How Sierra and a Disgraced Cop Made the Most Reactionary Game of the 90s
In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that ruined his reputation, Daryl Gates found himself in a point-and-click professional afterlife.
Photo by Gary Leonard / Getty Images
CW: This article discusses incidents of police violence as well as depictions of queerphobia, violence, and murder.
When Ken Williams, the chief executive of Sierra On-Line, brought the company's newest game designer to the office, some staff stayed home. Better to get in trouble with management than meet the man accused of fostering a culture of police brutality on a city-wide scale.
“I shook his hand, but I didn’t really engage with him at all,” remembers Josh Mandel, then the director of product design at Sierra, the studio behind classic adventure game series like King's Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and Gabriel Knight. “I didn’t have any questions for him. I wasn’t glad he was there. I just wanted him to go away as soon as possible.”
Across the floor, Gano Haine and a small team were working on the environmentalist-themed Lost Secret of the Rainforest. In swept Williams, who never visited. With him was an older man Haine didn’t recognize. She thought he looked dapper, unimportant.
“Gano!” She didn’t even think Williams knew her name. “Show this man everything about how we do this!”
Haine obliged, demonstrating Sierra’s development tools to the quiet visitor. In the room, she says, “you could hear a pin drop.” After a few minutes, Williams returned and shepherded his guest elsewhere.
“One of my artists says, ‘Gano! That was Daryl Gates.’” The name didn’t register.
“The artist looks at me, and he goes, ‘Gano! Daryl Gates. LA. KA-BOOM!’”
1979. Daryl Gates was the new Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. Ken Williams and his wife Roberta were dreaming in their Simi Valley hot tub of striking it big in computer game development.
Both in their mid-twenties, Ken had programming and business acumen, and Roberta a latent talent for writing and designing story-driven adventure games. They built up their company, On-Line Systems (later renamed Sierra On-Line) in Coarsegold, California—a town so small that five per cent of its Wikipedia page is about tarantula mating season. (“Locals go out of their way to protect and respect the arachnids during this time.”)
Sierra developed into a lucrative haven for brash, idiosyncratic hackers and artists, with a relaxed—even intrusive—corporate culture. As documented in Steven Levy’s book Hackers, pot-smoking was permitted and drinking encouraged; employees were invited into Ken’s hot tub and out on the town for a weekly “Men’s Night”; and Ken took an active and unseemly interest in getting his young star programmer laid, even going so far as to hire a sex worker on his behalf.
Sierra played just as fast and loose with its product. Atari unsuccessfully attempted to sue Sierra for selling a rip-off of Frogger; a close call that spooked Ken Williams into the embrace of a more traditional management ethos, hastening his metamorphosis from hot tub hacker dad into conservative chief executive.
By the early 90s, Sierra presided over a stable of hit franchises. The breadwinner was King’s Quest, a family-friendly saga of gallant royals and mashed-up fairy tales created by Roberta Williams.
In 1985, Williams met Jim Walls, a California Highway Patrol Officer, and hired him to design a realistic, police-themed counterpart to King’s Quest, called Police Quest. Sierra was a different, larger, and more traditional company by then, but it was still a profound journey to go from a company built around the creative (and, often, drunk) whims of misfit hackers to saying: "You know who we should get to make a video game is a cop."
Walls made three Police Quest games with Sierra, and the series is a curious marriage of beat-cop daydream with pedantic observance of procedure.
Playing as straight-arrow hero Sonny Bonds, a traffic officer in the fictional city of Lytton, you will shoot a big-time drug dealer with a gun hidden in the handle of a pimp cane, thwart a terrorist airplane hijacking, single-handedly bust a Satanic murder cult and, queasily, “rescue” a frequently-imperiled sex worker by grooming her to be your housewife.
However, if you don’t explicitly look both ways before crossing the street, you will die. If you miss a police briefing, you will die. If you don’t know the correct five-digit violation code from your police manual, you will die. In the Police Quest cosmology, the power of the police is both boundless and precisely regulated, and the police manual is the only reliable bulwark against complete societal chaos and death.
Walls left Sierra after the third Police Quest. It was now 1992, and Ken Williams needed a new cop. He asked for suggestions to continue the franchise, and offered one of his own: Daryl Gates.
“I didn't invest 42 years of my life to go down the tubes over an incident that I had nothing to do with,” declared a defiant Daryl Gates, then heading into what would be his last year as Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The incident this time—March, 1991—was the worldwide broadcast of a videotape, showing several LA police officers repeatedly beating black motorist Rodney King.
“ooops”, one of the officers messaged from his squad car afterwards, to a colleague.
“I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time.”
Facing public outcry, Gates denounced the assault as human error, an outlier in the generally solid work of the LAPD. “It is not an aberration,” a California state legislator retorted: “What is amazing is that we were lucky enough to have it recorded on tape.”
