I touched on this in the last DLC Podcast but I don’t want the idea to get lost amongst the greater history of the adventure games.
The Laura Bow games were adventure games where the driving impetus was not unearthing the mechanism of some strange sequential toolbox. It wasn’t like Space Quest where you were sort of just trying to advance forwards in some not-so-specific way, with all the invisible machinery of your environment occasionally screwing you over. Laura Bow games were still capable of Walking Dead syndrome and how, but that’s because Laura Bow was a game where the events of the story happened on their own timers, and not based on what you were doing. No matter how long Roger Wilco puttered around escaping the mines of Labion (and god that’s a dorky reference), he would always be able to stop the launch of the deadly door-to-door salesman in the last five minutes. On the other hand, in Laura Bow, while acts happen in a broad sequence, and their windows of time are somewhat forgiving, they still happen whether or not you get off your duff and go watch them.
And that’s the important thing.
Conventional adventure game structures are at odds with most mysteries. A rather awful mystery game, Hugo 2: Whodunnit, has this problem where you’re presented at the end of the game with a giant list of possible people who may have committed the murder. You can save the game before you declare the murderer, and then reload as you try guessing. That’s the basic problem: the conventional adventure game allows you to save the game, and at any point where you can flip backwards, you can basically brute-force any kind of choice-based puzzle. In the Laura Bow games, it doesn’t matter what you, the player think, Laura needs to be able back up what she says – and that means the game is one which is about her. It’s a game about understanding what she knows, and what she can prove.
Most of these games took a laughable, snarky attitude towards the player’s involvement in them. Roger, Larry, Graham, they’d all do insultingly stupid things while you, the player, tried to understand the strange moon-logic of the parser that they demanded you learn. Information was limited, and the character wasn’t used to filter that information – and that means the character conveyed was something of a slack-jawed doofus. But Laura was a girl detective.
Failure states dotted throughout the game to give you a reason to regularly reset the game, but those fail states were not hanging around the world like the mysterious spider robot that dropped out of the sky and killed you, or the STI you could contract and die from an hour later. As with all Sierra games, you were expected to replay the game a few times before you ‘got it’ – there was a greater puzzle of how to get this play through right, which I think owes something to arcade design. Sierra was okay with this, and Sierra’s devs were okay with that.
The reason I bring this all up is you can play Laura Bow. Now. You can go and get this interesting little game and look at it and you will, hopefully, get ideas for what it does wrong, and ways you can do it right.