davidn: (skull)
[personal profile] davidn
Well, [personal profile] kjorteo has been requesting for someone to do this for a very long time - partly because of interest in the game itself but mostly as repayment for the years of suffering she went through to produce her wonderful run of Laura Bow 2 - so at long last, I'm going to take a look at the first game Laura Bow appeared in, The Colonel's Bequest.

I should start things off by saying that I'm not exactly coming at this with an open mind, because I have an aversion to Sierra adventures in general. As much as I respect Roberta and company as pioneers of adventuring, I think they made a lot of decisions that made their games thoroughly unenjoyable - most notably the frequent dead-endery that characterized many of their adventures, either through allowing you to miss one-time opportunities with no warning or just not preventing you from dropkicking any item of extreme importance into an active volcano. Still, I'll try to see the positives in this game and only really go into ranting mode if I ever feel it's truly doing something awful.

This first entry in the unfortunately short-lived Laura Bow series was thought up by Roberta Williams as a kind of successor to Mystery House, famously the first ever graphical adventure game (depending on how generous you want to be with the term). Mystery House was made all the way back in 1980, and while its innovation was impressive on embryonic home computers, it didn't exactly age well in any department. Roberta wanted to revisit the idea, feeling that computer technology had now advanced to the point where the graphical and sound capabilities available to home computer owners were enough to be able to really tell a murder mystery with sufficient comprehensibility. So The Colonel's Bequest was released in 1989, when Sierra were truly at full steam releasing about a zillion adventure games a year and in the middle of multiple series that were to become classics.

Just like in Amon Ra, it's very possible (and even expected) for you to get to the end of the game discovering absolutely nothing - the idea is that you replay it multiple times with your discovered information and any hints the game gave you at the end, eventually piecing together the entire mystery. That's how it works in theory - when I tried videoing myself playing it a couple of years ago, I just spent my entire playthrough wandering around the mansion and grounds aimlessly before falling into a pond. Therefore, this time I'll be going through with the aid of a walkthrough - and I should mention that I'm very grateful to Sierra Help for providing so many resources on the game, even though their site name sounds like a rehabilitation service for people who have suffered several out-of-nowhere dead-ends too many.

Okay. With the background and everything out the way, I think it's time to get this pain-train going.

All right, Sierra. Give us a kicking.

Before we even get into the game, we run into our first obstacle - the copy protection. I don't think that anyone young enough not to remember these is going to be reading this, but just in case - these were included in most disk-based games to make sure that you had a copy of the manual or a special sheet included with the game, to prevent people just copying the diskettes like mad and sending them to all their friends (though unscrupulous players even having to go to that much trouble sounds absolutely great from a software company's point of view compared to how easily you can distribute things through the Internet now). They were implemented with various degrees of creativity and success - the boring ones would just ask you to look up a certain page/paragraph/word in the manual, but other games could get much cleverer about it - King's Quest 3 used the spell recipes as its copy protection, and King's Quest 6 had lore that you had to refer to throughout the game to have a hope of getting through.

This one is a pretty standard manual lookup challenge that's themed to the game, getting you to look up a fingerprint from a table, but it's not the most player-friendly thing in the world - the fingerprints all look nearly identical and it takes absolutely bloody ages to hunt through them and compare them to the one that the screen's showing. I'm told that the original game package contained a magnifying glass so that you could see them more easily - a fun addition, but an inconvenient one (and it must surely have bumped the manufacturing cost of the game up by miles, as paper and cardboard printing is typically pennies).

Something that you start to notice as soon as you get past the copy protection is that the game presents itself as if it's a stage play - if you answer the copy protection wrongly you get a message to the effect of "Tickets are sold out, go away". Even the manual itself is titled "The Colonel's Bequest: A Play by Roberta Williams", apparently unaware or unwilling to admit that it's an adventure game. It goes on to introduce it as "an interactive play in eight acts" due to it being different from most adventure games and even tells a version of the introduction that we're about to see in script format with stage directions. I've got to say I don't really see the connection it's trying to make, because among this whole "play" aesthetic it talks about how events can happen throughout the game at any time and the characters might travel between rooms and leave valuable clues for you. If anything, it's like some sort of simulation of live-action role play. But perhaps the stage metaphor helped ease a few murder-mystery fans who weren't familiar with games into playing this? I don't know.

