The first episode of The Odd Gentlemen's reboot of Sierra's classic point and click adventure series King's Quest
releases this week. So I've been getting ready by going back and replaying the eight previous King's Quest
games. By which I mean KQ 1-7 and the fan-made sequel The Silver Lining
. And never Mask of Eternity
. Here's my long-winded thoughts on the series.
It's fun to go back and revisit these games that I haven't played in years. But at the same time, a lot of the appeal is purely nostalgic. Even I have to admit that these older games have a lot of issues. Here's the bad.
• Having to restore. Sierra games in general, and the King's Quest
series in particular, were rather infamous for having sudden deaths and dead-ends. And this was before the days of auto-saving, so you would just have to hope you had a relatively recent saved game or else start over from the beginning. It honestly amazes me playing them now that there was ever a time when we put up with this. And I was about ten at the time, so what was that again about how children have short attention spans? It must have just been that I had way more time on my hands in those days. Because if I were playing a game like that today, I think I would probably just be like, "I don't have time for your crap, Sierra! I have work in the morning!"
• Puzzle solutions. It's not even that the solutions to the puzzles are unintuitive, though many of them are that too. It's that some of these solution are simply unfair. In King's Quest V
, there's a part where I find a boat on a beach. And I click the eye icon on the boat, and that narration is basically just like, "It's a boat." So then I click the hand on it, and Graham starts to get in the boat. So I think, "Okay, I guess the boat is fine." Then I get out to sea, and the boat sinks, and I die. Because apparently, there was a hole in the boat that Graham didn't see, even though I specifically made a point of inspecting the boat before I got in. Meaning that the only way to solve this puzzle is to first die, hope you have a recent save that you can restore back to, and plug the hole that you now know is there. If this were a Dungeons & Dragons
game, and a DM was vindictive enough to pull something like that, I think I would rage quit that game. Here's the thing. I'm generally okay with difficult puzzles, as long as when I find out what the solution is, I can follow how I could
have been able to solve it, even if the logic may be somewhat circuitous. But puzzles where there is no way that a rational human being would be able to figure it out just drive me crazy.
• Lack of internal logic. One thing that I don't remember noticing when I played these games as a kid but really bugged me when I was playing them again this time was how much stuff simply appears in some random location for literally no other reason than that the main character needs it to solve a puzzle. I realize that to a certain degree, that's true of any adventure game. But most will provide an in-world reason for that thing to be where it is. You need scissors to cut something? You go to the barber shop. It makes sense. It's not the same as just having a magic bowl lying in an otherwise empty field with no explanation as to what it is, who it belongs to, or how it ended up there. For instance, in King's Quest I
, I walked out of the castle and moved a rock to find a hole in the ground. And in the hole, I found a dagger. And I found myself wondering, "Who was it that needed to hide a weapon right outside the castle gates? Is this part of some castle intrigue? Was someone plotting against King Edward? Should Graham be looking for a body?" None of these questions are ever answered, which is sad because I feel like that would have been a way more interesting story than the one I was in. But no, the dagger only exists because Graham needs it to cut a rope.
