Celine Kalante (kjorteo) wrote in videogame_tales,
Celine Kalante

The Dagger of Amon Ra: Closing Thoughts

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Closing thoughts! It's been a long road, and I've had a lot of time to reflect.

Let me be clear on one point from the beginning: The Dagger of Amon Ra is not, despite what portions of this playthrough may have led you to believe, a bad game. It is an interesting and complex game, maybe even a good idea of a game, with a lot of bad elements weighing it down. Even with those, though, it remains a worthwhile experience overall.

Sierra always had a history of reckless innovation with their games. They were explorers, pioneers, trailblazers, but they weren't perfectionists. Uncovering new territory was their strength, polishing and perfecting it their weakness. Take Mystery House, one of their earliest efforts. It is, quite literally, the first-ever adventure game that included visual graphics. Think of that! That's amazing! That's historical! They did something no one had ever done before. It took a few kludgy workarounds to bypass technical limitations to make it happen, but they did it. They founded an entirely new approach to adventure gaming, something the entire genre and industry would later follow.

Also, Mystery House looked like this.

I never said Mystery House was the first adventure game with good graphics. It was the first adventure game with graphics, period. This is an important distinction, and one that I feel perfectly encapsulates Sierra's entire design philosophy and practice. Roberta Williams said even at the time that she was no artist, and her already-questionable drawing skills got even worse after being fed through a clunky early-80s drawing tablet. Then, whatever that combination produced was taken and converted into straight-line DRAW commands because that was how you fit graphics within the file size limitations of a 5.25" floppy disk. With limitations like that, it's easy to understand why other games of the time didn't have graphics, and just how remarkable it was that Mystery House did. The fact that said graphics are so hideous they almost wrap around the other side and become strangely adorable again is almost beside the point.

Think of Sierra games like ZZT: boldy defiant of their own technical limitations, always at least impressive for including the big ideas they wanted to include regardless of whether those ideas actually worked, sometimes borderline unplayable and held together by duct tape and sheer madness but at least they were always out there trying things. I have to respect that.

Want another example? Look at the voice acting in The Dagger of Amon Ra. I mentioned before how godawful it is, and believe me, my opinion on that has not changed. Some of the performances would have been tolerable if the recording quality hadn't butchered them, but most were... well, developer voice. Developer voice doing fake to the point of offensive accents. Believe me, I could go the entire rest of my life without hearing Lo Fat's lines ever again. But... well, it becomes at least somewhat easier to understand, if not entirely forgive, when you remember that this game came out in the early days of adventure games even having voice acting. The voice acting was a feature exclusive to the special CD version, because this game was from the era when CD drives were new and fancy and cool but not everyone had them, so you'd better hedge your bets and still have a floppy version just in case.

Speaking of the floppy version, it lacks the voice acting (thank God) but even it has I Want to Marry an Archaeologist on it. Laugh all you want at the singer's accent, but they composed a catchy and setting-appropriate 20s-style speakeasy tune, recorded it, and included it along with the entire rest of the game (impressively good-looking VGA graphics and all) on floppy disks. If you don't think that's impressive on at least some level, then I'm sorry, but you're wrong.

This game was groundbreaking in ways we wouldn't even realize were groundbreaking until later, after the Internet ruined everything. As much as I knocked on this game's racially insensitive caricatures and stereotypes, it did do some good work on the gender front. Most of the game's sexism comes from obvious cartoon sexists like Dr. Carter, who are very clearly meant to be unlikable for it. Meanwhile, Laura Bow is a determined investigative journalist and crime-solver who uses her own cunning to outwit the murderers rather than leaving things to the proper menfolk authorities. Hell, in this game, the proper manfolk authority was the murderer, and the fact that Laura cleanly bested him makes her an inspirational heroic badass among female gaming characters, possibly up there with modern-day Lara Croft or Samus Aran only from a less successful franchise.

And... no one really mentioned this, at the time. I remember a story xyzzysqrl told me about when Sierra made King's Quest IV, an entire proper main-series King's Quest game (their biggest flagship series, mind you) starring and entirely revolving around King Graham's daughter. Roberta Williams expected there to be controversy, but there really wasn't. No one even noticed characters like Rosella or Laura Bow shattering the gaming gender barrier because apparently it wasn't there before Gamergate happened. God, can you imagine? I miss that world. Still, points to Sierra for being on the right side of history, in retrospect.

And if you're still cynical about wishing Sierra's innovations would be less cutting-edge and more, you know, good, maybe you'd like the first Gabriel Knight game, which came out a mere one year after Amon Ra yet managed to land a voice acting cast that includes Michael Dorn, Mark Hamill, and Tim Curry. It even has a sensitive, respectful, and developers-actually-did-their-homework portrayal of its featured cultures... at first. The caricatures do get slightly uncomfortable near the end, but it's still at least better than Amon Ra.