Okay, let's finally get on to the plot. The game opens with this shot of a will being signed...

...and then brutally stabbed. That's not how it's meant to work! If anything you want the will to be intact after you apply the dagger to its owner - that's the whole point. Anyway, blood drips from the dagger on to the title, turning it from blue to red, as a dramatic orchestral swell plays (or at least as near to one as an Adlib card can reasonably get).

Something that I didn't even realize until it was mentioned on the game's Wikipedia page is that the name "The Colonel's Bequest" fulfills Sierra's pattern of having "quest" in their long-running adventure series titles, as in King's Quest, Space Quest, Quest for Glory and even Conquests of the Longbow.

Oh no.

The stage theme continues as a jaunty overture plays from the simulated orchestra pit, and we're introduced to the characters through their Sierra dialogue portraits and sprites. Let's see how much I can tell about them through sheer prejudice.

Here's Colonel Henri Dijon, who I believe is going to be the star of the show despite spending 99% of it being dead. Many of the characters are named after stars and writers of the 1920s - I think that the Colonel is instead named to evoke Colonel Mustard from Cluedo.

The staff is made up of Celie, Fifi and Jeeves. Celie certainly isn't the worst depiction of an African-American woman I've seen in the 80s. I will now ruin this lack of racial stereotypes by saying I'm going to guess Fifi is going to be the Yvette Delacroix of this game based on her nationality alone. And I don't know where Jeeves over on the right is from, apart from perhaps "maximum security". One glance at him is enough to guess he's incredibly creepy, and he face looks like a photofit.

The game introduces the rest of the Dijon family now. Unlike his elderly relative, who will be dead very shortly, Rudy with his widow's peak looks like he's been dead for the last three hundred years and only rises at night to drink people's blood. He's named after Rudolph Valentino, heartthrob of the 1920s - and I always assumed that that was his stage name, but I could never have guessed that it was a stage name for the even more unbelievable real name of Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella. You'd think at some point his parents would have thought it was time to stop.

Gertie Dijon must be the Colonel's sister or something, and is giving off a distinct "stubborn old woman" mood. As for Gloria, I'm not sure.

The Prune family is also here - Lillian will be introduced to us shortly and I have no idea who Ethel is.

Friends of the Colonel who will also be in this game - Clarence the Sparrow and Dr. Feels (which sounds like a stage name for a very different form of acting). They're named after W. C. Fields and Clarence Darrow, a highly respected American criminal defence lawyer with the slightly unfortunate belief that weak children should be culled to aid natural selection. So I'm going to guess his counterpart here isn't going to be a sympathetic character.

And Laura Bow, who we'll be playing as! I thought she was blushing here, but I think it's just an attempt at shading rosy skin with the EGA palette.

The story opens in 1925 at Tulane University in New Orleans, with a second reminder of who we're going to be dealing with. Laura is sitting on a bench reading, in the middle of an impressively alive scene - birds, squirrels and people in Tulane jumpers wander by.

Until Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt comes along and invites us to spend the weekend at her uncle's creepy old mansion to take us away from the sunshine.

In Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, the refusal of the call to adventure is a prominent element of the first act. This gets it out the way early.

And so, two nights later Laura and her friend Lillian are being punted across a creepy old moat by a creepy old man in a creepy old boat.

Honestly, the graphics really aren't bad for EGA. The palette is used well to produce quite atmospheric scenes - the silhouetted trees here really complete the background.

And so we're here - as ominous lightning flashes around the Misty Acres mansion, at least Laura seems to know enough about this genre to display some trepidation.

They knock on the door and Jeeves slides sideways out of it like he's been installed on a rail and pulley system. He tells them the rest of the guests are just sitting down to dinner and shows us in to join them.

Here's the first glimpse of the inside of the mansion where we'll be spending the rest of the game. Again, with just sixteen colours it would be very possible for everything to look muddy and blended in with everything else, but it really looks very good for the time. Colonel Dijon is being wheeled in just now, so let's listen to him set up the plot.


