I've put this venerable title off for much too long, so this week I'm finally playing through Mystery House, reputedly the first ever illustrated adventure game, on the Apple II. It was created by the husband-and-wife team of Ken and Roberta Williams in 1980, and was the first game published by their legendary company, On-Line Systems, later known as Sierra On-Line. The game was released to the public domain in 1987 to commemorate Sierra's seventh anniversary, and disk images can easily be found online; I will be playing via the AppleWin emulator here. The released public domain version features an updated title screen, though the original On-Line Systems title can be briefly glimpsed as the game starts up.
The illustrations are fairly crude, and the parser is primitive too -- we are warned that the computer can't tell one note from another and will arbitrarily choose which one to read or drop. Seven other characters are simply defined by name, occupation and hair color -- Tom the Blond Plumber and Sally the Redhead Seamstress, for example. We won't really get to know them, nor do we need to memorize their details. There wasn't a lot of memory to work with on the Apple II, or disk space -- Ken Williams innovated here, defining a vector-based graphics scheme for compression. In this generation, unlike the later Sierra Hi-Res Adventures, his system did not support pattern or color fills, just white outlines (and the famous Apple II TV display red/blue artifact colors seen on thin vertical lines, whether the designer wanted colors or not.)
Ken Williams' artwork leaves something to be desired, but his display engine is fairly fast, though we can still see the lines being drawn. Play is slowed somewhat because the display has to redraw every time we issue a recognized command, but we can hit ENTER at any prompt to toggle the graphics on and off (at least temporarily; examining certain objects forces graphics mode back on.)
I always encourage interested readers to play these games before reading my commentary below, and as this one is officially in the public domain lo these 25 years, it's not hard to track down. But one of the reasons I document these early adventure games in detail is so that not everyone who wants to know something about them actually has to play through them. So while the joy of discovering this game's secrets may be forever damaged if you continue, I certainly won't be offended if you opt to march straight into the...
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
We begin in the front yard of a LARGE ABANDONED VICTORIAN HOUSE. Why everyone is gathering at an abandoned house remains unclear; there doesn't seem to be a will reading in the works, so couldn't we have gotten a conference room at a Holiday Inn or something? We can't navigate anywhere else, but we can GO STEPS to find ourselves standing on the porch.
If we have nothing in inventory, INVENTORY just redraws the current room. This early illustrated game was already breaking away from strict text adventure conventions -- many items are depicted but not described, probably because the Apple II's 4-line text window made for a tight squeeze. Movable objects are drawn onscreen, and we can see why many later graphic adventures did not try to do this -- most objects are drawn the same way wherever they are dropped, leading to weird placements and proportions.
On the porch we see a welcome mat, but we can't LOOK MAT or LIFT MAT or TAKE MAT; we can try to LIFT or TAKE WELCOME, which the parser does recognize (IT DOESNT [sic] MOVE, though.) I was looking for a key when trying this, but we can simply OPEN DOOR; it closes and locks behind us after we enter the house. Inside, we find a number of crudely drawn, suspiciously similar-looking individuals. Again, just having graphics at all was pretty amazing in 1980!
There's also a NOTE visible on the floor. We can take and READ NOTE to learn that VALUABLE JEWELS ARE HIDDEN IN THIS HOUSE. FINDERS-KEEPERS. So this will be a treasure hunt, with competition, it appears.
The kitchen contains a refrigerator, stove and cabinet. We also start to be warned that IT IS GETTING DARK as we consume moves. The cabinet contains some matches, and the refrigerator presents an empty pitcher. Soon IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE; a match will give us light for a few turns, but it's not clear how many we have so finding a more permanent source of light is in order.
Going west from the kitchen through a door leads us into a forest maze; in the early going, I didn't have enough inventory objects to map it out, so I had to restore and do some more investigation indoors.
East of the entry hall is a library, containing a note reading, "7 - 6 = 1 THEN I AM DONE!" So one of the 7 guests intends to kill the other 6. Somehow we are not surprised. We can try to GET BOOK but IT DOES NOT REMOVE, making this a sorry excuse for a library.
Beyond the library is a fenced side yard, where we discover... a corpse! You can tell he is dead by the lump, the X'd out eyes, and the cartoon pain lines coming off of his head. It is SAM, THE MECHANIC, killed by some sort of blunt object. One down!
South of the entry hall is a dining room, with a candle on the table. However, in my second attempt it was already too dark to find the matches after I got to the kitchen, so even though I could see and open the cabinet, I could not LOOK or FEEL around in there after darkness fell like a rock. So we'll have to do this more efficiently.
The lit candle (successfully collected on my third try) proves helpful for finding our way around in the dark. We can SAVE GAME to a single slot, and this seems like a good time to do that before we explore the upstairs. There are several doorways along an east-west hallway, and we can access the attic where a ladder and sledgehammer are available. These seem like good adventurous artifacts to have with us, so we'll take them along; except we can't TAKE LADDER, as it as another object that does not remove. Nor can we CLIMB LADDER -- YOU CLIMB UP BUMP YOUR HEAD ON THE CEILING AND FALL, DAZED BUT ALIVE. Was there a question about whether we would still be alive? The ladder shouldn't have presented a serious risk, as it appears to be about five feet tall.
