From floppy disks to the crowdfunding revolution, adventure RPG pioneers Lori and Corey Cole have seen it all
The first two Quest for Glory games enjoyed the doubled-up input options of a text parser as well as a rudimentary point-and-click interface. You could right-click on a tree or a moose head to examine it, and sometimes be rewarded with a paragraph of pun-soaked description. But you could also reach over to your keyboard and start typing CLIMB TREE or GET MOOSE.
Some things could only be handled via text, like conversation. Shortcut keys made this less agonizing to use than it sounds. Ctrl-A was “ask about” so if you wanted to ask a centaur farmer about brigand attacks in the region you’d type “Ctrl-A brigands” and they’d tell you what they knew. Ctrl-T was “tell about”, but people rarely cared what you told them. Most conversational progress was made by asking. There’s probably a lesson there.
The Quest for Glory games were originated by the wife-and-husband duo of Lori and Corey Cole between 1989 and 1998, who returned to videogames in 2018 with Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, followed by the Summer Daze visual novels, all funded via Kickstarter. Over the years they’ve been part of so many innovations in the way games are made and played, I feel like all I need to do is hit Ctrl-A and type “CD-ROM replacing floppy disk” or “transition from dungeon crawls to narrative RPGs” to get a chapter of history out of them.
Quest for Glory came about because Richard Garriot left Sierra and took the Ultima series with him. Sierra had published Ultima 2: The Revenge of the Enchantress in 1982, which had a time-travel gimmick but was mostly about killing people who were in your way. Sierra was known for adventure games, but wanted to keep its hand in the RPG market as well. The Coles were expected to make a game like Ultima 2, only using the Sierra Creative Interpreter—the same toolset used to make King’s Quest 4.
“I spent that first year working with the internals of the SCI system,” Corey explains, “and I said, ‘We could do an Ultima game, but your system isn’t really suitable for it. Why don’t we try what we do at the roleplaying table? Because we don’t play all-combat games, we have storytelling games and your adventure games are a lot like that.'”
The end result was 1989’s Hero’s Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero (as it was known before a videogame version of the HeroQuest board game necessitated a renaming to Quest for Glory). Hero’s Quest had stats and skills that went up as you used them, and three playable classes: fighter, magic user, and thief. It had puzzles that could sometimes be solved by using your skills rather than combining a rubber chicken with a fake mustache or whatever, a non-linear story you stumbled across as you explored the woods around the town of Spielburg, and the option to export your character at the end to bring them back for the sequel just like you were playing a D&D campaign.
Hard limits and soft disks
Though they conceived Hero’s Quest as a way to take advantage of SCI’s strengths, at first the Coles struggled to make the engine do what they wanted. “I had to rewrite the entire game because I had no clue of how to correctly do it with our engines and things,” Lori says. A lead programmer eventually sat down and detailed everything they couldn’t get away with. “Our games were always so much more complex than anybody else’s,” Lori continues, “because I want to give the player as many options as [possible] and be free rather than have them follow my directions to figure out what the game is. Our games probably would not have been created by any other company than Sierra because Sierra never, never took a look at what we were trying to accomplish and realized, ‘Oh, this thing is too expensive and a waste of time.'”
Corey is quick to butt in to mention one time someone at Sierra did shut down their ideas, however. While Hero’s Quest let the player choose a class, each of which could approach problems in different ways, the original plan was more ambitious. Rather than being limited to just a male human, they wanted players to be able to choose whether they were a man or woman, as well as a species like human, gnome, or centaur, with each one attached to a specific class. Programming manager Bob Heitman nixed that idea.
Corey explains. “First thing Bob said is, ‘OK, let’s look at this first scene. You have Spielburg, you’ve got some steps going up to a building. Have you thought about what will happen with our animation system if you try to animate a quadruped character going up those steps? It’ll be a disaster or look like hell. And you can’t just flip it around to have them come down the steps. It’s a different motion.’ He said forget the centaur. Then as far as the male and female character, he says, ‘OK, for every action you have, whether you’re climbing or throwing or picking something up, you need to have double the sets of animation.’ And most of that animation had to go on every floppy disk in the game, because a lot of players back then still actually played directly off the floppies without loading it on a hard drive.”
Get lamp, drop parser
Which is why the text parser eventually had to go. While 1990’s Quest for Glory 2: Trial By Fire kept the combination of mouse and keyboard controls, and was able to understand verbs like mount, dismount, sneak, sit, stand, search, jump, climb, oil, and bargain, by the time Quest for Glory 3: Wages of War and a VGA remake of the first game came out in 1992, both could be played purely point-and-click.
