Review by Bloomer
Reviewed: 06/13/01 | Updated: 07/26/10
1980: The lights keep going out and the corpses keep-a-coming in the first graphic adventure game ever made.
Herschell Gordon Lewis retrospectively described his pioneering 1963 splatter film 'Blood Feast' in the following manner:
'I've often compared it with a Walt Whitman poem - it's no good but it's the first of its type.'
Now change subjects, grab a far more positive spin on a similar idea and cut to 1980:
Ken and Roberta Williams' Mystery House for the Apple II was the first graphic adventure game in personal computer history. That is to say it was the first to take the style of puzzles and two-word command parsers (GET APPLE, KILL TROLL) which had done the rounds on mainframes in countless forms as 'Adventure' et al. and to meld them with a permanent graphic display which depicted the locations you found yourself in, presented here as white line on black background drawings. The Apple II's HGR mode found a well-matched venue, what with its capacity to support a graphics screen and several lines of text beneath. Thus a strangely prescient feature of the Apple II's hardware became the mainstay of graphic adventure games across all computer platforms as they developed and thrived throughout the 1980s.
In historical terms, consider also that Mystery House was the first game from a company you might have heard of called Sierra On-Line. They were known as On-Line Systems back in 1980, and they followed Mystery House up with such challenging and famous graphic adventures as The Wizard and the Princess and Cranston Manor. I have strong memories of being a little kid and sitting there watching my dad play Mystery House, and of the awe and scariness I experienced at such great moments as when the lights would go out, dropping the screen into pitch-blackness, or when we stumbled across another corpse, or when a dagger was tossed at us from a darkened hallway.
So it all began here. A creepy house riddled with secret passages. A hidden treasure we want to find. Seven guests. Six victims. One killer. As a note you find early in the game says,
7 - 6 = 1
Then I am done!
(Though if we include ourselves, there are eight players in this adventure.)
When the game commences, you find yourself on the front yard of an enormous abandoned Victorian house. You go inside, the door is slammed and locked behind you, and in the main hall you meet the roster of seven treasure hunters: Bill the butcher, Daisy the cook, Dr. Green the... doctor/ surgeon, Joe the gravedigger(!), Sally the seamstress, Sam the mechanic and Tom the plumber.
You shuffle out of the room for a moment, come back and... hey, everyone's gone! They've split up to hunt for the hidden treasure, which is finders keepers. But we all know what happens to people who split up in situations like this one - they start DYING!
Night is fast approaching. You begin to explore this old mansion trying to unravel its secrets, but the doors are locked, the windows are boarded up, and before you can say 'Colonel Mustard in the Dining Room with the Spanner' you're stumbling over the corpses of the other 'guests', who have variously been stabbed, strangled and bludgeoned to death. The more bodies you find, the fewer folks remain alive who might turn out to be the killer, and clues found on the bodies such as strands of coloured hair will further narrow down the range of suspects. Yes, as well as knowing all the characters' occupations, you are given their hair colourings in the game's introduction. Eerie messages scrawled on notes which you discover in different rooms suggest that your own death isn't far away...
With such a potent story and atmospheric subject material, this game was always going to be a winner. What's quite amazing is how the technical limitations of the graphics only manage to enhance the atmosphere. With %90 of each screen filled with blackness, it instantly feels like nighttime, like creeping gloom. If the first graphic adventure had been set in a colourful fantasy environment for instance, I might not have been so thrilled with the result, but for a murder mystery it's a great visual style. I've read that the subject matter came first and that the style was coincidentally a function of technical limitations. The Williamses bought an unwieldy $200 graphics tablet called a VersaWriter which Roberta used to draw all of the line graphics. Apparently its main apparatus was as chunky as the base of a desk lamp, but this was the only thing going at the time for the Apple, and probably state-of-the-art.
The line-based display is logically at its most capable (in a realistic sense) when it comes to geometrical features, such as a view of the facade of the house or of a hallway extending out of sight with a banister in the foreground. Compare this to the style for the characters, which consists of basic/ child-like figures with dot and line facial features. It's alternately cute, charming and creepy in its sparseness. When you come across a corpse, the eyes will typically be depicted as X's, and maybe there's something like a bump on the head with radiating lines around it.
The text and command engine can be very klunky, especially in relation to the graphics. In fact it can be downright inconsistent or flawed. But of course I can see these things easily now because decades have passed, and what you're experiencing as retrospective witness in this game is people working out how to make a graphic adventure. They realised that if the default view was northwards it could be difficult to draw features on the southern edge of the room, thus some rooms appear from different angles. They're limited to short room descriptions which will fit in the few available lines, therefore many important interactive features are present only in the graphic display. If you mistake such an object for something else due to inadequacy of the basic graphics, you will find yourself unable to interact with it. And methods to move between locations keep changing. You might just go EAST into the bathroom but then find that you need to type GO DOOR to get back west.
The basic adventure game commands we all know and love are here: NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST, GET, LOOK and INVENTORY (to see what you're carrying). Certain noun-verb pairings are a bit odd in Mystery House. Trying to work out how to do something as simple as turn on a tap can be frustrating and you need to exploit curious or back-to-front commands:
I yelled this out at my own sink today but nothing happened.
A similar issue is an almost complete lack of synonyms. You generally have to hit each word right on the proverbial head before the game will respond to your ideas. But accepting such features in the pioneering spirit, they don't matter because the merits of the game's puzzles still shine on their own. There are many secrets to be found in the house by pulling, breaking and otherwise searching your way through the rooms' furniture. The most important puzzle to solve is how to secure a light source for yourself before night hits (which is quite early in the game), otherwise the dreaded 'black screen' descends upon you. There are some funny deaths that you can see coming from ten miles off, nevertheless you're drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Any idiot would know what to expect if they hopped into an open grave while a man whose occupation was 'gravedigger' was standing nearby with a shovel. Similarly you should not go lighting matches around stoves.
A cool, surprising and maybe even unnerving feature of this game is that you can get involved in the murders yourself. Remember, if anyone else is left alive they could get the treasure ahead of you. With the KILL command at your disposal (often prompting the game to ask 'WITH WHAT?'), and no shortage of potential weapons lying around the house - shovels, knives, sledgehammers, daggers - you can ruthlessly try to assure your ultimate success. One such possible murder is completely gratuitous in the sense that it doesn't help your progress in the game at all, but it might bring a smirk to your face.
You don't just have to find the treasure to win, you have to unmask, locate and deal with the killer and escape with your life. Of course it's a relatively small adventure game, but it exploits its locations very well (the kitchen is exceptionally busy), creates a powerful murder-mystery atmosphere, manages to be quite scary and also has a sense of humour about itself. Finally it has a good range of puzzles to engage your adventure skills, though it can also torture your ability to conjure up the one verb or noun that will do the trick in a few excruciating cases.
Mystery House made a formidable impression in its day (I remember it being the talk of all the adults) and it was also a formative imaginative and gaming experience for myself. Klunkiness accepted, it's not a bad game today. To celebrate their seventh anniversary, Sierra released Mystery House into the public domain in 1987. I'd strongly encourage anyone who's interested in adventure games, or even anyone who simply feels curious having read this review, to grab an Apple II emulator, chase up the freely available disk image for Mystery House and play the first graphic adventure game that ever existed. Unlike some firsts, it's worthy.
-- Mystery House -- 8/10 --
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Mystery House (US, 01/01/80)
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