We can GO DOOR (a rectangular shape just behind the ladder) to find a storage room with some boxes that the parser does not recognize and a chest, locked of course.
The hallway leads to a BOYS [sic] BEDROOM (the game's engine appears unable to render single quote marks in text) containing a note reading, "YOU WILL NEVER FIND IT! IT'S ALL MINE!" Typical greedy villain stuff. The nursery further down the hallway contains another dead body -- IT IS DR. GREEN. IT APPEARS HE HAS BEEN STABBED. Zoiks!
As we try to enter the LARGE BEDROOM, a dagger is thrown at us, but misses; we can collect it and take it along. The SMALL BEDROOM nearby contains the corpse of SALLY THE SEAMSTRESS, also killed with a blunt object; there is a blond hair on her dress, which would suggest that Tom the Plumber, Bill the Butcher or Daisy the Cook was involved somehow. Interestingly, LOOK WINDOW here (or anywhere other than the attic) mentions that the attic window is not boarded up.
We can see the forest from the attic window -- and if we GO WINDOW, we fall, sustaining potentially fatal injuries whose potential is fulfilled as UNFORTUNATELY THE AMBULANCE DRIVER SMASHS [sic] INTO A VOLKWAGEN [sic]. NO SURVIVORS. So that's not a good idea. At least we can RESTORE GAME; at least I had thought it best to SAVE before diving recklessly through the window.
We might have enough inventory items to map out the forest now, so it seems we should try that again. I had a little trouble with the parser on the way -- if we OPEN DOOR while we are looking in the refrigerator, the game seems to think we are referring to the refrigerator door, so I had to leave the room and come back in order to open the door on the kitchen's west wall. (We can LOOK ROOM to reset the perspective, also.)
There still seem to be more rooms in the forest than we have unique items available (using the NOTE only once to avoid confusion), so I restored back to the house to snoop around a bit more. We can trip over the rug in the dining room and start a fire with the lit candle if we try to OPEN DOOR (or do just about anything else in this room). In one move, THE FIRE IS OUT OF CONTROL. YOU ARE DEAD. Trying again before dark (restart #4!) we learn that the doors just lead to the back yard we have already visited, so if there's a point to the fire, it is not to prevent us from reaching any particular location.
I did notice that there's a gate in the back yard, and we can open it to reach a small cemetery wtih six newly dug graves. There's also a person here, apparently male, with a shovel; it is JOE THE GRAVEDIGGER, who has just finished digging the six graves. He won't talk; his main purpose is to prevent us from GETting the SHOVEL. If we try to GO GRAVE, YOU FALL IN ONE AND JOE BURIES YOU. He is very dedicated to his work, it seems, but not very bright or empathetic.
LOOK SINK in the kitchen reveals a butterknife, which should help us map the forest a little. But we still need more -- there are at least 8 unique locations in the forest, and the map is not at all geographically consistent.
Can we break the locked chest open with the sledgehammer? HAMMER CHEST, USE SLEDGEHAMMER and SMASH CHEST all fail. Is there anything we missed in the library? LOOK SHELVES reveals that THERE ARE NOT MANY BOOKS LEFT, but the sofa, table and fireplace reveal nothing new.
We can go back to the cemetery and KILL JOE -- WITH WHAT? -- WITH DAGGER -- he becomes a dead body, depicted with the same graphic as living Joe except his eyes are X'd out. Now we can TAKE SHOVEL. LOOK JOE at this point still says he has just finished digging six graves -- without acknowledging that he is unlikely to be digging any more -- and LOOK BODY just tells us it's JOE THE GRAVEDIGGER. We can GO GRAVE and climb out again now, but that doesn't help us at all, and we can't BURY JOE as I DON'T KNOW HOW TO BURY SOMETHING. The shovel is useful for mapping, but we can't DIG anywhere, so I'm not sure we needed to do this.
Hmmm. At this point it seems I have the whole forest mapped out, but there doesn't seem to be anywhere to go and CLIMB TREE in every location I've reached doesn't reveal anything special. So we're still looking for clues elsewhere. There's something odd and triangular-shaped in the dining room -- a ceiling lamp, I think? We can't do anything with it, or unscrew the bulb. If we try to GET LAMP we're told IT'S FASTENED DOWN, and we have the candle anyway.
I did a full reboot to check the introductory list of characters and instructions for any hints. The opening instructions suggest that in the kitchen we can turn the WATER ON -- which is true; we can't FILL PITCHER, but we can GET WATER. Maybe we can put out the fire in the dining room after we "accidentally" start it, now? Yes -- this empties the pitcher, and leaves a puddle on the floor. Except the vaguely circular object shown is not meant to be a puddle - it's a HOLE burned in the floor! But we can't GO HOLE; we can LOOK HOLE, though, to find a key. Maybe the fires just burned through the rug in the most convenient possible location.
