Hi-Res Adventures #1: Mystery House (1980)

Hi-Res Adventure #1: Mystery House (1980), written and designed by Roberta and Ken Williams, published and developed by On-Line Systems

As far I know, thanks to MobyGames, the release of Mystery House happened on May 5th, 1980. It wasn't the first adventure game ever made, but it was the first one that had actual graphics. And not only did it have graphics, it had interactive graphics, where you could pick up an item in one room and proceed to drop the item to a next room, all which would lead the said item to magically appear in the room you were in. It was groundbreaking stuff and the release of this now pretty simple game gave birth to the first real juggernaut in computer games, Sierra On-Line, known then only as On-Line Systems.

In 1979 Ken Williams was programming an income tax program to a mainframe by using a teletype at his home. During this task, he also rummaged the mainframe in order to see what was there and he happened to stumble upon a program called Colossal Cave Adventure. Ken called out to his wife, Roberta, to see what he had found and together they submerged into the world of very first text adventure game, that was done way earlier in 1968.

Roberta was thrilled by the game and as soon as she finished it, she played others like it, like the many text adventures published by Adventure International, a company of Scott and Alexis Adams. But it didn't take long for her to notice, that the games were lacking, mainly in graphics and story.

Roberta Williams
She deiced that she could do better.

For three weeks Roberta sat at their kitchen table, tending their two children and plotted out her very first game design, Mystery House. She presented it to Ken, who wasn't that impressed by it until he realised Roberta wanted to up the ante by adding graphics to the game. So, as an after work task, Ken programmed game tools and logic, which allowed Roberta to draw rudimentary graphics and write the text. She also did the QA for the game and so born the first ever graphical adventure, released first for Apple II. A game, that ended up selling around 80 000 copies worldwide during a time, when computer games still were in their infancy.

When you look at Mystery House today, it doesn't look like much: crude wireframe graphics on a black background cover most of the screen and the game text is shown on the lower half with a parser. And the parser isn't even very smart, so you need to work in order to guess which phrases Roberta wanted you to use to do things. As for sound, there's none what so ever. The story is barebones as well, locking you in a big mansion along with 7 other people, who all are there to hunt treasure, but start dropping off, one by one. There's a killer on the loose as well.

Roberta and Ken circa 1981

But still, despite all the crudeness, Mystery House was a technical trailblazer. The game itself might have been a rudimentary treasure hunt, but it was presented like no other game of its genre. Sure enough, the story was still very sparse thanks to the graphics hogging up most of the disk space, but it still was nothing like people had seen before, so it's no wonder other developers started following suit, while other developers decided to concentrate on making the stories better, so they stayed on the path of a text adventures and made their parsers smarter instead in order to use the limited diskspace on more text. But for Roberta and Ken and Sierra On-Line, the future was in graphical adventures.

Just like in some other old adventures, Mystery House begins from a front of a house. Your first task is to figure out how to walk the steps up and how to open door in order to enter the said house. After you've mastered that, you see the 7 other guests of the house, standing in a nice little line in the vestibule. There's a note on the floor, which simply tells of the treasure hidden inside the house. Finders keepers.

You'd think that in a game, where people drop dead left and right, figuring out who did it would bear some importance, especially because the manual makes a point in telling things about the people. A simple table tells the name, occupation and the hair colour of each person in the house, but that information merits to very little. You don't really solve the murders, you just stumble from one room to an another, try to figure out unintuitive and illogical puzzles, until you get to the attic, where the murderer is expecting you. And if you've got everything with you, you'll manage to kill the murderer, (okay, it's Daisy the cook, I doubt I spoil much with that), before she kills you. At the same room you get the final clue of the whereabouts of the jewels, go to the cellar, pick the gems up and promptly exit the house through the front door, if you've found the key that is. And there the game ends.

The rest of the cast, or cannon fodder. You can't talk to them.

Don't be fooled by the appearances of a murder mystery here, as that's the last thing Mystery House is. There's no sleuthing or any kind of detective work really. The murderer is always the same person and she's encountered in the same place. Mystery House is just a simple treasure hunt, with a coat of murder mystery thrown over it, but with no real weight to it. Sure, you find bodies and you kill the murderer, but there's no real story beyond "people in the house, one kills the others because of reasons". And what those reasons are, are just lightly hinted at. On a note, that says "It all will be mine". So greed it is. Not that any of the other guests seem to do any real work in trying to find the treasure other than dropping dead here and there.

And then there's the darkness. An A-grade middle finger to the players. As soon as you manage to get in the house, the game gives a notification about that it's getting dark. It doesn't take long for the darkness to fall, making you stumble blindly in a dark house, where you can't see a thing. The only way around this is to find a candle and a book of matches so that you can illuminate your surroundings. After that, you are free to roam as you see fit. Then there's an attic trap door, that you can only see with a telescope that is on a tree. And then there's a secret button behind a painting you'll find only if you cut the painting open with a butter knife. Neither of those puzzles hint of themselves in any way, you just need to know about them and the candle puzzle is just plain stumbling around at first until you know where to get the items needed to create light. But before you do, be prepated to restore a couple of times. This isn't, as you'd expect, a portrayal of fair game design.

Then again, that is only a modern perspective. Back in the 1980's games were expected to last, as there was very few of them. So adding this kind of gruelling game play and puzzles ensured, that the game that was in itself pretty short, would last months upon months. The only way to get hints was by either through computer magazines, word of mouth or by calling the developers or just plain sourcing through the source code of the game in order to see what you were supposed to do. All that was seen as a fair game back then. With Mystery house Roberta Williams wasn't trying to re-invent the structure of the games of the era, she was interested in presenting them with more splendour by adding graphics to them, thus making the more appealing to bigger audiences. And that worked.

He's dead, Jim.

For the time and age Mystery House was made, it was a triumphant achievement. Not only did it sell well, 80 000 sold copies is even today a solid number if you are an indie developer, it opened up brand new visages on what could be done in games and how they could be presented. It's needless to say that it didn't take long for others to follow suit, some even re-releasing their old titles with added graphics, like Adventure International did with many of their titles, in order to increase their appeal.

It didn't matter that the game looked crude, as there weren't other graphical adventures around to compare it to. The stupid and rigid parser was just as in other games, as these all were things that were still in development and waiting for better technology and more disk space in order to function properly. While it all looks simple now, it was anything but with the 1980's computers.

 From a modern perspective, beings saturated with games with amazing visuals, stories, sound effects, music and voice acting, it's far too simple to take a look at Mystery House and not appreciate it. Sure, as it is today, it's not a great game, but when it originally came out, it was ground breaking. It was something never before seen.

And that's Mystery House for you. An artefact from the history of computer games. As crude as a piece of the first stone tool created by ancient proto-humans in the midst of time, but still in the contrast of history, a remarkable achievement.