[29 July 2014]
With all due respect to my fellow Moving Pixels contributor Nick Dinicola, regarding his Quest for Infamy review, I must disagree. He recognizes that Quest for Infamy is a throwback to the classic adventure games of the ‘80s and ‘90s. However, it feels like he doesn’t appreciate the specifics of the game’s design legacy, calling it “a purposefully poorly designed adventure game.” I don’t think Quest for Infamy is poorly designed at all. I think it’s a rather solidly designed game hampered by a few execution hiccups that hold it back from being a really great game.
A lot of the nostalgia for the point-and-click adventure games of the golden era, the time when they were the major force in the industry, seems to center on the games made by LucasArts. The LucasArts style has gone on to influence most modern adventure games, whether through homage, picking up where they left off, or evolving the form. Everything from Telltale’s games, Double Fine’s Broken Age, and the Wadjet Eye Games publishing catalog all owe their existence to the golden age LucasArts style.
Sierra, on the other hand, seems to take a backseat in the modern landscape. I can’t think of too many developers that owe their inspiration to them, let alone carry on the legacy of the Sierra style games. While Phoenix Online Studios got their start with The Silver Lining, the fan sequel to the King’s Quest series, they’ve moved away from the central form of what made Sierra game’s special. Infamous Quests nails it with Quest for Infamy.
Unlike their LucasArts counterparts, which feature a more linear world of screens with puzzles based on a logic inherent to their own worlds, Sierra games—most notably the Kings Quest, Space Quest, and Quest for Glory series—were about more open exploration and puzzles, nay, obstacles (calling them puzzles seems wrong, they are presented more as challenges to be overcome or riddles to be solved) are based on recognizing myth and folklore. The key to these games was to wander around the world and clue in to the key signifiers that would lead the player to what he or she were intended to do. The stories were about going on journeys, styled through a remixing of classic tales. They were about an adventurer’s spirit and willingness to head into the unknown and in being a resourceful enough character able to overcome the challenges set before them. There was risk. There was danger. And there was death. A whole lot of death. It got to the point where half the fun in these games was in seeing the various ways your character could meet their untimely end.
This design philosophy lead to a rather uneven set of games in their catalog, but when this style worked, these games really shined. They made you feel like an adventurer without reducing the narrative or the game’s systems to a series of repeated actions, like most action games of the time would. However, offering freedom while hinging progress upon a set of milestones to be accomplished is a balancing act that requires subtle crafting to pull off. Right from the beginning, we see this same concern at work in Quest for Infamy.
We are let off the hay cart at the town gates with a man calling you over to take part in a conversational exposition dump. Afterwards, the open gates call to the player, along with the need to take a look at the town. You are given just enough time to see all the locations and talk to each character before everyone is called to the town square to witness an execution. We are incentivized to wander around town again, taking in the changes that have occured following that event, to see what people have to say in response. Additionally, these moments allow the player to select one of the three professions the game offers: sorcerer, thief or brigand. With that, we get our first quest to leave the town at night and hunt a creature. Then we get to explore the areas immediately surrounding the town. Along the way, we see a broken bridge that leads to the western half of the valley that is, for the moment, cut off. However, after the quest is done and come morning is when I feel this subtle design falters.
Once we are out and about again, we find that the bridge had been fixed, which means the entirety of the valley is now open for exploration. Up until now, the game had been carefully expanding the world a bit at a time so we can grow accustomed to where everything is as well as gather items that might be useful for later. However, here the map is doubled before we fully have the chance to get accustomed to all the forest areas surrounding Volksville, the original town. The king’s road, the port city or Tyr, the north bridge, and the forest camp are all open to us, and that can be overwhelming.
The game later returns to careful expansion of areas by gating them off with puzzles. The concept being, by the time you need to and can get into these areas, you will have a solid understanding of the world that is already open. It’s not all about just exploring the valley and knowing where all the different screens are. It’s about familiarizing ourselves with what is in those screen so that should a problem arise you can say, “If only I had such and such. Oh, wait, this other place does have a such and such.” Quest for Infamy was doing so well, but botches things in the final stretch of expanding exploration.
The game also falters by adhering too closely to old design philosophies. Sierra games were different, but they didn’t always quite manage that difference with fairness. As much as it seem heretical, Quest for Infamy does need a hotspot identifier of some kind. Nearly every point-and-click adventure game nowadays has one. Some feature this in the form of pressing a button so that all the interactive elements available on a particular screen are highlighted in some manner. Others merely identify an item or area that can be interacted with when the mouse hovers over it with a popup. And to keep the challenge of figuring things out, you could still do this for things that can just be examined (as opposed to picked up). Not being able to identify what is unique and what is just “in the background” caused me to get stuck on more than one challenge simply because I didn’t have a necessary item since I had passed right by it several times. Likewise, I ended up hearing the same room description over and over again as I tried to figure out what was worthy of a unique description and what was just part of a room.
