Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Roberta Williams' Adventure in Serenia (1982)

This week, we take a look at an early Roberta Williams game, originally known as Hi-Res Wizard & The Princess when it was released by On-Line Systems for the Apple II in 1980.  This 1982 edition for the IBM PC was co-published by IBM as Adventure in Serenia, and paves the way for Williams' later King's Quest series in two significant ways.

One, it's the first game to feature the land of Serenia, which King Graham would visit in King's Quest V

Two, IBM's relationship with On-Line Systems (later Sierra On-Line) helped foster the development of the 3-D AGI adventure game engine, with the original King's Quest as a marquee title supporting the debut of the ill-fated PCjr.

The original PC was not a gaming powerhouse, even compared to its contemporaries like the C-64 and Apple II -- the game runs in 4-color CGA mode, with very simple PC speaker sound effects:

Playing through this adventure, it struck me that Roberta Williams may be regarded in the long term as the George Lucas of interactive fiction.  She (with husband Ken) pioneered a lot of creative technology and released at least a couple of certifiable classics, but her storytelling has been superseded by others following in her footsteps.  Williams' games tend to be imaginative and colorful but loosely, even randomly, structured.  Still, she deserves credit as a pioneer in the graphic adventure genre.

Adventure in Serenia followed shortly after Mystery House, the first On-Line graphic adventure, and is typical of Williams' early approach.  There are lots of interesting elements drawn from fairy tales and fantasy, but the plotting is almost non-existent, few meaningful clues are provided, and many of the puzzles depend on trying random actions until something works.  Without a walkthrough to turn to in time of need, I would have had a very difficult time getting through this one.

If you plan to play the game yourself, be aware that access to the Scroll Lock key is absolutely essential -- any time there's more than four lines of text below the image, the display freezes until the player hits Scroll Lock.  On modern laptops, this rarely-used key is often relegated to a function-key combination.  Also, you will need a second floppy diskette for game saves, and need to use the game's INIT DISK command to format it properly.

Read on at your own peril... I'm bound to give away something one might arguably enjoy discovering independently.

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

At the start of the game, we find ourselves in the village of Serenia.  But no citizens are about and the buildings can't be entered, so there's not much to do there -- we have to wander into the desert in search of something more interesting.

The first puzzle is old-school in the worst sense -- we have to find a rock with which to kill the rattlesnake, but most of the rocks we find have deadly scorpions hiding behind them, resulting in death if we try to GET ROCK.  We can LOOK ROCK to discover the scorpion, but it's not until we look at a rock and discover nothing special that we can actually take it.  Also, most of the desert landscapes are similar, and we can examine the rock even in rooms where there does not appear to be one.

Once we have killed that snake, we begin to encounter random rattlesnakes as we continue to explore the desert.  They show up everywhere -- and I mean EVERYWHERE, even while we're examining items like this locket:

Worse, we can't use the rock to kill these red snakes -- we have to find a stick and use that instead, for no apparent reason.  At least we don't have to constantly KILL SNAKE - With what? - WITH STICK; WITH STICK alone is sufficient to dispatch the scaly critters.

Later, we find yet another snake -- if we look closely we can see that his tail is trapped under a rock.  Freeing him reveals that he is King of the Snakes and yields a critical magic word -- but by this time most players will have developed certain herpeticidal habits, and I had to restart after discovering I shouldn't actually have killed him.  It's rather a cold universe Williams has constructed -- we're supposed to kill every snake we encounter unless a selfish reason takes priority.  And why the King is so generous to us after we have killed dozens of his subjects remains a mystery.

The game does do a creditable job of anticipating sensible but useless actions and responding appropriately in context -- Your knife is not big enough to kill this snake is a lot more meaningful than I can't do that yet! and the like.

I found both of these notes during my travels, but managed to completely misread this composite clue initially:

I assumed the two pieces were to be overlaid, or read separately as approximations of English letters, and came up with NULUD and NOCUO as magic words, neither of which did anything.  In fact, the two notes are top and bottom sections, revealing the vastly more traditional HOCUS.  Of course, the puzzle is complicated by the fact that if we actually possess both notes, we can't tell the parser which of them we wish to read, so we have to juggle inventory to get a peek at both pieces.  And READ NOTE reveals that there is writing present, but doesn't actually show it to us -- we have to EXAMINE NOTE or LOOK NOTE to see it.

Why is there a cracker stashed in a cactus?  Because... as experienced adventurers might wearily predict... we are going to encounter a parrot later on.

Experience itself tripped me up at one point -- I found a door which was closed, and OPEN DOOR yielded The door is locked from this side.  That is so rarely the case that I wandered around stuck for a while before checking again and realizing I could just UNLOCK DOOR from this side.  That was good for a self-admonishing chuckle.

The animals in this game are the standard vending-machine variety -- feed them something to get something else or get them to go away.  Though why the lion is satisfied with a loaf of bread remains a biological puzzlement.

