A dead end can never be a one way street. You can always turn around and take another road.
Unless you’re playing King’s Quest.
Saving and reloading. Bet you wish you could do it in real life, huh? Forgot to pay the rent, died in a car accident while speeding or failed a job interview? Reload a save game or get sent back to a checkpoint, problem solved.
As luck would have it, we can do that only in videogames. It’s an obvious feature of most modern and not-so-modern games, right? But what if in Dark Souls, when “YOU DIE”, instead of a bonfire, you resurrect in front of the enemy that just killed you? And no, you can’t run away nor reload a savegame, that’s it. You just die and die again.
Believe it or not, there was a time when reloading didn’t help and checkpoints were nowhere to be found. Players would be stuck forever if they missed picking up an item or did/didn’t do something, maybe hours before.
Say hello and wave goodbye to the most dreaded and long lived game design trope: the dead end.
On a rocky mountain, where it all began…
Gamers of a certain era, the so-called Dos generation, will immediately think back to the Sierra adventure games. The first titles in the fondly remembered and amply lauded King’s Quest and Space Quest series, back in the mid eighties, already proudly featured more than one instance where the player would be stuck forever. But, then again, so did most – if not all – of the adventure games that Sierra would release in the following years.
I’ve asked on a couple of adventure gaming forums about this evil punishment of old and I was overwhelmed with fans sharing mostly bitter memories. One answer stuck with me the most: “it would be easier to ask which Sierra titles didn’t have dead ends”. In today’s game industry where titles are ranked by their sadistic design, this kind of ruthlessness might not sound unusual, but trust me, it was pure evil. The games were designed in such a way that most times there would be no clear indication on what was the action that lead to the dead end. The player would found out when it was already too late, even restarting wouldn’t ease the pain.
Sins of the fathers
Even if original Sierra studio founders Roberta and Ken Williams were not the ones originally responsible for the dead end, it is safe to say they made it so popular that most other adventure game developers felt they should adopt it too. Oh – I hear you say – but surely they learned from their mistakes and Sierra games released in the nineties fixed this!
But of course they didn’t! This is no negligible detail we’re talking about, later titles were guilty of crippling design choices too, such as The Dagger of Amon Ra in 1994. Even Lighthouse the Dark Being, released in 1996, was guilty and tremendously smug about it. If the player missed certain critical items, it would let you play until the end, until kindly informing that the game had to be restarted.
The only way to avoid the problem was saving every 30 minutes, since too frequent saving would cripple your game, and, above all, using a rich array of save states. Leisure Suit Larry designer Al Lowe said it best: “save early, save often!”.
As I have anticipated, it’s not historically accurate nor fair to say Sierra’s graphical adventures were the forefathers of dead ends. Cruelty was a standard design feature in gaming development of the early eighties, but the crown of evil undoubtedly belongs to textual adventures.
Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, back in 1984, designed by Douglas Adams and Steve Erik Meretzky, is especially heinous. At the end of the game, the melancholic robot Marvin will ask for a specific tool to repair the ship with. This item is randomly selected from a pool of eight or ten; if you’ve left any of those behind, the game will especially choose that one. Did you, by chance, leave the toothbrush behind in your bedroom, at the beginning? Bad luck, you’ll be forced to start over completely.
The Zork series, by Infocom, also premiered the dead end pretty early in the late seventies and lovingly featured it all the way up until Return to Zork, as late as 1993.
Interactive fiction and its delights
If the sadistic game designers at Infocom were notorious offenders, the people at Magnetic Scrolls were even worse in that regard. In Guild of Thieves you could destroy an item required to finish the game just by opening the bag where it was stored, none the wiser about the disastrous consequences of what you just did.
A review of Jinxter, another notorious title that heavily relied on luck and chance, on Crash issue 51 noted that “Death is an impossibility (an innovative feature in an adventure game) […] This makes the game accessible to beginners as well as seasoned adventurers and does nothing to reduce the element of risk: false moves early on can still cripple progress later in the game.”
Basically, all Magnetic Scrolls titles had some nasty player-punishing mechanic that will rear its ugly head at some point; from what I’ve learned, there’s no exception to this in their library of textual adventures.
I’ve retrieved this nifty scheme by Zarf, which encompasses all kinds of cruelty designs that the player is bound to find in Interactive Fiction (or textual adventures) but can also be applied to other games:
On console, the problem was basically non existent, there were limited numbers of adventure games converted for non-PC/Apple systems. Have no fear though, I still managed to find a couple of exceptions.
On Deja Vu for NES, if the player decided to waste too many coins, the game became unwinnable. Ironically enough, this was fixed for the Amiga and PC versions of the game. No such luck had the console owners, since there was no convenient way to patch a cartridge. Also, apparently, Shadowrun, a cyberpunk-ish RPG on the Super Nintendo released in 1993, has a pretty bad case of deadends. If you forgot to ask about something in one of the first conversations of the game, you would discover, much later, to be hopelessly screwed.
