A Gentle Homecoming

Rejoice: Ron Gilbert has been spending lockdown tuning up a new point-and-click adventure engine he’s been working on, and as part of the exercise he ended up putting together a little coda to Thimbleweed Park. In Delores, you play the title character who, after spending a year away on a career as a point-and-click adventure designer at MMucasFlem, have come back to your home town for a little sabbatical. To keep yourself occupied, you’ve taken on a gentle little job working as a photographer for the Nickel News, the local newspaper.

The Thimbleweed Park Delores has returned to is a lot like the one we recall from the game itself – after all, this tech demo was lashed together from recycled assets from that – but it’s also different from the way the player remembers it, though (at least at first) Delores doesn’t seem to think anything has changed. By the end of the process of playing the game, you’ll come across hints as to what’s going on – as well as a tantalising suggestion that the end of Thimbleweed Park wasn’t quite as absolute as it at first seemed…

Ron Gilbert admits upfront that this game is in no way a product of the sort of polish that an actual, finished commercial product would be, and so has put it out on Steam and the Epic store for free. It has to be said that in terms of the gameplay offered, it’s rather simplistic. Each day you are given five things you need to go photograph. Some of those are pretty easy, some of then likely involve a bit of a puzzle or some lateral thinking. There is no mid-game saves, but five photos is enough for a quick play session. Once you have your five, you had them in and quit the game. When you restart, the town is rest to the state it was at the start of the previous day, and you get a new set of five photos to find. Once you have collected the 30 photographs, you get a little cut scene offering a conclusion to the game from which you can infer some things about what’s happened.

In short, it’s the sort of thing you can fiddle with in a downtime or use to kill time in an empty afternoon – nothing to scream praises about, but nothing to sneeze at when it comes free. The most interesting thing about it seems to be Gilbert’s new point-and-click engine, which seems to be an attempt to combine the virtues of the classic old Monkey Island style “click on a verb and click on a thing and you will do what the sentence at the bottom of the screen says you will do” control system and the more streamlined control systems out there which enable more screen real estate to be used.

Here, when you mouse over something in the world that your character can interact with, a sentence appears describing the most obvious interaction your character thinks of. If you right-click, there may be alternate interactions your character can attempt. You can click-and-drag items from your inventory onto things you want to use them on, in which case a sentence describing the interaction appears, or you can left-click on them to examine them or right-click on them to do other stuff with them.

It’s all fairly elegant and self-explanatory, and the benefit it gives over hyper-compact icon-based systems is that it tells you in a sentence what your character is going to do before they do it, avoiding the situation where a game designer trying to be clever or funny has your character do something you didn’t intended when you use a particular icon on a particular integer in such games. If Ron Gilbert is thinking along these lines seriously enough to develop a new adventure game engine, can a new adventure game from him be all that far away? Let’s hope that’s where things are going. This taster, whilst pleasng in its own small away, has given me an appetite for more.

Not To Be Confused With Dragonball…

Yet another point-and-click adventure which has been released for free on GOG, 1994 release Dragonsphere was the third and final point-and-click adventure to be developed by Microprose. The adventure game market was pretty crowded at the time, and – as the designer’s notes at the end of the manual concedes – the fantasy adventure game market was particularly crowded, with Sierra’s King’s Quest and Quest For Glory series going strong and Revolution Software, Westwood Studios, and Adventure Soft all tossing high-profile contributions into the market for good measure at around the same time in the form of Lure of the Temptress, the Legend of Kyrandia series, and Simon the Sorcerer.

Microprose’s plan seems to have been to combine the Microprose Adventure Development system’s capacity for more realistic graphics with higher-quality, more serious writing to offer up a more immersive game experience; in the long run, I guess Dragonsphere can’t have performed very well in the market because Microprose stopped making point-and-clicks after this, but that’s a shame because it’s actually the best of the freebie adventures on GOG I’ve tried so far.

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GOGathon: Sierra’s Muddled 1991

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

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

Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers

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

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GOGathon: Sierra’s Fantastic 1990

Whilst the golden age of the graphical adventure game was arguably the 1990s – an era when text adventures fell out of commercial favour and largely lay dormant until the fan community came up with robust tools like the Inform or TADS languages to produce new content, and a time when the most widely-celebrated classics of the genre came out – Sierra had arguably built the foundation for that success over the course of the 1980s.

Specifically, they had pioneered the format with the early King’s Quest games, explored an intriguing variety of genres, cooked up first the AGI game engine and then the significantly more powerful SCI engine, which would debut in 1988 and versions of which would underpin their adventure games for much of the next decade, and in 1989 they rounded out the decade by producing the largest and most diverse portfolio of adventure games they’d make in-house over the 1980s.

They would also, with the two Manhunter games, dip their toe into publishing the adventure game works of other development houses. (I’ve not covered those since I’m concentrating in this series strictly on the games that Sierra developed in-house with perhaps an exception or two – I intend to do Space Quest V even though technically Sierra outsourced the development on that, since it’s an entry in one of their iconic series.)

At the same time, change was in the air. Although Sierra’s artists were very capable, and had produced some fantastic work within the confines of EGA graphics, the VGA era was dawning and previous graphical standards were beginning to look dated. And whilst the SCI system incorporated mouse support for the first time (though ScummVM, the engine often used to play old adventure games on modern computers, does patch mouse support into at least some of the earlier AGI-driven games), the adventures still weren’t full point-and-click, relying on a text parser which, whilst robust to brute force puzzle solving, at the same time also occasionally caused frustration when the verb or noun the game was expecting you to type in wasn’t the one which came to mind first. Recent adventures by the likes of LucasArts had pioneered full point-and-click setups, whose ease of use made the Sierra adventures seem less user-friendly, less welcoming to beginners, and generally less convenient than the competition.

Thus, over the course of 1990 Sierra girded themselves for a technical great leap forward. Rather than putting out a similar number of games to the swathe they produced in 1989, they put out 3 adventures, two of which came out close together towards the end of the year, and all in the fantasy genre. Each game was by a different main designer and represented a different take both on game design and the genre in general. Would this turn out to be a good start to the decade, or would Sierra bungle in the same year that LucasArts put out the universally acclaimed classic Secret of Monkey Island?

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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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