Roberta Williams by @SebastianNavasF

Roberta Williams — The Queen of Graphic Adventures

Roberta Williams, mostly known for co-founding Sierra Online and her King’s Quest game series (1984–1998) and Phantasmagoria (1995), was the first female home computer game designer in the United States. Her passion about story-telling lead her to design more than 20 video games bringing the graphic adventure genre to the top.

From gamer to game-designer

Early adventure games were text-based adventures, written interactive stories, choose your own adventure kind of games. The very first, ADVENT (Colossal Cave Adventure), spread massively and got to the hands of a 26 years old Roberta Williams who played it at home in the teletype machine of her husband Ken Williams, a freelance programmer.

“I love adventure games because they take me away from the real world and make me feel as if I really were on an adventure in a strange land. I have always had a vivid imagination, which was a drawback as a little girl; day-dreaming instead of doing my schoolwork”.

After playing ADVENT, she went for more adventure games and basically played all that was available at the time in the computers her husband brought home, TRS-80 and later Apple II. Disappointed with what was available, Roberta decided to create her own adventure game. So, in 1980 with the collaboration of Ken in programming, she designed, wrote and illustrated Mystery House the very first graphical adventure game (initially titled Hi-Res Adventure). In the book Antology Ken states:

Mystery House sets you in an old Victorian house in which your friends are being killed off one by one and you have to discover who is the murderer before becoming the next victim. According to the the video game historian Laine Nooney, to create Mystery House’s setting and story Roberta inspired herself in the board game Clue and Agatha Christie’s mystery novel And Then There Were None. Then, As Nooney explains: “natural language input, object gathering, and puzzle proceduralism gleaned lessons from the other adventure games Williams played”.

Screenshot of the game Hi-Res Adventure: Mystery House (On-line Systems) (1980)

She put greater importance on illustrations, insisted in including graphics and prior to the technical design she focused on visual and spatial architecture. The digital images were drawn with a Versawriter (a digitizer board and software system) and Ken used assembly language to script the images as stored coordinates and managed to fit the game into a floppy disk for the Apple II.

Sierra On-Line

Roberta and Ken Williams had no initial intention to distribute and market the game themselves, but after failing to achieve a satisfactory deal with Programma (software company) and later with Apple, they decided to go independent and put an ad for Mystery House in a computer magazine called Micro Magazine. Mystery House was an enormous success and eventually sold more than 10,000 copies, which was record-breaking for the time. Roberta wrote the ad herself:

Hi-Res Adventure: Mystery House, in the May 1980 issue of MICRO: The 6502 Journal — from Archive.org

Because of the great repercussion they established their own company On-Line Systems (later changed to Sierra On-Line in 1982). Then, in 1983 Roberta started working in her most famous project King’s Quest, a saga with 8 adventure games about the royal family of Daventry. In total she designed more than 20 original adventure games over the course of her nearly two decade design career, including The Black Cauldron (1986), Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1987), The Colonel’s Bequest (1989) and Phantasmagoria (1995). Over the 80' and 90’s, Sierra On-Line became one of the largest microcomputer-software companies in the world.

Genre and the Video Game

In addition to creating some of the world’s most popular games, Williams was also said to be the first one to make many of her games’ main characters female. In fact, King’s Quest IV is the first major graphical computer game with a recognizably human female avatar. After being asked about the controversies about this, Roberta said:

“I’m not understanding as to why you would consider the introduction of Rosella in King’s Quest IV as a controversy. To me, it seemed a natural (…). I do feel that King’s Quest IV was a pivotal game in bringing in more female players.

Based on the registration card data submitted for King’s Quest IV, Sierra estimated that 35–40% of the players were female. If you consider that they sold around half a million or more copies of that game, then close to 200,000 of those players in the late 1980s were women. Although there have always been more women to game history than Roberta Williams, it is not always easy to know where to find them. Roberta herself mentions in an interview:

Roberta was not a programmer but she had a great impact by introducing graphics, changing the way video games were being designed forever. Undoubtedly today Roberta William is an icon. Yet, she is not the only woman in game history and as the historian Laine Nooney notes, “Our sense that videogame history is “all about the boys” is the consequence of a certain mode of historical writing, preservation, memory, and temporally specific affective attachments, all of which produce the way we tell the history of videogames”.


Advent Calendar — Help us make it a book!

From December 1st until December 24th we plan to release one article each day, highlighting the life of one of the many women that have made today’s computing industry as amazing as it is: From early compilers to computer games, from chip design to distributed systems, we will revisit the lives of these pioneers.

Each article will come with an amazing illustration by @SebastianNavasF

If you want to see these series to become a book with expanded articles and even more illustrations by Sebastián, then subscribe to our newsletter below.

Credits

References

A Computer of One’s Own

Pioneers of the Computing Age

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