Police Quest and the art of procedural puzzling

I have a confession to make, dear reader: there are a few retro games that, for many years, I’ve been too scared to play. In some cases, like The Software Toolworks’ Life and Death, it’s due to the fact that the subject matter simultaneously squicks me out and fascinates me in a morbid sort of way. But in the case of Sierra’s Police Quest, I’ve always been put off by the most common criticism of the games being their focus on “proper police procedure”.

Foolish old me thought that this would mean the games would be tiresome and cumbersome to play, and that putting one foot out of line at any point during the game would result in complete and instant failure. That didn’t sound like something that was all that fun, so for the last thirty years I’ve been sort of gazing longingly at the Police Quest series and thinking “I’d actually quite like to try that, but it just seems a bit too daunting”.

Police Quest

Well, frankly, I’m 40 years old now and I don’t have time to be pissing around being afraid of ancient computer games, so after my recent frustrations over how difficult it is to find good adventure games these days, I thought I might as well bite the bullet (possibly literally) and give Police Quest a go for the first time — or more accurately, the VGA remake of the first Police Quest, which is available as part of the Police Quest Collection on GOG.com.

Reader, I loved it. Every minute of it. I mean, every minute of it. And while in some regards my fears were confirmed — there are indeed plenty of points in Police Quest where failure to follow proper police procedure means you end up dead — another way of looking at it is that it’s no more brutal and stupid than any other Sierra game from the period. In fact, in many ways, given that there is a “correct” way to handle most situations in Police Quest — and the game helpfully gives you tips along those lines if you cark it — it’s actually significantly easier than a lot of other Sierra titles from that time.

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But let’s back up a moment in case you are unfamiliar with the Police Quest series — or more specifically, its earlier incarnations, because the series as a whole has had a rather interesting and peculiar history.

Police Quest

Police Quest, or, to give it its full title, Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, was first released in 1987. This original version used Sierra’s original Adventure Game Interpreter or AGI interface; it used the distinctive “double-width pixel” graphics that its contemporaries used, and it had a text-based parser, requiring you to type in actions as well as manually guiding your character around the screen.

In 1992, a year after the series’ third installment was released, Sierra put out a complete VGA remake of the original Police Quest. This replaced the chunky 16-colour graphics of the original with 256-colour VGA visuals — some of which were based on digitised video footage — and, perhaps more significantly, replaced the parser-based interface with the point-and-click SCI engine that all of Sierra’s newer titles used.

It also tweaked a number of elements of the game to make them a little more palatable to a modern audience — most notably, it completely revamped the game’s driving sequences, and made a poker-playing sequence towards the end of the story optional, though you miss out on a big chunk of points if you skip it.

Police Quest

In Police Quest, you take on the role of Officer Sonny Bonds, a traffic cop in the Lytton police department. Lytton is a small town that, over the course of the last twenty years or so, has gone from idyllic suburbia to crime-infested shithole and, as Bonds, it’s your job to do your bit attempting to clean up the streets a little bit.

As a traffic cop, however, your influence is, as you might expect, relatively limited, so the early portion of the game consists of patrolling the town until Dispatch either orders you somewhere or you happen to spot a speeding car racing by at an intersection. On the one occasion you encounter something potentially interesting — a crashed car where the driver appears to have been murdered — the case is quickly taken off your hands by your superiors.

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Sonny has been making a name for himself prior to the events of the game, however, and his solid police work has not gone unnoticed by other divisions of the police department. Thus, as the game progresses, he finds himself recruited by the Narcotics division to assist in their attempts to take down local drug lord Jesse Bains, better known as “The Death Angel”.

Police Quest

From there, you’ve got some undercover work to do, an old flame-turned-sex worker to woo and a poker game to win (or skip) — all while trying your best not to get shot, beaten up, thrown off the force or caught with your knob somewhere inappropriate, such as swinging freely in the police station, or inside the aforementioned sex worker. Never a dull moment.

As it happens, the “procedure” side of things that I’d found so daunting for 30 years actually ended up making Police Quest a lot more approachable than many other Sierra games I’ve played over the years. While it is still pretty easy to end up dead, you can usually understand why you got a Game Over — and how you can avoid that problem. In most cases, it’s a simple matter of contemplating the situation you’ve found yourself in, and then simply following the steps that can be found in the manual.

Police Quest

Doing a drug bust? Hide, draw your gun so you’re more threatening and then burst out and yell at the perps once you’ve seen them do the deed.

Being threatened by burly bikers? Twat ’em in the bollocks with your nightstick rather than giving into the temptation to shoot them.

Pulled over a hardened criminal who is almost certainly packing heat? Call for backup, for heaven’s sake, then make sure you’re armed and ready to respond to a potentially lethal situation — but defuse it if at all possible, however much provocation the suspect might be providing you with.

Participating in an elaborate undercover operation where timing is crucial and it’s important to maintain your cover? Probably not a good time to spend a few hours bumping uglies with your childhood sweetheart, however much she wants it.

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Okay, that last one’s not in the manual, but I believe it probably comes under “professional conduct” or something similar.

Police Quest

The nice thing about the VGA remake in particular is that it outright stops you from making really stupid mistakes — like, say, leaving your gun behind after a prison visit or forgetting to take a radio with you — and even in situations where your mistakes have fatal consequences, the obligatory “post-death” text usually provides you with a helpful hint as to how you might want to approach things a bit differently.

Consequently, there was no point throughout Police Quest where I ever felt like I got “stuck”. This is a bit of a mixed blessing in some respects, because it means you can romp through the entire game in a few hours — but it also alleviates a lot of the frustration that many other Sierra adventures tend to make people feel. There’s no “moon logic” here; it’s all procedure.

In fact, some over the years have argued that Police Quest doesn’t really have any “puzzles” at all, and I can sort of see their point; aside from the requirement to adhere to proper procedure in dangerous situations, the game doesn’t put up a whole lot of resistance at all, and generally tells you exactly where you need to go and what to do next. Not only that, but it does so with wit and charm; just because this game attempts to simulate the life of a police officer doesn’t mean it can’t have the signature Sierra sense of humour about it when the time is right.

One could, of course, look on Police Quest’s overall structure as commentary on how police officers are just cogs in a machine made to enforce the norms of society and somethingorother. Or it could just be a considerately designed game that is actually rather a nice contrast to many of the other adventures that were around at the time.

Either way, I had an absolute blast playing Police Quest — and now I’m raring to go for the other installments.

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