Scrolling Pixels: ‘True Detectives’ – The Police Quest series

5 Jan 2015

Still from Police Quest 1: In Pursuit of the Death Angel

Scrolling Pixels is Dean Van Nguyen’s monthly column focusing on retro gaming. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.

The US is currently gripped in crisis as protests sparked by the deaths of African-Americans Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement officers in Ferguson and New York respectively have raged for several months now, bringing into focus nationwide issues like police brutality, race relations and the militarisation of police.

Punctuating this distress further has been the murder of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who, on 20 December, were shot dead by a gunman who claimed to be avenging black men killed by white police. At a minimum level, these incidents show the horrible disconnect between police and the public in America – the department’s apparent inability to view young black males as anything else but a threat and a sizeable chunk of the populations’ inherent distrust of the very people who have sworn to protect them.

Released over a period of time that saw equally impassioned rallies protesting many of the same issues, the Police Quest gaming series attempted to give players a greater understand of the day-to-day grind of being a cop in America. With a heavy emphasis on procedural authenticity, its publisher, Sierra, has even claimed the games have been used in training academies to help school up-and-coming officers.

The brainchild of Sierra CEO Ken Williams, who, as pointed out by IGN, helped define the graphic adventure game in the mid-eighties with hits like King’s Quest and Space Quest, the project was envisioned as an adult crime drama with retired California Highway Patrol officer Jim Walls (who had been forced to retire after being shot on duty) brought in to give a real-life perspective to the game.

Under Walls guidance, Police Quest was the mirror opposite of later, more famous cop-based games like the Max Payne and Virtual Cop series. The procedural detail in which the series goes into can at times be so seemingly insignificant it borders on eccentricity. But the quirks give each instalment a unique charm, and the series is undoubtedly fun to play – something all games, educational or not, must be before anything else.

Though the series continued on with the release of well-received tactical shooters (the most recent of which came out in 2005), I’ll be focusing on the first five editions. This is, after all, a retro gaming arena, but also because I first owned all the games by buying the Police Quest Collection Series which, released in 1997, compiled the first five chapters, so that seems a natural cutting off point.

Police Quest: In Pursuit of The Death Angel (1987)

The first release in the series, some younger gamers may find Police Quest: In Pursuit of The Death Angel visually lo-fi to the point of being off-putting. But despite these limitations, this is actually the first game I ever played that could be considered ‘open world’.

Set in the fictional US city of Lytton, you play Sonny Bonds, a veteran beat cop who gets drawn into the pursuit of a violent drug kingpin. Though the plot plays like an episode of Dragnet, much of the first half of the game focuses on the normal day-to-day tasks a low-level uniform cop might face. As Bonds, you write speeding tickets, pull over drunk drivers and even socialise with your fellow officers, all the while going through a series of mundane police processes. So forgetting to perform the necessary checks to your squad car before hitting the streets is an instant game over, as is running a red light if you’re not in pursuit of another vehicle. You’re even docked points for not switching the water off after taking a shower in the locker room (thank you very much, Irish Water).

Though you’ll spend a lot of the game reloading and repeating segments to learn as you go, Police Quest is still a great time. Playing the game originally (and this was still way before Grand Theft Auto 3), there really was a sense you could practically do anything. Bonds movements are controlled by your keyboard’s arrow keys but, beyond that, the game relies on typing commands – “open door”, “take keys”, “draw gun”, etc. Type “strip” as you walk the corridors of Lytton Police Station and see Bonds reveal himself to fellow officers (that’s a game over, obviously), while entering the coffee house’s bathroom and typing “urinate” or any of the word’s cruder derivates is followed by a wry description of the bodily function.

Though the game follows a linear (and absorbing) storyline, you’re free to explore Lytton’s bars, parks, hotels and courtrooms at your own pace. With the early graphics, you will need to use your imagination to flesh out the world (the driving sequences, in particular, really are nothing more than scrolling pixels), but making your way through the game is fun. The depiction of woman here isn’t great (one character, Helen Hots, tries to get out of a speeding ticket by flashing some skin, while the damsel-in-distress role is filled by a stripper named ‘Sweet Cheeks’ Marie), but there’s enough good-quality humour dotted throughout to keep things light. A remake was released in 1992 that boasted 256 color VGA graphics, an SCI engine and replaced the command line interface with a point and click interface, though it failed to recapture the original’s charm.

Police Quest II: The Vengeance (1988)

Released just a year after the original, Police Quest II: The Vengeance did what all good sequels do: it kept what made the first instalment great and added to it. So the graphics here look slightly more enhanced, while a variety of new features are introduced, including a shooting range and scuba diving segment, plus a series of better-looking locations that include a motel, airport, airplane and underground secret sewer hideout. Importantly, the almost comical driving feature is replaced by simply typing your location into the command prompt, which looks and feels much slicker in practice.

