PQ4: End

pq4-endDaryl F. Gates died of cancer on April 16, 2010, three days before I started playing Police Quest 4. He was 83.

One of the biggest differences between games and real life is that games can end in victory. PQ4, as expected, ends in a moment of triumph for player character Detective Carey, his heroism in facing down the serial killer formally recognized in a ceremony where he’s given a medal by Daryl Gates himself, even if that heroism was only necessary because he deliberately put himself in a position of danger without requesting backup, and the end result was killing a man instead of making an arrest. Sonny Bonds is somewhere shaking his head sadly, but that’s the world we’re in by the end. Procedure has failed us. It’s cowboy time. The strange part is that the writers don’t seem to realize that this is what’s happening. Even in the endgame, you can get extra points by taking notes about your discoveries.

Or maybe not. It seems to me that the ending is open to another interpretation — one that would be more plausible if the game credited David Lynch or Hideo Kojima as its celebrity figurehead, but one that’s compelling enough to describe here. This will involve spoiling the ending completely, if anyone cares.

Now, recall that the victims were poisoned. The evidence about how the poison was administered was a little confusing — the autopsy reports mentioned puncture marks, as if the victim had received an injection, but also talked about the gastrointestinal tract being ruptured, which seems more consistent with an orally administered poison. Towards the end, there’s a point where you’re talking to a suspect — one Mitchell Thurman, a Norman Bates actalike who runs a dingy art cinema, apparently all by himself — and, just after you tell him that you’re investigating a murder, he offers you some tea. Taking it seems like a really bad idea, but, as with many really bad ideas, the game doesn’t provide the option of not doing it. He also offers you a free movie screening, and the end result is that you doze off in the empty theater — some images of Thurman in drag against a black background are shown, and it’s not clear if this is the movie you were watching or a dream/hallucination/premonition. Regardless, Thurman wakes you up and tells you to get out of there.

Shortly afterward, the character of the game changes — it becomes more adventure-game-like, less concerned with talking to people and more concerned with using objects on objects in sometimes unlikely combinations. (It even briefly turns into a Room Escape game, complete with first-person view and right-angle turns by mousing to the edges of the screen. This was a year before the genre-defining Crimson Room and its explosion of imitators, so, as with the proto-Dating Sim in QfG5, Sierra was anticipating things to come.) On returning to the cinema though an unlikely route, you find an unconscious woman in the seat where you fell asleep. She’s shortly taken away by Thurman, who’s wearing the same dress as in the dream sequence, and only swift action on Carey’s part saves her from becoming one more victim. (We know she’s still alive because the award ceremony at the end mentions five victims, and that’s how many have been found up to that point.)

So, what we learn from this is that Thurman’s MO involves sedating people so that they fall asleep watching movies. This is in fact what he did to Carey. So why didn’t he go through with killing him? I suppose we’re supposed to interpret his dress-up act as indicating a split personality, like in Psycho, so the Thurman who tells you to get away genuinely doesn’t want you to die, and fears what will happen when she comes out. But I have another explanation: Nothing that happens after you sit down in that darkened cinema is real. It’s all the hallucinations caused by the poisoned tea. It explains so much, and it gives the game that noir twist that I was craving in my last post. It also provides fuel for speculation. The idea that the killer is a transvestite isn’t entirely the product of Carey’s subconscious — there’s some evidence suggesting it — but the fact that his hallucination puts a woman in the place of his own unconscious body suggests gender issues of some sort. “Carey”, as one NPC points out, sounds like “Carrie”, a female name.

