Laura Bow Mysteries
Envisioned by Roberta Williams, Laura Bow is the star of a short lived series that draws from classic mystery novels. Based on a healthy diet of Agatha Christie and games of Clue, the heroine finds herself in situations where her compatriots are all being murdered under mysterious circumstances. They rely heavily on mystery tropes, and thoroughly acknowledge this fact, giving them sort of a classic feel without seeming like a ripoff.
Based on silent movie actress Clara Bow, at least in name and looks, Laura is meant to personify the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, much as the woman she was based on. In practice it doesn't quite work out like this - she's largely a silent protagonist in her first game, The Colonel's Bequest, and morphed into a polite Southern belle in The Dagger of Amon Ra, which ran contrast to Clara Bow's party-hard reputation. Laura Bow is still unlike most other computer game heroines, not only for her personality but for the setting of her adventures. Despite being a cornerstone of American history, the 1920s have rarely been explored in gaming, perhaps because decades later, the medium still largely panders to the boy/manboy crowd. In that respect, it shows how forward thinking Sierra was in trying to diversify its products.
The lineage of the Laura Bow games can be traced way back to Sierra On-Line's very first game, Mystery House. Based very loosely on Agatha Christie's novel Ten Little Indians (also known as And Then There Were None), you play an unnamed character locked in a mansion with seven other guests. With a vague note telling of jewels hidden within the house walls, you soon find the other characters scattered around, all quite dead. A killer is on the loose, and you need to find the treasure, uncover the skeleton key to unlock the front door, and escape with your life.
One of the most important adventure games ever made, Mystery House was the first in the genre to add graphics, whereas all previous games were entirely text-based. The visuals are, of course, quite rudimentary, consisting of shakily drawn white lines against a black background. The characters look as if they were lifted from a first grader's notebook, and even minor items like knives and shovels are crudely drawn. It's all understandable given the game's age; it had to fit in the limited RAM of the Apple II, and since there were no real drawing programs on the market, Ken and Roberta Williams had to assemble their own device, combining a graphics tablet with a mechanical arm.
While Mystery House was a true pioneer amongst text adventures, its puzzles, story, writing - pretty much everything, actually - are all quite amateur. There's not really much in the way of prose so much as stark descriptions. ("You are in the kitchen.") All of the characters have professions, but none have any personality, nor any real purpose beyond popping up dead. If you pay attention to their bodies you can piece together some clues that implicate the murderer - one was strangled by a pantyhose so the killer is probably a woman, and another is holding a daisy, which... well, spells out the killer's name right there. You can easily get yourself killed through stupid means - such as lighting a candle, tripping, or setting the house on fire and not putting it out in time - plus you can easily get lost in the surrounding forest. And there's a short time limit at the beginning, where you need to find a light source lest you find yourself wandering in the dark.
And this is to say nothing of the extremely simple text parser, which only understands two word sentences. Right at the beginning, once you open the door to the house, you can't just type "enter" or "go in" or even type the direction. The game only understands "go door." It gets more confusing because the visuals don't necessarily match up to the directions. For example, in one room, the door is on the right side of the screen, so it's natural to assume that it's to the east, but it's actually to the south.
At least the house has several interesting secrets. The manor itself is relatively small, but there are a number of secret passageways, hidden compartments, and underground tunnels that fulfill its promise of being a "mystery house." Still, one of the major puzzles really makes no sense - you need to figure out how to get into the trapdoor in the attic, which only magically becomes visible (and therefore accessible) after you've looked at it through a telescope, which is perched atop a tree in the middle of the forest.
Most of these quirks are outlined in the instruction pages before you begin, so at least it sets down its grammar rules and inconsistencies from the beginning. But it's still a pain to play, and there's little of interest to be found here beyond its historical value. In 1987, Sierra released the game into the public domain. It can be found on the Roberta Williams Anthology, along with the rest of Sierra's High-Res Adventures, although they need to be run through an Apple II emulator. The game was also ported to the iOS by a company completely unrelated to Sierra.
