Parsing the Secret History of Adventure Games and Sierra

A new paper takes aim at our assumptions about Sierra On-Line and what the adventure game genre looked like in the 1980s.

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Jan 16 2018, 7:00pm

All images courtesy Sierra/Activision

There are a lot of games about uncovering the truth. From indie games about family mysteries to globe-spanning conspiracies, games love to talk about the hidden truth, the buried past, and the reality beyond what we know. But what about the history of video games? While YouTubers like The Gaming Historian have made their name on reconstructing past events and their contexts, this still remains a small part of gaming culture. We’re always looking forward to the next games while passing around the same old anecdotes about Atari cartridges in the desert.

Laine Nooney, an Assistant Professor at NYU Steinhardt, works in this exact realm of illuminating the unquestioned past of video games. Her recent publication, “Let’s Begin Again: Sierra On-Line and the Origins of the Graphical Adventure Game” takes aim at our assumptions about Sierra On-Line and what the adventure game genre looked like in the 1980s.

You might know Sierra On-Line as the company most famous for creating game series like King’s Quest, Space Quest, and the Leisure Suit Larry franchise. The company was a staple of the adventure gaming genre in the 1980s, with one of their key innovations being the addition of a visual element to the text-based parser system that allowed the player to interact with the world (for a beautiful illustration of how this all worked, please read the hilarious Line on Sierra series).

As Nooney argues, Sierra On-Line’s games are often presented as being less sophisticated than the complex, text-only games coming from rival adventure game company Infocom, the creator of games like Zork and Planetfall. In the popular gaming imagination, these two companies are the titans of industry, two swinging giants that released games into a cutthroat marketplace.

Nooney argues that this story we tell is nothing other than “blunt historical shorthand.” We mistake our mythology for reality, and it takes the work of actually digging around in historical documents to understand the true shape of things at the time. And digging around in things makes things more messy.

Nooney’s article uncovers a number of interesting factual parts of game history: Roberta Williams, the key designer behind many Sierra On-Line games, played a great number of adventure games before she committed to making her own, Mystery House, and the exact level of cooperation and input from each of the developers of the game was flexible, mobile, and wholly contingent on circumstances rather than big design ideals.

It’s worth reading the entire article to see the exact steps that led to the creation of the graphical adventure genre, and it is illuminating to see the exact amount of specificity that is required to get as accurate a picture as we can of game development procedures nearly 40 years in the past.

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