The Colonel’s Bequest

Laura Bow 1

Introduction

The Colonel’s Bequest is an adventure game originally released in 1989 for MS-DOS. It was made by Sierra co-founder Roberta Williams, who is most famous for being the creator of the King’s Quest series. Nine years prior, she created a game for Apple II computers named Mystery House. Both games drew inspiration from Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None, in that they feature the protagonist being introduced to a cast of characters who, one-by-one, end up murdered. Though practically unplayable by today’s standards, Mystery House has its rightful place in history for being the first adventure game to feature graphics. This fact coupled with the King’s Quest series experiencing much more commercial success have made The Colonel’s Bequest something of a forgotten game in Sierra’s lineup.

Playing the Game

The Colonel’s Bequest is a graphic adventure game. The game is played in third-person and uses a text parser interface. It uses Sierra’s SCI engine, which features many improvements over their original AGI engine. The most notable improvements include SoundBlaster support, allowing for more dynamic sound effects and music than the PC speaker (which had precisely two volumes: ear-bleedingly loud and off), improved graphics, and, probably most importantly, the fact that the game now pauses when you’re inputting commands. The game also has mouse support. Left-clicking moves your character while right-clicking examines items in the game world.  A problem with older adventure games that use text parsers is that some objects are difficult to identify, and if you don’t know what it is, it’s impossible to interact with it if it’s not referred to by other text strings in that room. Right-clicking to examine is a handy feature for clearing up the ambiguity amid the outdated graphics.

Laura Bow 1 - Ask About Rudy

Most adventure games involve the player guiding a character through disparate locales as the title of the genre would suggest. The Colonel’s Bequest, on the other hand, has you exploring an old Louisianan estate and interacting with a cast of characters, all of whom have a name and backstory. Because of this, The Colonel’s Bequest is a lot more character-driven than its contemporaries. The developers realized the extent to which you would interact with the other characters and had the foresight to include handy keyboard shortcuts that, in addition to retyping what you entered last, allow you to begin your commands with “Ask about,” “Tell about,” and “Show [an item]” (if nothing else, their presence is a good way to inform players what kind of game this is).

Score display in King's Quest I.

Example of a score counter in King’s Quest I.

In most Sierra games, you’re informed of the maximum number of points the player can have, and many problems have multiple solutions with some being worth more points than others. Typically, the best solutions involved dealing with foes using non-violent methods or finding ways to avoid giving away valuable items. Adventure games usually have little to no replay value, so it’s a rare instance where scoring points actually plays an important part in the gameplay experience outside of the occasional extra life. The Colonel’s Bequest is something of an anomaly in Sierra’s adventure game catalog in that there are no points. Instead, once you’ve finished the game, you’re given a rating depending on how much of the plot you’ve uncovered. The more privy you are to the secrets of the game’s cast members and the estate, the higher your rating becomes.

An aspect I’ve always found baffling in adventure games is when puzzle solutions involve actions that could only make sense to the player. There’s a good example of this strange phenomenon in action from King’s Quest V. Keeping spoilers to a minimum, there’s an item from that game that kills you with no warning if you interact with it, but in no way does it look like something that’s deadly. You’re supposed to use that item on an evil character, causing them to use it and get themselves killed. The problem is that there was no way for the main character to know what the item does. The player knows what it does by dying and restoring a saved game, but the main character couldn’t possibly know unless he used it himself and by then it would be too late.

Now, how does this relate back to The Colonel’s Bequest? It’s quite simple. In order to get a perfect score in this game, you need to be aware of every event that occurs in the game well in advance. This goes beyond simply spying on characters from secret passages to hear their private conversations; you also need to notice items going missing, which involves looking at the item before it disappears, returning to the scene to notice its absence (you actually have to type “Look [at object]” after it’s gone), and then examining it again when it finally turns up. The Colonel’s Bequest does not operate in real time. Instead, there are eight acts, each an hour long, and scripted events advance time by fifteen minutes. With a few exceptions, the scenes that advance time are easy to avoid, but only if the player knows where they are.

