An entirely new genre of video games was born when Ken and Roberta Williams created “Mystery House” in 1980 for the Apple II computer. The horror-adventure game was the first of its kind as it featured “graphics” on the screen as the player typed in commands. It was an instant hit and laid the framework for Sierra On-Line to become one of the most dominant game developers for the next 20 years. What does Mystery House offer over 40 years later?
You control an unnamed character who approaches a large mansion. Why you are there and whoever invited you, you’ll never know. As you enter the mysterious house, you are greeted by seven guests.
Tom is a plumber.
Sally is a seamstress.
Dr. Green is a surgeon.
Sam is a mechanic.
Joe is a gravedigger.
Bill is a butcher.
Daisy is a cook.
The door behind you locks and as soon as you leave the room the guests disperse. You soon find that one of the guests is a killer! As you explore the mansion, you find bodies one-by-one. You slowly start crossing characters off the list. There are creepy notes left in the house and one of them even mentions jewels somewhere in the house!
Walking around the house you pick up clues and weapons. You even narrowly escape a dagger being thrown at you! Eventually, after searching the mansion, walking through a nearby forest, and returning to the mansion, it’s clear who the killer is. Daisy!
You find her hiding above the attic in a trap door. With no other choice, you pull the trigger on a gun and kill Daisy. A note is found on the floor that tells you something is in the basement. You explore a bit more in the basement and discover that Daisy hid the jewels behind a loose brick. With the jewels in your pocket, you leave the mystery house behind and walk through the front door.
Mystery House may seem primitive but back in 1980, it blew people away. I recently read Ken Williams’ book on the rise and fall of Sierra as I took a trip to Hawaii. It was incredible to read all the history behind the massive game company.
Roberta Williams, (Ken’s wife) became enamored with a text-based adventure game. She had the idea of making her own game and knew Ken who was an expert computer programmer could create it for her. She convinced him and started writing the story and drew the graphics. In just a few weeks, Ken created Mystery House. He brought the game to a few computer stores where the customers went nuts for it. Soon he was selling Mystery House all over America and so Sierra was born.
I played Mystery House with my wife as I thought she might enjoy it. Together we solved the mystery and came away with the jewels, but believe me, it wasn’t easy at first. You type basic commands on the screen after reading the text. Visually, you are presented with very primitive graphics. (Think stick people) It was difficult at times to decipher what we were looking at. Objects like knives, matches, candlesticks, and other items are scattered in the house. You’ll have to squint to figure out what they are.
Our biggest complaint was the commands. We died about 20 times after a fire started in the dining room. You had to pour water from a pitcher you were holding onto the fire to extinguish it. We knew this and tried different verbs and nouns to put the fire out but we failed each time. It was very frustrating and it wasn’t until I looked up the exact phrase that we were able to proceed. If you didn’t get the command right on the first try, the fire kills you.
Mystery House is a short game. If you know what you are doing you can beat it within 15 minutes. Back in 1980, this was all mind-blowing so I’m sure it took people weeks to beat the game. I have a pretty good grasp of how games work so it wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do but rather how to do it. That’s where my wife and I got annoyed with the commands.
There’s a few instances of complete bewilderment in the game. Walking through a forest that looks the same on each screen is incredibly difficult to navigate. Thankfully guides exist now, but you need to go North four times in a row and then magically type “open door” and you’ll enter the kitchen of the mansion again. Who in a million years would have thought to do those commands? There must have been something that we missed that should have tipped us off.
The atmosphere of Mystery House is as good as it could get in 1980. A looping music bed would have been amazing in adding a spooky feel to the game but Ken couldn’t add music due to the low technical limitations he was working with. I have a good imagination, so the game despite the stick figures and limited graphics put me into the shoes of someone investigating murders.
You won’t beat Mystery House on your first try unless you are using a guide. We used the guide a few times mainly because we couldn’t figure out the commands. It was frustrating to restart certain areas over and over, but I could tell that this game had a very addicting appeal to it. Even when we failed, I was eager to start over and reach the next portion of the game. A few items you find didn’t have a purpose, at least a purpose we didn’t find. There’s even a character, (Joe the gravedigger) that doesn’t have a purpose and doesn’t die. You find Joe in the cemetery with six freshly dug graves but he doesn’t speak to you or pose a threat. Maybe he’s in on the murders with Daisy, but I didn’t find any more evidence that said he was.
I read “Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings” by Ken Williams on my trip to Hawaii. Cruising through the book in just a few days, I learned so much from one of my favorite game companies as a child. It made me want to play the very first game that Roberta Williams created and so after getting back from our trip, I fired up Mystery House. It took my wife and me about an hour to beat.
Mystery House revolutionized the adventure game with the technical genius of Ken Williams and the creative genius of Roberta. They’d go on to create many more games and launch Sierra. Mystery House is very rough around the edges today. I can deal with outdated graphics, but there’s just not too much to look at. The command function can be very frustrating and I’m sure someone in 1980 was much more forgiving than I am today. Mystery House started an entirely new genre so it gets major credit for that, but some inconveniences are impossible to ignore.
Mystery House scores a 7.1 out of 10.
What are your thoughts on Mystery House? Did you buy it as a kid or did you play it as a kid? What did you think of it? Were you able to solve the mystery? What other Sierra games do you like? Let me know your thoughts, I’d love to read them. If you’d like to own a used copy of Mystery House for the Apple II you can purchase a copy of it on eBay for over $400.