This story is part of our Weekend Reads series, where we highlight a story we love from the archives. It was originally published in issue #5 of Eye on Design magazine.
YOU ARE IN THE FRONT YARD OF A LARGE ABANDONED VICTORIAN HOUSE. STONE STEPS LEAD UP TO A WIDE PORCH.
————— ENTER COMMAND?
If you’re a computer programmer or digital designer over the age of 40, this is probably how the future began for you. Two simple sentences and a cursor, blinking like a heartbeat, waiting for your command. To anyone else, it might read more like the beginning of an odd and boring story, but the format will be familiar to all those who have ever dabbled in microcomputing. It was the same way all text-based computer games started: a bare-bones setup and an invitation to venture forth, uncover the clues, and win the game. But it wasn’t just the text, flashing on the screen of an 8-bit Apple II that shot out like a siren call from the wild—it was the graphics. They were monochrome, ridiculously rudimentary, and they blew everyone away.
The year was 1980, and Roberta Williams, a shy, soft-spoken housewife with little coding or design experience to speak of, rose from obscurity and designed “Mystery House,” the first-ever computer game with graphics. It’s impossible to conceive of a computer or video game released today without any visuals, but the idea to include them had to start somewhere. And while she couldn’t have known it then, Williams’ kitchen-table hobby would become the origin of graphic design in the world of computing and technology—two industries that now dominate life as we know it.
To refer to Williams’ childlike compositions and stick figure-style caricatures as the equivalent of the cave paintings at Lascaux may be going a touch too far, but they were just as prescient. Then again, to limit her legacy to words and pictures alone is to tell only half the story. Most accounts of her contributions to computer game design stop at what we can see onscreen. But what lies beneath the bits and bytes is a woman who became the unlikely heroine of a growing feminist movement in the tech industry, a strangely savvy business figure whose unconventional design process pioneered a new wave in game making, and a self-described “lazy,” direction-less young girl whose ambitions ballooned until they burst.
Roberta met her husband, Ken Williams, 10 years earlier; she was 17, he was 16. A loner by all accounts, Roberta was an avid reader absorbed with fairy tales and fantasy stories that transported her away to better, more exciting places. “I didn’t have a lot of friends… I didn’t like who I was. Not at all. When I met Ken, he was very straight, very responsible. He worked from the time he was 12, and was really good at whatever he did. And I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t want to go to college, and didn’t want to do anything but party… He pulled me out when I was ready to go downhill.” They married before they were 20, promptly had two children, and soon Roberta became your typical housewife, changing diapers and getting dinner on the table when her husband came home from his work as a programmer for IBM.
The Williams’ home in Simi Valley, California was equipped with far more hardware than the average ’70s household. Their very first computer was a teletype machine: a device that looked like a typewriter on steroids, and used something called an acoustic coupler to access the internet. It was essentially a portable terminal that allowed Ken remote access to the room-sized mainframe computers he worked with during the day. Like any computer worth its salt, you could use a Teletype to play games; in this case, text-based adventure games. The gameplay happened line by slowly transmitted line, and was only visualized by your imagination.
“Everybody spent a lot of time doing nothing but solving the game. It’s estimated that it set the entire computer industry back two weeks… The true lunatics began to think about how they could do it better.”
But remember, this is the ’70s, before most home computers—of which there were very few—had screens. So instead of typing your commands (“CROSS BRIDGE,” “TAKE BOTTLE,” “THROW EGGS AT TROLL”) on a screen, you typed them onto paper like a typewriter. Those commands were then transmitted via the ’70s-version of the internet and the next step in the game was then typed back to you. It may not sound exciting today, but at the time it was enough to get anyone with access to a home terminal completely enthralled.
Tim Anderson, an early programmer responsible for the game “Zork,” recalled that when the most famous of these very early games, “Colossal Cave,” landed at MIT where he worked, “everybody spent a lot of time doing nothing but solving the game. It’s estimated that it set the entire computer industry back two weeks… The true lunatics began to think about how they could do it better.” Roberta was one of those lunatics. Only she took it one step further and decided to write her own game—but hers would have pictures.
“I just couldn’t stop,” she said. “It was compulsive. I started playing it and kept playing. I had a baby at the time, [who] was eight-months old; I totally ignored him. I didn’t want to be bothered. I didn’t want to stop and make dinner.”
