Line On Sierra: King’s Quest III, Part 1
After a diversion into Space Quest, my chronological journey through Sierra’s Quest games returns to the flagship series. King’s Quest III is unusual among the games in this project because I’d actually played a version of it fairly recently. Namely, this elaborate fan remake by Infamous Adventures. The remake was an impressive undertaking, rendering the game in an updated graphical style and with an interface that matches the later, mouse-driven Sierra games. I played it a few years ago; don’t remember how far I got, but far enough that when I started playing the original it felt like I was treading familiar ground. This killed my motivation a bit, contributing to this record-breaking gap between LoS posts.
When I finally got back to it, though, I ended up enjoying it way more than I expected. King’s Quest III picks up on the narrative smoothness of Space Quest I and tries quite a few new things of its own. It’s the first of these games I’d recommend anyone play for anything other than historical reasons.
When we last left this series, King Graham had traveled the purple sea on the back of a giant fish to find a Queen for his tiny kingdom of quaint murderbeasts. This entry starts out on a slightly more mundane note. A young man and his tiny house / giant chicken hutch, gazing longingly at a world map. This guy might look exactly like Graham with a slight palette swap, but no! He’s someone named Gwydion!
As the game informs us with a gigantic exposition dump! “In this tiny kingdom, it seems the word ‘said’ is forbidden,” I smirk. This might seem a little information-heavy for the pre-tutorial days, but no worries, the manual has PAGES more of this stuff. The gist is: the sexy beardo is Manannan, your standard evil wizard who dominates the pixel landscape down below. Gwydion is the latest in a series of orphan boys he kidnaps to clean his house, because the demon house-cleaners he summoned didn’t work out.
Gwydion’s life is therefore your basic Misunderstood Magic Boy Melodrama. The game sketches this sad business out with some genuinely nice little details.
At the start of the game, I spent some time wandering around picking up everything in sight, as you do. Then Manannan showed up, declared he was leaving on a trip, and poofed away. This awakened a dim memory from my playthrough of the remake. I figured it was my cue to escape the tiny house and wander around the countryside.
This brought me to the treacherous mountain path you see here. Against all logic and human kindness, this kind of thing continues to be a staple in Sierra adventures. As an added bonus, this is a path you will traverse like one billion times over the course of this game. People on twitter kept warning me about this one in particular. It seems to have had a traumatizing effect on its young players. That said, my first time through, I made it through this whole screen without a slip, and I was pretty pleased with myself.
I made it all the way to the end, even! “This is no way as hard as everyone said,” I ruminated. “I bet I can just jump down this last bit here here!”
After a couple more ruined savegames, I made it to the world below, where I embraced life as only a sheltered orphan can. Note the barmaid’s adherence to local language regulations. The world outside offered the usual adventures I’ve grown to expect from a King’s Quest title: picking up different-colored lumps on the ground, drowning in an infinite ocean, being eaten. The difference is that I’m on a timer I don’t know the length of. I assume, and vaguely remember, that when Manannan returns from his trip he will completely kill me for being out of the house. But when will he return?
Now generally, I’m not a fan of timers in adventure games. I just had a pretty unpleasant encounter with one in Space Quest I, in fact. Adventure puzzles are all about staring at some crap that makes no sense until it suddenly makes sense. By nature, it’s a process that will take wildly different lengths of time for different players in different contexts. You also can’t gradually improve your speed with practice: once you get it, you can perform it instantly every time in the future. Adding an arbitrary time limit to all that is just punishment for punishment’s sake. But! It kinda worked in King’s Quest III. The difference is that there’s a repeated cycle of Manannan leaving and coming back. Instead of getting everything perfect or instadeath, you’re testing the limits of how much you can get done before running back each time. It’s adding tension, not a hard barrier.
