From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, the dice bring up some history—a time when game companies told it like it was… at least, up to a point.
During the ’80s and ’90s, Sierra Online was one of the companies on the PC. They’re best remembered now for being Lucasarts’ rival in adventure gaming, with the usual nostalgic metaphor being that Lucasarts made movies while Sierra made TV shows. Neither just made adventures though, and Sierra in particular churned out lots of cool stuff over the years. One of those things was InterAction. Then, it was a newsletter that evolved into a magazine that ended up being bundled as an occasional freebie with regular magazines. Now, it’s a quirky little time capsule… with the emphasis on quirky.
The entire collection is available at Sierra founder Ken Williams’ website, SierraGamers, as part of a more general collection of company history. They’re in PDF form, unlike some other copies floating around, and more interesting than you’d expect for a brochure.
At least, early on they are. By the end of InterAction’s run, like Sierra itself, it was barely even a shell of what it once was. That great tagline “A blatantly biased look at games from the Sierra family” was swapped for first “An Inside Look At The Products And People Of The Sierra” (presumably around the time that the word ‘family’ was officially deemed too cuddly for the suits who were pulling up in their suitmobiles to trash the place), and ultimately for the message “Praise Mammon for he is God” drawn around a pentagram in invisible ink. You can see it on the scans if you squint hard enough.
Obviously, InterAction made few bones about what it was: a glorified catalogue. Within that though, it managed content that would turn modern marketing types’ hair white. Take for instance a reprinted interview with Roberta Williams, creator of King’s Quest, from 1989.
“Do you have time to play any computer games yourself?” asks the interviewer. “Nooo,” replies Roberta, in one syllable pretty much explaining King’s Quest V, Phantasmagoria and the Rumplestiltskin puzzle. “I look at them. I don’t sit down and play. I’ll go through a few screens or watch Ken play or watch the kids play. But I never sit down to play because I don’t have the time.”
This is Sierra’s star designer and co-founder in the official Sierra magazine. In the same piece, she promotes a mystery game based on Agatha Christie, The Colonel’s Bequest, by saying “I’m not really a mystery reader,” and Phantasmagoria would later hint that we could probably tack the words “horror watcher” onto that list too. Just saying, this says quite a lot. “Master Storyteller” my entire arse.
The same interview does cover other ground though, including talk of the potential controversy of having a female lead in King’s Quest IV (not an industry first, Plundered Hearts having just pipped Princess Rosella to the post, but certainly the first high-profile example) ending up being no big deal, and talk of how one day it would be nice for Sierra to grow big enough for her not to have to do a game every single year.
(Needless to say, that happened and then some. Sierra became an empire, with multiple development studios and publishing deals. Its most famous game in the late ’90s? A little something called “Half-Life”. You may have heard of it. Shooter game. It was an InterAction cover star at one point.)
The most bittersweet part is when she brings up her retirement plans. “I have dreams of retiring, going off in a sailboat for about two years. No, no, not really. I could never not do what I am doing, because I really enjoy it.” In fact, that ended up being half-true. The takeover and collapse of Sierra was brutal and bloody, and the Williams’ did indeed go sailing afterwards.
There’s a fair amount of future-gazing in this issue too, including from Ken Williams. This was a year where the word ‘multimedia’ was a) exciting and b) had to be explained, with Williams’ explanation going on to say “At Sierra, our goal is to someday fulfill our dream of making true interactive films” and “Don’t be surprised if someday Hollywood’s top actors are performing in Sierra products.”
Both ended up happening… more or less… though the dream turned into a bit of a financial disaster more likely to star a waiter from Cafe Nervosa than Dennis Hopper, unless the company CEO had him as a golfing buddy. Still, in retrospect, the claim “We really only need to be able to do two things we can’t now: speech and television quality graphics,” largely explains why the interactive movie was such a bust for most companies. Sierra certainly wasn’t the only company to make this mistake, not by a long shot, but very, very few realised that there had to be a third pillar there: a game worth playing. As far as Sierra’s attempts went, that meant Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within and… uh… um. Well, moving on!