The player needs to keep a flask of water handy, but thirst is not time or move-based -- there are two specific spots on the map where thirst strikes with deadly force, resulting in death if not quenched immediately.

Several puzzles are based on discovered magic words, which always seems like a design cheat -- here especially, because some of the words have very short-lived effects that shouldn't be invoked just anywhere, requiring game saves and restores to support any real experimentation.

This mundane puzzle still calls for an immediate SAVE GAME -- the peddler has a variety of goods for sale, but only one of them is useful.  If we buy the wrong item with our single gold coin, we're stuck; and if we pass by the peddler in an effort to find out what we might actually need from him down the road a bit, he leaves, never to return.  Dang fly-by-night medieval peddlers!

How many pirates have we encountered in our adventuring to date?  I've lost count.  But here's another one, though we never actually see him onscreen -- and he must be rail-thin to successfully jump from behind a tree here, and strangely paranoid to bury his treasure on a deserted island, then hide nearby, watching just in case someone comes along to steal it:

When we reach the wizard's castle, we can explore within certain limits, and are free to enter and map a large and completely pointless maze.  We also get zapped to different parts of the castle when we try to do anything worthwhile, and can be sent to a dungeon from which there is no escape.

As it turns out (walkthrough assistance required in my case), it is the Wizard himself who is interfering with our attempts to finish the game.  Vanquishing him is no easy task -- actually, it's easy enough, but the required actions are somewhat convoluted and make little sense.  We have to have found a sapphire ring and brought it along (fortunately the game has no apparent limit on inventory contents.)  We must then visit the castle tower, leave it, then visit it again, at which point we can see a bird.  We then RUB RING, which causes us to... turn into a cat.  And we leap up and eat the bird.  Who turns out to have been the Wizard.


Anyway, free of wizardly interference, we can search for the Princess we're trying to rescue.  She's in frog form when we first meet, but KISS FROG reveals her true nature.  She is remarkably cheerful as she contemplates her rescue by and imminent forced marriage to some random guy with impossibly baggy cargo pants who just kissed a frog without a moment's hesitation:

With a pair of magic shoes found in a closet nearby, we SAY WHOOSH, invoking the magic word written on the soles, to return to Serenia.  At this point, all we have to do is TALK PRINCESS to end the game victoriously:

So that was my Adventure in Serenia.  Not a great game in and of itself, but an interesting portent of things to come from Roberta Williams as the graphic adventure genre developed and matured.


  1. A nice read! I just played this through myself - without a walkthrough, mind you ;)

    There certainly are games who age worse than others. Today we prefer to be rewarded by a game for critical and logical thinking, and to arrive at our own solutions our own way. These early adventures are often a matter of trying everything, failing and restarting, and trying to get into the designer's head, which I suppose was a rewarding experience in itself back in the pioneering days. I wasn't around for them, but I like to pretend I was and indulge in some sort of fake nostalgia, playing whatever classics I can today. By now I seem to have gotten the hang of it, as I finished Wizard and the Princess within an hour, and even the most illogical solutions seem to sound right, haha. By the way, I don't remember how exactly, but you CAN escape from the castle dungeon.

    But in general, I think it was a good development, when comparing to the levels of mature storytelling we can reach today. Unfortunately that potential remains almost completely untouched as of yet, and it would be good for some developers to rediscover the spirit the pioneers, especially the likes of Sierra, brought to the table. Movies took 40 years to become meaningful. Games are now old enough to become meaningful as well.

  2. I bow in deference to your superior adventuring skills -- this is not an easy game to finish in under an hour, even without note-taking and screenshot-capturing.

    And thanks for your thoughts -- this post series is about individual games, but also about the development of the art form, its successes and dead ends.

    I think games are on the verge of making that big breakthrough, but there's no question that interactive storytelling is a different beast from books and movies. It's difficult to strike a proper balance between compelling plot and player freedom -- maybe we'll be "on the verge" for another 30 years!

  3. I have a copy of this game too, could you please post (or point to) the walkthrough?

  4. I believe this is the walkthrough I referenced -- I would prefer a hint-based approach, but the game is fairly linear so there's not a lot of room for variation:


  5. I bought this back in the day and played it on an Atari 800 when entertainment options were very limited. Even then I knew this was an awful game, but once you've shelled out the money, you made the best of things. Come to think of it, this was probably one of the last non-Infocom Atari games I actually paid money for. I feel remorse that some of my cash went to encourage the Williamses to continue in this industry.
    The art was stunningly bad, and as is often the case with bad art, a hazard instead of a help in gameplay. The art in Ulysses and the Golden Fleece a year later was similarly primitive but not actually user-hostile. Similarly the puzzles and the parser. Like much of software at this stage, I suspect the rush to market meant no substantive playtesting.