Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels: A conversation with Bob Bates
With his company Challenge Inc., Bob Bates created two text adventure games for Infocom (“Sherlock” and “Arthur”) in the late 80s before co-founding Legend Entertainment and writing, designing and producing numerous adventure games throughout the 90s. In 2017 he returned to his text adventure roots with the crowdfunded Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way. Our conversation with Bob focuses on the creation and design of his first game, “Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels” (1988).
This interview was conducted by Gunnar Lott and Christian Schmidt in August 2020 via VoIP call. The recording was originally published as an audio podcast. Here’s the full audio:
The audio interview was transcribed by Stay Forever community members Anym, Brotrinde und cpt-marve. We’re very grateful for their excellent work! The transcript was subsequently edited for clarity and better readability.
The interview was a supplement to our playthrough of Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, published as a series of podcast episodes, and to Stay Forever episode #102 about Sherlock. Stay Forever is Germany’s leading retro gaming podcast.
Stay Forever: Bob, nice to have you on the show. Thanks for coming!
Bob Bates: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me. It’s been a long time since I looked at this game and it was an interesting trip into the past.
Stay Forever: Bob Bates is an award-winning veteran game designer. He started out in the late 80s. He created games for the legendary text adventure company Infocom, then went on to found his own legendary text adventure – no, perhaps text and graphic adventure – company with Mike Verdu. It was called Legend Entertainment and we’ve done a few podcasts about their games already. He has designed and written and produced dozens of games, among them adventures obviously like Eric the Unready or Blackstone Chronicles, he did action games like Unreal II and The Wheel of Time, serious games like the kind of obscure Quandaries for the Department of Justice in the USA, social games like Empires & Allies and many, many more.
We are here to talk about his first professional game, Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels published in December 1987 by Infocom. So, Bob, Sherlock is the 31st Infocom game and the first one that was developed by an external company, your own company Challenge Inc. Could you tell us in a few sentences the story of how this happened?
Bob Bates: Sure. I had been working on a novel. I was not a game player. I was working as a writer, trying to make my way in the literary world in the 1980s and it was kind of a tough go. My dad, who was a computer enthusiast from way back, in order to help me write my book, gave me a TRS-80 computer to use basically as a word processor instead of a typewriter. And on that computer was a game called Zork. So Zork was the first computer game that I ever played, and I really liked it, I liked it a lot. And I thought: “Man, I could do this!”
And so, as time went by and I realized that my novel was going to take a really long time to come to fruition, I started thinking about writing interactive fiction, about writing games. And so, I started a company called „Challenge“ with the idea that if you think an Infocom game is hard, just wait until you play a Challenge game. Because I thought the fun of playing these games was in the challenge of solving puzzles and going after that ‘aha‘ moment when you’ve been thinking about something and trying to figure out what the right thing to do is and you can’t do it, and you can’t do it, and then one day you’re walking down the street and it just comes to you, and you go: “Oh, oh, I know that’s the answer!” You can’t wait to get back to the computer and type in that answer – of course, all typing, no mouse or clicking or anything like that – and see that you had figured it out. So, I thought of it very much as a kind of a battle of wits between the game designer and the player. Which turns out is really a bad way to think about actually making these games.
So, I started this company, and I had a partner whose name was Dave Wilt. Dave was the computer guy and I was the writer guy, and he said: “Well, we’re going to need to build an engine.” And then he said: “You know, what’s better than building an engine would be licensing an engine. Who makes a good computer game engine?” And I said, “Well, Infocom.” And he says, “Well, call them up and see if we can license their engine.” I thought he was nuts, absolutely crazy. But I did that, I called up Infocom and talked to Joel Berez, who was their president. And he said: “Hm, let me think about his and get back to you.” He called back a little while later and said: “Okay, we will license you the engine for one million dollars.” And I was just flabbergasted and said, “That’s just not practical.” But I went back to them with a counter-offer: “Give me a ten-game license for $100,000 each.“ And they said, “Oh, that’s an interesting counter-offer, let us think about that.”
Right then, the chairman of Activision, which had bought Infocom a little while earlier, was planning to come through Washington, D.C., which is where I live, just outside. And I arranged to meet him at Dulles Airport. So, one Friday afternoon I went out to Dulles and met with him, and he said: “Why should we work with you? We don’t know anything about you. You’ve never done a game.” And I said, “Well, here is a list of Infocom games. I have no inside information, anything like that, but I’m going to tell you which ones I think are the bestsellers and which ones are the ones that aren’t performing well and here is why.” So I went down the list of their catalogue and he nodded and said: “That’s pretty interesting.” He flew on back to Los Angeles, and the following Monday I get a phone call from Joel Berez: “Forget the license. We would like to work with you as an outside developer. So make games under the Infocom label instead of competing with us, and we’ll work that out.” And so that’s how all that came to be.
I had some games in mind I wanted to do, I wanted to do a game based on Sherlock Holmes, one based on King Arthur, and one based on Robin Hood. We called the series The Immortal Legends. Turns out that I ended up making Sherlock and making Arthur and never did do the Robin Hood game.
Stay Forever: You mentioned your analysis of Infocom’s catalogue of existing titles and your assessment of them. Do you still remember which games you thought were particularly effective and why?
Bob Bates: That memory is a little clouded by time. I think I would certainly have picked Planetfall, Trinity, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddesses of Phobos; and would have predicted that the detective games would not have done as well, partially based on the almost real-time way that they were played.
Stay Forever: And so you went and made a real-time detective game.
Bob Bates: Well, it’s not real-time. And it’s not exactly … it’s sort of a detective game. But again, the idea was to take popular, well-established characters, well-established worlds, where frankly a lot of the creative work that makes those places and those worlds interesting had already been done. It’s hard to come up with a brand-new world and a brand-new, really fascinating character, and each of those worlds came with a strong central character, Holmes and King Arthur and Robin Hood, and a really good cast of supporting characters.
