In 1980, a shy young woman named Roberta Williams made history by designing a new kind of computer game—changing the industry forever
YOU ARE IN THE FRONT YARD OF A LARGE ABANDONED VICTORIAN HOUSE. STONE STEPS LEAD UP TO A WIDE PORCH.
————— ENTER COMMAND?
Two simple sentences and a cursor, blinking like a heartbeat, awaiting your command. To most, it might read like the beginning of an odd and boring story, but the format will be familiar to anyone over 40 who ever dabbled in microcomputing. It was the same way all text-based computer games started: a bare-bones setup and an invitation to venture forth, uncover clues, and win the game. But it wasn’t just the text, flashing on the screen of an 8-bit Apple II that shot out like a call from the wild—it was the graphics. They were monochrome, ridiculously rudimentary, and they blew everyone away.
It was 1980 when Roberta Williams, a shy, soft-spoken housewife with little coding or design experience, rose from obscurity by designing Mystery House, the first-ever computer game with graphics. Today it’s almost impossible to imagine a computer or video game without visuals, but the idea had to start somewhere. And while she couldn’t have known it then, Williams’ hobby would become the origin of graphic design in computing and technology—two industries that now dominate life as we know it.
Most accounts of her contributions to computer game design dwell on the childlike compositions and stick-figure caricatures she brought to the screen. But beneath the bits and bytes is the unlikely heroine of a growing feminist movement in tech, an unexpectedly savvy business figure whose unconventional process pioneered a new wave in game making, and a self-described “lazy,” directionless young woman whose ambitions ballooned until they burst. These days, retired from the business she birthed and leaving it far behind—she didn’t respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story—she spends her time travelling the world by boat, together with her husband. But despite her seeming unwillingness to revisit her past, it is important to tell her story, and make sure her groundbreaking work isn’t lost to history.
As a teenager, Roberta was an avid reader, with a love of fantasy stories that transported her away to better, more exciting places. “I didn’t have a lot of friends…I didn’t like who I was. Not at all,” she told author Steven Levy in his 1984 book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. But that all changed when, at 17, she met 16-year-old Ken Williams. “When I met Ken, he was very straight, very responsible. He worked from the time he was 12 and was really good at whatever he did. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t want to go to college or do anything but party. He pulled me out when I was ready to go downhill,” she told Levy. They married before they were 20, promptly had two children, and Roberta became a stay-at-home mom while Ken got a job as a programmer for IBM.
The Williams’ home in Simi Valley, CA, had far more hardware than the average ’70s household. Their first computer was a teletype machine—a device that looked like a typewriter on steroids and used something called an acoustic coupler to access the early Internet. This portable terminal allowed Ken remote access to the room-sized mainframe computers he worked with during the day. Like any computer worth its salt, you could use a Teletype to play games; in this case, text-based adventure games. Gameplay happened line by slowly transmitted line and was only visualized by your imagination.
In the ’70s, home computers—of which there were very few—had no screens. So, commands (“CROSS BRIDGE,” “TAKE BOTTLE,” “THROW EGGS AT TROLL”) were typed on paper like a typewriter. Those commands were then transmitted via the ’70s-version of the Internet and the next step in the game was then typed back to you. It may not sound exciting today, but at the time it was enough to hook anyone with access to a home terminal.
Early programmer Tim Anderson told video game magazine The New Zork Timesin 1985 that when the most famous early game, Colossal Cave, landed at MIT where he worked, “everybody spent a lot of time doing nothing but solving the game. It’s estimated that it set the entire computer industry back two weeks. The true lunatics began to think about how they could do it better.” Roberta, playing from home, was one of those lunatics. She decided to write her own game—one with pictures as well as text.
Roberta’s husband Ken was an adept programmer, but the available technology made drawing a challenge. Not even his coveted new Apple II could create graphics, so together, the Williamses used a VersaWriter, a tablet with a mechanical arm that digitized hand-drawn images. Once Roberta convinced Ken to help her, she presented him with a murder mystery story comprised of more than 100 different scenes and locations—dozens more than any previous game.
The plot of Mystery House was fairly straightforward. Players began by crossing the front porch and entering the “large, abandoned Victorian house,” which they find is not abandoned at all, but occupied by seven other people who begin to die off as they explore various rooms. The goal is purportedly to look for hidden jewels, but as one dead body after another is discovered, the focus turns to determining who the killer is—before the player herself becomes their next victim.