• Lack of world-building. King's Quest
is a series that draws heavily from well-known fairy tales for its setting. And I actually didn't mind the lighter, almost child-like tone, except in King's Quest VII
, which just didn't seem to fit with the others. Now drawing from fairy tales could have worked had they combined those elements in a new or interesting way to create something unique, the way that something like Bill Willingham's Fables
comics do. But they don't do that, and so it just feels like a bunch of fairy tales that have been randomly smashed together. Which unfortunately, makes it a far less compelling universe than something like Monkey Island
, or Grim Fandango
's Land of the Dead, or even Quest of Glory
's Gloriana. And as I mentioned, King's Quest VII
particularly stands out because they seem to be going for a very Disney-like style. And there are a couple of problems with that. One being that they just don't pull it off all that well. Despite whatever other criticisms people may have about Disney, they've been successful in no small part because they have a lot of very talented people working on those animated films. Just because it's for children doesn't mean it doesn't take real skill to do well. And the other thing is that while both Disney and King's Quest
have drawn heavily from fairy tales, they do so with very different styles and tones. And so it's very jarring to go from the classic fairy tale setting of King's Quest VI
to the cartoon animals of King's Quest VII
• Fairy tale chauvinism. About the only thing I remembered from King's Quest II
prior to this was that it was the one where Graham sees Valanice in the magic mirror, rescues her from a tower, and they immediately get married. And I remember thinking even as a child who didn't really know much about feminism that that was really, really dumb and not at all an accurate depiction of human relationships. I don't remember now if Valanice even had any dialogue in the original game. Alexander rescuing Cassima is very similar. Now AGD Interactive's remake of King's Quest II
provides a little bit of an excuse for their sudden marriage by saying that Valanice had been able to magically watch Graham on his adventure through Kolyma and had fallen in love with him along the way. And in fairness, Alexander and Cassima were prisoners together in Mordack's castle during King's Quest V
. So it's possible they got to know each other a bit there prior to Alexander showing up in the Green Isle to say, "Hey, I'm here to marry you now." But even so, they both could have taken the ladies on a few dates first. Creepers. I think the worst that it gets is the part in King's Quest VI
where Alexander has to find a wife for Beast before he's transformed himself. So he convinces a girl he finds in town to go back with him to the Isle of the Beast to marry Beast. I realize that they're using a well-known story as a sort of shorthand here, and we're supposed to just think, "Oh, I know. This is Beauty and the Beast." The problem is that at this point Beauty essentially becomes like another item in Alexander's inventory, and it's really kind of uncomfortable. And I'm not even sure we can just chalk it up to the usual excuse of video games being created by dumb men who don't know how to write realistic female characters. Because thinking about it now, Sierra was actually a bit ahead of its time when it came to hiring female designers. The lead designer on King's Quest
, which was one of their biggest titles, was Roberta Williams, who was also co-owner of the company. Jane Jensen also worked on King's Quest
. She famously went on to create Gabriel Knight
. And Lori Cole worked on Quest for Glory
. So it would be interesting to know what, if any, conversation was had internally about some of these more problematic elements of the series. Or was it something that's just so enmeshed in the fabric of the fairy tale genre they were drawing from that it just wasn't even questioned?
That said, I think there is still a lot of like about the series.
• Tone. As I said, King's Quest
has a style that's very light and child-like. And going into it, I thought that the childishness of the tone and the simplicity of the story might really turn me off because I tend to prefer more in-depth, narratively interesting games. But I have to say that it was actually kind of nice. Again, except for KQ7, which I think took it way too far. But for the most part, I found the setting to be kind of charming, particularly in contrast to today's video games. It seems like a lot of video games are at a point where comics were back in the '80s, where they want to be taken seriously as a medium, and designers think that the way to do that is to make everything super dark, and grim, and gritty like The Last of Us
. Which, don't get me wrong, is a fantastic game. But it's kind of a refreshing change of pace to go back to something that's just light and fun. And it's not the end of world. It's just, "Here's a quest. You need to find these three things. Go."
• Fairy tale based puzzles. I know I complained that the world-building in King's Quest
isn't the most compelling, but one thing I did appreciate about the use of fairy tales was in the puzzles. A lot of the puzzles are based on being able to connect common elements between stories. Like in KQ1, I climbed a beanstalk to the land of the giants where I had to get the magic chest from one of them. And I found a slingshot. And now that I'm thinking about giants, I know from the story of David and Goliath that the way to take down giants is by hitting them with a slingshot. Moments like that I thought were kind of clever.
• Escaping Manannan. I even talked about this in a previous post, but I'll say it again. I think this is probably the best part of the whole series. King's Quest III
does such a great job of making the player feel like an actual captive. I could feel the stress playing through it again. And because of that, it's not a game that I go back to a lot. But if games are about creating memorable, emotional experiences, it's hard to beat this. And it's a sequence that has stuck with me and that I continue to refer back to to this day.
