GOGathon: Sierra’s 1980s Peak

1989 saw the fifth anniversary of King’s Quest, and with the old AGI game engine well and truly retired and the shiny new SCI engine firing on all cylinders, Sierra were not resting on their laurels. As well as pushing the technical boundaries of graphical point and click adventures, they had also developed the medium to a point where they could reasonably be said to be pushing at their creative boundaries too, and 1989 would prove to be a fantastic year on that front, with five games which each in their own way developed the genre in a different direction and based in a different genre.

Two of these would be sequels to big-name Sierra series, two would initiate series of their own – one much-beloved, one more remembered as a bold experiment that laid the groundwork for better things – and one of them was absolutely terrible. Which is the stinker? Let’s find out?

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GOGathon: The Dawn of Sierra’s SCI Era

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

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

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

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GOGathon: Sierra Spreads Out

In my previous dive into the classic Sierra adventure games, I covered the first three King’s Quest games, over the course of which Sierra developed and refined their adventure design processes and principles. Come 1986, the time was ripe to apply these principles to genres beyond the fairy-tale fantasy of King’s Quest.

For this next exploration of the Sierra catalogue, I’m going to look at the first Space Quest game, which emerged in 1986 alongside King’s Quest III as Sierra’s first jaunt into another genre. I’m also going to cover their adventure game releases of 1987, a year in which they put out three games in extremely different genres – not one of them a King’s Quest release – and represented perhaps the apogee of what you could call their “AGI era” – the time period when they produced adventure games using the Adventure Game Interpreter system developed for the first King’s Quest.

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For Whom the Goose Honks

Untitled Goose Game is a release on PC and Switch (the Nintendo Switch version is the one reviewed here) which generated a ton of buzz from early trailer footage, which combined an endearing animation style with a delightfully simple premise: “It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.”

As a goose your activities are limited to waddling about at various levels of speed and sneakiness, gracefully swimming on water, waving your wings about and going “honk”. With these limited capabilities, you are set loose in a charming English village divided into a number of zones – the allotments where a gardener toils away growing vegetables, the village market square, a pair of neighbouring back gardens, the local pub and the skillfully-executed model village – each of which has an associated task list. Complete more tasks, access more of the map, make more mischief; it’s that simple.

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Taking a Note, Taking a Dive

The general public has a short memory. Many are under the impression that a substantial number of professional wrestling fans still believe the artform to represent genuine competition, rather than being an entertainment medium consisting of matches with predetermined outcomes. This isn’t the case – aside from small children who might believe in Roman Reigns the way they believe in Father Christmas, fans generally accept that the matches are worked, and derive a whole secondary level of enjoyment from analysing and debating the storytelling decisions behind match outcomes and the backstage gossip that might have fed into them.

Even among wrestling fans, there’s something of a myth that kayfabe – the pretence that it’s a real contest – was rigorously maintained until the early 1990s, when Vince McMahon famously said that WWF was in the “sport entertainment” business and promotions like ECW or WCW ran angles based largely on breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging kayfabe (usually as an attempt to persuade the viewer that things had gone “off-script” and were therefore real). In fact, major breaches of kayfabe and exposes of the business go way back, with one of the most famous such examples being Marcus Griffin’s 1937 book Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce.

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Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, Direct Like a Sleazeball

Italian B-movies aren’t exactly averse to sensationalism or extreme content, and in his prime Ruggero Deodato wasn’t averse to cranking both dials up to 11. Most known for infamous video nasties with a shockingly nihilistic ethical worldview such as Cannibal Holocaust and The House On the Edge of the Park, Deodato also turned out this entry in the poliziotteschi subgenre – a particular style of Italian crime film from the 1970s which emphasised extreme violence and a murky worldview in which the line between cop and criminal was thin at best.

Perhaps the closest equivalent in American cinema would be Dirty Harry, since like that movie the poliziotteschi genre often entails applying the amoral worldview and extreme violence of Sergio Leone-esque Spaghetti Westerns to a modern-day cop story. Even by such standards, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is an ugly and bleak piece. Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock) are police officers in a special undercover squad, which uses highly advanced computer intelligence correlation systems to predict the actions of organised crime and help the cops get to where they need to be before crime happens. They’re also vicious thugs with little compunction about, for instance, straight-up murdering pursued criminals if they reckon they can get away with it, and wildly irresponsible to boot. (There’s a great scene at one point where they practice their sharpshooting skills by running around shooting over each others heads at tin cans, in a sort of William Tell-themed obstacle course.)