The violence against King was egregious and the inevitable overreach of Gates’ aggressive, paternalistic style of policing. That style, in broad terms, was to combine the use of overwhelming force (the creation of SWAT teams; crackdowns on gang violence) with being an asshole (publicly telling Jimmy Carter that his SWAT guys could get the hostages out of Iran; explaining that Latino officers weren’t promoted inside the department because they were lazy).
Not the approach of a bridge-builder. In 1979, Gates’ first year as Chief, the civilian Police Commission censured the department over its fatal shooting of the 39-year-old black housewife Eula May Love. Gates bemoaned that the Commission’s report hurt police morale, and that one of the officers who killed Love was “just as much a victim."
Gates’ relationship with L.A.’s black community, in particular, was abysmal. In 1982, Gates shared his “hunch” about why black people had a disproportionate proclivity to die while subjected to LAPD chokehold: “In some blacks… the veins or arteries do not open up like they do in normal people.” Later, defending himself from the entirely foreseeable criticism, Gates noted that “a lot of medical people” had called to tell him that he was correct.
At a city council meeting after the Rodney King beating, a councilman suggested it wasn’t unreasonable to think that the department’s history with the black community under Gates created the conditions for an incident like King’s assault.
Hunched in an insouciant slouch, Gates elided the accusation. “This is a police department that has supported you, supported each of you. I’ll just tell you this. If you don’t speak up on behalf of the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department who have served this city well, if you don’t do that, at this crucial moment in our history, then… you’re going to have a police department that is not going to be the kind of department that you want, the kind of department that people deserve.”
“Did you mean that as a threat?”
“That is the most insulting thing I have heard on this council floor in all the time I’ve been here,” replied Gates, now ramrod straight, “and I’ve been here a lot longer than you’ve been alive.”
Nonetheless, after the King beating, Tom Bradley, then the mayor of LA, ordered an independent commission to review the “structure and operation” of the LAPD: “We must face the fact that there appears to be a dangerous trend of racially motivated incidents running through at least some segments of our Police Department.”
Gates said that if the commission actually found that his leadership had anything to do with what happened to Rodney King? Sure, he’d resign.
It did. He didn’t.
“I don’t expect to just run away,” he explained.
Eventually, he agreed that he would step down as Chief in April 1992— if the creaky city bureaucracy managed to appoint a successor before then. It did. And then, from April, there were two chiefs of the LAPD, because Gates still refused to go.
Maybe in June, he said.
Which meant Gates was still in charge on April 29, 1992, when a jury in white, police-friendly Simi Valley acquitted four of the officers who assaulted King. The riots began that afternoon. Over the next six days, 63 people would die and two thousand more would be injured. On the first day, Gates was at a fundraiser campaigning against a proposition that would limit the power of the LA police chief. Which looked bad, but wasn’t nearly as serious as the conspicuous, inexplicable absence of police intervention early on.
“Clearly we should have blown a few heads off.” - Daryl Gates
“[Gates] was counting on the anarchy of the situation to expose itself so he could come in as a cowboy and a savior and be a hero and it would help him push himself up into some higher electoral office,” theorized the director John Singleton in 2017. “It backfired on him. It ended his career, actually, because he was too smug about it. He had no savoir faire; he was smug about it. And none of the city leaders or anybody in private life in Los Angeles would help him, come to his assistance.”
“I said I was going to retire at the end of June,” Gates announced in June, “and my feeling is now, ‘Screw you, I’ll retire when I want to retire.’”
“How many times have we been promised that he’d finally leave?” asked Mayor Bradley. “I think the people have had enough of Daryl Gates’ jerking them around.” A Chinese delivery place in West LA took out a billboard with Gates’ image and the slogan, “When You Can’t Leave the Office. Or Won’t.”
The beleaguered Chief had run out of moves. “What happened in this city,” he fulminated on the way out, “has been a well-engineered effort to bring great disrespect to the people on whom the population must depend for law enforcement. You cannot erode people's respect for that organization and expect to have anything other than... the whirlwind of anarchy.”
In October, an independent committee criticized the LAPD and Gates in particular for their handling of the riots. “Clearly,” Gates lashed out at a news conference, “we should have blown a few heads off.”
Meanwhile, at Sierra, Josh Mandel thought hiring Gates for Police Quest—mere months after the Chief's ouster—was a terrible idea. He suggested as an alternative Joseph Wambaugh, the LA detective turned crime author, but suspected that Ken Williams’ mind was already made up. “He kept coming back to Daryl Gates, and he’d mention Gates every time we’d have a conversation about it. He seemed to think that that was just a golden opportunity he didn’t want to pass up.”