In the case of Sherlock, there is Watson and Lestrade and the Baker Street Irregulars and Professor Moriarty and really evocative worlds that I, as an author, wouldn’t have to work all that hard to bring to life. I could focus on the writing and the puzzles. And of course they were all public domain, so there were no license fees for a young, struggling game company to have to deal with.
That’s something that we ended up doing quite a bit at Legend Entertainment later on, doing licensed works where there was already a built-in audience. To some extent that’s a commercial decision.
And of course at the time, especially for the first game and the first several games up to Timequest, it was all about the puzzles. It was all about me sitting down and thinking about what the player is trying to do and setting goals for them and sort of leading them towards those goals and the interplay, that back-and-forth between me and the player. I like to think of myself as the little guy inside the box. The player would be talking to me and I would be talking back to him. That’s why in all of my games – and you can see that progression very strongly through time –, it becomes a lot about not so much even solving the puzzle, but almost bantering, almost: “What do you want to try? What do you want to do that you think is fun and you think possibly the author will never have thought of?”, and you try some ridiculous thing and you get not a default answer like: „You can’t do that!“, but instead you get a paragraph of text that says: „You tried this funny thing and then this other funny thing happens as a result and everything in the room blows up. But then somebody comes in and makes it right and you are right back where you started.“ So, there’s no penalty for trying weird stuff, and in fact it’s rewarding to do so.
Stay Forever: This thing that you try to find answers to solutions that are wrong or off, I believe you use it like a trademark and you try to do it often, and in Sherlock, I feel it starts. You’ve done it there quite a few times, but not as often as in Legend games. But let us start at the beginning with Sherlock Holmes. Are you a fan? Were you a reader of the Sherlock Holmes novels?
Bob Bates: A big fan. One shelf in my study is packed from one end to the other with just Sherlock books. Books like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. There is a wonderful two-volume, very big biography of Holmes written by a guy named Baring-Gould.
Stay Forever: Did you take the timeline your game is set in from the Baring-Gould timeline?
Bob Bates: No. I had to take some liberties, which is difficult when you are deep into details with Sherlock, because there are superfans, and I’m not a superfan. I thought he’s an interesting character, despite the fact that the Holmes that we think of isn’t the Holmes that’s actually present in the books. I guess the character is present, but when you think of a modern detective story, like a whodunit, and you think of the rules that go into writing that – if you’re going to read something by Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr or an Agatha Christie book – one of the rules of that genre is that the reader needs to have all the information that he or she needs in order to solve the puzzle, solve the mystery, solve the murder, before the end of the book. So that basically, you have a chance to solve it yourself. So, those books are a challenge. They are a guessing game between the author and the reader. When you’re reading a whodunit, you’re saying: „Oh, there’s this clue. Is that clue important? Sounds like it’s important.“ You try and think about the timeline: „Could the murderer have gone from here to there; did he have enough time? What’s his alibi, does it hold up?“ So, you’re thinking about the group of suspects and all that. Good mystery books play fair with the reader. In fact something Ellery Queen was famous for is that at some point in the novel, the chapter would end and then there’d be a page and it would say: „Challenge to the reader: You now have all the information that you need in order to solve the murder. Can you do it?“ And then you’d read on.
If you go back and you read Sherlock Holmes, however, he doesn’t do that. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does not play fair. You’ll be reading this Sherlock Holmes thing and out of the blue, one of these miraculous deductions that he’s so famous for is based on information that was not present in the book. In a game, you can’t do that. You have to play fair, obviously, otherwise the player is never going to get anywhere.
So I had to make changes to the Sherlockian canon, if you will, and I tried to stick with the main points, but in particular with regard to the timeline. The year that I chose was the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coronation, and that seemed to just make sense that Professor Moriarty would try and disrupt the coronation festivities by ripping off the crown jewels and helping a foreign power topple the British monarchy. It’s a little early in the timeline for him to show up, but perhaps this is before he was known to the rest of the world.
Stay Forever: Moriarty is certainly early in the timeline. Yet Sherlock Holmes introduces him to Dr. Watson in the game as somebody he knows very well. It doesn’t come as a surprise for Sherlock Holmes that Moriarty is behind it all. I felt that was a bit strange.
Bob Bates: You know, when you think of Sherlock Holmes, you think of Professor Moriarty. And most people don’t have the timeline in their head. When you think that you going to read or play something about Sherlock Holmes, it’s quite natural to think that your enemy is going to be the Napoleon of crime himself. And so it was an easy thing to do.
Stay Forever: The most striking decision about the game is that Sherlock Holmes is not the protagonist. You decided to make Watson the protagonist of the game. Why is that?
Bob Bates: It’s because in an Infocom game, you play as ‘you’, the player character. This is a debate that has raged on through the years and is still debated among game designers: Who is the player in the game? Is the player himself, is the player the character that he plays? To what extend do players want to be handed a personality? And to what extent do they want to express their own personality within the game?
For me, Sherlock Holmes is the really interesting character in this series, he’s the star. If you play as Sherlock Holmes, then you have the problem that he’s so brilliant, he’s so smart. We think of him as somebody who would instantly leap to the grand deduction that would solve the problem, and the solutions would always be obvious to him. So it was hard for me to imagine that Holmes would stumble around London and not know right away what to do and how to get it done. The idea was that if you play as Watson, you then have a chance to observe Sherlock Holmes. You have a chance to solve the puzzles, and it kind of makes sense that you might not solve them right away, because you’re just Watson, you’re not Holmes.
I have to say, having just played through the game again, I don’t know how well I delivered on that idea. Holmes, as it turns out, follows you around all the time. He’s pretty useless. Every once in a while he will pipe up with some piece of knowledge that moves the story along a little bit. But mostly, he just follows you. So while it was my goal to bring out this really cool personality and this really cool detective, I don’t think the game really does that. But that’s what I was going for.
