Roberta Williams’ long career in gaming covered a number of incredible milestones for the adventure genre whether it was merging graphics with text parser driven mechanics or expanding on the narrative potential of the genre as a whole. Without a doubt, her work was incredibly influential on many levels and continues to be a source of inspiration for many even today, years after both she and her husband retired from game development altogether.
Sierra On-Line, renamed in ’82 from its original On-Line Systems moniker when it was founded in 1980, was quickly getting its feet wet with “hi-res” adventure games such as the now-iconic Mystery House which brought together graphics and text-driven gameplay. In 1982, they raised the benchmark yet again with the incredibly mammoth Time Zone.
Time Zone was colossal even by Sierra’s ambitious standards at the time. According to Roberta Williams in a quote from 1997’s collection, The Roberta Williams Anthology:
“Time zone was the first game where we actually used outside artists. I love to design, but I’m not an artist. The game had 1400 rooms, when an average game had 90 rooms. So it was huge, huge, huge!”
It also came on twelve disks (or six if they were double sided) and was released for the Apple II “as its largest adventure game” where “most games had 1 to 4 disks.”
It was a herculean undertaking at the time taking over a year to make in addition to six months writing out the game “before any programming was done” as CGW notes in a 1982 interview with Roberta Williams, citing the manual. A staff of ten worked on the game including Ken Williams who wrote the original interpreter reworked by Jeff Stephenson to fit into the game. It was such a big project that Roberta didn’t think it was possible for anyone to top it then and didn’t see themselves doing so anytime soon.
“It wasn’t easy. To me it was akin to making an epic movie in the tradition of Cecile B. DeMille. You just don’t make sequels to things like that.”
– Roberta Wililams, CGW Time Zone interview (May-June 1982)
As for the story, it went a little something like this — a race called the Neburites have been watching mankind for eons from deep space, observing how they have gone from learning fire at the dawn of their history to incredibly high tech in the year 4081. Unlike humanity, the Neburites apparently improve themselves at a glacial pace where humans have created wonders in a relatively short amount of time and now threaten to surpass them. Their ruler, Ramadu, plans to build a massive ray gun and use it to destroy Earth before that happens. There may not be a 4082 to look forward to if they succeed.
That’s where you come in. For some reason, you’ve been chosen, thanks to a dream, to stop the Neburites by traveling throughout time and seeing to it that humanity’s history not only survives but that you eventually foil their plan. It’s not entirely clear why you out of everyone in history was picked, but when a time machine shows up near your house, I guess you just have to use it.
Back then, in the early 80s, the parsers for interactive fiction were only capable of the simplest of commands such as “N” for going North or “GO MACHINE” for entering the time machine. It would only be much later that the commands would get more sophisticated thanks to the efforts made by developers like Infocom (which was also busy with its own line of interactive fiction at the time), Sierra, and a few others that were also exploring the same space.
They were also a lot less forgiving. One of the warnings that the instructions give the player is that they can’t take anything that doesn’t belong in a particular time zone there. If you do, it’s destroyed in transit and making the game impossible to finish unless you have an earlier save before making that mistake. For example, there’s a gas mask in the time machine. Traveling back 400 million years to the past destroys it. This kind of game killing move would also crop up again in another of Williams’ games, The Dagger of Amon Ra which was released in 1992, where finishing a chapter of the game rendered previous locations — and potentially useful items — inaccessible.
The genre at the time also didn’t shy away from death in addition to potentially destroying key items needed in your adventure.
Time Zone’s instructions also urge the player to make a lot of maps and here’s where a number of differences between design considerations for the day and those of adventure games much later are contrasted. It’s no joke that the game is huge — imagine an open world game like Skyrim, only divide its world into 10’x10′ squares of still images and that should give you an impression Time Zone’s vastness in its day.
There was also no hint as to where to start. Two dials in the time machine determined your destination. The blue one determined place and the other determined time. The good news is that there are only so many time zones and places that you can journey to. The bad news is that you can mix and match combinations for multiple destinations with little idea on what you should do or where you should go next. In many ways, Time Zone shared roots with other open world precursors of the day. Unfortunately, by leaving it so open, it also meant players would have to go through a high degree of trial and error and false starts to figure out just what they should do to progress the game.
Roberta Williams also wasn’t a big fan of hint guides. As she explains in her 1982 interview with CGW:
“I never liked hint sheets. I feel that if the people have the answers in front of them they will be more likely to look up the answers instead of trying to solve the problem by themselves. We are quite willing to answer questions if people cal us with specific questions, but we don’t want to give out hint sheets. I just don’t think people should pay $32 for The Wizard and the Princess and then just be able to look up the answer to solve it easily.”
Time Zone also shares a lot in common with Legend Entertainment’s Timequest, released nine later in 1991. However, Timequest’s design also had the benefit of greater efficiency thanks to years of lessons left behind by other games including Roberta Williams’ own King’s Quest line. It didn’t pad its room count for the sake of creating a huge world choosing instead, like many others, to find greater utility in fewer locations while improving in other ways.
Instead of letting the player guess their way across a multiple of time/destination combinations, Timequest’s design economized the sizes of its destinations leaving only essential clues within fast and relatively easy reach. In contrast, players could scour one of Time Zone’s worlds for quite some time before realizing that there may or may not actually be something worth doing there. And although Timequest could be as vicious as Time Zone in killing the player for doing something wrong, or not quickly enough, it at least didn’t leave key items permanently out of reach — something that many other adventure games had also tried to avoid by that time.
Time Zone, however, wasn’t quite as well remembered as Sierra’s King’s Quest for a number of other reasons one of which was its incredibly high price. The ad above gives the game an asking price of $99.95 USD — a monumental price for any game, even today, when scores of others debuted for half or even just a third of that back then — affecting how many copies were sold. In addition to the Apple II, it also appeared in Japan for the FM-7, PC-88, and the PC-98. Roberta Williams also suggested that it would head to the Atari 400/800 though cited, in her interview with CGW mentioned above, that the utility they used to copy Atari disks was painfully slow in comparison to the one used for the Apple II. She also mentioned that it would eventually become available for the IBM PC at the time.
It later appeared again when it was re-released as part of the Roberta Williams Anthology collection released in 1997 for PCs which also included a number of iconic classics such from 1980’s Mystery House (often cited as the first graphical adventure game) to 1995’s Phantasmagoria covering an incredibly influential career.
Time Zone had its flaws, but in some ways, it was also forward thinking given its open world making anyone curious as to how the concept would fare if it were ported over to a truly open world engine today. The high sci-fi setting and the potential time travel excitement, and its boasted accuracy to historical elements in an attempt to lend a level of realism to the game allowing players to rub shoulders with the likes of Napoleon, would also be concepts revisited by other titles years later not only by Legend’s Timequest but Presto Studios’ epic Journeyman series among others. And its sheer ambition would serve as another preview on where the young company, and its adventure aspirations, would be heading over the next several years.