Oh, thanks, Colonel Mustard. Haven't you read any of these books before in your six hundred year lifespan? Why don't you just announce you're arranging a Hunger Games-style tournament to divide up the money.

His role in his own obviously impending murder fulfilled, Fifi wheels the Colonel out of the room, leaving the guests to talk among themselves again.

I think that any normal family would be pretty ecstatic at sharing a fortune of millions (especially in the 1920s when one million dollars was so much money that you could even just about afford to buy a two-bedroom flat in San Francisco) but these wankers are at each others' throats immediately - clearly there's some history here that we'll have to unravel. After it goes on for a while, Lillian announces she and Laura are retiring to their room.

And so in the bedroom, Act I is announced. This clock will appear throughout the game in response to certain events, just like in Amon Ra - at the moment, it stays on the screen for an agonizing amount of time while the Westminster chimes play arthritically, followed by a strike of seven.

We've almost got to the start of the game now, I promise.

Laura anticipates that a murder mystery is heading in her direction and takes out her notepad. Her father hasn't been mentioned previously in the actual game, but the manual says that he's a detective with the New Orleans police. So that's where she gets it from.

And with that, we're finally set up to wander around the game! The Colonel's Bequest uses Sierra's SCI engine, which was made as the successor to AGI in 1988 - apart from the extra resolution and limited mouse support, one of the most obvious differences is the way that the game pauses whenever you start typing. This has its advantages and drawbacks - timed sections are much easier, but it also means you can't type in a command while you're walking across the screen - you always have to be exactly in place before you start.

I say "limited mouse support" because while you have a mouse cursor, it isn't as useful as in the later Sierra adventure games. You can point to where you want to walk, and you can also right-click on an object to look at it - which is a very useful addition to a game like this compared to having to bash out "look at" a hundred times for everything on the screen.

You also have a selection of quick commands bound to keyboard shortcuts. This is an interesting development, because it's like the missing link between text-based and later verb-based adventure engines - the designers realized that the player would almost always want to use one of a limited number of actions, but didn't quite reach the conclusion of getting rid of the text parser as a result.

Well, we have the storyline set up, but I'm completely clueless now. Fortunately, the manual has a little walkthrough section in it to help you get started, so let's take a look at that.

It tells us to do this. I was a bit surprised when even moving over to the portrait, as walking is a bit different from the earlier King's Quest games as well here - the room is drawn with a proper perspective, and Laura's up-down movement follows the angle of view, making her move more diagonally the closer to the right of the screen she is (you can see the perspective most clearly with the squares on the floor). I'm not sure whether I like this, but I'll let you know if I get used to it.

The girl's portrait is on the opposite wall, which would be the one that's been cut away to let us look at this scene. Does that mean that we're the mysterious onlooker watching through the obviously hollow eyes of the portrait? Dun dun dun etc.

And, er, that is as far as the walkthrough in the manual takes you. Well, it goes a bit further than that but the next step tells you to load DOS into high memory and edit your config.sys because the copy of the manual I'm looking at is missing two pages, so we'll be on our own from here. Wish me luck.

Date: 2017-05-14 06:16 am (UTC)
kjorteo: Screenshot from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, of Bulbasaur smiling and looking excited. (Bulbasaur: Excited)
From: [personal profile] kjorteo
Wow, what a way to start your Dreamwidth posting. You don't ease gently into things, do you? :)

But aaa, it's happening! First off, thank you so much for the mention of my Amon Ra run, but I can't begin to tell you how excited I am to see this happening in return. And it's... surprisingly positive! I was a little worried when you openly admitted you weren't going into this with an open mind, but then the very next paragraph you contradicted yourself by providing a very open-minded-sounding thoughtful and informative background analysis of where Sierra was at this point in their history. (The only actual snipe there was at Mystery House's graphics, which, let's be honest, I would have taken the opportunity on that one as well. I even would have felt like something was missing if you hadn't. I mean, look at them.)