Stay Forever: I’m glad that you said that. He’s a more or less useless character. You have an interesting point there that by making Holmes not the protagonist, not the vessel for the player, but a side character, he becomes that much more visible. So there’s a chance for him to become alive. There’s a chance for us to interact with him, to bounce ideas off of him, to see him interact with the environment or what not. But that doesn’t happen in the game at all. And because we are not Holmes, because we’re observing Holmes, it becomes strikingly apparent that he actually doesn’t do anything. Even in situations where we would expect him to be of help. Since he’s constantly following us, he basically signals to us at every single step that there should be a chance of interactivity here. He must be there for a reason. But it turns out that for the most part of the game he simply isn’t.
Bob Bates: Yeah, and there are a few reasons for that. One is, the size limitation of the game is handcuffing me as the author at every turn. I think this was a 64K game. 64K! Kilobytes! Not even Megabytes. It might have been a 128K. But I think it was 64.
A lot of things struck me as I played through this game again in preparation for this interview. I hadn’t played it in many, many years. Just a couple years ago, I wrote a new text adventure called Thaumistry. And the contrast between the two is really amazing. The lack of descriptions in Sherlock, the lack even in many cases of giving the room exits…
Stay Forever: Oh yeah, thank you very much for that. We so hated that! (laughs)
Bob Bates: Yeah, I found it impossible to play without a map, and I went back into my archives and dug up a map. I tried to play it without looking at hints, as you guys did, in order to understand your experience. And I have to say, I empathize with you a lot. I just was shaking my head and saying: “I can’t believe that this is that way.” And that has specifically to do with room directions and descriptions., to the point where I wonder if the version that I’m playing is in fact even correct. Because I would type in ‘verbose’, which is the command that’s supposed to give you a really good room description every time you come into it, which can be important. And yet it never did that. So there’s a lot I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s the way the original game shipped. I don’t know if that’s a result of the port.
And the other thing that I wonder is: After the game left my hands and went up to Infocom, it was still too big. Infocom made cuts to the game that I remember being super angry about. But I also don’t remember what they were. And so, in my self-justifying way, I wonder if some of the things that might have been cut in order to get the game down to size might have been some of those things. I think that interacting with Holmes is not something that they cut, but I do wonder about the room descriptions. And I do wonder about the verbose level and the directions, the room exits which are so important that in Thaumistry, they’re up there on the status line so that you always have an indication of where you can go.
As I pulled out that map by the way, I found that there were two rooms that are on my map that aren’t in the game. If you go east on Fleet Street, you enter Blind Alley. At the end of Blind Alley was a pub called ‘The Red Herring’. If you’re looking to cut space, the easy way to do that is to cut rooms. I think there are 94 rooms in all in this game, which is huge. Of course some of them are empty, which is – again – surprising to me as a game author now. If I’m going to create a room in an adventure game, there’s going to be a reason for it to be there and something for the player to do inside of it.
The level of player paranoia that comes from so many of these things – you know, there’s Holmes, you can’t talk to him. Should I be asking him questions? What should I be asking him about? Here I’m in a room, there doesn’t seem to be anything to do here. Why not? What am I missing? What am I doing wrong? The level of player paranoia in Sherlock is probably greater that in any of my other games. And it’s partially because it was the first one.
Stay Forever: It’s also down to player expectation. I actually didn’t mind much that the exits were not given, because mapping the game world is part of the text adventure experience of that era. So I spent a lot of time in my initial sessions simply mapping out London and all of the locations. But as you mentioned, there are a lot of locations. London consists of … I think it’s 43 outdoor locations. So as a player you can cover quite some ground in the city. But if I ultimately look at in which of these locations there’s something to be done, some kind of interaction to be had, that boils down to eight of 43. That’s 18%. The rest is decorative. And since you have the fast-travel system with the Hansom cabs, most of the rooms don’t even serve as passageways. They’re simply pointless, yet they exist.
And the thing is that by mapping all of that out, there is a sense of anticipation. I start imagining all of the wonderful things that will be happening in these locations down the line: all of the characters that I will meet, all of these situations they will get into. Westminster Abbey is another good example. That is a 17-room location for a single puzzle. An important puzzle mind you, but still just one. And you only need, I think, six of the rooms or so to solve that. Yet of course I mapped all of that out. And then, since ultimately nothing much happens in these locations, I went out of this entire experience with a sense of disappointment.
Bob Bates: Yeah, and that’s reasonable. What I was trying to do with that, is create a sense that you are there, and to evoke the idea that so much of British history is right there in that one building. I found it interesting in revisiting the game: Just to walk around the Abbey, to me brought up the images of the Abbey itself. So I didn’t mind that so much from an atmospheric point of view. The same with the tower of London. I’m a fan of British history, and that obviously comes through. I lived for four years in England when I was growing up, and so I knew a lot of English history and thought a lot of things are interesting. The Great Fire of London and Sir Isaac Newton and his discovery of gravity and King Henry VIII and all of his wives and King Charles who got his head cut off. All of that was pretty interesting, and I tried to find a way to bring some of that to life through the Abbey, through Madame Tussauds, through going through the Tower of London, going into Scotland Yard, even rowing down the Thames. It was an interesting place at an interesting time. And that’s what I tried to do with this.
And the fact that the environments make it harder on the player, I’d say that that’s one of the lessons learned in making this game. The other, by the way, with regard to the Abbey: Probably the biggest lesson that I took away from Sherlock as a designer is to not put one of the toughest puzzles at the very beginning of the game. It was a really, really hard puzzle and incredibly persnickety. I think you’ll find that over time I think a lot more about what I call ‘taking care of the player’: Trying to make sure that they’re not in frustrating situations, trying to hold their hand, trying to make the player feel smart with puzzles; that the longer you interact with them, the more obvious they become as opposed to just sitting there as stone walls that the player either has to solve or not solve.