Lucas to the rescue!
Careful planning of savegames was just a remedy, obviously not the cure.
There was no way of knowing if one would get stuck sooner or later. Players were so aggravated that it became one of the main selling point for Lucasarts/Lucasfilms, after they released Zak McKracken in 1988, which still featured dead ends. The developers realized that in order to win over the public’s affection, they had to confront head-on Sierra’s biggest weakness. Their newfound design philosophy was stated right from the manuals: “we believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake”.
Still, gamers love to reminisce about dying in The Secret of Monkey Island, if Guybrush remained ten minutes underwater. This was obviously intended as a sarcastical stab at the dead end, made especially clear by the verbs in the SCUMM interface becoming “float”, “rot” and a rather tongue-in-cheek “order hintbook”.
But, as irony would have it, the first Monkey Island game still had a few instances of deadends, even if they seem more a product of rushed development.
One other example of potential dead ends, even though different from intentional punishing design, laid in the copy protection system. Most games of the late 80s/early 90s would feature a copy protection question at the start: failing that would mean getting booted back to DOS. Other titles like King’s Quest VI would be more cunning, in that you could play for hours until you’d get stuck at a certain point that would require the manual.
Some times the clues in the puzzle made it clear the player had to consult the material included in the box, other times not so much; either you had it or you’d be hopelessly screwed. Again,Corruption by our friends at Magnetic Scrolls included an audiotape to be listened to at specific points in the game.
So, if for some reason you lost the manual or had no tape deck available, you had basically created your own personal dead end.
Nothing that is good can become stuck! Unless it’s a strategy game
If adventures were the place where the dead ends thrived, other genres also weren’t immune from this plague.
There’s a particular sadistic example in Star Control 2. The strategic title would let you amass forces and become stronger in order to face the big evil in the final battle. Too bad it wouldn’t let you know you’re on a time limit. The player would discover it many hours later, upon reaching a critical starport destroyed by the enemy. Game over, start again.
A weird bit of trivia I found out while researching the topic is how censorship made one particular adventure game unwinnable, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
In the german version, they removed one episode altogether, if you’ve ever played it then you’ll already know which one would that be. Too bad that all five episodes need to be completed in order to see the ending, so that basically meant the game was unfinishable right out of the box.
The end of the dead end
By 1997 the expiration date for adventure games was approaching (more on that later), but still Sierra’s brutal guidance shone brightly like the sun. Thus even Broken Sword II, one of the most long lived and celebrated series, by Revolution Software, had at least one instance of dead end.
There is also another title, beloved by every adventure fan on earth, plagued by this. This particular case is made even worse by the extraordinary length of the game and the nature of the item required, a mere soda can. Ladies and gentlemen, a well deserved round of boos for The Longest Journey.
My dear Omikron is also plagued by this, but since the save system was so much of a hassle, there’s few chances you would save after being locked out of a door. Nomad Soul, I’ll spare you this time, count your blessings.
Gamers of today probably have no idea about the “dead end”, but they surely were compensated by developers with game breaking bugs, so we really shouldn’t complain, huh?
Bitter jokes aside, it surprised even me that, in the late nineties, adventure games would still commonly feature the “unwinnable by design” as a standard obstacle for the player.
We’ve come so far in game design since those early interactive fiction titles of the early eighties. Thus, I think it is only fair to call out this design feature for what it was: a cheap trick.
It was nothing more than a very artificial way of making a game longer without adding any content. Also, a pretty convenient way to sell more hint books; Sierra even said that, at one time, they were selling more hintbooks than games!
To be fair, some titles did warn the player about important items or made it clear as soon as the situation was irreparable. So there were still some good people in that basket of bad apples. Still, there’s really no good excuse to make the player waste hours of game only to discover they knocked at the wrong door or took the left turn instead of the right one.
Bugs may be forgiven, sadistic design made to waste time shan’t be.
A single deadend is enough to drive away so much light
It’s not entirely wrong to count “unwinnable by design” among the various contributing factors to the death of the adventure genre. Naturally the nonsensical “adventure game logic” would be first, but I will tackle that issue another time. Videogame historians maintain that the genre bombed sometime around the end of the nineties.
Oh man, I remember. The fire… the smoke… the screams.
Someday we’ll talk about those dark times in gruesome detail, for now let’s just conclude that, much like 1982’s game market crash, adventure games never really died. They just went away for a while, only to come back with a vengeance.
By 2002 they were being developed by fans/for fans, so, naturally, the very first thing to go was the dead end.
Very well designed adventure games like Unawoved and Kathy Rain proudly wear their ispirations on their lapel, but don’t fall prey to dusty game design choices of the past.
Those are much better left in our own collective memories.