RE:Play The Dagger of Amon-RaThe Dark Herald
Back in June of this year, the unthinkable finally happened. World of Warcraft became the second most played MMO. If you strike at the king, you must rule or die and Square Enix now sits on the throne.
And Blizzard was indeed the undoubted king of PC gaming for twenty years. Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, these weren’t mere franchises, these were legends. Nobody broke ground like Blizzard, nobody had the polish or the style. Blizzard didn’t have releases, they had seismic events. Present at E3? No thanks we have Blizzcon! All of South Korea was brought to a standstill when they launched StarCraft II. Blizzard’s games literally changed gaming culture with each new release. For most of the 21st Century, it appeared to the average player that Blizzard could do no wrong.
But around 2016 cracks started to appear in the armor. There was an odor of me-tooism around Overwatch that had never hung over one their major games before. It was too much like TF2. Blizzard started doing remasters of previous games and touting these retreads as major releases. While the StarCraft remaster was fine, Warcraft III Reforged (2018) was a disaster in every way available to it. Then came Blizzcon 2018 and the infamous, “you have phones, right?” Those four little ill-chosen words, irreversibly damaged Blizzard’s reputation with gamers.
It cemented a perception that was based in truth. That the company by and for gamers, now was being run by people who had an Us versus Them mentality towards their customers.
Even the most glorious reign must end one day.
Back in the early 1990s that rule that was ending was Sierra’s. The reasons for their fall aren’t same as Blizzard’s. It was sort of the opposite. They stayed a gaming company by and for gamers until the end.
But it was for a very specific kind of game.
The Dagger of Amon-Ra is pretty far from a swan song for Sierra but in a lot of ways it feels like one.
The queen of the Eighties gaming companies would keep its dev studios running until 1999 but this was the last of the Agatha Christi style mysteries that Ken and Roberta Williams cut their teeth on. This game feels like the end of an era. Largely because it was.
The character of Laura Bow was first introduced in Colonel’s Bequest, which was closer in spirit to Sierra On-Line’s very first game, Mystery House than this one. It was a command-line game, which meant all of the action was conducted by the keyboard.
Dagger of Amon-Ra was entirely mouse driven. It was one of the very first to use the interface, Space Quest IV only beat it by a few months.* And interestingly, it wasn’t well received by the old school. There was a general air of it having dumbed down the game. Which to a degree it had.
In the old days of a year earlier, a player had to figure out what the object on the screen was most likely called before you could interact with it. Unfortunately, in the days of CGA graphics that wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. You hit return to open the text window and then tried your luck guessing at what some round blob on the screen was supposed to be.
“LOOK at Walnut.”
I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
“LOOK at Ball
”I’m sorry, I don’t have one of those.
“LOOK at Turd.”
I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
I am programmed to do no such thing!
Assuming you had managed to correctly guess the name of the object and it was indeed the thing you actually needed. Then you had to work through the various possibilities of just how you were supposed to interact with it. LOOK was always safe but after that it was a crap shoot. USE? CLIMB? PLAY WITH? EAT? You often had to work your way through the entire roster.
The mouse interface changed everything. Once you entered a room you just clicked on everything in it until you got a hit. Then worked your way through the possibilities that the mouse could click on. It was much faster and more efficient, so the old players sneered at it on general principle.
That isn’t to say that Sierra had stopped going out of its way to gratuitously mess with you. More on that in a minute.
The game takes place in mystery friendly era of the Roaring Twenties. And the games POV character, Laura Bow is a New Orleans girl that moves to New York City to make her way in the world as an intrepid girl reporter like Nellie Bly (who had died four years before this game takes place). No Sierra character ever really thought these things through.
She hugs her Daddy (who I thought was dead in Colonel’s Bequest but it was a badly rendered memory bubble) at the train station and heads off to the big city so the opening credits can roll while she on the train.
The background artwork in this game was gorgeous. The lumpy digital splats from the EGA days were now banished in favor of beautifully detailed hand-painted backgrounds that were then digitized into VGA. The intrinsic elegance of the art design can be attributed to having only one artist and hence one vision painting the entire background.
The sharp angles of Twenties Art Deco is present in the graphics as well as most all of the design work that was meant to be modern.
The black backgrounds were odd but intentional as they were based on the artwork of 1920s artist J.C. Leyendecker. His style strongly impacted this game.
The redhead in this picture is clearly the inspiration for Laura’s appearance and evening gown.
The characters were digitally rotoscoped off of real-life models, which was something new in gaming as well. It did succeed in making the characters more lifelike.
So Laura arrives in the Big Apple and promptly gets mugged then makes her way to the Register to meet her new boss. She gets her first assignment, which is covering the robbery of the Dagger of Amon-Ra at the Museum. She walks outside the Register and is immediately run over by a car, killing her instantly.
Unless you saved before this point you get to do every single thing you just did, again.
This kind of thing was Ken Williams idea of fun. This is the same guy who had a bug built into a flight simulator that would crash the game if you crashed your plane. Pointless ways of getting killed by some grizzly methods were a feature of all Sierra games.
After toddling around New York to meet some side characters in the first act, you head to the Museum where you will spend 90% of this game.
Here is where it turns into an Agatha Christi whodunit. You will quickly identify the rich guy who is an asshole to everyone and therefore is going to be the victim. Everyone who is anyone in the game has some kind of motive to kill him. When he dies, it’s time for you to unpack your sleuthing skills.
O-r-r it is time to reload to an early save point in the game and acquire the things you will need to conduct your investigation. You need a magnifying glass to examine clues and a champagne flute to eavesdrop on conversation. If you don’t have those items, the game is basically over for you.
You find the obvious victim, Pippin Carter (apparently a cousin of the more famous Howard Carter) dead with a gift shop replica of the stolen dagger buried in his chest.
Your sleuthing does not have an unlimited time allotment. You have to be in certain places at certain times to trigger the next events that will allow you to crack the case. In the meantime you question people, eavesdrop on them, look through trash cans, examine paintings, solve puzzles and basically do everything a Christi detective does.
If you like Agatha Christi, this part is a treat and it’s still worth playing today.
In the finale your investigating time is concluded, when the murderer starts chasing you through the museum. Plucky Laura has to evade and outsmart her would be killer until she can get clear of the building.
After you escape the museum, after having been killed repeatedly (and by the way, Auto-save doesn’t exist on any copy of this game that I know of, if you play it, Save constantly) you arrive at the coroner’s inquest.
You present your accusations and findings to the police. There are different endings depending on how you handled things. If you did everything right you get a praise, plaudits and a super handsome 1920s boyfriend.
Get them wrong and you are murdered in your sleep.
I’m not sure why, as you were such a crappy detective you were clearly no threat.
Like, I said, the game feels like the end of an era. Sierra was too focused on improving this style of game (which they did magnificently) to notice a major shift in the market heralded by the release of Wolfenstien 3d the same year this came out. The adventure-puzzle game had at first seemed like this was how PC gaming was supposed to be done, basically because the technology couldn’t really support any other kind of game. It turned out that that genre was just a fashion and like any fashion, once it had run its course, it was discarded.
I was going to finish this piece on the usual “nothing ever happened to Laura Bow again.” But a little research turned up an announcement from 2019 from a company called, NineZyme that is working on an adventure game titled Laura Bow and the Mechanical Codex.
I haven’t heard anything about it since then but I hope they can get it developed and into the wild.
This is the last of the Sierra games that will be featured on RE:Play.
Next time – Doom.
*At last Roger Wilco won at something.