January 27, 2008

Police Quest

This is absolutely a true story. One school day in 1995, I went up to a friend of mine who loved adventure games and told him, very excitedly, that I got King's Quest VII. "Who cares," he said, "I got Marathon." Death of the adventure game, right there. Still, he was right: Marathon was easily the better game, and I had just paid good money for this. Even so, that guy turned out to be a total jerk and wherever he is now I hope he is miserable. No I don't. Yes I do.

For someone whose gaming landscape was pretty much dominated by Sierra Entertainment for half a decade, I'm not much of a Sierra fan. Not at all, really. They were great games when they were the only ones that I was playing, but as soon as I picked up Monkey Island I quickly found Sierra's idiosyncratic design style to actually be haphazard and ill-conceived.

Contrary to appearances I'm not about to do a hatchet job on Sierra for wasting my childhood. To my mind there are three good Sierra franchises, which I will defend forever or until the end of this blog post, whichever comes first. The first two are Quest for Glory and Gabriel Knight. No surprises there. The third, however, is a remarkable out-of-left-field choice which you could only guess if you read the title of this post.

The first three Police Quest games were designed by former police officer Jim Walls. He was replaced on the fourth game by Daryl F. Gates, of all people, who lent his name to the project while someone else designed it and laid a real turd. The series then spun off as Police Quest: SWAT, and then just SWAT (perhaps after finally realising the total inanity of "Police Quest"), which the series continues as to this day.

The three Walls games were absurd in several ways. Police Quest took the quintessential Sierra experience -- very exacting and unforgiving of the slightest mistake -- to new extremes by requiring the player to literally refer to a manual of operating procedures and traffic codes to solve puzzles. There's no defence for this. I won't even claim that it was all part of the ol' Sierra charm. Like all the early Sierra games, Police Quest was designed with a narrow mandate: be a cop. As usual, it was interpreted very literally, probably to the game's detriment.

Even keeping this in mind, the first Police Quest, from 1987, was far and away the best of the Sierra AGI games. I mean, it's not even a contest. Blows 'em out of the water. I'd go so far as to say it's the only that holds up today. Maybe I'm overplaying the achievement here, because that AGI crop was admittedly a pretty thin one. King's Quest's big coup was getting the characters to move, so if you can top that you've automatically won. Space Quest, the same thing but in space, unsurprisingly doesn't cut it. Although I just wrote that Police Quest had a literal interpretation of its core concept, it practically meandered compared to the competition. And as one of Sierra's last AGI games, Police Quest surely benefited from past experience. Still, Police Quest wasn't just a technical improvement. The first game, especially, was doing something really interesting that -- as far as I, Video Game History Detective, can tell -- was never properly acknowledged.

This game that was expressly designed to simulate the thrill of issuing parking tickets and playing by the rules in vivid 3D had something the likes of King's Quest didn't. It had a plot. Roberta Williams' narrative contribution was "go point A to point B. Congratulations now you are the king." Stirring stuff. Police Quest had a recurring cast of characters with full names, personalities and things to do. They would have actual conversations with you. Subplots would develop and these people would change. Okay, this stuff couldn't be more basic. And interactive fiction games, which afforded more verbosity, probably did all this years ago. But it was all new territory for Sierra and for graphic adventures.. LucasArts, who'd just released Maniac Mansion, weren't even this far along.

It'd be disingenuous to say there was anything astonishing about the writing in Police Quest. It has some seriously dubious moments, but for the most part it is thoroughly competent. It gets in, it gets out and accomplishes all it needs to without any long-winded cutscenes or exposition. It was good stuff for a 1987 game.

Sierra loudly championed all its technical innovations even if they didn't translate into good gameplay, which is fair enough. They never championed their creative triumphs, probably because they hardly had any. But they could have done it in 1987. I guess no one was really looking for narrative development in the police version of the boilerplate Sierra adventure game, which is too bad. Of all the design features in this police simulation, the writing was probably the most immersive: it was the closest Sierra had come to a real world and real people. Belated congratulations to Police Quest 1 and Jim Walls, then.

This was kind of a backhanded tribute. Sorry. Also sorry if the intro made you expect a coming-of-age story in which video games prominently featured. I could write that if you want but I'd have to make it up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dude, your writing sucks big time. You need to try and use more simple words and terms, as you sound completely confused.

Also, the Sierra AGI games are rightly honoured as classics of their time, for many reasons that you apparently don't understand.

You could do the world a favour by deleting this poor excuse for a blog! Or perhaps stop trying to be a video game writer - you suck at it.