Sierra's graphical adventures defined the form in the 1980s, thanks to a band of distinctive creators experimenting with their own particular favorite pop culture influences to create parser-based (and later point-and-click) games with strong creative visions. There was Al Lowe and his luckless loser Larry, of Leisure Suit fame; Roberta Williams, creator of the King’s Quest series, among others, who seemed to strive for stories of family triumph using familiar concepts, like classic fantasy and fairy tales, as touchstones.
And then there were the Two Guys from Andromeda.
Writer/designer Scott Murphy and artist Mark Crowe, co-creators of the Space Quest series, were an inseparable duo. Like its contemporaries, 1986's Space Quest starred a "little guy" who seemed to luck into heroism by happenstance. In this case, our hero was Roger Wilco, a lowly janitor aboard a space cruiser whose naivety led him to save the galaxy -- again and again, nearly thanklessly.
The two guys can be seen toward the end of Space Quest III, a particularly self-reflexive installment wherein the main villain is a ruthless software developer engaged in piracy. Roger rescues a pair of wily alien programmers with distinctive porcine snouts from imprisonment in green Jell-O. In real life, Crowe and Murphy don't have pig snouts or mohawks, but otherwise the aliens serve as decent stand-ins.
1991's Space Quest IV was the last game the Two Guys would make together. Soon after, the duo had a falling out, ending their partnership forever. Or so they thought.
Thanks to Kickstarter, the Two Guys are back working together on a new space adventure for the first time in 20 years, reconciling their differences after years of estrangement -- and loving every minute of being back together.
Their working relationship struggled under the stresses of Sierra's high-pressure latter days in the 1990s, when adventure games required bigger and bigger budgets and saw lower and lower sales. For Sierra, the increasing challenges faced by the genre on which it had built its fortune culminated in a "Chainsaw Monday" where nearly 150 employees unceremoniously lost their jobs.
"It was heartbreaking, seeing all of the people that we worked with, who worked on the projects but didn't get the kind of notoriety that Mark and I did, who lost their jobs because of how radically the industry changed, and how Sierra changed," Scott Murphy tells us. "We have really strong emotions about how all that worked out."
That strong emotion led Murphy to give a somewhat-infamous interview back in 2006 to website Adventure Classic Gaming, where he spoke about the sense of loss he felt at the end of his career in adventure gaming, and what felt like some bitterness toward Sierra management, particularly co-founder and CEO Ken Williams.
"The more successful each game became, the worse they treated us and the less they wanted to pay us,” Murphy said in 2006, describing “broken promises and the just plain fucking over I got from the people I'd worked so incredibly hard for.”
Murphy also seemed to feel betrayed by his once-partner Crowe, who left him after Space Quest IV to join Dynamix, another company within the Sierra organization, in search of more stability and, presumably, better money.
In that infamous interview, Murphy said Crowe "was not a very good partner in the long run," expressing Crowe's departure to Dynamix felt like a surprise that helped prove his former colleague "had loyalty only to himself."
"Would I want to work with Mark again? No, I don't think so," he said at the time.
At Dynamix, Crowe developed Space Quest V -- in which Roger cheats on an exam to get his own spaceship and meets a stand-in for Captain Kirk. Murphy remained at Sierra to develop Space Quest VI with Josh Mandel, a game that sees Roger at lower rank and in worse straits than ever. Fans seemed to notice something missing from both games, which were never as well-regarded as those the Two Guys From Andromeda developed together.
Crowe continued to work in the industry at Dynamix and later at Pipeworks (the studio notable for creating the Xbox and Xbox 360’s boot ROMs); Murphy has mostly stayed away from games, although with a more overt social media presence than his partner he's received a steady trickle of touching fan letters that meant those years on Space Quest would never leave his mind.
“There was a strong core of people that never gave up,” reflects Murphy.
That interview Murphy gave to Adventure Classic Gaming "was very therapeutic for me," he admits. "But I just recently went back and looked at it, and I shuddered when I saw some of the things that I said. I can't say those weren't feelings that I had... but I feel really bad."
And yet here the pair are now, on Kickstarter, stumping for a brand new Two Guys Spaceventure -- and laughing and joking around together on a Skype call with Gamasutra as if hardly any time has passed. Murphy in particular speaks with an almost uncontainable enthusiasm, effusing at length; Crowe is more measured, but possessed of a quiet warmth. How did it happen, and why now?
"I think it's become perfectly obvious to us that we have these loyal fans out there that really are desiring these games we used to make," Crowe tells Gamasutra. "We recognized and realized that we really had to get back to our roots. This is what we did well together, and I don't think either of us have experienced that kind of success or accomplishment that we had back in those days."
"Mark had the guts to reach out to somebody who he had no reason to feel might welcome him -- me," Murphy says quietly. "I give him all the credit for that. I know it took him a little time before he felt, 'I'm going to go ahead and hit send on this email,' because I was so harsh, and sadly it is a personality flaw with me that I sometimes over-express myself."
"Looking back, I realize I was a dick," he laughs.
There was more to Crowe's career decisions than Murphy realized at the time, he concedes, and in the emotional pressure cooker of Sierra's rocky latter days it was hard to think clearly.
"Because of how busy we were at the time, never getting a chance to stick our heads up above the surface of the water, I didn't have the sensitivity to realize Mark was raising a family... it was something I was totally ignorant about," Murphy reflects.
Each probably shares a little bit of the blame, they say: "We were younger and less mature," Murphy notes.
"We're young for our ages, so it works for us," adds Crowe. Both laugh.
Two Guys reunited.
Now that the Kickstarter age has created unprecedented fan demand for the return of some classics, it was the ideal time to get over the past. The slightly hollow feel of Space Quest V and VI spelled a certainty: "We knew there was no way we were going to be able to make a Space Quest-style game that was successful unless we were together," says Crowe.
