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 is one of those abilities one would wish to actually use in real life. All problems would fade away: forgetting to pay the rent, dying in a car accident while speeding or botching a job interview for saying something stupid. Reload a save game or get sent back to a checkpoint, problem solved. As luck would have it, we are not really allowed to do that anywhere outside of videogames. It’s an obvious feature of most modern and not-so-modern games, while there have been instances of limiting the player’s savegames through scarcity (survival horror), very few games deny saving and loading to a player.
But what if, as the new paragon of difficult games, 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, there is really nothing else except dying again and again. Indeed, there was a time in gaming 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. That is indeed one of the most dreaded and long lived game design tropes: the dead end.
On a rocky mountain, where it all began
Gamers of a certain era, grown up on home computers, when they era the term “dead end” are immediately thrown back to the early days of 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, did indeed feature several instances where the player would be stuck forever. The consequence of using just one single save slot and overwriting it constantly was indeed that. But, then again, dead ends did feature in 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 that unusual but, back in the days when there were no readily available walkthrough or solutions, 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 or that it had even happened in the first place. 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 designers originally responsible for the dead end, it is safe to say they made it so popular that most other adventure game developers felt safe in adoping it as well. While it would be natural to think this was a feature of early 80s adventure games, honestly the dead ends would actually continue well into the 90s, both from Sierra and other developers.
Later titles guilty of crippling design choices were the likes of 1994’s The Dagger of Amon Ra or even 1996′ Lighthouse the Dark Being, especially the last was guilty and tremendously smug about it. If the player missed certain critical items, the game would still continue until the end, when at one point it kindly informed the player that, in order to finish it, the game had to be restarted.
So, the main solution that gamers would come to quickly adopt would be to not only save every thirty minutes (saving too often would cripple the game altogether), but above all, using a rich array of save states. Leisure Suit Larry designer Al Lowe put it best in his famous catchphrase: “save early, save often!”.
As I have anticipated, it is not historically accurate nor fair to accuse Sierra’s graphical adventures as the forefathers of dead ends. Honestly, adventure games were not designed to be fair towards the player and there was no overall “ethical” standard inthis regard. So, even before Sierra started making the feature an actual trope of the genre, the crown of evil first belonged to textual adventures.
The 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 the player has left any of those items behind, naturally the game will especially choose that one. Did, by any chance, the player leave the toothbrush behind in the bedroom, all the way at the beginning? Bad luck, start over from the beginning The Zork series, by Infocom, also premiered the dead end pretty early on, in the late seventies, lovingly featuring 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 and repeated offenders, the ones at Magnetic Scrolls would classify as being even worse in that regard. In 1987’s Guild of Thieves it was possible to destroy an item required to finish the game simply by opening the bag where it was stored, with no previous warning and being none the wiser about the disastrous consequences of what just transpired.
A review of Jinxter, another notorious title that heavily relied on luck and chance to even find the required items to finish it, on Crash issue 51 noted “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 several nasty player-punishing mechanics that will rear its ugly head at some point; from what I’ve learned, there seems to be no exception to the rule in their entire library of textual adventures.
The following scheme, by Zarf, tries to encompass 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:
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 and early 90s did indeed feature a copy protection, which usually centered around asking the player to look up certain words in the manual. Failing that would mean getting booted back to DOS. Naturally, titles like King’s Quest VI would be more cunning, in that it was possible to play for hours without problems, until getting 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 way, there was no other solution to actually keeping the manual around, unless one wanted to end up hopelessly screwed. As a very interesting example, Corruption by Magnetic Scrolls included an audiotape to be listened to at specific points in the game. So, if for some reason the manual had been lost or there was no readily avaiable tape deck, one had magically created their very personal dead end.
Naturally, these were problems that really affected the poor home computer players, but what about console games? Well, there the problem seemed to be basically non-existent: not only there was a pretty limited number of adventure games converted for non-PC/Apple systems, but overall the platforming/action/rpg genre did feature cruel design, but not of the “restart from the beginning” kind. Still, there were a couple of exceptions.
On Deja Vu for NES, if the player decided to waste too many coins, the game would automatically become unwinnable. Ironically enough, this was later fixed for the Amiga and PC versions of the game, but clearly there was no such luck for console owners, since there was no convenient way to patch a cartridge. Also, from what I’ve researched, Shadowrun, a cyberpunk-ish Super Nintendo RPG released in 1993, has a pretty bad case of the dead ends. If the player forgets to ask about something in one of the first conversations of the game, they would discover, much later, to be hopelessly screwed.