Speaking of graphics, just when I was thinking to myself that these are surprisingly good graphics for an EGA game, you upped the surprise by saying the same thing! We really are mellowing as we mature. :) Which isn't to say the rest of this doesn't have teeth; the quips are great and I'm laughing already, even at the same time I'm fascinated by the informative background information and interface explanations and appreciative of the moments (like the graphics) that this game does right. In short, one update in and I'm already impressed to no end by the tone of this series, and that makes me all the more ecstatic to see it happening.

"I'm going to guess Fifi is going to be the Yvette Delacroix of this game based on her nationality alone."
- What, you're basing that just on her nationality, and nothing to do with the fact that her name is Fifi? That's about as subtle as... well, a butler named Jeeves.

"Why don't you just announce you're arranging a Hunger Games-style tournament to divide up the money."
- Speaking of things in this game that aren't exactly subtle. Good lord, I realize this is presented like a stage play but that doesn't mean the characters are supposed to read the actual plot design outline instead of their own lines.

The manual has a walkthrough to get you started, that covers exactly one action! "Start game, gain control of character, look at the portrait on the wall. Well, clearly you've got the hang of this, I'm sure you can figure it out from here on out!" Thanks, Sierra. At least there's Sierra Help for the rest of it. Hopefully this won't turn into a situation like my Amon Ra run where (on top of the map, which doesn't count) I needed three actual walkthroughs, because the first two missed a detail on how to operate the intercom system and even with them I got stuck until I found the third. Good luck, for sure!
Edited Date: 2017-05-14 06:17 am (UTC)

Date: 2017-05-14 07:49 pm (UTC)
xyzzysqrl: A moogle sqrlhead! (Default)
From: [personal profile] xyzzysqrl
You'd enjoy the walkthrough in the full manual even more: It talks you straight through looking around the room, investigating a few things, saving your game, walking straight up to a broken section of stairway railing to fall to your death, and reloading your game so you don't do that.

Date: 2017-05-14 08:13 pm (UTC)
kjorteo: Screenshot from Werewolf: The Last Warrior, of the titular Werewolf next to a sign that says "Don't Knock". (Don't Knock)
From: [personal profile] kjorteo
You know, that's... actually a really good idea, if you're trying to introduce a game like this to new players. I mean obviously this wasn't their first adventure game with a save/load system, but you never know.

Date: 2017-05-17 03:24 am (UTC)
kjorteo: Portrait of a happy, hopeful, wide-eyed Bulbasaur from a doujin. (Bulbasaur: Hopeful)
From: [personal profile] kjorteo
The funny thing about things like this is that the visible effect versus how profound it feels can be quite different. I feel like I was too hard on Amon Ra at first and mellowed out after meeting [personal profile] xyzzysqrl, but actually reading my older versus newer entries, they're not all that different. It's mostly the intent--I used to approach it as "Haha let's rip this awful game to shreds because Ben Croshaw is funny, though admittedly this part here is kind of good" and evolved into "I really want to give this game a chance and celebrate what it did right, though I still have to call out this ridiculous bit." The tone is near-identical but it feels night and day to me because of what was in my heart at the time.

Anyway, this has been fantastic to read so far, and I happily and wholeheartedly welcome you back to writing. :D

Date: 2017-05-15 03:41 pm (UTC)
xyzzysqrl: A moogle sqrlhead! (Default)
From: [personal profile] xyzzysqrl
So as an unrepentant Sierra fan I sort of want to contribute to this project in even the smallest way, and I'm doing so with some crops from the design documents to Colonel's Bequest. In particular, there's the entire script (minus the last page or so, it's dull) that Ms. Williams wrote for the opening scene.

I love the artwork, which proves why the first thing one does is hire a Real Artist on these game projects, and I particularly love the line "After the so-called 'Title Screen'".

(I do want to note the parts where it cuts off at the bottom as someone SHOULD say something are in the original script and not a cropping error.)
Edited Date: 2017-05-15 03:44 pm (UTC)

Date: 2017-05-17 03:19 am (UTC)
kjorteo: Pixel-style portrait of Celine's face (NOT FAKE)
From: [personal profile] kjorteo
Jeeves looks like one of those "comically bad police sketches" compilations.

Date: 2017-05-16 05:06 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chalcedony_px4

Oh dear god.

Here we go!

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