Space Quest IV

Space Quest IV is a graphic adventure by Sierra On-Line, first released in 1991, and is the fourth in a series of six Space Quest games.

This is my second Sierra adventure (the first being Quest for Glory IV, which I haven’t written about yet because I only realised after finishing it that it was published in 1993 and not 1989 like I first though) and I found this one to be more accessible and the puzzles to be a more straightforward. Unfortunately, it suffered from the same narrative problems as Quest for Glory.

My Kingdom for an Objective

In Space Quest 4, the player is treated to an introduction that explains where Roger Wilco is now and that there are some bad people after him that wants to kill him. All this is fine, if incredibly over-explained and badly voice acted, but the problem is that the most important part of this whole thing can’t be explained: what the player is supposed to do next.

We’re told by our rescuer “you’ll understand soon,” which is accurate if by “soon” he means the end of the game.

Roger finds himself on a post-apocalyptic Xenon with a bunch of questions but no directions and no overall purpose other than a vague sense that he has to get back to his own time and/or defeat Vohaul. There is no immediate goal.

In contrast, both Monkey Island 1 and 2, the character’s purpose is spelled out clearly (“I want to be a mighty pirate” and “I’m off to find Big Whoop” respectively) and the next immediate goal is repeated by almost everyone you talk to (“Talk to the pirate leaders” and “If only someone could get rid of Largo LeGrande”).

Vohaul itself is a well-realised landscape, featuring the looming presence of the security services’ building in the background that watches over the decay and is reminiscent of the Tyrell Corporation. I had the feeling that I was supposed to somehow get to that building, but the lack of clarity or clear direction meant that, for the first hour, I was randomly wandering around the burned-out city trying to get the game to progress.

A screenshot of a ship flying into a red sky in Space Quest IV

This made solving the puzzles so much less satisfying. For puzzles to be effective and satisfying in adventure games, they need to be in service of a clear and stated goals and it’s crazy to me that this could have been solved with a single sentence.

Then There is the Dying

Here’s a list of all the ways I died in this game:

  • Slime monster dissolved me.
  • Floating robot came out of nowhere zapped me.
  • Seen by wandering cyborg who I tried to talk to because talking to characters is what you do in adventure games. Instead, it screamed which caused a floating robot to come out of nowhere and zap me.
  • Fell down a hole because I was exploring. Like you’re supposed to do in adventure games.
  • Blew myself up in sewer grate (this one was actually pretty funny).
  • Shot by guards.
  • Melted on hot rocks.
  • Fell off multiple cliffs while trying to carefully negotiate a pathway.
  • Zapped by a god damned change machine.
  • Shot by guards after going down a fucking escalator (again with the exploring).
  • Shot by guards for standing in an arcade (this one time you do get the opportunity to escape, whereas most of the other times guards appear on screen, player control is suspended and you’re dead—this inconsistency made an already frustrating death doubly so).
  • Shot by guards in the Skate-O-Rama.
  • Run over by angry bikers.
  • Zapped by a security ring gate.
  • Shot by guards for standing too long by my own ship.
  • Zapped by another, different floating robot.
  • Zapped by yet another, different floating robot.

I am not a fan of using death to teach you what you shouldn’t do but this is probably a personal taste thing. What I absolutely cannot forgive is the lack of autosave. If you’re going to use character death as a teaching tool in an adventure game, you should autosave every time the character enters a new scene. Thankfully, they had learned this lesson by the time Quest for Glory IV came around, but it got left out of this one.

Unlike an action or FPS game in which skill plays an important part of not dying, once the puzzles are solved in an adventure game, repeating them after being killed is just wasted time.

Let’s Talk About Sex

After we leave Vohaul, we find ourselves on Esteros where the “Latex Babes” in bathing suits capture Roger before he is called to save them from a giant slug monster at which point they all decide to go to the mall because, of course, even badass women love shopping. It’s very much thirteen year old boy humour, crass and tasteless.

The problem here isn’t even the bathing suits—given the planet’s environment and the fact that they live underwater, it’s entirely plausible that bathing suits are the most comfortable attire—it’s the objectifying “latex babes” and the shopping stereotype that are the real problems here.

Women love sex and sexuality just as much as men, and sex gets better when everyone involved is an equal participant, not just a trophy to be obtained. Most people don’t want to take the sexy bodies away, it’s just that those sexy bodies need to come from more diverse sources (from all genders), be consistent within the rules of the world (e.g. If the dudes are running into battle decked out in massive amounts of power armour, then the ladies should be similarly attired) and have an agency and individuality that betray depth and complexity and is more representative of the diversity we have in real life.

This is not that.

I Know Not Why I Do These Things

A screenshot of the computer shop in Space Quest IV

Once we’re in the mall, we have a bunch of puzzles to solve. This was probably the most coherent, fun, and interesting section of the game, where there was a clear immediate goal—steal all of the money from the ATM. Unfortunately, the why was still very much absent.

I could figure it out from context—I needed to purchase a plug except I didn’t know which plug for the laptop—but it was only after I returned to Space Quest XII that I was able to find out which plug it was.

It’s very possible I played this game incorrectly. Maybe I was supposed to break into the room of gangways to find the plug before I visited the mall so that I would know exactly the kind of expensive plug that I needed to buy when I arrived at the mall, although I’m pretty sure that was impossible. Perhaps if I had done it this way around, however, then the mall puzzles would have had a more coherent progression.

Either way, “did I do it right?” is never a concern I want to have after finishing a game. Never get the player into a position where they know what they need to do without knowing why they need to do it.

My Growing Obsessions

As I work my way through this list of adventure games, my amorphous feelings about what works and what doesn’t begins to solidify into hard and fast, Road Runner-esque rules about what I want and don’t want in my own theoretical titles.

Roger Wilco seated in his time machine ship in Space Quest IV

Here’s where I’m at so far:

Death: I’m not entirely opposed to death in adventure games, but the potential for it needs to be telegraphed early and forcefully or else it risks disincentivizing behaviours that I believe are key to enjoyable adventure game experiences, namely: talking to characters and exploring the world.

A player should never be punished for wanting to talk to a non-threatening character or for wanting to see what’s at the edges of the world they find themselves in.

Objectives: Treat me like I’m five. Hammer me over the head with what I’m supposed to be doing. Individual interactions can be as oblique and humorous, but there needs to be enough of them that I am crystal clear on what my immediate and long-term goals are.

Not only does it give me a strong sense of progression, it also sets up the conditions for having powerful twists.

Having said all of this, Space Quest IV is not an awful game. The mall section in particular was fun and well-realised and there are some genuinely amusing moments (especially if you’re a nerd who remembers what VGA graphics were). Travelling back to old versions of the game with really basic graphics while you remain in (relative) high res is a nice touch, and the self-aware and self-referential humour, while way overused, has its moments that I’m sure fans of the series love. It does, however, capture many of the flaws of early graphic adventure games and lacks both the mechanical and storytelling sophistication of Lucasarts adventures from the same period.

Major Lesson: Please don’t kill me!

Space Quest IV is available on GoG.