"Write what you know," they said. "I know The Colonel's Bequest," I said. "...You don't have to answer right away."

In December 1989, Sierra On-Line released The Colonel's Bequest. It's a murder mystery by Roberta Williams, the Queen Mum of adventure games. It's well known and well loved. For thirty years it's held up, never fallen out of favor, and never been solved.

Sure, we know who killed who and why, but if you know this game then you know where this is going. This is the Sleuth-O-Meter:

Sleuth-O-Meter

There is no scoring system in the game. Players gage their progress in the wrap-up by means of a notebook which rates them on their detective skills... We hope this product will help bridge the gap and take gamers away from the cushion of needing a score to see how well they do. It's experimental to a degree, a real departure for us.

In other words, there is a score but it's hidden until the end, like The Good Place. Each notebook entry is a point that the Sleuth-O-Meter tallies. Get all 76 and you're a Super Sleuth, get any less and you'll never know peace, like The Bad Place. This design could work but the universal experience is coming up one or two entries short despite being certain that everything was seen and done. Sometimes you do get them all, but that inconsistency only hints at more mysteries to solve.

Incomplete Notebook

If you've "won" the game but did not make the rank of "Super Sleuth" I'm sure that we can entice you to play again to better your rank. If you did not make "Super Sleuth," there are things you did not do or see. Start the game over from the beginning. Be more observant. Try to "get" everything you can. In some situations, try doing things differently than you did before.

This drove me insane in the 90s. I physically needed to know what that EGA thermometer wanted, but with so much time and so many events between the acts and the ending, there was just no way for a handsome young detective to test theories and determine cause and effect. And yet our duck runneth over with lengthy videos, explanatory walkthroughs, speedruns (speedruns?!), and even an entire website. The Queen Mum wrote the hintbook, and I can't overstate this, she wrote it as herself in the first person. But if you compare any of these you'll quickly find contradictions, inaccuracies, and evasions that one doesn't associate with good detective work. Even with all of those resources I would still come up a filthy Seasoned P.I. What was going on? The simple answer is that I can't follow instructions. There is also a more complex one.

How will I EVER sort out the real truth?

THAT'S the whole POINT of this game! You're SUPPOSED to sort it out! In order to get a ranking of "Super Sleuth" you need to sort out the truth. Take notes. Ask questions. Observe everything. Spy on people. Pick up clues. Think like a detective.

The complex answer is that no one has ever understood what it takes to be a Super Sleuth, including the game's designers and programmers. The complex answer is that a conspiracy of opaque rules, internal inconsistencies, and good old fashioned programming bugs has obscured this game's truth for three decades. A truly complex answer would implicate a heretofore unknown saboteur of subtly muddying the waters further, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Or not. Maybe I'm just hyping a glitch or two in an 80s game. It's probably all in my head. But then there's this little note buried in a CD-ROM collection...

I think there's a bug in the game that prevents you from getting a perfect score. i think it prevents the game from recognizing that you used something twice. Very old issue; never proved or disputed.

Our mission is clear. We must solve The Colonel's Bequest by cracking the game open, going through the notebook entries, and reverse engineering the exact criteria for each. Here in the future we have the tools I've been patiently waiting for to finally put this case down. We'll show that indeed everyone was wrong because no one could be right. It was hopeless and we've all gotten by on well intentioned guesses, rumors, and rituals. Well friends, that's not Super Sleuthin', that's SuperStition!

But first a brief word about versions. When you tear into the bytes of a program to sort it all out, you want to Wrangell all the versions for comparison. Fortunately there are only three and for the purposes of our investigation they are almost identical.

DOS 1.000.046 December 1989
Amiga 1.000.059 June 1990
Atari ST 1.000.062 September 1990

Comparing complex game logic compiled across three obsolete platforms is asking a lot, but we don't have to do that. Sierra games were wisely written in custom scripting languages, compiled to platform neutral bytecode, and run by native interpreters. If professors didn't want us sleeping through virtual machine lectures then they would open with with "Who remembers King's Quest?" The game logic is in the same format in all versions so I've extracted, decompiled, and audited the differences in each. There's only one change that's relevant, which we'll get to, but otherwise we can ignore the versions.

May I present the solutions to all 76 notebook entries in The Colonel's Bequest. Many are straightforward and boring. Others, not so much.


Person Befriended: Celie

Give her the necklace.

Took Food Item From: Kitchen, Celie's cabin, Jeeves' room

Take the soup bone, take the carrot, take the crackers.

Took Useful Item From Body Of: Lillian, Clarence Sparrow, Dr. Wilbur C. Feels

Search the three bodies. Enjoy these easy ones while you can!

