Mystery House is an adventure game released in 1980 by Roberta and Ken Williams for the Apple II. The game is remembered as one of the first adventure games to feature computer graphics and the first game produced by On-Line Systems, the company which would evolve into Sierra On-Line. Though the game is often considered the first to use graphics, role-playing video games had already been using graphics for several years at the time of release. Applying graphics to an adventure game, however, was unprecedented as previous story-based adventure games were entirely text-based.
Development and Release
Roberta Williams created Mystery House, the first graphical adventure game, a detective story inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Her husband Ken spent a few nights developing the game on his Apple II using 70 simple two-dimensional drawings done by Roberta. The software was packaged in Ziploc bags containing a 5¼-inch disk and a photocopied paper describing the game and was sold in local software shops in Los Angeles County. To their great surprise, Mystery House was an enormous success, quickly becoming a best-seller. In 1980, the Williams founded On-Line Systems, which would become Sierra On-Line in 1982.
The game starts near an abandoned Victorian mansion. The player is soon locked inside the house with no other option than to explore. The mansion contains many interesting rooms and seven other people: Tom, a plumber; Sam, a mechanic; Sally, a seamstress; Dr. Green, a surgeon; Joe, a gravedigger; Bill, a butcher; and Daisy, a cook. Initially, the player has to search the house in order to find a hidden cache of jewels. However, terrible events start happening and dead bodies (of the other people) begin appearing. It becomes obvious that there is a murderer on the loose in the house, and the player must discover who it is or become the next victim. The parser understands two words, the monochrome graphics are extremely basic and there is no sound to speak of.
If you would like another walk-through, here is another example.
Kirschenbaum Using Mystery House
In chapter 3 of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008), Matthew Kirschenbaum uses a disk image of the vintage interactive fiction game Mystery House to conduct a forensic walk-through, or multivalent reading, of an electronic object, a bitstream image of an original instance of 5 1/4-inch disk storage media. This exercise allows the reader to explore critical reading strategies that are tightly coupled to technical praxis, including the use of a hex editor to inspect heterogeneous information once deposited on the original storage media. It distinguishes between forensic and formal materiality more sharply into focus, using the overtly forensically charged spaces of the original game to peek and poke at the content of the disk image. Chapter 3 locates the “factive synechdoches” of bibliographical knowledge within new media, while exposing a new kind of media-specific reading, new tools for critical practice, and relevant contexts surrounding personal computing in the 1980s. Forensics is ultimately presented as a mode of difference or defamiliarization rather than an attempt to get closer to the soul of the machine (20). By walking through Mystery_House.dsk, by reading the disk image forensically, he conducts a media-specific analysis: a close reading of the text that is also sensitive to the minute particulars of its medium and the idiosyncratic production and reception histories of the work (129). Kirschenbaum successfully argues that formal materiality is the normative condition of working in a digital environment. Mystery House emulators are textbook examples of formal materiality, relying on cascades of virtual machinery to reproduce the functionality of long-gone systems and hardware, the physical limitations of mothballed chips re-instantiated in formally construed mechanisms of control and constraints (155).