Gamers once again take on the role of Sonny Bonds, now a permanent homicide detective who becomes personally targeted by the main villain from the first Police Quest. While the game doesn’t feature anything quite as procedural as the ticket writing from In Pursuit of The Death Angel, it still manages to take the mundane to new levels. Fail to push the button at a pedestrian crossing that calls the little green man and watch Sonny get wiped out by an oncoming car before writer Jim Walls smirking face appears on screen with a sarcastic little quip, as it does anytime you make a mistake. The ex-cop apparently taking pleasure in watching you fail.

Still, Police Quest II is one of the best games of the series. Despite it still very much feeling like a Police Quest game, with realism at its forefront, the plot is tight and engaging. The secondary cast, from the stereotypical angry chief to Bond’s sarcastic partner Keith, is far more fleshed out that their counterparts in the original, and the gameplay feels less linear than before making this a bonafide eighties gaming classic.

Police Quest III: The Kindred (1991)

Bonds was back for Police Quest III: The Kindred but the old command bar interface was out, replaced with the then-fashionable point-and-click system. Though I’m a big fan of the era’s point-and-click PC games (see Police Quest IV), this entry is easily the least likeable of the Sonny Bonds trilogy.

Problems start when, as Bonds, you find yourself back in uniform (though now a Sergeant). Returning to the traffic stops of the first game really feels like the character’s arc has been thrown into reverse. The Sonny and ‘Sweet Cheeks’ romance also starts to wear a little thin after three games, all of which contributes to the feeling that Sierra were too unwilling to let go of some familiar features while simultaneously attempting to push the series into darker new territory (the plot this time sees Bonds take on a cocaine cartel and Satanic cult).

Walls, too, in back and bigger than ever. The kill screen this time sees him standing with one leg raised on his cop car to tell you off for your failures – his crotch on display a little more than most gamers will appreciate. Not even that though is as bad as Police Quest III‘s new driving system, which involves the use of indicators, brake, accelerator and a hard to use map. It’s a suffocatingly awkward way of getting around, meaning it’s  a bit of a battle to make it from segment to segment.

There are also plenty of typos in the text boxes throughout, which gives the impression that the developers perhaps could have put more time into this game. Still, the visuals are ramped up and the attempt to instill a darker edge to the series was perhaps an important precursor to the follow-up instalment.

Police Quest: Open Season (1993)

Police Quest: Open Season drained the series of the humour that followed Sonny Bonds and instead brought a level of grit that pushed some of the tougher, more gruesome aspects of being a homicide detective right into the face of gamers.

With Bonds gone, his creator Jim Walls also departed the series and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Daryl Gates was instead billed as the game’s creator. Though he is credited for being instrumental in the establishment of the modern SWAT team, Gates is probably best known as being Chief of the LAPD during the Rodney King beating and subsequent LA Riots in 1992, following the acquittal of police officers who had been videotaped beating King after a high speed pursuit.

How much input Gates actually had in the game we’ll never know, but Open Season does feel very much of that time and place. The fictional Lytton has been discarded and things open at a gristly murder scene in South Central Los Angeles where homicide detective John Carey arrives to find his long-time partner, Bob Hickman, tortured and murdered alongside the bullet-strewn body of eight-year-old Bobby Washington. As the body’s begin piling up, Carey must put his emotions to one side, follow the evidence and solve the case.

Open Season isn’t perfect. Some will find the plot a little over the top, while, as can often be the case with point and click games, there can be a lot of mindless mouse clicking as you accidentally attempt to stumble upon the right command to move the game forward. But it added a layer of steel, real-life locations, and great digitilised graphics. And unlike the other entries in the Police Quest saga, Open Season felt like a product of its time, giving an accurate depiction of a bleak and violent period in LA history.

Police Quest: SWAT (1995)

My original five game Police Quest compilation set came on five discs – one game per disc, you might assume. In fact, the first four games all came on Disc 1, while four whole CDs were dedicated to Police Quest: SWAT alone. That’s because the game – another big stylistic turning point for the series – is presented entirely in the form of FMV videos, which required a huge amount of data.

FMV games used live action video files to display activity within a game. As everything needed to be pre-recorded, movements were incredibly limited, and the technology is not remembered fondly by most gamers (see the Sega CD). SWAT, however, was a triumph in the genre. Despite its limitations I probably played this game a lot more than any other Police Quest game. Perhaps more than any other instalment of the series, SWAT really gave you a sense of what it might feel like to jump knee deep into that word, with accurate training facilities and tension-loaded mission sequences.

Much of the game is spent training, but the time really paid off during the tactical operations. While there was only three playable missions in the game, which saw gamers called to tackle a mentally unstable elderly lady with a pistol, a barricaded bank robber and a terrorist attack, each had a wide variety of outcomes depending on the player’s actions, giving a lot of reply value and a feeling that the game was genuinely reacting to your movements.

Presentation, meanwhile, was top-rate. The acting was a big step up from the vocal performance of Open Season and the sound effects rang with real authenticity. Guns felt powerful and real and the missions were terrifyingly tense.

SWAT has since taken over the franchise, with three more games released under its banner that dropped the Police Quest from the title completely. SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle, in particular, was a real pearler in the vein of Counter-Strike, but none were quite as memorable as the early classics.

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic