Line on Sierra: Police Quest I

I’m not going to beat around the bush here. I’ve played a lot of games over the past few years. A lot of them were hard to get through for various reasons. But I am confident in saying that Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel is the single most agonizing game I have forced myself to play from start to finish. I hated almost every single second of this experience, and it is my duty to tell you why.

Title screen. The words "POLICE QUEST" are written in shiny gold block letters on a dark blue background. There are several cartoon bullet holes in the screen.

Police Quest came out in 1987, on the heels of the success of King’s Quest and Space Quest. According to SierraGamers, Ken Williams wanted to branch out by starting a police game series with a realistic style. He got in touch with Jim Walls, an Oakhurst, CA police officer who was at the time on either injury or trauma leave following a shooting incident. (Walls doesn’t specify which in his account.) Despite having no familiarity with computers, Walls became the lead designer on Police Quest, which we all need to acknowledge has a hilarious title.

There are some things I find fascinating about this story. It implies that Sierra at that point was so confident in their house style and game engine that they were able to hand lead design duties off to someone with no programming experience and come out with a successful game. That’s amazing! Think of modern studios that get filmmakers, comic creators, or book authors closely involved in development – that shit never ends well. And those are people with experience in directing complex creative projects. The idea that you can say, “I want an expert in [whatever] to direct a game, let’s go find one!” – and get a decent result – is incredibly powerful. That level of accessibility is a design goal game development could use more of these days. Indeed, it produced a game that experiments with the standard Sierra formula in some interesting ways.

Unfortunately, that interesting experimentation came along with the deadly burden of “realism.” No more troll curses and comical death aliens, it’s time for Sierra to get mature! Solve real world problems using real world solutions! Show what a cop’s life is really like!

Realism is a goddamn artistic dead end and no one can convince me different. Exhibit A: POLICE QUEST: IN PURSUIT OF THE DEATH ANGEL.

A closeup of a two-column newspaper called "THE LYTTON TRIBUNE". It is very low resolution and only a few words fit on it. The left column headline is "DOPE IN THE CITY". Text reads: "The city of Lytton, once a beautiful, peaceful, quiet city with few major crime problems, is now experiencing rapid growth and prosperity. But, along with growth has come an alarming increase in the crime rate that is-". The bottom of the column reads "see Dope, pg 2". The right column headline is "PRESIDENT HICKLE". There is a black-and-white illustration of a figure in dark clothes watching seagulls through binoculars. Text reads: "Smugsville, U.S.A. President Hickle was in Smugsville yesterday evening, observing the annual migration-". The bottom of the column reads "see Birds, pg 2".

The back story of Police Quest is that an idyllic small town in California has been gradually ruined by Crime Rate. You are Sonny Bonds, an award-winning white cop who is fighting against Drugs and their pernicious influence on Peace. In case you’re wondering whether a game designed by a California police officer in the 80′s ever gets racist, don’t let me keep you in suspense.

Sonny stands in the parking lot of the jail. Behind a fence is a recreation area where a black prisoner holds a basketball. Game text reads: "This is the officer's booking entrance to the Lytton City Jail. In the exercise yard, a prisoner dribbles continuously. (He also bounces his basketball!)"

The police station locker room. Sonny wears his "pimp costume" and walks past the janitor, who is a black woman. Game text reads: 'Woooo wheeee! Lookee whats we gots here!' laughs Jefferson."

There is one black cop who doesn’t get any major lines, but other than that people of color in this game are either prisoners played for comedy or a stereotyped domestic laborer who spends the entire game mopping the police station locker room. They’re also, to my memory, the first obviously nonwhite people to show up in a Sierra “Quest” game so far. (As a reminder, I haven’t played Leisure Suit Larry or one-offs like The Black Cauldron as part of this series. I don’t know if the representation issue was complicated in any of those.)

This sucks. And if memory serves me, it’s not going to get better anytime soon. These were games made when designers assumed that personal computer users were all wealthy white people with advanced degrees. I mean, here’s Roberta Williams herself on the subject in 1999:

Back when I got started, which sounds like ancient history, back then the demographics of people who were into computer games, was totally different, in my opinion, then they are today. Back then, computers were more expensive, which made them more exclusive to people who were maybe at a certain income level, or education level. So the people that played computer games 15 years ago were that type of person. They probably didn’t watch television as much, and the instant gratification era hadn’t quite grown the way it has lately. I think in the last 5 or 6 years, the demographics have really changed, now this is my opinion, because computers are less expensive so more people can afford them. More “average” people now feel they should own one.

