King’s Quest: Tugging My Heartstrings

KQ-Box-ArtThe last time I wrote about King’s Quest, it was to criticize Sierra’s choice to wrap content into its episodic distribution model to “encourage” consumers to purchase the “Complete Collection.” Near the end of that article, I wrote that while I criticized the decision, I would most likely purchase the “Complete Collection” because I have a compulsive need to complete stories. I also wrote that that might make me a hypocrite, but that would be a topic for another piece. Well, I did buy the “Complete Collection,” but I’m not going to write about being a hypocrite. Not yet, anyway. That may still come up down the road. Instead, today, I want to talk specifically about my thoughts about the new King’s Quest, specifically the first chapter: A Knight to Remember.

I love this series, even if I came on board a few years later than most. I actually started playing King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride in 1995, which is an odd entry in the series to get on board with, I know. Before that, though, I didn’t have a PC, so I couldn’t play any of the earlier entries in the series. I seem to have a brief memory of playing a demo of King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human on my grandparent’s computer before that, but if I did, I don’t remember much about the game beyond a frustration with the text parser. Unlike most people — and it might have been because it was my first — I have fond memories of King’s Quest VII. I thought the game was funny, I loved the hand-drawn artwork, and I enjoyed the puzzles. I’m not sure that I could ask for much more from an adventure game, really, and I played King’s Quest VII multiple times. Around this time, my friend Joel and I decided to see what the big deal about this series was, and we purchased a couple of copies of the King’s Quest Collection off of eBay. It was through this collection that I was introduced to King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, which quickly found its place near the top of my favorite games of all time list, a list populated solely by console and arcade games at the time, where it remains to this day.

KQ1-3So, it was with this mindset that I approached the new King’s Quest. I’m a long-time fan of the series, and I had high hopes for this reboot. Thankfully, I think this new iteration in the series is a worthy heir to the crown, and a game that would make series creator Roberta Williams proud.

This first chapter opens with a callback to the original game. Sir Graham, the protagonist, descends into a well to recover a magic mirror. Those of us who have played the original game know that in order to do so he will have to deal with a fire-breathing dragon, but the reward of success is great: By collecting the lost treasures of Daventry, King Edward will name Graham his heir, setting up the story for the entire series. It’s a nice touch for fans of the classic series, and the entire situation is re-imagined beautifully. There’s a connection to the old series built here, and it’s one that has to be acknowledged. Additionally, it provides a nice segue into the framing sequence of this new King’s Quest. Just as you start to wonder if you’re just going to be playing a retread of the first game, you learn that the entire scenario is a story a much older Graham is telling to his granddaughter, Gwendolyn. This first chapter, and subsequent chapters from here, are all stories of Graham’s life told through the much older eyes of a man near the end of his life. It’s a nice framing sequence, and a wonderful addition to a series that has always put such a focus on Graham and his family.

As Gwendolyn prepares for an fencing tournament, Graham decides to tell her another story: the story of his first adventure in Daventry, the story of how he became a knight. It’s this story that the player gets to enjoy. Overall, the story is extremely well-told. While at first it appears to be a fairly standard adventure game story featuring puzzles and humor, there are a number of extremely touching scenes within this narrative that quickly set it apart from everything that has come before. I believe it’s fair to say that this is the first mature King’s Quest. Now, by this, I do not mean mature in the boobs and gore sense, but rather, below the surface of this game we find something deep and real. This is the first King’s Quest that I feel was created to say something, and I think it does.

KQ1-2Anytime you try to bring something new to the gaming table, you have to ask what it adds to the conversation that surrounds it. Traditionally, adventure games have been heavy on puzzle-solving and gameplay, and light on the pathos. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this — The Longest Journey springs to mind immediately — but par for the course, in previous games, the story existed, but it mostly took a backseat to the puzzles, and rightly so. Adventure games are about solving puzzles and advancing the adventure. When a game manages to meet both sides halfway, though, I think you end up with something great, and I think this is where King’s Quest succeeds. There are some serious moments of pathos within this narrative, and these moments grip you. It’s a subtle grip, and you might not even realize it until it’s over, but there are moments within this story that you just have to stop and take in. You just feel moved.

