Thursday, April 16, 2020

Priority Adventure Game 1: Mystery House (1980)

The cover to the original packaging of Mystery House

I was supposed to post this on the weekend, but with quarantine happening and nothing to do but sit at home, my sleep cycles got so messed up that I basically lost a day or two.  I've been playing a lot of games and catching up with a lot of stuff for the blog, but what I haven't being doing much of is writing.  So today I'm getting back on schedule, and hopefully I'll be able to keep it that way.

Today's game is Mystery House, the first adventure game on my Priority List.  I considered leaving it off, along with the other Sierra Hi-Res Adventures, because I was going to get to them in reasonable time in my regular chronology.  I left the Scott Adams adventures off the Priority List for that very reason.  But the post-King's Quest Sierra games are a definite priority, and I couldn't really justify playing those before covering the company's earlier work.  So the Hi-Res Adventures are in, and the first of those is Mystery House.

The cover of the 1982 re-release, with a playing
card motif that has nothing to do with the game.

Mystery House is often touted as the first graphical adventure game.  It's not, technically; The Atlantian Odyssey, which I covered not too long ago, came out in 1979, so it has Mystery House beat by at least half a year.  It is, however, the first significant graphical adventure.  As history shows, sometimes it doesn't matter if you got there first, what matters most is getting there first in a way that people notice.  Hardly anyone played The Atlantian Odyssey, but a whole heck of a lot of people played Mystery House.

The game was written and designed by Roberta Williams, and programmed by her husband Ken.  Ken Williams had spent the 1970s working in the business side of computers, bouncing from company to company, always seeking a bigger paycheck.  He'd mostly worked on mainframes during that time, and he bought an Apple II with the plan of creating a version of the FORTRAN programming language that would work for it.  As it happened, among the applications he had for that Apple II was a copy of Colossal Cave Adventure.  Roberta, who is usually described as the model housewife and mother before this moment, became obsessed with the game, and even she admits that she neglected her children while playing it.  After she finished it there were few options for similar games, and she thought that she'd be able to make her own, as long as she had someone to do the coding.  Ken eventually came around to the commercial potential of making such a game, especially when the idea of adding graphics came in, and it became the first hit for On-Line Systems, later known as Sierra On-Line.  Overall it's said to have sold about 80,000 copies, which is a huge number for the time. You probably know the rest: Roberta would go on to spearhead the King's Quest series, Sierra would be the biggest force in adventure gaming throughout the 80s and into the 90s, and the two of them combined would be major players in helping video games to become a part of pop culture at large.  (For a more detailed look at the early years of Ken and Roberta, check out this article over at the Digital Antiquarian.)

The original title screen. The re-release adds a few more with the Sierra
logo, and a page of text about the public domain release.

Mystery House was released on May 5, 1980 for the Apple II, and later ported to a bunch of Japanese computers.  (I do find it odd that the game wasn't ported to any other computers in the US.  It seems especially strange that money-hungry Ken Williams wouldn't have seized the opportunity to get his games onto, say, the Commodore 64.  Perhaps there was a technology issue, but I have no idea.)  I am, of course, playing the Apple II version on an emulator.  I couldn't find the original; all the versions out there are from 1987, when the game was released into the public domain to celebrate Sierra's 7th anniversary.  (Why celebrate the 7th?  You couldn't wait three years?)

The plot of Mystery House was apparently inspired by the Agatha Christie novel And Then  There Were None.  I've never read any Christie, but looking at a plot summary it seems that the connection is very loose.  Both stories feature a group of people who've been invited to a house, and are murdered one by one.  There all similarities end.

In addition to its credit as the first graphical adventure, Mystery House also sometimes gets credited as the first adventure game to have a mystery story.  That's probably not the case: the similarly-named Mystery Mansion (which I covered back here) has it beat.  Of course, Mystery Mansion was developed over a span of years from 1978 to 1981, so there's a small chance it wasn't quite playable by the time Mystery House was released.  It's only a small chance though; evidence points to Mystery Mansion being played in the 1970s, and there are some claims that it was created even earlier than 1978.  Regardless of that, Mystery House gets the credit for being the first mystery game that a large number of people played.

