The titular house in Mystery House

Sierra On-Line and Mystery House - Getting Graphic

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Sierra On-Line 1980

Greetings From Andromeda

In 1986, early Sierra employees Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, aka The Two Guys from Andromeda, are coming off a rough assignment, working on Sierra’s adventure game adaptation of the Disney film The Black Cauldron. Crowe had started years previous in the Sierra art department; Murphy worked his way up through support, finally get his chance to code with Cauldron. After finishing up the Disney adaptation, they combine their mutual offbeat humour and interest in science-fiction into an idea for a space-based adventure. They approach Ken Williams with the idea of creating a humorous science-fiction adventure game titled Star Quest, but he is unconvinced of the commercial viability of the project and says no. But they go ahead and develop a four-room demo around the premise during their spare time, with Crowe doing the graphics and Murphy coding. When the duo present Williams with the demo, he gives the two guys the okay to proceed.

Retitled as Space Quest, it is packed full of SF references on everything from Douglas Adams’ book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy to Roswellian alien crash sites.  As the “hero” of the piece, the Space Quest series follows the exploits of space janitor Roger Wilco. This cosmic custodial engineer has an uncanny ability to stumble into, and then unravel, the galaxy domination plans of arch-villain Sludge Vohaul (who makes his first physical appearance in the second installment). The first two games, Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter, and Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge, are written using Sierra’s  proprietary game creation language AGI

Released in 1986, the first installment of Space Quest is another huge hit for Sierra, and it spawns five follow-ups. Starting with Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon, the language SCI or Sierra Creative Interpreter is used for programming the games. It is an object-oriented language that allows for various classes of things in the game that can be created and used by the programmer, with varying attributes depending usually on their interactivity with user actions. The switch in engines from AGI to SCI causes a delay in the release of the game, from 1988 to March of 1989. This incarnation also features music from Supertramp drummer Bob Siebenberg, who lands the job by literally answering a Sierra want ad in the local Sierra Star newspaper. Siebenberg composes the soundtrack in his home studio while viewing videotaped scenes of the computer game in a process similar to film scoring. Roger also teleports into pulp paper media with The Adventures of Roger Wilcoa 3-part comic book series from Adventure Comics, an imprint of Malibu Graphics.

As Scott Murphy tells it, things steadily go sour between the creators and Sierra management as the Space Quest series progresses, culminating in the difficult development of 5 and 6, the former of which Murphy isn’t much involved in. Less and less money is being paid to the creators for each installment, even in the face of greater and greater success. The killing blow is when Crowe leaves Oakhurst for the Dynamix division in Eugene, Oregon to develop the 5th installment, leaving his former partner in the lurch. In spite of the difficulties, Space Quest 7 is announced, complete with a trailer, for 1998, but it is eventually canceled by Sierra. Incensed by Sierra’s abandonment of one of computer gaming’s most beloved characters, fans create the Save Space Quest 7 webpage in a vain attempt to have Roger Wilco materialize again.

Cover for Softporn Adventure, a computer game by On-Line systems

They’re soaking in it, on the cover of Softporn Adventure: L to R: Diane Siegal, On-Line production manager, Susan Davis, bookkeeper, Roberta Williams, author of Mystery House, 1981

Shady Characters

1987 sees the release of the controversial adult-themed graphic adventure Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. It is created by former jazz musician Al Lowe, who has come up the ranks of Sierra creating, of all things, Disney games such as Donald Duck’s Playground and Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood. Leisure Suit Larry is based on a text-only adventure game called Softporn Adventure by Chuck Benson (Gary Thompson later develops his own improved version of the program), of which Sierra sells over 25,000 copies on the Apple II in 1981. This an impressive feat when you consider that at the time there are estimated to be only 100,000 of the computers sold in total; factor in the huge amount of unrecorded pirated copies that were undoubtedly distributed and the ratio would be even larger. The goal of Al Lowe’s version closely follows the source material: get the sleazy title character into bed with three different women. LLL is a particular hit with bored male office workers, and it introduces the “Boss” key, which instantly clears the screen of any evidence of the game in case the manager walks by. Unauthorized copies of the  game are responsible for their own blanking of data… a virus added to bootleg copies of the software deposits a ticking time bomb onto office computers, which after a certain number of plays or within a certain timeframe will delete all the data it finds on any hard-drives connected. Attacks by this virus on the systems of bored bank employees or financial trading houses create headlines around the world.

