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SummaryHow a fairy tale expert can become alligator food
The GoodThe first thing we need to understand when attempting to analyze King's Quest is its historical significance. It was more than just the first installment of a long and successful series; more even than a template its creators have been building upon ever since. It was, in fact, the first real adventure game where you navigated an on-screen character through the only kind of world that this perspective allowed to be called "three-dimensional" that time.
Before this game, all we could do in adventures was, at best, view still screens with text and some graphics representing locations. Only action games allowed us to move around a little digital incarnation of ourselves. The great achievement of King's Quest was transferring common mechanics of adventure genres into a world ripe with hazards that suddenly became so much more real because they actually physically happened to our avatar. It's one thing to type "N" or "W" and another to quickly run away from a maniacal ogre as he begins chasing you. It might be fulfilling to type "go upstairs", but certainly less so than actually doing it and trying not to fall down. When you pick up an item, you can see exactly how it is done. When you swim underwater, you stay with your character instead of letting the game do it for you.
It is customary to mock Sierra for inserting too many death scenes in their games. In some games they really overdid this mechanic, and it started to feel cheap as adventure game development was advancing and designers found better means to convey danger and make their worlds more absorbing. But this hardly applies to the first King's Quest, where this design philosophy was undeniably intentional and where constant danger added so much suspense to what was essentially a stroll through fairly repetitive outdoor areas.
King's Quest remains one of the surprisingly few examples of a truly non-linear adventure game. Even its own sequel, released shortly afterwards, forced you to complete its three "door-opening" quests in a specific order. Here, you can work on finding the three needed objects simultaneously, with nothing to restrain you. You can walk around as much as you want, provided you are careful enough, studying local geography and fauna, and gradually getting acquainted with the land. The freedom of choice gives the game a wonderful feeling of breadth and true adventuring spirit, surpassing in that sense the strangulating linearity of many later games.
The game awards you points for most of the actions you perform. That was one of Sierra's best inventions, again taking something from arcade games and applying it to a completely different genre. This simple feature gave adventures something other companies generally paid less attention to: replay value. You can complete King's Quest without having scored full points. You can, in fact, bypass some of the most confusing puzzles entirely and still finish the game. But then you'll want to play it again and find out what you might have missed. King's Quest also does what many later games stopped doing: offer multiple solutions to puzzles. You can, for example, slay the dragon in the game if you manage to find a rather well-hidden weapon. But a more interesting, non-violent way will yield more points as well.
King's Quest has fantastic graphics. We are talking about the year 1984, and I don't think there was much on the market that looked better than this. Already the very first screen of the game renders us speechless, displaying a colorful castle adorned with banners waving in the wind, fully animated alligators swimming around in the moat, and our fashionable hero proudly strolling with his feathered hat. Most people today are only familiar with the updated EGA version that came out three years later; but the original release looked stunning with its CGA composite mode.
The BadThe flaws of King's Quest are all too obvious if we compare it to the generally more fondly remembered comedy games Sierra started doing later. Roberta Williams was probably thinking of children when she created the setting for the game, populating its world with harmless characters cut out of various fairy tales that didn't mesh with each other particularly well. A bad witch, a bad troll, a goat who likes carrots, a sleeping giant, a poor woodcutter and a few others are a far cry from some of the creatures you would encounter in earlier Infocom titles. The problem is that the game turned out to be too hard and punishing for children, ending up entertaining adults with magic beanstalk and a gnome whose name couldn't be guessed by rocket scientists.
As a result, the main problem of King's Quest becomes its lack of personality. There is really nothing distinguishing about anything you see or read in the game. The text is clearly written and at times attractive with its underlying energy, but ultimately rather plain and lacking wit and imagination. There is also not much of it, and though it is charming that sometimes you can receive feedback for actions that have nothing to do with advancing the plot, on many other occasions the game stubbornly refuses to cooperate, spouting out saddening strings of "You can't do that - at least not now" and "I don't understand ___".
In the realm of gameplay, this is manifested in the absence of a general "Look" command, which I really missed here. You can get fairly good descriptions for rooms, but as you explore lovely meadows and swim through serene lakes you won't be able to read anything like "Gleaming rays of Helios are surrealistically reflected in the depths of the hydrogen-filled basin, just as your own soul seeks astral redemption for your past karmic misdemeanors" or whatever.
The puzzles rely too much on the player's knowledge of fairy tales. I grew up outside of the Anglophone community that seems to be very fond of that particular genre, and therefore some of the solutions made very little sense to me. It was also confusing to reach dead ends more often than I wanted to, but after a while they sort of grew on me. Seriously, what is it about the modern obsession with absolute security in games? It's okay when games try to trick you, and it's rewarding when you figure out its tricks and avoid its traps.