Line on Sierra: King’s Quest IV, Part I
After another Space Quest and a highly unfortunate Police Quest, it’s finally time to return to the flagship series with King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. It represents the biggest leap in graphical quality in the series so far, as well as a few other innovations I’ll get to later. For now, behold the glory of 320×200 resolution!
It also represents a huge milestone in the Line on Sierra project: King’s Quest IV was the first computer game my family bought when I was a kid. That means this is the first of the games so far that I actually played when it came out. From here on out, this previously high-minded design archaeology is gonna get all dirtied up with nostalgia. I felt it as soon as I saw the title logo and heard the theme music, but I had no idea how bad it would get.
The story starts up right where King’s Quest III ended, with King Graham using a hat to decide which of his children he likes best: the daughter he raised from birth and recently tried to sacrifice to a dragon, or the guy who showed up literally five minutes ago claiming to be his son. Tough call.
Look how fancy that throne room is! More resolution? Time for elaborate stippling on EVERY SURFACE. The royal family even has eyeballs and mouths! For comparison, here’s how the same scene looked back in King’s Quest III, a mere two years earlier:
A contemporary article in Computer Gaming World (via the archive site SierraGamers) goes into just what a shocking display of Good Graphics this game was at the time. One of the things it mentions is that it came on nine freaking 5.25″ disks, i.e. the floppy disks that were actually floppy. Imagine walking around one of these games and swapping disks in and out every time you changed screens; it was agony. Bless GOG. An ad claimed, believably, that it was the largest computer game to date at “a whopping 5.5 megabytes of program code.” (That’s about one-fifth the size of this blog post.) This was a big, ostentatious attempt to move the series forward.
ANYWAY THEN GRAHAM HAS A HEART ATTACK
There’s no room for you in the shiny new EGA era, old man! One of the most obviously modern touches in KQIV is that it starts with a long, graphically lush cutscene where one of your family members is in mortal danger.
“Oh Father,” she sobs, while sitting comfortably in his throne, “wow it’s so sad you’re about to die, I really wish I could help, but I guess I can’t, :(”
This is a good time to remind the audience that Rosella, really just minutes ago, returned from being tied to a stake next to a giant fucking dragon. Who is it that tied her there, we must wonder. The unrestrained exposition bomb in King’s Quest III only said that the dragon demanded sacrifices of young maidens, and Rosella was “the chosen one this year.” Chosen by who? The dragon? It’s a dragon. There’s no evidence it can talk.
No, the only sensible interpretation is that the King and Queen of Daventry, increasingly desperate that their strategy of human sacrifice has not caused the dragon to leave them alone, convinced themselves that their only remaining option was to ritually offer it their own blood. At some point very recently, Rosella’s mom and dad looked her in the eye and said she had to be dragon food for the good of the nation.
So let’s keep this all in mind as Rosella goes to absurd lengths to save her crummy, blood-sacrificing father. What motivates our heroine? Perhaps we should look to the terrifying mage who just showed up claiming to be her twin brother. Her parents seem to be treating her as disposable, so she has to be concerned about her chances in a suddenly very complicated succession. Besides which, the timing is suspect: guy with magic powers shows up claiming to be the king’s son, king recognizes his claim, king immediately keels over. If this is part of “Alexander’s” plan, who knows what he’s planning next. Whatever her ambitions or her feelings about what he’s done, a dead Graham is no help to Rosella right now.
So it’s handy that the weird magic mirror suddenly starts offering her magical aid! The magic mirror that her dad… stole from a dragon… which he splashed water on but did not kill… hang on. It’s the same dragon, isn’t it. OH MY GOD HE JUST WANTED HIS MIRROR BACK, NOT A BUNCH OF DEAD WOMEN, JESUS
But you know what? Enough about Graham, incompetent hero that he is. We have a better class of protagonist now! Rosella was first introduced to us in King’s Quest III being reasonably skeptical of someone’s bullshit fairy tale claims, and here she is keeping at it. The fairy Genesta, who somehow knows the number to their mirror, kindly offers to let Rosella do all the work of saving her dad if Rosella also defeats some enemy of Genesta’s. But the deal gets even better!
It’s a one way trip UNLESS YOU HELP ME. Oops, I’m losing the connection, you have to decide in the next few seconds! Wow OK I guess you want your dad to die maybe??
