Tuesday, December 28, 2010

King's Quest I: Quest for the Crown

Back in the 80’s if you wanted to play a fast-paced action game, you went to an arcade or hauled out one of a dozen different consoles. The PC had some action games, but it was also the domain of gamers looking for something a little more cerebral, like RPGs or that most loathed of genres, adventure games.

Most of them had you as some brave but physically incompetent person on a quest to journey to a far off land and put an end to the tyrannical wizard or dragon. The earliest ones were all in text and required you to interact with the world with the right minimally-worded command. GO NORTH, GET SWORD, SMASH CRATE WITH SNAKEBOXER, etc. Games of this sort are primarily accused of requiring the player to be telepathic in order to figure out that the designer meant for them to read the 18th tombstone before the 7th one, or that it’s the green crystal that has the power to kill the ice dragon, not the white one. Or for that matter what specific word is needed to tell the game you want to use your handful of birdseed on the giant vulture blocking entrance to the castle.

Eventually someone came up with the idea of including pictures in these games to enhance the experience, and then someone came up with the idea of having the player’s avatar appear onscreen. They couldn’t pick up a diamond unless they were next to it, they couldn’t open a door unless they were in front of it. And if a troll got too close before they made it to the next screen, well, that’s what saved games are for. One of the oldest examples, and certainly one of the most well-remembered, is Sierra’s King’s Quest.

Sir Graham, the finest knight of the beleaguered kingdom of Daventry, is called before his ailing king. If he can find Daventry’s missing treasures (the magic mirror, the shield of invincibility, and a bottomless chest of gold), he’ll become the next king. That’s about all you need to know on the story front. Next thing you know you’ll be outside the castle, where you can experience the first of many, many possible deaths by walking into the moat. At least it’s because of the monsters in the water and not because Graham’s like every non-Mario game character of the 80’s and can’t swim.

One does wonder why a knight being sent on a daring quest into a kingdom overrun by monsters and evildoers is equipped with nothing more than the clothes on his back. Thing is there’s no real answer other than this was made before it had occurred to anyone to question why the kingdom’s finest knight hadn’t learned anything about preparedness over his career. Fortunately the series did get better about this. Not about giving your character the possessions you’d expect them to have, but at least about explaining why their pockets were empty at the start of the game.

Bet a perfectly stable and friendly person lives here.

Sierra released two versions of the game, but both came along before they’d gotten rid of the text command interface. It seems to be mostly free of “guess the word” issues, but the kind of nonsense of starting with no equipment prevails throughout the rest of the game. Most of the items and treasures are just sitting in holes or in the middle of fields with no rhyme or reason. Why are there walnuts full of gold? Why is there a dagger under the rock next to the castle? This randomness can also trap you later in the game, as the game makes no effort to guide you at all, leaving you to just bumble along hoping your experiments bear fruit. It’s not only plausible but likely you’ll conquer several major obstacles only to find yourself without one critical item or clue, and there are a lot of dead ends you can’t back out of. Unless you’ve been systematically saving your game that means starting from scratch. And you might end up starting over a few times just because it seems like you’re stuck and can’t quite figger out what the designers wanted you to do with a particular item or geographical feature.

While assembling your inventory generally makes no sense, some of the puzzles aren’t too bad if you’re up on your fairytales. For instance, goat + troll = unoccupied bridge. It may even occur to you to bring a four-leafed clover when you’re visiting a cave full of leprechauns (the hard part is noticing there are even clovers in this game). How you’re supposed to deal with the dragon is something you might eventually arrive at yourself, but it makes more sense in hindsight when you know about the series’s attitude toward non-violent solutions. However, the puzzle with guessing the gnome’s name reportedly got the highest volume of help requests of anything in any Sierra game for years, and deservedly so. At least until the designers took mercy when they updated the game.

In 1984 King’s Quest I was revolutionary for having animated characters in a game of this kind. As a game though, it’s the vanilla of adventure titles, bland from stem to stern. The setting is exceedingly generic so it’s not that much fun to explore or unravel its puzzles, which is the heart and soul of a good adventure game. Still, there are worse games to bear the King’s Quest name. A lot worse.

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