Mystery House [1980]

We can consider Mystery House [1980] as the twin to House Of Usher [1980]: Both are microcomputer games preoccupied with their titular house. Both have morbid, loose narratives, organized by the impetus of mystery and treasure. Both are created by Californian duos with a man and woman who at least share a last name (for all I know John & Patty Bell could be wed or relatives or coincidentally-named.) Both are experimental graphical takes on the nascent adventure genre, but only House Of Usher gets to still be weird, a detour full of implied possibility. This is because Mystery House is a game that has been eaten by historicization. There’s a whole new history book on Sierra coming out the same day I publish this, even. The Mystery House of 1980 had to be torn down to make room for the Mystery House of 2020. When we talk about Mystery House, we do not talk about Mystery House. We talk about its context, its creation myth & its legacy. In fact, I’m going to get about a thousand words in here before I really talk about Mystery House.

The Birthday Party – Riddle House [1980]

As if in recognition of how Mystery House has become the plaything of cultural context more than a thing in itself, how it’s not really Sierra’s anymore but history’s, it was released into the public domain in 1987. The characteristically history-minded but restlessly innovative interactive fiction community even created a series of mods and fangames in 2005, most of which seek to not so much fill in its gaps as exploit them to turn the entire game inside out. (I recommend Emily Short’s, full of her characteristic… uh, characterization.) Really, though there had to have been some generous idealism in the act, it was more likely in recognition of the infeasibility of selling and supporting a rough-hewn 1980 Apple II game even in nostalgia-packet format. It had served all the utility to Sierra it was ever going to serve.

Even to Ken Williams of 1980, Mystery House was a commodity like any other, nearly shorn of its particular qualities. Mystery House on the market is rhetorically placed on the same level as the Hi-Res drawing program used to make it which it was once bundled with. After all, they are both impressive technical feats for the exact same achievements, and both too are something you can get exclusively from Sierra on the Apple II. Unlike art programs, though, art does not get superseded, and being an early specimen on some family tree wins you a prize spot in discussion for decades to come. Sierra (then On-Line Systems) was neither the first nor the last computer games company founded not for pushing games but for pushing software which just happened to be games. Infocom, for one, shares this origin story. In fact, Sierra, despite popular memory, was almost never a narrow adventure-gaming proposition: it kept a diverse business portfolio, from their subsidiary Dynamix’s flight sim Red Baron [1990] to publishing Half-Life [1998], to word processors to financial management software. Ken was a great salesman: Not only did he have the product toured all around the country to the mom-and-pop computer stories but, seeing the deficiencies of the patchwork hobbyist software distribution model first-hand, centralized logistics and reaped the benefits. Meanwhile, House Of Usher’s Crystalware was reliant on their own mom-and-pop computer store, hobbyist magazines, and their big sales idea was $100 prizes. These contrasting acrobatics, more than any quality of the works itself, is the main reason why one is obscure, and the other the stuff of myth.

The oft-repeated Sierra founding story, a romantic whirlwind of runaway success, centers on Roberta Williams’ first exposure to the adventure game genre being the canonized Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] — such small, coincidental facts being legend material in the right frame story. CCA is, by the time of retelling and repackaging the story, the stuff of canon, the First Adventure Game, lending the Sierra adventure games the air of a heir to its legitimacy. Of course, at the time, circa ’79 or ’80, Colossal Cave Adventure was just another file, nearly shorn of its context. Nevermind, too, that the last 4 games we’ve talked about can all claim that same heritage. Nor that the influence that looms large over Mystery House itself is not Crowther & Woods, but that of her less-often-cited peer Scott Adams. Scott Adams, who did the yeoman’s work of writing and selling 7 adventure games from 1978 to 1980, proving to the Williams there was money in it. Scott Adams, who did more than anyone else to codify even the name of this nascent adventure game genre that Mystery House trades off of — just think, we could have ended up with game genres like “fantasy” if the Rogue [1980] developers had their way instead. Scott Adams, who stretched this form from underground treasure hunts all the way to treasure-free spy narratives. Scott Adams, who tried to do more with less space, making short games with the economical bare scaffolding of sentences and parser, a terseness not unlike Mystery House trying to keep to two lines so it fits under the picture and within memory constraints. Mystery House’s own influence, too, looms large: this is the oft-cited humble inflection point of the text adventure towards both the point-and-click adventure game and the visual novel.