In 1983, a Japanese company called Starcraft ported Mystery House to Japanese computers such as the PC-6001. (There's another graphic text adventure developed by Microcabin using the same name, although it's entirely unrelated to Sierra's game. This means there were two games on the market with the same title – one a shoddy ripoff, the other quite authentic.) While Starcraft's port is very similar to the original Apple II version, all of the graphics have been redrawn and improved. It still uses the simplistic black and white line drawings, but all of the characters now have vaguely realistic proportions, despite not having any faces, and the visuals look far less rough. Part of this may have had to do with better technology, but the Japanese PCs also ran at a higher resolution than the Apple II, allowing for more screen real estate.
The redone visuals look really nice in comparison. The fact that everyone has blank faces looks really creepy, and the dead bodies are much more dramatically posed, with blood pouring out of them (or, rather, something that looks like blood - it's still black and white) rather than the Looney Tunes-style lumps in the original one. Minor details have been added to the environment, like the windows in the upstairs floor being boarded up, further establishing the fact that you can't escape. It's obviously difficult to play if you don't know Japanese, but it's cool to compare the graphics.
Sierra published several more text adventures before introducing King's Quest and changing the landscape of the genre forever. In the new age of graphic adventures, they occasionally found themselves revisiting and revising some of their older games. King's Quest was loosely inspired by The Wizard and the Princess (AKA Adventure in Serenia), Sierra's second game, while Leisure Suit Larry was explicitly a remake of Softporn Adventure. While taking a break from the King's Quest games, Roberta Williams decided to once again develop a mystery game. While not technically based on Mystery House, it borrows elements from the same Agatha Christie stories, and reuses many of the same themes, although it's obviously much more fleshed out due to the use of more advanced technology.
The heroine is Laura Bow, an old-fashioned Southern girl from Louisiana attending Tulane University in New Orleans. Her friend, Lillian Prune, invites her to spend a night at her family's mansion. The gargantuan house, on an island in the middle of the swamp, is inhabited by the aging Colonel Dijon, who has called his kin for the reading of his will. This is clearly a bad situation, as the Dijon family has a number of quarrels, not to mention all of the drama going on with the Colonel's flirtatious French maid. As to be expected, people start dying one by one, with Laura somehow being the only one noticing. She needs to survive the night, all the while exploring the old mansion in hopes of finding the killer's true identity.
While not always the best game designer, Roberta Williams was always trying something new and unique with her games. Movies and books, by their very nature, are linear experiences which must involve the viewer/reader at all moments. Most games are developed the same way too, in that the world revolves directly around the player and their actions, but The Colonel's Bequest tries to shake things up a bit. There are secret meetings, arguments, fist fights and murders, all going in on the house, but Laura isn't necessarily privy to viewing most of them, unless she's at the right place at the right time. It creates a sense that there's a living world beyond the immediate gaze of the player, one which could theoretically go on even if the player wasn't involved.
There are many problems with the whole package, the least of them being that the mystery just isn't terribly interesting. The characters are all familiar archetypes, and most are named after figures from the era, like the suspicious doctor Wilbur C. Feels (W.C. Fields), the untrustworthy lawyer Clarence Sparrow (Clarence Darrow), and the stuck up actress Gloria Swansong (Gloria Swanson). The French maid is named Fifi, and the butler is named Jeeves, while Colonel Dijon is a not-so-subtle reference to Colonel Mustard from the board game Clue. Despite their naming conventions, they are sparsely characterized, as they're mostly defined by their vices or conflicts, and little else. Therefore, it's hard to feel for the characters when they get killed. Laura has no real personality either, and it's almost sociopathic the way she stumbles upon body after body, acts horrified for a moment, and then completely carries on for the rest of the night as if nothing happened. Laura can, of course, get herself killed, usually by walking into some place she shouldn't. These events are easily avoidable once you know where they are, but there are a few sticking points, like the shaky railings on the second floor, where it's entirely too easy to stupidly fall to your death, or the chandelier, which will randomly fall on you if you walk underneath it. (There's also an amusing reference to Psycho if you decide to take a shower.)
