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[personal profile] dorchadas
King's Quest as a series was introduced to me by the same friend who showed me Hero's QuestQuest for Glory. We played King's Quest I, in all its EGA and text-parser magnificence, and while I fondly remember its fairy-tale aesthetic and falling into the king's moat and being eaten by crocodiles, we never got particularly far. We never reached an unwinnable situation because we would always die before solving anything. But that made an impression, and I grew up playing Sierra games.

My favorite Sierra games are still the the Quests for Glory, but King's Quest VI is my favorite King's Quest out of the ones I've played until now (I, V-VIII). King's Quest V is too arbitrary and full of situations that require advance knowledge of to beat, like throwing the boot at the cat so that the rat will rescue Graham in his cell later or beating a yeti with a pie, that I didn't want to replay it and I didn't want to subject [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd to it, so we watched a longplay of it. I didn't own King's Quest VII at the time we started playing and anyway it has a different style and interface than the older games, so wasn't going to begin with that one. We do not speak of King's Quest VIII. But King's Quest VI is the best iteration of the early King's Quest games, with understandable puzzles, a whimsical setting, and a minimum of no-win situations. I thought it would be fun for us to play together, and I was right.

King's Quest 6 Ignorance Kills
The credo of adventure games.

King's Quest VI stars Prince Alexander of Daventry, formerly the hero of King's Quest III. In an early-90s CG intro, Alexander explains how he hasn't been able to stop thinking about Princess Cassima of the Land of the Green Isles, especially after seeing a vision of her in a magical mirror, and he sets off on a voyage to find her. He sails to the uttermost ends of the earth and, though his ship is destroyed, finds the Land of the Green Isles and learns that Cassima is here, her parents are dead, she's set to marry the evil vizier (but I repeat myself, because this is a fairy tale) Abdul Alhazred, and the Green Isles are feuding as each isle has had its sacred treasure stolen by one of the other isles. So Alexander must travel to the Isle of the Crown, the Isle of Wonder, the Isle of the Sacred Mountain, the Isle of the Beast, and the Isle of Mists, solving puzzles and fixing problems along the way. Emoji Dragon Warrior march

King's Quest has always been based on fairy tales, starting with the literal adaptations of Jack the Giant-killer, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Hansel and Gretel's witch, and so on in King's Quest I. King's Quest VI doesn't have anything so identifiable, but a kind of fairy-tale sensibility pervades the whole setting. This is most evident on the Isle of Wonder where everything is based on wordplay and puns--[personal profile] schoolpsychnerd was delighted at the puzzle to resolve the dispute between the stick in the mud and the bump on a log, and at the oyster beds with their slumbering oysters--but the Isle of the Beast and its lordling under a curse has an obvious source, as does the king's vizier. The Isle of the Sacred Mountain is a fantasy Greece, with the winged ones dressing in togas and a minotaur living in the catacombs where they bury their dead. It's a fantasy mishmash, but because it's a mythology and fairy tale mixture and not the usual pseudo-Tokien-plus-Western-Europe fantasy, it feels fresh and interesting while still being familiar.

The Isle of the Crown has a thin veneer of Arabian Nights-esque culture, but it's mostly expressed in people wearing turbans and having pants that are larger than their shirts. And in not everyone being white, so it works out for the good in the end.

King's Quest 6 looking for invisible ink
Rooting around for key items.

When Alexander first arrives, his quest seems like it's at an end even before it begins. While he is allowed into the palace after presenting his signet ring, the vizier informs him that Cassima is in mourning for her parents and is not accepting visitors, and that while he sympathizes that Alexander came so far on his quest, it would be best if the prince just went home. But this is an adventure game, so it's not that easy. While the ferry is no longer operating due to the conflict between the isles, Alexander quickly discovers a magical map that allows him to visit any isle any time he likes, as long as he is within sight of the sea.

There's not actually that much freedom in determining where to go and what to do next, and there are rarely more than a handful of puzzles to solve at any one time and even fewer after solving the Isle of the Sacred Mountain. But for me, the beginning of the game is the sweet spot of adventure game quest design. Each isle has its own puzzles, and while they do require items from elsewhere in the game, they feel more self-contained than a game with an expansive overworld filled with problems that bleed into each other would. The Isle of the Beast and the Isle of the Sacred Mountain are gated off by the three traps and the Cliffs of Logic respectively, so for much of the early part of the game, the action is confined to the Isle of the Crown and the Isle of Wonder. It allows for freedom of movement while not feeling overwhelming.

I admit, though, my impressions might be colored by previous knowledge. While I haven't played King's Quest VI in close to 20 years, this is probably my dozenth time beating the game. The solutions to most of the puzzles are burned into my memory, so to give [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd the chance to reason through them herself, I made sure to ask what we should do every chance I could. She said she wasn't good at puzzles, but she solved the riddle at the gate to Death's throne room. Emoji Spock

King's Quest 6 Lord of the Dead
Man may pass the Portal, and seek its Master, Death.
Man may pass where Death has trod,
And challenge like Scheherezade,
He who reigns beneath the sod,
To spare a mortal's breath.

