Let's Blast #1: The Colonel's Bequest
We're with Sierra for this murder-mystery whodunnit, released in 1989, and we're also back in time.
The year: 1925.
The place: a rickety mansion on a plantation in the middle of a bayou in Southern Lousiana with no spare boats but plenty of gators, lending an interesting and very plausible twist to the answer of why don't you just call the cops and run already? Actually, now that I think about it, I don't recall seeing any phones in the mansion while playing and when the cops finally do show up, they're summoned by emergency flare. Again, justified since this is 1925.
This is how the game starts: your best friend Lillian invites you to come along to her family reunion.
Because EVERYONE in 1925 invited their college friends to gatherings of complete strangers!
Snarky captions from me aside, we're never told exactly why she wants you to come along, and some of her family are equally confused. Lillian is described as hanging out in speakeasies, so I'm not sure whether we're supposed to see her as a massive rebel or not. On the one hand, we're talking about Prohibition-era America. On the other, more specific hand, we're talking about Prohibition-era Louisiana. (When sternly asked what he was doing to enforce Prohibition in Lousiana, the governor at the time, Huey P. Long, famously replied, "Not a damn thing.")
Anyhoo, it turns out that Colonel Dijon - Lillian's "Uncle Henri" - has gathered his relatives, along with his attorney and personal physician to reveal the contents of his will. He's mega-rich and so he says that he's decided to split his estate equally among everyone at the table barring the player. He also says that, should anyone predecease him, their piece of the pie will be divvied up among the survivors, share and share alike. Sounds very fair and civilized to me.
Oh, like you didn't see that one coming!
Colonel D. then withdraws, and the family vultures instantly swoop, with everyone at the table excitedly declaring what they're going to do with their share of the money once dear old D. shuffles off the mortal coil and becomes an ex-colonel. Lillian finds this to be in rather poor taste:
Can't we finish eating dinner first?
Which is a pretty nice reaction. I mean, sound travels in places, there are no closed doors anywhere except the bathroom and attic, and Colonel Mustard - excuse me, "Dijon" - can still hear them.
The game structure is fairly unique, being divided into eight "Acts," each one of which lasts an hour. Every time you encounter an event, the clock advances by fifteen minutes. Oh yes, and every Act from Act 2 onward brings a new death.
The game is on!
One interesting touch: this game is presented as a play, with "Pause" being replaced by "Intermission," for example. The original manual is written like a play, with the opening cutscenes in-game being more of a precised version. There's an moment in the manual that doesn't show up in game: Colonel D. sees a complete stranger sitting at his dinner table and, not unreasonably, wants to know just who the heck she is.
In other words, Lillian invited Laura along without bothering to wire her uncle for permission or even let him or the staff know that there'd be one more for dinner. As Kata would say, kind of a dick move there, Lil.
And this leads to something I like to call:
Get used to this. You'll be seeing it a lot on this review blog.
Lillian must have a way to contact her uncle, most likely by wire, if only to RSVP. Why wouldn't she tell him she's bringing a friend?
Lillian and Laura are greeted at the door by the butler, Jeeves, who works for Col. D. Why wouldn't Jeeves go to the colonel's room and announce their arrival?
Anyway, having brought you here, Lillian immediately abandons you to go and chat with random people whom she knows and you don't, telling you to run along and have fun exploring the run-down, gator-infested estate full of complete strangers all by yourself! So much for keeping her company.
Laura, being the massive snoop that she is, decides to trot around eavesdropping on everyone and learning their Deep, Dark Secrets.
Exhibit A: Clarence and Gertie are having a drink in the parlor! Le gasp!
This is one of the earliest scenes, as poor old Gertie isn't long for this world. The two of them are chatting, only to break off their conversation the second you walk through the door and refuse to answer any of Laura's questions about just what they might have been discussing, or about the family in general.
