Victorian literature as a subject of computer games of the 80s and early 90s

The detective who prowls through the billowing fog on the Thames, the adventurer who sets off in fantastic machines on journeys into the vastness of space and the depths of the ocean, or the brilliantly plotted intrigue in an aristocratic country estate: the popular literature of the Victorian era offers many themes that can still be found in contemporary media. Computer and video games are no exception to this rule. Passionate gamers can, for example, roam through the London of 1866 with the Frye twins in “Assassins Creed: Syndicate” and meet personalities such as Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria,[1] fight supernatural enemies in an alternative Steampunk London in “The Order: 1886” or slip into the role of the “second highest European authority” in matters of crime-fighting in a large number of modern Sherlock Holmes game adaptations.[2]

A look at the history of computer games illustrates that the use of Victorian settings is nothing new. While the technical possibilities of the 1970s limited early developers to rather simple (nevertheless captivating) game concepts implemented in classics such as “Pong” or “Space Invaders”, the rise of more powerful home computers in the 1980s allowed for increasingly complex game types such as adventures or role-playing games. And indeed, some of the very first of these games were directly or indirectly based on the works of Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne or H. G. Wells. This blog post highlights a few of these pioneering works from the 80s and early 90s and provides an incomplete overview of other relevant games. The focus is on games for the IBM operating system MS-DOS, dominant at that time, which are still available (either in the personal collection of the author, whose gaming career started in the late 80s on a C64, or on and which are based on literary works. Games that are only set in the corresponding time period (including games set outside of Europe, e.g. within the Wild West) or that were released for other platforms are perhaps – just like more modern games utilising Victorian settings – a topic for another article…

Scrooge (1991, Leisuresoft)

Let’s start with a true literary classic. The very first computer game, or at least one of the very first computer games, ever to be based on a work by Charles Dickens is “Scrooge”, published by Leisuresoft in 1991. The player takes on the titular role of the old miser and must play through Dickens’ famous Christmas story as in a “choose your own adventure” book, with any deviation marking the end of the game – thus, if you send Bob Cratchit on a paid Christmas vacation, you may lose in the very first minute. In addition to players knowing the original text by heart, the game relies on randomised ‘bring-item-a-to-location-b’ puzzles, with the randomisation sometimes resulting in unsolvable game states, in which you haven’t lost the game, but can’t win it anymore either – an Achilles’ heel of early adventure games, for which the classic Sierra adventures were especially notorious, and whose demise was finally ushered in by the ground-breaking “player-friendly” adventures developed by Lucas Arts.

Another Bow (1985, Bantam Software)
Sherlock Holmes: The Vatican Cameos (1986, Ellicott Creek Software)
Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels (1988, Infocom)

Sherlock Holmes is not only the most frequently portrayed character in film and television, but has also become the protagonist of quite a number of computer games. One could easily write a separate article about the abundance of electronic works dedicated to the figure of the master detective. For now, I would like to focus on only three of the oldest Holmes games I could still find and get running: “Another Bow” (1985), “The Vatican Cameos” (1986)[3] and “The Riddle of the Crown Jewels” (1988), released by three different publishers, the best known of which is probably Infocom.

All three games are so-called text adventures – a nowadays somewhat forgotten game genre that may seem even more foreign to younger readers than the A, B or C game mechanics found in “Scrooge”. A text adventure is controlled through a parser that interprets input from the player in natural language, ranging from simple instructions like “Go west” to more complex sentences like “Open the desk drawer with the silver key”. In the background, a database of all objects existing within the game (items, rooms, directions, etc.) as well as a list of verbs is used to determine which interaction should be invoked based on whatever input is given. The player thus basically “talks” to the game, which in turn “responds” to the input with more text in a collaborative effort to bring the story to its conclusion. From a literary point of view, this is actually a very interesting type of game, which has unfortunately been largely forgotten over the years, although an enthusiastic fan scene of the genre has survived.

The oldest of the three Holmes games mentioned is “Another Bow”, an obvious nod to “His Last Bow”, in which the player follows an aging Sherlock Holmes on a cruise (among the illustrious company on board are Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison) when a supposed suicide occurs. Handsomely illustrated by the standards of the time, the game features plenty of well-written text, which the developer attributes, with some tongue-in-cheek (and an extensive backstory) to a newly found, “lost” Watson manuscript – a much-used motif of modern-day Holmes reinterpretations. What is remarkable is the unusual position in which the players are placed. They are not traveling as Sherlock Holmes on the SS Destiny, but rather act as Dr. Watson, who does not even control his own character via the parser inputs, but in turn only makes suggestions to Holmes about what he could investigate or with whom he could interact in what way (“Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it”, to again quote from “The Hound of the Baskervilles”). The unusual constellation ensures that the work has retained a certain ludic charm to this day.

