[27 May 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Often considered the best of the eight-part series, King’s Quest VI represents both the best and worst of the hallmarks of the Sierra adventure games. The possibility of dying mixed with puzzles and optional paths all come together to send the player on a classic fairy tale of rescuing the princess. King’s Quest VI is the game where the genre reached its conceptual limits. Subsequent games could only explore dubious innovations like making puzzles easier or more complex, changing graphic engines or trying to make the content more innovative. Sixteen years after its release, King’s Quest VI is still one of the high water marks of the adventure game genre. For Sierra games, it is the point where the wave reached its peak and could go no higher.
The game was the second made by Roberta Williams to use the point and click interface. Originally pioneered in the LucasArts game Maniac Mansion, King’s Quest VI removed the text interface to create a series of icons that represented a verb that would be clicked on to interact with item on the screen. Walk, pick-up, look at and so on. Williams comments in the Collector’s Edition manual that moving away from text parsers freed up a significant amount of time for her because she no longer had to write out every possible verb and reaction to something someone would type. The game, which she developed with Jane Jensen, would also be the first to use multi-linear paths. Unlike a non-linear game where there is no one course the player must go on, a multi-linear game lets the player choose between a few set options beyond just a single course. Williams described the design as a string of pearls. The player moves from puzzle to puzzle as the items unlock and present solutions to large initial array of barriers presented to the player. These lead the player further along the string, unlocking more puzzles and continuing to push through the game’s narrative.
In a very rare interview with Williams, she explains that her main goal has always been the idea of creating an interactive fairy tale. She comments, “The first King’s Quest was really a compendium of many of the most common fairy tales, and, really was nothing but a big fairy tale that someone could directly experience in a very interactive way instead of in the old passive way of books, movies, or oral tales.” This tradition has continued throughout the series. King’s Quest VI is a combination of Alice in Wonderland, 1001 Arabian Nights, Beauty and the Beast, and several Greek myths such as the Minotaur and the afterlife. Alexander’s first game, King’s Quest III, was a combination of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and more Greek mythology. The player confronts the villains and helps the heroes of these stories in their own quest.
From King’s Quest VI, Sierra On-Line
King’s Quest VI kicks off with Alexander pining over Princess Cassima, whom his father rescued in King’s Quest V along with the rest of his family, and trying to figure out some way to see her. Troubled by her son’s obsession with someone he met for ten minutes after being trapped in a glass jar for days, Queen Valanice tries to convince him to move on. This will become something of a running theme in the game as Alexander constantly seeks some sign of Cassima’s affection or feelings towards him. The family magic mirror eventually grants Alexander’s wish to see her and reveals that Cassima is in trouble. Using the stars, he sails to her homeland of the Green Isles and manages to be washed ashore before his ship sinks.
The opening section does an impressive job of imposing a real sense of being stranded on the player. The only money Alexander can find from the wreck is a single copper coin. The game emphasizes the poverty of this by allowing him to use it at the local pawn shop but only to buy one item at a time. He must swap out the item for another if he needs a different one. Although his signet ring proves to people that he is royalty, an audience at the castle reveals that the local Vizier intends to take control of the Kingdom by marrying Cassima. The few other items Alexander can scrounge up on the starting island are a boring book, an unlucky rabbit’s foot, and a free mint. You are forced to watch helplessly as Beauty is abused by her step mother while you explore. The signet ring, which has positive associations because it will get people to talk to Alexander, must be traded away for a magic map to even move around the surrounding islands. In this way King’s Quest VI begins with a real sense of narrative coherence by making the player feel desolate and reflecting that in the puzzles.
With the massive improvement in visuals that King’s Quest V represented, the need for explaining everything through text continued to become obsolete. That game’s graphical improvements made it so the interface continued to feature elements that were only the necessities of less complex visuals. The blockier and more pixilated your game is, the more a person is going to need an explanation for what they’re looking at. In both V and VI, however, the average person can look at the screen and know what’s going on without any explanation.
From King’s Quest III, Sierra On-Line
Another interesting change in the visuals is how much less complex VI is when compared to V. While King’s Quest V used its graphical enhancements to create lush scenery and artwork, the title suffered because players would often be confused or intrigued by something they’d see on the screen but were meant to enjoy only aesthetically. When King Graham is escaping the Roc’s nest high in the mountains, you can see a village off in the distance that you’ll never visit. When you are exploring the shops of the village, the walls are lined with items you cannot touch. King’s Quest VI features a much more conservative visual style that assumes the player is going to be looking with their own eyes than with the look command. Rarely is a place depicted that we will not go to at some point while items that we cannot interact with are faded and distant. Something is both gained and lost in this situation: the game is not as exotic as its predecessor, but it is the better design because it is less visually confusing.
The narration and puzzles all revolve around a kind of third-person phrasing. The narrator refers to Alexander, not the player, when he sees or does something. Alexander will not do something unless he has a motivation to do it. Williams explains in the Collector’s Edition interview that she wanted everything to have more narrative coherence. Rather than just interact with random famous fairy tale characters, she wanted the puzzles to have a logical motivation. She says, “I wanted to get away from just putting together a jumble of puzzles in some sort of meaningless quest; you should have a clear sense of what you’re doing and why, with some emotion behind it.” So, for example, he will not ask the Book Worm for a rare book until he has a reason. You cannot just move about the game grabbing items even if you know you need it, you must actually play the story according to how Alexander is perceiving the world. This made replaying the game somewhat tricky because you will often want Alexander to do something that he refuses to do until there is a purpose. I could remember what I was supposed to do most of the time, I just couldn’t remember the trigger conversation or observation.
