‘Colossal Cave Adventure’ summoned the Sierra adventure game legend to her calling. Forty years later, she’s heeding its call again.
When you are as successful as Roberta Williams, you can decide you are done making video games on land.
Colossal Cave is the designer’s first game in 24 years, and her first designed aboard the Cygnus, a 60-foot motor yacht she captains with her husband Ken. The yacht is the third the couple have sailed since their unplanned retirement from the video game business in 1998. They return on their own terms: writing the checks, calling the shots, and running a fully-distributed independent game studio from the open sea: Cygnus Entertainment, named for the boat. When they’re not working, they sail around the world.
“There’s a trade show a few weeks in Germany,” says Ken, 67, formerly the chief executive of Sierra On-Line. “Our marketing people said, ‘Well, you gotta go to the show.’ And I go, ‘Man, I don’t want to go to Germany.’ We’ve done the whole proving ourselves thing.”
But that’s not totally true. “It’s probably a little more personal than maybe it is for him,” says Roberta, 69, in an interview with Vice aboard—well, where else. As Sierra’s marquee designer, she delivered hit after hit: her King’s Quest series was the guarantor for Half-Life and Leisure Suit Larry;acquisitions and IPOs.
“There’s probably an element of me doing this to prove myself—not necessarily to others, but to myself,” she says. “Does she still have the old magic?”
“You know, can she do this? I mean, things have changed. Technology has changed, gaming has changed. I haven’t even played games since then, not really.”
The project through which she’ll find her answer is a remake of the game that inspired her to all of this. By the end of this year she’ll know whether the game that changed her life can do it again.
Roberta Heuer of California married Ken Williams in 1972, when he turned 18. “He was very straight, very responsible,” she said in 1982, of her husband, a hustling programmer prodigy. “I was this teenybopper, had no idea what I was going to do with my life, didn’t want to go to college, and didn’t want to do anything but party…. He pulled me out when I was ready to go downhill.” By 1979, she was 26, a mother to their two sons and working for extra money as an entry-level programmer—Ken’s idea.
“I hated that,” she says today. “For him, programming is fun. I look at him and it doesn’t look like fun at all. I don’t understand that one. But he loves it. That’s his fun.”
“That’s the ultimate adventure game,” he says.
“I didn’t enjoy it at all.”
Her mom said, what you always wanted to be was a writer.
In ’79, Ken brought home a computer game, Colossal Cave Adventure, created by Will Crowther and revised by Don Woods. It was text only, as all computer games were then, and Ken played it on a terminal hooked up to his work computer. He didn’t have a monitor, so the game spoke through the printer. Ken typed commands, and the printer replied.
SOMEWHERE NEARBY IS COLOSSAL CAVE—the game introduces itself—WHERE OTHERS HAVE FOUND FORTUNES IN TREASURE AND GOLD, THOUGH IT IS RUMORED THAT SOME WHO ENTER ARE NEVER SEEN AGAIN. MAGIC IS SAID TO WORK IN THE CAVE.
Colossal Cave is a puzzle of sentiment. Crowther and his wife were avid cave explorers; after their divorce, he recreated, for his daughters, the wonder of their experiences in a world of his own making. In his game, the player is dropped into a vast, foreign labyrinth and challenged to figure it all out.
The spelunking simulator soon becomes a quest for treasure in a messy network of twisty passages connecting halls of mist and mountain kings, populated by singing swords, pirates and axe-throwing dwarves. The player must draw their own maps, die for unclear reasons and start from the beginning over and over again. If the game is about anything, it’s being lost, and finding a way through the darkness. Colossal Cave echoes in game design from Myst to Dark Souls.
Ken found it baffling. Roberta, in the cave, found Roberta Williams—and her fortune.
“I was so attracted to it,” she says. “I could hardly leave it.” Late nights, handmade maps, unmade dinners, as goes the Sierra creation myth. When she had finished the game, she wanted to play others like it. When there were no others like it, she wrote her own. Her and Ken’s Mystery House, an Agatha Christie-inspired horror, combined text with graphics and was a triumph; everything that Sierra became flowed from there. So essential are Colossal Cave and Mystery House to the making of Roberta Williams that she cannot imagine life without them.
“I don’t think I’ve ever thought of that. Well, what would I have done?”
“Housewife,” Ken suggests. “Mom.”
“Boy,” she says. “I don’t know.”
Colossal Cave is also known just as Adventure and that one word, to her, is everything. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, her games traded on fairy tales, mythology and genre fiction to give the player, in a conceptual sense, an adventure—an opportunity to inhabit familiar scenarios from the realms of imagination and fantasy. Go on a quest. Climb the beanstalk. Save the kingdom. Rescue the princess from a dragon. Solve a murder. Steal pirates’ treasure. Defeat the minotaur in the labyrinth. Find love. Kill Dracula.
