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In March 2020, Williams received a Pioneer Award during the 20th Game Developers Choice Awards. Throughout history, only a handful of game designers have deserved such recognition as Roberta Williams. Not only was she a co-founder of Sierra On-line, but also the mother of classic adventure games like King’s Quest and Phantasmagoria.

Humble beginnings
The year was 1979 and nothing, absolutely nothing, indicated that Roberta Williams (née Heuer) would soon become one of the most iconic video game pioneers. At the time, she was a stay-at-home mom with two kids. Her husband, Ken Williams, was a freelance programmer. All in all, the Simi Valley, California household was pretty typical.

And then, lightning struck. One day, Roberta Williams witnessed the game Colossal Cave on her husband’s teletype machine. It was a very crude text adventure game, but it captivated our heroine for quite a period of time. It is one of those moments in history when two ideas meet and, as they say, the rest is history.

Roberta Williams didn’t have any experience in computers but had something more. Even when she was a child, she was a great storyteller and entertained her family with fantastic stories, which she called “films”. Ken Williams on the other hand, wasn’t a storyteller, but some computer programming experience. So, they thought, why not make a game of our own?

Rise to fame
The first adventure game by the Williams’ couple was called Mystery House. The story was set in a Victorian Era estate in which the player’s friend was killed. You were tasked with solving the murder case before becoming the next victim. Roberta Williams based the game’s story on her beloved Agatha Christie novels. She drew digital images on a digitizer board while Ken used assembly language to script them. The final game was made to fit on just one floppy disc.

The game was welcomed very warmly by computer gamers who praised its graphics and story. Mystery House was a milestone in adventure games development and it also proved to be a breakthrough for Ken and Roberta Williams. They formed their company On-line Systems (from 1982, Sierra On-line) and started to develop video games full-time.

International success
In the coming two decades Sierra went on to develop many cult adventure games. Let’s mention here the horror mystery trilogy by Jane Jensen - Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within, and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. Thanks to the comedian and musician Al Lowe, Sierra On-line enriched its portfolio with humoresque and slightly erotic game Leisure Suit Larry, and its further installments, like the cult Leisure Suit Larry: Love for Sail! title.

Other great series included Police Quest (the entire collection is DRM-free on GOG.COM), and its tactical spinoff - SWAT. Finally, we have to mention a sci-fi flick called Space Quest with its six parts spanning across the 1980s (parts 1-3) and 1990s (parts 4-6). Yet, in terms of importance for the computer entertaining world, all of them must give way to Roberta Williams’ proud brain-child, namely the King’s Quest series.

The first three parts of the Daventry's royal family saga were in many ways highly innovative. For example, the first King’s Quest game was one of the first point and click games. We could move our main hero, a would-be king Graham, through the fantasy realm while using text commands and a computer mouse. On the other hand, the fantastic third part of the series required the player to count the real-world time to finish some of the puzzles and escape the evil wizard’s mansion.

The further three parts of the series remained in the vanguard of innovative adventure games. For example, the fourth King’s Quest was one of the first video games featuring a female protagonist, namely Princess Rosella. The fifth part of the series had a breakthrough 256-color VGA graphics and icon-based interface. It sold in 500,000 copies - a record unbroken for five years since its release in 1990. Then came King’s Quest VI with its cinema-like main song “Girl in the tower” and great voice actors, like Robby Benson who voiced Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Williams worked with Jane Jensen on this part, paving her way to developing the Gabriel Knight series.

At that time Roberta Williams already had something more ambitious on her mind. She decided to create a unique mix of an adventure horror game and an interactive movie with live actors. That’s why she left much of the work on animated Disney-like King’s Quest VII to Lorelei Shannon, while a few years later leaving the 3D hack n’ slash King's Quest: Mask of Eternity to Mark Seibert.

As Williams stated in her later interview, the whole project was her favorite of all time: “If I could only pick one game, I would pick Phantasmagoria, as I enjoyed working on it immensely and it was so very challenging (and I love to be challenged!)”. The scale of the Phantasmagoria project was very impressive for video games in the early 1990s. To create a realistic horror video game Sierra On-line needed 25 live actors, 500 pages of script and almost 4,5 million dollar budget.

The story about Victoria Morsell, a book author discovering the secrets of an evil mansion was in many ways an opus magnum for Roberta Williams. While working on Phantasmagoria she could use all her love for mystery novels and the experience from other video game projects. For here - it went even further. Now “films” she told her family in childhood were brought to life by actors and a production set that closely resembled Hollywood movies.

At the same time, Roberta Williams became a story consultant for another cult and atmospheric horror game - Shivers. Both Phantasmagoria and Shivers games are available DRM-free on GOG.COM.

Legacy still in the making
In 1999, after two decades of creative work, Roberta Williams decided to retire from the video game business. She has gone on to enjoy a peaceful life reading books, playing video games, and traveling around the world. Occasionally, her huge legacy catches up with her, just like in the case of the mentioned Pioneer Award during the 20th Game Developers Choice Awards.

After retiring, she announced that she’s considering writing a novel. Well, if the book is even half as revolutionary as her games then we can’t wait to read what will almost certainly be an innovative, unique title.
Post edited March 18, 2020 by MichalLeszcz85
When I asked my sister to name some famous Game Designers (in an attempt to make a point that no one knows the Game Designers), she said "Roberta Williams".
It's sad that people feel she didn't have the "passion" other designers did (if that were true, she would never have gotten into making games), or that she doesn't deserve as much recognition because she's retired now.

