Line On Sierra: Space Quest I
King’s Quest may have been the flagship franchise of the Sierra adventure games, but as a kid it wasn’t my favorite series. That honor went to Space Quest.Probably because gruesome death jokes and Star Wars references were my primary forms of communication in my pre-puberty years. And for some time after.
If you’ve been following this fine series, you’ve seen this screen before, thanks to the masterful piece of corporate synergy that was the inclusion of an ad for Space Quest hidden in a hole in King’s Quest II. According to Ken Williams’ Sierra history page and Wikipedia, Space Quest started as a pitch made to the Williamses by Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, or Two Guys from Andromeda. They had worked together on The Black Cauldron, a super forgettable game based on a super forgettable Disney movie, and were apparently tired of working on fancy fantasy shit. The result was a scifi game with a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-ish sense of humor. The main joke is that you die a lot.
The main character some white guy named Roger Wilco. Everyone involved in this game seems to think it’s hilarious that he’s a janitor. All right. The main point is that unlike Graham, a knight of destiny on a half-asleep parent’s bedtime story version of the Hero’s Journey, our fellow here is a nobody caught up in events far beyond his understanding.
Namely, there are aliens invading his spaceship, and they shoot him a lot. For a game that’s supposedly a more lighthearted entry in the Sierra library, it sure starts out with a lot of dead and bloodied bodies lying around.
One of those bodies belong to a scientist, seen here in the process of dying dramatically. One thing I noticed pretty quick about Space Quest I is that the pixel art is much more effective than in King’s Quest I and II. Mark how most of the objects in this room are in proportion to each other, perspective is used in a non-bananas way, and you can tell that the scientist is dramatically dying rather than, say, transforming into a dolphin or melting. It remains to be seen whether this reflects a general improvement in Sierra’s graphics at the time or just more cohesive art on this series. I’ll report back once I get to King’s Quest III, which was made around the same time.
While the pixel art in general has seen a marked improvement, Space Quest introduces some… added challenges in object naming. See, as this scientist is dying, he coughs out some last keywords. I type them into the big computer in the center of the room, and the claw on top of it goes and grabs one of these red rectangles and brings it back to me. All hunky dory. But then…
Is it a…
Eventually I looked back at the computer for ideas and saw that it said some shit about “cartridges.” Aha! See, there’s an inherent difficulty here, in that I’m trying to guess at the futuristic terms of an earlier era. “Cartridge” is one of those words that saw its peak much earlier than a programmer in 1987 might have guessed. But for some reason, it got abandoned on the way to the many permutations of “disk” and “drive” that were to come.
Anyway, I got my all-important cartridge, did some key-finding shenanigans, and raced off to the next stage of my adventure, which would definitely not involve the same thing happening again.
Ha, just kidding! I got a spacesuit, which is good, and then stood there staring at these two rectangles connected by a line for a while. I didn’t even know where to start. Eventually I figured that it was just meant to represent some garbage or whatever, and decided to move on. HOWEVER
SURPRISE, YOU’RE ON A TIMER! Turns out all the time I spent typing terrible guesses into the parser had run it down by quite a lot, and now the ship was exploding within a few seconds of my reaching the airlock out of the ship. After a few unsuccessful attempts to reload and rush, I decided I’d need to just restart the whole thing. So it goes.
Now that I was speeding through the cartridge-naming challenge, I had no trouble reaching the airlock in time and pushing through. No time to fuck around with those two rectangles! Let’s get moving!
This brought me to the charming Star Trek imitation of the ship’s shuttle bay. I can just imagine poor Michael Dorn getting tossed over that half-assed teal control panel.
And with that, I was in a spaceship and flying off. It’s an all-out cutscene, with a minute or so given over to the stars flying by, an approach to a planet, and a crash landing. While King’s Quest II had a few scenes of Graham flying around on odd forms of transportation, this use of multiple camera angles and a bit of storytelling is a new thing.
Overall, there’s a striking change between the first two King’s Quest games and Space Quest I in terms of story progression. Both King’s Quest I and II involve aimlessly wandering around a single large world map, picking up objects that prevent you from dying in another part of the map, then wandering some more. King’s Quest II added some structure in the form of the three doors you had to open. Solving one door would make parts of the world related to the next door appear or open up.
Space Quest I, on the other hand, is a series of neatly separated sequences, each with a fairly clear goal. You’re on your ship and need to escape. You’re on a desert planet and need to get off. You’re on the enemy ship and need to blow up the MacGuffin. In between the sequences are travelling cutscenes that emphasize your movement to a new part of the story. Most of the time, your goal is to escape somewhere, which reminds me of how adventure game mechanics persisted most tenaciously through the lean years in short web games in which you escape a room. For some reason, the goal is a pretty natural fit to adventure puzzling. Just grab whatever keys you can and get out of there.
What I’m getting at is that Space Quest I feels like a much better-designed game than the first two King’s Quests. It’s usually pretty clear what I’m supposed to do at any given time, even if I don’t know how to do it. I never needed to obsessively map spaces, because each sequence took place in a pretty small area.
I know that I’m teasing around the edges of an old-ass debate in videogame design: open, free-roaming spaces versus linear progression. Space Quest I is a big step towards the latter for Sierra. I’d be interested to know more about how this design change happened. I haven’t been able to find anything illuminating in interviews with the Two Guys, but maybe I’ll uncover something as the project goes on.
Anyway, what’s important is that I pushed this rock on that spider robot on the first try. Ha, fuck you spiderbot! You didn’t get to kill me even once, and now I’m done with you forever!
