The Mystery & Horror of Roberta Williams

Updated on October 24, 2017
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Discover how an iconic arcade game created a feminist revolution in video game history, and the women who made it happen.

Roberta Williams is a well-known name in the gaming community, and for good reason. Her 1980 hit, Mystery House, was the first to combine adventure games and graphics while shattering video game sales records. But that wasn't all Roberta had in store for us. Her career would lead to some of the most integral advances in game development of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as a few horrifying tales...

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Mystery House

Adventure games had pioneered in the 1970s with Colossal Cave Adventure (a.k.a. "Adventure"), developed by Will Crowther for the PDP-10 mainframe computer. These first adventure games had players control characters through simple text commands. Adventure invited players to explore a cave in search of treasure. These were the first works of interactive fiction and the first text adventure games, but they lacked one key element: graphics.

Along came Roberta, who worked with her husband, Ken, to found Sierra On-Line (then known as On-Line Systems). Together, they created a game which featured static vector graphics atop a simple command line interface. Essentially, it was a text adventure with pictures. Players became characters locked inside an abandoned Victorian mansion, left with no other option than to explore and try to escape. Along the way, players would find seven other people who quickly became entangled in a series of strange and deadly events.

Roberta designed, wrote, and illustrated the game while her husband programmed it for the Apple II. Mystery House shattered video game sales records on its debut, selling more than 10,000 copies and quickly becoming a best seller. It would go on to sell over 80,000 units worldwide and inspire several Japanese spin-offs. You can still play the game with this emulator.

Roberta was 26 years old at the time.

Screenshot of Mystery House for the Apple II.
Screenshot of Mystery House for the Apple II. | Source

People Want Adventure

Mystery House began a craze. People loved the game, and wanted more. Other studios quickly began developing graphical adventure games. These developers evolved Roberta's vector graphics into bitmap graphics, which enabled simple animations to show character movement in response to typed commands. Early games that utilized bitmap graphics included Night Life, Danchi Tsuma no Yuwaku (1982), Sherwood Forest (1982), Portopia Serial Murder Case (1983), The Return of Heracles (1983), Masquerade (1983), Transylvania (1982), and Adventure Construction Set (1984).

Eventually, game designers moved away from text interfaces. With the advent of the mouse, game designers took advantage of the new point-and-click abilities to create games such as Enchanted Scepters (1984), which is featured in the play-through video below.

Thanks to Roberta and the work of countless developers after her, the graphical adventure game would expand into beloved classics, such as Myst (1993), and popular games today like the Professor Layton series, Ace Attorney series, Life is Strange, The Walking Dead, and Broken Age.

What Happened to Roberta?

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The success of Mystery House enabled Roberta and Ken to move to Coarsegold, a small mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. There, near her parents' apple orchard, they opened the first real office of On-Line Systems. They continued developing games, and their biggest hit came in 1984 with the release of King's Quest. Roberta had pioneered another step in game development, as King's Quest was the first animated 3D adventure game and featured a "large expansive world" that could be explored by players.

In an interview with Adventure Classic Gaming, Roberta said that the game was inspired by her enjoyment of old fairy tales:

I read them and re-read them. Therefore, when thinking about designing a game, I naturally gravitated to what I liked and felt comfortable with. I felt comfortable with the idea of fairy tales, and so put that passion into my game of King's Quest.

Ken and Roberta Williams pose with their game, King's Quest.
Ken and Roberta Williams pose with their game, King's Quest. | Source
Screenshot of King's Quest.
Screenshot of King's Quest. | Source

Roberta created many other games for Sierra On-Line, including Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1987), The Colonel's Bequest (1989), and Phantasmagoria (1995). Through it all, Roberta kept her focus on the story, as she recounted in a 2006 interview:

“In my day, when creating a new adventure game, my first thoughts, before even thinking about any ‘framework’ were: What is the story? Who are the characters, especially the main character? What is he/she trying to do, i.e., what is the quest? In what sort of ‘world or land’ is this game going to be played? In other words, I always thought first of the story, characters, and game world. I needed to understand those before I could even think about any game framework, ‘engine,’ or interface.”

The Case of Phantasmagoria

Notably, Phantasmagoria became Sierra's best-selling computer game to date. It grossed over $12 million and sold 300,000 units during its first weekend of release. Yet the game also inspired controversy, as it featured significant violence and a rape scene. This led many retailers in Australia to ban the game, and multiple groups advocated for retailers to boycott it.

Phantasmagoria jewel case cover.
Phantasmagoria jewel case cover. | Source

Despite the controversy, Phantasmagoria won the Golden Triad Award from Computer Game Review, an Editor's Choice Award from PC Gamer, Best Adventure Game of the Year from Games Magazine, and Game of the Month by Windows Magazine. In a 2006 interview, Roberta addressed the controversy and why she created the game:

“I felt like I wanted to do something a bit different, plus, I happen to find the horror genre interesting and wanted to experiment with it as an adventure game. I had always been intrigued by the emotional aspect of adventure gaming – the fact that people get so personally involved – and so, I wanted to see if that emotionality could be translated to horror as well. In fact, in order for horror to succeed the player needs to be passionate and committed.

[…]

So, in creating Phantasmagoria, I needed a character (Adrienne) who would be very empathetic to most people; most women would relate to her, and most men would want to protect her. However, she also had to become strong and to survive horrific circumstances. It's not easy, in fact, I would say downright impossible, to portray horrendous circumstances without terrible things happening. If I had tried to candy-coat the story or 'back off' a little, the story of Phantasmagoria wouldn't have worked and it would have been a terrible flop. As it was, it was the most successful game that we had developed up to that point (1994). It sold more than a million copies in less than a year, which, in those days, was phenomenal.”

Games and Violence

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Legacy

Roberta's games won numerous awards, and a special tribute was paid to her with The Roberta Williams Anthology released in 1997. She retired from Sierra in 1999, and began a life of travel with her family. In 2011, she consulted on the design of Facebook's Odd Manor with KingX Studios.

In her 20-year career, Roberta created the first graphical adventure game, the first animated 3D adventure game, and inspired countless others. She also became the first woman to achieve critical success as a game designer, developer, and publisher. GameSpot named her as #10 in their list of the most influential people in computer gaming, and credited her for being "especially proactive in creating games from a woman's point of view" with titles that appealed to the mainstream market and integrated the latest technologies.

As for Roberta's take on it, I'll leave you with this:

Games by Roberta

(click column header to sort results)
Title  
Year of Release  
Mystery House
1980
Wizard and the Princess
1980
Mission Asteroid
1981
Time Zone
1982
The Dark Crystal
1983
King's Quest I: Quest for the Crown
1984
Mickey's Space Adventure
1984
King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne
1985
King's Quest III: The Heir is Human
1986
King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella
1988
Mixed-Up Mother Goose
1987
Laura Bow: The Colonel's Bequest
1989
King's Quest V:
Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!
King's Quest 1: Quest for the Crown (Remake)
1990
Mixed-Up Mother Goose Multimedia
1990
Laura Bow in the Dagger of Amon Ra
1992
King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow
1992
King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride
1994
Mixed-Up Mother Goose Deluxe
1994
Phantasmagoria
1995
Shivers
1995
King's Quest: Mask of Eternity
1998
Odd Manor
2014

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