Space Quest: The Sarian Encounter

Developer: Sierra On-Line
U.S. Publisher: Sierra On-Line
U.S. Release: October 1986
Genre: Adventure
Format: Floppy Disk

Based on: Being colossal nerds and working at a company where the fantasy genre was all tapped out.

Games | PC Gaming | Space Quest: The Sarian Encounter

Article by Merus | February 22, 2008

So, adventure games are dead. Not only are they dead, but everyone is sick of hearing that adventure games are dead, notwithstanding that Sam & Max is doing quite well for itself and one of the DS's breakout hits has been the Phoenix Wright series. No, adventure games died when Myst? came out -- nevermind that it didn't share an audience with adventure games and was mostly a casual game back before the term existed. Or maybe they died on Black Monday, when Sierra fired an entire office with no warning and turned former shining light of the industry Scott Murphy into the bitter husk he is today, wandering the streets of San Francisco muttering about "internet" -- although this of course forgets that LucasArts had left Sierra in the dust in terms of creativity and gameplay, and Sierra was losing money fast thanks to some stupid diversification divisions and needed to stem the flow. Or, if you slavishly worship at the altar of Old Man Murray, it was the passport puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3 that did the deed. One puzzle is apparently all it takes to put your entire genre in the dustbin of history.

You hear that, Phoenix? (Please save any objections until the end.)

It turns out video game genres are surprisingly resilient -- bullet hell shooters still turn up from time to time; 2D fighting games seem to be kicking along quite nicely with Street Fighter IV? and the high-res King of Fighters XII on the horizon; pundits are positive that PC gaming has been skating the brink of death for the past decade even though World of Warcraft is practically an industry in itself. And the adventure game genre still sees a couple of releases a year, so long as you don't mind guiding an anthropomorphic car around. But the big names are all but gone. King's Quest? The last title was a middling action-RPG sort of thing, and an early prototype for a follow-up emerged early last year but didn't get much further. Police Quest morphed into the SWAT series years ago. Leisure Suit Larry shed its dignity -- the old games were actually fairly kind to the female targets of sleazeball Larry -- and became a mini-game collection that is reportedly used as an interrogation technique at Guantanamo Bay. Monkey Island is dead, Maniac Mansion is all but forgotten by LucasArts, Sam & Max went through two developers before finding release, Space Quest turned into a platformer...

...which, actually, is fairly fitting. The Space Quest series was something of an anomaly as far as adventure games went -- it had action sequences beginning with its very first entry. It was more experimental than the King's Quest series, skewed a little harder, but it still contains the only boss fight in an adventure game. It managed to make time travel into an entertaining gimmick without the use of a cat you want to punch. And it gave Gary Owens work. Truly, a legacy for the ages.

The series hit its peak in Space Quest IV, the darkest of the games (as well as the most creative), but unlike the frustratingly cheap and primitive first chapter of King's Quest -- a series that became slightly less cheap over time as Roberta Williams became a better designer -- the first Space Quest game is still not too bad. It's sparse in places, and the humour the series is known for today is mostly background flavour; you'd likely never notice it if you played through with a walkthrough. Interestingly, the game wasn't an instant green-light, Sierra having mostly looked askance at comedy and hissed at it through its history, but its distinctive approach to the genre compared to the more austere King's Quest made for a big hit upon its release.

The underground tunnels of Kerona, resembling nothing
so much as an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple.

The two make a sort of companion set; King's Quest had been Sierra's breakout hit, and Space Quest was its follow-up. It was in many ways reaction of the sorts to the company's previous Sierra work, generally very serious fare in a fantasy setting. Space Quest's creators, two designers collectively known as The Two Guys from Andromeda (their individual work on other titles was never credited as "A Guy from Andromeda," which seems like a missed opportunity), was an untapped market in lighthearted sci-fi.

Their boss said no; a funny adventure game wouldn't sell. So, they went away, built four in-game rooms to give the management an idea of the sort of style they were going for, and they got the green light based on that. People complain all the time that gaming has forgotten the value of new franchises, but geez -- they were making vertical slices way back in 1986.

On the research vessel Arcada, there's been an outbreak of
armed alien guards. The sequence is something akin to
a stealth mission: you hear the guards coming, you run.
Their field of vision is the blue area.

