Police Quest represents an interesting experiment in changing what adventure games were all about. Previously Sierra, and others, had focused on creating these interactive adventures out of cartoonish, comedic properties from the minds of some very creative writers and designers. Police Quest still attempted to be a fun adventure, but also wanted to nail down the “feel” of being a real-life knight in blue, from the daily grind to the difficult choices and situations you might be faced with. The results are an interesting hybrid of real police procedure, some easy-going humor, and a fairly interesting emprise.
To achieve this, Sierra hired retired California Highway Patrolman Jim Walls as a consultant to maintain authenticity. It eventually worked out that Jim himself wrote the story for the first three Police Quests, basing them on situations he had encountered during his time in the department. For PQ1, this shows in two ways. First, the game captures a “grunt-level” view of the force well, at least in the eyes of a layperson. The game avoids any bombastic Miami Vice style scenes and instead derives its drama from the fear and uncertainty naturally inherent in attempting to arrest desperate, armed criminals. Second, Walls’ inexperience as a storyteller shows with some juvenile writing and dialogue – but don’t worry, he does get better later in the series.
You play as veteran street cop Sonny Bonds in the growing town of Lytton, California. I suppose Lytton could be considered an allegory for the struggling expansion of many small towns of the 80s, as it comes off as the quintessential “small-town with big-city problems.” For Bonds, this of course means drugs, and drug-related crime. In this particular episode, Bonds will, in less than 24 hours, run two traffic shifts, get transferred to Narcotics, take over an investigation, go undercover, and tangle with the largest drug baron in the state – The Death Angel. Looks like Jack Bauer has some competition.
This version of Police Quest was released in 1987, and the AGI layout should be very familiar to anyone who’s played a previous Sierra Quest. The engine and interface are identical to Larry 1 and Space Quest 1. Graphics are quality (for the time) EGA renderings. Everything is understandable on sight, and though there are some quirky animations and exceptionally long noses, it manages to give the game a certain charm while still conveying all the information needed.
Control is handled by moving your character with the arrow keys, and stopping by pressing the same direction twice. Interaction is achieved with a functional text parser. You will still need to move around the screen, as despite the text parser, you will have to be graphically “close” to objects to manipulate them. The exact phrases necessary to proceed can often be unclear, especially when you’re getting away from the standard “Look at ___” and trying to figure out precise dialogue responses. However, the parser gives you a greater feeling of control over your character, and actions are performed because you know what you intend to do, not because you got lucky with a click.
A unique feature to Police Quest 1 is a driving interface, where you hit the mean streets of Lytton on patrol. When you climb in your car and press F4, or type “drive,” the game switches to an overhead map of the city, with cars represented by moving colored dashes. The same control scheme from the scrolling sections is used here, with a direction key sending you off at a predetermined speed, and another tap of the same key to stop. Your car changes direction instantly, like a Tron lightcycle, which can frequently lead to crashes as you try to park, adjust to the proper side of the road, or slide up behind a car you intend to pull over. Three hotkeys determine your speed, with the fastest turning on your car’s lights and blaring your PC-speaker siren.
As you drive, the text parser is still available, so you can look around for landmarks and make calls to dispatch. This is sometimes helpful, as you will be directed to streets and locations that are not labeled on the in-game map. You will either have to follow the one included with the paper documentation, or learn the city and street layout yourself though frequent use of the “look” command. Most buildings are only there for show, but the ones you can stop at have clearly demarcated parking lots or parking areas. A basic traffic system is also in place, with a few stoplights planted around the city, and cars that will obey (or not obey) them.
But before you get excited about watching for traffic violators and writing tickets, there is no randomization to the lawbreaking. You will make a few traffic stops for speeding and running red lights, but they will all be pre-scripted as part of the plot. Between these plot points are about five minutes of quiet driving “on patrol” before dispatch will send you off to a location, or you’ll “happen” across a crime being committed. The map also serves to break up and segue your scrolling adventure sections, as to get anywhere, even when off duty, you have to drive there.
