Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, we pick up the shield, reach for a nightstick, and prepare to retread some very, very mean streets with the Lytton PD's top Sierra suicide squad .
LA Noire is coming soon to the PC. But crime? Crime has always been with us. Laura Bow's notebook saw her through two major cases back in the 1920s. Discworld Noir was funny, clever, and a brilliant spin on Terry Pratchett's most famous creation. On the indie side, The Blackwell Legacy games are doing a great job of telling mysterious ghost stories. During the FMV era, it turned out The Dame Was Loaded, and then of course, there was a game simply known as 'Noir' - and a personal favourite of mine, the (later, not sucky) Tex Murphy games, which took those classical stylings into the Future. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? We do. We've painstakingly dug it out a million times.
But few of those cases are stranger, quirkier, or just plain messed up as gaming's original interactive police procedural adventure. Prepare for the insanity that awaits... In Pursuit of the Death Angel.
Maybe it's just me, but I never could take Police Quest very seriously. I know I probably should. It's certainly a serious game - an interactive police-procedural adventure, written by a real cop, and supposedly used by others as a training tool. For me though, it was always something else - closer to the dreams I imagine good cops having after eating too much cheese before bed. It's like a fevered nightmare of repressed paranoia and self-doubt, lessened only by a little guilty wish-fulfillment to round off a long day of being abused and unappreciated by the world they serve.
But I may be wrong. I've never been an American beat cop myself. I don't even really know how American cops work outside of TV and movies, not just because I'm far too boring to ever have gotten on the wrong side of the law, but because - as you can probably tell from my accent - I'm English. Yes, from England. God Save The Queen, and all that. It means I grew up with a very different kind of police force. Our police don't usually get to carry guns for instance. We don't have many donut shops. Instead of Miranda Rights, our officially approved caution is “You're bloody nicked, mate!”, to which our villains admit “It's a fair cop..." and resignedly hold out their wrists for the cuffs...
...okay, so some of that may be, as we apparently love to say, 'bollocks'. Still, it's a different world. Even ignoring that though, Police Quest is a goofier game than people credit it for. I think the moment that clinched it for me (in the original version, which used a text parser rather than icons) was when I realised that you can type 'remove uniform' at any point and main character Sonny Bonds actually will get his little nightstick out in the middle of a crime scene. And then die. Of shame.
Here's why Police Quest was so special. Sierra contracted an actual police officer, Jim Walls, to design them a realistic police game. He did. Unfortunately, Walls was trained to catch crooks, not create adventure games, and so the game he created was... initially... eh. It assumed the player knew the police procedure that obviously came naturally to him, and had effectively nothing to point you in the right direction, or any extra bits and pieces around the side. It needed fixing. Who did Sierra assign to fix it? Al Lowe. Yes, the creator of Leisure Suit Larry . What could possibly go wrong?
Nothing, really. Yes, the two styles - by-the-book policing and by-Christ-who-came-up-with-this Sierra design - clash at every turn, but that's what makes the result so much fun. Later Police Quest games lacked same quirky charm. In the second for instance, you had to keep practicing with your gun and making sure to use proper ear protection or you'd die when you actually had to use it, but that was firmly more 'annoying' than quirky. By the third game, the last that Walls worked on, the main plot was ridiculously silly, with the series' early star Sonny Bonds finding out that the drugs kingpin he put away in the first game now has a family with their own satanic style cult (which was oddly less deadly than a naked lunatic in the park who he also arrests), but not particularly interesting.
After that, there was one more game set in Los Angeles, which nobody liked very much, before the series morphed into Police Quest: SWAT - an FMV adventure, one of the worst strategy games you'll ever play, a pretty solid squad-based FPS, and finally SWAT4, which was excellent.
The basic structure of Police Quest 1 is that you, as basically good cop Sonny Bonds, just patrol the streets of the fictional, decaying city of Lytton, fighting crime by pretty much leaving the manual open in front of you and doing everything it says. In a way, it's Copy Protection: The Game, especially in the original version of the game, which used a text parser interface. In the VGA remake (where most of the shots here come from, obviously), it was Sierra's standard SCI point-and-click interface, and you could - just about - muddle through everything, apart from looking up your locker code in the manual at the start of the game, the arrest codes when you book someone, and having to check the map.
