Roberta Williams: The Storyteller Who Started It All

By Nancy Smithe

I wish it were possible to translate Roberta Williams' vocal delivery into print, because she peppers her speech with the histrionics of a born storyteller. Whether she is letting her voice drip with suspense, groaning over lack of time, digging into a serious topic, chuckling at a little joke in her game, or laughing outright, she is actively involved in the anwer. She has given enough interviews to show signs of being bored with yet another one, but such is not the case. Monotonous is not a word to associate with Roberta Williams' conversational style. If you have the imagination to add some "audio/visual" as you read this interview, visualize her as a petite woman — her teenage son is taller than she is — with easy laughter that suggests habitual use; she speaks rapidly, her words almost tumble over one another, and you must be sure to "hear" her answers delivered with a storyteller's flair.


Your current project — The Colonel's Bequest — is a murder mystery. Why did you pick a mystery storyline?

I thought it was time. Not just our company, but other companies in our industry are concentrating so much on fantasy stories, fairy tales, dungeons and dragons. Games now are very fantasy-oriented, even a lot of the science fiction. There have been a few detective stories here and there. This murder mystery is more a suspense story, more in tune with Agatha Christie or even a little bit of Alfred Hitchcock. Nobody has something like this. I always look and see what people aren't doing, what needs to be done to be different, unique, plus areas that people obviously have an interest in, and murder mysteries, in my opinion, are very popular. If you go into a bookstore, you see more mystery books on a shelf than you do science fiction.

Tell me more about The Colonel's Bequest.

It is set in 1925, around New Orleans, Louisiana, on an island in the bayou — an isolated island. You are the heroine, Laura Bow, and your father is a detective from New Orleans, so you have been familiar with detecting (king of like Nancy Drew's father who is a prominent attorney). You have a friend, Lillian, who invited you to spend the weekend at her rich uncle's place for a family reunion. You accept the invitation and go, and we know that you are just along for the weekend, but a stranger to these people and the place. You get there and Lillian's uncle is the Colonel — Colonel Henry Dijon. (She chuckled here, then explained herself.) Do you get it? That is a little joke. Remember Colonel Mustard? Well, dijon is a mustard, so ours is Colonel Dijon. And Laura Bow is a play on Clara Bow.

The Colonel tells all the family assembled that his will leaves his wealth to all of them divided equally, and that if anyone of them dies first, that person's share goes into the pot and will be divided amongst the survivors. So that is how it starts out.

Different individuals start dying, and you start finding bodies, not necessarily in plain sight. Some are hidden, like in a closet. You open a closet and there is a body hanging there on the rod. Or there is a murphy bed in the wall, and you pull it down and find a body in it. So one by one, the people start dying and you don't know why or who is doing it. The job of the player is to find the clues left behind.

The most interesting part of this game is the characters themselves. We really have a lot of character development. They have names and personalities, and there is a lot of dialogue. You can ask them questions or tell them things, you can give them things, and you can show them things. So there is a lot of interaction. They will tell you things depending on what you ask. You can learn more about the relationships between them and try to figure out who is doing what. If you ask good questions, you get good clues, and very seldom any repeat messages. I tried to make the dialogue puzzling, so that you will be suspicious of more than one individual. As you get further into the game, I start narrowing the field of murder suspects. (She pauses a moment, then chuckles before adding another observation.) Plus, there aren't very many people left!

Colonel's Bequest is more like a story than a quest, you want to get to the end and find out the truth.

What scares me is that I'm not really a mystery reader. I'm not. I like to read more of the true story murders. So I'm afraid the real mystery buffs out there might play the game and wonder who I think I am. But right now, I'm the only one we've got who is trying to tackle it. I'm really trying, but I'm not a murder mystery expert (she took on a dramatic tone here) so Who Knows How it is going to be accepted. (She listened to her words, then laughed and went on dramatically.) Only The Shadow Knows.

Do you find it difficult to transfer your vision to the computer screen with so many technical experts involved in the process? Every level of specialist will have input and an impact on the end result.


That is the job of a director. What I do — and it will probably be differentiated in the future — is probably best compared with a screenwriter AND a director. In the movies, you don't generally see the screenwriter and director as one. You do occasionally — Steven Spielberg, many times writes his own stuff, directs it, and produces it. But usually a screenwriter writes a script and sends it on, and never sees it again. And may not recognize it when it comes out. The director is the person that gets the script, interprets it in his or her own way, casts it according to ideas in his head, and then directs the acting the way the idea in his head thinks it should be — camera angles, sweeping vistas, whatever he sees in his head. It is up to the director to be sure it comes out and he works with a lot of technical people — the camera man, the editing department, the actors, the costumers, the set design, everybody. So the job of a director is to take that initial idea from somebody else and to take in the creative ideas from the other people and put it together without getting it jumbled up into a mess. To try to sort of guide it along.