The 1983 Japanese port of Mystery House, with a complete graphical overhaul.

When I begin to turn my gaze to the game itself, I can not help myself but immediately judge it by the standards of its descendants, by which it is of course found profoundly lacking. It’s no secret that Mystery House is a comically bad game. The instructions read like a list of alpha-version bugs. (It “may take hours to move.” This is because it innovates a new way of directional confusion, where entering a new room sometimes changes which compass direction you are facing with no cue.) The actions you type to progress can be unmotivated nonsense that has to be precisely divined, like when a bolt is confused for a screw. The parser into which you type the commands is extremely finicky, “easily the worst parser out of any game I have played,” according to Jason Dyer on his blog where he plays every adventure game ever, though he has since played worse. The titular mystery plot is thin, as though crafted by a 10 year old who thinks you’re dim. The graphics match that. None of this matters. Mystery House is a particularly heightened example of how these 1980 games get by on scrappy charm and janky ambition.

Oh, but it does have ambition… It’s not the first graphical text adventure (look for Atlantean Odyssey [1979] on the aforementioned blog) but as far as Roberta Williams knew, she was plunging into unprecedented territory, confident that programmer Ken could get this picture game to run. (For an in-depth breakdown of the code, click here.) The pictures aren’t even decorative, supplementary, but vital to gameplay. Items are contained within them that are not textually described, although trying to discern what things are meant to be are still as difficult as when text descriptions are vague. The illustrations are lavish, too, I mean these great big things you can pointedly see from across the room that take up most of the screen leaving room for only the tersest of text, something like the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, though without the rhymes. They look hand-drawn, not like an abstract stack of Lego blocks. They look hand-drawn because they are. Mystery House stores not an image but instructions for drawing an image, as copied from recording Roberta William’s tablet pen. It’s the beautifully elegant principle of a speaker being a microphone backwards, or more apt yet, of a pantograph. There’s lost fidelity in the digitization, of course, but it transforms a fiddly Apple II into a pretty direct medium. You can hurl epithets like “crude” at the graphics, but they’re undeniably human, and this on a computer.

You can call the narrative crude, too, incidents with near-absent cause-and-effect, but it’s trying more than Berzerk [1980] or Zork [1980]. Mystery House drops you not simply into a location but into a rudimentary narrative scenario, which, yes, is only partially complete and reliant on your knowledge of genre to fill it in, but does have a prescribed beginning, middle, and end. This is where the Scott Adams influence looms largest, though there is a door that inexplicably locks behind you and a treasure hunt with exactly one treasure, as if to hedge its bets. The story is a riff on the mansion-bound murder mystery ala Agatha Christie, a pretense of a “whodunit”. Multiple interpretations are briefly possible, particularly in the bathroom where plumber and chef could both be argued for, but it quickly narrows into an obvious answer. The framing and the huge gaps in the story invite you to wonder more about why and how events happened, why the murderer did it, what even motivated you in-fiction to take the bizarre actions you did, how it all went bad nigh-instantaneously. It ultimately ends up somewhere closer to a slasher, you barely escaping an attempt on your life, stumbling over bodies, and getting taunted by the pure-evil killer in a forerunner of the dead-world “environmental storytelling” of System Shock [1994]. Here, they leave written notes instead of audio logs, and though none of them are clues, they serve as the way of both delivering the plot arc and characterizing the murderer. The first note, in the entry foyer, tells you and the rest of the cast that there is treasure in the house. The remainder of the notes, in the same handwriting, are obviously written by the killer, unhinged and obsessive scrawls that “IT’S ALL MINE.” The last note, where you meet the murderer, tells you exactly where to find the treasure. They knew, they were masters of this house themselves. They never really cared about getting it, otherwise they’d have it. They must have left the first note themselves to manipulate the greedy and send people scrambling so they could pick them off alone.