This is probably the best-looking screen of the game.  Just ignore the tree.

The game begins with the player standing outside the titular house.  There's nothing else to do but go up to the front door and enter, after which the door is slammed and locked behind you.  You are now trapped in the house, along with seven other people whose depictions I could best describe as amateurish.

They all look identical here, but will get unique depictions later on.

You can't get descriptions of any of these people during the game, but the instructions have more details as to who they are:

  • Tom, a blond plumber
  • Sam, a brunette mechanic
  • Sally, a red-headed seamstress
  • Dr. Green, a brunette surgeon
  • Joe, a brunette gravedigger
  • Bill, a blond butcher
  • Daisy, a blond cook

Is it weird that there are three blokes here described as brunettes?  I always thought that was more of a female descriptor.  Regardless, as soon as I saw these descriptions, I figured that hair-colour would play some role in solving the mystery.

As well as the seven other guests, the entry hall also has a crude note on the floor.

They were going to write "losers weepers" but they ran out of space.

"Valuable jewels are hidden in this house.  Finders-keepers."  This level of atrocious hand-writing at first led me to suspect Dr. Green, but then I realised that the writing was legible, so I abandoned this theory.  Besides, you can't accuse anyone of the murder, or even talk to the other guests.  You can't even kill any of them yet, and it's not like an actual crime has been committed at this point.  There's nothing to do but leave the room by one of the three doors, or by the stairs to the top floor.  As soon as you leave, the other guests all disappear from the entry hall.

West of the entry hall is a kitchen, which has a fridge, a cabinet, and a stove.  It has a sink as well, which is shown in the graphics but not mentioned in the room description.  This stumped me for a little bit, because I was only interacting with the items that the game went out of its way to mention.  I opened the cabinet, and found some matches.  I opened the fridge, and found an empty pitcher.  I ran into some problems here, though, because I just couldn't figure out what to call the thing in the fridge.  I tried JUG and GLASS and even EWER, because I read far too much fantasy fiction with old-timey words.  It wasn't until much later that I hit on PITCHER, and I can't even tell you why it took me so long.  I can say that it's not the word I'd use in that context: it's a god-damn JUG, I tell ya!  None of this would have been a problem if it was described in the text.

I also tried lighting the stove, and got a very terse message telling me that the stove exploded, and I was dead.  One quick reload later, I determined that the stove was probably unimportant, and not to be tampered with.  Chalk that up as my first arbitrary death in a Sierra game.  Alas, this one didn't have the charm of their later games.

You can leave the kitchen by a back door, but that just leads into a forest maze, and I wasn't prepared for maze mapping at this early stage, especially without a full inventory to leave a trail.  I couldn't figure out how to get back to the kitchen though, so after getting hopelessly lost I had to reload again.

This time I went east from the kitchen and found the library, complete with seven whole books.  There is a cobweb in the corner though, and most of the windows in the house are boarded up, so I assume the place has been abandoned for some time.  I found a note on the floor, which had another crudely written message: "7-6 = 1. THEN I AM DONE!"  Ooh, foreshadowing!  What could this possibly mean!  (Obviously it means there will be murders.  But if there are seven guests plus me, this murderer's math is all screwed up. Perhaps I was not expected?)

Another door led outside where I found the first murder victim: Sam the mechanic, who had been hit on the head by a blunt object. Look, you can see the big lump on his head!  And those X's for eyes, he's as dead as a doornail.

Alright, one less person looking for the treasure!

I went back inside through another door, into a dining room. I could see that there was a candle on the table, and... something in the background.  A christmas tree?  A tent?  Eventually I figured out that it's a lamp, but it doesn't matter, because it's irrelevant.  It does highlight one my biggest gripes with early graphical adventure games though, and it's their expectation that you'll know what the objects depicted in the graphics are supposed to be.  It happened earlier with the pitcher, and it's happened again here with the lamp.  This won't be such a problem later, when graphics get better and room descriptions get longer, but in this era of crude images and terse descriptions it really sucks.

An illuminati symbol?  A dwarf holding a kite?

