Missed Classic 1: Mystery House - Introduction (1980)

Written by Joe Pranevich

What is a "Missed Classic"?

A missed classic is a game released prior to our current place in the blog that was skipped for any reason: it might be for the wrong platform, released prior to 1984 (the start of the blog), or was simply too borderline for the master list. Rather than disrupt the regular game posts, "missed classics" give the reviewers a chance to talk about their old favorites or play historic games without changing the overall flow of the site. Some will be just one post, while others will be a bit longer. (And when they are longer, there will be the normal chance to guess CAPs, make wagers, etc.) Some will be done in the traditional Trickster-TAG style, while others may shake it up a bit. As extra posts, Missed Classics won't be published as regularly as posts on the games in our official list.

When Trickster began this blog in 2011, he called it “The Adventure Gamer”. This worked pretty well for everyone: he wanted to play adventure games, and we wanted to read about him playing adventure games. His second post was on the 1983 classic “King’s Quest”, arguably Sierra On-Line’s first masterpiece and the game from which so much of the genre evolved. But adventure gaming did not begin in 1983, nor was “King’s Quest” Sierra’s first shot at producing truly innovative adventure games. For this first “Missed Classic” post, I want to go back to where graphical adventure games started: Sierra’s very first game, “Mystery House”.

Let me set the stage first. By 1980, the “adventure” game genre had only existed for around four years. The very first game which we consider an adventure game is also the game from which we name the genre, “Colossal Cave Adventure”-- often just called “Adventure” and it was completed in 1976. (Rumor has it that we may have a “missed classic” post on that game soon!) Infocom had been founded but not yet released “Zork”. Scott Adams-- no, not that Scott Adams-- had published “Adventureland” for the TRS-80. It is almost shocking to realize how few models Ken and Roberta Williams had to work from when they produced “Mystery House”.

Original (?) title screen for the 1980 release.

Ken Williams had founded “On-Line Systems” in 1979, originally to build a Fortran compiler for the Apple ][ and sell business software. I have no idea what they thought “on-line” meant in 1979, but it must have sounded good. According to the story, it was Roberta’s interests that turned the company towards games and together they wrote and produced “Mystery House”, not only the first graphical adventure game but one of the first adventure mystery games. (A game called “Mystery Manor” was written for mainframe in 1977, but it is unlikely that Ken and Roberta were aware of it.) Most previous adventure games were restricted to treasure hunts, but “Mystery House” put the player into a murder mystery where you might be the next victim. These days we might compare the plot to “Hunger Games”, but at the time it was probably inspired by Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”. The game also featured a treasure, of course, but as the catalyst that would drive the other housemates to murder. Needless to say, the game sold well (over 10,000 copies) copies and On-Line Systems began churning out a series of “Hi-Res Adventure” games through to the launch of “King’s Quest” in 1984. By that time, “On-Line Systems” had become “Sierra On-Line” and gaming history as we know it was set in motion. In honor of its place in that history, “Mystery House” was re-released in 1987 into the public domain. The kernel of a story exposed in “Mystery House” would be reimagined and expanded in Roberta Williams’s 1989 game, “The Colonel’s Bequest”-- and may also have inspired aspects of Infocom’s 1982 game, “Deadline”.

This is the title screen for the 1987 re-release.

Picking up this game, my first question was why this series was called the “Hi-Res Adventure” series. There were no “low-res” graphical adventures up to that point, not counting text-only games. Instead, “Hi-Res” referred to the six-color 280x192 graphics mode supported by the Apple ][. Laughable by today’s standards, yes, but very advanced for its day! To store as many screens as were necessary to play the game, Ken and Roberta also implemented the graphics exclusively as vectors. This meant that they could code where to start and end lines rather than having to plot out each dot by themselves. Even so, they kept “Mystery House” at a simple black (greenish) and white pallet.

The premise of the game is simple: you and seven other people arrive at and are locked (more or less) into an abandoned house. One by one, all of your housemates end up dead. To quote the introduction, “You must find the killer before he (she?) ends up killing you.” So who is killing everyone? There is only one way to find out...

Cora Bow’s Girl Scout Cookie Log #1: My quest to sell the most girl scout cookies ever has hit a snag. After arriving at an old Victorian house full of people, I ended up getting locked in! I and the other people in the house have learned that there is a treasure hidden here and that “finders keepers”-- I just know how useful that treasure would be for my college savings! As the sun was setting however, the scene turned violent. The other searchers are turning up dead and I could be next! What would my grandmother, Laura the famous detective, do? I have found a candle to allow me to resume my search, but will I be able to find the treasure and the murderer in time? Will there be anyone left to buy my cookies?