But as fun as it is to pursue this line of thought, I have to ask what Tim Rogers asked about Metal Gear Solid 2: Did the author intend to make the game this way? And I have to admit that I don’t think so, because I don’t think anything about this game came out as intended. Despite crediting Gates as the author, PQ4 credits Tammy Dargan as designer and writer. What that leaves for the author to do, I can’t fathom. I can’t say anything for sure about PQ4‘s development process, but this confusion of responsibility really seems like the sort of thing you’d expect in a rudderless project, where different developers are trying to take it in different directions. And that’s my impression of the game overall. There’s all this infrastructure to support investigation of a sort that just doesn’t happen — the lab reports that never come, the evidence room where you can successfully turn in one piece of evidence in the whole game, the evidence-collection toolkit that’s mainly used in that room-escape sequence at the end. It reminds me of jokes I made about doing a videogame adaptation of the movie Jarhead: it would have the most awesome tutorial ever, where you learn all sorts of devastating combo moves and the like, and then the main game would consist of sitting in a featureless desert without an enemy to fight for twenty hours.

PQ4: Story

I haven’t said much about the story of Police Quest 4 yet. Let’s rectify that.

The main plot is a hunt for a serial killer. The victims, including two cops, are found at accelerating intervals, naked and mutilated, with signs of poisoning. The specific poison is not identified by autopsy — every time a new victim is found, you get to hear the coroner make excuses for this, asserting that there are thousands of poisons, and tests for only a few of them. And in general, lab results tend to be promised and then forgotten about: “We’re analyzing the fibers found on the body”, you’re told, and that’s the last you hear about it. Obvious suspects crop up, and you find evidence pointing at them, only to have it not pan out, leaving you at square one until a new body shows up. Overall, it has a strong sense of futility, although that’s probably not what the author intended.

Although maybe it is. Some parts of the game seem like cries of frustration — the recurring annoyance with the media, for example, personified by a TV reporter who blames the police for not protecting the public. Similarly, one of the bodies is found on the grounds of a famous rapper’s mansion (the author clearly doesn’t get rap, and the player is expected to not get it too), and the rapper actually accuses the cops of dumping the body there in order to ruin his reputation and hurt his sales. (A strange thing to say, considering the lengths that some rappers have gone to in order to cultivate a criminal reputation.) And of course your boss has harsh words for you every time someone else complains about you doing your job. Everyone has it in for you, even though everything you do is really for their own good. It’s a little like an Ayn Rand novel in that respect, except with a greater sense of social responsibility. If anything in the game is a deliberate expression of Daryl Gates’ conscious worldview, it’s this sense of persecution.

And yet, when the player character has his “I’m through with this crap” moment, it’s not a reaction to the hate, but to the bureaucracy. Which is strange for a game that so fetishizes paperwork, but I’m assuming that this is simply inherited from the previous Police Quest games, and not part of the author’s message. At one point, you need some DNA evidence analyzed, while the room where you’d normally check in evidence at HQ is closed. And so you have to take it directly to the morgue, where the PC delivers an impassioned speech about how we can’t afford these delays while the killer could strike again at any moment. The game frequently gates stuff by closing other offices arbitrarily, but in this one instance, it seems to be aware of how frustrating this is. 1You actually have to wait for elevators in the HQ building. At first I thought this made some sense as a way to encourage you to spend most of your time in the field and only come back to HQ when you have something specific to do there, and that may have been the intention, but the unpredictability of where you have to go in order to advance the story interferes with any such planning on the player’s part. At any rate, the only apparent result is a reprimand for not following procedure. As usual, evidence submitted for analysis is never mentioned again.

I half-suspect that I’m missing out on some way of getting information that the game expects me to have — particularly when I’m asked at one point whether the killer is a man or a woman, and have to answer on the basis of no hard evidence. But then, this is a game that generally makes progress contingent on receiving exposition, so I doubt it. More likely there were infodumps cut in order to meet a deadline.

Meanwhile, there are other crimes, including a neo-nazi hate criminal at one point that seems plainly included as a doomed-to-failure attempt to stave off allegations of racism on the part of the author. The initial crime scene had a second body, a kid riddled with bullets in a dumpster, which turned out to be completely unrelated to the serial killings — apparently murder victims are so dense in Los Angeles that good body-dumping spots have to be shared. Back in the original Police Quest, the crime wave threatening the sleepy city of Lytton was ultimately the product of one man, and arresting him meant there was hope that things would go back to normal. There is no such hope here. LA, in this game, is irreparably steeped in violence — another facet of that sense of futility I mentioned.

