Line on Sierra: King’s Quest IV, Part II
April 6, 2015 - Features / Line On Sierra
Last time in King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, I made it through the long, inventory-stuffing introduction sequence and out of the dreaded whale’s mouth. Now I’m ready to defeat evil and bring hope to the forces of good and
WOW HANG ON LET ME EXPLAIN
See we’re friends now! It’s cool! Everything’s cool! They’re not ARROWS arrows, they’re love arrows! Love arrows I stole from a terrified baby! This is fine!
As long as we’re shooting unicorns with love arrows and all, it’s probably a good time to talk about the wonderful, bracing girliness of King’s Quest IV. Rosella is the first woman protagonist I’ve encountered in the series so far, of course. As far as I can tell from the archive site SierraGamers, she’s the first woman protagonist in any Sierra adventure game. Despite the fact that Roberta Williams was the lead designer on all of the King’s Quest games so far, this was apparently remarkable enough to warrant a question in the Computer Gaming World interview with Williams I’ve linked to before. Williams’s response suggested that she hoped it would attract more women into the player base. She also didn’t expect male players to care either way. Let’s all take some time to mourn a period in games history when a woman designer could make a statement like that with confidence.
And god, let’s mourn a period in games history when the biggest technical extravaganza of its time could be, not just a game starring a woman, but a big fuckoff unicorns and flowers and dresses GIRLY game. Rosella isn’t quite a new sprite laid over the same game design as her father and brother. Indeed, one of the things that’s really stood out on replay is that the three characters are given somewhat distinctive styles to how they interact with the world. Graham is the vanilla version, using objects and fairy tale knowledge to screw over various creatures. Gwydion had his magical spells.
Rosella differs from both by being largely nonviolent (THEY’RE LOVE ARROWS) and having a number of traditionally feminine interactions with the world. I often waver between finding this either cool and novel or unpleasantly reductive. I love her musical ability and her frog kissing! But I mean, she solves one puzzle by cleaning up after some dudes. They haven’t even made Roger Wilco do that, and he’s an actual janitor.
But it’s also cool that all the important characters in the game are women. The whole thing is driven by a mysterious conflict between two powerful sorceresses, and their agendas drive all the protagonist’s actions. The only men of note are a love interest with one line and a fridged dad. It’s like the opposite of a videogame.
I have to wonder what impression all this girliness made on me as a young child. Given the options at the time, it’s sheer luck that the first big videogame I was exposed to had a woman protagonist and a setting that appealed to someone who was mostly into My Little Ponies. I got through most of my childhood without feeling like it was weird for me to like videogames (that feeling came in high school, of course). How much of a difference did this introduction make?
This discussion was a good opportunity to distract you from the fact that I just led my new best friend the unicorn to Lolotte’s palace, where the noble creature realized my betrayal a moment too late. It’s cool we’re cool! Lolotte now wants a magic hen, because she is starting the world’s fanciest farm on top of a mountain.
At this point I had backtracked enough that I was going off the walkthrough on a full time basis. Sorry, childhood self! We’ve been through this the hard way already. And back then we paid CASH MONEY by the MINUTE to listen to a robot voice slowly tell us we were supposed to get the feather to escape the whale, which we already knew, the question was how to climb the damn tongue, which, it turns out, a robot on a telephone cannot tell you.
But this is a more civilized era. On the walkthrough’s advice, I was now plowing through a nice dark cave scene where I got randomly killed by a troll every once in a while. Just what I’ve come to expect from these games. The visual design of this scene is quite lovely, though. There’s some neat chiaroscuro lighting on Rosella, and you navigate by inferring the shape of obstacles from how they block your little globe of light.
On the other side was a swamp that I fell into several times before figuring out that it was the world’s most halfassed platforming sequence. See, this keeps happening with these games. They were the genre busting epics of their time, you know? And just like the big budget games of our time, they had this irritating tendency to try to awkwardly jam other game types into an engine that didn’t really support it. You gotta have something for everyone!
So, anyway, this is why I had to type “JUMP” fifteen times in a row.
She’s very cute jumping. Braids flying up and all. Not fifteen times in a row cute, but still.
