitous, had become widely available enough that if it hadn’t already destroyed their hint book business, a tech-savvy company like Sierra would doubtless have seen the writing on the wall for it. The best thing about this system it eliminates the most annoying thing about struggling with adventure game puzzles, which is the bit where you run out of things to do and are stuck without any idea of what you need to do to push the game forwards; it means you can make sure you are progressing fairly constantly without spoilering yourself if you don’t need the help.

The game also makes itself nice and accessible by adopting a lot of the innovations of King’s Quest VII – in fact, it’s immediately evident that the interface of the game is pretty much the same as that one, with some added quality of life features (like the ability to pause the game at more or less any time, and the ability to fast forward through cut scenes). On at least some screens you can effectively fast-travel by double clicking on a place, which is a particularly nice feature in a game where you do a fair bit of walking about (though on screens where that doesn’t work you can still get around fast just by turning up the walking speed, a feature of Sierra games as far back as King’s Quest I).

It does a much better job than King’s Quest VII of providing not just options which correspond to the actual solutions to the puzzles, but also plausible-ish solutions which are incorrect (like using Boogle in shovel form to widen a hole when the surrounding material isn’t really shovel-able, but looks like it might be), which will generally prompt if not an actual death scene then at least a line of dialogue where Torin explains why he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. This obviously would have taken more work, but is a real boon to the game; it means progress is a bit less “just click shit until it works”, and it also means that the game explains to you why a particular solution wouldn’t have panned out, avoiding annoying situations where obvious alternate solutions are ignored inexplicably by the main character.

The game also adopts the chapter structure of King’s Quest VII, with each layer of the world having its own chapter. Unfortunately, not all chapters are created equal; some of them have significantly richer puzzle structures than others (chapter 2 seems to be the most finished), and it’s quite evident that a lot of content got cut or simplified – for instance, in chapter 4 there’s a screen where there’s very obviously a room in the background, but you don’t go in there and it plays no role in the puzzle structure, making it rather confusing as to why it was drawn in the first place. Chapters 3 and 4 are, in general, slack points in the game – paper-thin chapters padded out in the first case by fiddly, obtuse puzzles and in the latter case by annoyingly slow and repetitive sections, and it feels like there used to be a whole bunch of material there which got dropped.

This is especially apparent in the story, particularly the way the ending raises a bunch of possibilities that are not obscured (and the last scene is astonishingly abrupt). Great gaping chunks of the design document, which would have added a lot of clarifying detail, were either not implemented, are only alluded to and must be pieced together by attentive players.

In addition, there’s a lot of stuff that is not wholly clearly explored because it was being held back for sequels; Lowe had hopes of making this the next big Sierra multi-game franchise, and had planned out a five game plot arc for the whole thing. The second game, for instance, would have had Torin assume his powers as king and, through a marriage to Princess Leenah of Escarpah (encountered briefly during this game), begin the process of reconciling the different worlds; the fifth game would have ended with Torin’s death, his life’s work complete.

You can see glimmers of a greater and more ambitious vision here, but it doesn’t always land well. Torin’s encounter with Leelah here, for instance, has him falling in love with her astonishingly quickly; it feels like he and she should have had a bunch more adventures in Chapter 3 than they actually do in order to narratively provide more basis for them falling for each other this hard and this fast.

At its best, though, the game proves Al to be a real wizard at worldbuilding and storytelling through implication. With flashbacks at the beginning of the various chapters filling in the backstory, the viewer has everything they need to guess what Lycentia’s deal is before the game spells it out, but the moment when you guess is quite impactful nonetheless, and the worlds and peoples you travel through tell their own story.

One of the worlds seems to be an entirely depopulated, lava-strewn warzone, the remnants of weapons found here and there, which has some pretty nightmarish implications when you think about it, while the residents of Tenebrous – the innermost world – have draconian punishments for damaging plants due to their limited amount of plant life, implying that the damage to the phenocryst network has hit the point where Tenebrous isn’t getting the level of sunlight it really needs to avoid shortages. There’s also an aspect that, though blessed with ample sunlight, the folk of the Lands Above might actually be more out of touch than those below; the further in you get, the more technological the cultures you encounter become, until the people of Tenebrous seem to have a fairly advanced society.

A lot of this showing-not-telling is accomplished by a beautiful aesthetic. There’s a particularly intriguing SF-fantasy mix to things; for instance, Torin’s royal status also gives him certain powers, like being able to remove the Ostracisation Collar from those who have been banished to the Lands Below; this may be divine right of kings-type magic, or it might be a use of super-science to produce technology keyed to the genetic fingerprint of the royal bloodline. (This also explains why the villain of the piece has orchestrated the whole adventure as a plot to kill Torin – so long as Torin is alive, there would be the risk that such capabilities would show themselves, instantly proving him to be the lost king and unravelling the entire scheme.)

The overall impression is of wacky cartoon characters inhabiting prog rock album art, and it manages to balance sense of wonder, slapstick, and endearing cuteness in equal measure, with Sierra’s best 2D hand-drawn animation yet spearheaded by Jim Murphy (who would later be a lead animator at Pixar) combined with prerendered 3D graphics in a carefully well-judged manner, taking the approach of Space Quest V just a bit further.

In terms of slapstick, cuteness, and kid appeal, no review of the adventure should fail to mention Boogle, Torin’s pet who accompanies him for most of the quest. Boogle’s a sort of cat-dog-shapeshifter thingy; as the adventure progresses, Boogle will all by himself stroll up to various items which interest him and examine them; once he has done so, he can polymorph into a replica of them. This sets up an interesting dual-inventory system, where some puzzles are solved with items you obtain with your conventional inventory as usual, and then when you switch over to your Boogle inventory you can access all the shapes he can change into, which are used for some puzzles.

