Graphics from games by the Sierra On-Line computer game company

The mystery houses of Sierra On-Line

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 graphic 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.

Click button to play the 1991 remake of Space Quest I, on MS-DOS

Retitled as Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter, 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

Snap from Space Quest: Chapter 1 - The Sarien Encounter, a computer adventure game by Sierra 1986

Trouble for Roger in Space Quest: Chapter 1 – The Sarien Encounter

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. Roger Wilco’s name is added to subsequent Space Quest installments, starting with 1991’s Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers. The game also sees Wilco travelling in time through various incarnations of the series, including to “Space Quest XII” and all the way back to the 8-bit graphical splendor of the original games. All narrated in the dulcet (and snarky) tones of Laugh-In announcer Gary Owens.

BTW, here are the lyrics for the awesome Monolith Burger jingle:
When the warp hits, factor 6 Babe
And you’re breakin’, the speed of light.
It’s a good time, so make great haste.
At Monolith, get zapped tonight.
Come on and get zapped tonight!

Click button to play through the Space Quest timeline in Space Quest IV, for MS-DOS

As Scott Murphy tells it, things steadily sour between the creators and Sierra management as the Space Quest series progresses, culminating in the difficult development of Space Quest V: Roger Wilco in The Next Mutation and Space Quest 6: Roger Wilco in The Spinal Frontier, the former of which Murphy isn’t much involved in. Less and less money is being paid to the creators for each instalment, even in the face of greater and greater success. The killing blow to the partnership is delivered when Crowe leaves Oakhurst for the Dynamix division of Sierra in Eugene, Oregon to develop the 5th instalment, leaving his former partner in the lurch.

WD40 character from Space Quest V Sierra adventure game

Development sketches of W-D40 Terminoid character from Space Quest V, 1993

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 rematerialize. The Two Guys from Andromeda eventually make peace and reunite to create a new space-based comedy adventure game outside of their famous Space Quest series with SpaceVenture, a 2012 Kickstarter project that beats its funding goal of $500,000 on the crowdfunding site. After a decade-long development cycle as torturous as some of Roger Wilco’s deaths, the game featuring new protagonist and space plumber Ace Hardway  is released in 2022. 

The lyrics to the Soylent Clear jingle from Space Quest 6:
[SUNG] This world’s a great big ball of dirt with fifty billion souls
Who like to sit around and veg down in the dark like moles.
But me I’m just the kind of girl who loves the open air
And bits of unburned hydrocarbons blowin’ through my hair.
New Soylent Clear, at last it’s here, with clearly better taste.
Less people too, like me and you, and less reprocessed waste.
More hearty crunch for snacks or lunch, it’s crystal clear to see
New Soylent Clear, the last frontier for folks like you and me.

[SPOKEN] New Soylent Clear. Clearly less people, clearly more taste.

The Space Quest V opening theme. Does it sound a bit familiar to you, too?

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 most controversial product in Sierra’s history. No, not adult-themed graphic adventure Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. We’re talking about Hint Books. An idea floated in the early days of the company, game authors like Roberta Williams vociferously argue that game puzzles are supposed to baffle players, and require them to wrack their brains coming up with the correct solution. Could it be that some designers are overly defensive about their illogical puzzle solutions? At any rate, the idea of hint books for Sierra games is tabled, until  in 1987 phone calls from baffled gamers to the Sierra offices clog the lines, causing incessant busy signals for local residents, positively demanding that the books are created. Closely aping how Infocom handles their solution books, invisible ink is used by Sierra to hide the answers, which users can reveal using a citrus marker, in order of specificity of the solution. This system would later be revamped, with clues made fairly illegible under red colouring, until revealed by users placing a red-filmed “Adventure Window” over them.

Hint books for Sierra computer adventure games

Controversy! Hint books for Sierra adventure games, 1989 image

Hint book for Space Quest IV by Sierra computer game company

Sierra hint book for Space Quest IV, 1991. You use the provided red-filmed “Adventure Window” to reveal clues in increasing specificity

As for the other most controversial Sierra product, Leisure Suit Larry is created by former jazz musician Al Lowe, who also was a high school band instructor and school administrator for 16 years, entering programming by creating educational software. Parlaying that into a job at Sierra, the eventual creator of racy computer character Larry Laffer, makes, of all things, Disney educational games such as Donald Duck’s Playground and Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Click to play a game from Al Lowe’s cleaner days, Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood on the C64

Leisure Suit Larry is based on a text-only adventure game called Softporn Adventure by Chuck Benton (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 closer. The goal of the version of the game by Al Lowe, along with Mark Crowe, closely follows the source material: get the sleazy title character into bed with three different women.

Click and (fore)play Softporn Adventure, the seminal game for Leisure Suit Larry, for Atari 8-bit

Slip into your Leisure Suit, fondle the button and play Leisure Suit Larry on MS-DOS

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.