After a short time the sun goes down, and if you don't have a light source by then it's pretty difficult to navigate (although you can still fumble around in the dark).  I used the match to light the candle, but when I lit it in the dining room I tripped on the rug and started a fire.  I tried leaving by the back door, but that only resulted in my fiery death.  After a reload, I figured out that you can take the candle out of the dining room first before you light it. Crisis averted!

Having explored all of the ground floor I went upstairs (a floor which is inexplicably larger than the one below it, unless the rooms on the bottom have a much bigger volume).  Heading east and west I found four bedrooms.  In the nursery I found the body of Dr. Green, which disproved my bad hand-writing hypothesis.  He had been stabbed, but there were no other clues to be found.

In a boy's bedroom I found another note, that said "YOU WILL NEVER FIND IT! IT'S ALL MINE!!"  In a large bedroom I didn't find anything, but someone tried to kill me with a thrown dagger.  I grabbed the dagger and gave chase, but whoever it was had quickly vanished.  (Replaying the game to get some screenshots, I just had this dagger thrown at me even though I'd already taken care of the murderer.)

The last bedroom had another body, that of Sally the Seamstress.  She'd been bumped on the head just like Sam, but this time there was another clue: a blond hair!  My list of suspects was rapidly dwindling: only Tom, Joe, Bill and Daisy were still alive.  Of those, Joe was a brunette, so he was probably ruled out.

Heading north I saw a stairway up to the attic, but I decided to explore a doorway at the end of the passage first.  It led to a study, with nothing inside but a desk that I couldn't interact with, and a window with a lovely view outside.  Next to the study there was a bathroom, where I found yet another murder victim: Bill the butcher, who had been strangled with a pair of pantyhose.  I mean, it's possible that this is a Michael Hutchence situation here, but it's probably safer to assume that this guy was murdered.  Based on the graphics, I miraculously figured out that you can take a towel from the rack.  You can't use the toilet, though, which is a bit of a black mark on the game.  If you're putting a dunny in a game, you better let me take a shit in it, that's all I'm saying.  (Actually, this game doesn't even let you type any cuss words.  Try it, and you get hit with an instant game over.)

Heading up to the attic, I found a hammer, which I took, and a ladder that was too heavy to move.  In a storage room just off the attic there was a chest, which was locked.  I guess I'd have to go looking for the key.

At that point I'd pretty much explored everywhere, or so I thought.  I mapped the maze, but I didn't find anything there: it was just a pointless maze of trees that didn't seem to go anywhere.  I did figure out that you could leave the forest by going UP from the initial location, which doesn't make much sense, but it did come in handy later.  I also noticed the gate in the back yard, which led to a graveyard.  There I found Joe the gravedigger, who had just finished digging six graves.  I tried to take his shovel, thinking that maybe I needed to dig somewhere in the forest to find the key.  Joe wouldn't let me, so I stabbed him to death.  Him digging six graves was highly suspicious behaviour, so I'm sure he deserved it.  Digging in the forest didn't turn anything up though, so I was a little bit stuck.

Hahaha the giant X's on his eyes.

Eventually I noticed the sink in the kitchen, and figured out that I could turn the taps on with the dubious command of WATER ON.  That one's pretty rough, but it was singled out in the instructions so I remembered it pretty quickly.  I gathered some water with the pitcher, and also took a butterknife that was lying in the sink.

With some water in my possession I figured that I had some fire-fighting capabilities, so I went back to the dining room, where I once again tripped on the rug and set it ablaze.  Pouring water on the fire put it out, which left a hole in the rug.  In that hole I found a key, and with that key I was able to unlock the chest, in which I found a handgun with one bullet.

I'll never turn down a gun in any game, but this wasn't the clue I was hoping for.  I'd found four dead bodies, and made one myself by killing Joe.  That left Tom and Daisy, one of whom was probably the murderer.  They weren't coming to me it seemed, so it looked like I'd have to find them.  And what's a murder house mystery without a secret passage?

I started rechecking all of the rooms, and eventually I found my solution in the study.  Here's a picture of that room, with it's lovely window view.

It still looks like a window to me.