The most frustrating issue is the way time is structured. There are eight acts, one for each hour, and each hour is further broken down into fifteen-minute quarters. The clock does not operate in real time - instead, it advances when certain triggers are met, usually when walking in certain rooms or interacting with certain people. There's rarely any indication of how to do any of this without stumbling around, which leads to another problem - it's far too easy to propel forwards through the plot, missing important events without meaning to. You might find two people yelling at each other, and it will make absolutely no sense if you failed to view an establishing scene from earlier on. When you barge into two people chatting and they get pissed off, you were supposed to crawl into one of the many secret passages and spy on them rather than charging into the room, but how would you know that beforehand? Although this requires judicious save scumming to get right, at least you know when you screwed up and why. This doesn't always happen though, and it's very easy to feel lost. There are only a few scenes that are required viewing, and they're mostly so Laura can happen upon the dead bodies.
The strange time-skipping also causes some severely awkward aspects that totally defy logic. Walk into a room and find a person sitting happily. Exit the room and immediately re-enter, and you'll find them dead. Yes, in that split second, someone else snuck in the room, murdered them, and left without so much as a sound. And then, once you leave the screen, the bodies will mysteriously disappear, so even if you can convince one of the other characters to check for the body, they'll simply think you're a lunatic. It's not much of a spoiler to say that the killer isn't a ghost - they're bound by the rules of reality, and turning them into a phantom so it fits into the game's narrative framework almost completely undermines the whole experience.
By its own admission, The Colonel's Bequest really isn't even a traditional adventure game. There are very few puzzles to solve, and most of those involve an optional treasure hunt that reveals a bit of background on the Dijon family. When you break down the components, all you do is explore and spy on the family members, which translates into stumbling around and being very meticulous. The onus is put upon the player to question the other characters, discover their motives, and attempt to solve the mystery for themselves before the night is over.
Uncovering this backstory is supposed to be the point of the game, but one can't help that it feels superfluous by the end, where the gist of the story is spelled out for you anyway. Laura is put in the classic situation where she finds two people struggling, and needs to use what she's learned from earlier on to decide who to shoot. Your decision leads to one of two endings, but it's easy to figure out the solution just through the mandatory scenes, and one of the endings is clearly the "bad" one. Regardless of which ending you get, you're graded on your performance with a "Sleuth-O-Meter." Like other Sierra games of the time, you get points for accomplishing certain tasks, although here this is all kept hidden from the player until the very end. If you've spied on all the right people, asked the right questions, and investigated the right items, you'll get a perfect score. If not, you'll be given some clues on what you should be doing on your next playthrough. Williams must have expected that very few people would really follow the plot all the way through, so the Sleuth-O-Meter is a way to provide some extra replayability, instead of just making the game ridiculously tough like Sierra's other titles.
In spite of some of its awkwardly implemented elements, The Colonel's Bequest completely nails the atmosphere. While it runs the SCI0 engine and is limited by 16 color graphics, the artwork is consistently fantastic, easily outclassing any of Sierra's similar games at the time. The mansion decor is a combination of purple and green, clashing against the darkness throughout the house, with the only illumination provided by the moonlight pouring through the windows. The exterior, consisting of several gardens and courtyards and surrounded by a bayou, is about as beautiful as you can possibly make a swamp with 16 colors or less. It's one of the first Sierra games to use portraits to accompany dialogue, and includes several close-ups for important cinemas. All interaction is still handled through a text parser, though, which is a pain when interrogating the various characters about all of the other people. The story is presented like a stage play, complete with a cast introduction. The copy protection shows a finger print and asks you to identify it based on the included documentation. Get it right, and you'll be asked to take a seat. Get it wrong, and you're informed that the show is sold out.
Despite the narrative issues, the irritating deaths, and many, many illogical elements, it's this classiness that helps The Colonel's Bequest rise above mediocrity. And like most of Roberta Williams' games, it's a noble attempt at furthering what an adventure game can be, even though the programming restraints often show its limitations.