Sierra also has to contend with magazines refusing to accept advertising for Leisure Suit Larry while letters of outrage poured into the offices and some resistance from stores in the Southern U.S. to selling it. This might account for the dismal sales that LLL uncovers on the initial release in June of 1987 of its two 360K floppy disks, receiving the lowest first-month sales figures that Sierra has seen in a long time. By the holiday season, however, mostly through word-of-mouth, the game is a hit. Despite (or because) of the notoriety, many Larry sequels naturally ensue, starting with Leisure Suit Larry 2: Larry Goes Looking for Love (In Several Wrong Places) in 1988, where Lowe tries to tamp down the unbridled sexual chicanery of the original by having Larry seeking a committed relationship. The next year sees Leisure Suit Larry 3: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals, which further tries to get the series woke by introducing a female character whom players control in the second half of the game. This continues in Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work in 1991 (the game titles inexplicably skip a 4th installment)where horndog gamers flip back and forth between the two titular characters. Heh heh heh. I said “tit”. Players of Larry 4 also get to use, according to the box, a “No-typing ‘grope and click‘ interface for quick-feel, one-hand action scoring”. Lowe must also agree that size matters, as the game wields a 14 megabyte file size, coming on eight high-density floppies. Some of this space is taken up by a musical score created by Craig Safan, who has music composing for the hit TV series Cheers under his belt. 

Larry gets his suit refurbished during Sierra’s mass updating of their original adventures in 1991 with a remake of the original game, with updated 256 colour graphics, expanded interactivity, ‘grope and click’ interface and a musical score from in-house composer Chris Braymen. Obviously striking enough people’s funny bones, Al Lowe’s four Larry games have generated over $13 million in sales for Sierra On-Line by 1992, with nearly 750,000 copies sold worldwide. By mid-1996 that number is 1.5 million. Outside of collections, Windows utility programs and other flotsam, the Leisure Suit Larry series continues with Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out! in 1993, and the last LLL game under the tenure of Sierra, Leisure Suit Larry: Love for Sail! hits the high seas in 1996, after being renamed from the original uncomfortable title Yank Hers Away. Among the various innovations that pop-up in this iteration, all which inevitably have the 90’s buzzword “Cyber” attached to them (CyberGrope 2000, CyberVox 2000), is CyberType 2000, a system that attempts to bridge the gap between a simplistic point-and-click interface and the more freewheeling text parser of yore. We then get Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude (regular and an ‘Uncut and Uncensored’ version) from Vivendi Universal Games in 2004, the star-studded Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust from Funsta and Codemasters in 2009, an Al Lowe-created remake of the original game (which, remember, was a remake of another version, itself a remake of a text-adventure) called Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded (regular and Collector’s Edition) financed through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2013 and published by Replay Games, and Leisure Suit Larry: Wet Dreams Don’t Dry, released in 2018 by Assemble Entertainment. Whew! I’m spent.

Poster for Leisure Suit Larry, a computer video game by Sierra

Oh, the puns, the puns! Please leave me Al Lowe-n!

Outside of the LLL milieu, Lowe rewinds the clock with Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, a ribald western that also counts Josh Mandel in the design posse as director; Mandel had written text for games like the original King’s Quest, along with the first Larry game and number 5 in that game series.  Produced in 1993, Freddy Pharkas comes packed with nearly 11 megs of dusty streets and scattershot humour, detailing the trials and tribulations of the titular pill-slinger in his attempt to save the strangely-familiar town of Coarsegold. Said town’s main street taking up eight scrolling screens, making it the largest such landscape ever witnessed in a Sierra game. Another newfangled invention for the game is the Rewind-O-Matic feature, that lets players literally rewind the clock if they’re doing badly, and attempt to solve an action  sequence in a different way. Freddy Pharkas is also the first Sierra game to support the Microsoft Windows operating system.

A Cop’s Quest

On the more straight and narrow path of law and order is Sierra’s Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, created by Jim Walls. After 15 years as a “Chippie” on the California Highway Patrol, in January of 1986 Walls finds himself staring down the bore of a .357 magnum after a high-speed chase with a driver of a stolen vehicle, and while walking away from the incident, lingering complications from the case and post traumatic stress disorder lead him to retire early from the force . When Ken Williams reaches out to ask Walls if he’d like to relate his experiences as a cop in a police procedural for Sierra, he jumps in to the computer adventure game market. Walls designs the game, detailing the life of cop Sonny Bonds (name and appearance based on Wells’ son Sonny Wells) as he moves up the ranks of the police department in the fictional city of Lytton, eventually facing notorious drug dealer Jessie Bains aka Death Angel. Walls is completely clueless about the vagaries of computer game development, so Larry creator Al Lowe helps sheppard the product from concept to finished game. Also helping out is Sierra programmer and graphics artist Greg Rowland, who had worked on The Dark Crystal and King’s Quest. Art is also provided by Jerry Moore, a prolific artist at Sierra.