At her peak—which spanned, more or less, all 18 years of her career—Roberta was conscious of a responsibility to deliver huge hits for the company, and confident of the way to do it. Which was her way. “Roberta isn’t always right,” Ken has said, “but her games have sold millions of copies.”
“I can design it and show it to a programmer, and be told, ‘You can’t do that.’ Then I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I think we can. Let’s think about this.’ So we sit down, and I always get my way,” she said in 1982. “As far as programming techniques go, anybody can do it. It’s nothing special. The specialness comes from the stories I make up, and nobody can do that but me. They can do it their way, but nobody can do it my way.”
Nothing frustrates Roberta quite so much as being told she can’t do something, and nobody draws her ire quite like programmers, who she says would often go over her head to complain to her husband. In 1997, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer she found “a lot of arrogance” among the young, male programmers at her company. (This also describes the person she married.) “They like to think, ‘We know something you don’t.’ I remind them that I’m the designer. I know what I’m doing,” she said.
He said, what you do is not real writing.
She remembers hearing that over and over at Sierra. “We know that you design these games, and they have little storylines,” she paraphrases, “but that’s not really writing, you know. You’re more like playing at writing.”
Who said that? “Nobody in particular,” she demurs. “Just, little sentences, little things that over the years you hear about. Not from anybody I’m working with.”
Ken jumps in. “Well, remember working with Christopher Cerf? He was trying to tell you why you’re not really a writer.”
Yes, she remembers. Christopher Cerf—a Sesame Street composer, among many other things—worked with Sierra on behalf of the Henson Company to develop a game adaptation of The Dark Crystal, in 1983.
“I was taking the script of that movie and trying to translate it into the game,” she says. “I was writing the messages for the game, like I always do. Christopher Cerf came along and rewrote all of my messages, all in much more flowery language. He sent them back to me and I said, ‘Well, these are not my messages.’ He goes, ‘Well, you know, you’re not really a writer. You know what to do about putting this together as an adventure game, but you’re not really a writer, and I didn’t think the writing was very good.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but the problem is, your writing is not good for a game.’ So I just rewrote it again. I just put my messages right back in. And then he was very angry with me, but they stayed in.” She cites this experience, and others like it, as her motivation to research, write and self-publish an historical novel37 years later. Objectively, now, she is a real writer, by anyone’s definition.
At Sierra, there was always one Cerf or another; even as Roberta’s status in the industry grew to celebrity, she still felt, and bemoaned, constant resistance. “You’d think I could just say ‘Bam, this is how it’s going to be,” she said in 1997, “but I can’t. When you work in a company, there are always people who will try to stop you. They sandbag, delay, drag their feet.”
But she always got her way, and was vindicated—until that year. Sierra was acquired in 1996, by an entertainment and commerce conglomerate, and gradually both Williamses would realize they’d given away more power in the sale than they had expected. At the time, Roberta was directing the eighth King’s Quest game, subtitled Mask of Eternity, with which she wanted to take a giant technological leap forward—for the series, the company, the adventure genre—by building out a fully explorable 3D world. It would look like Tomb Raider, but play like a traditional adventure game. Fine, thought her producers, but as long as they were modernizing it, why not add weapons, combat, experience points, health points? Like role-playing games, like Diablo, which is more popular than King’s Quest anyway? When Roberta took Christopher Cerf’s writing out of The Dark Crystal, it was a fight, but that was the end of it. Not this time. She was overruled, her design overwritten with elements of foreign genres.
She was insulted, and bruised from losing a fight for her design. Mask of Eternity would be released, with her name on it, and it wouldn’t be her design—worse than that, the design it was built upon was wrong. She was certain of it. While Roberta is technologically adventurous, she is orthodox on genre.
“It was trying to be both a classic adventure game, but also an RPG,” she told me in 2020. “It’s this thing or that thing. You have to know what you are. It’s either an RPG game, or it’s an adventure game. To try to mix genres, it can’t be done. People catch on to that. RPG players want to have that. Adventure game players want to have an adventure game.”
She was proven right, more or less. Mask of Eternity is nobody’s favorite King’s Quest adventure, and the appeal to a broader audience was ignored. Publicly, she took the hit.
“I really enjoy the action elements in this game,” she said on the press tour for the game. The game, not her game. The game that ended her career by spurring her and Ken to walk away from the company they felt had betrayed them both.
Her mom said, what you always wanted to be was a writer. And an archaeologist.
An adventurer. If she couldn’t write stories about adventurers, she’d become one herself. If she couldn’t write stories about Agatha Christie characters, she’d become one: the wealthy American of the leisure class, lounging on a sailboat in the margins of a Hercule Poirot mystery. After Sierra, Ken and Roberta sailed the world with their dogs, argued archaeology with archaeologists, bribed museum attendants to see the body of a pharaoh.