So you function as both writer and director and work with a team of specialists to get your vision onto the computer screen.

Actually, you don't want to be a tyrant and have things just your way. You try to get the most creative people you can to work on your project — your movie or your game — you get the talents you want, and then you draw upon their ideas and talents to enhance your product, hopefully, but you also have the ultimate say so because if you don't, you then get a jumble, a mess, chaos. It is a talent in itself just working with creative types and getting something out.

Your first game, Mystery House, was very much a partnership between you and Ken. There is almost a legend that has grown up about that first one — Ken and Roberta Williams and the kitchen table. Is there still a partnership between the two of you?

Oh, yes. In the first game we did everything. At the time, we did not even know what was going to happen. It was sort of a thing we were doing as a hobby almost. But when it looked like it was going to turn into something bigger, possibly a company, we did have to decide who has what role. Because we both wanted to be involved. Right off the bat I knew that I did not want to run the company. Just let me write games, that is what I want to do. When we hired our first employees, I pretty much butted right out of the management. I didn't want in it at all, at all. I like to write the games. I like to work with the people that are working with me on the games. That's what I like to do and that's all I want to do. However, I Do keep up on what's happening. I think I am a lot more involved in the company than people think. I don't know poeple individually, but Ken keeps me in touch with what is going on. We talk about it all the time. So I have advice, but I try to keep it within the Board of Directors framework. As a member of the board, my opinion is…

It probably goes the other way too, when you and your team are working on the games.

Yes, sometimes he will suggest I do this or that. And I might… or I might not.

Do you plan to re-release any of those early games you did? That would probably involve a total rewrite to do so.

Oh it would. It would be not just adding pictures and messages, but the designs would have to be updated. They are pretty simplistic. Our designs are a lot more complicated now, the plots are better and longer, the characters are more developed and have more personalities, and have more dialog. The stories have more climatic endings. The older designs were "you go from here to there, and along the way you gather some treasure."

The only one I have really considered ever bringing back, and I've talked to Ken about it, is Time Zone. That was the first game where we actually used outside artists, that I didn't do the art, because I'm not an artist.

I didn't realize you did the art on the first one.

Oh yes, (chuckles) I did the art. Ken and I did everything. Time Zone was the first with outside art, so in that way it looks a little better than the first ones. The design on Time Zone was good and up-to-date. In fact, if anything, instead of upgrading that design, it would almost have to be downgraded because it was so intricate and difficult and long. That game has 1400 rooms, and the average game now has maybe 90. So it was huge, huge, huge. But the story was interesting, too. It fit together real well. To redo Time Zone would be a big job.


You are always going to be in some way associated with King's Quest.

Well, the real truth is that I've not done only King's Quest. I've gotten fairly typecast with that genre — fairy tales, Mother Goose. I've done 14 games, and not all of them have been King's Quest. In fact my first game was a murder mystery. The first game that the company started with was called Mystery House, and that was a murder mystery. The Colonel's Bequest is a lot like Mystery House. If you look at just the basic facts of the two stories, they are very similar. So I obviously had the story in my head, and it is just coming out a second time. I've done science fiction — Time Zone was a time travel game. I've done more than just King's Quest, but I'm known best for King's Quest, I guess.

Now I'm going to try to get a hint from you: can we expect another King's Quest?

Yes, you can expect another one.

Many of your fans seem to feel a personal relationship with King Graham in particular. Do you have that kind of relationship with him?

Oh, actually, it's funny, but personally I think I feel more of a relationship with Rosella. I feel more in tune with her.

Editor's Note: Both Rosella and King Graham are partners to play against in the Hoyles Game coming out soon. I've seen a preview of King Graham, in his familiar cap and feather, smiling or frowning over the cards dealt to him.

Recently, you were on the cover of Ad Week's Marketing Computer. The article was about women as a specific audience for computer games. I wondered what type of games you think are specifically for women. (Editor's Note: This article is reprinted on page 22.)

That's a tough one.

Yes, I know it is.


Women as a target audience… if someone really wanted to think about it….. (She stopped and pondered a moment, then was back with a rush of words.) This is where it gets really tough; what is a computer game, first of all? Is it an arcade game, or an adventure game like ours, or simulation, or a board game? What is a game? What is it we are talking about if we say computer software game or entertainment? You have to break it down into different groups. If you say a game is a strategy game like cards or chess or checkers — not the war strategy games, but the board game or card strategy type — women enjoy that type just as much as men. But of course, you are not targetting women specifically. Now, say you are a company that does simulations. If they want to target women, they would have a lot harder time finding a simulation that women would enjoy. I don't think that most women enjoy trying to fly an airplane and blow people up, or to guide submarines. Some do, of course, but as a general rule I don't think women enjoy doing that anymore than most men enjoy reading romance novels.