Williams’ husband Ken was an adept programmer, but the available technology made drawing even simple shapes a challenge. Not even his coveted new Apple II (which would have cost over $5,000 at the time, accounting for inflation) could create graphics (though it could display them), so together the Williamses used a VersaWriter, a tablet with a mechanical arm that digitized hand-drawn images. Once Roberta convinced Ken to help her (it took some doing—he was busy with a side hustle of his own, working on a Fortran compiler), she presented him with a murder mystery story comprised of more than 100 different scenes and locations, dozens more than any previous game.
The plot of “Mystery House” was fairly straightforward. You begin by crossing the front porch and enter the “large, abandoned Victorian house,” which you find is not abandoned at all, but is actually occupied by seven other people who begin to die off as you explore the various rooms. You’re purportedly looking for a stash of jewels, but as you find one dead body after another, you forget the jewels and decide to figure out who the killer is—before you become their next victim.
The storyline was inspired by Roberta’s beloved Agatha Christie novels and the board game Clue, while the gameplay—the use of text and language, the movement from screen to screen, the user’s ability to gather objects in an inventory, and to forge a path by solving puzzles—were all drawn from “Colossal Cave” and other predecessors like “Journey” (Softape) and “Voodoo Castle” (Adventure International; both were text adventure games played via cassette tape). Many designers at the time would begin a new game based on what they could code, but Roberta, with her limited coding ability, began by storyboarding a narrative and sketching the settings. “Her design was a visual and spatial architecture long before it was ever a technical one… a series of bubbles and lines, each bubble corresponding to a specific room in the game,” said Ken.
Programming computers and writing stories may seem like two obviously different skillsets today, but in the early days of microcomputing it was normal for one person to handle both the game design and the programming. Though Roberta knew her way around a computer, she certainly hadn’t mastered more than the basics of tricky early programming languages like COBOL, so her design process necessitated a division of labor that was, in its own way, quite radical. It’s this separation of game design and game programming that made it possible for her and other creative, yet less technically skilled game designers to flourish. In fact, her outsider’s perspective was to her benefit. She didn’t know enough about computers to know what they couldn’t do, and so “she continually pressed the limits of what [Ken] thought he could program.”
But even Ken, who author Steve Levy described in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, as a programmer “rising at quantum speed,” and one of the “world’s youngest, most recklessly ambitious software titans,” had his limits. The 100+ settings and pathways Roberta created for “Mystery House” were too much for a floppy disk to hold. Miraculously, he pared the game down to a slim 59kb—that’s just over one half of one-tenth of a megabyte. For comparison, the popular computer game “Minecraft” is 100mb; you can fit 1,700 “Mystery Houses” into a single unit of “MineCraft.”
Between 1979 and 1980, the Williamses finalized their first humble game, and Roberta soon found herself at the grocery store with a shopping cart full of Ziploc bags, which, when coupled with a photocopied sheet of paper, passed for game packaging. They had just placed an ad for “Mystery House” in a scientific computing magazine and the orders were streaming in (their phone was ringing at all hours, too, since they included their home number as a help line). From the start, Roberta and Ken’s primary goal was to make money with “Mystery House,” though their original intentions were modest: They wanted to earn enough to move to a quiet home in the woods. But after selling 10,000 copies of the game, they realized they’d tapped into something much bigger. In just a few years, their little game would go on to spawn a billion-dollar gaming empire and make them household names.
Within five months they were on the road to their new home near the Yosemite mountains in California, but they didn’t exactly settle in for the simple life. Instead, they founded Sierra On-Line (download the original font) and immediately got to work on more games, always with Roberta as the writer and designer and Ken as the programmer. They followed up “Mystery House” with “Wizard and the Princess” (1980), the very first full-color game. It sold 60,000 copies and spawned the King’s Quest series, which went on to sell 7 million copies by 1997, becoming a major commercial and critical success that cemented Sierra as the era’s ultimate adventure game hitmaker, with Roberta as the reigning queen.
At the time, I don’t think we had much more strategy than just to have fun.
The Williamses hired more people, designers, coders, programmers. The company was growing fast, and Sierra was competing for talent with other prominent game publishers headquartered in sexier locations, like LucasArts, part of George Lucas’ game division in San Francisco, and Infocom just outside of Boston. Sierra, on the other hand, was located in the small town of Oakhurst, with a population just around 2,000. Hot, young tech stars rising in a burgeoning field weren’t likely to be attracted to a place that hadn’t seen much action since the Gold Rush. Ken and Roberta had to take who they could get and hope they could be trained. One early Sierra employee, Carolyn Box, was a champion gold panner, who happened to take up coding with her husband at the age of 40. “A month before the [coding] class ended, Sierra On-Line moved up here, and we basically just walked into their offices asking for a job, and they hired us,” she said. Laine Nooney, assistant professor of media industries at New York University and leading expert on the history of home computing, noted that the area’s small talent pool meant that Sierra would “literally hire anyone who could program, or pick up a phone, or tape a box.”