Here's where the game begins to fall down. See, we're supposed to believe that everyone's rather standoffish attitude toward you is indicative of them having Big Important Secrets that you MUST discover, while completely ignoring the following points:
Laura's one claim to Dijon-ness is being friends with Col. D.'s niece. The entire clan just met her for the first time tonight, and if we take the manual as true (and we do) then if Col. D. didn't know she was coming, there's no way the others would have. This isn't a case of a childhood friend who would know the clan well enough to justify polite inquiries about, say, Gertie's two kids. From everyone's point of view, Laura is only one step up from a gatecrasher. And even then, it's not a very big step.
Clarence is the attorney for Col. D.
Members of big, clannish families like the Dijons don't usually have their own individual attorneys. The family as a whole usually has one main attorney on retainer and everyone plays pass-the-parcel.
This means that it's very likely that Clarence also serves as the go-to attorney for the rest of the Dijon clan whenever Colonel D. isn't using him, and that includes Gertie. (Fun Clan Fact: As a Dijon by marriage rather than blood, Gertie would be pretty low down in the family pecking order when it came to using Clarence's services. In terms of general clan hierarchy, she would probably rank lower than her own adult children who are Dijons by blood, being Colonel D.'s nephew and niece. Since she's a widow and not well-liked by the blood relatives, if both her children predeceased her without having kids of their own, there's a very good chance she'd be kicked out the clan entirely and left to fend for herself.) But I digress! On to point:
Espionage isn't unknown in big clans like this. For all Clarence and Gertie know, Lillian brought Laura as a supposed neutral party, while telling her to find out as many secrets as possible and report back.
Laura knows that Clarence is an attorney. Attorney-client privilege has existed since 1577, so:
Both Clarence and Gertie have every right to tell Laura to butt out and mind her own business!
I mean, sure, they do have Big Important Secrets, but since Laura doesn't know this, her incessant questioning along the lines of, "Ooh, tell me everything about everyone! And what were you two just talking about?" comes off as pure nosiness.
Exhibit B: a doctor and an attorney. Hmm. Is this doctor-patient confidentiality, or attorney-client privilege?
This isn't good enough for Laura, however, who immediately snoops around and discovers secret rooms with eyeholes cut out of paintings. Perfect for sneaking about, spying on people and learning their deepest, most horrifying secrets! Unfortunately, you never actually see any of the murders being committed, nor can you save any of the victims, and everything you learn - with one or two exceptions - is simply background information on the characters and has no bearing on anything except your final score.
Exhibit C: Lillian's mother, Ethel, is a lush! Although this one's hardly a secret.
Suffice to say, since Laura is the only one who's snooping around, she's the only one to find the bodies. At all. I mean, I get that the murderer only strikes when nobody's looking, but since none of the bodies are found at the scene of the crime, the murderer is also killing them and dragging them away to hide. This would be fair, except we're talking about a gigantic, colonial-era mansion on a defunct sugarcane plantation in the Deep South, which means A) sugarcane; B) unfortunate implications if Celie the cook was born prior to 1865; C) loads and loads of floor-to-ceiling windows that you could drive a crane through!
Now, I don't know a whole lot about architecture, so I did a quick Google dive in search of some actual gigantic colonial-era plantation houses in Louisiana to check if they really were into big windows. Behold, the Nottoway Plantation!
And just in case that was a fluke, I present to you the Oak Alley Plantation as well!
SEE!? Also, that approach is freaking gorgeous. Just saying.
Even Gloria, who is sitting in the parlor looking out of the window when her dear old mother swan-dives off the veranda and ends up directly outside that same window, doesn't hear or see anything. You find Gertie's body, you go inside, you tell Gloria who rushes outside to check and then...
Yeah, I get a real kick out of lying to random near-strangers about finding their mom's broken corpse. Gotcha!
In other words, the murderer moved Gertie's body out of sight during the few seconds while Laura was hyperventilating and trying to warn Gloria. They did all this without being seen by the aforementioned Gloria, who is usually sitting in the big pink chair on the upper right of this room looking out of the window. I'll buy that Laura may have panicked and run away from the body and not returned to the house for a while, but how is it Gloria doesn't see anything?
