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Fighting Purple Tentacles: A Wasted Youth Playing Adventure Games

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

ImageAdventure games decided my career. Or perhaps it would be better to say they decided my lack of career. Adventure games were born around the same time I was: in 1984, when I was still screaming out my frustration at my parents over my inability to walk or speak, Roberta Williams was heading up a design team at the newly formed Sierra Online to create the first King’s Quest game. Adventure games were emerging as a genre all their own: as interactive stories. In these games, it’s not a question of reflexes or completing levels or beating enemies: it’s about solving puzzles and seeing a story through to the end.

So I got an early start playing adventure games, when I could have been outside on a soccer team or traipsing about outdoors. Instead, I was in the basement with my parents. We were running a DOS system with a 486—this was the day of the text interface and the command line. The first game we installed was an adventure game called Rise of the Dragon. My parents and I huddled around our tiny new computer and spent hours just trying to get out of the first screen: a static, comic book style image of an apartment room where our character “Blade Hunter” was preparing himself for his task of saving the world from horrible death by mutation. Most of all I remember the death scenes – comic sequences where we took a drink from the water fountain and ended up mutated and dead, or shot in an alley, or otherwise eliminated, over and over again. I was hooked.

My first deaths were in Rise of the Dragon, but I was adding to the toll every day. Every early adventure game involved meeting my death over and over again. In the first King’s Quest game opportunities for death exist from the moment you step out of the castle: walk forward too far, and you fall in the moat. A few moments later, a moat monster sticks up a grinning green head—wearing your blue hat. A command box pops up, explaining that “The moat monsters appreciate your good taste.” But no death is final and three options accompany the message: restore, restart, and quit. This is but one of the many ways that death can strike Sir Graham, knight hero of King’s Quest. Others include drowning, falling off a cliff, eating a mushroom, and falling out of the clouds or off a beanstalk.

But it isn’t all death and destruction. It was in a gentler game, a Sierra “American History” release called Pepper’s Adventures in Time that I met my first female protagonist. She was everything I dreamed of being: red headed, feisty, young, and not taking crap from anyone. Graphics in computer games at this time — Pepper’s Adventures belong to the early 90s — didn’t have enough pixels yet to create the attractive women ala Lara Croft that would come to dominate the screen, but even at that time I could tell Pepper was special: she was a kid who looked like a kid, and a girl on a quest with only a dog for a male cohort.

Even better, Pepper’s Adventures didn’t talk down to me. There were Monty Python gags and the sight of Ben Franklin, thanks to a warp in the time line, lounging around in a hot tub dressed like a hippie. All his sayings about saving pennies and scrounging for time seemed to have been quite forgotten, and frankly he’s more fun this way.

Pepper’s Adventures were a jumping off point to a whole world of games that put humor over death. I moved from Sierra’s games to those of their major competitor, the other classic era creator of adventure games, Lucas Arts. When Lucas Arts wasn’t concerning itself with Star Wars flight simulators and first-person shooters, they were creating some of the classic titles. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Monkey Island. And best of all for a young player looking for surreal humor … Day of the Tentacle.

My family heard about Day of the Tentacle before it came out. This was back when getting a game was an event: we’d travel from small gaming stores on one side of the county to another seeking out a title we’d heard about. This one was talked up in the magazines before it hit the shelves. There was one copy left in the gaming store when we spotted it: it came in a triangular box with bright cartoon graphics on the side, it stood out among the crowd. My mother grabbed it practically out of the hands of a kid — there are advantages, she told me later, to being the one with a credit card.

In Day of the Tentacle, three college roommates are summoned by a former acquaintance and mad scientist who has a slight problem on his hands: one of his creations, a purple tentacle, drank some nuclear waste and grew not only arms but a massive superiority complex. Purple Tentacle has decided to take over the world—and he’s going to succeed, too, unless they can go back in time and stop him. Unfortunately, time travel doesn’t always go as smoothly as one might hope, especially when it’s an imitation diamond powering the works [and those works are time traveling port a potties!]. The three friends end up stranded at the mad scientist Edison’s mansion in three time periods: colonial America, the present day, and the future time when tentacles rule the world.

When I was 10 years old, my parents threw a surprise birthday party for me. Aside from, well, me, no one else there was under the age of 30 or so. I grew up thinking of my parents’ friends as my friends, and it would never have occurred to me to have it any other way. Thanks to some impressive baking on their part, the party was a themed Tentacle party—we ate sugary Purple and Green Tentacle cakes. Purple Tentacle even had his customary ray gun (made of cardboard, of course). The presents were exactly what you’d expect people without kids to give someone else’s only child: a pellet rifle and a monstrous super soaker. After spending an evening shooting soda cans off the balcony, I’d pretty much figured out how I wanted to spend my life.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a career as an adventurer. Just look at all the trouble Guybrush Threepwood gets into, and all he wanted to be was a mighty pirate. Guybrush Threepwood, of Lucas Arts perfectly inspired Monkey Island series, is a perfect dork. He’s pale and blonde and scrawny and, er, kind of like me, actually. But that doesn’t stop him from setting out on a quest to win a lovely lady—Governor Elaine Marley, who mostly finds him annoying—while battling the Dread Pirate LeChuck.

Luckily for Threepwood, in his world of piracy success in battle isn’t based on mastery of swordplay so much as it is mastery of insult dueling: a form of combat where success is based literally on witty repartee. Threepwood is quite fortunate—I was very disappointed the one time I picked up fencing to find out that it has more to do with skill than insults, and naturally I haven’t tried it again. Thankfully, super soakers are the world’s great equalizer.

The stories of some of these great characters brought to life over a decade ago didn’t end there. Sequels to the classic-era adventure games have continued, though some decry the adventure game genre itself as dead. But how can the spirit of adventure without combat be dead? These were quests where a player could combat dragons or purple tentacles relying solely on his wits. These were quests where I could enter fantastical realms and be, for a while, the hero. And that is the sort of experience that never dies.