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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GOGathon: Roberta Williams’ Royal Progress

If you’re fond of a good feud, the videogame landscape of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s were a golden era for them. Nintendo vs. Sega is the classic one, not least because Sega went out of their way to bait and belittle Nintendo in much of their advertising; the Amiga vs. Atari ST feud was perhaps overstated by the media at the time but there was undeniably a bit of smoke to that fire, not least because of the intertwined personalities involved in the development of both systems.

For fans of graphical adventure games of a certain age, of course, the Sierra vs. LucasArts question is particularly memorable. It’s an open question how much of a genuine feud it was as far as the individual personalities concerned. I’m unaware of any actual personal rancour between the two studios, though Ron Gilbert’s famous Why Adventure Games Suck manifesto which yielded the guiding principles behind classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island was certainly taking issue with a lot of issues regarded as being distinct hallmarks of Sierra games, and Gilbert even snuck parodies of the infamous Sierra “You have died” messages into The Secret of Monkey Island itself, but I’m unaware of any return fire from Sierra itself. Indeed, a lot of the negative aspects people associate with the Sierra house style – arbitrary deaths, illogical puzzles, the possibility of putting the game into an unwinnable state, and so on – were most endemic in their early games.

In previous GOGathon articles I’ve looked at the Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria series. Notably, death is still possible in both of them, and I’ve come around to the idea that “can’t possibly die” isn’t necessarily a rule which should always be applied to point-and-click adventure design; it was fine for most of LucasArts’ works, which tended to be comedic in tone anyway, but slavishly following LucasArts’ lead without understanding why they did what they did would be just as bad as doing the same for Sierra, and in a horror-genre adventure it’s arguably preferable to have death be possible (and therefore a source of tension) than have a situation where the player can just sit wander about endlessly without progressing anything and never get into any real danger, which will kill tension quickly.

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GOGathon: Panties-and-Gore?-Oh-Yeah!

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Back in the 1990s, when point and click adventures were all the rage, I was very much in LucasArts’ corner when it came to their rivalry with Sierra for the critical and commercial top spot in that subgenre, and on balance I still think LucasArts had the edge in terms of quality. But thanks to GOG’s reasonable prices and effective emulation, I’ve been tempted into dipping into some of the old Sierra classics anyway. Previously I’d dipped into the Gabriel Knight series; sticking with the horror genre, I’m now going to give the (violent, sexualised, regularly subject to bans, regularly dealing in triggery subject matter like rape and abuse and mental illness) Phantasmagoria series a whirl. Hold my hand in case I get scared, won’t you?

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