So, despite her natural skepticism, Rosella gets railroaded into doing a favor for someone who seems pretty questionable. This will turn out to be a common theme in her adventures.
It genuinely delights me that Rosella is stunned by the beauty of this woman who looks exactly like her.
By this point it should be clear that KQIV is using a lot more variety in its visual storytelling than previous games in the series. There are closeups, insets, more design options for dialogue and text boxes, etc. And something that doesn’t come through in screenshots is that every bit of this is animated within an inch of its life. It gives the designers a lot of options to make the huge exposition dump that starts one of these games more engaging. Twenty-five years later, the excesses of cutscenes will become one of the Standard Videogame Jokes, but at this point it’s not a bad alternative to making the player read a manual.
Anyway, Genesta is sad because she is dying, and she needs a magic amulet to save her (as opposed to the magic fruit needed to save King Graham). Rosella needs to grab all of this stuff, but first she needs an outfit change!
It’s interesting that Rosella, like her alleged brother, needs to be disguised as a peasant before she begins her adventure. Just one of the little bits of fairy tale logic incorporated into the series, without much context around it. Certainly her new outfit looks more practical for falling off diagonal things. And those braids! One thing these screenshots can’t capture is how jauntily they swing back and forth as she walks. It’s adorable. When I was a kid and had long braids, I would try to swing them when I walked, just like that. I always felt sad when I got to the end and she got her princess dress back.
Then Genesta flies the fuck off, leaving you confused on a beach, in the manner of your ancestors.
This also brings us to my first vivid memory of videogames. I mentioned earlier that KQIV was the first game my family ever bought for our home computer. As would become a tradition, my mom controlled the keyboard, with me and my brothers crowded around the computer desk watching. With all the visual flash of the introduction, it was an incredibly exciting moment!
And then it took us half an hour to figure out how to move. We were all “WALK NORTH” and it just went “this game does not understand north.” We scoured the manual for hints. Somewhere it said something like “If you get stuck, remember, leave no stone unturned!” But sadly, typing “TURN STONE” didn’t help at all. It was an embarrassingly long time before we realized the arrow keys had anything to do with it.
I try to keep this little parable in mind if I ever think that videogame controls are in any way accessible to people who haven’t played videogames their entire lives.
Well! Unlike 1988 Line, I have been playing videogames my entire life, so this is all cake for me. Walkin’, drawin’ maps, pickin’ up shiny objects. I am totally in control of this situation. Mapping went pretty quickly. Each screen is more detailed, but there’s about the same number of screens as in previous games. I’m getting used to this routine, which involves walking in a zig-zag pattern up and down the grid to get a sense of the space.
Rosella continued to have charming little animations all the time, such as this kneeling motion to pick up a shiny thing under a bridge. But the Computer Gaming World review reminded me that these animations absolutely destroyed most computers at the time. This immediately took me back to the horror of watching Rosella drawing a bow or something in agonizing, jerky slow motion while something is about to eat or disintegrate her. Computers are finally on her level now, though, and moving her around is a delight.
As usual, while walking the mapping beat, there’s some fantasy nonsense to engage in for reasons that seem obscure at the time. Finally, a game with some awkward makeouts! This guy turned out to be a jackass, but I stole his crown, which gave me the power to TURN INTO A FROG AT WILL.
THIS GAME IS AMAZING.
There is a time and a place to turn into a frog for game purposes, of course, but the game lets you pop the crown on anytime and just hang out being a frog for a few seconds. This is very cute and hard for me to resist. It’s definitely a welcome change from the parser mocking me whenever I do something just for kicks. Similarly, you eventually get some musical instruments, and you can play a little tune on those anytime you feel like it.
Pulling out my lute and playing a merry tune did not convince this fisherman’s wife to give me any of the cool stuff in her house, but I did appreciate the opportunity to express myself. All the more so because the text input is now a box that floats over the middle of the screen, rather than a line at the bottom, like so:
…which means I can’t really keep up the running on-screen commentary that I have in previous entries in the series. I hate this change! Not only does it interfere with my world-renowned style, it’s ridiculous to block part of the screen during input in games where stuff can happen in real time.
