Jim Walls was a member of the California Highway Patrol. Unfortunately, his fifteen year career came to an end in 1986 when a shooting incident left him traumatized. During his recovery, Walls met Ken Williams, one of the co-founders of Sierra On-Line. Williams had the idea for an adventure game set in present day with a police officer protagonist and all he needed at that point was the help of a real one in order to make the experience as authentic as possible. With help from Mr. Williams, the police-officer-turned-game-designer created a game called Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel in 1987. Sierra was known for diversifying their adventure game settings, with some games taking place in a fantasy land while others being set in outer space. Though it wasn’t the only Sierra series that featured a modern-day setting, the original Police Quest was an innovative game in that it depicted realistic scenarios in a time when the medium was still largely in its infancy.
Playing the Game
Police Quest is an adventure game. The original version of this game was made in Sierra’s AGI engine and uses a text parser interface that functions in real time. In 1992, the game was remade with enhanced VGA graphics. Despite this, both versions progress largely the same and are about as equally good as each other. Though the text parser is well-designed and understands a good variety of reworded phrases, it doesn’t pause when you’re inputting commands, forcing you to slow down the game whenever you’re in a situation where you need to type fast. The VGA version uses Sierra’s point-and-click interface, making the game more accessible from a modern standpoint, but the copy protection that runs rampant throughout the entire game can get a tad annoying.
Unlike most adventure games, collecting items and using them on obstacles to advance doesn’t play a major role in Police Quest. Instead, you’re thrust into various scenarios that ask the question, “How would a good police officer approach this situation?” As a natural consequence to this, not only are the puzzle solutions much more intuitive than in most adventure games, it’s also difficult to render the game unwinnable. Because this game was created to be as realistic as possible, you have to follow police procedure in order to avoid losing. This includes walking around the patrol car you’re using in order to check for flat tires (the defective tires only exist if you don’t look for them), reading criminals their Miranda rights, and putting your gun in the locker when hauling them to jail. In most Sierra games, there is a score counter. In Police Quest, the score counter exists in order to determine how good of a police officer you are; the more you adhere to proper police procedure, the more points you are rewarded with.
Nowadays, there are various simulators that accurately recreate mundane tasks from driving trucks across Europe to farming. Police Quest was a very forward-looking game when one considers that most of its contemporaries in the 1980s didn’t feature goals more advanced than “get to the end,” usually accomplished by killing everyone. Entertaining thoughts about gunning down the criminal approaching you instead of commanding them to stop? Doing the former may work in movies, but in real life, you’d face serious consequences for doing so.
The only real complaint I have about this game is that driving can get a bit tedious. The original version was weird because you could go in the opposite direction without actually turning around; it’s one of those things you have to see to believe. It’s also very easy to crash into curbs or other cars, especially if you’re playing the game on a faster speed. In the VGA version, the controls for driving are a bit better and if you crash, the game will rewind to before your fatal error, saving you from having to reload. The only downside is that missing an important turnoff means circling around the block in order to try again. Despite this, the game is great. Anyone could figure out how to play with little difficulty and the manual explains police procedure for those who are unfamiliar with it. Apparently, the game is so accurate to real life, that it was used as a training tool for rookie officers and as a refreshment for experienced officers.
Analyzing the Story
The Police Quest series is set in the fictional city of Lytton, California. Lytton is a small town geographically, but, in spite of this, its problems with crime is speculated to be as bad as that in major cities. You play the role of Sonny Bonds, a police officer with many years of experience on the force. Your goal is to patrol the city to keep its citizens safe from the dangers of unsafe drivers and drug dealers.
Despite the game’s name and subtitle, Police Quest doesn’t feature much of a quest or story. Although the eponymous Death Angel is mentioned a few times throughout the game, he doesn’t become important until the final scenario. However, this is a rare instance where a game’s mundane nature justifies the lack of an overarching goal. Luckily, the 1992 version does flesh things out a bit better and gives the main character more of a personality.
Nearing the halfway point, Sonny is transferred into the narcotics division and the game becomes less of a simulator and more of a crime drama, but even then, it’s still firmly embedded in reality and you still have to do everything by the book in order to succeed. It’s from there that the game has more of a story, but even then, it doesn’t have much bearing on the gameplay outside of telling you what to do next. The only objection I have is that the heavy-handed “war on drugs” narrative can be difficult to take seriously, especially by today’s standards. Although to be fair, this game does have more of an excuse than most for that narrative choice. Fortunately, it doesn’t get in the way of the fun and I think it’s engaging enough to keep the player interested and wanting to see things through to the end. Plus, like most adventure games, there is an abundance of funny dialogue when you do stupid things on purpose.
Drawing a Conclusion
Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and King’s Quest were all series that didn’t truly shine until several installments in. Police Quest, on the other hand, stands out as a series that was good right away. While it may not have the same fan following as those aforementioned series by Sierra, the original Police Quest is a classic and could quite possibly have been the best game ever made using the AGI engine. The game’s unique premise has allowed it to stand the test of time surprisingly well. Offhand, one of the only modern games I can think of that has a heavy emphasis on police procedure would be SWAT 4. That title is a first-person, tactical shooter and thus has more action than Police Quest, but you die in about three hits, you get more points by bringing suspects into custody alive, and you even get penalized for shooting first. Interestingly, the SWAT series is actually a spinoff of Police Quest and its main character, Sonny Bonds, even features in SWAT 4 as your commanding officer. If you haven’t played the original Police Quest and enjoy adventure games, this is a highly-recommended title. This is especially true if you’re sick of those other adventure games that force you to throw moldy cheese into vats of boiling liquid.
Final Score: 7/10