By Sierra's standards, the series is about a 0.4 on the Sadism Scale. It will kill you for the slightest mistake, and believe me, we're talking slightest mistakes here, but at least it generally has the decency to do it immediately rather than letting you play into a no-win situation. Generally.
The actual plot of the game does technically link most of the cases you investigate, but it's not very well done. There's a new drugs boss in town, Jesse Bains, better known as the Death Angel, which doesn't sound like a guy I'd choose to buy my illegal drugs from, but what would I know? I don't even drink. Sonny visits a few crime scenes which turn out to involve his activities, another cop's kid dies after taking drugs from his supply, and eventually Sonny is sent undercover to put an end to his reign of peripheral villainy. The most dramatic moment prior to that is when one of the Death Angel's minions is arrested but due to be released on a technicality, and Sonny has to rush over to the court with... the paperwork to stop that from happening. Call Police Camera Action!
And now, the moment you've all been waiting for...
Being the adventures of a Good Cop in a Bad City. Except when he's not.
Chapter 1: Sonny Bonds vs. Health And Safety
Playing Sierra games, the basic rule to remember was that anything that could even theoretically kill you would totally kill you, as would pretty much everything else. Cross a completely empty road? A car will suddenly appear to knock you over. In King's Quest 2, the portal that took you to the different areas was on the other side of a bridge that would only let you cross it a handful of times, for no better reason than to screw you over when you got to the end of the game but were unable to reach the ending. Stuff like that. Here, you have a gun. Shoot that gun without drawing it, and Sonny will blow his own feet off. If you expect anything different, you don't know Sierra. In Quest for Glory, an inexperienced thief could kill themselves by typing 'pick nose' and promptly stabbing a lockpick up one nostril and into their brain. A gun? No way are you going to be let off screwing up with that in your inventory.
But Police Quest takes this to a whole new level. Here, mild embarrassment can kill. Aside from being able to strip naked and die instantly, the shower room lets you change into a towel and walk out into the station, at which point a female narcotics detective, Laura, appears, has a bit of a giggle at you being out of uniform, and... you die. This, despite the fact that Laura is the station's resident prankster, who spends the entire game torturing your Sergeant with things like putting Mace on his memos and releasing a live chicken into his office, and clearly wouldn't give the faintest shit.
Right from the start, Sonny comes across as that straight-A student throwing a tantrum at getting a B+ in PE, almost to the point that Walls and co felt afraid he would be seen as the avatar of all police work, and must never, ever, be permitted to get away with even the smallest infraction in the line of duty, be it taking a bribe, or slightly increasing the odds of a fellow officer seeing his cock before filing the necessary paperwork to request permission to propose, marry the no-doubt terrified maiden in a traditional church service, and finish the manual on what he's actually meant to do with it.
In case you're wondering, yes. This will indeed make it all the more awkward when his love interest turns out to be a prostitute called Sweet Cheeks. But that's for later! First, there's... the car.
The VGA remake is slightly more lenient, but the original version of Police Quest was merciless here. Simply getting into your car and going out on patrol without doing a safety check was insufficient. Fair enough, you might thing. Except! You didn't just type 'perform safety check' or similar. You had to manually walk to all four sides of the car and check them out in turn, otherwise as soon as you left the station... your tyre would explode. The really cruel bit though... the cruelty that made Sierra "Sierra"... is that this is Schrodinger's Cockup. If you actually perform the check, the car is fine.
The driving is completely different in the EGA and VGA versions of the game, mostly because the EGA one is Hell, and the VGA one simply boring as it. In the VGA one, Sonny races along and very occasionally you have to stop at an intersection to avoid hitting something. The biggest pain is circling round the map to be on the right side of the road for the building you want. The EGA version gives you full control, but a tiny, tiny little sprite. Nudging anything will kill you, shooting a light will kill you, and the pixel-perfect precision you often need to stop somewhere will simply make you pray for death.
You've got to wonder whether Jim Walls lived like this, in a constant state of paranoia. I imagine him putting on plastic gloves to switch his bedside lamp off at night, just in case of a loose wire, and putting rubber around his keys, just in case he tripped while going down the stairs and impaled them through his eyeball. Both of them. At once. Which shouldn't even be possible. But you never know!