The plot is pretty much Standard Pulp Sci-Fi Plot #37 -- aliens attack a research vessel and steal a power source, and the hero has to swipe it back. Metroid, released in Japan a year later, uses the exact same plot, except, you know, seriously. The power source macguffin in question is a device called the Star Generator, a device capable of taking the dying remains of stars about to go nova -- or, in fact, anything else -- and regenerate them back to their brilliant best. It's just the sort of thing that makes a nice backdrop to demands for one hundred beeeeellion dollars, which makes it a little surprising that it hadn't been stolen sooner.

The game opens with a PC-speaker rendition of a big, bombastic tune, somewhere between the orchestral orgy of John Williams's Star Wars opening and the majesty of the Star Trek theme. The rest of the game reflects these influences: it's a pastiche of Star Trek, Star Wars, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- the manual takes lots of inspiration from the rambling style of Douglas Adams -- and even a hint of literary classics like Dune, mixed together with tongue firmly in cheek. So firmly, in fact, it roused the lawyers. The Star Wars-inspired town, Ulence Flats -- swap the words around -- contains a droid shop named "Droids R Us," for which Sierra was sued by a certain toy store. The remake changed it to "Droids B Us"...then added a robot giraffe out of spite.

Droids B Us, before lawsuit, after lawsuit, after ten years.

Most Sierra games were heavy with fatal mistakes, but Space Quest deliberately noted each death with a pithy remark. The intention was that players would at least get a little reward out of it, and perhaps rewind or replay the game to see how else they could kill themselves. The upshot, though, was that by making death something to seek out it demonstrated Sierra's severe overuse of the death mechanic; Lucasfilm Games' Maniac Mansion still had plenty of ways to die, but they were more difficult to pull off. Later Lucas creations abandoned the practice entirely. Sierra, on the other hand, wouldn't implement a "retry" button upon death for another decade.

The game does have its share of what will be collectively termed "Bullshit": items you can only retrieve as you pass them, perfectly reasonable actions that irrevocably trap you without warning, guess-the-word puzzles, and purely random deaths. Even so, it's one of the most lenient entries in Sierra's stable, with only a couple of ways to really screw yourself over. Roberta Williams was the undisputed champion of Bullshit-as-difficulty in those days, and King's Quest contained plenty of those kinds of "puzzles." Hell, Police Quest killed you off for simply failing even once to follow proper police procedure. Leisure Suit Larry killed you for crossing the road.

Space Quest's greatest offense: it required you to grab the plans for the Star Generator, which you could only know about if you'd wandered around the alien-infested Arcada at the start of the game and solved an exceedingly obtuse guess-the-verb puzzle to retrieve it. If you miss the plans, it would be destroyed with the rest of the ship -- justified, perhaps, but still cheap. The bulk of deaths in Space Quest come from either clearly dangerous elements you're intended to avoid or from pressing things that might as well be marked "do not press," but you can still find a few places where you'll die for doing something perfectly reasonable, as well as one rather awful puzzle where random chance either kills you or renders the game unsolvable. By the time the remake was created, Sierra had finally progressed to the point that Lucasfilm Games had reached ages before: eliminating Bullshit rather than pretending Bullshit was the same thing as difficulty. As a result, the remake changes some of the more egregious puzzles and sprinkles the dry wit that had come to the fore in Space Quest III throughout the entire game instead of just in the flavour text.

The many deaths of Roger Wilco, left to right, top to bottom: getting shot by a guard, re-enacting that anime you saw once, walking into the vacuum of space, wandering too far into the desert, visiting King's Quest, straining the rock bridge to breaking point, drinking from the acid pool, pestering the wildlife, getting hit by a meteorite, sustaining a gambling addiction, looking at shiny things, taking the speed bump too fast, walking through a laser beam, getting mugged, being an annoying customer, sightseeing during a self-destruct sequence.

Each area of the game features a few decidedly non-adventure game-style elements. The opening area, the Arcadia, has a rudimentary stealth game -- you're told that you "hear footsteps," and if you stay out in the open you'll be shot. This avoids both having to calculate how guards are going to respond to complicated player actions, and the annoying tendencies of stealth games to force you to sneak right up close to guards who can swing round at any time and kill you (ahem, Metal Gear Solid). The desert planet, Kerona, will kill you if you don't take a swig from your "dehydrated water" every so often, and of course discarding the dehydrated water is one of the puzzle solutions, prompting a frantic race out of the sun if you elect to do so. Ulence Flats opens with a hover speeder sequence, where you have to avoid rapidly-advancing rocks to survive -- you've likely seen this mini-game before elsewhere -- and contains a mandatory slot machine game required to earn money. (Said machine will also randomly kill you, and blows up when you earn too much money. That's why we call it Bullshit, kids. This sequence was improved in the remake; the slot machine always kills you unless you find a cheat device.) The final sequence, set on an alien ship called the Deltaur, ends in a fiery shootout where the fastest pulseray slinger wins, assuming that you're not trying to manually type out "F-I-R-E P-U-L-S-E-R-A-Y" like I did when I first played.

