Unlocking the Secrets of Mystery House

This week we are diving into a few spooky things, 1) life before the MacBook, 2) a video game about murder, and 3) understanding the tech behind this game. Developed by wife and husband duo, Roberta and Ken Williams, Mystery House is a horror-adventure game created for the Apple II in 1980. The Apple II, shown below, was released in 1977, and with it came a huge market for computer games. After experiencing another computer game for the Apple II, Roberta and Ken were inspired to create their own.

How do we solve the murder?

I am not a big gamer myself, but it is instantly clear that Mystery House is a true relic in graphics and controls compared to the hyper realistic and elaborate games of today. The link on the syllabus didn’t work for me but I found a playable version on the Internet Archive. (I hadn’t been on the Internet Archive before but it has free access to tons of resources like a variety of library, software, government, and topical collections.) The directions instruct you to use one- or two-word commands to navigate through the game. You begin at the outside of a mansion and are instructed to use commands like “GO STAIRS” or “UP” to enter the house.

After entering the house, you are met with different characters that are also in the house with you. The point of the game is to explore the house and find the murderer before they find you (or you die some other way like accidentally starting a fire)! You can also use directions like “WEST” or “W” to navigate the house.

In this step, the action I wrote was “WEST.” This then took me to the west part of the house, the kitchen.

After struggling to type in successful commands, I found a ‘walkthrough’ for the game that does just what you might think it does. This was super helpful for quickly understanding how many rooms are in the house and what items to take note of. The game boasts of a ‘high-res adventure’ but us folks from the future might raise our eyebrows about that. However, the game is entertaining and challenging! Gamer or not, this is definitely worth a try.

Why are we still talking about this game from 1980?

Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms, takes us through a different kind of ‘walkthrough.’ In Chapter 3, “An Old House with Many Rooms”: The Textual Forensics of Mystery_House.dsk” he describes his walkthrough as “forensic,” explaining the tech behind the game. I am extremely underqualified to be explaining this, but I shall do my best! Using a type of editor, a hex editor, that allows someone to look at a file “byte by byte,” Kirschenbaum dissects Mystery House’s disk image, giving us a fuller picture of how the game was created and unveils some of the disk’s own mysteries. Kirschenbaum finds traces of two other games that were previously on the disk, Dung Beetles and Blitzkrieg, and finds different notes on the disk as well . To my limited understanding, this is important because it creates a digital trail that tells the story of what tech was important when, how it evolved, and forces us to ask questions about the digital culture of the past.

11 Replies to “Unlocking the Secrets of Mystery House”

  1. Hello!

    I think that you did well on this practicum. I liked how you included pictures of the game as I was unable to find it online except in a way that describes it. I think that you made the game sound fun and made it easy to understand what we are looking for when examining this relic of the ’80s. I think it is interesting that Kirschenbaum is looking at how the game is displayed and what that means for us. I find it interesting that he uses the term “forensic” and wonder if he meant it in terms of examination or if he had his own ideas?

  2. That is such an interesting relic from the early days of personal computers and gaming. Like you I don’t have any experience with these types of games that use text commands to play. I did recently see a short documentary about the guys who created the original Oregon Trail game and it was set up with the same type of commands to play. Do you know if all the games from this era used the same basic language with text commands or did certain games have specific instructions that the player could use?

  3. Hi Bryce,

    Thanks for the question! I think you are right saying that Kirscshenbaum’s use of the word ‘forensic’ relates to examination. The average walkthrough is just a step by step of how to play a game and his walkthrough is examining the inner workings of the game. Good question!

  4. You did a great job describing this Caroline! I loved your discussion of a digital trail and its definitely still present in current video games in the form of engines such as Frostbite and Unreal. But the idea of tech evolution is really interesting in this form. In some games today, you can see traces of older animations and properties that are clearly outdated but still exist within certain engines. I would be interested to see if there are “github” styled code pages for game designers to use existing codes for creating games.

  5. Hey Caroline. I loved your discussion of the digital trail. I can’t help but compare is to working on an old painting, finding the original sketch underneath the final product. Were you able to find more examples of historians finding these digital trails when working with pieces of tech? Like is this something enough historians have encountered to the point it would show up on google?

  6. Hey Caroline! This was such a great practicum, both in the blog and in class. I’m still absolutely boggled by the game, and am especially curious about what the initial process of the game’s creation looked like. How does one take the first step towards creating a game like this? It seems both incredibly simple and very complicated, like it would take a really long time to master, even though the commands themselves are so basic. But I thought your explanation of the game was so excellent, and I am excited to keep learning about these types of older computer games. Boy, have we come a long way!

  7. Hey Caroline! This was such a great practicum, both in the blog and in class. I’m still absolutely boggled by the game, and am especially curious about what the initial process of the game’s creation looked like. How does one take the first step towards creating a game like this? It seems both incredibly simple and very complicated, like it would take a really long time to master, even though the commands themselves are so basic. But I thought your explanation of the game was so excellent, and I am excited to keep learning about these types of older computer games. Boy, have we come a long way!

  8. Hey Caroline! First off, this is an awesome (and super interesting!) practicum post. Your discussion of the game navigation as well as the digital footprint of previous games within the disk image is intriguing. And I have always been interested in lost media, so this was right up my alley. Reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder if there is more information out there regarding the reaction/reception to Mystery House or other similar type-command games during its early days. In personally found it difficult to make out words on the screen (such as the labels on the matches, the note, etc.), making it harder to know what exactly to type out for my character to do. It could be just me being used to more modern games, but I found this to be a significant issue when trying to beat Mystery House. Do you know if these criticisms existed for the game during the 1980s, or was just this expected with the technology available at the time?

  9. Hey Caroline,

    Super cool demonstration in class. It is so weird to think about how far games have came in the terms of graphics. For the game lacking in graphics it is really entertaining. When playing the game, I noticed it was hard to work the controls and follow the storyline sometimes. Your explanation was really insightful and it makes me think about the evolution of gaming. Also how technology has heavy impacted the way we think about developing games in the present.

  10. Caroline,

    Thank you for sharing this game with us in class. Your directions on how to work an old game like this helped a lot. I played this game and one big difference between this game and newer games is you can’t save your progress, and if you lose or get stuck you pretty much have to start over. I am glad games are structured different today because that was super frustrating.

    This process of finding what has been overwritten on a disk makes me think of archaeology. In archaeology you have to dig down layer by layer to find what you want and the author’s strategy of examining bytes to find old information sounds really similar.

  11. Your practicum was very engaging and informative, Caroline! I have relived my childhood over and over by exploring the available games on the Internet Archive. The history of gaming software brings a wave of nostalgia for many adults and PC gaming aficionados. You made a very important observation when in your post about the two other games found by Kischenbaum. Although the data found was limited you suggested that this forces us to ask questions about the digital culture of the past. Excellent point!

    When reviewing class notes, I noticed that I had a surprising amount of notes written for this particular. This can be credited to the class discussion following your in-person demonstration. The topics discussed were very enlightening especially when Dr. Owens provided an in-depth explanation of the process of magnetic encoding, how it connects data on hard drives, and the results of overwriting data.

    Also, Sara Ulanoski provided a great analogy above my comment comparing the process of overwritten data to the process of stratification in archaeology. There are increased chances of uncovering more information when exploring the past. However, we learned that if the data on the hard drive has been written on over and over again then there are lesser chances of finding the original data. Similarly, if multiple buildings are built over a historical site.

    Your post on this game will be helpful for future students and others who come across this on the Internet. Great post!

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