So sometimes I worry that this series is just encouraging nostalgia for a period of gaming history that was uninclusive to the point of parody. I’m gonna keep doing it, because I think there’s a lot that’s interesting and useful about the design changes taking place over the course of these games. But I want to be up front about what was fucked up about them.

The smatterings of racism are shitty, but there were plenty of other reasons I found the game such an unpleasant experience. The primary reason is the overall rhythm of the game, presumably influenced by the desire for realism. It’s interesting, but I hated it.

The police station briefing room. A large blackboard is along the back wall. It reads "BRIEFING 13:00." In front of the blackboard is a podium with a star on it. There are four tables facing the podium. There are cubbyholes along the east wall. Three officers are milling around and Sonny is standing behind one of the tables. Input text reads: "I'M SO BORED ALREADY"

About five minutes into the game I had to attend a briefing for the day. Not just that, but I had to find the exact right desk to stand at, and stand on the proper side of the desk, before the briefing would start. Until I found it, other characters would periodically yell at me for being in the wrong place. Once I managed to figure out the arbitrary correct set of actions to take, I was rewarded with a slow, dialogue-heavy cutscene about Drugs that did not ultimately provide any relevant information about my quest. This would prove to be an ominous portent of the game as a whole.

The police station locker room. The walls and floor are tiled in blue. There are bathroom stalls along the east wall, showers along the back wall, and a door in the west wall.  In the middle are two rows of lockers and a bench. A janitor mops the floor in the foreground. Game text reads: "Congratulations. Most players don't enter a shower while fully-clothed. You've just lost a point."

My traditional attempts to interact with every object in sight, logic be damned, were actively mocked. When I tried to explore every room in the police station, people yelled at me to go on patrol. What was this strange world I found myself in? What does “going on patrol” mean, anyway? It seems like you… want me to do something that isn’t putting a key in a door?

Ah, here’s something familiar!

The police station parking lot. The police station is a large red brick building in the background with a sign that says "LYTTON PD." There are three cop cars, a white car, and a flashy blue car parked in the lot. Sonny stands next to one of the cop cars. Game text reads, "You don't have the keys to this car."

On the one hand, I appreciate that Police Quest pushes against the habits I had built up in previous Sierra games. There’s no inventory mashing here. You get the cop stuff you need for your cop job, and you use them in the normal course of affairs. I don’t think I checked my inventory once the entire game. The tiled world has been replaced by an city map with isolated locations. Perhaps the most dramatic difference is that there are no puzzles with 100% bananas solutions. You just follow instructions.

There’s one element of the Sierra formula that Police Quest didn’t disrupt: that even the smallest mistakes must be punished with swift and comical death. The difference is that those mistakes are now largely violations of actual police procedure, which you are supposed to read about in the manual. I did not read the manual. By the time I realized what was going on, I was too angry to expose myself to any more of the game’s hideous world-building. Instead I just read a walkthrough and yelled a lot.

Sonny stands next to his cop car in the police station parking lot. Game text reads: "Having performed the prescribed, walk-around safety check of your vehicle, you're now ready to hit the streets.

The thing about following police procedure instead of solving wacky puzzles is that you have to do it over and over. For example: every single time you drive out of the police station, you need to walk around your car to check for flats. (I was enthusiastically warned about this by @JMacDotOrg, whom I had just met, as soon as he heard I was playing the game. This stuff sticks with people.)

If you don’t do this, you will die for some reason. No matter what you screw up, you will get a game over for it. No matter how many times you do it, it has to be perfect every time. The game wants to enforce a routine; I dig that. But it’s working in a style where the primary way to enforce player behavior is a game over. Something about this rhythm made me angrier and angrier as I went along. In Space Quest, getting trapped because I didn’t pick up a rectangle two planets ago was just funny. But this? This is like abusive educational software. Repeating the same actions in an exact order time and again, when you don’t even care what’s happening, is miserable.

Sonny sits in his cop car in the police station parking lot with the door open. Input text reads: "close fucking door"

Fortunately, I soon found out that the parser allows some editorializing in commands. This helped.

Once I got on the road, things somehow went even further downhill.