The major target of their squad is the organised crime gang headed by Roberto “Bibi” Pasquini (Renato Salvatori), and their heavy-handed tactics only get more brutal when Bibi’s goons assassinate one of their colleagues on the squad. Torturing goons, burning the parked cars of rich clients of one of Bibi’s elite casinos (along with two car park attendants/guards), it’s all fair game as far as they our cop “heroes” are concerned. Maybe Fred and Tony do get results – but there’s a mole in the police department who’s willing to leak their identity to Bibi. Once Bibi finds out who they are, can the duo survive his revenge?

Deodato rarely misses an opportunity to get sleazy and exploitative – there’s a bit where the two cops confront Lina Pasquini (Sofia Dionisio), Bibi’s sexy young sister, and she more or less literally drags them into bed with her – and he’s also got a real way with violence, opening the film with a really over-the-top motorcycle chase that might just qualify as the movie’s best action sequence altogether. However, it’s also kind of a chore to sit through – you cut from heartless, self-centred, amoral policemen to heartless, self-centred, amoral gangsters, and sooner or later you find that there’s nobody to really root for in the movie.

This would be fair enough if it were something like The Shield, where underpinning the tough cop talk and ruthless action there’s a more nuanced and serious examination of corruption in police work and violence begetting violence and so on. However, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man doesn’t carry itself like that – instead, it gives every impression of wanting to be a light-hearted Lethal Weapon type affair – if Lethal Weapon had implied at one point that Danny Glover and Mel Gibson raped the big bad’s girlfriend, directly showed them murdering and torturing people, and then showed their boss coming out of nowhere at the very end to kill off the bad guy whilst the aforementioned implied rape is happening offscreen. Like Dirty Harry and its imitators, the polizioschetti films are often accused of being fascistic celebrations of vigilante violence on the part of the police; Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is one of those movies where such accusations hit the nail on the head.

Also, when Bibi’s boat gets blown up at the very end, it’s very obviously just a tiny model boat floating in a puddle.

Where Kayfabe Becomes Omerta

Writing a taut, action-packed crime thriller trilogy set in the world of professional wrestling is a work of genius. Paul O’Brien, author of the Blood Red Turns Dollar Green trilogy, is no random stranger to the business – he co-wrote Jim Ross’s autobiography, for instance – and his knack for creating drama that everyone can enjoy out of the inside workings of the biz is admirable. On top of that, he has the sense of flair and drama that any good wrestling booker or crime novel author needs to have – as well as the knack for pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes in an entertaining fashion only to astonish you when he yanks it off again and reveals the truth about matters. (To that extent, being able to “work” the crowd – get them to believe a ruse – is a skill common to both fields.)

In addition, O’Brien cunningly teases out the commonalities between the world of professional wrestling as it existed back in the pre-WWF days of the local territory system and the world of the Mafia as depicted in The Godfather and other such cultural touchstones. After all, in both worlds you have regional franchises governed by a fractious bunch who get along together only for the sake of the money, and just as the Mafia has its code of silence – omerta – wrestling has the concept of “kayfabe”, the work put in to maintain the illusion that the fights are all 100% real and not predetermined in any way.

The Blood Red Turns Dollar Green trilogy unfolds in a slightly alternate version of wrestling history. Whilst the old school territory system was overseen in real life by the National Wrestling Alliance, here it’s the National Wrestling Council, and the wrestlers and promoters here are similarly imaginary. This deviation from reality allows O’Brien to present a sort of juiced-up, hyperbolic version of the era; the NWA was nowhere near as Mafia-like as O’Brien’s NWC in its dealings and in general relations between the owners of regional promotions were a bit cozier than they are presented as being here. (They saved more of their bile for the various “outlaw” promotions who’d try to set up here and there independently of the NWA, thereby cutting into their profits.)

But by dialling up the viciousness, O’Brien in effect establishes his own kayfabe – not the kayfabe of the fights themselves, but the kayfabe of the fights behind the fights, an illusory depiction of the backstage business of the wrestling world which is more immediately entertaining and exciting than the reality ever could be – and that’s saying something, considering some of the wild stories of behind-the-curtain shenanigans in wrestling that circulate.

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