“When Sierra started,” said Ken in 2006, “it was a very different world from what we live in today. Floppy disks were just being invented. The little bit of software that was being sold was shipped on audio cassette. Most products didn’t have packaging. There were no computer magazines beyond a few hand-typed newsletters. This worked in our favor. At the time I was a 25-year-old ‘kid’ with no experience running a business. In today’s competitive world, we wouldn’t have survived six months. But at the time, we could get away with horrible packaging… and giving no thought whatsoever to things like brand image. At the time, I don’t think we had much more strategy than just to have fun.”
What emerged was a ragtag crew of energetic misfits, willing to move to the middle of nowhere for the chance to get in on the ground floor, where they could develop ideas and build brand new software with the latest tech. Many were whizzes who would go down in the annals of gaming history, and many others, like Carolyn Box, simply wouldn’t have been given a chance elsewhere—not because they weren’t talented, but because women had a harder time standing out in an industry that was becoming more male-dominated each year. Although computer science was popular with women, the LucasArts and Infocoms of the day had few women on staff, and even fewer in decision-making positions. By comparison, Sierra had a veritable army of women, including influential programmers and game designers like Jane Jensen, Christy Marx, Lorelei Shannon, and Lori Ann Cole, who said that Sierra “actively invited female designers.”
The reason Sierra makes for such a compelling case is because it “reveals a history that intersects labor, class, and gender—a history the game industry very much needs to understand right now.”
At the same time, Roberta was beginning to push her storylines in new directions with strong female characters. In “King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella” (1988), the title character usurps the series’ traditional male lead, Sir Graham, to become the first female protagonist in a graphic adventure. It was a bold move, and she wasn’t sure she would pull it off. “It hadn’t been done in our industry to have a girl heroine,” said Roberta. “I worried about it while I was designing the game. I wondered if it was going to be accepted. I thought there would be some controversy, that maybe guys would write in and say, ‘I don’t want to be a girl,”… but it hasn’t really been an issue.” The game was an instant hit, selling 100,000 copies in the first two weeks. Fan mail poured in, most of it from women, whom Sierra estimated made up to 40% of its players.
This is a love letter, pure and simple… I do not fit the typical profile for adventure gamers. I am a 45-year-old woman, who works for L.L. Bean as a telephone order representative part of the year and travels with her husband the rest of the time… I write (freelance) when I travel, using my home computer primarily for word processing. I love adventure games. Like Roberta Williams, I have always been an ardent reader. I enjoy Shakespeare and Agatha Christie equally well… I am addicted. There seems to be no known cure. I hope no one ever finds one. Please continue to create forever… Thanks for everything, especially giving me an opportunity to say how much I love you.
Encouraged by the reaction from fans like Hood, Roberta made “The Colonel’s Bequest” (1989) starring Laura Bow, a determined student of journalism and a fan of detective stories. In “King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride” (1994), players have the option of not one but two female leads, Princess Rosella and her mother, Queen Valanice. This isn’t to say there weren’t any women in other games; on the contrary, there were lots of hyper-sexualized damsels in distress and “chainmail-bikini babes,” as one woman designer called them. In the popular “Leisure Suit Larry” series (published from 1987-2009), the female characters easily outweigh the male characters, which would be fine if the entire point of the game isn’t to have sex with as many of them as possible.
It all came to a head in 1995, when Sierra released its most ambitious game yet and the jewel in Roberta’s game design crown: “Phantasmagoria.” It was the world’s first live-action video game, using real actors on computer-designed 3D backdrops and impressive audio-visual effects.
The script was a 550-page horror story about the character Adrienne Delaney, a writer who moves into a remote mansion with her husband, who becomes possessed by evil, supernatural forces. The visuals are as graphic and disturbing as the plot, including a highly controversial rape scene, as well as gruesome deaths that required special-effects magic to show Adrienne’s head split in half by a pendulum blade, or ripped apart by a demon, or consumed by flames.
Producing “Phantasmagoria” was nothing short of a Herculean effort that went above and beyond Sierra’s normal operating procedure in every possible way. A cast of 25 actors and a 200-person crew worked for more than two years in a $1.5 million Hollywood-grade studio built specially for the game. Budgets ballooned as Sierra hired film professionals to handle the lighting, sound, camera, set design, and costuming. In addition to sounds effects, a musical score was composed and performed by a 135-voice neo-Gregorian choir. The original budget was $800,000, but in the end it cost $4.5 million to produce—more than a third of company’s profit margin at the time.