Now we can UNLOCK CHEST in the attic; it contains a gun, which may come in handy given the mortality rate we're seeing around here. We have a few more items to map with -- the KEY looks horribly out of proportion in the forest, but again I haven't found any new locations here.
Walkthrough time? Graeme Cree's walkthrough at the CASA Solution Archive suggests that I'm missing a bathroom somewhere. Aha! I didn't realize we can go N again when we encounter the stairs to the attic, the drawing led me to believe this was a dead end, but we can actually reach a study. A window here is said to be boarded up, though we can see a house outside. Aha #2! It's a PICTURE! If we try to TAKE PICTURE, IT IS FASTENED TO THE WALL WITH FOUR BOLTS, and we can UNSCREW BOLTS -- WITH WHAT? -- WITH BUTTERKNIFE (I've used that trick a lot myself in the real world) to loosen it. Behind the picture we find a button on the wall.
I'm going to check out some doors here before I push the button -- in the bathroom, we find a dead chef, except it's actually BILL THE BUTCHER sporting inappropriate headwear. He's been strangled with a pair of pantyhose. A rectangle by the sink is apparently a TOWEL, and the odd little enclosure in the corner is meant to be a SHOWER. We can TAKE SHOWER, making us clean and happy though there seems to be no reason to do so; perhaps we are just washing off the blood spatter from our earlier murder of Joe the Gravedigger.
Now I am ready to PUSH BUTTON -- except the parser doesn't comprehend my meaning. PRESS BUTTON is what it wants to hear, and a secret panel opens. This permits a one-way trip into a musty crawlspace, which leads down some stairs to a basement where another dead body lies on the floor. There's a gigantic key on the table -- two-thirds as large as the corpse lying nearby, who is TOM THE PLUMBER, holding a daisy in his hand. So it looks like our lead suspect is DAISY THE BLOND COOK; the evidence is highly circumstantial, but there aren't many people left. The walls are covered with algae, of no apparent value or import.
This room further leads to a couple of new locations -- a north-south corridor, and a tunnel in the rock. The tunnel leads to a tall pine tree -- a useful forest location at last? From the top of the tree we can see a telescope pointed at the house. Somehow, this scope can see a trapdoor in the attic ceiling that LOOK UP does not reveal when we are standing right underneath it. We can't go back the way we came here; we have to navigate the forest maze again and none of my landmarks are in place from previous attempts. So I'll restore and explore the other option.
The north-south corridor leads to a small pantry. There are some jars here, but they do not remove. There's a hole in the wall, but GO HOLE just forces us to return to the pantry.
I'm stuck again; Mr. Cree's walkthrough indicates we can WIPE ALGAE (RUB ALGAE works too) with the towel to reveal a loose brick in the wall. GET BRICK, and we have found the jewels! Now perhaps it is finally time to deal with getting my bearings in the maze -- somehow UP from the very first forest maze room gets us back into the house via the kitchen we originally exited by going W, while CLIMB TREE does nothing of the sort.
LOOK GUN reveals we have a single bullet, so we'd better make it count if we are going to be the sole survivor (a distinction we are likely to have earned by killing two people, which makes us no better than Daisy, really; just slower.) Now when we return to the attic, we can see the trapdoor that was formally completely invisible, even when we climbed the ladder and nearly knocked ourselves out bumping into it. Roberta!!!
Up into the attic we go, to find Daisy holding a bloody knife, and sporting tiny little beady eyes of evil:
There's a note on the floor, but she won't let us read it. LOOK DAISY indicates that SHE IS GOING TO KILL YOU, which is expected, but she's taking her time about it. We can't verify whether she is missing a single hair, or her pantyhose, but we can look at the window, and SHOOT DAISY -- which doesn't work, but FIRE GUN does. The prose here is understated, or perhaps written in lawyerese so as to prevent incriminating ourselves -- YOUR GUN IS EMPTY. DAISY IS NOW DEAD. Post hoc, your honor, not necessarily propter hoc?
The note here is the same one we saw earlier -- YOU WILL NEVER FIND IT! IT'S ALL MINE! So what's left to do? We can use the key we got from the basement to unlock the main door of the house, and (after we open it) we can go north to find ourselves back on the porch. Then we just trot down the steps to victory!
Wow, I always wanted to be a GURU WIZARD! We are NOT victorious if we haven't killed Daisy, and killing Joe ourselves doesn't seem to do us any harm, though we don't need his shovel for anything. This whole situation seems to foreshadow Graham's lack of moral uncertainty in Ms. Williams' later King's Quest games; I have noted elsewhere that he seems happy to murder witches, Yetis and vampires without losing a wink of sleep over it. There are alternate solutions available in this game too -- Mr. Cree's walkthrough indicates
we can use the sledgehammer to break the wall in the kitchen in order
to get into the pantry and pick up the front door key, though I just
grabbed it while I was down there earlier.
Mystery House is a primitive game, but it was more challenging than I had expected -- the forest maze alone consumed quite a bit of playtime, and the innovative graphics presented their own variety of challenges. It's certainly worth checking out for a look at the history of adventure games.