While this may sound overly complex, it’s worth noting that getting a perfect score does not affect which ending you get. Ironically, this is what I would have to say is this game’s defining flaw; while the rating system adds replay value, it doesn’t properly motivate the player into doing well. In fact, one could potentially not solve a single puzzle and still get the best ending. |At the end of the game, you have a choice between shooting one of two people involved in a physical altercation; the ending you get hinges entirely on who you decide to attack.| I can understand not wanting to punish the player for failing to get a perfect score, but it’s not a good idea to remove consequences for being inattentive in a murder mystery game.

Analyzing the Story

Laura Bow 1 - Opening Screenshot 2

The Colonel’s Bequest takes place in the Roaring Twenties. Laura Bow, a student at Tulane University, is invited by her friend, Lillian Prune, to her uncle’s estate for a family reunion. Lillian’s uncle, Colonel Dijon, is a reclusive curmudgeon and owner of an old, dilapidated sugar plantation surrounded by swampland. While Laura is having dinner with Lillian’s relatives, Colonel Dijon takes this opportunity to read his will. Though he has amassed a large fortune in his lifetime, he never fathered an heir, so his inheritance will be bequeathed to each of his guests, other than Laura. He then makes the fatal error of informing them that should anyone die before he does, that person’s share is forfeit and the sum will be equally distributed to the surviving inheritors. A combination of this, the estate of Colonel Dijon being on an island with only one way out, and a contentious relationship between the guests is the perfect recipe for a murder mystery if I ever saw one.

Because of the game’s character-driven narrative, puzzles in The Colonel’s Bequest involve interacting with the cast. While “use X on Y” puzzles still exist, they aren’t as prominent as they are in most adventure games. Unfortunately, for the most part, the cast of The Colonel’s Bequest is very one-note, covering the gamut of stock mystery novel characters such as the French maid, the greedy nephew, and the crooked attorney. Because they’re one-dimensional and generally unlikable, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for them when they start dying. On the other hand, this is a game from 1989, so interacting with even the flattest of characters in a way outside of combat was quite the mold breaker.

This was all the characterization you got in Mystery House.

This was all the characterization you got in Mystery House.

This is what you get when you look at one person in The Colonel’s Bequest.

This is what you get when you look at one person in The Colonel’s Bequest.

Being an older game, The Colonel’s Bequest has a lot of strange moments in its story progression. For starters, Laura doesn’t have much of a reaction to discovering dead bodies (with one exception). A text box appears every time you happen upon a corpse, but the narration is in second-person, absolving Laura of her own reaction. Furthermore, Laura’s attempts at telling anyone about the murders either results in them not finding the dead body or outright dismissing her claims. This is true even if Laura and the person she’s trying to warn are only one screen away from the crime scene. This anomaly extends to the murders themselves. After each act, another character is found dead. They’re often triggered by visiting the area of the next act’s victim, leaving the screen, and then immediately returning to find the character gone. Laura doesn’t hear the struggle nor does she notice the altercation through the open doorway – the killer waited for Laura to leave, attacked the person, and dragged their body out of the room all within the second it took for her to leave and reenter. Not only that, but bodies will often turn up quite a long distance from where the victim was attacked, leaving the player to wonder how the killer transports the bodies without anyone noticing.

The writing in The Colonel’s Bequest, is, to put it charitably, nothing remarkable these days. That said, I do like that the game is set in the Roaring Twenties. Despite being an important period in American history, it doesn’t see much use in video games, which is a real shame. Much like other adventure games, the flavor text does a good job providing the player with backstory of the estate and its guests. Though, nearing the end of the game, the narration has a habit of giving you obvious clues as to what’s going on and then coyly acting perplexed about what they could mean.