The storyline was inspired by Agatha Christie novels and the board game Clue, while the gameplay—the use of text and language, the movement from screen to screen, the user’s ability to gather objects and forge a path by solving puzzles—were all drawn from Colossal Cave and other predecessors. Many designers at the time would begin a new game based on what they could code. But Roberta began by storyboarding a narrative and sketching the settings. “It was a series of bubbles and lines,” Ken told Levy in Hackers. “Each bubble corresponding to a specific room in the game.”
Programming computers and writing stories may seem like two obviously different skillsets today, but in the early days of microcomputing it was normal for one person to handle both. Since Roberta only knew the basics of computing, her design process necessitated a division of labor that was, in its own way, quite radical. It was this separation of game design and game programming that made it possible for her and other creative—yet less technically skilled—game designers to flourish. In fact, her outsider’s perspective was to her benefit. She didn’t know enough about computers to know what she couldn’t do, so she pushed Ken as well.
Between 1979 and 1980, the Williamses completed their first humble game, and Roberta used Ziploc bags coupled with a photocopied sheet of paper as the packaging. They placed an ad for Mystery House in a scientific computing magazine and orders came streaming in (their phone was ringing at all hours, too, since they included their home number as a help line). From the start, Roberta and Ken’s primary goal was to make money with Mystery House, though their original intentions were modest: They wanted to earn enough to move to a quiet home in the woods. But after selling 10,000 copies of the $24.95 game—a record-breaking quantity for its time—they realized they’d tapped into something much bigger. In just a few years, their little game would spawn a billion-dollar gaming empire.
Within five months they’d bought a new home near the Yosemite Mountains in California, where they founded Sierra On-Line and immediately got to work on more games with Roberta as the writer and designer and Ken as the programmer. They followed up Mystery House with Wizard and the Princess (1980), the very first full-color game. It sold 60,000 copies and spawned the King’s Quest series, which went on to sell 7 million copies by 1997 and cemented Sierra as the era’s ultimate adventure game hitmaker, with Roberta as the reigning queen.
The Williamses hired more people—designers, coders, programmers. They were competing for talent with other companies headquartered in sexier locations like San Francisco and Boston. Sierra, located in the small town of Oakhurst, wasn’t as attractive to young tech stars. So, Ken and Roberta took who they could get and trained them. One early Sierra employee, Carolyn Enlow (who went by her married name, Carolyn Box, in the 1980s), was a champion gold panner who decided to take a coding class with her husband at age 40. “A month before the class ended, Sierra On-Line moved up here,” she told a journalist from The Orange County Register. “We just walked into their offices asking for a job, and they hired us.”
What emerged was a ragtag crew of energetic misfits, willing to move to the middle of nowhere for the chance to develop new software with the latest tech. Many were programming whizzes, and others, like Carolyn Enlow, simply wouldn’t have been given a chance elsewhere—not because they weren’t talented, but because women had a harder time getting into the industry. Sierra’s competitors LucasArts and Infocom had few women on staff, and even fewer in decision-making positions. By comparison, Sierra had a veritable army of women, including influential programmers and game designers Jane Jensen, Christy Marx, Lorelei Shannon, and Lori Ann Cole.
Meanwhile, Roberta was developing strong female characters. In King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988), the title character was the first female protagonist in a graphic adventure. It was a bold move, and she wasn’t sure she would pull it off. “It hadn’t been done in our industry—to have a girl heroine,” she told reporter Nancy Smithe in a 1989 issue of InterAction magazine. “I worried about it while I was designing the game. I wondered if it was going to be accepted. I thought there would be some controversy, that maybe guys would write in and say, ‘I don’t want to be a girl,’ but it hasn’t really been an issue.” The game was an instant hit, selling 100,000 copies in the first two weeks. Fan mail poured in, most of it from women, whom Sierra estimated made up 40 percent of its players.
Encouraged by the response, Roberta made The Colonel’s Bequest (1989) starring Laura Bow, a determined journalism student. In King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride (1994), players have the option of not one but two female leads, Princess Rosella and her mother, Queen Valanice. The jewel in Roberta’s game design crown, however, came in 1995, when Sierra released Phantasmagoria. It was the world’s first live-action video game, using real actors on computer-designed 3D backdrops and impressive audio-visual effects. The script was a 550-page horror story about a writer who moves to a remote mansion with her husband, who then becomes possessed by evil, supernatural forces. The visuals are as disturbing as the plot, which includes a highly controversial rape scene and violent scenarios in which the heroine gets ripped apart by a demon, is consumed by flames, and gets her head split in half.