These are issues that hamper an otherwise great adventure game. I’m not going to sweep them under the rug, but at the same time, they are not the entirety of the work, which is unfortunate because Infamous Studios did update their design in other respects. While death and failure were all too common in the Sierra classics, leading to the oft repeated mantra “save early, save often,” here it is quite a rare occurrence. There are still things and situations that can kill you, but they aren’t around every corner and can’t be accidentally stumbled into it without warning. The combat is also very forgiving. Falling in battle, for the most part, will cause you to lose a day as Roehm is found, recovered, and healed back to health at the apothecary’s place (though there are places in the world that your body won’t be found, and then it truly is over for you). The risk remains, but risk is far more reasonable, and this is a welcome update to the style.
Likewise, I like the work put in to allowing a good amount of obstacles to have multiple solutions to overcome them. This allows not only your chosen class to shine in certain cases, but it also allows different approaches that occur to different players to work. Such a concept came from the Quest for Glory series, the rather obvious main influence here, and is one that I feel should have gotten a greater due in the adventure game field. The implementation here is seamless, though you do sometimes end up readying multiple solutions without realizing it. Also, there are one or two spots where it feels like one item should be able to be a suitable substitute solution for another, but it just isn’t.
The game may only direct your short term goals at the very beginning and in the closing acts, but I never felt lost. The developers have been good enough to make sure that there is always enough story threads hanging around that I could feel out what I supposed to be doing, even without the game explicitly guiding me. There are enough people willing to tell you a tale about this or that to keep you invested in and understanding the general direction that you should be heading.
As for the story itself, I really like Roehm as a character, cad that he is. It’s is kind of refreshing to play as a character in which all the normal adventure game behaviors just make sense. Plus, as much as he feels like someone you shouldn’t like (he is snarky, insulting, and contemptuous of so much), yet he and the narrator make his preferences clear. For instants, he likes homey, cluttered locations and seems to have a great affinity for the working stiffs of the world, preferring to get drunk with them than in doing anything else. He has no use for pretensions or a hoity-toity lifestyle. There is a lot of negative things that could be said about our leading man here and what he represents, but I can’t help but appreciate how well rounded he comes across and how much his surface attitudes belie his underlying character, which comes across in small human moments that may go unnoticed by most.
I like the ominous nature of the Morroi cult. I like the dickishness of the town sheriff, Rayford and the sleaziness of Tyr’s Mayor VanDarkles. And despite being designed for the male gaze (Kayana is textbook cheesecake, and despite being the leader of the Tyr’s Arrows, Voleris, armors up only in a chainmail bikini), I liked the female characters, as they felt like people living their lives, people with their own desires and personalities. Kayanna is an acolyte willing to go to any ends for her faith and her order’s duty, including prancing about as she is to keep suspicion away from her. Voleris is a hard edged, skillful warrior with an affinity for the law and an incorruptible conviction that is born from her sense of justice.
That seems to be a major component to much of the story in Quest for Infamy. While much of the world is “what you see is what you get,” a lot more seems to be about defying expectations. Plenty of minor characters fit their stock types, often with a sense of humor and a clear appreciation of them from the game makers, like the farmers enjoying themselves in Volksville’s tavern. Additionally, when considering quite a few of the main cast, looks can even be deceiving.
The valley that all the events take place in comes with an appropriate sense of history. All the characters are a part of their own little stories. The intrigue of the main plot creates a sense of grandeur as the player’s previous understanding of things is recontextualized. And, of course, all of this works with you playing the blustering outsider barreling through events and causing chaos that allows the world to right itself. Also, the game’s ending is so over-the-top in rewarding Roehm for a job well done that it flirts with parody and is a riot to watch.
I enjoyed my time with Quest for Infamy. I feel it attempts not just to ape the adventure games of old but to bring a new level of detail to an adventure game world and to a kind of storytelling that was not quite possible in an earlier era thanks to the limits of technology. The design of guiding the player could have done with some improvements, and certain parts of the game do need updating. However, the voice acting is pretty solid overall (though the same can not be said for the recording quality). These issues hold back what in every other respect is a great game. It strives to be more than just a simple throwback, and while not quite making it, it is still a damn solid effort nonetheless. Quest for Infamy does its Sierra legacy proud.