I agree with Trickster: The Williamses had many talents, but drawing trees was not one of them. 

As the game begins, I am outside of a large “abandoned” Victorian house. But who am I? The manual says that I am a “venturer” and a “seeker of fortune”, but that is hardly a backstory. As “Mystery House” inspired the later Laura Bow games, I have decided that I am a 12-year old Cora Bow, granddaughter of the infamous Laura Bow. Why would Cora be there? Why, to sell girl scout cookies of course! This is my headcanon, if you want to run through this game as James Bond-- for all it matters-- be my guest!

The way the interface works is fairly straight-forward. The game screen consists of a large picture with a few lines of text at the bottom. Moving and interaction is done in the same was as in “Colossal Cave Adventure”, by using two-word commands, usually “verb noun”. So I can “go north” or “get lamp”, but more complex expressions are impossible. I type “go stairs” to head to the porch. Once there, the screen changes and I see a “Welcome” mat and a closed door. I fiddle with the mat for a minute to see if there is a key or a secret underneath, but no dice. I do not bother to knock, I just open the door and march right in. The owners will probably appreciate an assertive girl scout.

Would you like to buy some girl scout cookies?

The door opens into a foyer with seven other guests. The door behind me closes and locks-- I am trapped! I try to interact with my fellow housemates, all presumably just as trapped as I am, but cannot find any way to do so. What little I know about them, I learned from the manual:

The seven houseguests are:

  • Tom, the blond plumber
  • Sam, the brunette mechanic 
  • Sally, the red-headed seamstress
  • Dr. Green, the brunette surgeon
  • Joe, the brunette gravedigger
  • Bill, the blond butcher
  • Daisy, the blond cook

Doesn’t that list just sound like a logic puzzle to you? I think I know what’s coming up… But on another note: have you ever heard of a male brunette? Isn’t a male brunette just someone with brown hair?

There is a note on the floor and I can only assume that everyone else has read it already. It goes like this:

Losers weepers?

I head off to the west first and explore the kitchen. It contains all the usual things: a refrigerator (in the 1910s! my head-canon is taking a beating!), a stove, and a cabinet. There is an empty pitcher in the refrigerator and a butter knife in the sink, both of which I pocket for later use. As I play around, I get a better feel for the parser and graphics that Ken and Roberta used. Unlike text adventures, the room descriptions are extremely sparse and you have to look carefully at the screen to see everything that you can interact with. For example, the sink was not mentioned in the description, but I could get a better look at it anyway. One of the more difficult parts is figuring out what Ken and Roberta’s scribbles are, but so far it is not too bad. Certain items like the refrigerator and sink are expanded to take up the whole screen when you “look” at them.

I especially love the transparent cabinet.

While I am exploring around and trying out lots of commands, I start to get warned that it is getting dark I keep going but suddenly the screen goes black. I can still move around, but without being able to see where I am going there is no way to explore properly. Clearly, the first puzzle is to get some light!

I restart the game (having neglected to save) and head back to the kitchen again. To the west is another door, so I try that one… and promptly get into a forest maze. I wander around for a while to find my way back to the house, but it again gets dark and I have to reload.

My next several playthroughs iterate over that theme: search the house quickly for anything that might help survive the darkness. I do not bother to take good notes or draw a map, just whip through the rooms and see what I see. Very quickly, I find what I’ve been looking for: a set of matches in the kitchen cabinet (west of the foyer) and a candle in the dining room (south of the foyer). Impressed by my brilliance, I light the candle and immediately trip over the rug in the dining room. I am such a clutz! The lit candle sets the rug on fire and I struggle in vain to find a way to put it out, but it quickly envelopes the room and the result is clear: I die again.

This is what I get for playing with matches.

I restore once again, this time taking the candle out of the dining room before lighting it. To my relief, I do not trip again and I can finally explore the house properly, knowing to avoid the dining room to the south of the foyer.

As Cora Bow starts her exploration of the house for real, I will close this play session. Next post will complete Mystery House and will include the final rating. (Don’t forget to guess the rating for CAPs!)

Session time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of the player requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that Joe Pranevich won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.

Joe Pranevich blogs about random geekiness at Kniggit.net and about religion at Coat of Many Colors.

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