When I was discussing the gameplay, I remarked that one could get the best ending by accident. This is entirely true and this detail extends to the story as well. If you don’t know who the culprit of each crime is (or worse, somehow missed the murders entirely), a character will flat-out explain what transpired that night, doubtlessly leading to a lot of confusion. While I do realize that Laura isn’t actually a detective, the effect of this development renders her a passive participant in the story until the very end of the game. She learns many secrets about her fellow guests, but she can’t use the knowledge in any meaningful way. In other words, this game captures exactly what’s it’s like to be an NPC in any other game.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Excellent atmosphere
  • Fun to explore
  • No unwinnable situations
  • Interesting concept
Cons:

  • Lack of puzzles
  • Unlikable cast
  • Protagonist’s endeavors have almost no effect on story
  • Difficult without a guide
  • Doesn’t properly incentivize players to succeed

Even though The Colonel’s Bequest has many good qualities, I find it a bit difficult to recommend playing. The game has a lot of cheap deaths that were typical of Sierra games. Even if they are easy to avoid once you’re aware of them, they’re aspects of adventure games that proved to be terrible design choices in hindsight. However, as an offset to its cheap moments, it’s impossible to render the game unwinnable, which is sometimes known to adventure game fans as “walking dead”. What hurts The Colonel’s Bequest the most, in my opinion, is that it’s touted as a character-driven narrative, yet the cast isn’t particularly interesting. Instead, what this game excels in is atmosphere. The programmers did an amazing job making the game feel tense, like a psychopath could pop out at any moment and kill you without a moment’s notice. I find it amazing how such an old game can pull off scary moments so effectively. The game also successfully captures the spirit of the decade in which it’s set with references to 1920s culture prevalent in its story and characters. If you’re an old-school adventure game enthusiast, this game might be worth checking out. Everyone else should stick with the Ace Attorney series. Not only are the characters better and more memorable, those games always give you a motivation to catch the killer even when the victim is completely unlikable.

Final Score: 4/10

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3 thoughts on “The Colonel’s Bequest

  1. That sounds like a really interesting system of ranking. And actually one that makes sense, given that the more you uncover about the mystery the better the situation you’d be in. It’s really disappointing that doesn’t impact the ending, though. If anything did, you’d think it’d be how much you uncovered.

    I remember having a lot of fun with the Sierra games when I was a kid. Most of the ones I picked up were already pretty old, even then, but I remember getting really wrapped up in the unique experience and exploration they provided. I can’t stand them now, though. I haven’t played the Colonel’s Bequest, but I wonder if that’s in the same situation as what I’ve experienced with the King’s Quest series; in that they were a lot better when they were young and doing new things and don’t work so well in retrospect now that we’re used to games with puzzles that actually intended a sensible human to be able to work their way through them. Freaking Rumplestiltskin.

    Still, I find myself intrigued by the premise of the game. You’re right, the twenties is absolutely an era that needs to be better explored, and I do love a good murder mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What’s worse is that trying to tell anyone else of the secrets you learn from spying on the guests results in them responding, “So?” or something similar.

      A lot of Sierra games haven’t held up well in hindsight. Unwinnable situations and cheap deaths were commonplace in eighties adventure games, as that was perceived as a way of making a game more challenging, but it’s not a game design choice that has fared well with modern gamers – and they’re 100% right. That said, I think King’s Quest VI has held up reasonably well and stands as one of my favorite games. I’ve also been very impressed by the Police Quest series.

      The only saving grace of the infamous Ifnkovhgroghprm puzzle is that solving it wasn’t required to beat the game (though you miss out on full points if you mess up). Nonetheless, it was so bad that I remember owning an edition of the original King’s Quest (specifically, the one that was part of the Roberta Williams Anthology) that flat-out explained what the answer to that puzzle was. Imagine someone in 1984 trying to figure that one out!

      If you like Sierra games, The Colonel’s Bequest might be worth checking out. It does have a lot of good ideas even if they aren’t executed as well as they could have been and exploring the mansion is a lot of fun.

      Once again, thank you for reading!

      Like

  2. I had to go to the library to get through that puzzle. For whatever reason, they actually had a guide to the first couple King’s Quest games there. Only reason I ever beat the first one. The rest always seemed to lead me to a certain point, then I’d be absolutely unable to figure out how to proceed. And, of course, the whole everything-trying-to-kill-you random death thing was a big progress blocker as well.

    Happy to read! You’re putting out some good material.

    Liked by 1 person

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