“The PC architecture was segmented, it could only address 64k memory at a time,” Corey remembers. “That got to really be a problem because there wasn’t enough memory for all the stuff that was in the engine of the game, the text parser and stuff like that, as well as the graphics. Something had to go. About a third of SCI was the code for the text parser, so by stripping that out they made enough room to fit in the graphics.”
What’s more, Sierra co-founder Ken Williams had a plan to expand the market for adventure games. With an interface that no longer required the keyboard, they could move beyond the desktop audience. “By putting in the point-and-click interface, he killed two birds with one stone, freeing up memory for the graphics, and making it so it’d be compatible with consoles.” Not that anything came of it. As Corey found out when tasked with porting games to Sega CD, they had a smaller color space than expected. “It wasn’t enough, so we couldn’t really do a conversion to that.”
Text parsers had connected graphical adventures to their text-based predecessors, games like Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork. While they could be frustrating when they didn’t recognize a command, at their best they allowed for a sense of being seen, of typing something you didn’t expect to get a response and having a moment of delight when it did. Whether you were swearing, trying an inventive solution, or just being silly, it added a sense of playful exploration.
Among many odd things Hero’s Quest would respond to was the input “Pick Nose”, which made you insert a lockpick in your nasal cavity and start digging around. If you were unlucky you’d pierce your brain and die. If you lived, you’d be told your nose was now open and receive a boost to the lockpicking skill.
The parser also made conversation feel active. You had to pay attention, make note of things people said that you could ask about next or bring up when talking to somebody else. When you thought to ask an NPC about an unusual topic and were rewarded with a relevant answer, you felt like a genius. By comparison, clicking on the options in dialogue trees can feel rote, and it’s easier to find your attention drifting as you work your way through the checklist.
There were other benefits too. “It was much easier to create puzzles with the parser,” Lori says, “because you didn’t have to feed the player answers all of the time.” Without the parser, that changed. “You had to actually give the player a choice of possibilities, and one of those choices would be the answer. It became a multiple-choice thing rather than an essay question.”
Lori is a teacher when she’s not a game developer, in case you couldn’t tell. She’s also a proponent of games being accessible and immersive, and for those reasons ultimately came down in favor of the parser’s removal. “Our whole philosophy of games is that the game should be invisible, and you’re immersed in the world,” she says. “The problem with a parser game is you’re playing Guess the Parser. What are the words it understands? How do I phrase this? You’re constantly playing against the computer so you’re not immersed in the world. You’re trying to guess words. Going to the point-and-click style actually was more in keeping with our general philosophy.”
After dealing with struggles brought about by the limited size of floppy disks, the next problem they faced must have seemed ironic. The 3½-inch floppy with its 1.44 MB of storage space was replaced by the CD-ROM, the first of which had a capacity of 533 MB, and was soon replaced by models with capacities of 650 or 700 MB.
“People felt they had to fill all that space,” Corey says. “Which is probably stupid, but they said, ‘OK, now we can make the art 24-bit.’ And they said, ‘OK, we still have a lot of blank space. Why don’t we use voice acting?’ It was amazingly empowering, and at the same time really drove the game budgets into the stratosphere.”
The Coles’ first experience of this came with the re-release of Quest for Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness in 1994. Published a year after the floppy version, it was fully voiced by a cast that included Jennifer Hale in her first videogame role, with John Rhys-Davies as the narrator. The thing was, its narration and object descriptions hadn’t been written to be read aloud. They’d been written in the typically baroque and sometimes pun-drowned verbiage that had become Quest for Glory’s trademark. It gives you the wonderful experience of having John Rhys-Davies as your Dungeon Master, describing every passageway and chamber you find, but took him weeks to get through.
“He really had a great time doing it,” Corey’s quick to emphasize. “He was amazing to work with, but the thing was that he had scheduled a vacation, in Catalina I think, for two weeks after the recording started or something like that. He thought he would, based on the number of lines—well, a line in a Saturday morning cartoon is like, ‘Look over there!’ and a line in Quest for Glory is a paragraph. Once he started doing it he realized how long those lines were. First of all, his agent got in, renegotiated the price. Second, John did not want to miss his vacation, so he started figuring out ways that you could do this faster.”
Having begun in the usual methodical way, recording each description or paragraph of narration separately, he sped things up, Krusty the Clown-style (opens in new tab). “He started reading through the entire script with just a brief pause between each line,” Corey says, “and we had to scramble to catch up.”