I haven’t quite reached the end of the game, but I expect that I’ll arrest the serial killer after a dramatic confrontation. Afterwards, the author has a choice: the wish-fulfillment route, with the PC hailed as a hero and even that TV reporter changing her tune, or the darker and more thematic route, where even after saving lives nothing really changes. But I submit that it would be more in line with the game so far if the PC is the next victim. To be tied up like the previous victims would be the ultimate expression of his powerlessness in the messed-up world, and to die without solving the case would be the culmination of the repeated failures to pin it on anyone throughout the game. I doubt that Sierra would have the courage to do this, but it would be very noir, and make me re-evaluate a lot of what I’ve already seen.

1 You actually have to wait for elevators in the HQ building. At first I thought this made some sense as a way to encourage you to spend most of your time in the field and only come back to HQ when you have something specific to do there, and that may have been the intention, but the unpredictability of where you have to go in order to advance the story interferes with any such planning on the player’s part.

PQ4: Action Scenes

Action scenes in adventures are a longstanding Sierra tradition, and one mercifully not widely imitated. The original Police Quest had two basic sorts: driving and shooting. The driving part was a top-down affair similar to the original Grand Theft Auto, except of course that you were expected not to drive recklessly, which pretty much removes the fun. It yielded enough complaints that they left it out of Police Quest 2, but this was a drastic enough change to the character of the game that fans complained again, resulting in it being added back in a modified form in the third game. PQ4 leaves it out, letting you instead navigate Los Angeles through the interface that was already becoming the norm for mystery games in urban settings: a map, with clickable dots at the important locations.

The shooting remains, although most actual shooting is done at stationary targets on a firing range. You’re expected to pass a marksmanship test on the game’s third day, and in fact you can visit the range to practice on preceding days, and get points for each iteration. It’s basically the world’s easiest first-person shooter. You’re rated on speed and accuracy, but when you come right down to it, it’s speed and accuracy of clicking on an image with a mouse.

Good marksmanship doesn’t really help you with the gunplay in the field, which is mostly about pointing your gun at people and then yelling at them, at which point they drop their weapon and surrender. I’ve seen only one fight so far that actually has to be won with bullets rather than handcuffs, and I figure this rarity is one of the game’s more plausible claims to realism. But even these parts are essentially action scenes, in that you have to act quickly or be killed.

Finally, there are a couple of out-and-out literal videogames, playable coin-op machines located in the bar where the cops hang out after hours. There are two, a simple Asteroids clone and a simple driving game. (So they didn’t completely eliminate driving after all!) I haven’t checked the walkthroughs on this, but Sierra has a certain history of awarding points for doing well in embedded games of this sort. They may not be doing it here, though — they weren’t completely consistent about it, and it doesn’t exactly fit in with the sort of thing you generally get extra points for in this game: diligence, following up every lead no matter how remote, following procedure, and filling out paperwork at every opportunity. But if there are any points associated with the embedded videogames, I doubt I’ll be getting them. The driving game in particular seems very hard, and I just don’t care about my score in PQ4 as much as I did in the earlier games.

PQ4: Whining about Getting Stuck

pq4-fenceDespite my earlier reluctance, I’ve dipped into the walkthroughs for Police Quest 4 several times now. Not because it has difficult puzzles, but because the things that aren’t puzzles are sometimes difficult — for example, parsing the art. I had a particular problem at first with finding the exits to scenes. The worst case of this was at the scene of the first murder, where you have to walk off an edge that, to me, looks fenced off. Making it worse, you actually can’t leave in that direction the first time you’re at that location, on the night that the body is discovered. It’s only the daytime version of the scene that can be exited. Sometimes the game just arbitrarily declares certain exits to be non-useful, and the only way to tell which is by trying to use them. But by now I’ve got into the habit of trying to exit every scene in every direction, so there’s no good reason for me to get stuck in that way any more.