An overhead view of the city map. The streets are laid out in a grid with several blocks visible. They are grassy and have a lot of trees. The title bar reads "Map C3." On one of the blocks, the police station and its parking lot can be seen. In the corner of the parking lot is a big red skull-and-crossbones. Game text reads: "Nice job, crash! That's one way to get a vacation!"

Unlike previous Sierra games, Police Quest has a type of overworld map navigation. Once you start driving your car, you enter the city map, a 4×4 grid with important locations scattered around it. You can park at those locations and get out. In between, you drive around your little pixel car.

Now, a note about movement in this era of Sierra games. In almost all modern games with keyboard-based navigation, you hold down a key to move in that direction. You stop moving by releasing the key. These games were made before this became an overwhelming standard. In Sierra games, you tap an arrow key to start moving in that direction, and tap it again to stop. I found it disorienting when I started this series, but I’m used to it now. I walk into walls sometimes, but it’s fine.

In Police Quest‘s driving minigame, walking into walls means death. Not stopping fast enough on approaching a red light means death. Turning into the wrong row of pixels means death. That little bit of disorientation with the movement scheme is occasionally annoying when I’m walking. When I’m driving, it means death. Lots and lots of death. The screenshot above shows me crashing into the side of the police station parking lot in literally the first second I was introduced to the driving controls.

Okay, so travel is going to a bit of a pain, but all I need to do is get where I’m going and save, right? At this point, I remembered that I had no idea where I was going. All I knew is that I was supposed to go “on patrol.” Confused, I drove around, died a bunch, parked everywhere I could and checked out the locations, where nothing seemed to be happening.

Overhead view of a neighborhood by the river. Game text reads, "Dispatch squawks, '83-32, 83-32. Respond to 11-83, SW corner of Fig and 4th.'"

After some frustrated experimentation and walkthrough checking, the horrible truth dawned on me. Being “on patrol” means driving the car around aimlessly. Which for me, as we have established, means death. After you drive around for long enough without dying, you will get a radio dispatch that tells you to go to a location or look for a car of a certain color. So now, on top of driving my car and not dying, I need to constantly “LOOK” to see if I’m anywhere near fucking Fig and 4th. Or I need to scan moving objects in the scene to see if they’re something I’m supposed to chase. AND THEN I HAVE TO CHASE THEM. AT DOUBLE SPEED.

OH AND THERE’S FUSSY PARKING TOO CHECCCCCCK IT OUT

Overhead view of the an area with a strip mall. Sonny's cop car is stopped a few pixels away from a curb. Input text reads: "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST"

In this scene, superstar cop Sonny Bonds is thwarted in his battle against Drugs by being one pixel too far from the curb. Sonny will have to tap his arrow keys with precise timing to move one pixel upwards without crashing! Can Sonny do it? (NOT PICTURED: SONNY’S DEATH)

Once you get to a location or pull someone over, a little scene plays out. For example, you stop a speeding car, learn a valuable lesson about proper ticket-writing procedure, and try not to fall in love.

A closeup view of a young white woman with dark hair, big earrings, and a blouse that is slipping off her shoulder, showing most of her oddly-drawn breasts. Game text reads: "As you look into the car, you wonder, 'Can this be happening?'"

Other scenes just advance the game’s plot, such as it is. In one, you have to meet a cop friend for coffee in a diner. Strangely, this was the scene that broke me.

Sonny sits in a diner across from a blonde white cop. Input text reads: "scream very long and loud in his face"

In this scene, the blond cop yells at you until you sit down. Then you wait a while. Occasionally he makes small talk. Then the phone rings, and people yell at you until you answer the phone. You answer the phone. Then you go back and sit down. You wait a while more. Eventually the blond cop says goodbye and you get up and leave. Realism.

There’s an awful lot of waiting in this game. You drive around waiting for a dispatch. You stand around waiting for orders. You wait for backup. Lots of waiting. In between waiting, you’re following extremely specific instructions with no room for error. This is what I mean by the rhythm of the game, and why it tried my patience so much. It’s strange! There are these periods where nothing happens, then suddenly you’re dying with every step. Then the cycle repeats.

From a dispassionate remove, I can respect this. It’s interesting. I haven’t played a lot of games that have this kind of structure. The closest one that comes to mind is my favorite adventure game of all time, The Last Express. That game runs on a clock, and you can only perform certain actions at certain times. You spend a lot of time waiting, figuring out what you’re supposed to do at a given moment, then trying to execute it perfectly. When you screw up, you have to rewind the clock and try again. From a distance, it’s similar to Police Quest. Why did I have such different reactions to the two games?