While I was looking around the house I tried to look out this window, and was told that all of the windows on the house were boarded up, except for the one in the attic.  The attic window only gives a view of the forest, with nothing helpful to impart.  But if all the other windows were boarded up, what about this one in the study, which was very clearly open?

Well, it turns out the graphics fooled me again, because this was not a window but a painting in a picture frame.  The picture was bolted to the wall with four screws, but I was able to loosen them with the butterknife from the kitchen.  (The dagger should maybe work here, but it doesn't.) Behind the picture was a button, and pressing it opened a secret door.

This secret passage led down to the basement, where I found the final corpse: that of Tom the plumber.  He'd been stabbed, and was clutching a daisy in his hand.  Even I could understand such boneheaded symbolism, and with this clue and the process of elimination I figured out that Daisy was the murderer.  Now I just had to find her.

Poor Tom, he'd only just been awarded the key to the city.

It was impossible not to notice the huge key on the table, which was a skeleton key.  Obviously it's called that because the ginormous bloody thing was carved out of an elephant's thighbone.  The door out of the room led to a pantry, with no way through.  Later on I figured out that it connected to the kitchen, through a hole behind the cabinet that was bricked up.  I had to used the hammer from the attic to smash the bricks to get through.

There's also a tunnel leading from the basement, which somehow led to an area with a large pine tree.  I tried climbing the pine tree, and found a telescope.  Looking through it, I could see into the attic through the open window, where I spotted a trap door in the ceiling.  Why I could see this through a telescope from outside better than three feet away with my actual fucking eyes I have no idea.  There was nothing else to do but head back down the tree, which dumped me in the middle of the forest maze.  I was thankful at this point that I'd mapped it out, and getting back to the house wasn't too hard.

Heading to the attic, I climbed up through the trapdoor, and found myself in a tower with the murderer, Daisy.  Examining her gave me the unambiguous message "She is going to kill you", so I unloaded by gun right into her face.  I'd stopped the murderer!  And well, murdered a couple of people myself, but they deserved it.  I still think Joe was in on it.  (My replay only strengthened this theory, because somebody threw a dagger at me after I'd already shot Daisy's head off.  I reckon she killed the victims that were stabbed, and Joe killed the ones that were bashed on the head using his shovel.)

This worked, actually.

In the attic I found another note, that said "It's in the basement!"  So I went down to the basement, and started typing things like BREAK WALL and FIND SECRET and END ALREADY.  I noticed that the walls were covered with algae, and I even tried CLEAN ALGAE, but that didn't work.  I was stuck on this for quite some time, until I eventually caved and looked up the solution.  It was WIPE ALGAE, or RUB ALGAE, so I was on the right track, I just hadn't gotten the wording right.  You need the towel here as well, or the game tells you that you have nothing to wipe the algae with.  With the algae cleaned away, I found a loose brick, and behind that I found the jewels.  With the murderer dead and the jewels in my possession, I was able to leave the house and win the game.

A guru wizard?!?

So, Mystery House.  I can't say that I enjoyed it, exactly.  Wrangling with the combination of a primitive parser and bad graphics was a trial at certain points. It's not like the mystery story was any great shakes either, and you don't even really solve it except by the process of elimination. But there were certain aspects of the game that were impressive, most notably the graphics.  Not that they look good; they are, in fact, rather terrible.  But the changes to the game environment being reflected graphically is definitely impressive for the time.  Doors open and close.  Items disappear when you pick them up, and will appear in any location when you drop them.  I don't recall any games doing this before.  It's one impressive thing in a see of irritations, though, and I can't really recommend Mystery House as anything other than a historically significant curiosity.