Out in the world, I had a chance to check out the latest graphical improvements. When I played Space Quest I noted a marked increase in layered spaces and objects being somewhat in proportion to each other. KQ3 isn’t quite as nice-looking as Space Quest – look no further than the chicken-hutch-sized mansion below – but there are clear attempts to spruce up the visuals of the world. This waterfall, for example, has some nice water animations going on. This whole scene has also gone six kinds of off the wall with the layered space concept. Where is this camera even placed? Listen, maybe we should move on. Manannan could be returning ANY MINUTE.
In my paranoia, I returned home rather more quickly than I needed to. I nervously fed chickens, expecting my master to come home any minute. His continued absence made me bolder, and I started to explore the house more. This led me to a secret basement room full of secret magic crap. At last, a chance to start some shit! I stole everything I could find and started fiddling with the giant spellbook in the middle of the room. This went poorly.
I guess having big ears kills me for some reason? Actually, it kind of looks like my entire face turned into a hideously extended ear-like orifice, so maybe that’s the problem. Anyway, I died. It took me a while to figure out how to even interact with the book. I got as far as opening it to random pages and staring in horror as unsettling comic death approached me. I finally consulted a walkthrough and learned the terrible truth: I was going to have to read the fucking manual.
Why yes, the era of creative copy protection is upon us! This is one of the things I most associate with Sierra games as a kid. To prevent piracy, they always included some kind of test based on a physical manual or other “feely.” Most were basic “type in the fifth word on the page 12 of the manual” type of things. Some were a bit fancier. My favorite as a kid was from The Colonel’s Bequest, where you had to match a displayed fingerprint to the right character using a little “magnifying glass” made of paper and transparent red plastic.
But KQ3 is in another league entirely. Not only is there an entire spellbook in the manual whose details are required for every major puzzle in the game, but you have to TYPE ALL THIS SHIT IN VERBATIM. Also note the hard-to-photocopy blue and yellow color scheme. They ain’t foolin around. There are seven spells altogether, all of similar complexity to this one. Each has a list of ingredients that you gather through usual adventure-puzzle means, and a list of directions that you need to type in after activating the spellbook. Unlocking these spells opens up new parts of the game.
There is an interesting consequence to this design choice. Unlike most Sierra adventures, you actually have a list of all the random shit you need to gather, and an in-game reason for your character to gather it. The basic structure of “pick up stuff and bang it together” is still there, but now there’s an explanation for it. You can also intentionally seek things out: like, where would I find a reptile skin? Maybe the desert! This is all so sensible that I dread returning to the classic “inventory fuckaround” model in the next game.
I screwed around for a bit, but wasn’t able to make any spells with my paltry inventory. Whoops! When Manannan finally came home, he asked me to feed him dinner. I tried my best, but the parser defeated my attempts to SERVE MUTTON until he got mad and turned me into a snail.
Oh shit! Unlike having big ears, being a snail apparently doesn’t kill me. Even though I kept very slowly hassling the cat. After a while I went back to normal and got back to stealing stuff around the house. An important part of this game is that you need to hide all your stuff under your bed periodically, because Manannan will for real kill you if he catches you with it. In a game where your goal is to gather tons of stuff, needing to sneak it away all the time can get pretty frustrating.
At this point in the game I was pretty drunk and decided to take a break for like a month.
When I came back I settled into the game’s regular routine of hiding shit under my bed, doing chores, stealing things, and waiting for Manannan to leave. It was a slow life. He hangs around for a long time! Sometimes he’d yell at me to do something, and I’d go sweep the kitchen or feed the chickens or whatever. Sometimes he would punish me for following him around.
This was the point where I started to get kind of weird about Manannan.
I mean, I’m stuck in this static environment for an unknown period of time. I’ve stolen all the stuff I can steal. There’s only one object here that can be interacted with meaningfully, and he keeps doing weird things to me when I get near him. When I avoid him, he sometimes appears behind me in a puff of smoke and just stares. The whole thing started to feel kind of, you know, hot.
When he wasn’t staring at me, Manannan spent a lot of time in his study, which I was forbidden to enter. So I spent the entire time he was at home entering his study over and over. When I did this he would usually give me some chore, which would kill time and also give me some space to think about what he was up to.