I don’t know if I have a complete answer. But here’s my best guess: The Last Express is a mystery, which means that a lot of the down time can be filled by little investigative actions. You can listen in on conversations, read newspapers, search rooms, or just wander around in hopes of seeing something suspicious. Even if you’ve seen something already, there’s a chance it might mean something different the second time through, because you’ve learned new information or just notice something new about it. It can feed your intuition. But Police Quest is a procedural, which differs from a mystery in a key way. In a mystery – like Sherlock Holmes – the detective solves the case by making an intuitive leap. In a procedural – like Law and Order - the detective solves the case by competently performing their job.

Now, those are fuzzy categories and there’s plenty of cases that fall in between. But Police Quest lies as close to the procedural end as you can get. You follow procedures and you win, period. No intuition. Nothing to notice. Which means that nothing that happens outside of following police procedures is relevant to the case. Which means that forcing me to sit through inane blond diner small talk for minutes with nothing to do is sheer cruelty. Which means that this happened.

Sonny stands in a bar next to a brunette white woman with overly-defined pixel breasts. Input text reads: "drugs ??!!!"

After the diner crisis, I sincerely questioned whether I could get through the entire game. I decided to push forward, FOR YOU. I just stopped pretending I wasn’t going to type in the walkthrough word for word. I learned all kinds of new things about the game by doing this. For example, there’s a rudimentary dialogue system! Sometimes you are suddenly in a dialogue with someone, and you have to answer their questions by just typing answers. Trained as I was in the ways of VERBing NOUNs, this was deeply disorienting. On the up side, you can make it through most conversations by just yelling DRUGS.

I also learned I would get points for smelling this man.

Sonny stands next to the pink car facing the driver, a bald white guy who is slightly bent over. Input text reads: "smell.... man?"

The world was a confusing place to me, but at least I was surviving it. I also noticed a neat little detail: the background in the scenes where you pull someone over changes based on where you catch them. That’s a nice touch!

Then I got invited to another social gathering and freaked the fuck out.

Sonny stands next to a flashy blue car in the police station parking lot. Input text reads: "i hate myself and i hate this car"

Sonny Bonds is the worst. I took extra pleasure in the six times I crashed this car on the way to the bar. Once there, I found out that we were throwing a birthday party for a colleague who is depressed because his teenage daughter is On Drugs. His friends brutally ignored his emotional state in a spirit of enforced cheer.

The cops sit around a table in the bar. Jack is face down in his birthday cake. A blonde white woman in a tiny yellow bikini enters holding balloons and swinging her ass. Game text reads: "Jack says, 'Oh no! Now what?!'"

This was more tolerable than the diner scene because I didn’t have to talk to Steve and I got to see a butt. Also, since I was off duty, I got to drink without losing the game.

A bar with blue walls and several tables with people at them. Cops in plainclothes are sitting around the center table, which has a birthday cake on it. A red-haired white cop with a mustache sits behind the cake. Game text reads: "You swig the rancid fluid until you see the bottom of the glass."

I would have been happy to stay in this miserable little scene forever, but I was soon called back to my battle against drugs.

Police station locker room. Cops mill around. Game text reads: "'Boy, you can sure tell there's a full moon out! You should see the nut I arrested last night for being under the influence of drugs.'"

Me and the boys talked about drugs in the shower. Then we attended a briefing about drugs.

The police station briefing room. Cops are standing at four tables. In the front of the room, the captain walks up to a podium. Behind him the blackboard reads: DRUG TRAFFIC MUST STOP!

did you hear about drugs

Some more boring stuff happened. The gist is that I was such a good cop that I got put on drug force I mean narcotics duty, which was my drug cop dream. That meant I didn’t have to go on patrol anymore, which is good I guess. Instead I just walked around until someone told me what to do. Eventually I went on stakeout of a park where some guy was selling drugs to his drug contact. And then the best part of the game happened:

A park filled with trees and large bushes. There is a low brick wall in the background and a picnic table in the foreground. Two white men stand by the picnic table, both wearing tank tops. A dialogue box off to the side reads: "'Hey, Butt Breath! This ain't enough. Where's the rest?'" The same park scene. Dialogue box reads: "'Jiggers! The fuzz!'"