In the sidekick stakes, Boogle works way better than Cedric did in King’s Quest V; he is genuinely useful and helpful, is clearly happy to go on the adventure with us, is generally a fun buddy to be around, and for the most part can take care of himself. Yes, there’s a bit of slapstick comedy around him, but it’s endearing and not intrusive on a Jar-Jar Binks sort of level. Overall, you’ll come to like Boogle enough that when he is endangered in the late game, it’s a powerful motivator, because you actually care about him.

Compare to Cedric in King’s Quest V, where generations of gamers have wondered to themselves “If I’m really nice to the Ice Queen, would she agree to keep Cedric a prisoner, or maybe feed him to her wolves while I watch and cheer?”: Cedric is constantly complaining about coming along, is almost never useful, and is constantly getting in trouble. He is helpful once, in the late game, but this isn’t quite enough to shake the impression that Graham might have had an easier time of it had Cedric not come along at all.

Torin’s Passage is well-remembered, and is astonishingly graphically impressive for its time, but I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece of the form; it’s more of a very good game held back from being a truly excellent game by an extremely thin middle act and other rushed sections. Things pick up once you get to chapter 5, though, and by the end my main disappointment was that, despite selling in numbers in line with other Sierra adventures at the time, we didn’t get more of this story. There’s clearly the foundations laid for something bigger here, but we have to content ourselves with just what we can infer from this when it comes to the Torin canon.

New Visions For a New Era

As I mentioned in the Shivers review, the PC game market was undergoing convulsions in 1994 and 1995 as a result of games like The 7th GuestMyst, and Star Wars: Rebel Assault selling astonishingly well. CD-ROM was becoming the standard, the expectations of graphics on top-of-the-line games had increased, and in the wider videogame world consoles were offering increasingly cutting-edge game experiences too (and in some cases games as deep and extensive as any PC offering, especially in the CRPG field).

It’s very evident that in this phase of Sierra’s existence, they were trying to push their adventure games to a new level of graphical sophistication and mass accessibility so as to grow their audience to the levels that the likes of Myst had attained. King’s Quest VIISpace Quest 6, and Torin’s Passage all explored hand-drawn 2D animation, with Torin’s Passage being the most successful of those games despite significant flaws. Shivers was a straight-up Myst-alike. Phantasmagoria, which came out in between Space Quest 6 and Shivers, was Roberta Williams’ big foray into FMV.

It’s the other major FMV release from 1994-1995 – Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within, which came out at some point after Torin’s Passage was published – that is far and away the best game of this era. Yes, it lets itself down a little in its last moments; this is true of pretty much all of Sierra’s games from this time period aside from Shivers, which had an OK ending, and Phantasmagoria, whose concluding chase sequence is one of the most inventive parts of the game.

However, it excels simply because Jane Jensen was telling a much deeper, much smarter story than anything that was being delivered in these other games. Despite my suspicions about the game being censored in some respects – you cannot tell me that Gabriel wasn’t planned as being bisexual in the original script – it still clearly had a ton of care and thought put into it, and it told a story of the sort of depth which other Sierra franchises didn’t seem inclined to attempt.

Meanwhile, back at Skywalker Ranch… for LucasArts, the runaway success of Star Wars: Rebel Assault changed everything. Before, so long as the games didn’t actually lose money, the videogame division was allowed to just chug along as it saw fit. Now, however, the powers that be knew that games could be very profitable – and the management was looking for games which were likely to turn a major profit, not merely break even.

For the first time in a long time, 1994 would see no new adventures come out of LucasArts, for they spent the time cooking up two games which would release in 1995, and would each represent attempts to take LucasArts’ adventures to the next level in terms of technological execution, flashy graphics, and mass appeal. These were Tim Schafer’s biker saga Full Throttle and The Dig – a rare non-comedic adventure for them based off an idea originally conceived by Steven Spielberg for his Amazing Stories anthology series before Spielberg realised that it would have been prohibitively expensive to make with the resources at hand. Indeed, early development work had been done on The Dig in 1989, with Spielberg and George Lucas himself participating in at least the initial discussions.

The Dig sold some 300,000 copies in the three years after release, which was actually better than any other LucasArts adventure managed. This means that neither it nor Full Throttle could compete with the sales of Rebel Assault, which pushed one and a half million copies within its first six months. It is also notable that Rebel Assault was a Star Wars game developed in-house, with cutting-edge technological execution and special effects for the era, giving videogames the treatment that Lucasfilm had given movies – it would have been tempting for management to decide “OK, our videogame development arm has hit the level we wanted from the get-go, time to really focus on Star Wars and milk the cash cow for all it’s worth”.

Sierra’s games from around this time have a similar story to tell: they sold just fine, by the standard of their adventure games, but what would have been a nice profitable endeavour in the 1980s wasn’t cutting the mustard now; production costs were shooting up, but the profits were not increasing with increasing costs. With Sierra a publicly-traded company oriented around seeking profits for their shareholders, this was already becoming hard to justify.

Still, Sierra’s creators did at least have the knowledge that Ken Williams, though beholden to the board of directors, had a lot of affection for the adventure games and could be counted on to go to bat for them. Unfortunately, Ken would not be the final authority for much longer – a decision was about to be made which would cost Sierra their independence, and may well have accelerated their demise as a development house.

In the next article, I’m going to round off Sierra’s in-house crop of adventure games with a look at their releases under the flag of CUC International.

One thought on “GOGathon: Sierra’s Final Days of Independence

  1. Pingback: Blackwell That Ends Well? – Jumbled Thoughts of a Fake Geek Boy

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