In a whodunit, names are power. To dispel the crime, you must divine the criminal’s true name, which is Daisy, to reduce a foggy constellation to a single point. Solving is a surveillance process of data accumulation on everyone and everything around you, marching inexorably towards a science-esque correct calculation. Daisy even embodies this computational act, declaring “7 – 6 = 1” as a threat, but then only kills 5 of 8 — their fatal error. Before we meet anyone, they are already reduced to not a person but nothing more than a small set of quotidian facts, everyone’s name of course, their hair color, their job. Three of them are skilled-trade menders: a mechanic, a seamstress, a plumber. Three are in the business of flesh: a gravedigger, a cook, a butcher. The seventh is both, a bridge: a surgeon. Humans are such fragile meat, no? And they’re past their expiration date…

You see the cast alive for but a brief moment before you start counting the bodies, but you can’t speak to them, shake their hand, observe their motion — they’re all already corpses, these identical cardboard cutouts. Or at least they look that way from your point of view. This is the first game with first-person view of a 3D space that I’ve covered (besides an aborted run at Maze War [1973]), and it’s interesting to consider it in 1980, where the concept of “player-character” is still being chiselled out. No attempt has been made to contextualize the character who enters the Mystery House either within the narrative or as in any way separate from the player, that is to say, to give them a backstory. (The 7th Guest [1993] would later take this ambiguity and even some of Mystery House’s set-up and run with it.) You, despite your peculiar absence, are the center of the world, as reinforced by perspective. One puzzle hinges around your point-of-view, there’s a hatch in the attic that you can not see from inside the attic, only when you go outside and look at the ceiling through a window through a telescope can you see it, even if there is no active light source. This emphasizes the arbitrary, authored, subjective construction of all that you see through the layer of glass. You apprehend the world through the computer screen as though you are looking through a portal. To quote myself, “the attraction is turning on your Apple II and exploring the novelty of a virtual space.”

This space, the house, is described immediately to us as “Victorian,” but it’s visibly not. When I used to help build and repair houses, I would get used to the formulas of a given development project, their two or three templates replicating across a hillside like a virus. Then I would get called out on a service call, and the people who can afford to do that are loaded. More than thrice, they were a widow to a millionaire husband who took a fatal fall off a ladder, but mysteries aren’t my line of work. What was remarkable to me is that they had these gigantic, totally custom homes, but their imagination for what to do to flaunt their ostentatious wealth stopped at the same cookie-cutter confines of the lowest-bidder middle-class suburban development projects. It wasn’t fancier design, it wasn’t better material, it was just more. More bathrooms, taller ceilings, a third fridge, senseless extra rooms in desperate search of a bespoke function. Mystery House exists in this tradition, of the classic insatiable American McMansion or even the restless suburban deepdream of the Groverhaus, but now set free from even the consideration of livability or spatial consistency. Like House Of Usher, it has a secret passage. It has two studies, with books that have never been and can never be picked up and read (one of which must be, according to my observations, Foucault’s Pendulum [1988].) It has five bedrooms and one bathroom. It has a special attic for its attic.

The house actually grows two implausible tendrils, one west and up towards that attic attic and one east and down into the basement. Each one hosts a different goal. As deep as you can go, you will uncover the hidden wealth that certainly is the type of thing such an extravagant house was founded on, and which passively motivates the entire cast. As high as you can go, you will find the murderer, the mastermind, the active force serving to pinch every character. The player must zig-zag along this diagonal path to progress, but despite the linear narrative arc of its Act I, II, and III phases, is entirely at liberty to find their own path through in any order. Contrast Adventure [1980], which also has a series of lock-and-key contingencies, but through which runs only one possible chain of events. Adventure is so much less the static world, though, with plenty of extraneous objects and action, where Mystery House feels so much more restrictive, where you must do exactly what it wants.