That’s for example one reason why riddles aren’t very good in adventure games. If you don’t get the riddle, you don’t solve the problem, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Whereas if you’ve got a room where there’s a puzzle to be solved, for example a door to be opened, some players will come in and they’ll know instantly: “Oh, I know what the answer to this is! If I do this and this and this, then I’ll open the door and get through it”, and they feel smart. And that’s great. The player who comes in and puzzles over this and wonders, „I don’t know quite what to do here“, he fiddles around in the room, he looks on the desk and he opens a book that’s lying on the bookshelf and gradually accretes more and more clues. So you are helping the player along, and when they finally tumble to the solution, they open the door and they go through and they feel smart. They feel just as smart as that first player who solved it right away.
There’s an art to that kind of puzzle design that I developed over the years that’s not really present so much in this game. Especially the restore puzzles, which I just cannot believe! There are so many things in Sherlock where you have to save the game, discover something and then restore back to that point in order to solve a puzzle. One of my fundamental rules of puzzle design is that, in theory, a player should be able to play through the game entirely without ever restoring. They should always have the opportunity to get the information that they need to solve a puzzle within the game without having to go backwards. So the idea of walking into a room and being stuck in that room, learning that you should have brought something into that room and now you can’t get out of the room and the only way to solve the puzzle is to restore back to where you could pick up that object and come in – that happens throughout this game. I was actually shocked by it as I played it.
Stay Forever: Yes, we noticed.
Bob Bates: (laughs)
Stay Forever: I bought the telescope from the street vendor when I first met him, and then the game was over for me. Because you cannot just buy the telescope, you have to haggle. The manual tells you so, or hints at it, but that’s a mechanic that you don’t use naturally. And then the game is factually over, but gives you no hint that you have now lost.
Bob Bates: Yes, that’s exactly what happened to me. I bought the telescope and later Wiggins says, “I’m only going to help you out if you give me a shilling”. The big mistake that I made in this most recent playthrough is that I didn’t read the manual. I just jumped into the game. It wasn’t until I finished the game and read a review that said: “Oh, you should really read the manual!” That’s when I discovered that the manual actually has an example of haggling.
But what happened to me was, I got to about the 50 point mark or thereabouts, I had kind of done everything there was to do, and there was this guy asking me for a shilling. I had this notion that when you bought the telescope and gave the guy a pound note, the game says that he looks at you and he’s surprised that you didn’t haggle with him. As a modern-day game player I would have gone back to the vendor, and if I was designing this puzzle today, I’d find a way to get the shilling out of that guy. But as it turns out, I restored, I went back, I haggled with him and now I had six pence. Turns out you have to haggle with him twice. The game gives you no clue about that.
This is a classic example of what I call ‘Dead Man Walking’. You have lost the game and you don’t know it. That’s horrible, it’s just horrible. So, my sincere apologies to you.
Stay Forever: (laughs) Accepted.
Bob Bates: And to me, because I spent a lot of time doing this and looking at it and going on walks and saying, „Why can’t I solve this?“ Having played it so long ago, I didn’t remember the solutions to these puzzles. In fact, I don’t remember the solutions to most puzzles in most of my games within one or two years after they’re done. So this was a big mystery to me, and I felt very incompetent.
Stay Forever: The irony about the ‘Dead Man Walking’ situation in this particular game is that you have a sidekick in Holmes who actually should know. At least if he sees Watson drop a gem into the Thames, he should know that it’s over. So you would have had a narrative device in Holmes that could tell the player that they’ve made a mistake. Unfortunately, that remains unused.
Bob Bates: Yeah, and the very first thing I did in the game was look in Watson’s little black bag, and inside there are two bottles with different pills. So I swallowed a pill.
Stay Forever: (laughs) So did I!
Bob Bates: And I made a note and said: “That’s odd. I wonder if that puts me in a Dead Man Walking situation.” So I quickly typed “undo” and realized that the game world has changed a lot since 1987. Because I would never let the player do that in a game I would do today.
And your comment about Holmes is spot on. In fact, that hadn’t occurred to me until you said it. Although oddly, there is one case where I obviously had that in mind, and that is the Etherium. If you try and open that anywhere in the game, Holmes will stop you.
Stay Forever: True.
Bob Bates: So, I don’t know. Maybe it would have been annoying for him to stop you from doing all of that. But again, it was an era when players could kill themselves easily. The idea of taking care of the player is a more modern idea than was present, generally speaking, in 1987. It was really Ron Gilbert who championed the idea that the player dying all the time was just not fun, and that game designers shouldn’t do that. I took that to heart in later games.
Stay Forever: One thing I noticed is that the game sometimes wants very normal input. The best example is the librarian in the British Museum who you have to tell to be quiet. Which is off in terms of how commands in adventures are structured. Usually you have, you know, “use item”, and here you have to do something that would fit in a normal conversation or which a normal person would do. I felt those puzzles – there are a few of those in the game – are much harder, because I have to take off my adventure gaming hat and be a normal person again.
Bob Bates: That is so interesting. One of my rules as a designer is that there’s no reason for a game designer to make red herrings, because the player will invent so many of them himself that the author doesn’t actually have to create red herrings. I mentioned before about ‘Blind Alley’ and ‘The Red Herring Pub’. That was supposed to a be a funny thing that, you know, you’re in a blind alley. This pub is a red herring. I don’t remember when that got removed, but when I finished my playthrough yesterday, I looked over the game and said, you know, I never solved that librarian. There’s an old book there, I guess I had it in the game as a red herring; because obviously, I was able to get through the game without solving him.