In Gates, Williams saw controversy. “He really liked that. He thought that would get a lot of press and publicity for the game,” Mandel remembers. “I thought it’s one thing to seek controversy, but it’s another thing to really divide people. It seemed obvious… that there were going to be existing Police Quest players who would drop out rather than buy a game with Daryl Gates’ name on it.”
Mandel urged Williams again to consider Wambaugh, arguing that a New York Times bestselling author designing games would get a lot of attention too. “Ken said something that just astonished me. He said, ‘Our players don’t read the New York Times.’”
If they had, they might have recognized the prospective new face of Police Quest from stories like “Violence and Racism Are Routine In Los Angeles Police, Study Says” (July, 1991). Or, if they read the Los Angeles Times: “‘Yeah, I Mean It!’ Gates Says of Idea to Shoot Drug Users” (September, 1990).
But bad press didn’t worry Williams. He wrote to Gates asking if the former Chief would want to design the next Police Quest, which Gates—who didn’t use a computer—read with near-total disinterest. But vaguely aware that some kids in his neighbourhood “really love[d] those eye-hand coordination games,” Gates had his secretary write back to request free copies. That was Williams’ foot in the door.
Williams and Gates got to know one another over the phone, and the more Williams learned, the more he liked. He liked that Gates made time for surfing in the mornings. Both were fans of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. For Gates’ part, he saw in Sierra and Police Quest the opportunity to “maybe say something important about law enforcement… [and to] try and give people a better appreciation for what officers face on the job and encourage a willingness to support them.”
When Williams made the trip down to meet Gates, recalled John Williams, Ken’s brother and Sierra’s marketing director, “the impression Ken came away with was very favorable. Gates’ actions were those of a perfect gentleman, and he was a real personable family kind of guy.”
“In the end,” John Williams said in 1993, “I think Ken sort of came to the opinion that Gates had been pinned as the fall guy for the whole LA Riot thing.”
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Although Gates was nominally hired as the “author” of the fourth Police Quest, the game was chiefly written and designed by Tammy Dargan, a Sierra producer formerly of the television show America's Most Wanted. Gates gave her script notes. With Police Quest: Open Season, as it was called, Gates and Dargan would toss the existing series fiction, and ground it in the gritty, violent Los Angeles that Gates knew.
When the media picked up on Gates’ new project, it seemed like it might generate the controversy for which Ken Williams had hoped. “He embodies all that is bad in law enforcement—the problems of the macho, racist, brutal police experience that we’re working hard to put behind us. That anyone would hire him for a project like us proves that some companies will do anything for the almighty dollar,” John Mack, the president of the Los Angeles Urban League, told the Dallas Morning News.
“I don’t see this game causing any controversy. I was brought in for my experience,” Gates responded, but couldn’t help veering off message into the insidious: “I think good, ordinary, responsible, quiet citizens are going to be very supportive.”
At Sierra, Josh Mandel thought marketing’s claim that Gates was hired for his experience, rather than his controversy, to be nonsense. But that controversy hadn’t paid off with the publicity firestorm Williams had anticipated. Computer Gaming World ran an interview with Gates but disclaimed that “the well-beaten ground of past controversy” would not be addressed in its pages.
“I didn’t think that Ken had achieved quite the level of notoriety that I think he was shooting for,” Mandel says. At least, not outside Sierra. “There were a lot of people at the company that were horribly, horribly unhappy… that Ken and management would capitalize on someone as controversial and dark as Daryl Gates. And Police Quest 4 got [a] different name inside the company. We started calling it Rodney King’s Quest.”
Police Quest: Open Season was released in November 1993, with Gates’ name in big letters on the box. In the game, players assumed the role of John Carey, LA homicide detective, on the trail of a serial killer whose victims include police officers. “What can you tell us about the latest victims in what’s being termed ‘this city’s most gruesome murder spree,” a pushy reporter demands of the permanently weary Carey.
Open Season starts out horribly grim, with Carey, in dark South Central L.A., finds a slain cop and a black child in a dumpster. Carey follows leads into bleak corners of the grimy city, until the game lurches totally into lurid, hysterical hell, ending with Carey incinerating the killer—a cross-dressing man who is given about as much humanity and depth in this story as you'd expect—with an improvised blowtorch. He gets a medal for it.
Gates was hired to bring his LA to the screen, and Open Season is, indeed, Daryl Gates’ L.A: a fallen cathedral, where the good and moral and quiet wait in fear of multicultural street scum, creeping over some liminal threshold into white suburban reality. Naturally, per Gates, gang terror is enabled by social welfare programs: “This is an all-girl Hispanic gang,” Carey reads in the LAPD files. “To enter and stay in the gang a girl must rob at gun-point a retail business. Many of these girls are unwed mothers and receive public assistance.”