The pixel-hunting is another matter. Most of the scenes are cluttered with scenery, some few undistinguished bits of which will be crucially clickable. Like a lot of Sierra’s adventures, Police Quest 4 is divided into days, with each day triggering new events and opening up new locations. Days advance in response to plot developments, and plot is gated in arbitrary ways: if you know you need to talk to the victim’s relatives but they aren’t at home, it could be because you haven’t picked up a completely unrelated item in a different part of town. There was one point back in day 1 where I thought I had an actual chain of reasoning that put me on the right path: learning that the dead cop, Hickman, had been undercover as an employee of a nearby diner, I figured I was supposed to snoop around the diner for clues. I couldn’t get in, but there was a prominent employee’s entrance, locked. So I figured Hickman had a key. Where would that be? In his pocket, of course! So I went to the morgue and found a previously-unnoticed envelope containing his personal effects. But all I could do with it was deliver it to his grieving widow, and although that did unlock further events, they weren’t events related to the effects or the diner: instead, it made a potential informant telephone me when I got back to HQ. I still haven’t been inside that diner, and by now it really seems like I never will.

Thinking is futile when cause and effect make no sense. All you can do is go everywhere and try everything and hope that you hit on the things that the author thought of. Or, of course, play from a walkthrough, which may be what Sierra had in mind at this point: why sell a solvable game when you can sell a game and a hint book? If there’s one thing we can truly thank GameFAQs and its ilk for, it’s putting an end to that sort of foolishness.


Most of Sierra’s adventure games used standardized UIs, but the standards went through several iterations. The very earliest Sierra adventure games were illustrated text adventures, where all interaction went through a text parser, and the graphics could be turned off at will. King’s Quest introduced the AGI engine, which added interactivity to the illustrations through an on-screen avatar that you moved around with the arrow keys or a joystick, and this marked the beginning of what we tend to think of at the Sierra-style game today. But it wasn’t until King’s Quest IV, the first game to use the SCI engine, that they added mouse support, and even then, the text parser remained the primary way of entering commands. Only with King’s Quest V did they start making true “point-and-click adventures” — a few years after their chief rival, Lucasarts (then known as Lucasfilm Games). This was basically the final standard Sierra interface, and this is the stage at which Police Quest 4 was made.

Now, the Lucasarts UI at that point was basically a menu for building text commands. You had a menu of verbs at the bottom of the screen, and the nouns were provided by clicking on objects in the scene or in your inventory. Sierra’s approach was different: instead of textual verbs, there were icons. Click on an icon, and it changes the cursor. The icons varied from game to game, but typically included a walking-legs icon for “go to”, an eye for “examine”, and a hand for a general “use/manipulate/pick up”. The last is something that Lucasarts games would split into multiple verbs, allowing the player to specify what they wanted to do more precisely. With the Sierra version, I often don’t know what effect clicking the hand on something is going to produce. Click the hand on a person, and, depending on context, it might be interpreted as an attempt to shake their hand, or to push them aside, or grope them, or tickle them. (In the course of playing PQ4, I’ve encountered all of these.) Lucasarts experimented with their own version of a body-part-oriented action menu in Full Throttle, and it had pretty much the same problem. If it is a problem — there’s something to be said for a game that surprises you, and Coktel’s Goblins series made a virtue of it by making it pretty much the point of the game.

These icons aren’t the only verbs, though. Inventory items are also verbs. That might seem strange if you’re unfamiliar with the kind of UI I’m describing, but what I mean is that they can be assigned to the cursor just like the action icons, effectively creating the verb phrase “Use [object] with…” Now, one big difference between the Sierra point-and-click UI and the Lucasarts one is that Sierra made verbs into modes. Once you assign an action to the cursor, it stays there until you change it. This, combined with the obtuseness of some of the puzzles, yielded the “use every item on every other item” syndrome. If you have an apple in your hand, and you don’t know what it’s for, it’s easy to just go around clicking it on everything until something happens. I really haven’t had a problem with this in PQ4, though, perhaps because the use of objects in this environment tends to be obvious. I have a gun and a badge, but when I get stuck, I’m pretty sure it isn’t because I haven’t applied them to the right inanimate objects.