In fact I even went back. I thought I was really clever because I thought that obviously, the solution to this puzzle is to wait until Holmes gets ditched. I didn’t remember the kidnapping, but I thought if only I could get rid of Holmes, I could open the ampoule of Etherium and knock out the librarian and get at that book. It was so obvious to me that that was the solution that I kind of gave up on trying anything else. And so, after Holmes was kidnapped, I went, “Ah, now’s my chance!” I went up to the British Museum and tried to open the ampule, and the guy just kept talking. It wasn’t until you just now said: “The answer to this puzzle is: be quiet”. I had no clue. And now I’m really curious, what was in the book?
Stay Forever: It’s a book about secret writing. It provides a hint for the Westminster Abbey puzzle. It feels like it was added later. If this were a modern game, I would say that in playtesting, it came out that the Westminster Abbey riddle was too hard. And somebody took the initiative and put the solution in a book in the British Museum, so people find it if they choose to abandon Westminster Abbey and explore the world instead.
Bob Bates: That makes total sense.
Stay Forever: But like most normal players, we found it later, when we had solved the puzzle already.
Bob Bates: Yeah.
Stay Forever: In the progression players are very clearly gated towards Westminster Abbey. And then you kind of stay there until you’ve solved the puzzle. But you could go wandering the map and then randomly stumble upon the solution to that and go back. I found it a fair thing because when I started out in the game, I felt like this game might require outside knowledge, perhaps about the history of England or something. But it never did. And even this one where you need some knowledge about secret writing, you didn’t have to know that. You could get that from a book within the game. Kudos!
Well, that’s not entirely true. I think that the game does need outside knowledge, and we’ll brush that because there’s two puzzles in particular that we’d like to address. We’ve already talked about a few but two stick out to us. The first one … well, I have to pre-face that by saying that we are in the world of Sherlock Holmes, and if there’s one fundament that this world rests on, it’s that everything is logical. Sherlock Holmes is the archetypical logical character.
So, that brings us to the pipe puzzle in Madame Tussauds. Since you’ve played the game, I’m sure you remember it. Players cannot bring open fire into Madame Tussauds, but there’s a dark room in there, so they need some sort of light source. The solution is to light a pipe and then go in there and the pipe will provide light. Now, Bob, I hope you don’t mind me asking: At that point in your life, had you ever seen a pipe?
Bob Bates: (laughs) Oh, yes, sure! Because, you know, those pipes, they glow! Did you do this? Did you go into a perfectly dark room and light a pipe? You’ll find that they glow and provide just enough light to solve all these puzzles!
… no, that was just ridiculous. And it’s worse than that, as we used to say at Infocom. There’s a dog that has been trained to sniff out fire – it won’t let you take a match, it won’t even let you take an unburnt match that isn’t on fire. It will stop you. And yet, if you light the tobacco and put it in the pipe, that lets you go in. That’s just silly.
The illogic of the dog bothered me a lot more than the illogic of the light, because I think it’s almost accidental that the pipe will provide enough light. I think the solution that I had in mind is that once you were past the dog, then obviously what you would do if you needed light was set one of those pieces on paper on fire. That would provide the light that would get you into the next room. That the light from the pipe would let you do that is almost incidental and in fact might be accidental. That might be just due to a flag in the game that any fire is a source of light.
Stay Forever: That would make a lot of sense.
Bob Bates: But the illogic of the dog letting you by with the fire in the pipe, that bothered me a lot. That was just silly.
Stay Forever: The second puzzle that we need to mention is the tide puzzle. I’m a bit torn about that because I think that could be one of the best puzzles that I’ve ever encountered in an adventure game. It makes perfect sense in a game world, in particular since it uses the progression of time or at least certain point in time. Sherlock is a game which has a progression of time; if a puzzle makes use of that, that’s appreciated. However, the one thing that kills it for me is that the fact that the Thames is a river which has tide is never addressed in the game. Nor in the documentation. I mean, there is the tide table in the newspaper, but that’s not with respect to the Thames, it’s under the meteorological chart for the entirety of Western Europe. And so, for me, knowing that the Thames has tide is external information. And to be honest, I didn’t know that. I learned it from your game.
Bob Bates: Hmm, there’s an interesting story that attaches to this. One of the things that made Infocom a really great company is that they had a very strong testing group. I still have a binder with the bug reports. The thing about Infocom testers is that they weren’t shy and would very much challenge whether something was fair or not. And the sense of verisimilitude that we were going for with the game, where we actually – if I remember correctly – wrote off to the London Times and asked for permission to excerpt some of their ads and their content from that day in 1887. So the issue of the tides became a big issue with the testers, because they wanted to have the actual tides from that day. They wanted the game to be accurate to that degree. And I said, “No, no, that’s too hard on the player. We should make the tides something that’s useful in the game or playable in the game”. And so that was that argument. The idea that people didn’t know that it was a tidal river … I didn’t think of that.
Stay Forever: (laughs)
Bob Bates: Maybe that comes from being too familiar with London. Until you mentioned it just now, the idea that someone would not know that the Thames is a tidal river, that’s kind of a surprise to me. It’s like, of course, of course you know you would know that!
Stay Forever: (laughs)
Bob Bates: Everybody knows that! Which by the way is again part of the role of a game designer. One of the biggest problems that you have is exactly that, is to say: What is it that everybody knows? What is it that I can safely refer to without providing additional information or context? For example, I would say it’s safe now to say everybody knows that Big Ben is in London. The Eiffel Tower is in Paris. Is it safe to the same extent to say everybody knows the Brandenburg Gate is in Berlin? I don’t think that’s true. I think most Americans, if you said “What’s the Brandenburg Gate?”, they would shrug their shoulders and say: “I don’t know!”
And this is a problem all the time when you are doing a puzzle and you make a reference to, let’s say, Elvis Presley. At one time in the 1960s or 70s you could make a reference to Elvis Presley, and everybody would know who Elvis Presley was. As time goes by, that becomes less and less true. So at one time you would feel completely comfortable making a reference to Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca, since of course everybody knows that movie. Today: not true! So you have to be sensitive to what it is that is in fact universal knowledge and what isn’t. Sometimes you get it wrong. And when you get it wrong, that dates a game. A game becomes unplayable by a modern audience. So I guess if that’s the one thing in Sherlock from 33 years ago, then maybe I didn’t do such a bad job. But yeah, of course everybody knows the Thames is a tidal river!
