Lo-Fi Let’s Play: Mystery House

By Leigh Alexander on August 27th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

[I've been doing a series of Let's Play videos exploring old adventures, text games and lost design forms from the 1980s Apple IIe and Commodore 64 era. In a time when young men shout over new action games, I will talk softly over strange old ones. Come along on a visitation of a different era that's one part meditations on my childhood, one part adventure game criticism, and one part preservation effort. Bonus: Everyone says the quiet talk, lo-fi handmade feel and keyboard tapping triggers ASMR responses. Please enjoy!]

In honor of Activision’s revival of the Sierra label, I decided to revisit the 1980 classic Mystery House, Ken and Roberta Williams’ first “Hi-Res Adventure,” and the first official game by the company that would become Sierra On-Line.

Mystery House is often erroneously celebrated as the “first graphical game”. While computer roleplaying and war games had graphics before this one, it’s true that this is the first adventure game with graphics. It’s fair, then, for a pioneer to have made so many mistakes. Initially, the advent of graphics did not make favorable advances on the text game format, as you’ll see in the playthrough. And that’s not just because of the crudeness and simplicity of age; early text games, like the inspirational “granddaddy” Colossal Cave (the subject of my “Gaming Made Me” here a few years back), had terse but incredibly useful prose, where generally every detail mentioned was either relevant or clearly demarcated as atmospheric.

Throughout the early 80s, many graphical text adventures struggled with how to inform the player which elements of the picture they saw were important to their interactions and which ones were merely for visual “richness”. As you’ll see in a recent Let’s Play here, just two years after Mystery House, The Curse of Crowley Manor would do a better job with this design challenge, by denoting “visible objects” in the text interface that could be used or taken whenever the player discovered them.

And while similarly terse, Crowley had a flair for verbal pacing which made it much creepier and more atmospheric than Mystery House, which is often a bit awkward and flippant. That occasionally-silly tone gets fleshed out to positive effect in later Sierra games, of course, and you see flashes of it here. You’ll also see Mystery House forge some blunt approaches to design which would be foundational to later Sierra adventures — a certain willful obtuseness, a meanness, a constant rejection of the player’s intuition that made adventure games more frustrating and therefore last longer.

Mystery House sold unprecedentedly well for its time on release, presumably in part on the novelty of the graphics, and in part on how difficult it was to finish and the perceived value in the time spent trying to solve it. That bluntness didn’t seem to matter to the adventure gamer of the 1980s, a consumer who was satisfied with a hard game that took a long time, even if the difficulty was down to a selectively-intelligent parser and a certain lack of grace rather than to elegantly-designed puzzling and fruitful experimentation.

On a more obscure note, a non-trivial number of games I’ve visited in my Lo-Fi Let’s Play series include shovels and graves. DIG is one of the most crucial verbs, mechanically and tonally, to classic adventures, it seems.

The entire Lo-Fi Let’s Play series is available and regularly updated at my YouTube channel if you’d like to subscribe, but my friends at RPS are graciously syndicating them here from now on, with some additional written analysis and commentary.

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13 Comments »

  1. WiggumEsquilax says:

    Please stop placing your microphone directly up against your keyboard:)

    It’s not strictly speaking a problem, since you tend not to type and speak at the same time. It’s just funny, and loud. And loud.

    “It’s going to take a long time for games to sort of learn how not to confuse the player with graphics.” How many point and click adventure games turned into pixel hunts by refusing to learn from the very first of their species?

  2. Ieolus says:

    I spent 2 years (spread over Summer and Xmas vacations) as a kid “dig”ing up the beach in King’s Quest 2. The reply that the game gave me every time I would “dig” led me to believe there was actually something to dig up, but alas there was not.
    I was stuck all that time because of that darn bridge. I was afraid to go over it because I knew if I did it too many times it would collapse… what I did not know for those 2 years was that I needed to go over it to trigger that mermaid (who teased me on the back of the box!).

  3. Kurses says:

    Your voice has that lull you into a trance-like quality that I haven’t heard since I used to watch Bob Ross paint happy little trees on TV as a kid. It just puts you into a comatose state and you find a line of drool dripping out of your mouth after several minutes as your brain hovers over that area between awake and asleep.

    I don’t mean this in a bad way mind you, it’s very relaxing and I’ll often listen your lets plays before I go to bed. How do we get you into narrating audio books?

  4. Corwin71 says:

    Some modern day IF (interactive fiction) authors did a project several years ago dubbed “Mystery House Taken Over” in which they did various new takes on this game, some played fairly straight, some outright deconstructionist. Those familiar with IF over the past decade or so will recognize names like Emily Short and Nick Montfort.

    The website is still up, and the games are free. You might need to download an interpreter separately. I’m not sure how the files are packaged. http://www.turbulence.org/Works/mystery/

  5. rob_merritt says:

    I spent 4 months playing that game back in the 80s on I believe a friend’s Apple IIc with a green amber monitor. Seeing that game being played in color with a mouse cursor on screen is tripping me out. I agree with your comments about graphics confusing the situation. I much prefered playing Scott Adam’s Adventure international games on my Commodore Vic 20. Those adventures always seemed grander in my head.

  6. alabastersteel says:

    Excited for this.

  7. Phasma Felis says:

    What exactly causes vertical lines to be green and purple there? I’ve seen it in other Apple II screenshots, and I can’t figure it out. I’d think it was attempting to simulate a particularly crappy TV used as a display, but it doesn’t affect text, only graphics.

    It reminds me a bit of what happened on the C64 when you tried to display hi-res content (usually meaning text) in lo-res multicolor mode.

  8. Premium User Badge

    golem09 says:

    Is that a new kickstarter?

  9. ansionnach says:

    A bajillion years later…

    Took the time to play this game. Had only read about it before. It’s short and can be very illogical, but made for an interesting couple of hours. Really enjoy this series, keep up the good work!

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