Thursday, March 12, 2009

Police Quest

Year: 1987
Rating: ***
Did you know they once claimed that this game was used as a real life training sim for police cadets? By that logic I’m now ready to take down drug pushing thugs. Let’s just hope RL has a better text parser interface.

You know I’ve got to love Jim Walls. He works for the Californian Highway Patrol for fifteen years until he has a particularly rough day at the office (bullets were involved) and retires. What is a man to do in that situation? Well if you’re Jim Walls you befriend Sierra Co-founder Ken Williams who offers you a gig as a consultant on an up coming game called Police Quest. Somehow you take on the task of writing and designing said title despite having absolutely no background in the video game industry. Legend has it that when he began at Sierra he needed to be shown how to turn on his computer. I don’t know how true that is but at any rate he must have been a remarkably quick study because right out the gate he managed to create what many consider a classic.

I think it may have been his outsider status that gave him an edge. By the time Police Quest rolled around Sierra had already published three very successful adventure games. To a certain extent they had already found their formula. A formula that probably stayed unchanged for too long in the end. But Police Quest is a different breed of adventure game. Gone are the obtuse lateral thinking puzzles and spot the pixel item hunting. In their place is nitty gritty police procedure. I wouldn’t even call them puzzles really. Is it a puzzle to know that when approaching a suspect in a stolen car you should call for back up? Beating Police Quest doesn’t require you to figure out the Byzantine pathways of the designer’s mind. To reach the end all you’ll need is common sense, a working knowledge of cop shows and, yes, some patience.

Approaching the previously mentioned stolen car is the virtuoso scene of the game. I enjoy how it is subtly built up at the beginning. During your first briefing, in a throwaway line, the chief mentions that a light blue sedan has been reported stolen. I almost immediately forgot that detail. Later another hint is dropped and as you complete the next couple of missions the blue sedan is always sitting in the back of your mind. Those missions are fun and interesting but you're never in any real danger. Then when you hear the dispatch blaring to intercept a light blue sedan you think to yourself "Shit is about to go down".

I won’t ruin the scene by describing it but it is as tense as typing short sentences into a text parser can be. What’s remarkable is that you don’t even fire your gun. This game isn’t about violent cops and robber heroics it’s about the simple street level tension of being a cop. You may think that sounds boring and that surely no one would want to play it now days. Sure I’ll admit you probably couldn’t get away with a triple AAA console game like this today but anyone who thinks there isn’t a market for this kind of drama needs to take a look at all the police procedurals currently clogging book store shelf space and television prime time. When was the last time you saw a cop on Law and Order fire their gun? Sure it happens but that show can go for weeks without a single gunshot. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t filled with tense compelling scenes they’re just tense and compelling in a different way. Police Quest is like that at times.

There is one slight problem though and for me it really spoils the experience. When your character finally shots his gun it happens automatically so you never get to type ‘Fire Gun”. It’s in the final climatic scene too. I mean Jesus Christ I just wanted to waste one dude. The whole rest of the game can be a prick tease building up to the final moment but let me have my damn satisfaction. Don’t yank it away from me in a cut scene. Much more recently Army of Two does the exact same thing which makes you wonder when the hell are people going to learn. For all that Police Quest is an almost awesome game and one-day I’ll probably play through the sequels just to see if they ever managed to do it right. If they didn’t, well that just means there’s the potential and opportunity for someone else out there to finally close the case on this weird sub-genre once and for all.

Oh and at one point you dress like a pimp. It’s fantastic.


  1. Don't forget that you make out with a hooker at the end! Although once again you don't get to type in 'make out with hooker,' but it was still cool.

    Did you ever play that game Walls made when he left Sierra, Blue Force? Yeah, I didn't either.

  2. Ah no I didn't. Sounds intriguing but maybe some other time. I've still got a pile of other adventure games to get through.

    Over the next few entries I want to hit up some non-LucasArts adventure games. Cause there's still plenty of people singing the praises of those but sometimes I wonder if say Legend of Kyrandia was any good?

    And there's only one way to find out.

  3. I seem to recall it was pretty decent. It had some puzzles in it I would describe as 'infuriating' however (I never got any further than that stupid birthstones thing).

    You might like to check out the Les Manly games, if you're after something very average (and have the time and/or inclination to check out something that checks all the 'slightly cheaply made 90s adventure game' boxes). Shameless Leisure Suit Larry rip offs but they have a nice aura of early 90s sleaze around them, a bit like watching a crap TV thriller from '93.
    Actually that may be a lie since I never spent much time with the first one, but I did finish the second, 'Lost in LA.' Everything the guy at Abandonia says is true but I liked it anyway.

  4. Yeah while searching for stuff to play I had a look at Lost in LA. Man I hated it.

    Thing is I don't really want to write about games I hate. I think there's enough snarky let's-laugh-at-the-terrible-games-of-yesteryear stuff getting written on the web. Some of it is good and pretty darn funny but it doesn't appeal to me.

    Still if the mood strikes me I may tear down a sacred cow or two.