With the traumatic night at the Dijon Manor behind her, Laura finishes up college, bids farewell to Louisiana, and starts her new life as a newspaper reporter in New York City. Her first assignment is to cover the Egyptian exhibit at the Leyendecker Museum, which is slightly complicated by the fact that its centerpiece, the Dagger of Amon Ra, has mysteriously gone missing. Things get worse later that night when, during a party, the bodies start piling up, and each of the remaining characters has their own motive. Is it Ziggy, the extremely shifty speakeasy owner/stool pigeon? Pippin Carter, the snobby archaeologist who discovered the dagger, or Dr. Ptahsheptut Smith, who believes the dagger belongs to the people of Egypt? Or perhaps it's the cold and calculating Dr. Olympia Myklos, or the sultry French secretary Yvette Delacroix? Maybe it's the Colonel Klink-esque security guard Wolf Heimlech or the curator's ex-wife, the Countess Waldorf-Carlton? Going above and beyond her role as a mere reporter, it's up to Laura to solve the mystery and bring both the thief and the murderer to justice.
Despite Roberta Williams' name on the box, she had little to do with The Dagger of Amon Ra beyond providing the concept and lending her character to star in a new game. Instead, it was directed and designed by Bruce Balfour in his first adventure game with Sierra (he had previously worked on other titles like Neuromancer and Wasteland) with writing contributions by Sierra mainstay Josh Mandel. While The Colonel's Bequest was an attempt to create an interactive mystery novel, its sequel is a slightly more traditional adventure game.
Once again, the story is divided into several acts, although the scope is much larger. The first takes place as Laura explores the city, investigating some of the people that will soon become involved in the plot. The second is, again, mostly for setup, as Laura attends the museum party and spies on the various attendees, learning of their personalities and their conflicts. Questioning people plays a huge role in these chapters, a sore point in the original due to the text input. This is something that should be easier here due to the mouse-based input, but really isn't. To ask a question, you need to click the "question mark" icon on someone, which brings up Laura's notebook. Then you need to go into a section and choose a topic, right click to change to the "exit" cursor and left-click again to actually exit. You need to go through all of these steps each and every time for every topic, of which there are at least two dozens, for each and every one of the ten-or-so major characters. Why not just list all of the topics and have them immediately respond when you click it, like what was eventually implemented in Gabriel Knight? Once you reach the end of this act, the first murder takes place, and more characters begin to drop like flies as Laura explores the museum and its many hidden passages. It's here that The Dagger of Amon Ra most closely resembles its predecessor.
Each act usually consists of a handful of time blocks, although this time they're triggered by passing events or solving puzzles instead of simply walking into a certain room at a certain time. Still, the time blocks are not handled in any logical manner. Previously, these events were intended to identify where each of the characters was at a specific point in time, giving the impression that everyone had their own schedule. The Dagger of Amon Ra largely ignores this notion, because you will find the French girl seducing three different men in three completely different locations, all within the same short time span. It's somewhat disappointing that such a unique concept was mangled in this game.
The final chapters act as "tests," more or less. The fifth chapter is an action-packed chase scene, as the murderer chases the defenseless Laura through the museum. These sort of timed sequences are irritating enough on their own, but they're much worse here, because your success is entirely dependent on objects gathered earlier in the game, most of which are fairly easy to miss. Once you've reached this act, there's no way to get them again, so if you've missed any of them, you're screwed. The sixth act consists entirely of an interrogation, as the coroner seeks to piece together the mystery of the Dagger's disappearance, as well as the murders. Unlike its predecessor, the game does not reveal the killer, so your understanding is entirely dependent on the notes you've taken, and the questions you've asked. For each of the crimes, you need to point out the perpetrator, as well as the motive, in addition to other questions. You also need to have gathered all of the required evidence to implicate the criminal. If you fail either of these requirements, then you're left with the bad ending, which is so overwhelmingly bleak that it wraps around from "depressing" to "borderline hilarious." Perhaps this over-the-top style was done to soften the blow, because it's practically impossible to get the good ending the first time thorugh. It's also a stark contrast to The Colonel's Bequest, which let you get a satisfactory ending even if you had no clue what was really going on. There's a lot to pay attention to, and the mystery is quite confusing, especially if you've missed any of the vital clues.