So one of the problems with using a walkthrough in these games is that sometimes I get into kind of a nice groove, typing in weird commands and all, and then suddenly realize I have no idea how this relates to getting a hen from an ogre. As it happens, I had to pick up a bone somewhere in the cave so I can distract the ogre’s dog. But the reason I kept going through all this rigmarole is because I’m now face to face with the actual reason I’m putting up with Genesta’s bullshit at all: the fruit that cures heart attacks!
You can actually finish the game without ever picking up the magic fruit. This, of course, gives you a bad end where King Graham dies. I’m pretty sure this is the first appearance of branching storylines in these games, and it’s a mean one. It seems like it would be very easy to forget about the whole magic fruit thing once you’re deeply embedded in the sorceress war and the more pressing quest to get home. I’ve talked before about how forcing the player to backtrack a lot helped stretch out a necessarily small amount of game content into a longer experience. Introducing the “bad end” possibility is kind of the natural endpoint of this design strategy. Now you have to replay the whole game to get resolution!
Anyway, I got the fruit by mesmerizing a snake with my previously established musical talent, so no bad end for me! Unfortunately, that means I have to JUMP back fifteen times and wind my way through the dark cave all over again.
Later on, when reading the walkthrough, I would find out that there’s a shortcut key I can hit to jump, but it was too late. This is kind of a weird design decision. This is the only part of the game where JUMPing is necessary. To introduce a shortcut key for one scene acknowledges that the command is a pain, but to not use it anywhere else makes it unlikely for the player to learn the command through natural experimentation. This is design that’s really aimed at a player who reads the manual carefully first, which is true of most of these early Sierra games. Such a player would see a JUMP shortcut and think “oh, that’ll come in handy eventually,” so they’ll be looking for a situation that requires jumping. A player who does not read the manual, like me, will just fall into a swamp over and over before figuring out the most awkward possible solution.
It’s funny. I was raised on these games, so there was definitely a time when I was a dutiful manual reader. I remember excitedly yanking the manuals out of the game boxes on the way home from the computer store. It was a big part of building anticipation for me. And I didn’t even lose the habit that long ago! As late as Dragon Age: Origins, I pored through the manual to decide on my character build before I even started the game.
But now I just straight up hate the idea of reading a manual. This must have happened in recent years. Some part of it may be the shift to digital in my buying habits; Dragon Age: Origins was probably one of the last games I bought in a box from a store. Reading PDFs is somehow much more offensive to me than reading a little paper thing I can pile up on my computer desk. And then there’s my increased orientation away from big blockbuster games to short altgames. I’ve come to be very fond of the experience of starting up a game that I know nothing about, have no expectations about, am not prepared for. Somewhere in that process, I’ve gotten more impatient with preparing myself for an experience in advance, and my tolerance for manuals has suffered for it.
This does make it hard to successfully play games of this era. With King’s Quest IV‘s elaborate opening cutscene, it’s already starting to make that shift towards accommodating a player who doesn’t read the manual. But there are still a few pieces that don’t quite fit the new model.
Well, that’s what walkthroughs are for. Eventually I got back to the ogre’s house, sneaked into his closet, and got treated to this nice little scene that toys with visual storytelling some more. He loves his magic chicken so much that he has his wife bring her out so he can stare at her until he falls asleep. This made her very easy to steal.
Uh-oh, time for a crisis of conscience! A PRINCESS CHOOSES, A PEASANT OBEYS, ROSELLA. Yeah, sure, all of this unicorn shooting and chicken stealing seems bad, but at least it’s all to save some stranger who trapped me inside a mirror. Rosella seems unusually resigned to the ridiculousness of her storyline, like a grizzled Bruce Willis-style action hero. I love her.
Lolotte’s final task is to go fetch Pandora’s Box, which is obviously not going to cause any problems. This will require a trip to the Graveyard of Confusing Dad Jokes.
What is a seidlitz powder? Why is something so old-timey looking a punchline in 1988? Why don’t these lousy joke poems ever scan?
