In December of 1971, Jim Walls graduated from the California Highway Patrol Academy in Sacramento. He was sworn in as an officer with an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, surely a more exciting path than what the seven years prior, as an optician in Fresno, had offered.
With the academy behind, Walls started his new career in the force as a highway patrol officer in Southern California. One night in Los Angeles nearly 15 years later, Walls was pursuing a guy in a stolen vehicle. At an intersection it came to a shootout when the guy jumped out of his car and fired his Magnum .357, shattering Walls windscreen. Trying to get out of his patrol car, the guy quickly approached, clearly with the intent to finish Walls off but got distracted when his car started rolling. Walls quickly got out and exchanged fire, while the guy escaped he was hit and injured. He was found and arrested the next day when checking into a hospital with a self-inflicted gun wound. While waiting for the preliminary hearing the suspect escaped but was caught right away. He was found guilty on all seven felony counts and sentenced to 23 years in Folsom Prison. While he was waiting to be departed he told another prisoner that he was gonna escape and chase down Walls. Escape he did and for the next two years, he roamed around, until he was caught down in Florida.
Following the incident Walls initially continued his duty but it soon became obvious that the episode had left him psychologically injured, resulting in a delayed traumatic response. The near-death experience, coupled with the fact that the convict, Walls not only had shot but also had identified himself, had escaped resulted in sleepless nights and anxiety attacks.
In 1985 Walls went on administrative leave, for the department to evaluate his condition and determine if he was suitable to resume his work. During this leave, Walls was introduced to Sierra On-Line co-founder Ken Williams.
At the time the Walls family was living in the small town of Coarsegold, a place which name had been derived from the coarse gold nuggets found during the mid-19th century California Gold Rush. Only 7 miles up the road, a modern-day gold rush in high-tech creativity was occurring, in the town of Oakhurst, lovely tucked away in the foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountain range, just south of Yosemite National Park.
Sierra On-Line had, in a few years, turned Oakhurst into an epicenter for computer software and game development, and in the process grown to be one of the biggest employers in town. Employing not only people directly involved in the game development process but also everything from administration, marketing, quality assurance, customer service, to cleaning personnel, Sierra was becoming an important part of the local community and economy as well.
While most locals had a hard time comprehending what was going on behind the wooden facade of the custom build Redwood building, nearly everybody knew somebody associated with the company.
Founders Ken and Roberta’s idea of gathering master storytellers, artists, designers, writers, and programmers far away from the buzz of the big cities were indeed coming to fruition, here in the rural mountainous countryside.
Williams, the businessman he was, was always looking for new ventures to expand his business and portfolio of games to satisfy the hungry and rapidly growing consumer market (and to satisfy his investors). At the time police movies and television series like NBC’s Hill Street Blues were hugely popular but the subject matter hadn’t really crossed over into gaming. There clearly was a huge untapped potential and Williams started tinkering with the idea of creating a faithful police-oriented adventure game but acknowledged that this indeed would require a designer with not only an understanding of the right police protocols and procedures but also someone with hands-on experience in regular day-to-day police work and the stories this spawned.
Williams, not afraid of hiring designers that didn’t necessarily have any computer or programming skills, believed that with the right passion and right resources, more trustworthy interactive stories could be told. While the game industry was surely maturing the non-distinguishing between programmers and designers was still very real, a leftover from the early days when games typically were the creation of a single person.
One day when Williams was in for a haircut he told his stylist, Donna, whose husband he knew was a police officer, about the police-oriented game he had in mind. Donna told about her husband Walls and his situation being on leave with nothing much to do and likely was to be retired from the force. Williams, excited, handed over his business card and asked for Walls to get in touch with him.
Walls was invited to Williams’ house for a few rounds of racquetball to break the ice and later to discuss the idea of a police adventure game using Walls’ knowledge and experience as an officer. While Walls literally knew nothing about computers or games for that matter, his 15 years in the force was more than enough to convey believable stories and the correct police procedures involved.
Finally, with something to do to keep his mind of the traumatic experience, Walls went home and crafted a few pages on which Williams would add his comments and remarks to. The few pages, over time, turned into a fully-fledged story that later could be converted into a complete design document including specific game elements.
