At KansasFest 2010, I presented a session on modern spiritual successors to classic games. Among them was The Silver Lining, an unofficial sequel to King's Quest. The fan-produced game was long delayed due to legal issues with the official copyright holders of the King's Quest series, finally being cleared to begin its episodic release in 2010. Although received to mixed reviews, it was nonetheless a welcome, if unofficial, revival of the King's Quest series, which had lain dormant since Mask of Eternity's 1998 release.
The new game has the blessing of none other than Sierra founders Ken and Roberta Williams, who accepted an award for their contributions to the industry at the recent Game Awards.
Apple II users should be interested to see where this series goes, as its origin is on their favorite computer. Many early King's Quest games were released for the Apple II or IIGS:
• Wizard and the Princess (1980)
• King's Quest: Quest for the Crown (1984)
• King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne (1985)
• King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human (1986)
• King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988)
Will this latest sequel return the game to its roots? Or will it be a reboot for a new generation of gamers? We'll find out when it releases in Fall 2015 for PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox 360 & One, and Windows.
That's where Gilbert and Gary Winnick, Maniac Mansion co-designer, have successfully funded Thimbleweed Park, a new point-and-click adventure in the style of Maniac Mansion. "Why do we want to make Thimbleweed Park?" asks their campaign, which concludes the afternoon of Thursday, December 18. "Because we miss classic adventures and all their innocence and charm."
Ken Macklin, who designed Maniac Mansion's cover art, will return for Thimbleweed Park. So will David Fox, Lucasfilm's SCUMM scripter who decided to put the hamster in the microwave. And while the game will feature classic pixel art, there'll be a modern soundtrack by Steve Kirk. Writes Gilbert:
Don't get me wrong, I loved the SID chip, PC speaker, the Adlib card and amazing digital sound of the SoundBlaster (that still sounded like it was coming out of a PC speaker), but so much 'emotional data' can be carried in music and your eyes are already bleeding from the awesomely retro art, so why should your ears bleed too?
With all that said, though… what about the gameplay? I'm concerned that the interface appears a little too old school, which, as the developers of Shadowgate recently learned, isn't necessarily designed with modern gamers in mind. And what of the puzzles — will they be more logical? Or will be be sticking hunks of cheese in car ignitions? Gilbert's last game, The Cave, promised to be reminiscent of Maniac Mansion, with multiple playable characters, each with unique talents. But the game didn't exactly tear up the charts.
That all said, I'm willing to give this team and game a chance. I've backed Thimbleweed Park for $20 mark, essentially preordering the finished product, due for delivery in June 2016. I am sorely tempted to kick it up to $50, at which level the reward is having my name and phone number included in an in-game phonebook — and when players dial that number, they'll get my actual voicemail! Either way, stay tuned to this blog in two years to hear my thoughts on what comes next from Gilbert & Co.
In researching last week's blog post about the history of Sierra On-Line, I came across some underwhelming reviews of the new Leisure Suit Larry for hewing too closely to the original. Apparently, critics are not enjoying reliving what passed for puzzles in 1987.
Uh-oh! That's not good. Early adventure games could be devilishly obtuse and unforgiving, as Joe Keiser of Gameological recently demonstrated. As an example of a game that isn't fair, he chose King's Quest V:
Early in the game, a custard pie can be purchased. King’s Quest V then spends hours imploring you to eat it. It looks delicious, the game says. It is the best pie you have ever tasted, the game says. There is even a puzzle where you are starving, and eating the pie will solve it. And yet once you’ve eaten the pie, you have already lost. Oh, you can continue playing, but eventually you will reach a mountain, and there will be a yeti there, and it will kill you because you do not have a pie to throw at it. Now you have to start the game over, because you did what the game asked instead of saving a pie to throw at a yeti. No one could blame you if you’ve spent the last 23 years mad about this.
This particular installment in the King's Quest franchise was never released for the Apple II, yet it's the only King's Quest I've ever played, courtesy the Nintendo version. I can therefore empathize with Keiser's frustration — but I can also laugh at it, courtesy this brilliant real-life send-up:
Whatever our memories, adventure games are making a comeback, courtesy the combination of tablet gaming and Kickstarter funding. Let's hope as good as we remember and better than they actually were!