People Found Murdered: Lillian, Ethel Prune, Gertie Dijon, Gloria Swansong, Clarence Sparrow, Dr. Wilbur C. Feels, Jeeves, Fifi

You get credit for finding each individual body but you also get credit for finding them piled up in the basement. The Super Squeamish need only locate Wilbur, Clarence, and Lillian since they're packing items and she's not in the pile. Walk up to bodies in the basement and you can skip the rest of the corpse hunting.

Found Secret Entrance/Exit In: Dining room, Downstairs hallway, Upstairs hallway, Billiard room, Hedge Garden, Basement, Library, Parlor, Clarence's and Rudy's room, Gertie's and Gloria's room, My room, The Colonel's room

This long list can give the impression that each needs to be taken. When you enter a hallway passage you get credit for all of its entrances and exits, so this list collapses to six actions: enter the four passages, enter the garden staircase, and turn the basement crank. It's too bad that you have to turn the crank since once you install it you can just walk through the brick wall like a golden goddess.

Objects Used More Than Once: Crackers, Crowbar, Diary, Oilcan, Monocle

Everyone knows what you're supposed to do with the crackers. There are seven in the box and a parrot that sqwwakks a clue each time you feed it. There's one clue per act and seven available acts. Conventional Wisdom says to get the crackers as soon as possible in Act II and dole them out to score all the sqwwakks. Setting aside the superficial bird clues, anyone familiar with bird law sees the loophole here. Using the crackers "more than once" means you only need to feed the parrot twice. Speedrunners have figured out that this lawyerly interpretation means you can get away with both feedings in the same act, but we can do even better. The Sleuth-O-Meter only cares that you end up with a box of less than six crackers, not how that happens, so just eat the two crackers yourself. Look, you don't know that bird's diet and you go eight hours without getting fed or murdered so show a little Super Self-Care.

The other entries work as expected. Pry the floorboard and vault, oil the bell and armor, read the diary and look at it with the monocle, and inspect at least two things with the monocle. The nine monoclables will show up in Items Requiring Close Scrutiny.

Took Object From Suitcase Of: Lillian

Nope, you don't get this for taking Lillian's diary from her suitcase. You have to read the diary or look at it with the monocle. Since those are obvious actions to take, and both are required for other entries, it's easy to see how this detail went unnoticed.

Valuable Object Taken: Pouch of Jewels

Take the pouch.

Religious Article Discovered: Bible

Read it and weep.

Items Requiring Close Scrutiny: Bootprint in mud, Sleeping powder bottle, Handkerchief, Rolling pin, Fireplace Poker, Broken record, Glass, Cognac decanter, Diary, Cigar butt

Nine of these ten things need to be looked at with the monocle. And then there's dat butt.

The glass in this list is the one in the empty parlor. The decanter moves around and accumulates fingerprints and sleeping powder but the Sleuth-O-Meter doesn't care how interesting it is for this entry, just that you monocle it at least once.

The cigar butt doesn't involve the monocle at all. Instead you have to pick it up in the secret passage and also look at the Colonel's or Clarence's cigar. It doesn't matter whose you look at but due to script bugs it does matter when. You can look at the Colonel's cigar at any time but you only get credit for looking at Clarence's during Act I in the parlor and Act II in the dining room. The scripts for Act III in his room and Act V in the parlor are missing the line of code that gives you credit. You have no way of knowing this from their responses. This is simply a case where the same code was repeated in several scripts and then got out of sync. Don't worry, we'll see more of that.

People With Gambling Habits: Rudy Dijon, Clarence Sparrow, Dr Wilbur C. Feels

Rudy's gambling is the only entry that requires asking a question. There are supposed to only be four ways to do this but the Super Sheepish can avoid gossip by asking the wrong person the wrong thing:

  • Act I Ask Ethel about Rudy in her room or yours
  • Act IIII Ask Celie about Rudy in her shack
  • Act IV Ask Lillian about Rudy in the study
  • Act V Ask Clarence about Rudy in the parlor
  • Act II Ask Wilbur about horses in the library or dining room

Ask Wilbur about horses in Act II and he'll say he has a fondness for racehorses, which should implicate his gambling habit, but instead the script incorrectly awards Rudy's entry. In Act I neither entry is awarded because the question is interpreted as asking about the Colonel's horse, Blaze. The game's parser doesn't recognize the plot point "race horse", and "racehorse" is a synonym for "horse", so you're stuck asking ambiguously. Presumably this only works in Act II because that's when Wilbur and Clarence argue about racehorses but script inconsistencies are a theme so who knows.