When the game came out, it occupied a whopping seven CD-ROMs. It was rated “M” for mature, and was quickly banned from CompUSA and other retailers, condemned by religious groups and politicians, and in some countries it was refused classification altogether—which only made people want to play it more. In its first week, “Phantasmagoria” made $12 million, making it the best-selling game in the U.S., and Sierra’s top-seller to this day.
Roberta’s ambitions grew along with her fame and success. Long before “Phantasmagoria,” she had a vision of creating a totally immersive game experience that would transform Sierra into a multimedia company that operated more like a film studio, more like Disney. “My goal,” she had said in 1983, “is to create the ultimate story… and revolutionize the entertainment industry. My ultimate goal is to be a film director and producer, but I do the best I can with computer games.”
While Roberta may have had Hollywood-sized ambitions, her work routine was perhaps better suited for life in a small mountain town. She was allegedly hardly ever in the Sierra office, preferring to work at home instead, and though only a handful of Sierra’s ex-employees have gone on record, suspicions arose that Roberta wasn’t putting in the same time as her fellow designers.
“As someone who never went to college and who, by her own accounts, never expected to amount to much, Robert’s ascent must have been as surprising to her as to anyone.”
After the early design and concept phase, Roberta tended to hand off the executional work to her team of artists and programmers before she came back in for quality control during the final testing phase. These were talented programmers who Roberta hand-picked to work on her flagship titles, many of which required significant technical savvy in order to meet her demands and her ambitious goals. “In the most difficult cases,” Nooney tells me in an interview, this meant “working more than eight hours a day, over weekends, for months at a time. More generally, many employees recount their time at Sierra as some of the most fun they had in their careers, but they also report being under tremendous, debilitating stress. This stress was extensive enough that some former employees still find these memories hard to discuss.”
More than any other designer at Sierra, Roberta’s games were heavily marketed with her name and portrait prominently displayed on the packaging. She was “a useful marketing icon,” says Nooney, which only incentivized Sierra to put more marketing energy behind her games. Out of all the games Sierra released each year (the company peaked in 1993 with around 30 new titles), Williams’ were given pride of place on store shelves and in magazine ads, and her releases were strategically timed to coincide with prime annual selling seasons. “It was difficult, if not impossible, for other designers who joined Sierra later to receive the same degree of promotion or command the same volume of shelf space, because Williams’ games were already a legacy by the late ’80s,” says Nooney.
As someone who never went to college and who, by her own accounts, never expected to amount to much, Robert’s ascent must have been as surprising to her as to anyone, and she clung tightly to her acclaim as a creative leader and innovative designer. She didn’t get there alone, and she knew it, but once she got to the top she wasn’t likely to make room for anyone else. “As far as programming techniques go,” she said in a 1983 interview with Antic magazine, “anybody can do it. It’s nothing special. The specialness comes from the stories I make up, and nobody can do that but me. They can do it their way, but nobody can do it my way.”
Still, being on her team was seen as an honor. “It meant you were considered to be the best at what you did,” says Nooney. Working their way through Roberta’s apprenticeship system is how many of Sierra’s promising up-and-comers proved themselves worthy of creating games and leading teams of their own. She developed lasting bonds with many loyal employees, but rubbed just as many others the wrong way. In that sense, she’s not much different than other powerful, high-ranking executives, but it does make it difficult to paint a portrait of Roberta as a leader who blazed a trail for women, which history is wont to do. She had every opportunity to champion promising young women at her company, and in tech and gaming in general, but that was never her endgame. From the outside her story seems heroic, full of rich and intriguing interludes, but the reveal is disappointingly simple.
Video game history doesn’t know how to make sense of her except to single her out.
“I think we miss a lot when our sole attraction to Sierra’s legacy is fixated on Roberta, or even on Sierra’s larger cadre of female designers” says Nooney. “…it reinforces very conservative ideas about creative authorship and authorial intent.” In other words, neither Roberta nor any other talented game designer is solely responsible for the final product; it’s a group effort. The reason Sierra makes for such a compelling case is because it “reveals a history that intersects labor, class, and gender—a history the game industry very much needs to understand right now.”
It’s certainly not the history Roberta ever set out to write. She was never a crusader for equity, never a spokesperson for the women in her company, let alone her industry. And it’s not just Roberta, it’s all the women we cherry pick as signs of progress. We like to assume that any woman who once stood alone, surrounded by men in the tech world—or the science world, art world, or political world—must have held a torch fueled by some inner Joan of Arc or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The role of Roberta, Queen of Inclusion and Gender Parity, is something we’ve collectively written into the historical record. It’s not only wrong to place the weight of feminist activism on the unsuspecting shoulders of women like Roberta, it’s dangerous. This revisionist history may be inspiring for young women today, but a falsely positive story is a false story nonetheless. “Video game history doesn’t know how to make sense of her except to single her out,” says Nooney.