There is one extraneous detour you can take, though. Remember how I said Daisy kills only 5 of the 8 characters? That leaves you, her, and Joe, the gravedigger, who has gone outside the bounds of the house to sedately dig 6 graves. Why? What does he know? Why was he spared? “HE’S NOT VERY TALKATIVE.” How convenient. Nice shovel he’s got there. You’ll probably need that for a puzzle like everything else that you can take in this game. Just a question of how to get it off of him… The only way to is to kill him. As we’ve seen in games before, there’s no condemnation of this violence, no punishment, not even consequence or acknowledgement. There’s no perception of a pressing need to underscore how abhorrent this act is. It jars, though! This is not a game where violence is a primary verb, unlike even other adventure games I’ve covered. There’s no reward at all, no use for the shovel, it’s one of the very few pointless actions you can take, and well off the critical path. When you kill Daisy at the end of the game, it is an act of self-defense and justice in one, but here it’s senseless, violence for violence’s sake. Is this just a goof for the player who doesn’t respect the coherency of the story, kin to the participatory slapstick of hitting your head on the attic ceiling and falling off the ladder, or to the stove exploding if you light it?

Allow me to exploit this fascinating gap to turn the game inside out for myself. The evidence we have to connect the culprit to the crimes is found spread across three corpses, one with a prominent stray hair left on them indicating hair color, one holding a literal daisy for unknown reasons, and the aforementioned bathroom corpse which eliminates a lead suspect as a victim while possibly indicating gender and profession. Each piece of evidence is clearly authored to lead the player to a fixed conclusion by process of elimination, like the Zebra Puzzle on a small matrix, but they’re all extremely flimsy and circumstantial. The clincher is how there’s only Daisy and Joe left, with nothing linking to Joe, and you know you didn’t do it. Life itself is proof of guilt.

Why assume there’s only one killer, though? The moment you leave the entry foyer and begin rummaging around in the kitchen for matches and water, the house erupts into an orgy of violence. It’s over before you even know what’s going on. Could be one killer, could be a couple why not. It’s not too far a stretch of the imagination. In these kinds of stories, greed makes groups of people do terrible things to each other. It’s just the push needed to unlock the floodgates of resentment, be it familial or class. We do have a bunch of blue-collar laborers and one surgeon. What if the person we find hiding in the hidden compartment above the attic, clutching a knife and ready to attack anyone who enters, say the player character, holding a bunch of knives and a gun, is possibly not responsible for all 5 murders, or for the notes? There is nothing at all linking our suspect to two of the killings. If even one of our crime scene evaluations is a false positive, or if we imagine that someone could have killed people and then been killed… our hypothesis can scarcely withstand such a blow. It’s called reasonable doubt. What if Daisy’s innocent? What if she’s cowering and terrified and traumatized, having witnessed the rampage you did not? Maybe she even did like you think you are and dealt the fatal blow to the last standing real killer, ending the bloodshed. Someone had to stop what begun somehow, and who else but her and Joe?

You killed Joe for the same reason you killed Daisy, maybe even for the same reasons anyone died here. You’re jumpy, paranoid, and both of them, to your eyes, are highly suspicious. Not only that, you’re greedy, you won’t leave without those jewels, maybe they’re even competition. You won’t leave without tidying up loose ends, either, without hunting someone down and shooting them dead. You’re not “the real murderer,” but you are a real murderer. Sure, from your subjective point of view, it’s self-defense, it’s justice. You can walk away from the Mystery House with your head held high, you “GURU WIZARD,” with your pocket full of blood jewels and no living witnesses to contradict your story. The courts will see your actions from a different point of view.

Please donate to protester bail funds, be audience to more than cis white males, and do what else you can to help where you are. It’s not even close to over. Look at Portland Oregon. You can help Riot Ribs or Rosehip Medics if you’re close enough to there, or if you’re not you can send money where they say. Black lives matter. Abolish the police.

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