Chapter 2: Sonny Bonds and the Last Temptation
Before the plot proper kicks in, Sonny has to attend several incidents - a crashed car, where the job is largely to call in the big boys to handle it, a drunk driver who will smash you over the head if you're silly enough to handcuff him from behind, and a stolen car where you have a shoot-out. And then, there's Helen Hots/Tawnee Helmut (depending on EGA/VGA), who doesn't carry a gun, but does have a couple of other deadly weapons at her disposal. By which I mean she has breasts. Two of them, in fact.
Sonny turns out not to have been particularly well trained for this, practically slobbering against her car. She notices. "I'm so sorry, Officer," she simpers. "I just didn't see that stop sign. I'm so embarrassed. I promise I'll never do it again. I'll do anything if you'll let me go. Anything. "
Time to play our first round of Good Sonny, Bad Sonny!
Good Sonny: Despite his 'vitals turning to jello', Sonny resists her sultry siren ways and writes her the ticket she deserves. "I'm sorry, Miss, but running stop signs is very dangerous," he tells her, drawing a line in the sand. "I'd like to let you off with a warning, but I can't."
She nods sadly, realising that her gambit has failed. Having met an honest policeman, she resolves to drive away, maintaining the speed limit, and buy a cardigan. This experience sticks with her for the rest of her life, which she devotes to building homes for orphans in Africa, until finally being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for services to humanity. Unfortunately, she's too busy rescuing kittens from a burning tree to accept, but her doting son does so in her name. His name? Sonny Bonds Jr.
"YOU LITTLE NAZI!" she shrieks. "All you care about is making your quota! You don't care about PEOPLE! You just joined the force so you could carry a gun and feel like a man! You worthless little sack of brass buttons! Get your butt out of my sight, Officer Scummy Bonds! If you think I'm gonna pay a red cent of this ticket, you're dead wrong! What's your badge number? I'm gonna report you for harassment! They're gonna hang your butt out to dry! By the time I'm through with you, you won't be able to get a job as a rent-a-cop at a trailer park! Go on! Beat it, you stupid piece of white trash!"
"Have a nice day, miss," Sonny replies.
"SHOVE IT, PIG! Kiss your job goodbye! OINK OINK OINK!"
And so she vanishes, as Sonny ponders: "You're doing your job; you're trying to discourage reckless driving. Sometimes it seems it'd be a lot easier to let these people kill themselves off.
But what if... what if he hadn't been an honest cop?
Bad Sonny: "Two breasts, hmm?" thinks Sonny's alternate universe doppleganger, stroking the goatee that he obviously has, before reaching out to test the merchandise.
"Well, how rude," says the smiling woman, attempting to be offended. "But if that's what it takes, I suppose it's all right with me!"
"Your heart slips up into your throat," says the Narrator, unbiased in his view of this sordid little dealing. "You quickly trade your integrity for a shot at cheap thrills and torrid sex!"
"My phone number is 555-4369," she says with a smile. "Give me a call some time!"
And with that, Sonny waddles off, truncheon standing straight and true. Oddly (for Police Quest), you get to leave the screen alive. In fact, as far as I know, there's no repercussion for this at all. Unless of course, you push your luck. That sexy number? Find a phone, and you can call it.
"Hello? Helen speaking."
Sonny immediately asks for the date he was promised. "I don't know who you're trying to call, Sonny Bonds, but I recognise your voice!" shouts the woman on the other end.
"Oh my gawd!" Sonny realises. "It's Police Commissioner Hacker's wife!"
And thus, tricked, humiliated, and with his career in tatters, he retreats back to his empty apartment of failure in the certain knowledge that tonight, the only boob he's going to be touching... is himself.
Chapter 3: Sonny Bonds in: A Case of the Crabs
Not long after getting blue-balled on the Thin Blue Line, Sonny is called in to the local cops' pet coffee shop, Carol's, to deal with a complaint about some bikers causing trouble in the less salubrious bar next door - Wino Willy's. Sonny gets out of his car and heads in, realising too late that he's the main character in a Sierra adventure game and he's just allowed himself to be surrounded.
"Please move your motorcycles," he tells them anyway. "You're interfering with the business next door."