Phantasmagoria surpassed Sierra’s normal operating procedures in every way. A cast of 25 actors and a 200-person crew worked for over two years in a $1.5 million-dollar Hollywood-grade studio built for the game. Sierra hired film professionals to handle lighting, cameras, sets, costumes, sound, and music, which was performed by a 135-voice neo-Gregorian choir. The original budget was $800,000, but in the end, it cost $4.5 million to produce.
When the game came out, it occupied a whopping seven CD-ROMs. It was rated “M” for mature and was quickly dropped by CompUSA, condemned by religious groups and politicians, and in some countries, was banned altogether—which only made people want to play it more. In its first week, Phantasmagoria made $12 million, making it the best-selling game in the U.S., and Sierra’s top-seller of all time.
But while Roberta may have been the face of Phantasmagoria, the truth was that she was in the process of becoming a figurehead. She was allegedly hardly ever in the office, preferring to work at home. And though only a handful of Sierra’s ex-employees have gone on record, suspicions arose that Roberta wasn’t putting in the same time as her fellow designers.
After the early design and concept phase, Roberta would hand off the execution to her team of artists and programmers, then come back during final testing. These talented programmers were hand-picked to work on her flagship titles, many of which required significant technical savvy to meet her ambitious goals. According to Laine Nooney—assistant professor of media industries at New York University and a leading expert on the history of home computing who has interviewed many former Sierra employees—this meant “working more than eight hours a day, over weekends, for months at a time. Generally, employees recount their time at Sierra as the most fun of their careers. But they also report being under tremendous, debilitating stress. This stress was extensive enough that some former employees still find these memories hard to discuss.”
As someone who never went to college and who, by her own accounts, never expected to amount to much, Roberta’s ascent must have been as surprising to her as to anyone, and she clung tightly to her acclaim. She didn’t get there alone, and she knew it. But once she got to the top, she wasn’t inclined to make room for anyone else. “As far as programming techniques go,” she said in a 1983 interview with Antic magazine, “anybody can do it. It’s nothing special. The specialness comes from the stories I make up, and nobody can do that but me.”
Still, being on her team was seen as an honor. “It meant you were considered the best at what you did,” says Nooney. Roberta’s apprenticeship system was how many of Sierra’s promising up-and-comers proved themselves worthy of creating their own games. She developed lasting bonds with many loyal employees, but while she had every opportunity to champion promising young women at her company, that was never her priority.
In fact, Roberta never advocated for women in her company or industry. It’s not only wrong to place the weight of feminist activism on her shoulders, it’s dangerous. This revisionist take may be inspiring for young women today, but a falsely positive story is false, nonetheless. “Video game history doesn’t know how to make sense of her except to single her out,” says Nooney.
Soon after Phantasmagoria was released, the computer game industry underwent a drastic change. The rise of fast-paced action, racing, and shooting games in the mid-’90s gave birth to a more “hostile, exclusionary, hyper-masculine game culture,” Roberta told mic.com in 1998. “There is such a dearth of games for women. I have never seen the shelves so empty.”
But by that point, the Williamses had already retired. Roberta and Ken sold Sierra in 1996 to Comp-U-Card (CUC) in a deal that was soon revealed to be one of the biggest cases of financial fraud in U.S. history. The details are as fascinating as they are complicated, but the short version is: A Sierra board member who worked at CUC falsely inflated the company’s worth. After the deception was revealed in an audit, stock prices plunged, and CUC immediately sold off its holdings.
Sierra quickly went downhill after that. On February 22, 1999, a day now known as “Chainsaw Monday,” Sierra’s development studio was shuttered, 250 people were fired, and a mountain of original concept art, early game drafts, and code went to the landfill.
The world hasn’t heard much from Roberta since. She seems to have cared about game design only as long as she was popular, and when her outlet for validation disappeared, so did she. It’s not the storybook ending she might have written for herself. But if a fairytale is about a prince and princess overcoming obstacles, rising to challenges, proving their worth, and succeeding against all odds, then Roberta and Ken’s story isn’t actually far off the mark.
“I feel that I’ve grown as a person,” she told Antic magazine in 1983, just a few years after her first breakout success with Mystery House. “I can deal with people. I can talk to them without feeling shy. I know my own mind now. I’m not floundering around in a world in which I don’t quite fit. I feel I can create a world to be how I want it to be; and not just in games. I feel in control.”
By Perrin Drumm
A version of this article was originally published in the “Distraction” Issue of AIGA’s Eye on Design magazine (eyeondesign.aiga.org) under the title “Queen’s Quest.”
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