It’s an amusing minigame, but ultimately little more than a distraction. Almost 80% of the deaths I had in the entire game came from crashing at some point in the driving section, getting “game overs” for failing to stop at a red light, or attempting to make a legal right turn on red (the game’s simulation of traffic law apparently isn’t that complex). On the other hand, the traffic sections make an absolutely perfect break for a save. Since you have to drive between locations, points are not given on the driving section, and any mistake will end in instant death, creating a new save before getting behind the wheel makes great sense. It also prevents you from falling too far behind if you slip up elsewhere.
I called the writing juvenile, which should certainly be backed up. First, the story itself is rather mature. There are shootings, there are drugs, there’s a side plot where one of the officers’ children is hooked on cocaine, and even Bonds’ high-school sweetheart is now a prostitute. However, it seems like Sierra wasn’t sure if they could sell a hardcore crime drama, or perhaps that wasn’t a side that Walls wanted to portray.
As a result, the story remains aloof from its edgier content. Insults from criminals are at a third-grade playground level, like the scathing “Your mama wears Army boots!” burn from an angry motorist. Standing in a court of law and describing a tattoo over a man’s nipple prompts childish laughter from the state judge and all present. What, cause I said “nipple?” There’s a “mad prankster” who puts a live chicken on Chief Whipplestick’s desk. Dialogue is punctuated with frequent exclamation points for standard declarative sentences, and a lot of jokes simply fall flat, many of which were unnecessary to begin with. The best way to sum it up is that it’s a game of gritty ideas that tries awfully hard to be inoffensive, and is also clearly the work of a competent, but first-time, writer.
Walls was brought in to make the game authentic, which he makes a great effort to do in terms of police procedure. A few pages in the manual are dedicated to listing the steps for various traffic and felony stops, which you will then follow inside the game. Standardized radio codes are given, as well as a number of vehicle and felony statutes that are never attributed, but appear to be from actual (California, perhaps?) American state law. In game terms, it means that you will have enough procedure to remember, or read from and follow along, to get some realism across without being overburdened.
However, not following procedure to the letter usually results in your death, or a game over, even to ridiculous extremes. If you forget to do a safety check of your vehicle by walking completely around it once, you will blow a tire immediately leaving the station and have to reload a game. If you forget to lock your gun up outside the jail before you enter, somehow, someone will steal the gun from your belt and shoot you.
Fortunately, in almost every scenario, the game will explain to you what you did wrong. Unfortunately, it leads to some overly tedious routines as you must “open locker,” “place gun,” “close locker” every time you want to enter the jail. What doesn’t kill you outright – small details like searching a suspect before putting him in the car, or remembering to read him his rights – will make you miss out on extra points toward the maximum possible score. This is in addition to the other Sierra standard of the time, present here as well, where it is easy to overlook items needed to proceed, get stuck, and have to reload.
I watched a video of the “Making of Police Quest” where Ken Williams made the claim that this game was used as a training simulator in police stations. I can’t see how. The story, in terms of realism, is a step above the complete fantasy of King’s Quest, and an attempt at requiring procedure and showing the consequences of ignoring it is undeniably present. However, the game has about as much use in preparing you to be a policeman as The Oregon Trail has in preparing you to set off from Independence, Missouri in a wagon.
If you’re expecting a game that plays exactly like the other Sierra Quests, but with a little more grounding in reality, you’ve got the right idea. It’s certainly a fun adventure, satisfying if you want to play as a street cop/temporary detective, and probably about as tedious (in terms of simulating procedure) as any casual gamer would want it to get.
Some exciting moments, a fun nod to being an actual cop. Certainly an enjoyable adventure.
Quirky driving sections, clear evidence of first-time writing. It’s not a meticulous simulator, but not following the couple of pages of rules that are laid out always results in instant, unlikely, death.
Attempting to apprehend the suspect single-handedly was brave, but fatal. Review the “Felony Stop Procedures” of your LPD Indoctrination Guide.