• Rosella is kind of awesome. Since I've already complained about chauvinism, it's only fair that I give credit where credit is due. We get two games in the series with female protagonists, playing as Rosella in King's Quest IV
and as both Rosella and Valanice in KQ7. And I imagine that would have been kind of a big deal at the time. This was way before Lara Croft, or Jill Valentine, or Faith Connors, or Female Commander Shepard were around. I don't know off the top of my head how many female video game protagonists were around in 1988, but my guess would be that it's a short list. Okay, I did start to roll my eyes when one of the puzzles involved cleaning up after seven male dwarves. But then I remembered that I did an awful lot of cleaning as Alexander in KQ3 too. So maybe that part isn't that they're sexist so much as they have a thing against young people. Seriously though, there are parts of KQ4 that I'm not sure if they would have been included in a "male" King's Quest
game like unicorns and the focus on fairies. But for the most part, I think it's just a solid King's Quest
game. The main villain is clearly based on The Wizard of Oz
, which is not a bad place to go for material if you're looking for women in fairy tales. I really liked how it avoided the trope I complained about with KQ2 by having Rosella respond to Edgar's marriage proposal with, "Thanks, but no thanks. I have to get home now." And frankly, even things like the unicorn I can't really find fault in. Look, I'm at an age where I feel like I don't need to worry about other people possibly making fun of me. So yeah, I'll say it. This is a game where I got to ride a unicorn, and it was awesome.
• King's Quest VI
. This is the one I would say holds up the most as a complete game, beginning to end. The older games have some serious design problems. And KQ6 is not without its owns flaws. But despite those flaws, it's still a solid, classic adventure. Sadly, as I mentioned, there are points where it does fall into some unfortunate tropes of the genre. But at its core, I think it's really just a nice love story, and it's a story that has some heart to it. Which is something we don't seem to see a lot of in video games. It's always these over-the-top, blockbuster-style action-adventure stories. It's rare even to this day to see a video game story that's just about someone who's in love.
• The game promotes prosocial behavior. There are so many times in KQ5 where Graham is rescued by someone he helped earlier in the game. Or like in KQ4, where Rosella takes a pouch of diamonds that the dwarves left behind, and she has to go return it to them. It's a refreshing change from adventure game heroes who come off as just cold, selfish sociopaths. Like if KQ4 had been a LucasArts adventure, I'm sure the puzzle would have been all about how to steal those diamonds from the dwarves and get away with it. And it would ruin their lives. And then Rosella would just make a joke about it as she walked away. Of course, the downside is that it does raise certain questions about just how altruistic our heroes are. Does it just happen to work out that helping people gets them what they want? Like, what if it had turned out that Beauty didn't
want to marry Beast? Would Alexander have been like, "Well, that sucks for you, but I really need Beast's mirror for my next quest." In any case, I feel like it's at least a step in the right direction.
Things I'll be interested to see in the new King's Quest
• Will we get to see more of Daventry? I was a bit disappointed that we didn't get to see more of the kingdom when we visited it in KQ1 and again briefly in KQ3. Both times, we didn't see much outside the castle except open woodland. I even joked that the entire population was apparently just that one woodcutter and his wife. For its faults, Mask of Eternity
at least added a town, but it wasn't exactly functional at the time. The trailer shows that at least the first episode of the new game will be set in Daventry, and it should be interesting to see how much we get to explore.
• How much continuity from the original series will carry over? One of the things I kind of liked about King's Quest
is that it's not just Graham's story. They keep expanding the royal family over time as Graham has children, and those children grow up and have their own adventures. So I really love the idea of continuing that in the new game with Graham's granddaughter Gwendolyn. Though the main narrative seems to be Graham recounting his own stories, I'm very curious to see how much of Gwendolyn's story we'll get to see. Also, judging by the videos that have been shown so far, it looks like we may be revisiting the dragon under the well from KQ1. Will we see any other callbacks to previous games? Will they acknowledge that Mask of Eternity
happened, even though it totally doesn't count as a real King's Quest
game? And of course...
• Will we learn more about the Society of the Black Cloak? Perhaps the two most popular unofficial projects to see release since MoE--AGD Interactive's remakes of KQ 1-3 and Phoenix Online Studios' The Silver Lining
--have both attempted to connect the games by expanding upon the secret society briefly mentioned in KQ6. And it's not hard to see why fans are so curious about it. It's this big, juicy plot point that's just left hanging after KQ6. We know that Alhazred, Mordack, and Manannan were members, which means that whatever they're up to, it spans most of the series. But we don't really learn much more than the name. We still don't know exactly who they are or what their ultimate goals may be. Hard to say how likely it is that we'll see them show up in the new game. Picking up a conspiracy plot that was last mentioned in a game from 23 years ago may not be the best way to bring in new players. But it sure would be nice for us old-timers to finally get some resolution there. #KingsQuest