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The Pioneer of Graphic Adventure Games Was a Woman

Mystery House was the first home computer game ever to include graphics as well as text

An undated photo of video-game pioneer Roberta Williams during the early days of Sierra On-Line, the company she and her husband founded. (Courtesy Ken Williams)
smithsonian.com

“You are in the front yard of a large abandoned Victorian house. Stone steps lead up to a wide porch.”

That’s how the first home computer game to include graphics begins. When you enter, using keyboard commands like “open door,” you meet seven people and the mystery of Mystery House begins. The detective story, inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, was the brainchild of pioneering video game designer Roberta Williams, born on this day in 1953.

“Williams had no experience in gaming or computers—only in simple reading and storytelling,” according to MIT. She didn’t know how to program computers, but Ken Williams, her husband, did, and provided the technical knowhow for Williams's game. 

Previous games for the Apple II and other home computers were text-only, like a choose-your-own-adventure book in game form. No programs existed to accommodate the addition of graphics, writes MIT, so Ken Williams wrote one. After their first game was a modest success, they formed On-Line Systems, which became Sierra On-Line. Their second game, The Wizard and the Princess, also came out in 1980.

It was the beginning of a revolution. “The first true graphical adventure, with fully animated visuals, appears to have been Valhalla,” writes Neal Roger Tringham in his book on early video games. That game came out three years after Mystery House and was developed by a different company.

That same year, though, Roberta Williams wrote the game she’s still best known for, King’s Quest. Rather than the simple four colors and static images of earlier Sierra games, it allowed players to control their character and see them moving, and to interact with an environment as if it was three dimensional.

Most of Williams’s most successful work was based in fairy tales, a storytelling form that she told Classic Adventure Gaming in 2006 she has always loved. “The first King’s Quest was really a compendium of many of the most common fairy tales, and, really was nothing but a big fairy tale that someone could directly experience in a very interactive way instead of in the old passive way of books, movies, or oral tales,” she said.

More recently, in 2014, Roberta and Ken Williams were honored with an Industry Icon Award at The Game Awards 2014. In his acceptance speech, Ken described Roberta taking him to dinner after playing a text adventure game on a teletype machine, and sharing her vision for what a video game could be. The next year, Mystery House came out. Roberta also spoke, promoting the new King’s Quest that came out in 2015, more than 17 years after she and her husband left the video game industry.

Today, according to their website, they can most often be found sailing the world. Mystery House is now free, and can be played online.

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