Twenty years ago, the creators of some of the most beloved adventure games in history disappeared.
Ken and Roberta Williams were a young married couple when they co-founded a little computer game company in 1979. Their mom-and-pop operation, named Sierra Entertainment, released games that defined the point-and-click adventure genre: King’s Quest, Space Quest, Gabriel Knight, and Leisure Suit Larry, to name a few. These games were among the first to successfully transport gamers into imagined worlds full of clever puzzles and captivating characters. Sierra was present for the birth of modern computer gaming, and the Williamses helped shape the trajectory that the industry would take from the 1970s to the present day.
But by the late '90s, their Bellevue-based operation became entangled with predatory capitalists. Sierra was acquired by a company engaged in financial fraud, and its creative founders departed. Locked out of the industry due to a restrictive non-compete agreement, Ken and Roberta spent the past two decades on a real-life adventure of their own, circumnavigating the globe on a series of small boats.
Now, they’re back. And they’ve brought with them a game that could revolutionize the industry yet again.
“It’s affected me a lot,” says Roberta, when reached by satellite on her boat bobbing 80 miles north of Seattle near the San Juan Islands. She’s reflecting on her work with Colossal Cave Adventure, an early computer game that she played in the late '70s. “That’s what really motivated me to start designing my own game,” she says.
Ken was a programmer doing some accounting work for a children’s hospital when he noticed that someone had installed some games onto the hospital’s mainframe. He brought it home to show his wife, who was caring for their second child.
“He said, ‘While I’m at work you can play this game, it looks pretty interesting,’” Roberta recalls. The game was played without a screen; the user typed in simple commands to a teletype machine (a typewriter-like device) and a roll of paper would print out a response.
Roberta was immediately intrigued. Colossal Cave Adventure played like a story—it felt like a book about traveling on a grand adventure, exploring dark caverns and encountering magical creatures.
A lifelong bookworm, Roberta was completely taken in, and when she finished it, having achieved the maximum high score, she looked for others like it. There weren’t any, so she decided she’d have to make her own.
The Early Days
The rest, as they say, is history. Their company was then called On-Line Systems, and Roberta’s early games were essentially her opportunity to teach herself narrative computer game design, a practice that had only recently come into existence. Mystery House was a monochrome story that took inspiration from Agatha Christie; Wizard and the Princess, a high-fantasy adventure that added color graphics. After a rebrand to Sierra On-Line, the company released titles that quickly became iconic: The Black Cauldron, Space Quest, and Quest for Glory.
By the late '80s, Sierra On-Line was profitable enough to attract rapacious investors. Shareholders pushed for an acquisition; Ken and Roberta expressed hesitation but accepted a deal with a company called CUC International. Within a few years, the couple realized they were losing control of their company due to the restructuring. The discovery of financial fraud at CUC caused further turmoil, and the couple decided their involvement in the company had to end. They sold Sierra and headed out for early retirement—or, at least, what they thought was retirement.
“We were in our early 40s, we did pretty well selling Sierra, and we didn’t have to work,” Roberta says. “We were young, and we thought, ‘What are we going to do?’”
The answer, unexpectedly, was boating.
After spending their careers dreaming up fantasy adventures, Roberta wanted to embark on a real-life quest. They bought a boat and took a few easy trips around the Pacific Northwest before setting out on something grander: A passage across the ocean with a group of other seafarers. They spent a few years cruising around Europe’s ports, returned to Seattle, then headed to South America, Asia, and the Mediterranean, where they stayed for several years.
Two decades passed with the couple living almost entirely out of the public eye. It was a happy life, Roberta says. Then, the pandemic hit.
A New Project
The lockdown coincided with Roberta feeling a familiar sense of boredom. She was looking for something new, and one day her old favorite, Colossal Cave Adventure, popped into her head.
“I couldn’t get rid of the thought of it,” she says. “It was like the same sort of lightbulb moment back when I wanted to write my first game.”
She tracked down the original designers of the game, Will Crowther and Don Woods, with a proposition: She wanted to adapt their classic game to modern consoles. They were happy to hear her out and gave her their blessing.
A lot had changed in the years since Ken and Roberta had been away. They got to work reacquainting themselves with current technology and were particularly intrigued by the potential of virtual reality.
As a consumer technology, VR is still very much in its infancy. Clunky and cumbersome, the headsets are not exactly comfortable. Control schemes are inconsistent, graphics are rudimentary. Few titles have attracted widespread attention, and the technology has yet to be adopted by the mainstream. Overall, VR remains burdened by a “for nerds only” vibe—not unlike the home computer in the early '80s.
Ken and Roberta are hoping that their updated take on Colossal Cave Adventure might change that. They’re developing the game for multiple platforms, including Nintendo Switch and PC, but “it’s a perfect game for VR,” Roberta says. The constraints of the setting—a subterranean network of chambers—work well with the hardware’s current graphical limitations, and it’s easy to produce appropriate feelings of claustrophobia.
What’s more, this adaptation is an opportunity to apply gameplay techniques that Roberta honed over many years. Like Sierra’s most enduring games, the player interacts with the world through a cursor that applies “verbs” to the scene. You point at an object and the cursor becomes an eye to indicate that you can “look”; or you switch to a hand to “use.”
An Opportunity to Innovate... Again
A demo, available to play at the Seattle game expo PAX West, made good use of the cursor-verb mechanic. Many VR games get bogged down in trying to overdo dynamic, complex interactions. Yes, you can close your virtual fingers around a virtual can of soda, and that feels cool the first few times you do it, but is that fun? A return to pointing and clicking could refocus VR game design from technical gimmicks back to what’s essential, that is, the player’s enjoyment.
Another Roberta innovation is a completely novel control scheme based on her twenty years at sea. Motion sickness and balance are frequent issues with VR games, and over the years Ken and Roberta have learned a thing or two about helping people to develop their sea legs.
“I do a lot of yoga, and there’s a lot of focusing in on movement and balance and meditating,” she says. “I felt like I was really in tune with how the body works with your inner ear and your brain and all of that, and I wasn’t so sure that [existing games] were perfectly in balance with the needs of the actual human body.”
The result is indeed quite unique. Most VR games borrow control schemes from non-VR games; you move in space by manipulating a joystick with your left thumb and look around by manipulating a joystick with your right thumb. In contrast, Roberta’s new scheme has the player adjust the direction of their gaze by swinging their hand from side to side like it’s manipulating a ship’s wheel.
“I’ve been told over and over that this isn’t the standard way for this or that,” Roberta says.
When playing other VR games, she says, “I was thinking to myself, ‘is anybody going to want to play an adventure game with this?’ Adventure games take a long time, you’re going to be probably playing this for weeks, I hope. … So I put a lot of thought into what is wrong with these games on VR and the movement.”
It takes a little getting used to, but not much. Steering with a gesture comes quite naturally, and, sure enough, there were no complaints of motion sickness during their demo at PAX. That means that players can more easily allow themselves to be engrossed in the game, solving puzzles and mapping strange caverns.
Roberta and Ken are hoping to release the game late this year, though no firm date is set. Could the new Colossal Cave Adventure be a peek into the future of gaming, in the same way Mystery House set a trajectory back in 1980? The Williamses did it once, maybe they’ll do it again.
“I felt like I was caught between an old world and a new world,” Roberta says of her return to game development after a 20-year journey around the world. “I feel like we’re coming back full circle.”