Note the complete LACK of any concealment. Oh, and those doors behind Laura lead to the billiard room where Gloria is.
It doesn't matter who you try to warn about the murders and dead bodies, everyone will believe that Laura is making it up. Quite why they think she'd do such a thing is never explained, but then she's best friends with Lillian.
So the first one - Gertie's death by falling-out-of-an-open-window - might have been an accident. I mean, Gertie would have had to accidentally open the window, accidentally walk across the intervening veranda and accidentally vault over the balcony, but hey, maybe she sleepwalks. And sleep-opens. And...uh...sleep-vaults. So yeah, maybe her death could have been a horrible accident.
This guy's? Not so much.
Wilbur is the second victim that night. I'm not going to provide a blow-by-blow account of the murderer's victims, but I am going to focus on this one, because it illustrates one of the biggest flaws in the game's story.
Here's the thing: you never see a murder occur, but you do know that it's happened before you find the body. By that, I mean that if you go into a room - the library, in Wilbur's case - the game will immediately point out that a chair's been overturned and there's a bloodstained poker just lying there.
What a relief! For a moment, I thought we had psychedelic cockroaches.
However, Wilbur's body is found in the chapel (or the stable; it varies) which is outside the house and definitely outside this room.
Now, I'll buy the killer wants to hide the bodies. I'll also buy that Wilbur managed to escape and stagger through the grounds until arriving in the chapel and succumbing to his wounds. What I won't buy is how he ends up with all the other bodies at the bottom of the laundry chute!
3. Why the heck would the killer leave the murder weapon there? 1925 forensics can't have been too good, sure, but why? A poker's a pretty handy weapon, and it's covered in blood.
4. Let's assume Wilbur dies in the library. That means the killer has to drag his body - and we see that he's no lightweight - all the way to the chapel/stable without being seen, outside a house with massive windows and open grounds where characters are wandering around. The killer isn't strong enough to lift him, so there would be a trail of blood. Why would no one notice this?
5. On the other hand, let's assume Wilbur doesn't die, but staggers outside with a bleeding head wound. Why the heck would the killer let him go? The killer isn't a physician; they don't know if they managed to deliver a fatal wound or not, and they can't afford to leave him alive. Even minor head wounds tend to bleed profusely.
6. If the killer goes after him to finish the job, what was he killed with? The murderer left their murder weapon at the scene of the crime.
7. Wilbur's body, along with all the others, ends up being dumped down the laundry chute. So having dragged him all the way to the chapel/stable, why would the killer then drag him all the way back, into the house and into a room with a chute? The number of potential witnesses does decrease as the night goes on, but at the time of Wilbur's death, everyone except poor old Gertie is currently alive and wandering around.
But anyway, the night continues on and people keep dying.
Sure, Rudy's a womanizing gambler and a jerk, but he's the only person besides Celie to figure out something's up.
Nor are you safe by dint of being the main character. Sierra and LucasArts had very different approaches to dying: Sierra would try and kill you half a dozen times per room, but LucasArts was much more forgiving (eg, you would have to enter a room with scary eyes over the top 3-4 times in a row before the monster in there would actually kill you). Generally speaking, you wouldn't get an instadeath scene in a LucasArts game unless you did something that you knew wouldn't end well.
Totally worth it.
Since this is Sierra, however, there are all sorts of ways to die. These range from becoming the murderer's next victim to getting nommed by a gator to getting bonked on the head by a fragnabbit razzumfrazzum hoodlyplot chandelier every time you walked down the hallway in the WRONG FREAKING PLACE!
Every. Freaking. TIME!
Which wouldn't be so bad, except when you enter the house through the double-doors, the game automatically puts you in perfect chandelier-dropping alignment. Suffice it to say there were many angry rants and howls from players who were so busy trying to figure out the killer that they forgot to sidestep before going anywhere.
Unusually for a Sierra game, however, it's never unwinnable, although you can get an extremely low score. There's also a part early in the game where you can get it wrong and miss out on a massive chunk of the game's world, including a secret treasure.