Exploring the desert planet I’d landed on eventually took me into this rad pink cave. I got killed by these tentacles, but eventually figured out how to sneak past them. Look how cute I look sneaking! Then I had to figure out what to do with this geyser thing on the other side. Somehow, decades of videogame instincts taught me not only that the splotchy arrangement of pixels behind me was a secret door, but that blocking the geyser in front of it would somehow open it. How did we learn these things? Anyway, I didn’t have much to work with.
But all I got in return was sass! Something about the game text’s gosh-darn style combined with its intrigued reaction is weirdly hot. Let’s do this, Space Quest parser.
I found some damn rock that I was supposed to put on the geyser and headed into the depths of the pink cave. There I encountered some graphics programmers showing off their ‘3D’ prowess. Yes, very fancy. Good thing I only need to wiggle through all these layers once, probably.
AND THEN SOME LASERS. This was the point at which I gave up and went to the walkthrough. I didn’t have anything I could use with a laser, did I? It turns out I didn’t, because I didn’t pick up PIECE OF GLASS that fell off my crashed shuttle. But I looked at my shuttle and didn’t see anything? Ah! The really great thing is that PIECE OF GLASS only shows up if you look at the shuttle from a specific angle. THIS IS ALSO VERY FANCY. NICE JOB PROGRAMMERS. SO IT GOES.
On the plus side, I was saving pretty diligently. I went back through the whole desert planet sequence of the game, giving the spiderbot a few opportunities to get its revenge on me. But I managed to stick my piece of glass in the lasers and explode them because I guess that’s how lasers work probably.
This gave me access to the upper part of the cave. This is a nice way to reuse these intricately detailed graphics, and another way in which Space Quest thinks more cohesively about space than the earlier games. Also typically of Space Quest, I’m about to walk into some acid dripping from the ceiling, which will kill me.
Navigating the ceiling acid brought me to this giant alien head. It shouted some stuff at me in gibberish then kicked me out of the cave. Okay. I initially tried to figure out if its language was some kind of cipher: no luck. I wandered around the desert planet a bit looking for exciting new objects: no luck. I found a couple new holes and caves I hadn’t seen before. They all contained things that instantly killed me. No luck.
So, walkthrough. I pored over the entire thing up to this point trying to see if there was something I’d missed. And that’s when I saw it.
This just about broke me.
The two rectangles and the line that connects them together comprise the absolutely essential object that translates the giant head’s alien language. I had long since dismissed it as space garbage and forgotten it even existed, and that’s why I could not now progress in my game. This is the kind of thing I’ve been warned about ever since announcing this project. I can’t imagine what a player at the time, bereft of walkthroughs, would have done in the face of this cruelty. Shelled out for a hint book, I suppose.
But you know what? SO IT GOES
The head sent me on some nonsense quest to slay something or other. I slayed it in a nonsense way and brought back its splattered entrails to the giant head. Again, this is the Lighthearted series. The head turned out to be a Wizard of Oz deal with a bunch of little dudes running it. I messed with their computer and found out my cartridge was gonna save the universe or w/e. Then the bloodthirsty aliens gave me a little speeder to travel on to the next town via minigame. Like in Star Wars! What fun!
This minigame consists of moving side to side to avoid rocks. The rocks appear about five pixels before they hit your speeder, in random patterns. Hit five rocks and you die. This fucker killed me seventeen times. Note my futile attempts to improve my situation by changing the processor speed. NOT GONNA HELP, KID.
Eventually a bunch of save-spamming and anguish brought me to a small settlement, which had quite a bit of character. Tatooine-imitating character, but still.
Here, my goal was to buy a spaceship so I could get off the planet with my precious fancy cartridge. I made some money by selling my shitty speeder, then had to make the rest by gambling.
Here’s the bar where I set up shop. Sometimes the band is ZZ Top, sometimes it’s the Blues Brothers here. Let’s ignore that. In general, I really like the art in this bar, with the little details like the smokey air and the different moods of the patrons.
Roger is the pile of ashes there by the arcade cabinet. It’s a slot machine that occasionally kills you for no reason. Your task at this point is to gamble your meager earnings until you win enough to buy a ship. Being myself, I had already dented my savings by buying a bunch of beers, so this was a pretty long road. I got frustrated after a while and started looking around for things that would help me, like, hack the machine and cheat. Then I remembered that I could just cheat by saving and reloading constantly. So I did that.
At this point I flew off to the alien mothership or whatever so I could explode something they’d stolen from my ship. This scene initially stopped my heart, until it turned out to be just a cutscene and not an asteroid-navigation minigame.
Aboard the alien ship, I had to avoid getting killed while securing weapons and sabotaging shit. This was a pretty neat sequence, which involved some rudimentary sneaking around and a tiny bit of shooting, along with the usual adventure puzzle surrealism. For example, I hid in a laundry machine and this somehow caused me to be disguised instead of dead. Also note that the game addresses me by name when it talks shit about my playing. This is a nice touch that really highlights our antagonistic relationship.
Although the ending sequence was pretty fun to play, there wasn’t much that was funny about it, so let’s just fast forward to the end.
Here I am winning an award from a bunch of guys that look exactly like me! That is so videogames
THINGS THAT KILLED ME IN SPACE QUEST I: THE POWER RANKING
- Poor driving (17 times)
- Enemy combatants (14)
- Spiderbot (5)
- Exploding spaceship (5)
- Being made into a basketball (3)
- Sandworms (3)
- The scourge of gambling (2)
- Falling off a ledge (1)
- Tentacle beast (1)
- Surprise acid (1)
- Looking in a hole (1)