The title screen for Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, a computer graphic adventure by Sierra On-Line 1987

Larry chases his dreams in Leisure Suit Larry

Al Lowe, creator of computer adventure video game Leisure Suit Larry for Sierra

Al Lowe, designer and programmer of Leisure Suit Larry for Sierra, in the great outdoors, 1990

Al Lowe, creator of computer adventure video game Leisure Suit Larry for Sierra

Creator of Leisure Suit Larry, Al Lowe gets more and more relaxed, 1990

Sierra also has to contend with magazines refusing to accept advertising for Leisure Suit Larry while letters of outrage pour into the Sierra 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. Aiding and abetting Lowe is William Skirvin doing animation for the game, and he goes on to be art director on multiple Larry games. 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.

Al Lowe, creator of the Sierra computer adventure game series Leisure Suit Larry

Leisure Suit Larry 3 designer and programmer Al Lowe’s choice in reading material is shady no matter how you look at it, 1992


Click the button to play both sides in Leisure Suit Larry 3, on MS-DOS

This continues in Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work in 1991 (the game titles inexplicably skip a 4th instalment)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 videogame-themed movie The Last Starfighter and the hit TV series Cheers and more under his belt. 

Click to play two “tit”ular characters in Leisure Suit Larry 5, on MS-DOS

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.

Leisure Suit Larry 6 computer game by Sierra

LSL 6 crew: L-R Dan Kehler, sound; Bil Skirvin, art director; Dan Woolard, QA; Al Lowe, designer; Chris Carr, programmer; Ruben Huante, backgrounds; Phy Williams, animator; Karin Young, lead animator; Russell Truelove, lead animator; Carlos Escobar. lead programmer; Not pictured: Donovan Skirvin, animator; Victor Sadauskas, programmer. 1993

Click the button to give your finger a workout and play Leisure Suit Larry 6 on MS-DOS

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 and sequel Leisure Suit Larry – Wet Dreams Dry Twice, released in 2020, both by Assemble Entertainment. Whew! I’m spent.

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, including a toe-tapping little ditty on the CD-ROM version called The Ballad of Freddy Pharkas, with lyrics by Mandel and sung by Al Lowe himself! The game details the trials and tribulations of the titular pill-slinger in his attempt to save the strangely-familiar town of Coarsegold and win the heart of sweet schoolmarm Penelope Primm, and avoid getting a huge…. rejection. 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

Police Quest graphic adventure computer game by Sierra

Let’s be careful out there! Taking a briefing in Police Quest 1

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 California 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 shepherd 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.

Jim Walls, designer of Police Quest, a graphic adventure game by Sierra

The armed and dangerous worlds of retired cop and Police Quest designer Jim Walls

Police Quest 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 it warrants a feature in the October, 1988 issue of nationally distributed police trade magazine Law and Order. After this exposure, the program is co-opted by various forces as supplemental training for rookie officers, 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.

Police Quest 3 graphic adventure game by Sierra

Nerds!! Sonny Bonds in the Lytton PD computer room, Police Quest 3

Jim Walls, designer of graphic adventure game Police Quest by Sierra

Police Quest 3 designer Jim Walls, CHP officer (ret.), 1991

Chief Controversy

Jim Walls veers a bit from the perils of a beat cop to James Bond-style political intrigue and a nuclear-powered submarine when he designs Codename: ICEMAN for Sierra in 1990. Meant to be the start of a new adventure game franchise, with further chapter Codename: PHOENIX announced by the company, the lack of sales of ICEMAN buries that idea at sea.

Jim Walls steps down from the Police Quest series after PQ3, and 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 retired from the force shortly after the resultant riots from the acquittal of the police officers involved with King’s beating, he becomes a talk-show host on LA radio station KFI. When Ken Williams reaches out about Gates’ 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 for a “substantial” amount of monetary compensation. 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 Rodney King incident. Despite the chief’s notoriety (or more likely, because of it: Ken Williams’ brother John states in the Winter 1993 issue of Sierra’s own 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.

Daryl F. Gates, author of Police Quest: Open Season, a computer video game adventure by Sierra

Daryl F. Gates, author and former LAPD chief on the set of Police Quest: Open Season, 1993

Having spotted some lack of realism in aspects of police work in PQ3, Gates seeks to double-down on accuracy in his new game for Sierra. 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.

Police Quest Open Season computer text adventure by Sierra

A gruesome crime scene in Daryl F. Gates Police Quest: Open Season, 1993

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 puts an end to the beat of adventuring cops.

Click the button to play Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT on MS-DOS

Open Season director Tammy Dargan with story author Daryl F. Gates, creators of computer adventure game Daryl F. Gates Police Quest: Open Season

Open Season director Tammy Dargan (L) with story author Daryl F. Gates, 1993

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