The game is a reality-based departure for Sierra, but so popular upon release in 1987 that it spawns another long string of sequels for the company. The verisimilitude of the police procedural work is of such a calibre in Police Quest that the program is used by various forces as supplemental training, including the Allegan Police Department of Allegan, Michigan. Police Quest 2: The Vengeance continues the series in 1988, and 1991’s Police Quest 3: The Kindred introduces gaming detectives to Sierra’s point-and-click interface, a cast of actors represented by digitized photos and 256-colour VGA graphics for scene backgrounds. Fans of the sun-drenched TV cop show Miami Vice will also appreciate the musical score in PQ3, composed by that show’s Jan Hammer. PQ3 is also notable as being the swan-song for long-time lead character Sonny Bonds in the graphic adventure era of the franchise. Fans can still walk the beat with Sonny, though, when the original Police Quest gets its VGA makeover in 1992, with digitized footage of real actors is added, along with a VGA graphic update, SCI point & click interface, three times as much dialog and a stereo soundtrack with moody music to accompany the various scenes.

Chief Controversy

When Jim Walls steps down from the series after PQ3, the Police Quest games are rebranded with the name of none other than Daryl F. Gates, controversial L.A. police chief whose tenure saw the sustained beating with clubs of unarmed Rodney King by several LA police officers after a high-speed chase in 1991. With Gates preparing to retire from the force, Williams reaches out about his possible involvement in the next Police Quest game. Gates isn’t all that keen on the idea initially, but after checking out Police Quest 3 and other Sierra adventures, is convinced that video games can be more than his perception of them being just hand-eye coordination contests. Ken Williams pays the former chief a personal visit to convince him to take job of author of the new game. Finding Gates a ‘perfect gentleman’ and ‘a real personable family kind of guy’, and with Williams already a fan of such controversial figures as firebrand conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, the Sierra head signs up the chief. This decision doesn’t sit well with many on the Sierra staff who come from the L.A. area and have personal feelings about the incident. Despite the chief’s notoriety (or more likely, because of it: Ken Williams’ brother John states in the Winter 1993 issue of InterAction magazine that Williams “decided the whole controversy over Gates would ultimately help the game sell better”), it is determined that Gates’ 43 years moving through the L.A.P.D. from patrol cop to police chief would lend the game a wide perspective on police procedure. Gates has his own reasons for accepting the offer. He seeks to overturn the false impression about police work presented in TV and movies, hoping to give game players a realistic portrayal of actual police procedures. He also prompts Sierra into promoting the D.A.R.E. or Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, which sends cops into schools to try and convince kids to overcome the systemic causes of drug abuse and “just say no” to drug use.

Having spotted some lack of realism in aspects of police work in PQ3, Gates seeks to double-down on accuracy in the new game. Not only coaching the cast for more life-like portrayals of procedure and lifestyle, Gates uses his influence to gain the production team access to locations like The Shortstop, a bar hangout popular with LA cops that caused the chief much consternation when he was in charge. He also arranges permission to shoot at the Parker Center police headquarters in downtown LA. The force’s Policeman’s manual and homicide manual are also made available to the production.

To convince shoppers to investigate this new product from Sierra, several box iterations are created by the company and presented to software retail clerks and customers by the Sierra Brand Manager and Marketing Research Specialist for focus testing. A version appearing as a file folder with the classic Police Quest branding is quickly rejected, while another with blood spray and a bloodied handprint on the cover is received better by stores but elicits concerns from parents about its violent imagery. The final released version, a cityscape and man brandishing a gun, is more in-keeping with the idea of a new Police Quest game even more concerned with realistic situations and locations.

Daryl F. Gates Police Quest: Open Season is released in 1993, with new lead character Det. John Carry solving a series of murders in L.A.. The game is produced and directed by Tammy Dargan, segment producer for the T.V. program America’s Most Wanted. Dargan also writes the story, with Gates offering advice in choosing a scenario for the game out of a list of story proposals, then giving extensive script notes about plot realism and procedure. Dargan and Sierra cinematographer Rod Fung employ digital cameras during production, believed to be a first for a video game, to display characters and actual L.A. locations in a realistic fashion. Along with all this technical achievement, Gates also takes pride in what he considers a 100% improvement in realism for Open Season compared to other police games. A CD version with the full multimedia bells and whistles (and sirens) gets its release in 1994. The Police Quest adventure series is then retooled into a line of tactical shooters, starting with Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT in 1995. Again produced, designed, written and directed by Dargan, Gates’ contacts and his position as creator of one of the first SWAT police teams in the U.S., after the LA Watts riots of 1965 is a valuable resource for keeping things authentic… although for security reasons, not every tactic used in SWAT response is depicted in the game. After Police Quest: SWAT 2 in 1998, the Police Quest label is dropped from further installments in the SWAT series, and thus Sierra brings the questing of adventuring beat cops to an end.

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