Why, most importantly, are graveyards in videogames always repositories for dad jokes? Is this where it all started? Almost every one of these things has some little pun or rhyming thing about a gruesome death on it, even the ones that look like falling-over sticks. I hate them all. It turns out I’ll have to read them constantly, too.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. First, I need to do a few more odd bits of business and then trigger nightfall. In theory, nighttime should happen on its own if I dick around for twelve hours. But as I discussed in Part 1, getting to that point is kind of unlikely. In my playthrough, I got nighttime to show up early by finishing a prerequisite task. This involved threatening some sentient trees with an axe (because I’m the nonviolent one, on kind of a technicality) and stealing stuff from some old ladies (because I’m an incorrigible thief).
Of course, this is another way the game can put you in an irreversible state. Once night falls, some parts of the game become inaccessible, while others open up. Since I’m cheating rampantly, I didn’t get to see how a player can be screwed at this point, but I’m confident there are plenty of options. The idea of a day world and a night world is also another way to make the player feel like they’re in a new part of the game while still reusing art assets. KQIV is getting clever with the ways it stretches out its world.
Obviously, the main place you want to go after dark is the Dad Jokes Graveyard and the creepy haunted house in the middle of it. In case you didn’t get the idea, now there are zombies spawning all over the thing so you know it’s important. Since I’ve got an anti-zombie charm, they’re not too much of a threat. But I’m sure a lot of pointless moving characters on one screen was a real delight for the folks running this powerhouse on their 1989 computers.
The reason I’m digging graves is to help out some ghosts who live in the haunted house. This ended up being one of my favorite bits of the game. You walk into the house and hear a sound in one of the rooms. You chase down the ghost making it and look at them to get a description. Then you go running around the graveyard to find the epitaph that matches them, dig up a keepsake, and send them off to their eternal rest. This isn’t an inventory mashing puzzle at all, just a little game where you make inferences about lightly sketched characters. It has a more narrative quality than any of the puzzles so far.
However: as I discovered on my first try, you only get four digs before your shovel breaks. So you have to get all four ghosts right on the first try or the game’s unbeatable! And god help you if you tried digging graves before you went in the house!
It’s just one little change that can make a low-key, kind of sad sequence into another HAHA GOTCHA moment of frustration. You can attach different emotions to puzzles, Sierra! This would be a great way to expand your storytelling palette! You got so close!
After a second time through, I finally got the key to an incongruously Egyptian-esque crypt in which Pandora’s Box was just kind of sitting around. Success! Now all I have to do is… not open it…
Oops, sorry, adventure game protagonists are terrible at not opening boxes.
Now that I’ve finished all three of her tasks, I finally get my reward from Lolotte! I hope it’s the amulet I was supposed to be looking for!
Haha NOPE it’s Edgar. Edgar, who’s just been hanging out silently under that rad tapestry this whole time. Edgar, who apparently has frantic, emotional discussions about me with his mother every time I leave the room. Obviously it’s not going to be that easy, Rosella!
Well, now I’m locked up in Lolotte’s least fancy guest room all night. In addition to securing the happiness of her beloved son, this has the pleasant side effect of keeping Genesta’s most dangerous henchwoman out of play while the rival fairy slowly dies. Nice work, Lolotte! She did a great job of keeping me busy all day on tasks which, in at least thirty-five alternate timelines, conveniently led to my death. This version of me has proved unexpectedly robust, but at least now she has an excuse to keep me locked up without Edgar freaking out about it.
Or does she?
Edgar immediately goes rogue and slips me a key! I’m intrigued by Edgar’s characterization at this point. What kind of guy begs his mom to force-marry a woman he just met to him, then breaks her out right away? It’s possible that the whole love at first sight thing is his big ploy to keep his mom from immediately vaporizing some stranger who wandered up the mountain. This would imply that this kind of thing happens often, which fits what we know of Lolotte’s character. He could also be overcome with guilt, or just pulling a lot of confusing Nice Guy behavior in an attempt to keep you on your toes. There are a few different interpretations that make sense and work with the text, which is fun. This is the first time in the series that I’ve been interested in the supporting characters.
The pressing point is that I now have the opportunity to make my daring escape and steal the amulet. The first obstacle I face, of course, is that I’m in a tower room with a spiral staircase. This has predictable results.
