The Trials of a Janitor
There was a time, years and years ago, when each new Sierra Entertainment (aka Sierra Online, depending on when you bought their games) release was met with much fanfare. Certainly the company had a loyal following that would snatch up anything they created with zealous glee. They cranked out a popular series (and series within series) of adventure titles that entertained (and frustrated) gamers for years. They were a household name (at least among PC gamers) and even now, decades later, their games are still spoken about with a certain amount of reverence.
When you talk about adventure games, the first titles that probably come to mind are the "Quest" games. Starting with King's Quest (although the company had a few adventure games out before that seminal title), the "Quest" line of games was born and instantly cemented. Other titles soon followed, from Police Quest to Space Quest, Quest for Glory, Leisure Suit Larry, and more, all using Sierra's tried and true interface. Once you got into one of their games and learned to play, you could easily go to the next, and the next, instantly recognizing their graphics, their interface, and their way to play. They were adventure gaming for years.
My first taste of Sierra came from Space Quest. Although I went and played King's Quest (which was the first of these games I ever beat) and Leisure Suit Larry soon after, Space Quest was the first of the titles young me was able to get my hands on and install on my computer. And it was... well, frustrating. These games were always frustrating, but somehow in a good way.
In Space Quest you take on the role of Roger Wilco, space janitor (you can actually change his name and, officially, he had no name, but the default name was "Roger Wilco"). You're aboard the spaceship Arcada and, after waking from a nap in the broom closet, you find that the ship has been taken over by the Sariens. You're job is to find a way off the ship and flee to safety. Only one problem: the Arcada was testing out the powerful Star Generator and if the Sariens have the device they could use it to destroy any planet in the galaxy. That, of course, would be bad.
So first you have to search the ship and find information on the Star Generator. Then you can flee to the nearest planet. However, even then you have to survive. You have to find a way off this planet, and then travel off to the Sarien mothership. Someone has to destroy the Star Generator and, lacking any real heroes in attendance, it seems like you're the one stuck with the job. Good luck, Roger Wilco, because you're going to have to step up and be the most heroic space janitor the galaxy has ever seen.
If you've never played an adventure game before, they will probably seem fairly primitive now. These games grew out of the text adventures of old (literal games played via walls of written text that told a story), and the controls were similar. Instead of writing, "go left" or "go right" to move through various rooms, now you pressed left, right, up, and down to move Roger Wilco around. But the core experience was still text-based; to tell Roger to do anything, like search a body or pick up and item, you had to write it. "Look around" became a common command for players as they moved from one room to the next, searching around for anything of significance they needed to see, do, or pick up.
Still, at the time having graphics for these games was absolutely astounding. To see a character moving around, dealing with things in real-time (or an approximation of that based on the speed of the game) was leaps and bounds more dazzling that the old text adventures. Those classic games had their moment to shine (and there's still a thriving little text adventure community Online), but the second graphical adventure games came out, the demand for text adventures went away. Being able to see and do things was more interesting than just reading about it.
Of course, to play this game you had to learn how to work within the bounds of the game. Space Quest (like all the Sierra games of the era) had a robust text parser that could take your commands and have Roger do as you instructed. Except it wasn't always that good. If you wanted to do something you had to use one of the few words the game understood. Looking at a screen required "look at screen", "look screen," or "look console". If you wrote "look monitor" for example, the game would say, at best, "Say what?" Sometimes, though, it would say, "that doesn't appear to be an option right now," making you think you simply couldn't do it instead of that the game didn't understand what you wrote. Sometimes the game could be willfully obtuse.
Worse, it was also abusive. The game was designed as a conveyor of death. You were free to save at any moment in one of the many generous save slots provided. If you did something and wanted to save it, you could, right then. Save everywhere, save often, because at any moment the game could try to kill you. There are so many ways to die in this game, from just barely walking on the wrong spot and falling off a cliff to not being quite fast enough on a trigger and getting blasted by a ray gun. Hell, there are two different points in the game where you have to move fast and get all your exploration out of the way because the ship you're on will self-destruct with absolutely no warning. You just have to know a timer has started and move quick.
Of course, you also have to figure out what the heck you're doing when it comes to items and how the all work together. Space Quest can be pretty punishing when it comes to just expecting you to know what you're supposed to do. Early in the game you are expected to get a cartridge from the digital archives as that cart is necessary to figuring out the main plot of the game. The game will tell you this... if you're lucky and manage to trigger the right little cut-scene. If you fail to do this, though, you can progress through most of the game, past several points of no return, to a point where, if you don't have that cartridge, you can't complete the game and you have no clue why. One missed item early on and it's game over hours later. And there are several instances, big and small, of this. It can be pretty awful.
And yet, once you know what you're doing, the game is surprising easy to get through. You could likely write down a series of steps to take in the game, and then if you followed it I expect you'd be able to complete the entire game, start to finish, in twenty minutes or so. Hell, World Record for the game is far less than that, clocking in at a tight 4 minutes 45 seconds. That's astounding. It just goes to show that the real "meat" of the game isn't the actual steps taken to complete it but the journey (and all of its deaths, defeats, and restarts) to come along the way.
Does that make Space Quest a bad game? I don't know if you could say that, not really. It's emblematic of the kinds of adventures games of the era, and if you were playing any of these games in the 1980s and early 1990s then you knew what you were getting into. A lot of searching, a lot of flailing, and a lot of dying. That's how these games operated. It was fun at the time, as that sense of exploration fueled your thinking meats. But going back, as a fresh player now, I think I'd just find this game obnoxiously dense. It was of its era but maybe not really designed for anything past that, not once exploration and adventure in gaming moved on.
Let's put it this way. When the "Quest" series of games started in the early 1980s, these kinds of games were about as much as the adventure genre could handle. But once gaming moved on into the era of the NES, SNES, and beyond, adventuring took on all new aspects and simple text adventures, like Space Quest, were already antiquated. I loved this game growing up but I have to admit it feels limited, and cruel, when I go back to it.