Wilbur's gambling can be uncovered by one of three remaining ways:

  • Act I Look at or read Wilbur's magazine
  • Act II Look at (but not read) Wilbur's magazine
  • Act II Spy on Wilbur and Clarence in the dining room

You're supposed to find out that Wilbur gambles by checking out his horse racing magazine, spying on him, or asking him about it. Asking doesn't work but what about the magazine? The Act I and II scripts that handle this were programmed in different styles that suggest different programmers. The result is that "look magazine" works in both but "read magazine" only works in Act I. In Act II you're told that Wilbur is in the way even though nothing has changed. Is the bug that "read" works in Act I or that it doesn't work in Act II? It gets worse from there because once Wilbur is killed you can read his magazine in full and learn everything, including the name of his racehorse, but you don't get credit for this. The good news about this mess, which also explains how it went unnoticed, is that everyone just gets this entry the boring way by spying on Clarence and Wilbur in the dining room.

Clarence's gambling requires spying on one of two conversations:

  • Act I Spy on Clarence and Gertie in the parlor
  • Act II Spy on Clarence and Wilbur in the dining room

These conversations the only two that are mandatory for Super Sleuths. A Super Sloth can get full credit while respecting everyone else's privacy. Mostly.

People Guilty of Embezzlement: Clarence Sparrow, Dr. Wilbur C. Feels

There are many ways to learn about Clarence's embezzlement. One of them is the only way to learn about Wilbur's. This makes Clarence and Wilbur's conversation mandatory for Super Sleuths.

Clarence:

  • Act I Ask Lillian about Clarence in your room
  • Act I Spy on Clarence and Gertie in the parlor
  • Act II Spy on Clarence and Wilbur in the dining room
  • Act III Ask Celie about Clarence in her shack
  • Act V Ask Rudy about Clarence in the dining room

Wilbur:

  • Act II Spy on Clarence and Wilbur in the dining room

People With A Telltale Scent: Colonel Dijon, Lillian, Clarence Sparrow, Fifi

The Colonel and Clarence:

  • Act II Enter Gertie's room after seeing her sleep

When you enter Gertie's room and discover it's a mess you get a message about a distinctive odor of cigar smoke in the air. That's all it takes to get the Colonel and Clarence. It has nothing to do with any interactions with the smokers, their cigars, or the cigar butt you find. Almost everyone discovers this first murder scene so almost everyone gets these entries even though they're often attributed to other actions.

Fifi:

  • Smell Fifi's perfume and...
  • Smell perfume in the secret passage in Act V

Lillian:

  • Smell Lillian's perfume and...
  • Smell perfume in the secret passage in Act V

These entries are the big unsolved mysteries and the ones you're most likely to miss. They look sensible when laid out in bullet points. The problem is that nobody knows or agrees on which commands accomplish any of this, how many times to enter them, or even when. The truth is that there are no commands, it's all about being in the right places at the right times, and there's no feedback except for one instance which is marred by a tragically simple programming bug.

To smell perfume in the secret passage do one of two things:

  • Act V Enter a secret passage after Lillian has left the Colonel's room
  • Act V Be in a secret passage while Lillian leaves the Colonel's room without spying

After Lillian leaves the Colonel's room in Act V, a perfume scent appears in the secret passages and remains there until Act VI. A perfume message appears the first time you enter any passage during this period. The message also appears if you happen to be in a passage when their conversation timer expires. Either way, when the perfume message automatically appears you get credit for smelling perfume, so what's the problem?

The problem is the "smell" command. You expect a game that emphasizes odor to use this. "What is your 'nose' telling you about the crime site?" is even a Sleuth-O-Meter hint. Instead, "smell" only repeats the automatic messages you've already received, otherwise it responds with the generic "Sniff, Sniff." At least, that's how it's supposed to work, but someone blew it. When "smell" tests to see if you've already triggered the perfume message, it does so backwards. Type "smell" in a passage before the perfume appears and the game says you smell perfume, which you don't. Type it after you actually do and it says "Sniff, Sniff." Despite the assuring message, you receive no credit for premature inhalation. How many Super Sniffers has this Super Slip-Up cost?

To smell Fifi's perfume just be in her room at either time she's at her mirror:

  • Act II Enter Fifi's room after she leaves Rudy's room
  • Act V Enter Fifi's room to see her change into a gown

There are no commands to type and no messages that mention perfume in the room.