"Well, if it aint Little Boy Blue," spits the head biker. "Hey, Little Boy Blue, how'd you like me to help you swallow your tongue? Then you'd REALLY be blue!" HAR! Come to poppa, piggy!"
Bad Sonny: Sonny grits his teeth. "Sir, people do not talk this way."
"What? We're authentic crooks, the likes of which police officers like you might face in your-"
"You're as convincing as the average angel in a nativity play, only with a stupid beard, a tiny penis, and a brand new airhole," says Sonny, drawing his gun and shooting the guy dead.
I may possibly have changed the dialogue there. A little. Still, even if Bad Sonny does opt to shoot him dead, it doesn't end well for him. The all-knowing Narrator is unimpressed, to say the least.
"You pull your revolver and shoot the unarmed biker right between the eyes. (No, we're not going to reward your violence with animation of blood and brains hitting the back wall.) The biker's old lady brings you up on charges and sues you and the Lytton police department for several million dollars. Internal affairs finds you guilty. You spend the next 30 years of your life as an alcoholic shoe salesman, before drowning in a puddle of rainwater in the gutter."
Wow. Harsh. And somehow, I suspect Bad Sonny's last thoughts were along the lines of "But there were four of them, they were armed with pool cues and god only knows what else, and they just directly threatened to murder me in front of witnesses! This was so unfaiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-"
Good Sonny: Good Sonny instead reaches for his nightstick.
"I'll make you eat that, pig," growls the biker, but Sonny has Right on his side. One smack to the balls, and it is the other man down on the ground squealing.
"Hey, uh, we'll move the bikes, okay?" mutters one of the other bikers, totally not suddenly flaring up with adrenaline and attacking the intruder. "We'll just do that now, okay? We're leavin'."
As they go, Sonny sees a friendly face at the back of the bar - his old high-school crush, "Sweet Cheeks" Marie, who also has two breasts, and a clear willingness to let him touch them, no charge.
"Well, Marie, what's new on the street?" he asks, and immediately regrets his choice of phrase.
"Tell ya what, Sonny, I heard rumours about some new drug lord comin' in and takin' over everybody's action. The word is that he's really bad. A vicious dude, y'know? But I'm not sure I buy into that."
Stunned at the concept that a predatory druglord might be both 'bad' and a 'vicious dude', the average kingpin being cut from the same cloth as a Care Bears doll, Sonny listens on. "I met this guy who claimed to be him. The Death Angel. He was one weird dude, but he treated me okay."
"Did you notice anything unusual about him? Did he mention any names?"
"All business, 'aint ya, honey? This dude was a real sharp dresser. One thing I noticed about him; he had a tattoo of a little red rose over his left nipple. It was kinda cute, actually. Most of the stuff he said was just B.S. You guys will say anything to impress a girl, wont'cha?"
Sonny ums-and-ahas over this, and then pretty much immediately proves her point. "Ah, listen, Marie, you've been a big help. Let me give you a tip. We're going to be starting a weep of local- um- ladies of the evening. It's called Operation Trick Trap. The streets are going to be crawling with cops. You'd better lie low for a few days. I'd hate to see you behind bars."
And yes, we're still following Good Sonny - a cop who just passed secret information about a forthcoming sting directly to a prostitute, and thus we can assume, all the others as well. Once again: Being seen in a towel = Game Over. Directly sabotaging his own department's operation because he wants to recreate Pretty Woman on a street cop's budget? Eh. The universe understands.
Officer of the Year, everyone. Officer of the Year.
Chapter 4: Sonny Bonds Does A Little Undercover Work
But it turns out not to matter. Sweet Cheeks doesn't follow his advice, and is soon banged up. Then she's arrested and taken to jail. Luckily for her, the investigation into the Death Angel has swung into high gear by this point, and the net is closing in on his hideout - the Hotel Delphoria. A series of illegal poker games are taking place behind the scenes, and the bartender in charge of sending players/suckers to lose their money is one of Sweet Cheeks' friends. Sonny, now officially working in Narcotics, cuts a deal - if she helps him bust Bains, the Lytton PD will be far too busy to care about prosecuting yet another random streetwalker. She accepts, and a plan is formed.
