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A Sierra Retrospective: Part 5 - The Shoulders of Giants

A Sierra Retrospective - modern
A Sierra Retrospective - modern

“With multiple highly successful franchises, Sierra was renowned for pushing the boundaries of writing, game design, animation, sound, music, and with the advent of CD-ROM, even acting. Today’s gaming storytellers stand on Sierra’s shoulders.”

Those words were used to introduce Ken and Roberta Williams at the Gaming Industry Awards in 2014, where they were honored with the prestigious lifetime achievement award. It’s well-deserved recognition, as Sierra and its husband-and-wife founders are considered to have left a deep legacy on the computer gaming industry in general, and adventure games specifically.

But how do we define ‘legacy’?

Mystery House is an obvious point to start from when defining Sierra’s enduring imprint. It represented, after all, a momentous evolution of an entire genre, which certainly qualifies as the start of a legacy.

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Quest for Glory's Lori Cole was one of several influential women in game design at Sierra

The cause of women in gaming also owes a lot to Sierra. Roberta Williams, credited with creating the graphic adventure game, also developed the King’s Quest series and pushed the boundaries of acting in games with Phantasmagoria. Jane Jensen designed and wrote the Gabriel Knight series, bringing more mature themes and stories to adventures, while Lori Cole co-designed and wrote the award winning RPG/adventure series, Quest for Glory.

In a male-dominated industry, consider for a moment that of the six flagship adventure series Sierra produced, three were designed or co-designed by women. Of the other three (Police Quest, Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry), Tammy Dargan was mainly responsible for the design of Police Quest: Open Season and the first SWAT game, while Leslie Balfour co-designed the unreleased Space Quest 7.

Regardless of gender, it was the people employed by Sierra who made the company so unique and so successful, and while some, like Ken and Roberta, have retired from the industry, others have remained active and gone on to create new titles independently.

Along with a remake of the first Gabriel Knight game, Jane Jensen designed Gray Matter and Moebius: Empire Rising. Lori and Corey Cole developed the critically acclaimed Shannara and are currently working on Hero-U, a spiritual successor to their Quest for Glory series. Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, the two guys from Andromeda most responsible for the Space Quest series, are in the final stages of their eagerly-anticipated SpaceVenture. Josh Mandel has lent his talents to numerous games, both as a writer/designer (Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Insecticide) and actor (Asylum).

Not all alumni have stayed in adventure games, but many who got their start at Sierra have since moved into senior positions within the gaming industry. Marc Hudgins, whose artwork credits include the Quest for Glory series, went on to work on Sid Meier's Civilization and The Elder Scrolls Online, while Chance Thomas, who composed the soundtrack for Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, went on to work for Oscar- and Emmy-winning projects and has continued to create music for games such as The Lord of the Rings Online and DOTA 2.

When considering Sierra’s legacy, we must also look at the pioneering use of technology. Always seeking a way to make their adventure games more immersive, the company became the first to commercially create a game that supported the AdLib sound card and external sound devices such as the Roland MT-32. For King’s Quest IV, released in 1988, players were offered the choice of hearing the soundtrack composed for the cheaper AdLib card or the top-end Roland MT-32. Both versions were vast improvements over the single sound-generating PC speaker that came with the IBM PC and its clones.

Sierra’s adoption and support of CD-ROM technology allowed far greater immersion in adventure games and helped popularize the new medium. The 1990 remake of Mixed-Up Mother Goose was one of the earliest games produced on CD-ROM, allowing for voice acted speech to replace (or complement) the text in the game. It should be noted, however, that Sierra was not the originator of this trend. Although Mother Goose or King’s Quest V are both regularly credited as the first CD-ROM games, Cyan’s The Manhole was released in 1989 on CD-ROM, a full year before both Sierra titles. Still, Sierra was far more prominent at the time than the fledgling pre-Myst Cyan, so the company’s role in fostering acceptance of the new technology was highly instrumental.