So you're on your own, since your only friend Lillian has not only abandoned you but is quietly going nuts as you watch.
Exhibit D: Lillian playing with dolls next to seven tally marks. Exhibit E: Seven dead bodies. I'm sure it's just coincidence!
Yes, Lillian's the killer. (Sorry if I spoiled that for you. In my defense, the game has been available for 33 years now).
See, poor Lillian has had a rather troubled upbringing: her mother's an alcoholic and Lillian suffered a mental breakdown following her father's suicide, and spent some time in a mental asylum. A 1920s mental asylum, to be precise.
And here's where the game's story falls down a bit more. Lillian's motive is completely unrelated to the inheritance, which is a clever twist. What's less clever is that it relies on her hearing something from Col. D. that sends her spiraling over the edge.
Growing up, she viewed Col. D. as a surrogate father and believed she held a special place in his heart, and that he was genuinely fond of her. During a conversation that night, he sets her straight, saying that he looked after her as a favor to Ethel, and to him, Lillian was just his sister's whiny, insecure kid who matters to him exactly the same as the rest of his family: no more, and no less.
LILLIAN: "I thought I was special! I thought you cared for me more than for Gloria, or Rudy...or any of the others!"
COLONEL DIJON: "You're right; YOU thought that. You were wrong."
This flips a number of switches in Lillian's psyche that would have been much better left unflipped, and sends her on a killing spree to make herself the Colonel's favorite relative by making herself his only relative.
But there's a problem.
Can you tell what it is yet?
Remember how I said each Act lasted one hour, and people died in every Act beginning in Act 2? Remember how Act 1 started at 7PM?
Yeah. It's now 10:45PM and Lillian's already murdered her Aunt Gertie, her Cousin Gloria and her Uncle's personal physician. Apparently, her love for him doesn't extend to concern for his health.
8. What did Wilbur do? He's not a Dijon; he's Col. D.'s personal live-in physician. I could buy one of the clan killing him because they feel a non-Dijon isn't entitled to the family inheritance (one character makes a comment along those lines about Dijon-by-marriage Gertie) but Lillian's motive isn't financial; it's emotional.
9. This is the first time Lillian's learned of her uncle's true feelings. Up until then, she still believed she was the golden girl of the family. What kicked off the murder spree in the first place?
10. Gloria is killed by being strangled with her own feather boa.
Exhibit F: Gloria is also sitting in a high-backed chair with her back against the wall.
Now, I'll buy that Gloria got up to put something on the Victrola. Heck, the murder signs are over by the Victrola, so it's the most likely scenario. However:
10a. Gloria and Lillian are roughly the same size and both young women. Lillian would have the advantage of surprise, but if the outside door opens, Gloria will turn to see who's there, and if Lillian enters through the other door, Gloria will see her.
10b. Strangling someone takes a long time unless you know what you're doing. It's only in movies that people die in three seconds for the sake of pacing. Unlike Gertie and Wilbur, who would have been dead pretty much instantly (depending on which version of Wilbur's death you believe) Gloria would have been alive and kicking, able to put up a serious fight and scream for help.
10c. Clarence is upstairs, and wants to win Gloria back after getting dumped by her earlier in the evening. It's very likely he would have jumped at this chance to help his beloved.
Maybe Lillian felt that a long, drawn-out murder method like that was too risky as well, since she proceeds to murder her mother by smashing her on the head with Celie's rolling pin, poison Jeeves and Col. D.'s French maid and lover Fifi with an overdose of sleeping powder, and stab Clarence in the heart. Again, Clarence could have put up a fight and made it hard for her, but by the time Lillian gets to him, there's no one left to come.
At this point, the only survivors are Laura, Lillian, Col. D., Rudy and Celie. Celie, the only person whom you actually manage to befriend, is holed up in her cabin.
Or you could, I don't know, LET ME HIDE IN YOUR CABIN instead of wandering around with a psychotic killer on the loose!