Another early Holmes text adventure is “Sherlock Holmes: The Vatican Cameos”, which was released only one year later. It comes without any graphics at all and features only a very restricted parser. A murder in Southwark is seemingly solved effortlessly by Inspector Lestrade – but of course the case can’t be quite that simple. The game features a real-time mechanism that is very unusual for text adventures – a clock that is constantly ticking unseen in the background is both driver and pace-setter for the player and provides not only suspense, but also a certain amount of amusement whenever Dr. Watson complains about missing his meals and can only be persuaded to continue by visiting a nearby restaurant. The real-time mechanism was ambitious for this era of game development, as it meant that certain characters could only be found in certain places at certain times, adding time management as a gameplay element to the otherwise rather unhurried text adventure genre.

Worth mentioning in any case is “Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels”, published in 1988 by text adventure pioneer Infocom (best known for “Zork”, “Bureaucracy” and “Planetfall”). The game was part of Infocom’s “literary series”, in which, unfortunately, only one more title was published – “Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur”. The plot is set in the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee – 1887 – and takes up an almost traditional pulp fiction crime with the theft of the British crown jewels – here with the twist that the theft must be solved within 48 hours to spare the Crown the shame of publicly admitting the loss. After the challenge reaches the Baker Street study in the form of a puzzle poem,[4] the player once again takes on the role of Dr. Watson, meeting Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, Wiggins and Professor Moriarty as the story unfolds, and exploring Westminster Abbey, Madame Tussauds and Buckingham Palace in addition to Baker Street in a clear effort by the developers to hit all the right notes of Sherlock fandom. The game, designed by text adventure legend Bob Bates, is characterized by a particularly excellent parser and a recognizable linguistic proximity to Doyle’s original texts[5].

A modern example of the text adventure genre set in the Victorian era is the free-to-play “1893: A World’s Fair Mystery”, in which the theft of a jewel from Queen Victoria’s possession at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 must be solved. With “Blood of the Vampire” by Lauren Woolbright and Marie Jarrell (based on the 1897 novel by Florence Marryat), another member of this genre was recently the subject of a lecture by Felipe Espinoza Garrido at the “Recovering the Vampire” conference of Edge Hill University’s 19th Century Studies master’s program.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Chip, 1988)
20.000 Leagues under the Sea (Coktel Vision, 1988)

Although a well-known contemporary of Dickens, Collins, Doyle and Hardy, the French father of science fiction, Jules Verne, is not generally considered to be a member of the Victorian literary circle. Nevertheless, his works also provide the framework for several early computer games – including the adaptations of two of his most famous books: “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”. While “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is formally a point-and-click adventure game with real-time elements and occasional action interludes, parallels to early submarine simulators cannot be dismissed. As Professor Arronax the player can move through the Nautilus in real time, read maps and logbooks, check and manipulate instruments and talk to crew members – with the ultimate goal of escaping the dreaded Captain Nemo.

A (for the 80s even more unusual, but from today’s perspective downright modern-looking) combination of different gameplay elements is offered by “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, a kind of point-and-click adventure, which is, however, merely the framework for a series of different mini-games ranging from puzzles to more action-oriented bits. Objectively seen, both games are less than brilliant, confusing in parts, and clearly fell short of the capabilities of the adventure genre, both technically and in terms of gameplay, even in their time – the first successful implementation of Verne’s themes (and there still are only a few of them to date) came in the mid-90s with Vic Tokai’s “The Gene Machine”.

Wonderland (1990, Virgin Games)

Lewis Carrol’s classic children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was adapted several times in the 1980s in the form of text adventures, some of which feature interesting game mechanics (such as an inventory size that grows and shrinks along with the growing and shrinking main character), but are likely to appear unspectacular to modern players.

In stark contrast, “Wonderland”, released in 1990 by Magnetic Scrolls (probably best known for “Fish!” and “Corruption”, among others), still impresses with its beautiful illustrations and an intuitive user interface reminiscent of the first graphical operating systems. In addition to the window for text input and output, other elements such as a graphical inventory, a direction indicator or a map can be displayed and arranged as desired. This particularly attractive form of graphically-supported text adventure with an interactive user interface unfortunately only enjoyed a very short heyday; its best-known example is likely the two-part implementation of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway novels by Legend Entertainment at the beginning of the 1990s.