And that's the big problem here. The puzzles themselves aren't terribly difficult, but it's extremely easy to miss details that prove to be vital. It doesn't help that it's remarkably glitchy, too. Beyond the normal crash bugs, you'll occasionally find that events won't trigger, or your system panel disappears, leaving you temporarily unable to save or reload your game. (If you run into problems, you can download these files, which will activate a debug mode if you place them in your game directory. This lets you skip to different acts and put any item in your inventory with Alt+I. It can cause more crashes, but at least you can see the whole game, albeit piece by piece.)
The Dagger of Amon Ra uses the SCI1 engine, and while the visuals are missing the dark creepiness from the first game, they still do a good job of replicating the 1920s era. In keeping with that, the museum isn't quite as moody but it is atmospheric in its own way. On the surface it's a bit small, consisting of a main rotunda, a gift shop, and exhibits on Egyptian artifacts, medieval armor, dinosaurs, death masks, and paintings. But there are numerous hidden passages, leading to underground storage rooms, laboratories, offices and shrines (!!), giving the whole place a sense of wonder and mystery. And while the deaths in The Colonel's Bequest were relatively bloodless, they're quite gory here, with the first victim found in a sarcophagus with a dagger through his heart, the next impaled by the beak of a fallen pterodactyl, with his head chopped off with a paper cutter and stuck on the life mask exhibit, and the next stabbed to death with a porcupine. Combined with the chase scene near the end of the game, there's a greater sense of danger, even though most of the player deaths come from Laura doing stupid things, like falling down steps, or getting attacked by snakes, rats, and in one case, flesh eating beetles.
While the plot itself is quite serious, the writing, particularly the narration, is fairly sarcastic. Look at one of the suits of armor and you'll be rewarded with no less than four dialogue boxes going off on a diatribe about the differences between barbutes, sallets and basinets, only to conclude that no one really cares. When you go into the alcohol preservation lab, you'll find not only the corpse of a unicorn, but the body of King Edward of Daventry, possibly the most bizarre inter-Sierra game reference ever. Laura has much more of a personality this time around, with her naive exuberance clashing with the sexism she faces of being a woman doing a man's job. Once again, the remaining characters are all stock cliches, although they have much more personality. There are still some oddities: for instance, why are all of these people still hanging around the museum if there's a murderer afoot? At one point the janitor lets it slip that he lost the keys and therefore everyone is simply locked in, which is still a flimsy plot contrivance, even if it's meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
The CD-ROM version ditches the copy protection - which asks questions about Egyptian artifacts and gets Laura fired if you get them wrong - and also adds voice acting. Being one of their earlier CD titles, this was before Sierra decided that they needed to hire professional actors, so most of the voices were provided by various developers around the office. Leslie Wilson's slightly overdone Southern accent as Laura Bow is still somehow charming, and the narrator's polite British mannerisms make the sarcastic writing all of the more amusing. The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to horrendous, largely in part because the characters are all written with a variety of accents and speech impediments, and the amateur crew just can't pull them off.
Like its predecessor, The Dagger of Amon Ra ends up falling all over itself, although it fails for different reasons. But again, its atmosphere and its unique method of storytelling - and mystery solving - make it worthwhile enough as a unique entry in Sierra's adventure gaming library.
The Dagger of Amon Ra didn't quite take off, and thus spelled an end for the series. Sierra continued with mystery games with the Gabriel Knight series, which ditched the "uncover the mystery for yourself" parts and replaced them with a dose of supernatural fiction. In one of the posters in the first Gabriel Knight game, you come across a poster advertising an event with the speaker Laura Dorian, revealing that she had settled down and married the hunky stevedore from The Dagger of Amon Ra. She also stars in Crazy Nick's Pick: Parlor Games with Laura Bow, a budget release containing a few mini games.