Well, anyway, we trundle off to the hedge garden where we find Lillian's latest victim...Lillian?
Got to admit, I did not see that coming.
This is a nice little twist. It's also in this location that you can go down a secret passage, discover all the bodies piled in a heap and find a hidden treasure. Unfortunately, you need the matches from Clarence's body to do this, so it's very much a late-game bonus.
But anyway, we charge back to the house in time to hear scuffling coming from the attic! Upon entering, we see Rudy and Col. D. locked in a wrestling match, fighting for possession of a hypodermic syringe from Wilbur's black bag!
Aww...when I heard there were two guys wrestling, I thought there'd be mud...
This is the only time in the game where Laura can actually do something besides wandering around eavesdropping. You have a gun and one bullet. You can choose who to shoot. If you wait too long, Rudy will overpower Col. D. and kill him. If you wait too long before entering the attic, you'll come up to find Rudy standing over Col. D.'s body. The ending you get depends on who you pick to shoot.
Shoot Col. D., and Rudy will tell you that his uncle summoned all his family there to kill them (no word on why he felt it necessary to bump off his servants, doctor and attorney, however). It probably goes without saying that this is the Bad Ending; Rudy puts you on the next ferry home in the morning.
Shoot Rudy, and Col. D. explains that the events of this night was due to Lillian going on a jealousy-fueled rampage before Rudy killed her in self-defense. He then makes the somewhat contradictory statement about how terrible it is that he invited everyone here to talk about his will, and his family all ended up killing each other over it.
You young'uns have no patience at all! All he had to do to inherit everything was wait a few years!
And this is the biggest problem with the game: we don't care about these people. They're entertaining, but - with the exception of Clarence late in the game and Celie, who survives - they're generally so unlikable or aloof that we don't care that they're dropping like flies all around us.
Gertie and Gloria are rude snobs. Wilbur makes increasingly suggestive comments to Laura. The first ("You look very nice...very nice indeed.") may have been a clumsy attempt at gallantry. The next one, ("Ah, my dear, come a little closer. I don't hear well.") and the one after that, ("You're very pretty, my dear. Now don't be afraid.") are less open to interpretation. Jeeves is unreachable. Fifi is cheating on Col. D. with Jeeves. Ethel is too drunk to really get to know. Rudy also has his eye on Laura, although he goes down the charm-and-seduce route rather than Wilbur's attempts to lure her close enough to cop a feel. He also forces himself on Fifi twice during the game. Clarence is courteous to Laura during Act 4, but is less considerate to Gloria, whom he views as "his gal" and therefore his property, and has been embezzling funds from Col. D. for years. And Lillian's a psychotic killer. There's no character in the game that I actively want to see die, but there's no character that I'm rooting for either.
"It’s like watching a wasp land on a stinging nettle: someone’s going to get stung and you don’t care." - Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
If you're wondering what happens to Col. D.'s millions now that all of his heirs are dead, he leaves everything to his cook, Celie, on the proviso that she stays and cares for his animals (a dog and a horse) for the rest of their days. Nice. If you discover the hidden treasure, Col. D. also lets you keep that as a reward for saving his life. It's never mentioned again in the sequel.
So there you have it. Unlike other Sierra games, there's no score. Instead, you're given a final rating at the end with the option to review your notes and gain hints as to how to do better next time. This gives the game a certain amount of replay value, as I don't know anyone who got full marks on the first playthrough.
(For the curious, the INCOMPLETE is the carrot in Celie's cabin).
Unlike the sequel, The Dagger of Amon Ra, where you actually have to back up your findings with evidence, this game is entirely possible to play through without seeing any secret conversations, or finding any treasure, or even getting the right killer. (It's possible to play through The Dagger of Amon Ra without getting the right killer too, but you don't survive the experience). Story problems aside, The Colonel's Bequest is a fun game, but as designer Roberta Williams said, it's one of those games where you only get out what you put in.
Next on Let's Blast: King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human! See you there!