Police Quest: Open Season was a detective game that wanted you to play by the book

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Police questi box

Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting classics of PC gaming days gone by. This week, Andy throws the book at Police Quest: Open Season.

We’re in a living room. A woman is sobbing. I’ve just told her about her husband’s murder. That’s my job. I’m a homicide detective. She’s distraught. I pull my gun out and point it at her. Game over. “Deadly use of force was not tactically correct!” yells the narrator.

I reload my last save and try again. This time I don’t pull the gun on the widow. I handcuff her instead. Game over.

Police Quest: Open Season is, like other games in the series, a point-and-click police procedural that emphasises realism. Sierra designed it in collaboration with Daryl Gates, a former LAPD police chief who worked on the force for 43 years. It’s a game about following protocol, playing by the book, and not pointing your gun at grieving women. You even have to file your own paperwork.

It starts with the brutal murder of a police officer, whose body is dumped in a South Central alleyway. As homicide detective John Carey, it’s your job to catch the killer—a matter complicated by the fact that the dead man, Bob Hickman, is your best friend and ex-partner. It’s at this grisly crime scene that you get your first taste of Open Season’s often obtuse dedication to the realism of police work.

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You can’t pick up and study evidence: you have to mark it with chalk for a criminalist from the SID (Scientific Investigation Division) to collect. You can’t touch or search the body: that’s the coroner’s job. All you can really do is look around and take notes by ‘using’ your notepad on clues. And when you get back to the station, you have to fill in a 3.14 follow-up report and hand it over to your partner.

In an interview, Daryl Gates said his intention was to show people “the reality of what detective work is all about” and that he wanted people to experience the frustration of being a detective on a tough case. And while the game is a fascinating insight into the job, it doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable game. If you’ve read any true crime books, like David Simon’s excellent Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, you’ll know that police work can be a repetitive, thankless chore—and that’s exactly what Open Season feels like when the novelty has worn off.

You face some traditional point-and-click item combination puzzles, but mostly you just talk to people: suspects, witnesses, cops, people on the street, TV reporters. Whenever you learn a key piece of information or find a pertinent clue, a ‘ding’ sound plays, indicating that you’ve earned a point. Your score at the end is determined by how many clues you gathered and how closely you followed procedure. You don’t have to flash your badge before talking to someone, but it will benefit your final score.

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But by being so uptight, the game urges you to misbehave. That’s why I pulled the gun on the widow. I wanted to see how the narrator would react—and he has a unique reaction to almost everything you do. At times I felt less like a homicide detective, and more like a child testing a frustrated parent. Seeing how far you can push things before you get sacked or killed is frequently more entertaining than the game itself. Whenever I meet someone, I save my game then wave my gun at them or try to handcuff them, just to see what happens. If you repeatedly use the ‘touch’ icon on female officers, Carey gets fired for sexual harassment.

But the narrator’s scolding also serves a purpose. There’s no hand-holding the game whatsoever, meaning you have to figure pretty much everything out for yourself. So when you try to pick up a piece of evidence, the narrator will say something like: “Detective, you need to mark that for SID.” It’s the closest thing Open Season has to hints, although I’d be surprised if you made it to the end without referring to a walkthrough at least once. There’s an irritating amount of pixelhunting, not helped by the muddy, low resolution environments. Objects that can be picked up or interacted with don’t stand out from the backgrounds at all.

The case takes you all over Los Angeles. I do like how the locations were created using digitised photos of real places. Take a look at Parker Center, where Carey’s office is, on Google Maps today and it’s exactly the same. You visit Hollywood, Griffith Park, and the streets of South Central as you hunt for Hickman’s killer. The situation gets progressively more complicated, with more bodies turning up including a child who is shot and cruelly discarded in a dumpster. This is a dark game, and there’s a creepy, downbeat atmosphere throughout, which makes the sillier moments—like the assistant coroner who tells bizarre, unfunny jokes about corpses—a tad jarring.

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It’s also incredibly racist, portraying its Asian and African American characters in the most stereotypical way possible. Remember that scene in Airplane where the two passengers speak to each other in subtitled ‘jive talk’? It’s not far off that. Daryl Gates, interviewed by Vibe magazine in 1994, said he told Sierra’s writers that this was a bad idea. “I told them that these people people use the same language as you and I.” But it seems this advice fell on deaf ears. Carey hands his card to a black man on a street corner and ask him to call if he sees anything. “I be hearin’ you, baby!” he replies.

For all its talk of realism, it doesn’t take long for Open Season to forget about the police procedural stuff and become a pretty generic adventure game. You can’t move for red tape in the first couple of hours, but later it’s abandoned completely. Open Season also has one of the least satisfying conclusions I’ve ever encountered in a game: a sloppy, rushed ending that makes the events leading up to it feel totally irrelevant.

There’s no doubt about it: this is a bad game. But it’s an interesting one too, and one of the few detective games on PC that deals with the profession in a realistic manner. Even if that realism makes it feel like hard work.

Police Quest: Open Season is one of our favourite detective games on PC. Find the rest here.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.