One other thing about the Sierra UI from King’s Quest V onward: it was designed with full-screen graphics in mind. In KQ5, the icons were hidden until you moved the mouse to where they were located, along the top of the screen. (PQ4 puts its action icons at the bottom.) In KQ5, this had the effect that anything in the top inch or so of any scene had to be purely decorative, because there was no way to click on it: if you moved the mouse cursor there, it would be immediately covered up with action icons. Now, by PQ4, they had come up with a way around this: the icons only appear when you move the cursor all the way to the bottom edge. But at the same time, PQ4 makes such measures unnecessary by not using that part of the screen after all! The scene takes up only part of the screen, making a sort of pseudo-letterboxed effect; at the bottom, when the icons aren’t visible, their place is taken by filler, the words “Police Quest” in big letters on a crude stone-effect background. They might as well leave the interface there all the time — and in fact they give the player that option: you can “lock” the UI in place. But why not just make it that way automatically? It smells of compromise between opposing design goals, or perhaps code reuse with unintended consequences.

PQ4: Stereotypes

For as long as Sierra had the ability to do something resembling acting with its sprites, that acting was hammy, all broad gestures and exaggerated accents. The broad gestures in particular are often the complete focus of the game: when the engine wants to play a special animation, be it something as minor as an actor emoting in the middle of dialogue, it’ll temporarily suspend interaction while you watch it, like it’s a mini-cutscene. I suppose it stems from the low resolution. 320×200 doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety, unless you’ve got a skilled pixel artist — stylized figures can suggest more than they depict. But the photographic approach of PQ4 makes that sort of minimalism impossible. There’s irony for you: the style is presumably supposed to lend the game a greater realism, but the end result is extreme theatricality.

The exaggerated accents are harder to excuse, but I’ve seen them try. I recall an interview or developer commentary video or something about The Dagger of Amon Ra that explained that they made every character in that game speak a distinct dialect so that it would always be obvious who was speaking in the scenes where you eavesdropped on unseen conversations, even if you had the sound turned off and were only seeing the dialogue as text. But that’s a highly-specific reason that only applies to the circumstances in the one game. Also, that game was set in the 1920s, and thus could be seen as drawing from period cinema. PQ4 has ambitions of being gritty and modern and ripped-from-the-headlines, and that makes the dialect seem particularly unfortunate. The initial murder takes place in South Central LA, where the possible witnesses are predominantly black. Their dialogue is all strained slang and “sheeit”, a white boy’s impression of a stereotypical urban negro.

Not that the white characters are much more convincing. Some of the cops, despite living in California, have the kind of exaggerated New York accent that I never actually heard while I was living in New York. The jolly morgue attendant tells ghoulish “jokes” at an approximate six-year-old level of humor, and laughs uproariously at the end of each one, always with the same animation. The receptionist at the morgue is Kooky. She even has her own kooky music that plays as she waves her kooky wave and talks to you in her kooky voice. Someone thought this was important enough to devote an entire scene to it, peripheral as it is to the investigation.

I don’t know how much of the game content Daryl Gates really wrote. Much of the above seems like standard Sierra goofiness. The pushy reporter who goes out of her way to cast the police in a bad light out of petty vindictiveness seems like an obvious thing to blame on him, though. It’s worth noting how that starts: you encounter her and her cameraman outside HQ and have no choice but to push her aside to progress. Even if you try to talk to her, even if you want to answer her questions to the extent permitted (or just provide enough content-free sound bites to satisfy her), all you say is “No comment”. Are we to take it that the police don’t even have the option of talking to the press? Whatever the case, it must be for a good reason, because the police just don’t do anything unjustified in this game. That’s their stereotype: the knight in blue. Not that they’re perfect in every way, but there doesn’t seem to be any notion that systemic problems like corruption or abuse of authority or even simple racial bias exist. There’s just individual weakness of character. The cop whose murder kicks off the whole story is said to have been under stress, and possibly even developed a substance abuse problem of some sort. Why? Because he couldn’t stand all the crime. He just couldn’t bear to see the good people of the city hurting each other so much. Seriously.