Protip: F6 shoots your pulseray.

With the benefit of hindsight and perhaps Wikipedia, one's struck by the fact that, for such a seminal "adventure game," much of it strays considerably from the puzzle-solving and storyline-advancing design that come to be accepted as standard "adventure game" gameplay. Granted, every genre has its starting hiccups, but adventure games were established by this point. And Space Quest's stablemates King's Quest and Leisure Suit Larry hewed much closer to their text adventure roots. This became a defining feature of the series, with elements of timing and arcade action increasing to the point where (as in Space Quest IV) you were often left with the impression of an action game running on an adventure game engine. Vivendi Universal's decision to revive it as a platformer really makes a sort of sense, even if it was meant to be a reboot of the series. It wouldn't be too hard to make a faithful Space Quest game as an action game with an adventure bent a la Psychonauts?. Especially since many action games these days have momentum-breaking puzzles in them, and so much new, mainstream sci-fi is getting away without being mocked at all, except perhaps by the audience.

If you actually go and ask any old adventure game designer, they'll tell you the real reason adventure games died: action games caught up. Half-Life came out a year before Old Man Murray's favorite whipping boy, Gabriel Knight 3, and contained a sophisticated plot that melded together story and gameplay far more elegantly than most adventure games. Final Fantasy VII, released a year earlier than that, was even more elaborate, with a story that was vastly more detailed than any adventure games'. Other genres have set up camp on adventure gaming's property while it's been away, as the squatters are looting its interesting ideas while leaving its limitations behind. Survival horror games are basically adventure games with zombies and violent death, all the way down to the nonsensical puzzles. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus? are more or less adventure games focused on mood, aesthetics and smatterings of plot in between spectacular puzzle sequences and brief action setpieces. Even the new-era adventure games seen by some as heralds of a genre revival contain new selling points and mechanics that would have been anathema ten years ago. Phoenix Wright contains its famous courtroom sequences; Zack & Wiki? basically grafts a modern action game structure onto adventure game mechanics, with discrete levels, unlockables and secrets; and Sam and Max never outstays its welcome by being the only mainstream episodic effort to actually stay on schedule.

The other problem is that Lucasfilm Games ended up taking its accessibility philosophy too far, eventually jettisoning anything that didn't fit into its rigid formula. The arcade sequences of Space Quest and the too-frequent deaths of Sierra games were increasingly seen as an anomaly that missed what adventure games had become -- leisurely tableaus in which your hero could stand in logically deadly situations with complete impunity and immunity. After Maniac Mansion, LucasArts more or less settled on a formula for game mechanics and didn't change them for years -- Grim Fandango? looks an awful lot like Monkey Island with less verbs and less gameplay. And let's not forget that Monkey Island threw in a bundle of puzzle-based mazes and the sublime Insult Swordfighting sequences, too. As action games increasingly began taking on more narrative substance, adventure games needed to diversify their gameplay to survive. But the moment someone tried, though, the spectre of the Roberta Williams' career of Bullshit inflicted on players raised its head and the market was disturbed, thousands of voices crying out in terror to silence any deviation from the Lucas formula.

And yet, buried in the heart of those often unfair adventure games were great ideas that flowed from the story and suggested creative mechanics, ideas that the action games of the day would never see coming. When you think about it, it's bizarre that the FPS Thief is the granddaddy of the stealth genre when really stealth sequences were a kind of timed puzzle in which you watched the guards' movements and looked for openings. LucasArts eventually did start dusting off some of those old ideas and tried to give them new life, their most impressive effort being Full Throttle, but by then it was too late -- Full Throttle is sometimes derided for the very things that make it different.

Franchises come and go, but, as the bullet hell games can tell you, no genre stays dead forever. All it takes is a little technical know-how, and even the dimmest star can burn bright again.

...hmmm, you'd think this article would be funnier.

Droids R Us screenshot thanks to MobyGames
Box shot and remake Droids B Us screenshot thanks to