“Wonderland” starts exactly like the book with the bored Alice and her reading sister, follows the plot in most essential points, but breaks out narratively time and again to present additional puzzles and tasks to the player too familiar with the book. The rich language and long sections of text are recognizably based on the original, adopting many passages with only minor adaptations or extensions. Technically and in terms of gameplay, “Wonderland” is probably one of the highlights of the interactive fiction (IF) genre, probably surpassed only by the two aforementioned Gateway games and the time-travel adventure “Timequest”, also developed by Legend Entertainment, published in 1991 and written by the same Bob Bates, who years earlier had already sent Sherlock Holmes on a hunt for the stolen crown jewels.

Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel (1992, Electronic Arts)

An absolute gem that I just had to include in this review is “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel”: the first installment in the “Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes” series by Electronic Arts, which, sadly, spawned only one successor with the (also very good) “Case of the Rose Tattoo”, published in 1996. “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel” is a classic point-and-click adventure game in the style of well-known Lucas Arts games like “Maniac Mansion”, “Zack McKraken” or “Indiana Jones IV”. The year of the game stetting, 1888, and the murder of a young actress in Myfair, initially make the player (as well as the Inspector Lestrade) fear that this could be one of many (partly quite voyeuristic and therefore not discussed in this article) attempts to turn the Jack the Ripper murders into a computer game. Fortunately, “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel” does not follow that path, but rather presents an original and very different story, which narratively is probably one of the best stories written for a Holmes game to date.

The animated intro depicting a stereotypically rainy and gas-lit London and the first glimpse into the study in Baker Street, which – like the entire game – shines with numerous allusions to well-known original stories, such as the “VR” (Victoria Regina) shot into the wall, which is mentioned in “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, or the picture of General George Gordon brought up in “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box”. In general, the numerous locations are beautifully illustrated – from Covent Gardens and the London docks to the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard, the path leads the player through dark alleys, poorhouses and seedy dives as well as opera houses, gardens and stately homes. All conversations and collected findings are recorded by Watson in his journal and can be read at any time – in fact, the game even included the rare option to print out the notes in order to be able to work on the case while the computer is turned off.

Games, games and even more games…

Of course, one blog post cannot give anything close to a complete overview on the multitude of games of the 80s and early 90s set in the literary world of the 19th century – and certainly not on all games set in this period overall. In conclusion, I would therefore like to mention just a few examples of what is “out there” for any enterprising gaming historian: the strategy game “Champion of the Raj” (Level 9 Computing, 1991), which makes heavy use of colonial symbolism; the board game adaptation “Dracula in London” (SDJ Enterprises, 1988); the strategy game “Charge of the Light Brigade” (Impressions, 1991), which revisits the sacrifice of British cavalrymen immortalized by Alfred Lord Tennyson at the Battle of Balaklava (1854); or the point-and-click adventure game “The Gene Machine” published by Vic Tokai in 1996 – a wild potpourri of scenes from numerous novels by Jules Verne, mixed with all sorts of allusions to other contemporary popular literature.

Looking at some of these early attempts to translate popular literature of the Victorian age into computer games seems worthwhile not only for nostalgic reasons. Much like the retrospective examination of films, television series, or graphic novels that take up Victorian images and themes, these games tell us a great deal about how these same images and themes were perceived and interpreted at the time of their development. Not unlike the media scientist who dissects a film scene by scene or a graphic novel frame by frame, gaming historians can use emulators to bring decades-old operating systems back to life and immerse themselves in long-forgotten games: thanks to browser-based emulators, some of the games presented here can even be experienced directly on

Christian Reinboth (@reinboth) holds a Diploma in Business Informatics and a Master of Science in Environmental Sciences and works at Harz University in Wernigerode, Germany as a research funding officer and lecturer in statistics. He is married, has two daughters and loves to read Victorian novels and play ancient computer games.

Notes & references

[1] See Bell, E. 2020. Fictional Dickenses. In: Bell, E. (ed.), Dickens After Dickens, pp. 197–214. York: White Rose University Press. DOI: Licence, apart from specified exceptions: CC BY-NC 4.0

[2] See “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, second chapter.

[3] The mystery of the Vatican Cameos is an untold story hinted at in the second chapter of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”: “I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases.”

[4] O stately Holmes of England,

In Baker Street abide.

For even you must surely fail,

To save your county’s pride.

[5] See Nick Montfort: Twisty Little Passages. An Approach to Interactive Fiction, MIT Press 2005, S. 165.

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