Advocates of LucasArts games point out that those games never blocked progress and often wouldn't even kill the player, allowing them freedom to try out any puzzle solutions they want without fear of suddenly dying and having to reload. And that is true, but lost in this argument is that dying was often part of the point. Deaths would have unique animations and specific messages relating to the location or manner of the protagonist's death, so seeking out ways to die was part of the fun of playing. In King's Quest VI, there's even a post-death animation where Alexander arrives in the underworld and is granted admittance to the afterlife.

But it's still possible to end up in a no-win situation, and that's just bad design. I remembered being thrown into the catacombs on the Isle of the Sacred Mountain without the tinderbox and so was able to avoid one of the most common pifalls, but we almost ran into another at the end of the game that only good save discipline protected us from. I remembered that one puzzle involves swapping the vizier's genie lamp for one that looks the same, but I forgot that this requires befriending Jollo the court jester, which itself requires visiting the bookshop at specific moments in the game. We didn't do that, so when we walked into the jester's room in the castle he called for the guards. There is another method of dealing with the genie for precisely these circumstances, but it requires finding a peppermint bush on the Isle of the Sacred Mountain before entering the castle. Had I not had a previous save to revert to, that would have been the end of our game.

King's Quest 6 Shield block arrow
Good thing I stole that grave goods shield from the catacombs.

Thinking about it, there are more fracture points than I realized. Not taking the gauntlet from the knight before crossing the River Styx, traveling to the Isle of Mists and then leaving right away before picking up any items, not bringing the hole-in-the-wall into the catacombs...I avoided them all because I'm so familiar with the game and because I understand some of the design decisions of old adventure games. The player is supposed to pick up everything that's not nailed down, pry up anything that is, and talk to everyone they meet multiple times. To anyone not raised with those conventions, King's Quest VI isn't going to seem as lenient as I see it.

I admit that some of those require deliberate obtuseness, though. By the time Alexander gets to the underworld, the player has already been told about the knight who went there seeking his lost love and should be on the lookout for a knight. The gauntlet on the knight's body is a separate color from the rest of his armor and pops out slightly, encouraging the player to pick it up. Not knowing that you need the tinderbox to survive the Isle of the Sacred Mountain because the winged ones throw Alexander into their catacombs and bar the door is reasonable because the game provides no warning except a note in the manual that the winged ones are xenophobic, whereas ignoring the knight is just bad play. There's only so much the designers can do against someone who refuses to engage with an adventure game.

If King's Quest VI were made now, it would probably be impossible to proceed without picking up the gauntlet somehow, but that was not a consideration of the time.

King's Quest 6 the Oracle
Heart eyes.

One of Sierra's strategies with King's Quest VI was to record a pop song, titled Girl in the Tower, and ask players to call into local radio stations to request it. This campaign was a complete failure.

I thought of that as I played through the game. The song is a love ballad between Alexander and Cassima, but their love affair is as deep as a puddle. They spoke briefly in King's Quest V before Crispin sent everyone home and only meet in person again at the end of King's Quest VI. Other than a bird carrying tokens back and forth between them, they have no contact at all. I know that it's in the nature of fairy tales for the prince and princess to fall in love at first sight and live happily ever after, but it doesn't make me invested in their relationship. I just look at it, realize they got married after effectively a week-long relationship, and am glad they're in a fairy tale. It'd be a disaster otherwise. The fairy tale sources work much better for me as worldbuilding than as the basis for a relationship.

King's Quest 6 Skull on head
Spooky.

King's Quest VI is nowhere near the best adventure game, and it's not even the best Sierra adventure game--the Quest for Glory games' blend of RPG and adventure game elements is by far my favorite example of the genre. But it doesn't deserve the derision that Sierra adventure games often get. The puzzles are logical, the worldbuilding is focused, the quest design is neither too broad nor too narrow, and there are even multiple endings depending on how much of the main quest you accomplish. I remember how amazed I was when I finally got 100% quest completion and got the elaborate ending that I hadn't previously even known existed. It was like discovering the Dark World in A Link to the Past.

This is not a game that would be made today, but it's still a game that holds up today.

Date: 2017-Jul-30, Sunday 16:19 (UTC)
dreamkist: buffy holding the scythe (buffy scythe)
From: [personal profile] dreamkist
I never played any of those, but I got the first chapter of the new King's Quest on Xbox. It's hilarious. I need to get the next chapter.

I just started playing Heroine's Quest: The Herald of Ragnarok. It's pretty good (on the easiest setting to start - I was like "I'm dying and I don't know what I'm doing"). I might have gotten the Quest for Glory games on GOG. I'll have to play those when I finish this.

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