To smell Lillian's perfume just blunder into one of three states:

  • Act I Be in the bathroom while Lillian completely leaves the room
  • Act I Enter your room from Ethel's room while Lillian is in your room
  • Any Act Enter the bathroom after Lillian has left if...
    • You haven't been in your room with Lillian and Ethel and...
    • You haven’t read the note on the front door in Act VIII

These aren't rules, they're unintended consequences, and they weren't easy to distill. The Act I Lillian/Ethel migration is a complicated multi-room sequence meant to make a realistic first impression on players. I'm not surprised that the perfume didn't end up the way it was supposed to since there's no feedback. Instead we've collectively come to the conclusion that smelling Lillian's perfume takes just about every action except the right ones. We've gotten away with this because sometimes we end up walking into an empty bathroom hours later and accidentally getting credit for what we messed up in the first minute.

Now we know that you don't have to race to the bathroom to "look" at Lillian before she returns. A common superstition is that you have to do this twice. You don't need to carefully time your "look" command to when she's in the middle of spritzing. You don't have to "smell" anything. You absolutely shouldn't race her to the door as one Super Streamer announced. Now we know that you don't have to do anything but lallygag until she leaves the bathroom first... if that! In fact, you don't have to see Lillian or the bathroom at all in Act I. A Super Skipper only has to enter the bathroom once in the entire game to monocle the sleeping powder and look for Clarence. As long as you haven't hung out with the ladies you'll get perfume credit just for showing up the once. Some of this is accidental, for instance the Act VIII note is only involved because they re-used a global variable, but the rest is too complicated to divine intent. All we have are the resulting fragments. At least now we know them.

I took a casual survey of youtube videos named "Super Sleuth". The majority left the bathroom before Lillian but after performing various rituals. Narrators gave confident but conflicting explanations of "what the game wants". Afterwards none of them returned to Lillian and Ethel so they all accidentally qualified for perfume credit later. That's a lot of sleuths skating by on script bugs!

People Refusing to Sell Something: Ethel Prune

There's only one way to get this, making this conversation a Must Spy:

  • Act I Spy on Clarence and Gertie in the parlor

People Romantically Involved: Colonel Dijon, Gloria Swansong, Clarence Sparrow, Jeeves, Fifi

The Colonel and Fifi are freebies. The Sleuth-O-Meter awards them unconditionally. You have to see them smooch to advance Act I so the game doesn't bother tracking them.

Jeeves' relationship status can be revealed by any of the following:

  • Act III Ask Celie about Jeeves in her shack
  • Act IV Ask Lillian about Jeeves in the study
  • Act IV Walk in on Jeeves and Fifi in the dining room
  • Act VI Discover Jeeves and Fifi dead in her room

Gloria and Clarence's involvement, along with Gloria's wish to end an affair, takes one of the following:

  • Act I Spy on Gloria and Rudy in the billiards room
  • Act I Spy on the empty billiards room
  • Act II Spy on Clarence and Gloria in the billiards room
  • Act III Spy on Clarence and Rudy in their room

This is my favorite bug. The script for spying on the Act I billiards room is convoluted and accidentally produces a great result. If you spy when the room is empty you get the same rewards as spying on Gloria and Rudy. That conversation coughs up four good notebook entries and I'm uncomfortable with all of these invasions of privacy so I'd just as soon skip it. After Gloria and Rudy argue they leave the room. As with all the conversations, a timer kicks off when you walk in and if it expires then they leave when you're not looking. Just walk in on Gloria and Rudy, wait 1800 cycles, and then spy on the empty room. You can return to the room to see if they've left first if you can't count that fast. Once the room is empty a second timer starts after which Gloria returns from the library. Timer speeds are relative to the game speed so you can turn it up to make them go faster.

Person Wishing To End An Affair: Gloria Swansong

This is bundled with Gloria and Clarence's romantic involvement from the previous section.

Has Embarrassing Medical History: Gloria Swansong

There are several ways to get this including my favorite bug:

  • Act I Spy on Gloria and Rudy in the billiards room
  • Act I Spy on the empty billiards room
  • Act I Walk in on Gloria arguing with Wilbur in the library
  • Act II Ask Wilbur about Gloria in the dining room or the library

Objects Which Change Location: Derringer, Dagger, Cognac Decanter, Doctor's Bag

Each entry requires noticing an object where it starts and again once it's moved, or else noticing that it's gone. Any action or message that acknowledges one of these should count as noticing, but there are exceptions.

Derringer:

  • Act I – Act VI
  • "Look gun"
  • "Get gun"
  • "Look case"
  • "Get case"
  • "Break case"
  • "Reach in case" (Any Act)
  • Act VII – Act VIII
  • "Look gun"
  • "Get gun"
  • "Look case"
  • "Get case"
  • "Break case"
  • Pick up the gun

"Reach in case" always gives credit for noticing the gun in the study, even after it's been stolen, and always responds "There's nothing there." That's at least two kinds of wrong. Still, you can use this if you forget to check out the gun before Act VII. All the other study commands give credit for noticing the missing gun once it's gone, but everyone just picks it up in the hedge garden.