Except when I had to empty his chamberpot. Not my thing, Manannan. We should talk about this stuff ahead of time.
Barging into his study wasn’t getting me enough attention, though. To do that, I soon found, I had to disturb him while he was sleeping. MAYBE I could have spent this time working on my magic, but no, it was too tempting to see what he would do to me when he woke up.
For example: hang me from the kitchen ceiling in the manner of a bunch of garlic.
Eventually Manannan left again, and I burst out into the world with all the pent-up frustration I could muster. In a few jumps down to the countryside and back to the Secret Magic Basement, I quickly learned how to transform into both a fly and an eagle.
I immediately used this newfound power to fly out across a desert and die. It’s weird to get access to all these hugely powerful spells which you know will only be used for one purpose at a specific point in time.
Another weird thing about the structure of this game: while I appreciated having clear goals in my quest for random crap, it also led to a lot of frustration when things appeared that logically should provide said random crap, but didn’t. I chased these damn birds around for ages looking for a feather, but none of them panned out. The parser even started being kind of a dick about it. Turns out I was supposed to pluck the feather off one of the chickens. Why not just specify “chicken feather”? Dicks. Anyway, the chicken feather gave me a spell that lets me hear what animals are saying. For example: Manannan’s cat plotting my murder.
(“Even the mewlings of cats must not be sullied by the foul word ‘says’,” I thunder.)
But all the other animals in the kingdom just talk about my backstory.
MY RIDICULOUS BACKSTORY. WHICH IS VERY RELEVANT TO THE LIVES OF SQUIRRELS.
Yeah, so, spoiler alert, I’m a SECRET PRINCE! As are all mistreated orphans! I’m also related to those scattered pixels from the earlier games! And my mom’s name is Valanice? I’m not sure we even learned her name in the last game. I guess transitioning from Damsel in Tower to Mother of Stolen Baby comes with some perks.
Also: I love the embellishment of her being, not a mere sister, but a TWIN sister. So fancy! I’m starting to feel a little suspicious of the animals of Llewdor, to be honest. Every time I enter a room they start talking real loud about how I’m some kid who’s been missing since he was an infant? Who’s heir to a large fortune? I bet they ate the real prince.
Being lied to by birds wasn’t actually useful to my quest, it turns out. But it provided some irritating color as I wandered around gathering ingredients for other spells. The most significant of those was a spell to turn someone into a cat. It was pretty clear from the incredible silliness of the other spells that this was my only way to defeat Manannan for good. It also made me wonder who Murder Cat was in a past life. Maybe a lover Manannan grew tired of, now consumed by jealousy watching my incessant flirtation? I kept expecting to learn something about the cat’s history, but no luck. I think Roberta Williams maybe just doesn’t like cats.
In addition to the list of ingredients, all the spells in the game require you to type in a terrible incantation. Not only is this deeply embarrassing, it also provides one last level of difficulty. Even so much as missing a comma can lead to hideous death…
WAIT NO, I’M A KITTY! Why does this kill me?! Fuck that, I will totally live life as a little kitty-orphan hybrid! Look how cute I am! I wanna go find Manannan and rub up against his leg until he kicks me!
But no, that life is not to be. For I am fated to destroy that which I love most. To seek out my destiny that some squirrels made up, I must symbolically kill the father figure that ties me to this house where I grew up. By feeding him with the knowledge he tried to keep from me all these years, I will render him harmless. All I need to do is just.. give him this cookie…
It is a particularly cruel thing to give everyone lousy fantasy names in a game based on typing words exactly. Let’s try that again.
And with that, it is done. But not really! I kind of expected the game to be over now, or close to it, but no. There’s a whole second act to come. Like Space Quest, this game does more than previous installments to divide up the time into meaningful subquests. I’ll talk a bit more about that structure in Part II. For now, enjoy this bittersweet moment between Gwydion the Fake Prince and Manannan the Adorable Kitty.