Back in the late 1970s, Roberta Williams was playing the first text adventure game ever created. The name of the game: Colossal Cave. Roberta soon realized she could design such a game herself, and asked her husband to do the programming. Ken Williams had been coding software for the Apple II for a living and was interested in doing the project with his wife. Roberta came up with an idea that would change the world of computer gaming forever: they were going to associate the typical text descriptions in adventure games with real pictures.
Of course, given the technology available at the time, they were limited to crude screen images presented in black and white. Later on, the Apple II also featured the colors green and purple. Also, neither music nor sound effects were options at the time. Still, the invention of graphic adventures turned out to be a winning formula. Little did Ken and Roberta know that their newly founded company would eventually become a market leader in the games industry, creating dozens of quality adventures over the course of the next twenty years.
Before going into details more elaborately, let's discuss what the story is about. You are one of eight people that arrive in an old Victorian house in search of a treasure buried somewhere. One by one, the others get killed. In the end, you come face to face with the murderer, and if you survive, you will be able to claim the treasure for yourself. While this may sound like an extremely short synopsis, it's actually all there is to MH's plot. We don't learn anything about why there is a treasure buried, what the history of the house is, or even get any detailed description of the characters. On a side note, Roberta Williams created the 1989 game Laura Bow: The Colonel's Bequest as an improved version of Mystery House. If you've played that title, you'll surely notice similarities between the stories, along with how much Roberta's interactive storytelling abilities improved over the course of nine years.
From the introductory text, we learn a little about the people in the house, like their names, occupation and hair color (even though you can't see color in the game). Conversation isn't available, so the people are characteristically as flat as they look. You get to see these characters only twice: once when they're all gathered together in the main hall at the beginning of the game, and each of them individually once they're dead.
The parser is basic even compared to games in which you thought the interface couldn't get more simplistic, such as King's Quest I. Commands need to be typed in capital letters, and precise wording is often needed. For example, "PICK UP KNIFE" won't work, but "PICK UP BUTTERKNIFE" does.
The Williams figured that since their revolutionary new game had pictures everywhere, there would no longer be a need to describe rooms and objects as thoroughly as other pure-text adventures did. Only simple descriptions would have to be given to clear things up, such as "You are in the kitchen" or "You are standing outside of the house." Therefore, in Mystery House you need to examine the rooms closely in order to figure out what can be picked up and what can be interacted with. When this concerns a large man-sized key on a table, this isn't a problem. However, if you need to figure out that a circle on a wall actually portrays a hole that you can climb into, it becomes a bit more frustrating.
Climbing through that hole will lead you to the forest outside. This forest happens to serve as the game's maze area, but this is no ordinary maze. One might come to think of Ken Williams as extremely sadistic for programming this one. Normally it makes sense that if you travel to the left and back to the right again, you'd probably be back where you started, right? Not in this maze. The forest labyrinth appears to be completely random, vast, and unmappable. But it gets worse. Every forest screen looks exactly the same -- even the screen that's supposed to have a door in it that leads out of the maze!
A Readme file on the Roberta Williams Anthology offers an explanation. The forest actually has but seven(!) screens, all linked together but in a non-linear way. This means the maze can be mapped by dropping inventory objects in each area and recording which location takes you where. Yes, this is what non-linear adventure gaming was like in 1980.
The maze isn't the only odd puzzle in Mystery House. After having travelled around for a while, messages saying "It's getting dark" start to pop up. And soon it will indeed get dark -- literally. Every screen will show nothing but a black void, making interaction impossible. Make sure you find a candle quickly if you want to avoid this fate. Another strange puzzle involves a room with a trapdoor on the ceiling that leads to the attic. This trapdoor is hidden from view for the player, and will only be revealed after spying on the house using a telescope hidden in a tree somewhere in the middle of the aforementioned forest maze.
It is possible to die in MH, but not as often or as randomly as in the early King's Quest games. Dead ends are present, but none should provide you with any difficulty since the game isn't very complex.
Although Mystery House has a certain charm, it hardly has any redeeming qualities that make it a game worth playing today. This is obviously not because the Williams are such lousy game makers -- they have proven that they can create great games time and again over the years. But this was their very first adventure game and they were simply amateur game designers back then. In a way, you could compare the couple with today's Underground game developers, yet with much less sophisticated technology available. The Williams were also pioneering a new way of creating computer games, so it's understandable that their debut appears to be a bit unprofessional today.
Besides being available on the Roberta Williams Anthology, Mystery House was also released into the public domain as freeware in 1987 in honor of Sierra's seventh birthday. If you really want to see the roots of graphic adventures, try to find this game to download (along with an Apple II simulator) somewhere. It can be an interesting diversion as long as you keep in mind that this won't be a great gaming experience. Even the most dedicated Sierra or history fanatics won't easily enjoy themselves while playing this one. To make the gaming experience a little less trying, don't hesitate to turn to a walkthrough for help if you get stuck. It's not worth it to venture endlessly and meaninglessly through the house.
Fortunately, back in 1980, Mystery House made enough money to help Ken and Roberta found Sierra Online, so this game really helped pave the way for many great adventure games to come. Even though it fails to entertain in almost every aspect today, it still earns some respect for its significant place in history.