The Wizard's Tower

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

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Welcome to The Wizard’s Tower, a regular Retro Now feature covering the history and development of computer ‘adventure games’, and the games themselves. In each episode, the Wizard opens his Book of Lore to look at a different aspect of adventure gaming, as well as reviewing individual games from time to time. This time around, after an extended hiatus for health and family reasons, the Wizard returns once more to the top of his Tower, and takes up his scrying glass for a look at the next step in this most historic form of game.

In his last article, the Wizard looked back through the Mysts of Tyme to shed a flickering light on what is probably the best-known commercial adventure game series based on the concepts originated in Colossal Cave – Zork and its sequels from the mighty ‘interactive fiction’ developers, Infocom. But it was to be another company entirely who would be first to make the jump to what would become the next standard, the ‘graphic adventure’ game – and onto the next page in the Wizard’s Book of Lore…

Mystery House title screen

Mystery House title screen

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and while that might be a bit of an exaggeration, the basic principle holds true in gaming as well as in art. Both as a way of adding content to a game, and excitement, as well as giving a commercial edge to whichever game might have the best graphics, the addition of artwork to a basic text adventure was to become a very popular development in gaming, especially amongst those gamers who were less likely to be grabbed by the excitement of a pithy paragraph of puzzles. But of course, graphics are highly dependent upon the sophistication of the computer displaying them, and early machines either had no, or very limited, graphics. And there was also a greater need for memory and storage. As in so many other games, therefore, this kind of game was to be pioneered on the Apple II.

The beginning of On-Line Systems

The first ever graphic adventure game, Mystery House, was created by husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams for the Apple II range of computers. Mystery House was the first in a long line of classics from what was to become another of the early giant companies in adventure gaming, On-Line Systems, later Sierra On-Line Inc, founded by the Williams couple in 1979. The game was designed, written and illustrated by Roberta and programmed by Ken, and was published in 1980.

Ken and Roberta Williams with one of their most famous games, King's Quest (courtesy

Ken and Roberta Williams with one of their most famous games, King’s Quest (courtesy

At the end of the 1970s, Ken Williams had become determined to set up a company for enterprise software for the Apple II computer, which by then was dominating the market. One day, he took a teletype terminal to his home so that he would work on developing an accounting program, and while searching through a catalogue he discovered Colossal Cave Adventure. Ken and Roberta played it all the way through and after completing it, they were so enthused that they decided to look for something similar, but there was very little. In a light-bulb moment, they decided that their future would be in creating adventure games.

Roberta Williams was keen on the concept of text adventures, but rapidly came to the conclusion that if it were possible to add graphic images, the player’s experience could be considerably enhanced. Thinking about this, she pondered on the idea of designing her own game, and conceived Mystery House, the first ever graphical adventure game, which was based on a detective story inspired by legendary crime writer Agatha Christie’s ‘whodunit tale’, And Then There Were None.

Getting the picture
At the Mystery House itself

At the Mystery House itself

Amazingly, once Roberta had created seventy simple four-colour, two-dimensional drawings upon which the ground-breaking new game would be based, Ken Williams took just a few nights to program the game itself on his Apple II. The top section of the screen displayed the pictures, and the game text itself ran in four text-mode lines at the bottom of the screen.

When it first went on sale, Mystery House was packed in individual Ziploc bags, each containing a 5¼-inch floppy disk plus a photocopied sheet describing the game. It was sold in local software shops in Los Angeles County, and to the amazement of the couple, the game was hugely successful, rapidly becoming a best-seller at US$24.95. Eventually, the game’s sales rocketed to a then-record 10,000 plus copies.

Despite the fact that Ken believed that games would be less of a growth market than professional software, he stuck with games, which is just as well as it turned out. On-Line Systems became Sierra On-Line in 1982, and so another gaming legend was born.

The mystery of Mystery House
In the old, dusty library

In the old, dusty library

The game itself, which is relatively simple, begins outside an abandoned Victorian mansion. Climbing the steps to the door and entering, the player soon finds themself locked inside the house with no obvious escape and no other option but to explore. The mansion itself is full of intriguing rooms, and besides the player, seven other characters: Dr. Green, the surgeon; Sally, the seamstress; Tom, the plumber; Joe, the gravedigger; Sam, the mechanic; Daisy, the cook and Bill, the butcher.

Sally the seamstress is not looking well...

Sally the seamstress is not looking well…

To begin with, the player’s task is to search all over the house to discover a hidden treasure of jewels, but before long, sinister events begin to take place, and he/she comes across dead bodies from amongst the other characters in the game. Clearly, a murderer is on the prowl in the mystery house, and the player must find out who and where the antagonist is, or become the next corpse on the list…

Freshly dug graves at the cemetery. Is one of them yours?

Freshly dug graves at the cemetery. Is one of them yours?

The legacy of the Mystery House

Amazingly, but perhaps not suprisingly, being the first of its kind, Mystery House went on to sell as many as eighty thousand copies around the globe, starting a new fashion in gaming.

Although dungeon-crawler games had already begun to use graphics before its release, graphic adventure games were a new concept and went on to become one of the favourite modes of interactive fiction during the home computer revolution of the early 1980s-90s, appearing on pretty much every home micro of the day, with varying degrees of quality depending upon the technical capabilities of the host machine.

Mystery House was re-released in 1982 through the SierraVenture line, which re-produced a number of early Sierra games until 1983. In 1987, the game was released into the public domain as part of Sierra’s seventh anniversary celebration.

Various other games, inspired by Mystery House, went on to borrow the concept and in some cases the title, even paying tribute to the original in some ways, including a number of Japanese games. Remarkably, Mystery House made a surprise return in 2009 when the game company Artsiness recreated it for mobile devices using Apple’s iOS, coming full circle. It remains one of the most historic games ever made.

Notice from the public domain version

Notice from the public domain version

The history of Sierra On-Line, in its many and various changing guises over the next few decades, is a fascinating one, which we will return to another time. Suffice to say, for the moment, that it became one of the biggest and most valuable companies of its kind, producing some of the best-loved adventure games of all time, and in 1996 was sold when Ken and Roberta Williams decided to retire. Today, Sierra is an Activision Publishing Ltd brand.

Be ye an adventurer bold?

The Wizard would love to hear about your favourite adventures, past and present, and invites you to comment below. He is also on the lookout for newly published retro adventure games, so please do contact him if you are a developer looking for a review!

Next time, the Wizard will cast his scrying glass over the next step in the graphic adventure concept, the ever-popular ‘Point-and-Click game’, some of the most popular and well-known of which were eventually developed by Sierra On-Line and LucasArts…

Meanwhile, why not have a wander over to MobyGames and check out their Mystery House page?

Or visit The Sierra Help Pages and pick up a version for emulation on your PC?

And play Mystery House on your iPhone?

If you dare, adventurer, you might even visit the website of the original creators of Mystery House and subsequent games, – and reminisce with them about the old, bold days of adventure gaming…



Contact The Wizard

You can contact The Wizard, Stuart Williams, by dragon messenger, by smoke signal, or by email to:



Wizard’s Tower picture used courtesy of Greg Blake:





2 comments for “A Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

  1. 23rd October 2016 at 9:56 pm

    Greetings Wizard! Nice article. Some of my favs were Infocom’s Zork series though without the cheat guides were nearly impossible. Don’t know what happened to them. Then I moved on to Sierra’s SQ and KQ series…SQ1 -2 and KQ 4 are probably my fav of Sierra’s

    • Stuart Williams
      23rd October 2016 at 9:59 pm

      Thank you, kind sir! All Infocoms are classics, IMHO. Sierra’s are very worthy, also. 🙂

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