The plan is this: Stupid. Pretty much the first thing that happens in Police Quest is that you read a newspaper announcing that Sonny has been nominated for Officer of the Year. He's also been present at every single major Death Angel related crime scene in the city, as well as been the pivotal reason that one of his lieutenants was jailed. In short, he's about the most recognisable cop in the city right now, especially to anyone smart enough to have been watching his own intricate criminal network.
The Lytton PD's solution? Sonny should bleach his hair white, go and play high stakes poker, and then promptly draw attention to his disguise by calling himself "Whitey".
The slightly more detailed plan is that Marie will go and pretend to be touting for business in the bar. Sonny will pick her up, at which point she'll 'recognise' him and start loudly telling her bartender friend just how awesome and rich and good at poker not that there are any illegal games going on round here of course oh no of course not cough he is. The bartender will promptly invite him to the games, at which point all he has to do is beat a roomful of poker players who are probably armed and dangerous and most likely cheating, in the hope that the Death Angel will conveniently show up, be impressed by Whitey's balls instead of cutting them off with a serrated scalpel, and invite him up to his penthouse.
Once again: Idiots . Never mind that yes, it works. Or does it?
Bad Sonny: This is probably the best 'death' in Sierra history. As before, Sonny gets his invite. However, the poker game isn't for a few hours, and he and Marie head upstairs to debrief. That is not a euphemism. Now that "Whitey" is officially invited into the games, Marie's part is finished. He's supposed to call her a cab ("Marie?" "Yes?" "You're a cab.") and get her out of the way.
But there's... another alternative.
I'm starting to understand why Sonny gets so nervous around women...
Good Sonny: Good Sonny once again puts duties ahead of boobies, and sends her away. Unlike Helen/Tawnee though, she understands. In fact, their love quickly blossoms. In Police Quest 2, Marie officially puts her Sweet Cheeks behind her... metaphorically speaking... and she and Sonny get married, just in time for her to be knifed in a parking lot in revenge for what's basically about to happen right now.
Their relationship would later be chronicled further here, in Leisure Suit Larry 6.
Chapter 5: Sonny Bonds
Saves The Universe
Slightly Inconveniences The Drugs Trade
With Marie dispatched, it's time to take out the Death Angel once and for about ten seconds before he shows up again in the next game, "The Revenge". Sonny time-travels forwards a few hours for the poker, and hands over the entry fee. The bartender takes him around the back, carefully pats him down for weapons, and immediately realises that there is no way his main one should be in its current position after several hours in an expensive hotel room with a reasonably priced Marie.
No, of course not. But what happens is no less silly. Sierra's VGA adventures especially were actually pretty good about their mini-games, and you very rarely had to bother with them if you didn't want to. The same is true here. You can play all-stakes poker with the gangsters, or you can just assume you won and get on with it. Or you can click the most pointless button in the history of adventure gaming:
Having won the poker game, "Whitey" is promptly invited back for another high-stakes game, where the Death Angel puts in an appearance. Another skipped poker game later, and just as planned, it's up to the penthouse. Despite being wired and with a backup team standing by, the bartender's pat-down means Sonny can't actually be armed himself. Except that she doesn't bother this time, so he could have been. Still, there was no way anyone could have known that. Soon enough, it's just him and Bains.
"You play a good game of poker, Mr. Bankstein," says Bains, using the nom-de-plume 'Frank Magpie' for no particular reason. "That proves to me you're sharp. There's something I want to tell you. My name isn't Frank Magpie. It's Jesse Bains. I tell you this, a complete stranger, to point out that no matter how accurate this game's police procedure happens to be, never mind the repeatedly demonstrated lethality of our world, its writing is going to be weaker than week old piss right to the end."
"Anyway, you may have heard the name before. No? Maybe this will help. Some of my men have coined an amusing little nickname for me: The Death Angel. Starting to sound familiar?"
"Um... yes, I think so. You're becoming famous, Mr. Bains."
"Yes, unfortunately, I've gained a little too much notoriety lately. Consequently, and against all the evidence, I just can't be too careful. I'm sure you understand the need for an occasional alias, Whitey, the man I know nothing about except that he just cheated to beat me at Poker."
"Oh, yes, I know exactly what you mean," says "Whitey".
"Of course you do, Whitey. I have a nice little operation here, as you may have noticed. And there's more going on here than meets the eye. I'm in the process of expanding, and could use a good man. This can be quite a lucrative deal. What I had in mind for you..."