In 1986 Walls officially resigned from the police force and joined the Sierra family, as a contractor, to complete the design of what would become the first game in the Police Quest series.
Walking into the Sierra offices surely was like stepping onto the surface of an alien planet, this was definitely outside of Walls’ comfort zone. Nonetheless, he Slowly but surely got acquainted with computers and the game development process. Co-founder and King’s Quest designer Roberta Williams would occasionally step in and give pointers but the greatest guidance came from artist Mark Crowe, who would give Walls advice on game design throughout the project. The programming team consisted of Scott Murphy, Ken Williams, and Greg Rowland, all of which also helped out, outlining what was technically possible using Sierra’s now-proven Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI).
Later in development, when the project started to run behind, Al Lowe, who recently had completed his Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge lizard, a game that commercially got off to a very slow start, took on the project as lead programmer.
Neither Lowe nor Walls were employees of Sierra but was contracted, this made it possible for the duo to work together in Lowe’s house down in Fresno. Here the laundry room was converted into a small office space.
The final story consisted of episodes from Walls’ own personal experience alongside side that of fellow colleagues and with inspiration from crime novels, movies, and late-night police television series. In 1987, after an enlightened development phase for Walls, he and the team would put the finishing touches on Police Quest in Pursuit of the Death Angel and the story of Sonny Bonds, a traffic cop who soon finds himself working a homicide case involving the murderous drug dealer Jessie Bains, dubbed by the press The Death Angel.
The game and story transpire in the decaying fictional city of Lytton, a city modeled after Fresno but named after a town in Canada. Sonny Bonds’ name and appearance were loosely based on Walls’ own son, Sonny Walls.
When released in the autumn of 1987 it was the company’s most realistic adventure game to date, a far cry from fairy tale knights, space janitors, or ill-polyester-dressed middle-aged losers. Puzzles and riddles gave way to a strict focus on using correct police procedures, giving players an opportunity to experience what it would be like to be a police officer, safely in the light of the CRT.
Jim Walls’ first game, Police Quest in Pursuit of the Death Angel released in September of 1987
Police Quest utilized the now-proven AGI text-parser-driven interface. Using low-resolution 16 colors EGA the game visually couldn’t depict the gritty reality of the criminal world but managed to give great insights into police procedures and didn’t hesitate to punish you if you didn’t comply with protocols.
Al Lowe’s wife Margareth did the music
Police Quest in Pursuit of the Death Angel was received with praise for its authenticity and became critically acclaimed. While it commercially ran behind the already established King’s Quest franchise, its success would mark the beginning of the 4th major adventure game series by Sierra.
A reprint from the independent industry magazine for police management professionals, Law and Order from October of 1988, was brought in an issue of The Sierra Newsletter in the spring of 1989, detailing how a sergeant in Michigan saw how the game’s procedures had had a positive effect in his precinct.
In general, the game was praised by the law enforcement community and reportedly used as a training tool by agencies across the U.S., demonstrating to rookies the consequences of failing to observe proper procedures and as a refresher for more experienced officers. A sure testament to not only how Walls’ experience and knowledge were facilitated and funneled into a believable story applying correct police procedures but also to Williams’ approach to hiring his designers.
Walls’ would continue at Sierra following up with the successor Police Quest II The Vengeance, essentially using the same design approach but with an even greater emphasis on using correct police protocols and a stronger focus on detective and forensics work. The main structure of Police Quest II was already complete in rough story form when the first was being released and builds further on the story of officer Bonds advancing to the homicide division trying to protect himself from now escapee Bains, seeking his vengeance.
The now aging AGI engine was swapped for the first iteration of the Sierra Creative Interpreter (SCI0), first used on King’s Quest IV The Perils of Rosella, published a month prior to the release of Police Quest II.
The SCI framework allowed for 320×200 resolution graphics in 16 color EGA as well as a music-card compatible soundtrack and took the game much closer to its non-interactive movie and television counterparts.