PQ4: Score

Just a short session this time, so let’s talk about something that has pretty much nothing to do with the game content: the scoring system. I’ve said before that I don’t really care about getting lots of points in games unless it affects gameplay in some way — for example, by giving you extra lives — or unless the game has achievements of some sort built around it, explicitly or implicitly. For an adventure game, the simplest sort of implicit achievement is the full score. Typically, you only get points for solving puzzles, advancing the plot, performing significant actions in character, and/or discovering easter eggs. Opportunities to do any of these things are limited, so it’s possible to do them all, and to a completist like myself, that’s appealing: it means that I’ve played the game as thoroughly as possible and seen everything it has to show me. If the maximum score is a nice round number like 1000, all the better.

Now, a lot of the Sierra games didn’t have nice round numbers for their maximum scores. One gets the impression that the authors just assigned points willy-nilly and counted them up after the fact. In fact, in one case they miscounted, leaving the maximum score as reported by the game tantalizingly unachievable. PQ4 avoids this problem by not giving any indication of what the maximum score is. (Although if I wind up with 998 points at the end, I’ll be suspicious.)

Still, despite this lack of feedback, old habit compels me to try to get all the points out of every scene. Sometimes the game makes this difficult. For example, in the opening crime scene, there are a couple of young men hanging around just outside the perimeter. If you talk to them and take notes in your official police notebook, you get two points. They don’t have any useful information, but you get points as a reward for thoroughness. If you show your badge first, you get another two points, a reward for following correct procedure. But if you decide to spend time inspecting the body or something first, they leave after a while, depriving you of these points — a punishment for guessing wrong about the game mechanics. No doubt I’ve already missed some points of this sort, and without knowing the maximum score, I’ll never know.

Except of course that I can know. We’re in the age of the Internet now. Walkthroughs and point lists are easily accessible online. (Even in 1993, this was starting to be the case, but the web has made game cheats so much easier to find.) Even in the old days, there were recourses. I personally went so far as to hack into some Sierra games in pursuit of the maximum score, decompressing the game resources and looking for anything unfamiliar, be it an animation or a line of dialogue. In one case, I even delved into the code — I never really decoded them completely, as SCI scripts are distributed in a byte code format (kind of like Java), but I was able to identify some byte sequences that were always found around numbers corresponding to score increases, and look for rooms that had more of those sequences than I knew about.

But that was long ago, when I had more free time, and when point-and-click adventures were still rare enough that I felt the need to squeeze all the entertainment I could out of them. (And yes, dissecting a game counts as entertainment. Sometimes it’s more fun than playing it.) I still have the tools I wrote to accomplish this, so I may wind up using them on PQ4 — it seems like a more honorable approach than reading someone else’s walkthrough. But there’s a good chance that they won’t work; Sierra did change how they packed their data once in a while. Some of the code from these tools was eventually folded into the FreeSCI project (itself now folded into ScummVM), so I may give that a look too. But I don’t know how much effort I’ll want to devote to this when the answers I’m trying to wring from the code can be more easily obtained at GameFAQs.

PQ4: Basics

Officially, Police Quest 4 isn’t Police Quest 4. Everyone calls it that, including internal identifiers within the game resources, but on the box, it’s Police Quest: Open Season, with no hint that it’s a sequel. And for good reason: it’s not. The first three Police Quest games, set in the fictional city of Lytton 1I assume that Walls wasn’t actually thinking of Edward Bulwer-Lytton when he chose this name, but it seems seems kind of appropriate that the games honor the patron saint of bad writing., California, told the story of one Sonny Bonds in his ascent from patrolman to detective. PQ4 drops all that, shifting the scene to Los Angeles and inventing a new protagonist. Lytton, even at its seediest, always felt kind of suburban; LA lets the game plausibly add racial tensions and a gang problem. Or it would if Sierra were up to the task. This is the company that let one of their player characters pose as a rap star by getting her face covered in toner, and I really don’t think Daryl Gates added a lot of nuance to that mindset.

