Line On Sierra: King’s Quest I, Part 2
In Part 1 of my adventures in King’s Quest I, I dicked around, made a map, then gave up and started reading a walkthrough. In Part 2 I finished the game with liberal application of said walkthrough, and started thinking more seriously about what this game’s deal is.
When I last left Daventry, I was sitting at the base of a giant beanstalk throwing a tantrum. On my return I realized I should probably get my affairs in order before I climbed the thing. I had a horrible vision of getting up there and finding out I was missing some random object that was absolutely necessary. And wouldn’t you know it, I was correct! I consulted the walkthrough and determined I needed a magic shield before I climbed the beanstalk, which I really would have figured out if I’d just thought about it for ten sec- okay.
So look, while I’m in the midst of playing this game, it’s hard not to be violently cross about all the hoops I’m jumping through. Looking up an exact sequence of actions to avoid getting irreversibly stuck without warning doesn’t feel much like play. It’s not even an interesting kind of frustration. You’re just guessing what number someone’s thinking of and getting punched in the face when you’re wrong. But I don’t believe that game designers from the eighties were just flailing around out of childlike ignorance, either. They had reasons for making games the way they did, just as there are reasons not to make games that way now. I’m trying to keep that perspective as I go along. I’ve been helped in this by Ken Williams’s (amazingly retro) history site about Sierra, stuffed with grainy photographs and PDFs of hintbooks, magazine reviews, box art, and ads. It’s an awesome bunch of primary documents that I expect I’ll be referring to a bunch as I go along.
So, as I stomp off to find this absolutely vital four leaf clover that I originally thought was some kind of gremlin or spaceship, it’s important to remember that King’s Quest I was a graphically intensive game for its day. Reviewers enthused about the fact that typing “bow to the king” actually triggered a bowing animation in your character. (Apparently I lost points for not bowing to the king. Burn the patriarchy.) And that got me thinking about one possible reason for the brutally strict order of actions in this game.
Storing content like images and sprites was a serious strain on personal computer resources at this point. So there’s only so much game to see. This video walkthrough takes a little over half an hour from beginning to end. If you want to stretch that experience out, the player has to repeat content. So you force backtracking: lots of deaths, lots of dead ends. It’s crude, but it probably made these games last a whole lot longer than they would have otherwise.
Me, I’m perfectly fine with half-hour games, so I continued consulting the walkthrough and figured out that I needed to jump down a well. That’s a terrible idea! Why would I do that? I quickly got back to throwing tantrums. On the plus side, at the bottom of the well I found a bottle of wine bigger than my whole body. This object held a powerful attraction for me.
At this point I drowned. I restored my game, having learned a valuable lesson about looting underwater, and continued on.
In the next cave I met an adorable little dragon. Aw, look at it! Rahr! It only killed me once. Then I threw some water at it and it ran away. This makes this the only puzzle in the game to which I spontaneously figured out the “best solution” on my own. It was kind of gratifying, I guess.
It also brought back a vivid memory from my childhood of looking at a magazine article on the upcoming remake of KQI. It compared screenshots of this scene. The updated version looked like this:
First off, fuck that chump for having a higher score than me. I remember being super impressed by this image. I also remember the updated dragon being a lot larger and fancier than this, but that’s childhood memory for you. To my adult eyes the original version is a bit more charming, but I like that in the remake you can tell it’s guarding a mirror and not a graphical glitch.
At last the time had come to meet up with my eagle friend again.
The eagle took me to a hole that led to the Land of Leprechauns and this whole thing was terrible and made no sense. The spaceship clover I picked up earlier kept me from immediately being eaten by the leprechauns. Unfortunately, that meant I had to spend more time hanging out with them and the inexplicable lo-res chirping sound they kept making.
I tried playing some music of my own and the leprechauns started to breakdance and then vanished, leaving their king behind for some reason. In general the citizens of Daventry, whatever their species, don’t seem particularly careful about what happens to their rulers.
The king slowly ran away while I tried to steal his shield without colliding with him. I also made sure to steal his sceptre, a completely useless item only good for points. Having driven a marginalized people from their home, humiliated their leader, and stolen their wealth as trophies, I felt vastly more prepared to rule a kingdom. I returned to the surface to climb the beanstalk.
In investigating strategies for managing this bullshit, I found out for the first time that the game had “fast,” “slow,” and “normal” speed options. Nice! I thinks, I’ll just put on fast and run over to the beanstalk right quick and HOLY SHIT
I can’t easily convey just how fast Graham took off when I hit the UP key, but his wild ride ended seconds later with him drowning at amazing velocity. The moments in between were a blur. It seems these options were in the game to accommodate players with different processors, and so their speed was dependent on how quickly the graphics could render. My dad’s 1988 IBM PS/2 may well have trotted along pleasantly at “fast” speed. Processors are different now.
After some more rigmarole I managed to start climbing the stalk. By saving constantly and not giving a shit, I got up to the top with only three fatal tumbles and not too much time lost. There I met a giant!
Because of the magic shield I had stolen from the leprechauns, I guess, he was unable to harm me. So we just hung out for a bit.
The walkthrough had said I should wait until he falls asleep. This didn’t seem like it would happen for any reason, since the guy was just walking around carrying his big macguffin. But indeed, he passed out for no reason.
Concealed by a tree, I furtively looted his sleeping body. The whole thing felt weird. Then I ran off.
This staircase brought back some vividly traumatic memories. I don’t think they had to do with this game in particular, but this sort of “skinny-ass staircase” sequence was popular throughout the Sierra games of this era, if I recall correctly. See, as a child I hadn’t yet figured out how the diagonal keys on the numpad worked. Someone explained the Num Lock key to me at one point, but the name sounded so permanent and mechanical that I was afraid to press it lest I break the keyboard. So I navigated stairs like these by very quickly mashing the DOWN and LEFT keys in quick succession. My character would spin around madly and very, very slowly progress towards the bottom, with a very high error rate of tumbling off the edge.
The sad part of this story is that when I played this game in 2013, I still didn’t think to use the diagonal keys. I wiggled my way down three screens of this fucking staircase before that memory came back to me.
But! My ordeal was soon over! I had obtained all three macguffins: the dragon’s mirror, the giant’s chest (it was a chest), and some other thing. I headed triumphantly back to the castle with my treasures and a bunch of other weird items I never used. Maybe my score was some shit, but I was going to be king and nothing was going to stop me now
This only happened once this time. I might be getting better at this game! I made my way past the Line Eating Committee and headed for the castle, picking up another Door Open point on the way. Once I reached the king I tried to give him my fancy treasures.
Even after a few attempts at rewording, I found the act of giving my macguffins to the king shockingly difficult. I began to panic that I had done something wrong and would have to repeat several hours of rigmarole. I had just begun yelling something derisive at the parser when I realized the game was unresponsive because I was in THE WORLD’S GREATEST CUTSCENE.
PERFECT. Did you notice the giant crown on my tapestry? It matches the one that magically appeared on my head when the old king fell over and became a plank. I am slightly concerned about the lack of witnesses to this remarkable transfer of power. If this thing works, I don’t know why I couldn’t have just gone with my ASSASSINATE KING plan in the beginning and skipped all that other shit.
THINGS THAT KILLED ME IN KING’S QUEST I: THE POWER RANKING
- Alligators (7 times)
- Rat (5)
- Witch (3)
- Beanstalk (3)
- Wolf (2)
- Dragon (1)
- River (1)
- Moore’s Law (1)
- Alcoholism (1)