Meet Roberta Williams, The Queen of Graphic Adventure Video Games

1993 photo of Sierra Systems founders Ken & Roberta Williams sitting on rocks on lakeshore using laptop computer.
Photo: John Storey/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Ken and Roberta Williams, founders of Sierra Systems, in 1993.

THE INSTITUTE Adventure video games have grown in popularity now that people are staying home more due to coronavirus-related restrictions, according to The Washington Post.

Such games are driven by storytelling. Players solve puzzles to move the plot along. Adventure games including Broken Age, Machinarium, and Myst are popular because they feature beautiful graphics and extensive story lines, and they test players’ critical-thinking skills.

One of the people gamers have to thank for the genre is Roberta Williams who, along with her husband, Ken, created a number of early graphic adventure games including King’s Quest, Mystery House, and Phantasmagoria.

She was honored this year with the Pioneer Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards. The award recognizes breakthrough technologies and game design milestones.

Often called “Queen of the Graphic Adventure,” Williams was not an engineer by trade. She was a stay-at-home mom who developed an interest in video games after her husband, a computer programmer at IBM, brought home an Apple II computer with the Colossal Cave Adventure game loaded on it, according to the Lemelson-MIT program’s profile of her.

She enjoyed playing the text-only game, in which the player explores a mysterious cave filled with treasure. She searched for other adventure games to play, but there weren’t many other options. That inspired her to create her own game, and she added graphics to make the experience more interesting.

“Previous games for the Apple II and other home computers were text-only, like a choose-your-own-adventure book in game form,” Smithsonian Magazine pointed out in a profile about Williams.

While Williams wrote the story line, her husband made the graphics. He used a Versawriter, a board of thick plexiglass that had an electronic stylus attached to the top, according to the Lemelson-MIT profile. There was no software at the time that could read the Versawriter, so he created a program to do that.

The couple released their first graphic adventure game in 1980, Mystery House. In the game, the player and several friends were trapped in an abandoned mansion and were being killed off one by one. The player tries to find the killer. Williams says she was inspired by the board game Clue and by the Agatha Christie story And Then There Were None, according to Laine Nooney, a video game historian.

Mystery House became a success, leading the couple to launch their video-game development company, On-Line Systems, that same year. It later was renamed Sierra On-Line. They created more than 20 titles in the 18 years they worked as game developers.

Mystery House became the first of a series of six Hi-Res Adventures. Between 1980 and 1982, the duo created Wizard and the Princess, which was the first adventure game with color graphics, and Time Zone. Wizard and the Princess sold 25,000 copies in two years, according to an article in Computer Gaming World. The game tied for fourth on the magazine’s list of 1982 top sellers.

The game that made Roberta Williams a household name, however, was King’s Quest, the first animated 3D adventure game. IBM requested that the Williamses create a game to be included in its new PCjr home computer, according to a 1984 article in PC Magazine. King’s Quest was the first in a series of eight about the adventures of the fictional royal family of Daventry.

“As a young girl, I always had enjoyed the old fairy tales of yore,” Williams said in a 2006 interview on the Adventure Classic Gaming website. “I read them and re-read them. Therefore, when thinking about designing a game, I naturally gravitated to what I liked and felt comfortable with. I felt comfortable with the idea of fairy tales, and so I put that passion into my game of King’s Quest.”

After King’s Quest, Sierra On-Line released several more games. The most well-known was the horror adventure Phantasmagoria, which was released in 1994. It was the most successful game Williams developed, selling 300,000 units during the first weekend of its release, according to an article in Business Wire. Phantasmagoria featured full motion video and live actors, but it caused controversy in the gaming community because it was for a more mature audience than the other games the company had developed.

Two years later, Sierra On-Line was sold to CUC International, and the couple retired from game development.

“The experience of creating my adventure games was—other than marrying my husband and bringing into the world my two sons—the most fulfilling, wonderful experience I could ever have had,” Williams said in the 2006 Adventure Classic Gaming interview.

Williams’ technical achievement is worthy to be proposed as an IEEE Milestone, according to the IEEE History Center. The Milestone program honors significant achievements in the history of electrical and electronics engineering.

Any IEEE member can submit a milestone proposal to the IEEE History Center. The center is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation’s Realize the Full Potential of IEEE campaign.

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