Stay Forever: A few years ago we played Superhero League of Hoboken and that was tough to play if you’re not an American of a certain age, because that was so full of references.
Bob Bates: Yeah.
Stay Forever I’d just like to add that I think that the tide puzzle is a wonderful case study in puzzle design, both good and bad, because its illogicality comes out of the simulation of the game and the game world. It’s not just that it’s a time puzzle, there’s another mechanism at work here and that is that the Thames has a current. So we’re constantly fighting against that current. And we had an epiphany when Gunnar realized that we could simply drop the anchor and then the boat would stand still.
Bob Bates: (laughs)
Stay Forever: That’s one part of the solution, and the other one is realizing that the tide will bring us closer to the moss. That’s the good part.
The bad part also has to do with the simulation. The first point is, of course, that there is no feedback for this particular situation, that we do not know from within the simulation that the Thames has tide. If we could watch the river and see it go higher or lower, or see some indications or markings or something that would tell us that, then we could have inferred from that. And the other point is the logic of how the timing system works. The moss and thus the opal are unreachable at 8:40, but at 8:46, once the tide is high, then Watson suddenly can get it.
Bob Bates: Yes, I made exactly the same observations. If you look at the river, it says something like „It’s oily and black“ or some unflattering description of the water, but it doesn’t say „… and we’re at low tide“ or „We seem to be halfway between low tide and high tide“ or some mention of the tide, come on! Or „Look at the embankment“ or „Look at the bridge” – “There are black smears that show we’re not at high tide yet.“ Or actually, if you go stand next to the Thames at low tide, there are mud flats that are exposed. So some kind of description of the river or the bridge is so needed there.
And then I did the exact same thing. I was saying „Row upstream“, „Row upstream“, and then I’d wait and I’d drift down and I’d say, oh my god, this is so hard. It wasn’t until after I solved the puzzle – I guess I got out when the boat drifted away or something – that I thought, oh man, I could’ve dropped the anchor. So I went back and tried that and said „Duh!“ But on the other hand, the idea that the boat would fetch up at Traitor’s Gate and that it was there later in the game and you could use it again, that was kind of cool.
Stay Forever: Yes, that was very nice.
Bob Bates: Then again, I thought getting in that boat wearing a suit of armor should surely have sunk the boat. And I thought, oh my goodness, at that point Holmes isn’t around, am I really going to be able to walk through London with a suit of armor on and nobody noticing? And by the way, I’ve been walking all across the streets of London carrying an oar? Captain Bligh’s oar, which may in fact fit in the medical bag, I’m not sure.
This is a product of the era where there’s a weight limit, there’s an item limit. In these games usually every item has a size, and as a designer you give the player character a capacity. You’ve got this finickiness where if you try to pick up something that exceeds your capacity, you’ve got to drop something else. In some cases, that’s useful for puzzle solving, but in general it’s just a big pain. I totally went away from it in later games.
Stay Forever: We already mentioned that the game has locations like Westminster Abbey which are relatively detailed, have descriptions of all of the gravesites and so on. We wondered: How did you do your research?
Bob Bates: I love that building. Having been there many times, I own a huge, what we call in the States a „coffee-table sized book”, one of these really large, hardbound books about Westminster Abbey, with all of the different tombs and the stories behind them. It’s not something I bought for the game but something that I had. And there is a map in that book that lays out the location of all of the tombs. It was using that book as a guide that I did the layout of the Abbey, to be precise, to be accurate.
There is a brass-rubbing puzzle in the game. I had in 1976 taken a trip to London with a friend of mine from high school, and we had gone into Westminster Abbey. They had a brass-rubbing center there, and I went and did a brass rubbing that is a big picture of Sherlock. That has hung in my study, my wife framed it for me after we got married, and I’ve had it ever since. I see it every day. So it’s a special place for me personally. But that’s how I did the research for that building. I had that book, I was familiar with the building, I had been there many times and I like the place.
Stay Forever: Can you still remember how you approached the planning of the game? Once you had settled on the idea and the plot, how did you approach the actual design? Did you first map the game world, did you first determine the puzzles?
Bob Bates: Wow, I don’t know. My plan for this interview was to play through the game without hints and then go get my notes from developing it. But I couldn’t solve the game, so I ran out of time, basically. Yesterday afternoon, I got a walkthrough and used that walkthrough for the last quarter of the game and especially – oh my god – for the very final puzzle in Moriarty’s lair where somehow you are supposed to figure out that you put Etherium in your hat. That’s the solution to that puzzle, oh my god! Even with the walkthrough, I was looking at it going, „You cannot be serious!“ And that took me up to yesterday afternoon. Yesterday I went into the back room, pulled out the box and found a huge pile of notepads full of design thoughts and said, “I don’t have time to read this”. So I can’t answer your question.
I probably did what is typical of these games, which is to say: I need to scatter some things around. What are the high points that I want to hit? Well, obviously I wanted to do something at Big Ben, I wanted to do something at the Tower of London, pick the parts that everybody knows and design puzzles for that. Then blend that with the world of Holmes, so you’ve got 221B Baker Street, you’ve got the Diogenes Club where Mycroft hangs out, you probably have some shady opium den someplace … and so you start to think of these places and what you can do there.
And then you think about the objects. It’s like, alright, he’s stolen the Crown Jewels, I’m going to scatter jewels across the game. Where can I hide them? Oh, Big Ben, I can put one up in Big Ben. What would be a puzzle there? Well, maybe the bell rings and you can take the gem, but maybe the bell is so loud that you can’t do it because you clap your hands over your ears … And by the way, how come when you go into the room with the old librarian, you can’t put cotton in your ears and be able to stop his yammering? Or even go outside, put cotton balls in your ears and then go inside – how is it that he is so much louder than Big Ben, good grief?!