The interface still relied on text input using verbs and nouns, but the added mouse support allowed for mouse navigation. The driving part from the first title was dropped for the same approach used in Leisure Suit Larry, with typing in the desired destination.
With SCI and the ability to support more advanced sound effects and even instrumental music scores, Sierra, in 1987, took out a newspaper advertisement looking for musicians. Mark Seibert responded to the ad and was hired a few months later. Seibert became involved in the production of Roberta’s King’s Quest IV as a musician and music editor. Following he went on to create the extremely fitting 12-track musical score, for Police Quest II, making it only the second game at Sierra to be produced with full music.
Seibert, a few years later, got promoted to the company’s music director, working with staff musicians in both composition and editing.
Police Quest II The Vengeance, released in November of 1988. The second title to use the Sierra Creative Interpreter
The Sierra Creative Interpreter allowed for the use of sound devices, like the Roland MT-32, allowing near-movie-like (only instrumental) soundtracks.
Mark Seibert, a newly hired musician composed the soundtrack. In my opinion one of the best the ’80s had to offer
Following the release of Police Quest II, Walls took a break from the series to see if he could write something different than police stories and designed the Tom Clancy-style 21st-century techno-thriller Code-Name Iceman, another adventure game that revolved around using correct procedures. The game, notorious for its submarine simulation part, was met with disappointing sales figures when released in 1989.
Code-Name Iceman, released in 1989, was Walls’ attempt to step away from police-related writings and try his hands at something different
In 1990 Sierra would release the newest title in its flagship series with King’s Quest V Absence Makes the Heart go Yonder, a title that would mark the end of Sierra’s text-parser-driven games. With SCI1 the company was ready for the new decade with adventure games utilizing a fully point-and-click interface, using the mouse for all interactions, and beautiful 256-color VGA graphics.
The other major franchises would all follow suit with new installments in their respective series. Leisure Suit Larry 5, Space Quest IV, and Walls’ Police Quest 3, which would pick up and continue the story of Sonny Bonds, would all be developed using SCI1.
Police Quest 3 was from the beginning designed to be as close as possible to a cinematographic experience using the latest in technology. Digitized live actors and theatrical quality stereo sound and music portrayed the dramatic and intense realistic settings and subject matter. While the earlier games presented a more charming and lighthearted experience, technology now promised a darker and much more realistic encounter.
It wasn’t only ambitions that had skyrocketed since 1987 with games and development teams getting bigger to encompass more elaborate stories and much more detailed and quality-oriented graphics and sounds, also Sierra was rapidly growing resulting in the family-oriented and easy-going vibe slowly fading, giving way for a typical corporate structure with numerous managers and multiple people affecting decision making, something Walls wasn’t a big fan of.
During the development, in 1990 and 91, Walls’ dedication was starting to slip. He had designed the original design document but only anemic, others had to take over and try and complete the patchwork of different elements and stories. Both Mark Crowe and Jane Jensen stepped in to compensate for Walls’ somewhat lack of involvement and rushed to complete the game in time for its autumn release date.
Walls was interviewed in The Sierra News Magazine during development and stated that he had left the story of Police Quest 3 somewhat open for a sequel he was working on in his head. Sierra also mentioned that a sequel to Code-Name Iceman was being imagined. While Police Quest 4 did happen it was unrelated to the earlier titles and without Walls’ involvement. Code-Name Iceman 2 never materialized.
Police Quest 3 The Kindred was released in the autumn of 1991 for the IBM/PC and Commodore Amiga.
This would be Walls’ last title at Sierra before leaving the company
The switch to SCI1 using 256 colors and digitized actors rendered the franchise more realistic than ever. The somewhat cartoon-like charm from earlier titles was gone, this was a title targeted at a more mature audience.
Mark Seibert worked together with Jan Hammer, who composed the soundtrack for the Miami Vice TV show, to create the game’s soundtrack
In 1990, Edmond Heinbockel, Sierra’s chief financial officer for the last five years left the company to start his own studio. Heinbockel needed experienced programmers and game designers and didn’t hold back promising Sierra employees greener pastures. In the summer of 1991, Heinbockel’s Tsunami Media was a reality and several Sierra employees joined, including Walls, who left Sierra and joined the competition.