At any rate, at some point in my mapping adventures I stumbled across this gorgeous little treehouse and that – that’s when the nostalgia hit me. Real bad. A long-quiet part of me still wants to live in this house, with its protective root-roof, and its flowery little moat and and
and then Rosella gets into the house and I remembered exactly what to do, because I must have played this game a million times, and I didn’t always finish it but I always made it to this part because it was my favorite. Cleaning the little house, with this cute little music playing, and Rosella doing that cute little “busy cloud” animation, even when it ran super slow and took forever…
And then the seven dwarfs show up, with all their different colored outfits, and ok, yeah, this took forever and was pretty repetitive, but what if they all had different little personalities and relationships and…
So, okay. Originally I started streaming this game on Twitch, like I did for Space Quest II. This was the point where I got a little overwhelmed and shut the whole thing down. Nostalgia is not something I experience often, as I don’t have a lot of memories of my childhood. It’s novel, and interesting, but also pretty uncomfortable and weird. I didn’t expect to get so emotional at the recognition of a scene I didn’t even remember. That said, I’m generally into games that make me feel uncomfortable and weird, so let’s keep this train wreck going!
In other nostalgia news, the waiting mouse cursor in this game is a crown, and I found this little game endlessly entertaining as a child. This is how I can be sure that I played this game a million times, by the way. I’m pretty sure we didn’t get a mouse until a much later date.
Note that Rosella looks great even after falling off of things. A useful trait, considering her lifestyle!
Well, anyway, I survived my encounter with the nostalgia dwarves. Despite my vivid recognition of the cleaning scene, I actually ended up screwing this one up and having to backtrack considerably later. Once the dwarves leave, they leave a pouch of diamonds on the table, which I naturally assumed was a discreet payment for all the work I just did. But no! Apparently I just stole that stuff. I was supposed to go hand it over to their leader, at which point he would indulgently give it back to me along with a lantern. This is just the kind of elaborate padding to add failure states to simple actions that I expect from the King’s Quest series.
Indeed, although King’s Quest III experimented with a more Space Quest-like episodic style, KQIV returns pretty much to the structure of King’s Quest II: walk around a field, grab stuff, unlock three specific quests in order. In most of the King’s Quest games, successful play tends to lead to a drawn-out introduction where you fill your inventory as much as you can before you start unlocking things. If you do it right, that means you have a good save in place before you start losing access to items or parts of the map. Therefore, less backtracking.
But, as is also typical of Sierra games of this era, there’s little to no signposting of what should be accessible to you now versus later. This unicorn shows up at random and seems like something I should want (because it’s a fucking unicorn!) but she always runs away when I approach her. Do I have what I need to get her? Am I doing something wrong? (No and no, as it happens.)
The little touches of extra interactivity in KQIV are cool, but they add to this sense of uncertainty. I can sit down and play this organ as soon as I see it, but it doesn’t do anything until I get some sheet music much later. This had me searching frantically all around the organ to see if I missed something. On the other hand, demonstrating Rosella’s multi-instrument musical ability is a nice bit of character development. She’s got a fancy princess education!
At this point, there’s a little bit of tension between the way I’ve been trained as a player – to see every interaction as either a failure or a step towards getting a precious inventory item – and the game’s attempt to expand the narrative and character possibilities of the format.
Another new twist is that KQIV runs on a timer throughout the whole game. Both Space Quest I and King’s Quest III use timers to add a sense of tension to specific parts of the game. King’s Quest III was especially effective in how it used timers in the first half of the game to establish a suspenseful routine to Gwydion’s life with the evil wizard Manannan. KQIV is a little different in that it uses a 24-hour clock running over the entire game, including a day/night cycle of sorts. (They end up cheating a bit – more on that in Part II.)
This is somewhat less effective. Most of your backtracking involves returning to earlier save states, so you keep resetting the clock. I imagine that it’s near-impossible to run through 24 hours of in-game time trying to beat it. Genesta really hammers home that you only have TWENTY-FOUR HOURS to save her and your dad in the introduction, which adds a bit of suspense as long as you don’t think about it too much. After the game’s over, though, it ends up feeling like a feature that looked cool on the box but didn’t add up to much in the execution.
After a sufficient amount of unicorn chasing and map drawing, I finally stumbled upon the actual plot of the game. I could tell that spooky castle was important, but as you can imagine, this mountain path instantly filled me with dread.
BUT WAIT! Some winged ghoul guys showed up and gave me a lift! Yaaaaay thanks
They dumped me in jail for a while, then took me to the throne room of the villain of the piece, a sorceress named Lolotte. You can tell she’s the bad one because she’s not white and blonde, I guess. Lolotte sees through my crummy cover story immediately. Looks like I’m gonna die!