THIS IS AS GOOD AS IT GETS, PEOPLE. ENJOY IT WHILE IT LASTS.

I arrested these guys after dying a ludicrous number of times then headed back to the station. There, the game tried to get serious. The daughter of the depressed birthday guy died of an overdose, which filled Sonny with oddly worded rage:

An office with a large desk in the middle. Most of the screen is obscured by a large text box. Game text reads: "Hatred wells up inside you. You vow revenge for Kathy's senseless death by tracking down the dope world animals responsible!"

So, one: this is a cheap fridging of a young woman we’ve never met, seemingly tacked on to raise the stakes before the finale. And two: this reminder of the sober reality of drug abuse is immediately followed by a scene where Sonny dyes his hair and dresses up in a pimp costume.

The police station locker room. Sonny stands in the shower with blond hair. (The shower stall covers up his naughty bits.) Game text reads: "At last, you'll find out if blondes really have more fun!"

I fucking hate this game.

The costume is for some reason necessary for the thrilling endgame scenario, in which Sonny goes undercover at a hotel with an illegal gambling business and I don’t know what this has to do with drugs. First I had to ingratiate myself with the most incompetent bartender in history.

A hotel bar with red walls and carpet. There are a few pink tables and a curved black bar. Sonny stands next to the bar with blond hair, a hat, and a white suit. Marie stands next to him. There is a bartender in a white jacket behind the bar, facing away from them. Game text reads: "What's a martini?"

Then I had to beat a poker minigame like a billion times.

Sonny stands in the middle of a room with red walls and floors, wood paneling, and four green-felted poker tables in it. Players sit around three of the tables playing poker. Input text reads: "this is it this is actual hell"

Okay, some folks I talked to had really fond memories of this poker game. I should clarify that I hate real-world poker with all my shriveled little heart. I largely associate it with grad school buddies spilling booze on my carpet while feeling like geniuses.

I’ll admit that once I got into it I found it kinda fun. I get the impression some programmers at Sierra made it for their own entertainment and just needed a game to weakly justify it. It also led to a fun conversation with my boyfriend contrasting it with the poker minigame in Far Cry 3, which he had recently played. He suspected that the Far Cry AI players were using knowledge of his hand to prevent him from bluffing on very weak hands. The Police Quest AI players are very easy to bluff, by contrast, since they seem to play based on straightforward probability calculations and the assumption that you do the same. I think it’s interesting that if the designer relaxes the constraint that the AI players should know nothing of other hands, they could manipulate the game for any number of desired outcomes. For example, they could make the human player feel like a genius no matter how they play. That’s what people want from poker, right?

Anyway, once I won a certain amount of money, I was able to go to a high stakes game and do the same thing again. Why do something once if you can repeat it until it’s not fun anymore, right, Police Quest? Blah blah blah I found The Death Angel at the poker table and blah blah shootout where you die if you don’t follow police procedure correctly.

A lush hotel room with large windows looking over the city skyline at night. Sonny crouches behind a bar with gun drawn. Several cops in plainclothes stand near the door at the south. A body is sprawled on the floor by the windows, which have four large bullet holes in them.

The Death Angel is some big drug dealer, by the way, whom I spend the game In Pursuit of. I might not have mentioned this because it isn’t important. Naturally, though, putting this guy behind bars will save the city from drugs and obliterate all the systemic issues that empower illegal drug traffic including poverty, lack of support for treatment programs, the insidious War on Drugs mentality of the police force that largely serves as an excuse to incarcerate men of color at staggering rates, etc. You win, Sonny!

A large crowd of people stands in front of the courthouse, which is a large white building with marble columns. Game text reads: "You'll also enjoy our 3D 'Helicopter Simulator' that allows you to have dogfights with your friends via modem, or just fly through many cities for fun."

Fuck off, text box, I don’t trust your recommendations anymore.

THINGS THAT KILLED ME IN POLICE QUEST: THE HEAVILY LOPSIDED POWER RANKING

  • Bad driving: 47 fucking times
  • Shot: 2
  • Flat tire: 2
  • An errant dart: 1
  • Left car door open: 1
  • Demon liquor: 1
  • Non-accidental drowning: 1
  • Turning right on red: 1
  • THAT YELLOW LIGHT LASTED LIKE TWO CPU CYCLES, COME THE FUCK ON: 1
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