I can kinda see the cracks in those classics today (as with most 'classics', to be honest), but I grew up on the Sierra games, and they have an unshakeable nostalgia hold on me.
Post edited March 19, 2020 by babark
Nice read, but here's where I swing the comma⸲ and note that while she was indeed a pioneer of adventure games, her designs I would go so far as to say ruined the adventure game industry for a while. I will still raise a fair toast to her.

If it hadn't been for Lucasarts (Esp Ron Gilbert), Cyan, and others, I really don't think the industry would have survived the cooky cloudland of moon logic, walking dead fail states, instant & not so instant death, FMV tripe, and soup can puzzles.
Post edited March 19, 2020 by Darvond
high rated
There aren't that many game developers with whom I'd like to share a hot tub... ;)
I'll raise a toast to Roberta and Ken both. I started with their games back in the '80s and will forever have a love for those games. The two of them brought me through two solid decades of amazing games that I still go back and play. My nieces and nephews are of the age to start playing these games now as well and it's so fun to see the next generation excited to see the colorful environments and light up when they solve a puzzle. Perhaps the Williams couple have left the gaming world behind, but the gaming world can never leave them behind. Thank you for all you've done for the industry and countless individuals around the world.
what a great read, it must be nice to be recognized with honor for your lifes work. all great games, some are on my favorite list
Mystery House would make for a nice freebie addition, if only to preserve it for historical value.
Frank_Booth: "For example, the first King’s Quest game was one of the first point and click games."
That's false. You play with the parser unlike in point and click adventures later where you click on a verb and then click on a thing.
Nevertheless, it was a nice read.
This is true, King's Quest wasn't a point and click game but a parser driven game. It was the firsts adventure game where you could take direct control of the character and make him walk to, around, between and in front of objects on screen (thus Sierra calling their games 3-D adventures).

In general, Sierra Games were technically very advanced and even pushed tech forwards to peoples homes. They were pretty vocal in pushing sound cards for PC users back in the 80s, even partnering up with companies to provide the best possible experience.

But yes, it is nice to see Roberta Williams appreciated. She and Ken really helped to shape the game industry into a noteworthy entertainment business.
Post edited March 19, 2020 by tomimt
Right on, Roberta.

I grew up on Sierra and LucasArts adventure games. While I tend to lean more towards LucasArts games as I oriignally was too 'scared' to screw up Sierra games, I grew to respect and love them more as I got older. I made buying the King's Quest Collection a goal as a teenager.

I don't blame her for being out of the industry. The horror that was Chainsaw Monday has forever haunted anyone that was around for it. Even Sierra devs still in the industry have been stunted since.

For those who don't know the story, Chainsaw Monday is a term coined by Sierra dev Scott Murphy (AKA One of the Guys From Andromeda) where Sierra basically laid off 2/3 of it's workforce, closed a facility and cancelled tons of projects.
Phantasmagoria is an underrated game.
StephenBogan1979: However, I would like to point out that, in KQ6, Robbie Benson was the voice of Alexander, not the Beast. The Beast was Actually voiced by Townsend Coleman, the same as Vizier Al-Hazared.
You misread: they were saying that...
[...] Robby Benson [...] voiced Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
(emphasis added by me; EDIT: separate link to the IMDb page for the above film, because the GOG forums' software is an abominable mess)
...not that he voiced a character called "Beast" in any King's Quest game. :)

EDIT: ...Seriously? A simple apostrophe messed up the descriptive text for the hyperlink? -_-
Post edited March 20, 2020 by HunchBluntley
Darvond: Nice read, but here's where I swing the comma⸲ and note that while she was indeed a pioneer of adventure games, her designs I would go so far as to say ruined the adventure game industry for a while. I will still raise a fair toast to her.

If it hadn't been for Lucasarts (Esp Ron Gilbert), Cyan, and others, I really don't think the industry would have survived the cooky cloudland of moon logic, walking dead fail states, instant & not so instant death, FMV tripe, and soup can puzzles.
I agree.
They did a lot of good work and they both made some iffy decisions but their contribution to PC games cannot be overestimated.
high rated
Coincidentally, I just played through Mystery House a few days before this article was published. The game is in the Public Domain, all you need is an Apple II emulator! It's fascinating to read the story behind how it was created, and difficult to grasp the impact it had. Here's a text-based adventure game with the crudest of parsers and simplistic stick figures, that took me about two hours to finish, yet it made the Williamses about half a million in today's dollars, at a time when computers had barely arrived in people's homes. Incredible.

I'm also a bit sad at the disrespect Ken and Roberta get sometimes. First of all – while I understand the disappointment about how Sierra went under and something similar never really came along again – they don't owe anyone anything. They have their own lives, which are only theirs to live. They seem to have a nice time sailing the world and writing books. It's a bit preposterous to say that they are somehow obligated to stop doing what they enjoy, in order to serve as some kind of figureheads of a bygone era. It's also unfair to say that they don't care about their past work in games, while Ken finances and oversees a website that documents the company and its games in the most excruciating detail.

Ken and Roberta were there for the pioneer days when commercial computer games began. I read somewhere that Ken said they never really felt like they were consciously innovating, they were just around before most others, so pretty much anything they did was new by default. From what it seems like was the atmosphere at Sierra, it was more like a family of passionate creatives doing what they loved, than a business with employees. Sierra was a child of its time, and a studio like it won't exist anymore, because games have moved on to become an enormous industry. The spirit wouldn't come back, even if Ken and Roberta returned.

And the other thing is, looking at the games business today, I can't blame anyone for wanting nothing to do with it. The game development business, and in particular also the gaming community, are much less pleasant place to be in than they were in the 90s.
Very nice article. We need more of these, GOG.
Carradice: Very nice article. We need more of these, GOG.
Yeah, great article. ^_^