Deadspin writer and Chopped champion Drew Magary wrote a new book, The Hike, which comes out next week. Since the novel was inspired by old point-and-click adventure games, we’ve asked Drew to come review the original King’s Quest for Kotaku. Don’t worry: the book is way better. - Jason
I should not remember the King’s Quest series fondly. I should not get roped into playing it every time I stumble upon sarien.net, where you can play the original version of King’s Quest I, along with other classic Sierra game titles, for free. I should be well past King’s Quest by now, leaving it a relic of my youth forever and ever. It was the first adventure game I ever played that went beyond simple text (like Zork) and gave you pictures to go with the text commands. (The first time I played King’s Quest I, it was in black-and-white, but you can play it in color now.) It was like the evolution from silent movies to talking pictures, only in reverse. But of course, that kind of evolution in computer gaming came with a great many… quirks. Bugs. Fuckups, as it were.
It’s impossible to play any classic King’s Quest game without dying five bazillion times. At a certain point, all that dying stops being dramatic and becomes an active nuisance: gaming busywork. There are no maps to refer to in the first game, so you have to stumble from screen to screen, walking at a painfully slow pace, trying to remember where everything is (you could also map it by hand, but fuck that shit). If you use an item improperly, you have to go back to a different save point. The dialogue is stilted. Also, since the commands are finicky, it’s easy to get stuck forever if you don’t have a cheat guide, sometimes literally stuck if you maneuver Graham next to a rock and can’t get out. King’s Quest III became notorious for including a magic manual that you HAD to keep on you while you played so that you could recite spell commands from it verbatim. Without the manual, you were fucked. And movement was so tricky that you ended up dying over and over again anyway. I never finished it.
Today, if you play a retro point-and-click game like The Silent Age or The Last Door, the programmers are savvy enough to spare you all this tedium. You are physically blocked from walking off a cliff. If you decide to touch a venomous spider monkey, a text prompt pops up and says, “You probably don’t wanna do that.” Challenges are maximized while frustration is minimized. That was not the case with King’s Quest. You can go play it for six minutes and see for yourself. I should never wanna play it again. It’s wildly irritating.
And yet, I adore it. I adore it so much that I wrote a novel partially inspired by that old style of gameplay. (My hope is that the audio version of the book comes as a box of multiple disks, in order to capture the feeling of unboxing something from the 1980s.) Every time I see little Graham prance across the screen in his stupid hat, I turn into a wet puddle of commercial nostalgia. I am twelve years old, perusing the aisles at Radio Shack looking at ugly PC game boxes. Look at Graham out there, questing his ass off:
I can’t look away. Somehow, 8-bit animation has endured even after being graphically surpassed by infinite leaps and bounds. My kids play Minecraft even though they could play games that do NOT make you feel like you’re horribly nearsighted. 8-bit manages to hit the sweet spot between reality and your imagination. There’s just enough information for your brain to fill in to make the story feel like your own. And that has allowed the old Sierra games (King’s Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry) to take up permanent residence with my inner child, alongside Star Wars and all the other standard 80s geek shit.
But hey, I’m getting all Cameron Crowe on you. Let’s talk about whether or not you, fair Kotaku reader, should play the first King’s Quest game, and join Sir Graham on his quest to find stuff hidden inside poorly marked rock holes.
On a PC, you control Graham with the arrow keys and type commands into the prompt. Even once you master Graham’s movement (Oooh! I can go diagonal!), you are still certain to be killed many times over by the following things:
- A witch
- A dragon
- Angry leprechauns
- More water (sometimes Graham can swim, and sometimes he can’t, which is bullshit)
Play progresses when you find items, magical and otherwise, secreted in logs or under large rocks. To this day, whenever I spot some big hole in a tree, I like to think there’s a bigass treasure inside of it instead of a pile of grubs. I am usually disappointed to find the latter. You have to use the inventory in the exact right spots to fend off the aforementioned dragons and witches. There are also trolls and elves and all the standard fairy tale characters, and it was a real dickshitting moment as a kid to go from reading and watching movies about fairy tale creatures to actually interacting with them.
Even though the bugginess of King’s Quest I will make you want to put your hand through the monitor, it makes the breakthroughs that much sweeter. At one point you plant beans in the ground to grow a beanstalk, and are thus freed from the restricted grid of play you’ve been stuck in for hours and hours. It feels like graduating. Then you gotta deal with a bigass giant and suddenly you’re angry again. I don’t WANT modern games to be this annoying, but like any beloved totem of youth, I feel an undeserved affection for the process of mastering the game’s flaws.
I don’t play video games much anymore, mostly because of adult responsibilities. But, for me, a great video game is more engrossing than pretty much any other art form, often dangerously so. I don’t even wanna know what kinda germs were in my old computer chair. And once in a while, I stumble onto a new game that echoes the Sierra classics of old, or I turn to the classics themselves, and I get sucked back in. It’s not like Candy Crush, where I know the game is eating away at my mind. If it’s a good adventure game, I’m IN the game’s world, solving its problems, and I never wanna get back out. That’s what awesome games do. And because of the influence that King’s Quest had, there are plenty of them to go around now. You should play it, and then come yell at me for having suggested it.
Drew Magary’s new novel, The Hike, comes out Tuesday.