Soon after “Phantasmagoria” was released, the computer game industry underwent a drastic change. The rise of fast-paced action, racing, and shooting games in the mid-’90s like “Doom,” “Duke Nukem,” and “Quake” gave birth to a “hostile, exclusionary, hyper-masculine game culture.” Roberta herself lamented the change. “I have never seen it this bad before in all my years of writing games,” she said in 1998. “There is such a dearth of games for women. I have never seen the shelves so empty.”
By this point, the Williamses had already retired. After Roberta designed 18 original games and pioneered a number of firsts for the industry, she and Ken sold Sierra in 1996 to Comp-U-Card (CUC) in a deal that was soon revealed to be one of the biggest cases of financial fraud in the U.S. The details of the buyout are as fascinating as they are long and complicated, but the short story is this: a Sierra board member who worked at CUC falsely inflated his company’s worth, and CUC bought Sierra for a price it couldn’t afford. After the misdealings were revealed in an audit, stock prices plunged and CUC sold off its holdings as fast as it could. “It was the Enron of the ’90s.”
Things quickly went downhill at Sierra, too. On February 22, 1999, on a day that went down in history as “Chainsaw Monday,” Sierra’s development studio was shuttered and two-thirds of the staff (about 250 people) were fired. The top executives had already fled to Sierra’s outpost in Bellevue, Washington, and it’s rumored that a mountain of original IP (concept art, early game drafts, unique code) were landfilled. What’s left is now owned by Activision, one of the world’s largest video game publishers.
“Sierra has been cut back to bare bones,” Roberta lamented in an interview with Just Adventure shortly after the massive layoffs. “Of course, I’m not happy as to what has happened to Sierra. It was in extremely strong shape and was doing very well when we sold it in 1996. Look at it now. It’s a travesty.”
The world hasn’t heard much from Roberta since. She hasn’t designed any other commercial games, and she and Ken seem busy with their many homes and boats, which they regularly charter on excursions around the world. Ken even has a blog to chronicle his yacht purchases.
For someone who got so much personal fulfillment from her games, it’s hard to understand how Roberta could remove herself so completely from them. But in the end, it was never really about the games—Roberta seems to have cared only as long as she was popular, and when her outlet for validation disappeared and the applause faded away, so did she.
It’s not the storybook ending she might have written for herself, slinking away into the sunset instead of riding out in a blaze of glory—or any of a hundred other clichés that tidily end a story. But if a fairytale is about a prince and princess overcoming obstacles, rising to challenges, proving their worth, and succeeding against all odds, then Roberta and Ken’s story isn’t actually so far off the mark. After all, what fairytale did you ever read where the protagonist goes about solving society’s problems and righting centuries of gender and class welfare wrongs?
In an interview Roberta gave just a few years after her first breakout success, “Mystery House,” she said, “I feel that I’ve grown as a person. I can deal with people; I can talk to them without feeling shy. I know my own mind now. I’m not floundering around in a world in which I don’t quite fit. I feel I can create a world to be how I want it to be; and not just in games. I feel in control.”
This article was originally published in the “Distraction” issue of Eye on Design magazine under the title, “Queen’s Quest.”
“A Pedestal, a Table, a Love Letter: Archaeologies of Gender in Videogame History,” by Laine Nooney: aigaeod.co/gamestudies.
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution – 25th Anniversary Edition by Steve Levy, 1984.
“Let’s Begin Again: Sierra On-Line and the Origins of the Graphical Adventure Game,” by Laine Nooney, American Journal of Play, vol. 10, no. 1, 2017.
What Happened To The Women Who Built the Video Game Industry?” by John Adkins, 2017: aigaeod.co/mic.
Sierra News Magazine, vol. 2, no. 2, 1989.
“What Happened To The Women Who Built the Video Game Industry?,” by John Adkins, 2017: aigaeod.co/mic.
Interview with Ken Williams in Adventure Classic Gaming by Philip John, 2006: aigaeod.co/classicgaming.
Interview with Bob Box, quoted in Carolyn’s obituary by Laine Nooney, 2018: aigaeod.co/gamasutra.
Interview with the Orange County Register.
Interview with noted game designer David Brevik, by Filip Nonkovic, 2014: aigaeod.co/hammer.