As a character Alexander comes across as somewhat bizarre by video game standards: he is polite and friendly. Dialogue will often include a greeting, thank you and a you’re welcome. The only time he breaks form as a polite and well-mannered person is on the subject of Cassima. When he observes the proclamation about the Vizier’s wedding his stomach sinks and he curses the Vizier. After exchanging gifts with Cassima’s nightingale, he receives a note from her only to be upset when she refers to him as friend. The game is maintaining an awkward anxiety in the player that goes beyond the mere need to help a kingdom in peril. There is a question of whether or not Cassima even likes Alexander. Valanice’s concerns in the introduction are echoed throughout the game as no one will believe that Alexander is not just a jilted lover. Even at the end, when he asks Cassima if she truly loves the Vizier, the game pauses for a moment before she responds.
From King’s Quest V, Sierra On-Line
Progress through the game after the initial island is mostly a linear affair until after Alexander wins the trust of the surrounding islands. The Vizier has instructed each of them to kill any foreigners they encounter to stop Alexander, making each one a complex visit. Tricking your way past the five sense gnomes, freeing the Winged Ones from the Minotaur, and helping the Beast finally meet up with Beauty must all be done before the player is given a choice about how they wish to proceed. At this point, the player can then opt for beating the game by sneaking into the castle dressed as a woman or continue to explore the game’s challenges by saving Cassima’s parents from the Land of the Dead. The design means the player can always beat the game without getting stuck, just not in the most satisfying manner. To get the best ending where everyone is reunited and happy is actually a bit unfair, you must stumble upon the Court Jester Jollo in the bookshop very early in the game or have the option closed off forever.
Other puzzles have multiple solutions depending on which course you have picked, such as where you get the hair of a pure maiden or when you trade a magic lamp. Items that are missed, like the pair of coins you need to pay the Boat Man at the River Styx, can be accessed later on if you missed them the first time. This is an enormous improvement over King’s Quest V’s pie or cheese puzzles, which if missed will not become relevant until hours later in the game and can’t be compensated for. The game thus encourages replay to see the multiple branching paths while having each one feature its own unique challenges.
The exact problem with the adventure game genre is the source of a lot of debate, which is only fueled by the strange assertion that it is no longer popular today. As a whole games made with this design suffer from what Nels Anderson refers to as a readability problem or how easily a player can understand the game’s system. An adventure game equips us with a series of verbs that would seem to have limitless possibilities. Yet our interaction with the world is governed only by the designer’s intent rather than a broad series of rules. Alexander will pick up some garbage he finds in a pot, but he won’t take a book he finds in a big pile later on. He’ll claim that does not want to pick up one object, but will then pick up a totally different one. Anderson writes, “This provides the player with a tremendous number of possible actions to perform, but no way to understanding how they work in conjunction (because they almost never do). There are a lot of ways to use the game’s mechanics, but no enjoyable dynamics arise from them. If the player isn’t able to infer the designer’s intentions, their only option is trial and error.”
From King’s Quest VI, Sierra On-Line
This dilemma only gets worse if a game tries to be difficult, such as a post by Old Man Murray explaining how many of the later puzzles in games, such as making a moustache in Gabriel Knight 3, became so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. Adventure games are still made today such as the superb episodic games based on Sam & Max and Homestar Runner by TellTale Games, but these eventually opted for the same solution that later Sierra games accepted by having a built-in hint system. The intent of the adventure games of today is the delivery of content, not the thrill of challenge and overcoming puzzles.
The game’s best ending is won through a variation on the Greek myth of Orpheus and his descent into the underworld. Alexander saves Cassima’s parents by confronting Death and returns to the kingdom with them intact. Sneaking into the castle just before the wedding, the player uses a series of secret passages and holes in the wall to uncover the Vizier’s plot. He has stolen the sacred items of each island, blamed the other, and intends to use his genie as a stand-in for Cassima through disguise. Alexander has to gather up proof, dodge the castle’s guards, and make his case to the Captain of the guards before he can disrupt the wedding. The final fight with the Vizier is a classic sword duel that, in a move that blissfully avoids having a last minute arcade sequence, presents a unique puzzle to the player. Because the sword is too heavy Alexander can’t beat the Vizier. It is only by giving Cassima a tiny dagger when we encounter her earlier that she can step in at the last minute and stab him. The player must display some concern about Cassima by arming her earlier in the game in order to win. When Alexander finally has the opportunity to ask if she will marry him, she admonishes him for ever doubting it.
In many ways, the adventure game never really died because it was always a niche genre. Fans simply became aware of this fact once video games entered the mainstream. Williams comments that her best selling game, Phantasmagoria, was very impressive by their standards because it moved over a million units. By today’s blockbuster standards, that would barely cover production.
There is also a certain aspect of aging that must be accounted for with all video games. Raph Koster argues in his book A Theory of Fun that every game design will inevitably become boring because the player eventually masters the system. With adventure games, you just start to know what you’re doing and how to play the system. Instead of seeking a sense of victory and accomplishment, you are mechanically unlocking the content of the story in a participatory manner. As the Japanese role-playing games and first-person shooters begin to show similar signs of aging, perhaps it is the fate of every game design to eventually become an elaborate content delivery system rather than a source of challenge or thrill. Fortunately for fans of King’s Quest and other adventure games, that’s where they always shined anyways.