Lucasarts to the rescue
Careful planning of savegames was just a way to suffer less the harsh consequences of a dead end, it did not obviously work as a cure: there was no way of knowing if one would get stuck sooner or later. Players were so aggravated that the absence of dead ends would actually become one of the main selling point for Lucasarts/Lucasfilms, right after the release of Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders 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 would be left more than 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 would transform into “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 dead ends (this is actually still TBC, will update if necessary), even if they seem more a product of rushed development.
Still, beyond a few bugs in their point and clicks, all Lucasarts point and click adventures released after 1989 would give up the dead end feature for good, along with being designed to be enjoyed at one’s preferred pace, featuring no deaths whatsoever. This was welcome by several players who were, indeed, tired of being subject to the cruelty of Sierra’s game design and started the notorious “feud” between the two software houses who still has some fans quite divided on the subject.
But this is not really the article’s main focus, even beyond my personal preference it is fair to say that Lucasarts decided to go one step further to bring adventure games closer to what was a more modern vision that did not require players to be constantly afraid of losing their game to have fun. Naturally, in the end, Sierra would also embrace change, since by the late 90s most of their adventures did not feature dead ends as well, even though it was still possible to die.
Adventurers were not alone
If the adventure genre was the place where the dead ends thrived, it is fair to also note how other genres were not immune from this sickness. One particular sadistic example pops up in Star Control 2. The strategic title would let the player amass forces at their pace, in order to become strong enough to face the great evil in the final battle. Unfortunately, what the design convenientely forgot to communicate is that the player is on a constant time limit. The player would discover that by themselves only many hours later, upon reaching a critical starport destroyed by the enemy. That would be an instant game over, start again.
Even beyond the game design, there were instances where even outside influences would conspire to make adventures games unwinnable. In particular, I am referring to a little obscure bit of trivia about the cult classic horror game I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. In the german version, the government decided to remove one episode altogether, naturally the one featuring the nazi subplot. What the censor guys did not know or failed to realize is that the player is required to complete all five different episodes in order to see the ending, so that basically meant the game was unfinishable right out of the box.
With strange eons, even dead ends may die
By 1997 the expiration date for adventure games was fastly approaching (more on that later), but Sierra’s brutal design guidebook, rather than Lucasarts’, seemed to still influence game developers. Thus even Broken Sword II, one of the most long lived and celebrated series, by Revolution Software, featured at least one instance of dead end. There is also another title, beloved by (almost) every adventure fan on earth, plagued by this.
This particular case is made even worse by the extraordinary length of the game and the incredibly ordinary nature of the item required: a mere soda can. To be fair, The Longest Journey does make a point to highlight the item, but still does not make the design idea to be any less inane. My dear Omikron is also plagued by this, but since the save system required the player to travel a good ten minutes just to save, there are really few chances one would actually go save after being locked out of a door.
People who play adventure games today would have probably no idea about the dead end problem, 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. Luckily, we have come pretty far in game design since those early interactive fiction titles of the early eighties.
Thus, at this point in the article, it is only fair to call out this design feature for what it was: a cheap trick. The dead end seemed to really be nothing more than a very artificial way of making a game longer without adding any relevant content. While one could argue it would be a common situation, also in real life, to be left without a required item to solve a problem, that is a moot point. No adventure games could ever be successfully compared to reality, anyway. Dead ends seemed to also be 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, there were some titles that warned the player about important items or made it clear as soon as the situation was irreparable. Most would just warn the player to be careful, sometimes in the manual, which while pretty useless would at least be a conscentious move. So, while there were still some good people in that basket of bad apples, there’s really no good excuse to make the player waste hours of gameplay only to discover they knocked at the wrong door or took the left turn instead of the right one. Bugs may be forgiven (and patched), sadistic design made to waste time shan’t be.
A single deadend is enough to drive away so much light
It would not be entirely uncorrect count “unwinnable by design” among the various contributing factors to the “death of the adventure genre”. With “death”, I’m clearly referring to a particular period of time when publishers were not interested anymore in adventure games at all, between 1999 and 2005 more or less. Naturally the nonsensical “adventure game logic” would be the first contributing factor, but that is a topic for another time.
Still, as it is abundantly clear, 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 2004 they had already come back with a vengeance, this time being developed by fans/for fans, so, naturally, the very first thing to go from the design 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.