Dagger:

  • Act I – Act V
  • "Look dagger"
  • "Get dagger"
  • "Open cabinet"
  • "Look in cabinet"
  • Act VI – Act VIII
  • "Look dagger"
  • "Get dagger"
  • "Open cabinet"
  • "Look in cabinet"
  • Discover Clarence's body

The dagger is like the gun except that it gets stolen one act earlier. The caveat is that Lillian won't let you open the cabinet in Act IV when she's in the study. "Get dagger" doesn't open the cabinet so it always works.

Cognac Decanter:

  • Act I – Act II
  • "Look decanter"
  • "Get decanter"
  • "Pour decanter"
  • "Drink decanter"
  • Act III – Act VIII
  • "Look decanter"
  • Use the monocle

In the parlor, every decanter command works, but in Fifi's room most no longer give credit. Look at, but not in, the decanter or use the monocle.

Doctor's Bag:

  • Act I – Act II
  • "Look bag"
  • "Get bag"
  • "Open bag"
  • "Look bed"
  • "Close bed"
  • Act VIII
  • "Look bag"
  • "Get bag"
  • "Open bag"
  • "Look floor"

There are variations on these commands in both rooms but any response that mentions the bag will do.

Ultimate Location Of Most Bodies: Basement

Walk up to the pile.

People Who Struggled Physically: Colonel, Rudy, Clarence, Fifi

There are four struggles in the game but the Sleuth-O-Meter only acknowledges three:

  • Act II Rudy and Fifi in his room
  • Act III Rudy and Fifi in her room (Not acknowledged)
  • Act IV Rudy and Clarence at the statue out front
  • Act VIII Rudy and the Colonel in the attic

You just have to attend the fights. The Rudy/Fifi bug is another instance of two scripts doing the same thing except for setting an important flag. I'm surprised this bug survived. You have to see the Act III struggle to advance the game while the Act II one is easy to miss so I'd expect someone to notice that they weren't awarded an unconditional entry.

Person With Surprising Secret: Colonel

Spy on the Colonel walking in his room in Act III.

People Who Used Secret Passages: Colonel, Lillian

Spy on the Colonel walking in his room in Act III and pick up his cane or cigar butt.

Lillian's entry depends on the version of the game:

  • DOS Smell perfume in the secret passage and see the Colonel and Rudy struggle
  • Amiga / Atari ST Smell perfume in the secret passage and shoot Rudy

In the DOS version you can get Lillian's entry even if the Colonel dies in front of you and doesn't tell you her plot. This is the one Sleuth-O-Meter bug that someone noticed and fixed six months later. By the time I compared versions I'd already flagged this as a potential bug so I was thrilled to see it fixed.

One Who Murdered The Most People: Lillian

Shoot Rudolph so the Colonel can live to spill the beans.

Time Of First Visit To The Attic: 9:45

Not very interesting, though I'm interested in where you found the elevator...

Case closed! We now know exactly what a Super Sleuth must do, and in some cases even why, but just as importantly we know what doesn't need doing. Turns out that's quite a lot! Decades of confusion have been put to rest forever. We've sorted out the real truth. I hope the Queen Mum is proud.

Let's celebrate with an undiscovered easter egg. I sure hope it's tasteful!

Easter Egg

Probably should have left that one undiscovered. Too late now!

In the course of this investigation I turned up some insidious loose ends that couldn't be easily explained. I've alluded to this bonus mystery but I'll save it for later.

December was the thirtieth anniversary of The Colonel's Bequest. This article is a testament to the power of a hard deadline and the tonsillitis that scuppered any chance of meeting it. I've procrastinated writing up these findings for years. The Sierra internals I learned and the tools I built to sift through them left me with a load of niche expertise, a ball of code, and nothing else to do with either. (Uh-oh, this sounds familiar.) I've always had a terrible talent for accidentally breaking these games. I still can't seem to walk from one room to another without crashing everything, so I thought it would be fun to fix a Sierra bug in ScummVM, the modern program that runs old adventure games. You know, just to have one to my name, and also to postpone writing this. It was fun! It was too fun. I did it again. And again. I couldn't stop and was summarily punished for my performance art with an invitation to join the team. ScummVM 2.1.0 was released in October and contains over one hundred original Sierra bugfixes by a mouthy jackass named sluicebox.