Sierra and the Golden Age of Adventure Games
There is probably no more important name responsible for shaping my history as a PC gamer than that of “Sierra”. Decades before it was a mere division of Activision, “Sierra On-Line” was founded as On-Line Systems, the company responsible for 1980’s Mystery House: the first ever graphical adventure game. After a period where its highest profile games were based on movie properties such as Dark Crystal or The Black Cauldron, the release of 1984’s King’s Quest marked the first of a slew of original adventure game franchises created by the publisher.
While I was often years late to the party, I played or sampled them all – King’s Quest, Police Quest, Space Quest and many more. I was rarely disappointed in their output, and I doubt I’ve ever come across a gaming company even half as deserving of my loyalty in the interim. I was no stranger to action titles, plat-formers and RPGs as a kid but point-and-click adventure games were always in my blood. Between 1984 to about 1998, Sierra was undisputedly king of the genre. Focusing primarily on the main Quest lines of games and a few other personal favourites, below I’ll take a look at this “Golden Age” in more detail.
Utilizing some of the concepts from an earlier adventure title, Wizard and the Princess, King’s Quest was the creation of Roberta Williams, wife of Ken Williams, with whom Sierra was first founded. Based in a medieval/fantasy setting, the first game, later subtitled “Quest for the Crown” in its 90’s graphical remake, has all the hallmarks that the series would become known for. Fairy tales, nursery rhymes and mythology are all part of the inspiration for puzzles, monsters and story elements. The player takes the role of Sir Graham, later King Graham, and with one exception all subsequent games involve members of the royal family of kingdom of Daventry.
KQ would also set the standard for the control scheme and game engine to be used for Sierra’s best known adventure games of the period. The character is controlled by arrow keys on the keyboard and one interacts with the world via simple text commands. In 1988, the fourth entry of the series, The Perils of Rosella saw the introduction of mouse controls and an updated engine. King’s Quest 5: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder removed text command altogether with point-and-click functions for Walk, Look, Interact etc. It was also the first Sierra adventure game I played the CD-ROM version of, which featured fully voice-acted characters as well.
My favourite entry is the third, To Heir is Human, which features a boy servant, captive of a cruel wizard in a land far from Daventry. He plots his escape, harnesses new-found magical talents over the course of the story and learns of his true heritage. A definitive low-point for the franchise was the eighth, Mask of Eternity which awkwardly incorporates both point-and-click adventure functions alongside action-adventure and combat.
Developed by the famed “Two Guys From Andromeda”, Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe (who make occasional cameos in the series), Space Quest is a universe apart from Daventry. A humour-laden science fiction themed series based on the adventures of below-average space janitor ‘Roger Wilco’, it began with 1986’s “The Sarien Encounter”. Much like the first entry of King’s Quest it was later remade in 1991 with updated graphics and sound, to some acclaim. The frequent Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien, Planet of the Apes and other sci-fi genre references and gags found in the first pair of titles set the tone for the franchise as a whole.
Though not without their challenge, none of the in Space Quest games are punishingly difficult, and never take themselves seriously – indeed, the death scenarios are some of the best and funniest parts to witness and well worth a few re-loads for good measure. Controls evolved at essentially the same pace as those of the King’s Quest series, though Space Quest 4: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers introduces “taste” and “smell” point-and-click options for interacting in the environment with hilarious results. This is also probably my favourite series with regards to musical scores, arch-villain Sludge Vohaul’s leitmotif and the instantly recognizable SQ opening theme being the highlights.
This is a series that can be counted upon to be entertaining even when the quality or originality takes a dip, such as the underwhelming Space Quest 6: Roger Wilco and the Spinal Frontier. The third, The Pirates of Pestulon is probably my favourite adventure game of all time. Space Quest 4’s silly time-bending plot line and call-backs to both SQ history and potential futures never gets old. Fans of Sierra’s entire adventure game oeuvre will be treated to many easter-eggs and jokes at other Quest game’s expense, and even a few clever shots at their industry competitors.