Today, Ken thinks better of his answer that, without a career in games, Roberta would have been a housewife. “Roberta would have grown up to be like Indiana Jones,” he says. “That’s the real true story. Roberta likes danger. We actually had another whole career as kind of world explorers. Not everybody can say they crossed the Pacific and the Atlantic on a small personal boat. We went across the Bering Sea. We’ve been in Japan and Russia and all these crazy places. All of it driven by Roberta, while I would say ‘No, I don’t want to go. You’re gonna get me killed.’”
Yes, not everyone can say they’ve crossed the Pacific—and not everyone can say that, after a triumphant career, they literally sailed off into the sunset. You can’t write a better story for yourself than that, so why even revisit it? What makes a person turn back from the sunset?
Boredom, they’ve said. But there’s more to it than that.
In 1989, already established as a legend of the industry, she was asked in an interview: having achieved her dreams, what more, if anything, did she dream about?
“I have dreams of retiring, going off in a sailboat around the world for about two years,” she said, then laughed. “No, not really. I could never not do what I am doing, because I really enjoy it. This is me.”
“You’re going to die. There’s no getting around it, you’re gonna fall into a pit and break every bone in your body,” Roberta says enthusiastically, explaining how great it is when this happens to players who don’t light the lamp in the colossal cave. What a design, what an adventure game!
After leaving Sierra, Roberta harbored vague thoughts of making games again, but a non-compete clause prevented her or Ken from immediately acting upon them. By the time the clause expired, they were out on the ocean. “I felt kind of sad about it,” she says. “Just sort of sad. You always think, if I’m going to leave what I’d been working on for 20 years, and all my games, and I’d built a reputation and everything—you want to leave on a high note. You don’t want to leave on a little bit of a low note. Not that [Mask of Eternity] was a low note, but it wasn’t up to my expectations. I have very high expectations. It was a little sad for a while, and it took probably a year to kind of get over all that, and back into the swing of things. Boating helped us with that. I really sort of divorced myself from the gaming industry. I know that I got this reputation for not wanting to talk to anybody and have interviews and everything. But I think it was part of my sadness.”
In the last five years, she’s become more comfortable talking to the press, and warming back up to games. “Maybe I might want to get back into it. ideas start popping up in my head.” In lockdown, Ken expressed an interest in programming a game again, for fun, and for the first time in about four decades. Roberta, who had not really kept up with games at all since her departure from the business, encouraged him to remake Colossal Cave. “I was probably doing it because I wanted to see if he would follow through on it. He did, and I was showing more and more interest in what he was doing.”
On her husband’s computer, like all those years ago, she saw that cave. Colossal Cave. Ken brought it back to life. Maybe not the way she first saw it, in her mind, but that cave still has power over her. She feels as drawn to it as before, but it’s a different lure. Then, she watched her husband struggle with Colossal Cave and said, let me play it. Now, she watches her husband hack together a modern remake of Colossal Cave and says, You’re doing it wrong. I know how to do this. I am extremely good at it.
“I was going to stay out of it,” she says. “But I’d look over Ken’s shoulder and I’d say you know what, you’re not doing that right. You need to change that.” The dwarves should look like this. The VR must work like that. Unity, the developer of the game engine Ken was using, got interested that the Sierra co-founder was making a new game with their technology, and what began as a lockdown project became a game that would probably be released. “It would come out, and it wouldn’t be right,” Roberta says. “And I knew people were going to say, ‘Why didn’t you get involved, Roberta?’ So finally I said okay.” She wouldn’t let them call it Roberta Williams’ Colossal Cave. It would be Crowther and Woods’ game, but the way it looked and lived in 26-year-old Roberta’s head.
It’s Colossal Cave—reimagined by Roberta Williams. She is remaking the game that made her.
“I’m in deep now,” she says. “I’m in very deep and I’m enjoying it. I’m glad I did it. I’m firing on all… how many cylinders?”
“Four,” Ken says.
“Twenty cylinders. I’m firing on all cylinders right now. I’m enjoying it and have been extremely surprised about how quickly, given all the years and not even having really played games since, that I’m just right back in it as if I never left. It’s amazing.”
She wants to make the game as close to the original as possible. Colossal Cave as she saw it. She wants you to experience what she experienced, which was nothing less than formative. Of course, back then it was a text adventure that she played on a printer—can she recapture the game’s essential magic while changing everything about the game’s presentation and how the player interacts with it? Can she make a game on a boat, without the massive infrastructure of a Sierra On-Line, after 25 years out of the industry?
Well, if not—if it flops, Ken says, it’s not going to change one thing about their lives.
“No,” Roberta says. “But will it change… You know, will I be sad for another year? No. I don’t know. We’ll have to, we’ll have to see. I feel very strongly about things that I believe in or have confidence in. If it doesn’t work out, then I could see myself being very disappointed.”
Does she still have the old magic, she asks herself. Can she do it again? She does want to know. And Colossal Cave had magic, for her, once. It did something to her. Whatever happens, she has gone back into that cave, and something is going to happen.