“Our working dynamic at Sierra was that we would collaborate on story ideas and puzzle design,” recalls Crowe. “Then I'd dive into designing rooms, characters and animations while Scott dove into hooking all the art assets up in the game engine and writing the descriptive text… this was a dream setup because it was just the two of us in one office cranking out the bulk of the game content.”
One of Crowe’s favorite memories involves the day the pair, who had just decided to call themselves the Two Guys From Andromeda, headed up to Yosemite for a photo. “I had hastily thrown together a couple of rubber noses, mohawks and elf ears -- VOILA!” he recalls. “We drove up into the park just to snap this picture in front of Half Dome for the back of the Space Quest box.”
“At that moment in time, neither of us ever thought we'd make another Space Quest game or any other games of our own design, for that matter,” Crowe continues. “That was just a great day to unwind from the rigors of finally [finishing] our first title. It was a great day to be an Andromedan... a great memory.”
“We were the only two people in the building who understood each other on some levels,” Murphy recalls. "In that time we were working together, I had never had a partner before, and I didn't realize how well Mark and I had it.”
"We never, ever had a bad time in our partnership -- our biggest problems were in dealing with management,” he adds.
Looking back at the pair’s work, there are clear traces of the feelings under which they must have been laboring at the time. It's telling, perhaps, that in each Space Quest installment, Roger manages to thwart major threats to the galaxy -- and always goes un-thanked and un-promoted. In some cases he's even penalized for losing or damaging things along the way, without any recognition for baddies defeated, lives saved, or the seat-of-his-pants wit he had to use to avoid the game's popular, hilarious, and grisly death sequences along the way.
In Space Quest III, the Two Guys From Andromeda that Roger rescues head off to happy lives as Sierra employees, but there's no job there for him. Space Quest IV sees our hero working out the peculiarities of time travel -- featuring transparent anxiety about the forward-march of technology and the franchise's future.
Roberta Williams is known for her massive portfolio of defining storytelling adventure games, but the Two Guys shed light on another role she played within Sierra: as an unofficial advisor of sorts who helped frustrated young programmers deal well with her husband, Sierra boss Ken Williams.
"She was the only person who could understand what Mark and I were going through," Murphy recalls. "She was the only one who had been there the whole time, and she would come up with gems of advice about how to approach new projects, and what you can learn about what you've done that's good and that's bad. Because of my sarcasm about Ken... I don't think she realizes how much I appreciate what she did for us."
Murphy says the Two Guys will still keep Roberta's advice in mind when deciding how to approach their classic-style games for a brand new audience. One of the challenges as the series matured was the shift from text and keyboard input to a more hybridized interface, which offloaded more of the environment interaction away from manual interaction and onto a simple click. Later Sierra games featured a Swiss army knife approach to the cursor, where frequently-used commands like "look", "take" or "use" had a mouse input.
Murphy recalls being a little frustrated with the change, as his favorite thing about Space Quest is the way he as a writer would use a fourth-wall breaking approach that, for many players, was a quiet revolution: He was fond of having the text interface tease the player for counter-intuitive choices, or of embedding small jokes and references in the wordplay between player and game.
Anticipating that stuck players would curse at the game, Murphy would have the text interface chide the player; he tells us he even fantasized about implementing a countdown clock to catch young players who typed in rude things once their parents left the room -- they'd get away with it at first, but a pop-up notice would call them out minutes later, when the parents had assumedly returned (tech limits inhibited this dream).
But he admits his purist's attitude toward the parser has gentled, thanks in part to ongoing social media dialogues with close fans, and he understands that some shortcuts are just intuitive and offer a better player experience.
"There's some torture that's okay and expected -- people loved the way we killed them. But mainly we've learned what to and what not to do, and we realized we're older, wiser, and have a few more tricks up our sleeve as a result," Murphy explains. "We have to make sure we still appeal to the people we appealed to back then as well as those who have grown up -- now they have children, and they felt good enough about those games to share them with their children."
Having the opportunity to address a modern audience is a complicated challenge for the stewards of a prior genre nonetheless. Crowe says the Two Guys are looking closely at fan feedback, engaged in a dialogue about what they want: "Do we want to do something with more of a retro feel, or do we want to take it to the next level? I look back at those games with a fondness, and that old vector graphic style has come back into vogue, and I respect that too," says Crowe.
One thing the pair says is that today's players may expect more action-oriented elements -- the challenge is how to provide that without forcing players who want verbal or intellectual puzzles instead to participate. They visualize multiple routes through a given puzzle, where players who excel at hand-eye coordination may use that skill and others can find a more patient solution.
Ultimately, says Murphy, "At some point we have to totally trust our gut, and hope that what we trusted back then is as powerful and accurate as it is now. We are dealing with the Xbox generation... we definitely have a challenge ahead, and we're definitely listening to our fans. We're trying to give them as much say as we can, but we also have to trust our guts and what it is that made you like what we did."
Thus far, working together again feels like a homecoming, the pair say. "Last week, I was able to spend five days hanging with Mark [at Crowe's home], and it was just really hard to describe the feeling I had," Murphy says haltingly. "To me, it was like the old days, but better. Especially since I've been out of that [game dev] world because of family, personal situations, and burnout... it was great to be around Mark, and to be able to draw from his energy and hear the things he had learned in his time with Pipeworks."
"It was great to bury the hatchet on the past and move forward," says Crowe. "I realized years ago it was our partnership that made these games great, and it's something I haven't experienced in the last 15, 20 years since I've been away from Sierra. I realized how much I missed that… we’ve come full circle back to our original way of working together.”
"I didn't realize what I had with Mark," Murphy adds.
Says Crowe: "Yeah, we realized how good we had it.”