The secret of Sierra

Space Quest 1 box artI know I’m going to sound like a grumpy old man by saying this, but I don’t really get the whole “gamecasting” phenomenon. The idea of watching other people play video games just has zero appeal for me. I mean, I love video games, but the attraction of things like Twitch and PewDiePie soars right over my head. I find watching someone else playing a video game just leaves me the feeling that I wish I was the one playing the game instead.

That being said, I recognize that I am way, way out of the mainstream on this one. PewDiePie has racked up more YouTube views than Rihanna, for Pete’s sake. So the audience for this stuff is clearly there. It’s just one of the many, many ways in which I am grievously out of touch with the culture in which I live.

For this reason, when I saw that Rich Evans and Jack Packard of Red Letter Media (of whose praises I have sung before) had launched a gamecasting series of their own titled “Previously Recorded Live,” I felt like despite my not really digging the general concept I had to at least give the new show a fair shake. I’m a fan of these guys and their work, after all; I want them to succeed, even if they’re working in a genre I don’t really get.

So I watched a few episodes of “Previously Recorded Live,” and for the most part they did not change my mind about gamecasting. It’s still not something that rings my bell, alas. But there was one group of episodes I did really like — and that actually taught me something new about a game I first played something like 20 years ago, if you can believe that.

That game was the classic Sierra On-Line comedy adventure Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter.  If you’re a computer gamer of A Certain Age, you probably have fond memories of this seminal title, which turned into a huge hit for its era and spawned five sequels. Evans and Packard devoted six episodes of “Pre-Rec Live” to a complete playthrough of the game, playing all the way from beginning to end.

I’ve pulled those episodes together into a YouTube playlist, if you’d like to watch them yourself. And here’s an embedded version:

(A note: if you do decide to watch, skip ahead about 10 minutes in on the first video; everything before that is just the two guys futzing around trying to get their streaming setup working properly. Which I’ll admit is part of what turns me off about “gamecasting” generally; there’s so much insistence on “let’s do it live!” that you end up watching huge chunks of dead air and uninteresting filler.)

I’m taking the time to write this up because, like I mentioned above, these episodes actually helped me understand something about the classic Sierra adventures generally, and Space Quest specifically, that I had never really understood before.

This realization came because only one of the two RLM guys in the video had ever played Space Quest before. Like me, Rich Evans grew up playing Sierra games; but Jack Packard, it turns out, had not. In fact he had never really played anything from the Golden Age of Adventure Games. So they set the video up with Packard being the primary player, Evans only really jumping in to provide color commentary and the occasional reminder to save the game (which in Sierra games, which took great glee in killing the player off, is always a good idea).

What I realized, watching the two of them make their way through this game that I knew so well, is that there’s something fundamental about Sierra games that I had never really understood before. It’s that Sierra games weren’t, fundamentally, adventure games. What they were was multiplayer games.

In other words, the fun provided by the game came only in part from the game itself, which was typically structured as a series of puzzles for the player to solve. The rest of the fun came from the way you went about solving those puzzles. And solving them with a friend or friends was so much more fun then solving them on your own.

It got me thinking back to all the fond memories I have of playing Sierra games. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that in all those memories I was never playing the game alone. It was always me and my little brother, or me and a friend, or me and a group of friends, all crowding around the computer monitor, taking turns at the keyboard; bouncing ideas for ways to solve the latest puzzle off each other, cracking jokes and riffing off each others’ creativity.

Which isn’t to say I never played a Sierra game alone, of course. Just that the memories of those games that have lasted, the ones that are the most fun to think back on, are all memories of playing those games collaboratively. Sierra games were party games before the concept of the “party game” had even been invented.

All of which makes me feel kind of sad, because while the rise of the Internet has made multiplayer gaming a much bigger thing than it ever was back then, this particular type of multiplayer game really doesn’t exist anymore. Today’s multiplayer games are almost all shooters and MMOs, where you work together with people you don’t really know to blow stuff up and gather loot. Playing a Sierra game collaboratively was something different; it was a positive collaboration, a constructive one, where the players put their minds together to come up with a solution to a problem that they might never have come up with individually. And since there was no global computer network to tap into back then, if you had people to play those games with you, they were by definition people you knew well. They were the same real-life friends you did everything else with.

I suppose that some of that style of play has come back again in the resurgence of tabletop games. Computer and video games have given card and board games a rough couple of decades, but the format has sprung back and is now even undergoing a kind of renaissance, full of creative designs made possible by the popularity of titles like The Settlers of Catan and Cards Against Humanity.  But on the electronic side of things, there’s no sign of anything like the experience we had playing those old Sierra games coming back anytime soon.

Maybe that’s just the way things are; maybe collaboration in computer games will always be limited to shooting people and stealing gold. But I hope not. Watching Evans and Packard play through Space Quest reminded me that it wasn’t always that way; so maybe it doesn’t always have to be.