Eschewing space or fantasy themes for a realistic take on its subject matter, the Police Quest series of games was created by ex-cop Jim Walls. Though the graphics and interface feel similar to other Sierra titles, the grounded story-telling and focus on police procedure and methodical problem solving make for very different gameplay. A lack of attention to detail and following the rules can end your game in Police Quest very quickly.
I’m only personally familiar with the first three titles developed by Walls, so I can’t speak to the Daryl F. Gates era and “SWAT” evolution that that series later took which, gradually, stripped it of its adventure game characteristics. Veteran police officer ‘Sonny Bonds’ is the protagonist of the trilogy played out in PQ I through III and he rises through the ranks between and during individual games. Different aspects of policing and detective work are explored, from traffic to narcotics to homicide and more.
Though strong in their own way, the PQ series games can be unforgiving and pedantic at times, and occasionally forget to be fun. The 1991 256 colour VGA remake of the first game, In Pursuit of The Death Angel is probably the highlight of the series and the least frustrating to play.
Leisure Suit Larry
I had played the bulk of the adult themed Leisure Suit Larry series before I was even close to being an appropriate age for the material – I doubt I’m alone in my age cohort in being able to admit that. The creation of Al Lowe, the first game Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was released in 1987, and structured around the outline of an earlier text-only game called Softporn Adventures. The risque humour, innuendo and sexual escapades the LSL franchise was known for is all on display in Lounge Lizards and its subsequent remakes (including an excellent 2013 project that Al Lowe himself was involved in called “Reloaded”).
Loveable loser ‘Larry Laffer’ is the protagonist for much of the series, though his foil and sometime lover ‘Passionate Patti’ is also playable for portions of several titles. All the games are replete with laughs, fourth-wall breaking, surprisingly clever puzzles and titillation. If you’re looking for serious subject matter, look elsewhere.
Quest for Glory
An interesting blend of adventure game and RPG, the original ‘Hero’s Quest: So You Want to Be A Hero’ was to be the start of the later renamed ‘Quest for Glory’ series. Arguably far ahead of its time in many aspects, it featured the ability to choose character classes (magic user, thief, fighter), level up in statistics and skills and import your progression from one game to the next. While combat was never deep and complex, it was set apart from the simple fail states featured in other Sierra titles. HQ games were arguably the least linear of all the Sierra titles and many side-quests and extra content was there to reward the thorough adventurer.
Each of the five titles in the series featured a different central setting and mythology as the Hero continues their journey. The Hero themselves is, compared to other Sierra games, an essentially blank slate for the player, with little dialogue. A cheeky sense of humour and the typical Sierra in-gags seen in some of its contemporaries is consistent in each edition. While I myself only played the first three games, they were highly enjoyable and served as a soft introduction to more hard-core RPGs in my gaming future.
I could probably write another whole article detailing the other lesser known, lower profile adventure games released by Sierra, including the two Agatha Christie inspired Laura Bow mysteries, “The Colonel’s Bequest” and “The Dagger of Amon Ra”. The two “Conquest” games “Conquest of Camelot” and “Conquests of the Longbow” dealing in the historical fiction of the Arthurian and Robin Hood legends would also be worth a mention. Perhaps even the highly unusual late Cold War submarine adventure title Codename: ICEMAN might justify a few paragraphs.
Delving even further I could talk about Manhunter or several great Dynamix adventure titles created after Sierra absorbed them in 1990. I believe it would be far more valuable of me to suggest you give some of these games a try, as thanks to Steam, GoG and a number of excellent fan remakes, you can still enjoy them on modern PC’s. Companies like Telltale and The Odd Gentleman are the current standard bearers for story-driven adventure games, along with a good number of talented independent developers who’ve kept the point-and-click genre alive. Nonetheless, a look back at these seminal games that brought the adventure game genre to creative heights would be time well spent.
(FYI, the Two Guys from Andromeda have a Kickstarter campaign for a new project called SpaceVenture which it appears will channel some of the spirit of the old Space Quest series. Considering the talent they have lined up, the is one worth keeping an eye one, despite the delays.)