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Jane Jensen with Mark Hamill, one of several Hollywood voice talents cast in Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

This support for CD-ROM technology progressed to the point that it enabled the now-common use of Hollywood talent in games, actors such as Robby Benson in King’s Quest VI and John Rhys-Davies in Quest for Glory IV. The cast of the first Gabriel Knight game included thespians of such calibre as Tim Curry, Leah Remini, Mark Hamill and Michael Dorn, showcasing Sierra as the early leader in computer game vocal talent.

Another measure of lasting legacy is to look at the dedicated fans, those who not only bought the games but became personally invested in the characters and worlds created. One such fan is Rudy Marchant, who in 2008 began his own attempt at preserving the rich history of Sierra through his website The Sierra Chest. When asked if he believes today’s gamers still benefit from Sierra’s legacy, he says “Yes, but they mostly don't know it. It's like asking a kid these days what the influence of the Lumiere brothers was on movie making, and they answer ‘Who?’, completely unaware of the fact that they invented motion picture.”

Rudy goes on to say that, “Just because most current-generation gamers haven't heard about Sierra doesn't mean Sierra has lost its legacy. In many ways they pioneered new technologies in gaming and nothing can ever change that. Even in 100 years, Sierra will still be the first developer to use a Roland sound module and the first studio to play games over a modem.

“As a lifelong Sierra fan, there's always some disappointment when a young gamer doesn't recognize the classic Sierra titles, but at the same time I always enjoy the opportunity to explain how things came to be – how the games they play these days would not exist if it weren't for the often-groundbreaking developments of the old studios, many of which no longer exist.”

In the early 2000s, there was an upswing in interest for all-things-Sierra. Somewhat ironically, at a time when Sierra had closed their internal development studios and were no longer pursuing their landmark adventure game series, the internet gave rise to what was to become a field of fan-produced games. Some groups of avid adventure gamers harnessed the spirit of the golden age and succeeded in making their own entries in the worlds Sierra created.

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Phoenix Online Studio's The Silver Lining was released only after much legal wrangling

One of those groups was Phoenix Online Studios, who started working on their ultimate fan-project, King’s Quest IX: Every Cloak Has a Silver Lining. A group of committed King’s Quest fans, their game was an attempt to tie up the King’s Quest stories after what they considered the lacklustre official final installment, Mask of Eternity. Running afoul of then-Sierra owners Vivendi Universal, they eventually negotiated a fan licence to continue the game episodically as The Silver Lining.

Katie Hallahan Rahhal, designer and PR Director for Phoenix Online, believes that part of the enduring legacy of Sierra is that fans, like themselves, grew up and matured along with the games.

“These were some of the first games that came out when computers were becoming household items. So I think in a way a lot of people remember them so strongly because they were their first exposure to it. It’s kind of the thing that’s been with them the longest,” she says. “And also at the time, although they might have flaws looking back now, they were fun games. They were things that you could play with your kids, your whole family could get involved with playing. Since those series were successful you just continued growing up with them, I think. They had characters you could become attached to.”

Comparing the King’s Quest games to another major adventure game success of the ‘90s, Katie says, “Myst, as an example, was obviously very successful and a whole new kind of thing when it came along, but it didn’t as much have the characters and gameplay and graphics that Sierra did. You were playing yourself but you never saw yourself. You didn’t really have any other characters to interact with.”

Phoenix Online was hardly alone in keeping the spirit of Sierra alive. Frederik Olsen worked on two unofficial free Space Quest fan games, Incinerations and Vohaul Strikes Back, and he says that another reason for Sierra’s endurance is that the games sparked people's imaginations with the potential of so many untold stories.

“Sierra crafted all these rich universes, always using cutting-edge technology to make them come alive, and they left us hungry for more. In comparison, most adventure game companies at the time had one flagship series. Depending on your disposition, Sierra had several. What happens to Sonny Bonds or John Carey when they've locked up the big baddie? Which supernatural phenomenon will Gabriel Knight brandish his Schattenjäger talisman against next time? Is Sludge Vohaul ever going to return to stain Roger Wilco's golden mop?

