In 1994, Al Lowe, the comedic mind behind Sierra adventure games like Leisure Suit Larry and Freddy Pharkas, took a swing at making a political satire about (the then president) Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary.
The video game project called Capitol Punishment appeared advertised in several magazines at the time like Sierra's own InterAction Vol.7, No. 1 (pages 36-38), but due to various development issues, it never saw the light of day. An interview in 1997 with the website Verbosity confirmed its cancellation, but since then, Lowe hasn't really commented on it much. Likely because everyone simply forgot it ever existed.
In 2020, however, while chatting to Lowe about his involvement in the King's Quest series, we decided to surprise him with some questions about this curio from the past and he was able to give a bit more insight.
Speaking to us back then, Lowe told us:
"The Clintons were quite active and there was a certain amount of scandal around them at that time. And again - this all comes back to [Sierra co-founder] Ken Williams - Ken was constantly pushing us to try different genres. Do games that weren’t already on the shelf. Which is kind of the opposite of today’s world, isn’t it?
"But we’d go to lunch and there was a video store next door and there was all these different shelves with labels over them, and we only had games that were science fiction and games that were fantasy, and oops all the other shelves we didn’t have any games on. So he kept saying, ‘Do something different’. That was the whole point - do something that wasn’t out there already."
Capitol Punishment was one of these ideas. According to Lowe, the project started after an employee at Sierra built an engine in their spare time that could handle side-scrolling. This was something Sierra's AGI engine didn't necessarily do so well but was all the craze at the time, with mascot platformers like Sonic and Mario dominating consoles.
As Lowe explained:
"When we saw his engine it was like, ‘Oh, maybe we can use that and do a game about that.’ And that’s what I did. I came up with a game that worked with his engine and because there were no political games at that time, I said, ‘Let’s do it about that and make fun of Bill and Hillary Clinton and all the current events of the day’."
Screenshots shared over the years in gaming magazines seem to show a range of mini-games that would have been included. This includes a river-rafting section called "WhiteWater Adventure" where you have to avoid the IRS shark and collect Cattle Futures and Spin Doctors (to get you out of trouble); a slingshot game called the "Congressional Shooting Gallery" where you fire tomatoes at public servants and "other DC demagogues"; and "Shredtris", a Tetris clone where you have to reassemble shredded documents.
So what went wrong with the project? Well according to Lowe, the closer the game got to completion, the worse it performed, with the engine not fit to handle large sets of data. The frame rate took a beating and it became hard to find the fun, so ultimately the decision was made to can it.
Speaking to us, Lowe recalled:
"It was a tough decision for me. I had put a lot of time and effort into it. I wasn’t getting paid a salary. All my work was done on the hope of earning royalties some day in the future, so yeah, all the work I did on that game was for nothing. But at some point we just realised god, this is not fun. It’s boring, it’s slow, and it’s going to get worse…"
So there you have it! We could have potentially had a game about The Clintons, but sadly, it never came to be. We guess we'll just have to stick to playing as them in NBA Jam to get our kicks instead!