Since you can read any of these issues at your leisure, let’s skip forward a little. Here’s a good example of why InterAction was unusual—the letters page for the “Holiday” 1995 issue. Almost the entire first page of both it, and by extension, the actual magazine is made up of readers complaining. “When my 3 year old daughter opened our issue of InterAction last week, she started to cry when she saw the picture of the bad man hurting the little doggie,” kicks off the first one.
On the same page, along with that picture reprinted: “I want to object to the use of a spaceship that looks like a jockstrap in the pages of your recent magazine. This juvenile attempt at humour was totally tasteless, and showed a lack of respect for the many female readers of your magazine.”
Odd, huh? Not as odd as the idea that a picture of a pair of underpants shows disrespect to women, admittedly, but still. The official answer to that complaint? “To find even more stuff to be offended about, also check out our latest peek at the juvenile humor of Space Quest 6 (page 28).” Hmmm…
This issue also contains something amusing in retrospect—a two page spread advertising… PC Gamer, complete with a special demo-and-other-stuff disc of Sierra products if you took out a subscription. So, if you got this promo for Sierra, it came with an advert for PC Gamer, which as as a subs loader came with a free disc full of… Sierra demos. I think the marketing machine just lapped itself.
Let’s have one more, from the “Blatantly Biased” era. Spring 1994 saw Sierra doing pretty well, though in the background there were more than a few rotten smells in the air. Space Quest VI was announced here, but would ultimately lead to a lot of bad blood over design and production. Also announced was a game that I don’t think was ever really mentioned again—Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe writing a political satire that was either to be called “Capital Punishment” or “Capitol Punishment” depending on what scrap of ancient Sierra meat you happen to have pored over.
There are some great games in this issue, including Quest For Glory: Shadows Of Darkness, Gabriel Knight’s CD talkie version (a talkie where the voice casting process was reportedly “I’d like someone who sounds like Tim Curry to play Gabriel.” “We can probably get him”), and the cartoon puzzler Sid And Al’s Incredible Toons. It also features one of the least helpful hints and tips pages of all time. Here is an actual piece of advice for Police Quest 4.
Q: The little girl keeps shutting the door in my face
A: Talk to her
Amazing! As if to compensate, its piece on Quest For Glory IV actually shows a picture of the ending battle, though in fairness, not in a way that’s a spoiler unless you know what it’s showing.
The big article in this issue though—if you ignore a column trying to casually get everyone to rename mech games “Herc” games after the Battledrome/Earthsiege series, despite MOBA clearly being more appropriate—is by Ken Williams, focusing on the big controversy that was taking place in the US about what were supposedly violent video games but was actually the completely harmless Night Trap. How can anything with this song be dangerous? If you don’t count kids slitting their throats to escape.
The arguments are fairly well-worn now, but context is everything. This was a bad time for games, when government censorship seemed likely in the US and was already a fact of life in the UK (and would get much sillier over the next couple of years, with the outright banning of Carmageddon and the makers of Shadow Warrior having to swap its shuriken for darts on the grounds that somehow they were better for adults to throw at people). Williams argues for appropriate content, free speech and games targeted at their correct audience. You know. The usual common sense stuff.
Mind you, it is a little unfortunate that the same page has a column from his son blithely talking about Roberta’s hyper-gory, incredibly controversial Phantasmagoria by saying “My mom refuses to let me write about it because it’s rated R and this article is for teens. I, of course, argued that we’re the ones who are going to play it.” Also, maybe the issue with the column by Ken ending “What makes these few government officials the appropriate censor for the rest of us?” wasn’t the ideal issue for this joke:
Of course, it’s easy to snark. Fun too! But these magazines represent an interesting time for PC gaming, and it’s cool to have them so easily available. Read them online here.
The site also has lots and lots more good stuff to dig into, including scanned hintbooks, and copies of hilariously old fashioned video catalogues. It’s hard to overstate how awesome this kind of thing was at the time, without… well… YouTube to let you see these games in action. See also the 2011 Crapshoot on Click Magazine. But first, enjoy the cheese that is (drum fill) the Sierra On-Line 1989 -1990 Video Catalog, introducing “cinematic quality animation”.