Sierra. Their games had a great many issues, but never let it be said that laziness or complacency were among them.

I admit that all of this defending Sierra may come as somewhat of a swerve, given the negative tone that I myself set at the start of this playthrough, but... well... I've been picking at these updates on and off for a very long time, now. It's been so long, I'd like to think I've grown and matured a little since I first started this project. Though, I'll be honest: the biggest difference was that I started writing these before I met xyzzysqrl, whose philosophy toward these sorts of things has inspired me to grow and become a better person. I wrote all those closing thoughts above because I wanted to put my defense of Sierra's reckless innovation in my own words, but if I were lazier, I could have just linked her speech on bad games with passion and left it at that. She put it far better than I could, anyway.

My point is, as the years went on, she slowly convinced me that I'm not Ben Croshaw, that I don't want to be Ben Croshaw, and that gaming culture as a whole would be better if fewer people wanted to be Ben Croshaw. And so now here we are.

Thank you for that.

Anyway. This game.

Great graphics. Pretty good music. The writing set up this legitimately interesting murder mystery, and... well... the writing certainly had its flaws, which we've been over. A lot. But somehow, despite those, I actually cared enough about this story to write what was essentially fanfiction for it in the form of that explanation story. The game has rough edges, but there's heart to it. It got very good reviews at the time (you know, before we as a culture outgrew most of Sierra's adventure game design choices) and I can very easily see why.

When I was a child and I was watching my friend go through this game, it was amazing. The VGA graphics were outstanding for the day and, with the exception of some parts they seemingly forgot to draw in (the black void in the speakeasy or surrounding most of the murder victim closeups,) they look pretty good even today. The murders, logistically nonsensical as they were, were gory enough to make young me deeply uncomfortable, and being chased by Mr. X in Act 6 was terrifying. I once had an actual nightmare inspired by this game. In that nightmare, someone got murdered by being impaled straight through their chest by a cactus. It was equal parts actually really gory and unsettling in the context of the dream and what?? outside of it, much like the game that inspired it.

And hey, the game stuck with me enough that however many years later, I wanted to go back and try it again, and chronicle it, and make this. So that's something, right?

So, what now? This playthrough is over, but I have a few other links I recommend. These links all go to the first entry in their respective series, but you should be able to use either the tags or the "Next Entry" button to navigate from there.
  • davidn's run of Hugo 2: Whodunit? directly inspired this project. I had mistakenly thought at the time that Hugo 2 was a Sierra game, and while I was reading his playthrough of it, I thought, "you know what other Sierra murder mystery could use this kind of treatment...." David has that classic British "I am flabbergasted by the madness I am currently experiencing" exasperation, and with a game like this, I was rolling on the floor for a good portion of his narration. (Edit: It may be a slightly mean-spirited in retrospect, though--see our discussion in the comments below. Hugo 2 is kind of a trainwreck and it's not undeserved, but, you know.)
  • xyzzysqrl's run of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is the main reason why I mellowed down a bit in the later parts of my Amon Ra playthrough. On one hand, I think it's a little easier to be positive about Gabriel Knight because it has better production values and such, but on the other, Xyzzy really is a passionate believer in sincerity over cynicism, and it shows here. Yes, there are still some goofy odditities and many a laugh to be had over them (she could write up a playthrough of a phone book and include enough delightfully witty Pratchett/Adams-esque commentary to make it an absolute must-read) but it's friendly fun-poking. Also, Gabriel Knight has an Amon Ra reference in it!
  • davidn's run of King's Quest III. After everything I said about Xyzzy's Gabriel Knight run, and my own closing thoughts on Amon Ra above, I have to admit that David's King's Quest III playthrough is a little mean. (In his defense, though, the entire second half of the game after you dispatch Mannannan feels a bit tacked on and those stairs really are awful.) Still, I'm including this because he posted it to this alongside my Amon Ra run, and I'm still mad that he got through the entire game uninterrupted before I could get one Amon Ra update in. :) (Edit: Actually, this one is far more gentle than the Hugo 2 run was--see our discussion in the comments below. My memory is the worst.)
  • xyzzysqrl's run of Nancy Drew: Legend of the Crystal Skull. Another adventure game about a female detective solving a mystery, I'm mostly including this because I made a reference to it in the climactic moment of my Amon Ra run.
  • Finally, I said when I first wrote this entry that if anyone ever did a play-through of The Colonel's Bequest, I would go back and edit a link to it in here. A few months later, davidn has done just that! We've all moved onto Dreamwidth now, so you can find the first entry here.

Meanwhile, that's it for The Dagger of Amon Ra. All in all, this game is not a whole lot of fun to play yourself with modern sensibilities (at least not without several walkthroughs,) but I loved watching my friend back play it back in the day, and I can only hope you enjoyed watching me play it now.

Thank you, everyone. It's certainly been something.


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