In this LA, a city of “dirtbags, creeps and losers,” graffiti is an “urban blight.” Mothers entreat the police to “make [the] streets safe for the children,” and the cops can’t bear “to see the little children and the innocent families hurt by all the street violence.” A cop is killed walking a woman to her car. A little girl hugs Carey when he solves the gruesome murder of her father. Gay men and sex workers are lascivious. Black characters say things like “Yo, I be fly today!” and “This be my ‘hood. I be Raymond Jones da third.” (Asked to comment by Vibe on that, Gates ducked the blame: “I told [Sierra] that these people use the same language that you and I use.”)
All one can take from the case in Open Season is that the killer is “weird,” and to be weird is to deviate, and there is no greater threat to the establishment than deviancy.
Media and politicians are irresponsible irritants. An aggressive journalist overreacts when Carey lightly pushes her out of his way. If Carey speaks to the reporter, the lieutenant chews him out for sending the city into a panic. Speaking of the lieutenant, he’ll have Carey know that the mayor is on his ass. How unreasonable civilians can be!
In Gates’ virtual LA, fictional characters champion his real-life accomplishments. Of Gates’ elite C.R.A.S.H. team (it stands for Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), one cop enthuses: “Now those boys are men!” In-game banners promote D.A.R.E., Gates’ anti-drug education program. If you try to touch one, the game protests: “Leave the banner in place. It’s a source of pride for the department.” A desk sergeant even recommends Gates’ autobiography: “I learned a few things.”
The plot amounts to nothing. There’s no rationale or motive to the serial killings, just random slaughter. The game concludes with the revelation that the killer is a cross-dresser, as though that ought to explain everything about why he kills. Give Open Season this: It may be a failure of characterization and narrative, but it is a perfect encapsulation of Daryl Gates’ worldview.
As Chief, Gates was less interested in the criminal mind than in crime itself; crime as an elemental and annihilating force that must be met with greater strength. All one can take from the case in Open Season is that the killer is “weird,” and to be weird is to deviate, and there is no greater threat to the establishment than deviancy. Gates’ world is a monster’s labyrinth where there is no light and the walls shift, but the police officer holds the center, vulnerable but there: the thin blue line. And if that line breaks?
At the heart of Gates’ game is a warning, not subtle, shrieked by fictional civilians begging for police protection: “I think this city is going to hell. As a business owner, I’m confronted with vandalism and theft every day…. What is this city coming to?” “If the LAPD can’t protect themselves, how can they protect us?”
There’s the important thing Gates wanted to say about law enforcement, and you know it is because he’d been saying it his whole career: If the police fall, everyone dies. So stay the fuck out of our way.
The moral of Police Quest: Open Season becomes lecture in a collection of video interviews with Gates packaged as extras on the CD-ROM. In the videos, Gates—lit like a David Lynch creature—advocates a return to prohibition (yes, he says, there was gang violence then, but “they were killing one another—not the common folks out there”) and defends his own legacy. That video from the ’92 riots, where you saw a man pulled from his truck at the corner of Florence and Normandie and beaten nearly to death? Looked bad, yes, Gates admits: “But that was only one intersection!” There were many other intersections, he says, where you didn’t have that problem.
Here we find Sierra On-Line, the company built on antic hacker disobedience and family-friendly King’s Quest, submitting to publish a video where Daryl Gates brushes off the beating of Rodney King as “one incident that did not demand the kind of attention that it got.” The King’s Quest CD-ROMs had a bonus game where you played checkers against the king.
The soapbox is a generous gift from Sierra to Gates, but there’s a better one: The former Chief is actually in Open Season. Not as a character, as himself. In the game, Gates is restored as Chief of the LAPD, encouraging John Carey in his quest and, in the final scene, presenting his gallant knight with the medal of honor.
In real life, Gates was at his professional nadir, fearing his violent, racist, paramilitary vision of American policing to be under existential threat. The game that resulted is a pathetic piece of wish fulfillment from a man in disgrace: A roiling, inchoate scream that blue lives matter, and they shouldn't have to hear any criticism.
In the world of Police Quest, if nowhere else, nobody made a fuss about Rodney King, Eula Love or chokeholds, the good folks of LA are quiet and law-abiding, Latinos can take a joke, the politicians stay out of the department’s way, there are no independent commissions, the thin blue line holds steady against the tide of chaos, and Daryl F. Gates is still the Chief.
In 2018, SWAT teams operate across the United States, the military donates grenade launchers and armored vehicles to local police departments, officers are routinely acquitted for murders they film themselves committing, and everything about Police Quest: Open Season feels dated except for the ethos. Gates might have lost his job, but the police commissions and reformers ultimately failed to turn back his transformational vision of policing. In fact, it’s like he never left. Daryl Gates has always been the Chief.
- police violence
- Adventure Games
- Rodney King
- LAPD Chief Daryl Gates
- Los Angeles Riots
- Ken Williams