[11 July 2014]
Quest for Infamy is the first original game from developer Infamous Quests, their previous games being updated remakes of Kings Quest 3 and Space Quest 2. They’re a group of people who love old school adventure games, and the mantra from their website is to create a game “that would feel like it had come out of the best of the golden era of adventure games.” It’s important to know who Infamous Quests is because that goes a long way in explaining what Quest for Infamy is and why it is the way it is.
Quest for Infamy is a deliberate throwback to the old school adventure games from the 80s and 90s. That means it’s cleverly written with an interesting story and a world worth exploring, but it’s also maddeningly unintuitive and purposefully avoids all the conveniences of modern adventure game design. So what begins as a fun journey eventually turns into aimless wandering and clicking until your spirit breaks and you give up on it.
You play as the roguish Roehm, a man on the run from a Baron after being caught with the nobleman’s daughter. He flees to the small town of Volksville, where the game begins. You hop out of a hay cart, and the world is open to you.
That world is worth exploring. It’s surprisingly detailed, and each location has a well-conceived sense of space and place. The layout and aesthetics of each town are unique. For example, the smallness of Volksville is emphasized by its winding roads and no central hub of activity. It’s just a collection of buildings on the edge of a forest. By contrast, the size and importance of Tyr can be seen in its slick white paint jobs on every edifice and its large town square. At one point, you can climb a mountain and look down on the land, and everything looks like it’s in its proper location. A lot of thought has been put into how one screen connects to the others, and it shows.
Quest for Infamy is a classic point-and-click adventure game, so naturally you’ll be clicking all over the world. When you click on an object, Roehm doesn’t describe it with an inner monologue. Instead, a narrator chimes in with some omniscient commentary. This faceless, bodiless man stands out as the most fun character of the game. He occasionally gives you hints (“You can’t do anything here…yet.”) or makes anachronistic jokes about Oldboy, Doctor Who, and other genre staples. These anachronisms make the narration feel modern, as if we’re being told this story by a cheeky storyteller Princess Bride-style. Sadly that’s not actually the case. There is no frame story here, which feels like a waste. Quest for Infamy is just a game with a funny narrator. Still, he makes your wandering more fun.
And wander you will. Quest for Infamy is completely uninterested in helping you along with its story. When you hop out of the hay cart in the beginning, you’re not given an objective, all you can do is wander and look for something to do. This complete lack of instruction or objective is both exciting and frustrating. There’s a fun sense of exploration as you wander the town, talking to people and learning about this place. The mundane nature of it all is actually the most compelling thing about the game at this point. The townsfolk are a colorful bunch, and finding a new major character is enough of a reward to justify the wandering.
Of course, there’s also the promise of a greater adventure to tempt you, though. This promise isn’t stated outright. We can only assume there’s a greater adventure ahead because otherwise why make the game? This question looms over Quest for Infamy. As a result, you’ll spend more time thinking about what’s going to happen than you do experiencing the plot. You’ll spend more time looking for a story and puzzles than you do participating in a story and puzzles.
The big world clashes with the linear puzzle design. You’ll find dozens of items in your wanderings, and eventually you’ll start to want to actually do something with those items. However, “adventure game logic” dictates that they can only be used at a certain place at a certain time on another certain item. For instance, at one point I had to collect water from a river, and even though the river literally wrapped around Volksville, the game would only let me take some from a specific little lagoon. Puzzles—and thus story progression—often rely on this irrational logic, so the moment that you step out of a building and realize that you don’t know what you’re supposed to do next, the game becomes a chore.
It doesn’t help that the interface is God awful, eschewing the things that you’ve come to expect from adventure games for something more “classic” (i.e. outdated). There’s nothing on the screen to indicate which objects are clickable and which are just part of the background. At least old Lucasarts games had the decency to describe interactive items with text, allowing us to pixel hunt by mousing over the screen and waiting for words to appear. Quest for Infamy is based on the old Sierra games that don’t even do that. It’s easy to miss important items that are literally right under your nose (like a damn beer glass). The game demands you click on every object in every screen, and even the charming narrator can’t make that gameplay compelling.
Also, with no way to keep track of your progress, Quest for Infamy falls into the same trap that all its inspirations fell into as well. You can’t come back to the game. If you stop playing for a week or so and try to return, the game is practically unplayable because you’ll have forgotten what little direction you had while playing.
There seem to be other systems at play in Quest for Infamy. The game made a big deal about how I found “The Path of the Sorcerer,” which implies there are other career paths in the game that offer their own set of quests (and in fact, the developer provided save files confirmed that there are other paths). This is a neat idea, but I wasn’t even sure it was real until I got the special save files. If the player doesn’t know a feature exists, does it even matter if it’s good or bad?
Quest for Infamy is a purposefully poorly designed adventure game. Yes, it does feel like a classic point-and-click game, but there’s a reason games aren’t designed like that anymore. The art of game design has advanced since the 80s; the industry has learned from its past design and interface flaws. Quest for Infamy may have been a fine game by yesterday’s standards, but by today’s standards it’s lacking so many friendly fundamentals that it’s easily dismissed as outdated.
It also doesn’t help that it’s missing the most important thing those old adventure games had: An instruction booklet. Back then games didn’t offer instructions or explanation in the game itself and that was fine because they always came with booklets that had that information. Quest for Infamy models itself after those old school games, but then it adopts the modern trait of being all digitalt.
Yet I do understand the draw of such a game. As a fan of similar “classic” survival-horror games, I’m disappointed that the genre has evolved away from what it used it be. I grew up with tank controls, crappy combat, awkward but stylish camera angles, and unforgiving save systems. By today’s standards those are all design flaws, but to me they’re just nostalgic quirks. For the right audience, Quest for Infamy is exactly that kind of game.
There’s an FAQ for the demo on their Kickstarter page that asks how players are supposed to find a particular event that pushes the story forward. You’d think that if players are so universally confused that they have to be offered instructions through an FAQ that something is wrong with the game, but not in this case. Nothing was changed in the final version I played for review. For better or for worse, Quest for Infamy is exactly the kind of game it’s supposed to be.