A phrase that is often bestowed upon revolutionary game designers is the accolade of being a genre definer. Hideo Kojima redefined the idea of the action adventure genre of gaming by integrating fluid stealth mechanics as a viable alternative to gunning down your enemies. This, coupled with his cinematic espionage flair, made for an all-time classic with Metal Gear Solid. Noritaka Funamizu, during the process of designing Street Fighter 2, accidentally discovered a glitch in which extra strikes registered when certain button combinations were pressed. This bug would become a feature by the end of development and became the first instance of competitive combos in a multiplayer fighting game.
Genre definers have built the industry we know today. Their innovations have resonated across the years and one such icon of this variety is Roberta Williams. Her contributions, along with her husband, Ken Williams, are monumental in the regard that they created and redefined an entirely new genre of their own.
The ‘Queen of Graphic Adventure’ is the moniker that Roberta Williams is commonly referred as. The ripples of inspired notions in her career have spanned the course of 16 years and began humbly in the year 1980. From her mind to the page came an idea of penning a script for a text-based adventure that featured images to aid the investment of the player with the plot. It was said to have been inspired by a text game called Colossal Cave Adventure. Roberta and Ken, upon completion of this game, were underwhelmed by the lack of development in the market at the time. Over the course of three weeks, Roberta had written a script for Mystery House, convinced Ken to help her develop it and instilled to him the exact vision for what she wanted the game to look and feel like. On-Line Systems was founded in this same year, which would go on to create Mystery House, Mission Asteroid, Wizard and The Princess, among other titles that were known collectively as Hi-Res Adventures. For the time that was, these games shifted an unexpected amount of units in their initial years. A certain flair with their story telling blended with quaint early Apple computer graphics and led to great promise for the company in the early 1980s.
Their greatest success story stemmed from their time under contract with IBM. A fresh adventure was requested to be commissioned for IBM’s PCjr computer. A love of fairy tales and stories of enchantment spawned the many journeys of Sir Graham in the land of Daventry. The formula of encompassing an animated colour palette, a redefined text command system and the movement of the main character through a semi-open world environment was the brainchild of Roberta. The development combination of this husband and wife duo proved formidable as they went on to make one of the earliest instances of the point and click adventure, which to this day is still one of the most profitable. King’s Quest was a huge success. The simple whimsical presentation potently worked in the favour of its puzzle and text orientated gameplay. This series, created and written by Roberta and co-created by Ken, followed their careers right up into their retirement. The King’s Quest franchise spanned over 8 titles up until 1998. To put this in perspective, there are more King’s Quest games than there are main titles of Zelda games. If you factor in the re-releases of these games on different platforms, King’s Quest is unequivocally one of most profitable video game franchises of all time.
In the words of Roberta herself, the success came because it rekindled a childlike state of fantasy wonder that allowed adults to experience the fables from youth they had once adored. For kids, it is the ultimate cartoon, and for adults and kids alike it is the chance to outwit the designer. This carried notion of challenging the players to outwit the creator was established early in the King’s Quest series and is still in effect today under the reigns of new developer, The Odd Gentlemen.
Exploration was always the key in On-Line Systems games, even as they transitioned into the 1990s with their more well-remembered name Sierra On-Line. On the crux of adventure game classics like Space Quest, Gabriel Knight, Leisure Suit Larry and collaborations on the Monkey Island series, there was always King’s Quest to keep them busy as the changing times of ’90s gaming saw new competitors emerging.
Stepping outside of the boundaries that she knew was a brave move to make considering the circumstances. Crafting satirical point-and-click adventures had become the staple of Roberta Williams‘ career in game design. Grasping at an emerging trend to attempt a new direction came about from the feeling of being ‘typecast’ as the fairy-tale game designer and 1996 saw the development of one of her last games. Phantasmagoria was a full motion video game. A live action drama that incorporated point and click elements into it. It was a far gone reach from the days of high fantasy. Phantasmagoria was a horror game that sought to psychologically thrill and unnerve the player. From her previous experience with Mystery House and the Laura Bow series came an understanding of the structure of horror. Inspiration from the works of Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe was the catalyst for Phantasmagorias creation. It was a stretch of her creative muscles that enabled a resurgence of her love of horror. Gaming of the time, from her perspective, was utilising horror mainly as an excuse to hack, slash and kill everything in sight. The writing of Phantasmagoria is intended to be unsettling, controversial and, most of all, frightening. This idea was the driving force of its marketing. While the genre of FMV never quite took off in a massive way, examples of where it excelled can be seen in Phantasmagoria. It was released on Windows PC and Sega Saturn to an audience that had not yet experienced the chilling storytelling of Silent Hill that would not come out for another two years after this. It would not be a grand stretch to say that Phantasmagoria gave credence to pave the way for future horror titles in a similar vein.
Roberta Williams is a true pioneer in the sense that she shaped stories that had been told before in different ways and made them interactable. She instigated the graphical adventure genre and was one of the major figures who made it relevant for the guts of over two decades. Her imagination is a testament to the limits that we can push ourselves with the worlds we create. The work ethic in which she brought to her field was that of being able to develop a King’s Quest game at the very same time as Phantasmagoria in the later half of her career. Unwavering in an industry filled with alternatives to the point and click adventure, Roberta laid the groundwork for intelligent, brave, funny and unique game designers that will be felt for years to come. As of last year, Roberta and Ken were both honored with an Industry Icon Award at The 2014 Game Awards.
Roberta‘s impact and influence is still felt to this day as we are just starting a new chapter in Graham’s quest.
What do you think of Roberta Williams and her work? Let us know in the comments!