I just spent the better part of an hour waxing nostalgic over a 16 year-old video game. It was called "Laura Bow in: The Dagger of Amon Ra" - part of a series of murder mystery games put out by Sierra, the reigning king of adventure games back in the late '80s through the early 90's. They were responsible for all the games in the (all excellent in their own right) "King's Quest," "Space Quest," "Hero's Quest," (later renamed Quest For Glory) and "Police Quest" series. You might be thinking that the Laura Bow game doesn't quite fit in with the pattern you see in all the other games. The first game in the series was actually called "The Colonel's Bequest," believe it or not. It sounds like a dare that someone (or someones) at the company just took way too far.
Anyways, so yeah, this game came out towards the end of Sierra's heyday. It featured fancy 16 bit graphics, eventually came out on a CD-ROM (bye bye floppy disks!) and was one of the first games I remember featuring voice acting. I must have played it through it probably at least 10 times. Because I won't be able to write or remember a better synopsis than wikipedia, I'll just copy and paste it:
"The game is set primarily in a museum circa the 1920s, and reflects the Egyptology craze of the period. The protagonist is Laura Bow (a pun on Clara Bow), a Southern belle who has just graduated from Tulane University and moved to New York City, where she has landed a job at a prestigious newspaper. For her first assignment, she is asked to write a straightforward, lightweight story on a benefit held at a local museum to celebrate their new Egyptian exhibit. When a murder occurs during the party, however, she is locked inside with all of the other suspects. As other guests begin dying one by one, Laura must solve the numerous crimes occurring before the culprits escape or kill her."
Now I won't go in plot details beyond what's listed there, mostly because I vaguely remember any of them, but what I do remember is the incredible sense of wonder and curiosity I got while playing the game. For anyone who's ever enjoyed a really good murder mystery novel, movie, show, or anything, I would like to state for the record here and now that the experience of playing this game trumps that of just about any narrated story, through any medium. And here's why: I experienced the mystery as an active participant, and it was actually MY job to solve it. I started off here (and please, remember this was cutting edge back in '92):
...and from there took off into an exciting, intricately layered plot involving murder, deception, danger and of course, a little bit of romance. The environments, the characters, such a wonderful world created for me to explore. And explore it I did - even if it was simply the size of a museum. Think about how much fun you could have if you had the halls of any museum to yourself to explore and examine. I even remember a lot of the music from the game, though video game music (especially in the MIDI days) is almost always best simply remembered, and not looked up and re-listened to. Doing that just kind of...sullies the memory.
The first time I went through the game I was an exceptionally poor detective. I coasted through the entire story, investigating only what seemed obvious, and by the end I actually had no clue who the culprit was. You see, at the end of the game you pull off the villain's hood but don't see his/her face, you're then asked a series of questions by the police asking if you (the player) have pieced things together. Which I hadn't. So I guessed, got everything wrong, got the bad ending where poor Laura Bow is killed in her sleep by the now freed killer with a tommy gun, and I restarted, with the resolve to get things right next time.
All the clues were there for me to find, if I was willing to dig. I could interrogate everyone, ask them questions about everyone and everything (to - as my investigation and inventory grew - an increasingly ridiculous degree - "Dr. Carrington, what do you know about this corned beef sandwich I've been carrying around since Act I?"), investigate every inch of the museum, grab everything that wasn't nailed to the wall, and when I took a wrong turn and wound up getting my head chopped off, reload an old saved game and see if I could get things right the next time around.
Even death was part of the experience. Like those great "Choose Your Own Adventures" back in the day, these adventure games were all about taking risks and seeing where they would take you. To say nothing of the action! In your average detective story, at some point the exhausted, overworked investigator is going to get "too close to the truth" and someone's going to try to take him out. Well, the whole final act of the game has you attempting to escape the masked killer - and now, say what you want about what I'm about to say*, but by the end of this game I was fully invested in this experience - Laura's Bow life and safety was my own, and I was tense as all hell as I ran through the halls of the Museum of Natural History circa 1926 trying to save my hide.
But by far the greatest moment in the game came when you extract that final nugget of information you need to solve the big mystery. And it doesn't come about like it does in the movies - where the protagonist suddenly stares into the distance for a second and pieces everything together, and you, as the audience member, have the blinders removed, allowing you to see the truth for the first time (unless you make the choice early on that it was totally Gary Sinise* the whole time). You do the sleuthing, so you really do figure it out on your own. In theory. In reality, maybe you're 13 years old at the time, and maybe you get stuck, and maybe you feel like you're never going to figure it out on your own and so you maybe decide to consult a strategy guide. But I totally figured out some of the smaller, inconsequential mysteries on my own!
Sure, the game is set up in such a way that you have to go through certain motions in the plot. You can't start the game, immediately accuse the murderer (even before he's done the deed) and complete the game in 10 minutes, although that would be kinda fun. But even with those kinds of limitations in place, I honestly think that video games are THE perfect medium for truly immersive entertainment experiences like these. There's no better feeling than solving a mystery/puzzle/humdinger on your own, especially in a fully realized, fleshed out world that the creators have clearly spent an enormous amount of time orchestrating.
Laura Bow in: The Dagger of Amon Ra was a fine example of why I truly love playing video games, and will continue to play them starting in....god, 148 more days!??! That many still?!?!
Yeah, but I'd still rather be playing: Braid, a cerebral spin on the classic platformer. They say it involves a time-altering twist:
*Dork! There, I said it for you.
*Is it just me, or was he the "starts off as an ally/friend, but by the end is the villain" in an inordinate amount of movies in the late 90's/early 00's?