Police Quest III not only marked the end of Walls’ time at Sierra but also the end of protagonist Sonny Bonds.
Though Bonds would reappear in 1992 with the SCI1 remake of the original Police Quest, the remake series never became commercially successful and a remake of the second title never materialized.
A remake of Police Quest in Pursuit of the Death Angel was completed using the same SCI1 as Police Quest 3 and published in the summer of 1992. The title was completely rewritten by the writers in Sierra’s Product Development department.
The game was released in the skull box, at just the right angles, the face would show an overlay of a skull
The VGA remake of Police Quest looked and played just like Police Quest 3. It featured 256-color VGA graphics, a point-and-click interface, digitized actors, and a stereo soundtrack
While all of my games are sealed I had a chance to borrow my brother’s open copies for a few photos
In a time before the World Wide Web and Google searches, hint books were the cure to most people’s headaches trying to complete any of Sierra’s adventure games.
Al Lowe once stated that the number of sold hint books for his Leisure Suit Larry exceeded the number of actual games sold, not only outlining the major issue with piracy at the time but also how challenging the Sierra adventure games were to complete.
Peter Scisco’s 1992 Police Quest Casebook was a must for any Police Quest fan, as a complete guide, with hints, walkthroughs, and maps to the first three Police Quest titles, including the VGA remake. The book also expanded the universe with its own sets of fictional stories based on the character and stories from the games. A second edition was released in 1994 to encompass the fourth installment
The Police Quest brand would live on and Ken Williams would find Walls’ replacement at the highest tier with retired chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Daryl F. Gates. Unlike Walls, who wrote the story of the first three titles, Gates was mostly used as a technical advisor for the police elements and tactics. The following installments would slowly steer away from the adventure game genre and eventually completely lose the Police Quest branding.
Williams’ somewhat controversial choice of using Gates, Police Quest Open Season, and the later SWAT titles will be a story for a future article.
Police Quest (IV) Open Season was released in November of 1993, just in time for the all-important Christmas sales (Left).
A CD-ROM version was released in 1996 with audible narration and dialogues, enhanced graphics for inventory items, menus, and some of the close-up scenes (Right)
Police Quest Open Season would become Sierra’s first fully photo-realistic game. The era of true multimedia games was indeed upon us allowing for truly realistic settings with digitally captured actors and full voice acting (CD-ROM version).
The mature subject matter and the photoreal graphics consequently resulted in an MA-17 listing from the ESRB rating system, when it was established in 1994.
The game was written and produced by Tammy Dargan, a former producer on the TV show America’s Most Wanted
By 1995 the three original Police Quest games along with Police Quest (IV) Open Season had totaled 850.000 in sold copies.
At Tsunami, Walls would go on to design Blue Force, an adventure game very much like Police Quest, released in 1993. The title never became a commercial success and Walls, after his time at Tsunami, contracted with Tachyon Studios and later Phillips Interactive Media, both ventures that didn’t result in any published titles.
Following, Walls went to Las Vegas and joined Westwood Studios and the Blade Runner team.
Walls joined Tsunami Media and created Blue Force, released in 1993, the same year as the 4th installment in the Police Quest series. The game was closer in spirit to the original Police Quest games than Police Quest Open Season.
Blue Force was, like Open Season, also released on CD-ROM but didn’t feature any voice acting, and was identical to the floppy release besides offering an audio interview with Walls and the game’s score as CD-Audio.
With a lack of polish and subpar written dialogues, Blue Force was received with only mediocre reviews. In 1996 Computer Gaming World even added it to its list of the worst game of all time
In 2013 Walls and Robert Lindsley, another Sierra veteran, launched a Kickstarter for an upcoming police game called Precinct, essentially a modern take on Police Quest. While it created much hype the founding failed.
Sources: Wikipedia, jimwallsreloaded.com, The Sierra/Dynamix News Magazine Vol. 4 No. 2, Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams, The Art of Point Click Adventure Games by Bitmap Books, InterAction Summer 1993…