And then the phone rings. "Excuse me for a moment, won't you? I'll take the call in the other room. Help yourself to a refreshment at the bar. I'll be back momentarily, undoubtedly to kill you."
And of course, he will. Thinking quickly though, Sonny uses his wire to call for back-up, just before Bains returns - with a gun. (In another great Schroedinger's Cockup moment, if you do this, you get a box saying 'Five Minutes Later' to compensate for the fact that the backup team is not in fact The Flash. If not, Bains walks back in about ten seconds later, having apparently gone from "What? He's a what? " to "But before you go... what are you wearing? You watching the big game this Saturday? Nah, I'm just chilling out. Maybe killing a hooker. Y'know. Stuff. Anyway, better go. You hang up. No, you hang up. You hang- The asshole hung up! I WILL TORTURE HIS FAMILY TO DEATH.")
The backup team moves into position, and despite hanging over his table and sofa in the most obvious way possible, Bains is oblivious to them. "I just got a most interesting phone call," he tells Sonny. "It seems that one of our playing partners recognised you from somewhere, Mr. Banksten. Fortunately, he happened to be glancing through the newspaper and son-of-a-gun, he recognised the big winner at our poker game. Mr Banksten, a.k.a. Officer Sonny Bonds of the LPD. Officer of the Year, eh? How impressive! What a shame you'll be receiving that award posthumously."
"Yeah, now I think about it, that was dumb," Sonny doesn't say. Nor does he add: "Wait. I was assuming this whole game was time-compressed or something, that I'd been home a few times and been on a couple of different shifts. You're saying that in one day, one single day, I've arrested three people, been in two major gunfights, attended a birthday party, cleaned up an entire gang, been promoted to Narcotics and taken part in multiple sting operations, one of which directly resulted in your No 2 being murdered about five seconds after being incarcerated - which happened like five minutes after I arrested him - and still had several hours when I could have been screwing my hooker love interest before coming down here, having a drink and arresting you? In a single day? I'm the Jack Bauer of proper proceedure!"
What Bains does say is "I do hope you've made peace with whatever gods have abandoned you here, Mr. Bonds," and to his credit, that's not an awful supervillain line. Unfortunately, he immediately ruins it by either adding "In other words: KISS YOUR ASS GOODBYE!" or getting shot several times by the backup team, depending on whether or not you screwed up calling them or not.
Assuming everything went well though, Bonds heads over to the body, shuddering at the sight of the first person he's seen gunned down in front of him... at least, the first that didn't lead to an instant Game Over... only to realise... to nobody's surprise... nobody's surprise at all...
"Detective Anglin! Call for an ambulance! This man is alive!"
Please whistle your favourite badass cop music here. Thank you.
JESSE BAINS , aka THE DEATH ANGEL , was convicted of numerous felonies, including the attempted murder of a police officer and posesession of narcotics with intent to sell. "It'll be a long, long time before Jesse Bains sees the light of day," announced the Mayor. Police Quest 2 came out the next year. So much for that. He died in that one, but that didn't stop him being a pain in Police Quest 3 too.
MARIE "SWEET CHEEKS" WILKANS gave up her life of prostitution, because there was no way she could continue that and be the love interest in a series that actual cops were starting to use as a training tool - as terrifying as that idea should be. She quickly resigned herself to even fans of the series remembering her as "Marie Wilkins", occasionally sharing a sympathetic drink with the other oddly named characters of the PQ universe, including President Hickle, Willy Wily and Chief Whipplestick.
SONNY BONDS was promoted to the Homicide division just in time. His former partner, Laura, never did get to see him in a towel, but was soon drummed out of the police force with the discovery that she was the Gremlin. He later started the Lytton PD's very own SWAT team, where he passes his days waiting for either a sequel to come out, or his wife to be kidnapped for the fifteenth time.
SCHRODINGER'S COCKUP has yet to be accepted as a term on TV Tropes.
HELEN HOTS and TAWNEE V. HELMUTT still have two breasts.
MR WHITMAN made this awesome collection of how it could all have gone wrong in EGA
SCRAP104 did the same for the 1992 VGA remake, which was a fair bit more forgiving.
BAD SONNY BONDS regrets nothing, bitches.