Despite the shift, the basics haven’t changed: the game is a police procedural in which mundane tasks like filling out paperwork are expected of the player, or at least rewarded with points. Most of my last session was spent mucking about at headquarters, and only partly because I couldn’t figure out how to exit the building. (You have to go to the lobby and click right at the very edge of the screen.) But the passage of time makes us approach it differently. Back when the first Police Quest was released in 1987, it reminded a lot of people of the TV show Hill Street Blues, with the way it showed ordinary cops dealing with ordinary crimes (such as traffic violations). Looking at first few scenes of PQ4 today, I’m mostly reminded of CSI.

In particular, of the CSI games, with their toolkit of evidence-collecting devices. PQ4 gives you a similar crime scene kit, although a much simpler one: gloves, plastic bags, a flashlight, some chalk. The surprising thing is that, in the crime scene where the game opens — and that’s another point: like CSI (both TV and game), the game opens at a crime scene, unlike the the more Hill Street Blues-like Police HQ openings of the previous PQs — in the crime scene where the game opens, you don’t actually do any evidence collection yourself. You’re not a CSI, you’re a detective. CSI plays fast-and-loose with that distinction, but if there’s one thing a police chief as writer brings to the table, it’s an adherence to hierarchy. If you, the detective, see a piece of evidence you want collected, you mark it with your chalk, and then you tell someone else to collect it. It took me some time to figure this out.

1 I assume that Walls wasn’t actually thinking of Edward Bulwer-Lytton when he chose this name, but it seems seems kind of appropriate that the games honor the patron saint of bad writing.

Police Quest 4

pq4-hqI dropped out of Sierra’s Police Quest series after its second episode, playing the third only after the series was anthologized years later. PQ1 was a must-have item for me on its initial release, not because I’m a particular fan of cop dramas, but simply because Sierra-style adventures were scarce in those days. Sierra’s adventures were often badly-designed, usually goofier than intended, given to amateurish prose and misused words, but I was willing to forgive a lot to get my fix while they were the only game in town. Even today, launching this game and seeing the old familiar SCI-era Sierra logo animation gives me a little warm fuzzy feeling. But you’ll find a lot more people today with fond memories of the old Lucasarts adventures than of the Sierra ones, and it’s basically because Lucasarts had some actual writers on staff, and possibly even proofreaders. The designer of the first three Police Quest games, Jim Walls, apparently got the job by being a friend of the company founder; he had fifteen years of experience as a cop, and zero years as a writer or game designer. (And this from a company that had made games for the likes of Disney and Jim Henson.)

But PQ4 isn’t by Walls. By this point, Sierra had enough clout to get a famous non-writer: Daryl Gates, recently-retired chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. Gates presided over the the controversial transformation of the LAPD into a paramilitary force, a period that most of America remembers primarily as the Rodney King era. I’ve tried to avoid getting into politics on this blog, but it’s impossible to play this game without thinking of the man behind it. I find myself unavoidably watching for glimpses of the alleged racism and brutality that he’s no doubt scrupulously avoided giving any hint of here. It’s like looking at Hitler’s paintings.

But so far, the primary sense I get is simply one of goofiness and amateurish prose, a crime thriller by a wannabe writer. A body is described as “strewn” in a dumpster. The voice actors, obviously recorded in separate sessions, valiantly do their best with unnatural exposition. The narrator is just confusing: he addresses the player character, an experienced homicide detective, by name, but keeps reacting to player actions by explaining basic principles of police work, as if addressing a raw recruit. (This would have worked better as the PC’s inner voice, I think.) The graphics are all photographic, which makes this a work of proto-FMV, and it’s easy to think of this as related to the lack of polish in early FMV-based titles.