Once I made it to the bottom with all my dimensions intact, I had to sneak past all those cute winged guards. Being guards in a videogame, they’re all fast asleep. But if I get too close to one, it’s back in the tower with me, and no second chances.
On the upside, I do get a super goth wedding dress, and a super goth ability to faint dramatically in the middle of the ceremony.
After a few awkward weddings, I finally got the hang of the stealth mission. It’s not too hard to avoid the guards, although the typical awkwardness of motion adds a difficulty factor. Initially I just tried to leave and got confused that I couldn’t. I am terrible at remembering my current quest objective.
Instead, of course, I’m supposed to make it up to Lolotte’s room and get her amulet. She was asleep, so it seemed like I could just grab it real carefully, but that got me vaporized. I pondered my inventory and finally just tried going at her with my only available weapon.
Oh, oops! Silly me! I thought I was just gonna ride her out of here in an explosion of hearts, like I did with the unicorn! Really, what was Rosella expecting to happen here? Was… was she attempting to seduce Lolotte? That’s actually not a bad plan. A night of hot witch sex, Edgar angrily breaks off the engagement the next morning, Rosella snatches the amulet and runs during the incredible soap scene that ensues. I can understand her disappointment that this didn’t work out.
Speaking of the unicorn, I sheepishly freed her on my way out of the castle. She stormed right past me and never looked back. This was part of a pretty great, extended awkward scene of me walking through the now-safe castle with guards staring glumly at me. Edgar just sighed and shambled off when he saw I had murdered his mother. There was a lot going on in that relationship that we’ll never get the full story about.
Despite his complicated feelings, he’s still not about to let me take the winged monkey express down the mountain. This has predictable results.
So, here I am, enemies defeated, ready to take the long trek back across the sea to Genesta’s luxury island. Once I gave her the amulet, I got treated to an ending cutscene to bookend the one that opened the game. First she gave me my fancy princess dress back. Then for some reason she magicked Edgar over to get a reward. Why does Genesta even know Edgar was involved? I guess I could have told her, but honestly. Maybe Genesta was actually dying, or maybe she was sitting in her fancy palace gleefully watching me murder Lolotte through a crystal ball.
Whoa what the hell, Genesta! Get out of here with this “look pretty like you are on the inside” garbage! Children with weird, bulbous noses are absorbing these fucked up messages! YOU’RE FINE THE WAY YOU ARE EDGAR oh too late he’s Prince Valiant now.
Can everyone on this beach just chill the fuck out for a minute??
Edgar went so fast from “guy who feels ambivalent about his oppressive mother’s death” to “guy who wants to marry her murderer” that I think he might be a Bioware character. Chalk one up for the Edgar Was Really That Creepy All Along interpretation. Well, what about it, Rosella? You symbolically ended your adventures with a transformation back to your more traditionally feminine self. Gonna cap that off by formally entering adulthood through marriage?
Oh hell no. Our Rosie may be a lot of things, but she’s not someone who marries a guy she just met. Especially not one who’s suddenly in the market for a woman to project his considerable mommy issues onto. As a child, this seemingly unresolved romantic plot baffled and frustrated me. I experienced the first stirrings of an emotion I would later come to understand as “shipping.” As an adult, I’m delighted by her straightforward and dismissive rejection. Get out of here, Edgar! Go brood in your castle and study your mother’s magicks and keep up this petty battle with Genesta for all eternity. Rosella has places to be.
Back home, Rosella saves her buff dad and keeps the succession question at bay for another year. Everyone is very happy and not afraid of “Alexander,” who, again, they just met 24 hours ago, and whose pupils definitely do not look alarmingly dilated. For his part, Graham has cheerfully tossed his crown aside for his dirty old green hat, which means that he’ll be back in action for King’s Quest V. I’ll miss you, Rosella!
THINGS THAT KILLED ME IN KING’S QUEST IV: THE POWER RANKING
Fell off a cliff: 16 times
Fell off stairs: 11
Fell in a swamp: 5
The suffocating institution of marriage: 5
Fell in a chasm: 4
Eaten by a troll: 3
Eaten by witches: 2
Eaten by a tree: 2
Zapped, but not eaten, by a witch: 1
Opened Pandora’s Box in case that was a good idea: 1
Fell off a ladder: 1