BUT NO: there’s a terrible love interest in this story too! And he’s starting off on a very creepy note! Given the timeline of events, the only way he could have “taken a liking” to me is by spying on me while I was pacing around a dungeon cell. Thanks for the help and all, Edgar, but that’s unsettling. I like your tapestry with two snakes and a guitar though.
Lolotte has high standards for who gets to date her son, so she sends me off on some traditional dowry quests. This is where the “three sequential quests” structure kicks in, similar to King’s Quest II (which also involved pursuing someone’s hand in marriage, interestingly). Although in this case, I’m just using this all as an excuse to get close to Lolotte so I can steal her necklace, which she supposedly stole from Genesta in turn. I’m the good guy!
The first quest is to capture the unicorn, which as previously stated, I have no idea how to do. So, based on a vague memory from childhood, I jumped in the ocean and started swimming.
In previous King’s Quest games, the ocean served as a natural border that was conveniently attractive, infinite, and fatal. You could swim as long as you wanted, but generally you would just drown after a few repeated backgrounds. KQIV changes that without signalling the change at all. Now, after you swim for a few screens, you end up on an island that turns out to be where Genesta lives.
You can even visit Genesta, lying on her extremely well-appointed deathbed in her extremely well-appointed palace. I quite enjoy the symmetry between the two opposing sorceresses. Both have fancy palaces in isolated locations, both are waited on by winged servants, both send you on questionable tasks, and each seems to be using you to screw over the other. I get the feeling this war has been going on for a really long time.
Genesta’s island is pretty, but there’s not much to do on it besides admire her extremely well-appointed garden. While wandering, I found a cool peacock feather on a beach, which immediately filled me – and anyone reading this who has played the game, probably – with dread.
And right on cue, my trip back to the mainland was interrupted by this attractive whale, who eats me. I’ve complained throughout that each of these early Sierra games includes at least one miserable pixel-perfect navigation scene, such as the jellyfish brain in Space Quest II or the poison brambles in King’s Quest II. For players of these games, they are the source of memories that are both unhappy and weirdly proud, like this was a painful experience we’re all stronger for having survived. And I knew, from both my own memory and common wisdom, that the very worst of them was coming up in this lousy whale’s lousy mouth. Before I even get into that, I need to complain about this “message in a bottle” I found floating in gross whale saliva.
GOD DAMN IT
These little Easter egg-style ads for other Sierra games are a common feature in the games of this era. The message in a bottle actually cycles through a few random game references, including Space Quest II and childrens’ game Mixed Up Mother Goose. I just lucked into getting a message from a game I hate worse than Genesta hates Lolotte. This was a discouraging start.
Man, those teeth are amazing. I love the whole weirdly textured, chunky design of this room. It’s the only scene in this game I could accurately picture from memory before playing it again as an adult, and there’s a reason for that. It’s really striking!
Okay, the other reason is that I probably spent a lot of time in this scene. There’s a climbing puzzle here, roughly similar to the beanstalk-climbing portion of King’s Quest I. But it’s instantly harder than the beanstalk or any of the other navigation minigames in previous entries, because the path is invisible. You can start on either side of the whale’s tongue, but once you do you have to take a really specific, finicky route upwards and inwards to reach the top. Figuring out where to start adds an additional bit of uncertainty that wasn’t there in previous versions. After that, it’s a lot of trial and error that’s hard to learn from, because the whole surface of the tongue looks the same. There’s no way to pick out landmarks, and it’s hard to remember what steps you took that were successful before. There’s one thing that makes it easier: you don’t die when you fail.
All that said? I was surprised at how quickly I got through this. Clearly, my spatial ability has improved since I was eight or whatever. There was a lot of excessive game-saving, and I had the game speed cranked way down, but eh, it was fine.
Your goal, of course, is to reach the giant shiny uvula at the top and tickle it with the peacock feather so you can get sneezed out. For some reason, this lands you on an island where you find a bridle that can capture the unicorn. So my jumping in the ocean instincts were good after all!
Now that I’ve made it through the greatest trial this game has to throw at me, it’s time to finally get around to the main quest. More on that, the nature of Rosella as a protagonist, and the continued evolution of Sierra’s storytelling style in Part II.