Story & Setting: The mystery story is still a novel one at this point, and I appreciated the change, but it's really not at all well executed.  And, of course, there just has to be some treasure to find, doesn't there?  The house isn't particularly well realised either, although adding the graphical dimension makes it a little more memorable.  I'm wavering between 1 and 2 here, but I think perhaps I'll be generous. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: This category starts promisingly, but it turns out that the characters here are little more than corpses to be strewn throughout the game.  Only Joe and Daisy are found alive after the initial room, and they can barely be interacted with.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: This is a pretty ugly game, and the novelty of the graphics doesn't really mitigate that.  There's no sound, and the writing is terse.  The game does do some novel things with its graphical interactivity, but I'm dealing with that down in Mechanics.  Plus you lose points here when I have to spend significant time trying to figure out what an object actually is.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Puzzles: The puzzles in this game aren't actually too bad.  Most of them are pretty simple and logical, they're just hopelessly obscured by the graphics and the parser.  None of them are particularly clever though.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser is really not all that good, and as I've said the graphics don't help it.  It's not hopelessly broken though, and the interactivity of the graphics earn it an extra point here.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: It's an often-baffling game, but I wouldn't say it's a particularly hard one.  Without the graphics and parser issues I've already mentioned it would probably rate a little better here, but with them I would have to say that this game is a frustrating experience. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: I didn't enjoy Mystery House a great deal once I got through the initial exploration, mostly due to the issues above.  It's pretty short though, and that's usually enough to get a game out of a minimum score in this category.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2.  For graphical innovation and historical significance I grant this game the full amount of bonus points.

The seven categories above add up to 13, which doubled totals 26.  Add the two bonus points, and Mystery House gets a RADNESS Index of 28.  That places it equal 24th overall, and 15th out of 26 adventure games.  It's even with Voyage to Atlantis and just above The Cottage, which was probably an even more frustrating experience than this one.  So it's down there with some of the games I've not enjoyed much, but not right down there with the very worst.

NEXT: My next game was going to be Empire of the Over-Mind, Gary Bedrosian's follow-up to Lords of Karma, which I rather liked.  But although he wrote it in 1979, it wasn't released until 1981, so I'm kicking it down the list by a couple of years.  After that I had Enchanted Island by my boy Greg Hassett, but it looks like that's his last game for 1979: before that he wrote Sorcerer's Castle Adventure.  So I'm swapping the two around, and by the weekend I should have a post up on Sorcerer's Castle.


  1. Interesting that Joe was asked to dig six graves. Was one of them for you, or was he duped into digging his own grave? I'll vote that it was for you and the "7-6=1" note was just a clever misdirect to keep anyone from realizing that two people were in on it.

    Poor Daisy. If she weren't such an illiterate hack, she'd have been able to read the note and know that the treasure was in the basement, and then maybe have been able to make her escape.

    Did the shovel or the enormous skeleton key end up being useful anywhere? I didn't catch it if they were.

    1. The shovel isn't useful anywhere; I'm not even sure that the game recognises "dig" as a command. As for the skeleton key, I just checked and I think you need it to unlock the front door and escape the house at the end.

    2. Can you use it a la Joe to smite Daisy in the head, I wonder, or do you have to use the gun on her? Three potential weapons, two people to murderize. Leaves a lot of possibilities.

    3. I didn't try it, but I suspect the gun is the only option.

  2. I continue to enjoy your posts! Blogtrottr sends them all to me asap!

    Funny about the curse words since Roberta and Hubby were making "Softporn Adventure" a year or two later with a nude but concealed Roberta on the cover!

    1. Thanks man, I continue to enjoy posting, despite my rather small audience.

  3. A lot of the early mystery games in my experience are just really bad at being mystery games. Witness and Deadline give it a really thorough attempt even if I ended up having critiques, but Mystery House is decidedly at the other end of the scale.

    1. Mystery Mansion was okay at it. You actually have to solve the mystery by finding the murderer, weapon, and location, and those change with every game so it has some replayability.

      And as much as I complain about treasure hunts, I generally do prefer those to mystery games.

  4. I believe the "4am crack" version on Asimov represents the original 1980 version of the game. The only difference I could tell is the absence of the extra logos and public domain disclaimer. Interestingly, the 1980 version of Wizard and the Princess has no title screen at all, so I have to wonder if even this version might be a re-release, just one from before 1987.

    I've really enjoyed Mr. Brow's "Playthrough Fiction" of this game. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this is the best thing to come from Mystery House's existence (other than Sierra On-Line's rise, of course):

    1. That was quite good, particularly the final part.

    2. If anything else worthwhile resulted from the existence of Mystery House, it might be the collection of game remixes made in 2004 by seasoned IF veterans as "Mystery House Taken Over" at