In that article, I said "Women want creative storytelling games and interaction with personalities." However, I've never subscribed necessarily to the theory of trying to find a game or software or entertainment that appeals only to wmen. I think that is kind of degrading, personally. If someone were to say "Let's do a reomance, and get the women to buy it." I wouldn't subscribe to that. I just would say, "For-get it!" What I like to do with our company is think of products, at least the ones that I do, that would appeal to everybody. Some of our games appeal to families — King's Quest IV and Gold Rush are two games that families might work on together. But not all of the games are geared for families. Colonel's Bequest I don't think of as a family game. I think of that as an adult game. I don't think of it as men or women. I'm hoping it's a good murder mystery and it doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman.

From the mail I've seen, I notice that some families do work on games together.

Yes, and that is good, but we do not want to do everything that way. I like our company to do a little bit of everything. Mother Goose, for example, is for the younger set. It is not meant for older brothers and sisters or parents, unless they want to sit down with them. It is mainly for the little kid. ANd I designed it so that a little boy or a little girl would enjoy it equally as well. Now, Police Quest, on the other hand, is pretty strongly for male, teens and up. And that is fine. We don't want to forget them, either. And King's Quest and probably Space Quest and Gold Rush are more family oriented. Leisure Suit Larry is for both men and women, but not necessarily for kids. The Colonel's Bequest is for men and women and not necessarily for kids. Hoyle again is for the whole family. So we don't like to do just one thing for the same group of people over and over and over again. You want to branch off and do different things and catch different audiences. As long as the unifying thing is that it is all of high quality. There is a certain standard that we must meet.


I wondered if you had gotten very much feedback about King's Quest IV, specifically about Rosella as the main character?

You know what's funny about that is that I really thought I would. I thought there would be some controversy with it, that maybe guys or boys would write in and say "I don't want to be a girl," or that maybe critics, reviewers, might say something about it, either pro or co. But the truth of the matter is, and this is what really surprised me, is that I personally have not heard much about it. It's like it hasn't really been an issue, and I worried about it while I was designingthe game. I wondered if it was going to be accepted. I thought it might be controversial. It hadn't been done in our industry to have a girl heroine, and I thought it would get a lot of attention. It has gotten some, but nothing really dramatic. People responded to King's Quest IV, but very few of them made mention of a woman heroine. They liked that it was still Graham's family, but it was as if they didn't care or didn't notice specifically it was a woman.

Do you have time to play any computer games yourself?

Noooo. I look at them. I look at them all the time, studying them, trying to learn from them. I don't sit down and play. I'll go through a few screens, or watch Ken play or watch the kids play. I like to see what they are doing, to see if there are new techniques, or something that I'm not doing. But I never sit down to play, and I never get so far in as to remotely solve something or win or anything like that. Because I don't have the time.

Many youngsters reading this I'm sure are longing to design computer games themselves. Do you have any advice for them?

Yes, I do, actually. It is beginning to be a viable profession, I think. A few years ago, I would not have said that. However, it is beginning, and it will be a profession that is going to require a lot of knowledge in specific areas, not only computers, they are jsut part of it. In fact, to do what I do you don't need to know how to program. You need to understand the computer, how it works, how to interface with the computer, and maybe just the rudimentary basics of how programming works and how the computer understands, and what a program may look like. But to do what I'm doing, you don't need to major in Computer Science.

But you definitely need to go to college. And when you go to college, you should probably major in cinematography or film — I would say they would be the closest thing — with a strong emphasis on computer science, writing, art, history.

Many of your fans dream of achieving what you have already achieved. Do you have any dreams of your own?


(She laughed and promptly responded.) I have dreams of retiring, going off in a sailboat around the world for about two years. (Then she laughed again and went on.) No, no, not really. I could never not do what I am doing, because I really enjoy it. This is me. This is something that I have always been doing. From the time I Was a little kid, I've been doing this. I just didn't know I was doing it. I've always been constructing stories. Even as a little kid, I was constructing stories. I was drawing pictures. I was telling stories around my pictures to my friends, and organizing kids to do my little plays. I was always doing that, and I can't imagine that I won't always do it in some form or another. Maybe I'll go on to writing something else besides computer games, maybe I will keep doing this. Who knows.

I do think it would be nice one day to not have to come out with a new game every year. I would like it when the company got to the point where other people were taking up the slack, and I could do a game every two years or so. So that I could kick back, and if my game didn't shup for three years, so what.


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