It’s not all seriousness, of course. Just as the game starts to grow a bit grave, someone gets hit in the face with a pie, and you’re quickly reminded that you are playing a King’s Quest game, and that’s awesome. There are puns galore — as there should be — along with some really funny situations and dialogue. This is the first game in a long time that had me literally LOL’ing.

My point is, though, that King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember is more than just another adventure game. It takes the adventure genre and adds to it, builds on it, brings it forward in time to create a cinematic experience that is very welcome. And I love it for that.

That said, if I had to pick a place where the game seems to falter most, it’s actually in the conventions that it adopts from the adventure genre, but doesn’t seem to try to improve. While I think it makes a lot of strides on the narrative side of things, solving the puzzles sometimes feels dated and tired. Don’t get me wrong. The puzzles in King’s Quest aren’t bad. On the contrary, as an adventure game, the puzzles are extremely well-done. I’ve played some adventure games in which the puzzles are all long, convoluted fetch quests that make no sense. Thankfully, King’s Quest doesn’t fall into that trap. Where it does get hampered up, though, is in the classic adventure games issue of trial and error. A lot of times, there’s not a ton of direction on what to do next. I often found myself trying things that I thought made sense, but didn’t work. Or, even worse, got me killed. Then, I would try something that shouldn’t work, but ultimately turned out to be what I needed to do next. These instances were fairly far and in-between though, so to fault the game for this too much is really nitpicky. It’s a problem that most adventure games run into, and King’s Quest handles the challenge better than most. It’s just that sometimes, it felt I only advanced the game by accident, which does little to help my self-esteem.

KQ1-1And this is all made a bit worse by the size of King’s Quest. While this is not a complaint that the game is too large, it does present some issues when you have to figure out puzzles. You will spend a lot of time walking around Daventry, especially when you’re unsure of where to go next. Even when you do know, you’ll still have to get there, and Graham walks a little slower than most video game characters. Additionally, it’s sometimes really easy to get lost going down the various paths that all lead back to the same place. I nearly pulled out a piece of paper to draw myself a map, which probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

With all this considered, the question then becomes can I fault King’s Quest for any of this all too much? I wrote in my last article about conventions for genres, and these are conventions for the “adventure game” genre. But, are they conventions that we want to keep with each new entry into the genre? Do we want to reinforce these design concepts over others? I’m not so sure.

Of course, we might not be able to get rid of them. Maybe the reasons I enjoyed this game so much are the very reasons I’m poking at right now. The nostalgia factor is great with this game, and this is important to note. I spent a lot of my childhood playing video games, and the King’s Quest series was very high up on that list. Before the days of walkthroughs and online hints, I sat at a computer and I carved out my path through each game, suffering through by sheer willpower alone. I lived and died on that stupid cliff-face in King’s Quest VI more times than I can count, and I loved every minute. And every minute I spent walking through Daventry in A Knight to Remember transported me back. This game just feels like my childhood. And while I don’t buy into the common Internet idea of people my age that new versions of the things I liked as a kid are “ravaging” my childhood, it sure feels nice to play something from my era and have it maintain the same feeling and experience as it used to.

And that’s where I feel like I’m talking in circles, and I’m not helping anyone.

As I wrap up this review, I’m not sure I can heap much more praise on King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember then to say this: When I finished playing it, I wanted nothing more than to restart the game and experience it again. Games are meant to be fun, and despite some minor technical flaws, I think King’s Quest succeeds in this extremely well. It does a great job of pulling at the player’s nostalgic heartstrings, while getting him or her excited about the potential future of the series. And I’m not sure I can ask for much more than that.

Content Held For Ransom

KQ1“I just don’t like the idea of my content being held for ransom,” I say, our conversation approaching an end.

“Well, that’s up to you,” she replies, effectively ending it.

The topic of our conversation is the upcoming release of King’s Quest, the latest entry in the classic point-and-click game series, and one of the games I’ve been fairly excited about this year. This new King’s Quest game is episodic, as are many adventure games these days, and the first episode is set to drop tomorrow. This morning, though, we’re talking about whether or not I will be buying it when it does drop.