Lowe attributes the decline of the genre to improved accessibility to personal computers:
Adventure games were perfect for 1980s’ computer users. Back then, if you weren’t a puzzle solver, you didn’t own a computer. Remember config.sys files, autoexec.bat files, setting interrupts, managing extended memory? No? Consider yourself lucky! It’s a wonder anyone got anything done at all.
I remember discussing with Ken Williams (founder of Sierra, the leading publisher of such games) about how great it would be when 10 percent of homes had a computer powerful enough to play our games. But when the majority finally had computers, they ran Windows. They didn’t have to solve operating system puzzles, or couldn’t. And they didn’t want to solve game puzzles either.
Sadly, this was widely interpreted that new gamers preferred action and 3-D environments instead of contemplation and humor. Within a year, most major adventure-game development was shut down. And with it went humor.
I remember the games Lowe references fondly, though perhaps because the years have removed me from the frustration they inspired. Although King's Quest and its kin were often infuriatingly inscrutable in their puzzles and riddles, they often had a quirky and consistent internal logic that tickled your imagination, giving you a knowing wink and a sense of accomplishment when you stumbled across the solution. It's a kind of challenge that's often missing in today's games — or am I just playing the wrong ones? The Xbox 360's DeathSpank, created by Ron Gilbert of Double Fine, had some clever dialogue, though I didn't play it far enough to find if that sense extended to the gameplay.
And I spent about two hours this week in the practice arena of Scribblenauts Remix for iOS, interested less in completing levels than in testing the limits of the player's capabilities and seeing what unusual creations and interactions the game's designers anticipated.
What do you think — is Lowe right? Have the humor and discovery of early computer games disappeared and are now ready for a comeback? Or have they been here all along, just in an unrecognizably evolved form?
UPDATE (11-May-12): I belatedly found Phil Elliott's interview with Al Lowe in my "to read" pile. In this article from April 2011, Lowe talks about how the humor in games has been replaced by replayability, and that he has no desire or intention to exit retirement. Ah, hindsight!
Franchise creator Al Lowe is asking for a cool half-mil to apply a graphical overhaul to the original 1987 game, add voice acting, and port it to "XBLA, PSN, Android, iPads, iPhones, Windows Phones, Kindle, Linux and of course, Mac!"
The best part of Lowe's pitch is the video that prominently features an Apple II, both in the opening shot and around three minutes in:
As mentioned on this week's episode of Open Apple, remakes of Sierra's first three King's Quest point-and-click adventures are now available as free downloads from developer AGD Interactive. The only game in that series I'd previously encountered was the fifth, courtesy its Nintendo adaptation. I wouldn't think earlier incarnations of such a crude game would age well, but I've briefly played AGD's version of King's Quest III, released just this year, and found it a superb and enjoyable title that is competitive with today's games.
To our modern gaming world, King's Quest is hopelessly antiquated in both look and play, but it still stands as one of our most important relics of computer gaming. And back in the day, I was as mesmerized as anyone by the amazing magic it represented. King's Quest … was nothing less than revolutionary, and I don't think it's too much to say every graphical adventure game that followed owes it (and, I guess, IBM's money) at least a nod of respect.
As Clint alludes to, King's Quest did not emerge in a vacuum, nor did it prove to be an anomaly. The entire lifespan of the genre that Sierra redefined is reviewed in Ars Technica's in-depth look at the 25-year rise and fall of a beloved genre. The piece encompasses all variety of graphic adventures, from the Macintosh classic Shadowgate to LucasArts' many SCUMM titles to Telltale Games' recent episodic ventures, such as Sam & Max.
It's a lengthy piece of journalism — nearly 7,000 words. In about as much time as it'll take you to read, you could play through the entire King's Quest game, as demonstrated in this speed run:
If you ask me, such experiences are meant to be savored, indicative as they are of a more thoughtful era in computer gaming. My thanks to AGD Interactive for bringing the past into the present, and for Sarien for suggesting that touch interfaces such as the iPad offers are ripe for a resurgence in the genre's popularity.