“There are stories left to tell. There are questions left to be answered. There's potential to be fulfilled. There are sequels to be made, commercial or otherwise. Ken and Roberta's vision is now pushing 40. I'm sure it'll continue to inspire fans the day it's pushing 50 as well.”

Robert Holmes, composer and producer of Gabriel Knight, agrees that part of Sierra’s ongoing appeal is the variety in its catalog. “One of the things I think Sierra did really smartly was they didn’t just make one kind of game. The people who liked Gabriel Knight were very different from the people who might like Space Quest or very different from the people who might like Laura Bow. There was a lot of great diversity. I come out of the film industry, so it was a lot like the early days of MGM; you would have entire film units doing certain genres and creating really good stuff in that genre.”

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King's Quest II: Romancing the Stones is one of several popular fan remakes from AGDI

Another of the earliest and most successful fan groups was a team who dedicated themselves to remaking what were then unavailable games from Sierra’s catalog, eventually releasing updated versions of the first three King’s Quest games as well as a remake of Quest for Glory II. Calling themselves Tierra at first, they soon changed their name to AGD Interactive (AGDI) and also negotiated an official fan licence for their games. Their free King’s Quest I remake was remarkably successful, accumulating more than 1.7 million downloads, with their other three games downloaded in the hundreds of thousands.

Chris Warren, co-founder of AGDI, believes Sierra left an indelible mark in adventure games but says that it’s both positive and negative. “I think in today's smartphone/tablet era, the low-attention-span age, classic Sierra adventure game mechanics haven't really aged well. Adventure games with simpler, intuitive interfaces seem to resonate better,” he says. “Yet, at the same time, very few new adventure games can match the classic Sierra titles in terms of depth of interactivity and immersion into the game universe.”

Chris goes on, claiming “I'm sure that without Sierra pioneering the genre, the modern crop of adventure games wouldn't exist either, so there's definitely something still in place from Sierra's foundations, which all modern adventure developers have built on.”

Groups such as Warren’s AGDI and others have gone on to create their own original adventures since their fan game efforts, something former Sierra designer Josh Mandel says is a sure sign that the company left an enduring legacy.

“Those games are proof of that, aren’t they? So many people putting so much work into fan games and fan fictions and remakes and here it’s 20 or 25 years later, longer I guess. You don’t get that level of attention decades down the road unless you’ve done something tremendously right and struck a chord with so many people.

“I meet people who tell me they don’t personally remember playing Sierra games but they remember sneaking into the living room and seeing their father play Leisure Suit Larry or something like that. It’s going to be a long time before Sierra’s legacy fades, and with the current uptick in the popularity of adventure games in general, I think you’re going to see a renewed interest.”

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King Graham returned for a final(?) send-off in The Odd Gentlemen's episodic King's Quest series, released more than 30 years after the original under the newly-relaunched Sierra label

Nowhere is that renewed interest more apparent than in the relaunch of the Sierra brand label and the surprising return of King’s Quest in 2016. Though designed by The Odd Gentlemen, the five-part episodic series was given a rousing endorsement from Ken and Roberta Williams and proved quite popular with longtime series fans who finally got an authentic final adventure with King Graham in Daventry. But will it really be the final one after all? The last episode left the door open for future games in the beloved franchise, and Sierra fans have proven themselves to be remarkably passionate about keeping the flame alive. So we shall see what the future holds.

Returning to those Gaming Industry Awards in 2014, another game honored at the time was DOOM, the benchmark first-person shooter that has been (unfairly) criticised by some adventure fans for killing their favorite genre. Even John Romero, co-founder of id Software and designer of the original DOOM as well as other classics like Wolfenstein 3D and Quake, acknowledges the pioneering work and legacy of Ken and Roberta Williams and Sierra. “[They] built a great company we all admired for a long time. He and Roberta are legends, even back then.”

“Graphical adventure games are still around! Starting with Mystery House there have been thousands of graphical adventures and they are still being produced all over the world. Not a bad legacy!” John says.

Whatever your defining measure of that legacy, one thing is certain: Sierra produced a prolific catalog of games that continue to inspire people and bring players joy several decades later.

Impressive legacy indeed.


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