It isn’t that I don’t want the game, by any means. I’ve been playing the King’s Quest series for most of my life, King’s Quest VI remains one of my top ten games of all time, and everything I’ve seen of this game looks like a fantastic return to the Kingdom of Daventry. I am excited to play it at some point. The question at hand is whether or not I’ll be playing it tomorrow. My wife and I are working very hard to pay off debt right now, and part of working hard to pay off debt is being very meticulous with our budget. While there is an opportunity to occasionally bend the rules for a cup of coffee or a snack, we usually don’t make purchases without at least running it by the other to ensure that we’re both on the same page. It’s kept us in the black for the three years of our marriage, and it’s enabled us to pay off quite a bit of debt in that time. Point is, I haven’t purchased a game on release date in a few years, and the new King’s Quest is the first one I’m considering.

It’s the nostalgia, man. The nostalgia has me by the short hairs. Read the rest of this entry »

The Banner Saga, Choice, and Agency

tbs1Let’s talk about choice. A couple of weeks ago, I spent much of my freetime playing The Banner Saga, the crowd-funded strategy-RPG from Bioware vets, Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgenson, and John Watson. In playing this game, I learned two things about myself. The first is that I’m terrible at strategy-RPGs. I shouldn’t say I learned this about myself. I’ve always known this. I just haven’t played one in so long that I forgot that I’m really terrible at them. Throughout my first playthrough I lost so often that the game offered to set the difficulty to an easier level. I’ve never been play-shamed by a game before. It did not feel great.

This poor ability to play the game leads directly into the second thing I learned about myself: specifically, I am a horrible leader. I learned this through the choices the game had me make as I played it, not only the choices I had to make in how I played the game, but also the in-game choices that helped shape the story. In every choice I made, people suffered. Or they died. Or they suffered and then they died.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t have fun playing the game. On the contrary: aside from my terrible, terrible skill in “playing” the game, I enjoyed it considerably. It has a fresh and unique setting, featuring gorgeous artwork and solid mechanics. I may be horrible at the game, but I loved every minute I played, and I can’t wait to play the sequel. It was the choices in the game, though, that stuck out most in my mind. I was struck not only by the amount of choices in the game, but also by what those choices — as well as the popularity of games that feature such choices — say about us, the people who enjoy playing games like The Banner Saga. Read the rest of this entry »

Satoru Iwata (1959 – 2015)

Kirby's_Adventure_CoverartI don’t remember what year it was, but it had to be around 1993. The world had started moving onto the Super Nintendo, but my family remained at the NES. We would eventually buy a SNES — a store model demo from a Shopko in North Platte, Nebraska — but, at the moment, I was still tapping away at the NES library that’s new releases were slowly starting to dwindle down. It was in this culture that I found Kirby’s Adventure.

I was only 11 when the game came out. I knew nothing about video game developers. I didn’t know any by name — except perhaps Sid Meier, but that’s because that guy knew how to brand himself. And I certainly didn’t know any Japanese game developers. I knew that most games came from Japan, and I knew that games had to be programmed by someone. But, when the credits rolled, the names that scrolled were just that: names. When I played Kirby’s Adventure, I had no idea who Satoru Iwata was, but this particular game sticks out in my mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Choosing Paths: On Human Depravity and The Cave

The Cave-TitleAt this point, I have written over 1,400 words about The Cave. Fourteen hundred words before I even started. See, before the text you’re about to read, I wrote a review of The Cave. The review was 1,400 words of analysis about the gameplay, and story, and humor, etc, etc. Now, it wasn’t that those 1,400 words weren’t great. They actually were. I reviewed the game in the usual way I review games, dropping in a few personal examples and observations here and there, but focusing most of the text on actual analysis of the game itself. The problem I have with most of that text is that it came across quite boring. I’m not the first person to review The Cave, and I’m not entirely sure I said anything in my review that hasn’t been said a million times before by other people. The game is funny, the story is dark, the puzzles are creative but simple, and the sections of the titular cave you have to replay on each playthrough get more and more repetitive each time. All good observations, but all observations that other people have shared.

So, I scratched out the entire review, because sometimes, in writing, you have to finish before you can even start. Read the rest of this entry »