And then you think about the pieces of history, and you go: Well, here is Charles who had his head chopped off, and you got Madame Tussauds, and so you’ve got a wax head, and wax melts, so let’s do a puzzle where you have to melt his head.
These things, they grow usually through accretion. I had at one point a huge whiteboard that ran the length of a room. All of my games up through Blackstone Chronicles were designed on that whiteboard, which was interesting, because a whiteboard, especially in those days, is hard to erase completely. And so, as I was working on one game, sometimes I would see shadows of previous games kind of poking through. But I mention it because as you are putting a game like this together, when it is up on a whiteboard, an adventure game begins to have a shape. And you recognize that you are close to the finish of a design as that shape emerges. Because in one column you’ve got locations and in another column you’ve got objects and in another column you’ve got ideas for puzzles – and so you’d have something like Charles‘ head, the fact that he was beheaded, and then you have Madame Tussauds where things are made of wax and you go: Oh, maybe I could take the head and put the gem inside of it and melt the head to get to the gem …
As I’ve been sitting there looking at it, that puzzle could just as easily have been: Oh, Westminster Abbey, lots of people buried at Westminster Abbey. I wonder if this guy was beheaded, could I go to his tomb and open up his tomb and find his head inside and have some puzzle associated with that? At that point you go: Well, was Charles buried at Westminster Abbey? No. Okay, I can’t do that.
So this stuff emerges, and as you start to draw lines between the objects and the places and the people and the puzzles, things start to fall into place and they start so match up. And as things become more and more matched up, you realize that you are closer and closer to the end of the design.
I’ve actually published my development materials for Thaumistry, I took pictures of my whiteboard – it’s not the original one because when Legend Entertainment shut down, it was too big to fit in my house, so I don’t have it any longer. But I do have whiteboards up in my study. And if you look at the development materials for Thaumistry, you’ll see that process in action – you’ll see lines being drawn between people and places and things. So I don’t remember it specifically for Sherlock, but I’m sure that that’s how it must have happened.
Stay Forever: I think we should point out for context that this was your first game and that you had no prior experience as a game designer. But you did have prior experience as a game player. Based on what I heard and the experience with the game, I would assume that you approached the design of Sherlock, of your first game, more from a point of view of a player than from the point of view of a designer.
When I was young, I remember that I was frustrated with text adventures because of their limitations, in particular the lack of details, the lack of feedback, and I said to myself that if I was ever to create a text adventure, it would have an answer for everything that the player would type in. I would baffle the player with my foresight and my attention to detail.
In playing Sherlock, I kind of felt like meeting a kindred soul. And in particular playing your other games, your later games, where there is a lot of detail, there is a lot of feedback and there is a lot of foresight.
In Sherlock, the schizophrenic thing is that it has a lot of surprising answers to things that a player can try, little remarks, and there are very few commands which result in „This does not work“. You’re always trying to phrase it differently or giving some context. And at the same time, as you mentioned, there are situations where something glaringly obvious should be working but does not work.
Bob Bates: I very much came at it – I remember that experience specifically –, saying, man, if I did a game and somebody tried to go north where there wasn’t a north exit, instead of saying “You can’t go that way”, which is what games did, I would come up with a reason. So in Sherlock, if you try and go in odd directions, often you will see something like „The crowd pushes you“, „You can’t make your way through the crowd“, or there is some reason for that.
But it turns out there is a problem with that, and the problem is this: When presented with an obstacle, it of course looks like a puzzle. One of the roles of the designer is to make it clear to the player where there is a puzzle and where there is not. And so, the phrase „You can’t go that way“ is a very useful phrase, because it is a clear signal to the player that there is no puzzle here. If you say: „The crowd blocks your way“, then maybe you go: Oh, if I can distract the crowd, if I can create a diversion … what is the puzzle to get through here? It is only until you see several of those messages that are all the same that you realize that it is a clear signal that literally you cannot go that way.
In an interior it is easy because there are doors and walls, and you are not going to be able to walk through the wall. But when you are outside and you are on a city street and you want to walk in a direction and the game says, „You can’t go that way“, as a player that felt to me like a slap in the face. As I designed Sherlock, I tried to provide reasons for that. Later on, I think I probably embraced the more direct approach.
When I started, I very much felt like it was me versus the player, and as I went along in my career, I felt more and more it was me with the player – that you and I are there to have a good time. A lot of what you do as you try and solve a puzzle is not the right thing. In fact, most of the things that you do when you are trying to solve a puzzle are the wrong thing. But this is entertainment, and so my job is to entertain you as you are doing the wrong thing. And by the way, if you intentionally do the wrong thing, then let’s have even a little bit more fun.
Stay Forever: That makes a lot of sense. I have a silly little question left regarding the Bank of England that you visit in the game. If you make it to the vault, there are 999 safe deposit boxes in there, and we have the master key, so we can open any one of them. We were wondering: Did you hide an easter egg in any of these boxes?
Bob Bates: Wow …
Stay Forever: What’s your birthday …?
Bob Bates: (laughs) Kind of unlikely … if I did, I don’t remember. It would be in my notes. If I were making the game today, I probably would do that. I think the answer to that is „no“. But at some point, if I ever do go through my design notepads and notebooks on this, if the answer is „yes“, I’ll let you know.
Stay Forever: (laughs) Thank you.
Stay Forever Did Sherlock Holmes achieve his goal by appointing Watson as the person to solve this case? I feel Watson pretty much did everything that Moriarty wanted.
Bob Bates: Yes. Well, clearly Moriarty is laying a trap for Holmes and is lying in wait for him, knowing that when he comes out of the bank, he knows that he will be able to kidnap Holmes. So Watson, I have to say, performed admirably. He did exactly what Sherlock wanted him to do, and in that regard was successful. Sherlock knew he was in danger, gave Watson the signet ring in order to get in touch with Mycroft in case he was kidnapped, and he trusted that Watson was more capable than Watson gave himself credit for.
