In this text adventure, you play Arthur Conan Doyle's world-famous London-based detective. You start your adventure in Baker Street back in the days before the street was full of Sherlock Holmes museums and memorablia shops. From there you travel to Leatherhead in Surrey where a grisly murder has been committed - your task is to solve it using detective skills, deductive ingenuity and a text adventure parser using a command system called 'INGLISH'. The INGLISH system was advertised as recognising up to 800 words but not in the same sentence.
Sherlock was a follow-up of sorts to Melbourne House's hugely successful The Hobbit - presumably the developers just picked another popular literary success, and tried to port it to the computer. Unfortunately the game wasn't a huge success - it was criticised for a number of bugs, and was accused of having been rushed to release, despite a supposed 18-month development cycle (almost unheard of for a computer game in the early 80s). One of the most amusing bugs is that Dr Watson, who follows you around during the game, has the capacity to learn information which he can repeat to you later - however the developers warned that "you should be aware of not talking to him too much, or his knowledge could fill all available space and give you an 'out of memory' statement". Unfortunately the game, and particularly the Commodore release, was prone to frequent crashing and many other bugs.
Despite the game's problems, it introduced a number of innovations into the text adventure genre...
- A version of real time - take too long at the start and you miss your train to the murder scene. The rudimentary pictures and location descriptions changed according to whether it was day or night, and certain locations or NPCs were only available at certain times of day.
- Autonomous NPCs. Rather than acting in a random way, Inspector Lestrade and the other characters in the game actuallty run through a scripted scenario as the game progresses, and seemingly regardless of whether or not you choose to follow them. If you uncover extra evidence along the way, they will react to it within the timeframe. This was a totally unique development at the time, and maybe a first in gaming history.
- Elaborate sentence construction. Text adventures tended to stick to a 'VERB NOUN' structure for parsing text, but Sherlock did try to expand that, though with varying results. It was possible to use adverbs to effect, eg to 'Examine Closely' for a better chance of discovering evidence. Also NPCs could be given instructions or asked questions within a sentence, eg 'SAY TO WATSON "TELL ME ABOUT THE PISTOL"'.
A Lost Opportunity?
Because of its lack of commercial success and problems in development, a lot of the innovations introduced in Sherlock were never perfected. Text adventures of that era very rarely bothered to develop new engines or to innovate with genre mechanics - this may be a significant reason why the genre all but disappeared over the following years.