The early days of videogame voice acting were a learning experience for everyone, but the make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach had advantages. Like the possibility of literally making it up as they went along. There’s an infamous scene in Quest for Glory 4 where you talk to three farmers, in which the voice actors decided to spice things up a little in the booth.
“It’s hilarious that that’s what everyone remembers, because it is such a small part of the game,” Cory says. It’s a brief introductory scene in which the brothers Hans, Franz, and Ivan—the local pumpkin and corn farmer, garlic farmer, and elephant herder respectively—spend an evening at Hotel Mordavia answering the player’s questions about goings-on in the area.
“Usually you had each actor in the studio by themselves for their session,” Corey says, “but Stu [Rosen, voice director] decided, since this was an ensemble scene, to bring those three actors in together. Then he asked them, ‘Do you do any impressions?’ One of the guys said, ‘Yeah, I can do a Jack Nicholson.’ At which point another guy chimed in and said, ‘I do a Jack Nicholson too!’ Stu’s like, ‘We can’t have two Jack Nicholsons.’ I thought about it and said, ‘These guys are brothers, and they’re just far enough apart. Let’s go with it.’ So we have two Jack Nicholsons and I think Rodney Dangerfield is the third one.”
Reading along with the subtitles, you’ll notice the trio also embellished the script somewhat. “They got into it and they said, ‘Well, these lines are good, but do you mind if we improvise a little bit?’ Stu says, ‘Ask the talent.’ That was me, I said, ‘Sure, give it a try. Let’s see what you can do with it.’ They just started having more and more fun with those lines. We decided to leave the original script in the text, but use their lines as the voice.”
The power of the crowd
Though Quest for Glory 4 ended with a lead-in to a fifth game in the series, the finale almost didn’t get made. When Sierra downsized in the mid-90s, the Coles were laid off. It took fans staging a mail-in campaign complaining about the lack of a conclusion to make Sierra bring them back for 1998’s Quest for Glory 5: Dragon Fire. Though it embraced 3D graphics and emphasized combat more, it was considered another point-and-click adventure game at a time they’d become seen as dated. This was the same year Sierra published Half-Life, and two years later, Lucasarts would release one last Monkey Island, then pivot to exclusively making Star Wars games.
The Coles left adventure RPGs behind until the same fans who’d once pestered Sierra began pestering them in 2012, emailing and even tracking down their phone number to tell them about Double Fine’s crowdfunding success. The Kickstarter for Double Fine Adventure, which became Broken Age, had smashed past a goal of $400,000 and continued to a total of over $3.3 million. Fans thought another Quest for Glory could be a similar hit. Since Sierra owned the rights to Quest for Glory, the Coles pitched another idea, a game called Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, with the same target as Double Fine’s.
“Our first Kickstarter we asked for $400,000 and everybody thought we were insane,” Corey says. “They said, ‘You’ll never get that.’ We came very close to not getting it. At the last, I think, four hours of the campaign it finally broke that.” Another Kickstarter followed, adding an extra $100,000 to Hero-U’s budget to help cover the costs of rebooting development to make it more explicitly the spiritual sequel to Quest for Glory fans wanted. Even with that extra cash, the Coles still had to take out a home equity loan and draw on their retirement money to finish it.
When Hero-U released in 2018, the adventure RPG didn’t find much of an audience beyond the uber-fans who’d already backed it. Plans for a sequel were shelved in favor of another Kickstarter for a more modestly budgeted visual novel in the same setting.
Beneath Hero-U you can find a tomb labeled “Point and Click Adventure Games. 1983–1995.” The tombstone has a picture of a sad owl carrying a toilet plunger and an equally sad skull next to a floppy disk and a CD-ROM. It’s a gag about the endless discourse around “the death of the adventure game”, and while revivalist point-and-clicks haven’t found the success they enjoyed in the 1990s, others have finally followed the Coles’ example of trying to recreate the tabletop experience in a videogame. That same inspiration drives games like Disco Elysium, Citizen Sleeper, The Forgotten City, and Pentiment, all of which combine adventure and roleplaying in different ways.
“My lecture used to be that the early computers didn’t have enough power to both do D&D combat and roleplaying as well as D&D storytelling and character stuff,” says Corey. “The game is split into two tracks. What we tried to do with Hero’s Quest was to bring them back and put the roleplaying and adventure together in one game again. To us, it wasn’t that much of an innovation. We were just doing what we did at the tabletop, but for the computer game industry it was pretty new.”