Now you can wonder why Mycroft knew to send Watson to the Tower of London to get this suit of armor and all that, I mean that didn’t make sense. The general conceit is thin, but I think it works. It is okay. One of the mental justifications for Sherlock Holmes not being more active is that he is giving Watson a chance to solve these things on his own. When he provides information, it is in his specific area of expertise, like when he looks at the cigar ash in Madame Tussauds and says: „Oh, this is of a particular kind of tobacco.“ In the Sherlock Holmes world, he has made this huge study of the ashes of different tobaccos from all over the world, so it would make sense that he would know that this particular ash came from India and that he would recognize these gems as being part of a collection of gems that was stolen from India. So, it is thin, but you know what, I think it kind of works. Gives us the excuse to have a nice romp through Victorian London.
Stay Forever: It works as a mechanic for the game, but I found it very thin in retrospect, because I thought: What has Watson done except for acting admirably in the final puzzle? All the rest he did was what Moriarty expected.
One thing you mentioned, to hide the ampule of Etherium in the hat, that is actually mentioned in the first quarter of an hour of the game as Sherlock Holmes says: „Put it under your hat.“
Bob Bates: Does he really?
Stay Forever: Yes. Then you do that, you take your hat off, and you find the stethoscope, which I would never have found otherwise. You based this on one mention in A Scandal in Bohemia (Editor’s note: The first short story featuring Sherlock Holmes, first published in June 1891), which I had totally forgotten.
Bob Bates: Yeah, I noted that in my own playthrough: How would a player ever know to do that? But if it is true that Holmes specifically tells you to do that, than I feel much better about this. That also explains why, as I was going around and would take out the ampule, he would say, „Hey Watson, don’t have that be so obviously present.“ You could not really move around or you could not do stuff with the ampule out in the open. But I just put it in the bag, and if he told me to put it under my hat, I did not notice it. That makes me feel good, because then in the act of taking off your hat, presumably you would have found the stethoscope.
Stay Forever: Yes, that was what I did. At first, I thought this was a figure of speech, „put it under your hat“, but then I tried it out and it worked. Christian on the other hand walked all around London with the ampule in his hand and got admonished by Sherlock Holmes all the time.
But the nice thing about this – and I really appreciate this design – is that the solution to one of the last puzzles in the game is presented to me from the very first moment on, essentially. As soon as I try to leave Baker Street with the ampule, Sherlock Holmes already tells me: „You need to hide it.“ He does not specifically at this point tells me where to hide it, but I really liked the thought that I could have known from the very beginning that that would become relevant later on.
One thing about the logic of Sherlock Holmes reasoning that there is a trap and so to thwart Moriarty Watson needs to take over: We ultimately never learn what the trap was or whether there was a trap to begin with. We would have liked to learn that.
Bob Bates: Sure you do, because he planned to kidnap Holmes.
Stay Forever: Moriarty says in the end that the guard acted on its own, that it was an accident essentially, that was not part of the plan. The guards did that on his own volition.
Bob Bates: Really? Okay.
Stay Forever: Yeah, believe us, we have just played it, we know everything about your game! (laughs)
Bob Bates: Okay, oh well.
Stay Forever: Well, if that had been the trap then Sherlock Holmes plan did not work, because he falls into it.
No, I believe the trap was that you get caught when you enter the Bar of Gold. You are tied up or held by Akbar, and then Moriarty does this villain explaining thing. I believe that was the trap. Sherlock Holmes fell into it by accident, but Watson did exactly what Moriarty wanted and then had this genius moment that Holmes perhaps planned for all the time that you take the ampule from under your hat. This was the one thing Holmes perhaps counted on Watson doing. Blunder through the mystery somehow and then pull the ampule in the right moment. And this was the one thing that Holmes mentioned all the time.
The interesting thing it that this is actually a game with a plot and narrative that you can speculate about, that we can build theories around and discuss opinions. That is already an achievement, I think, because for most of the games particularly of that era that is certainly not the case.
Bob Bates: Yeah, and I mention this with regard to red herrings. It is fascinating to a designer to hear about all the different things that people think that never occurred to you as a designer. People make up their own reasons, their own puzzles, their own theories about what is going on. And in a game more than in a book, the player has a chance to test those out. Books tend to be a lot more ambiguous because you cannot query them, you cannot poke at them. They just sit there, and you speculate a lot about what the author had in mind. In games, because they are interactive, you have a better opportunity to do that.
As I think about it, I think it is clear that Moriarty … I mean, he is saying: „Meet me at this place, at this time, using this password“, so it is clearly setting up a trap, and if you are Sherlock, you are saying: „I am going to walk into that trap and trust that I am clever enough to deal with it. And as added insurance I have my trusty Watson who I can rely on as my man of action to help me out.“ So – I am kind of okay with it that he is going into this with his eyes wide open, so to speak.
Stay Forever: Fair enough. Those were all the questions we had. Thank you very much for answering them.
Bob Bates: Well, thanks for doing this. It was interesting. As I said, I have not played the game in many, many, many years, and I do have such a horrible memory that it is in many ways like encountering the game for the first time.
And there is a delight, actually, that comes with something like: „I wonder what will happen if I do this“, and to find that I anticipated that and handled it and made a small piece of entertainment out of that little interaction. That is fun for me. It turns out that I think like myself. I guess that’ a good way to put it. The fact that I wanted to try it as a player meant that as a designer, I had done a decent job of anticipating what a player – at least this player – might want and might try. And I think a mark of success in these games is the more oddball things you can handle, the more you can have that back-and-forth between the player and the author, the more fun the game is. Having a chance to experience that again was nice.
Stay Forever: Thank you so much!