The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Thursday, June 30, 2016

King’s Quest V

I am old enough to recall that King’s Quest V won a bunch of awards and was generally 4/5ed in the press. Last week I pulled this game out and played it again in DOSBOX, first time since 1990. I have no clue why it did so well back then. It is among the most inept puzzle-adventure games I’ve played and it has the worst endgame of any of them.

Warning for spoilers of several Sierra games ahead. Which – given their structure – will probably be of more guidance than harm to you.

The KQ series concerns an adventurer, Graham, from the magic kingdom of Daventry; over the course of the series he inherits the kingdom and his family maintains it. The first game is a classic; I’d say the same of the fourth (and of the sixth). The second is flawed, to the extent some fans have done a rewrite – but the fan rewrite is, unfortunately, a hack job of “explaining” the wandering-monsters there and is even deliberately offensive (someone hated the Church). But anyway. We are here to discuss the fifth.

Some games are “sandbox”, in gamer jargon; the game-world is open and you solve each puzzle in the order you want. KQ1 is sandbox. Others intend a storyline, which we find especially in the “Interactive Fiction” art form. I count as IF, KQ7 and KQ8, divided into “chapters” as they are. Somewhere in between we have KQ4, with its day / night cycle; and KQ6 with its multiple explorable islands.

KQ3 started out as a sandbox and then entered a linear endgame. The sandbox part was, “get out of the wizard Manannan’s tyranny” and the plot-driven part was, abruptly, “rescue the princess”; the wizard has nothing to do with the princess. The third also features some unfair puzzles, like that magic wand which is “on top shelf of closet”, which closet didn’t even have a top shelf that the game told you about. Up to the fifth in the series, I’d pinpoint the third (not the second) as the weakest.

The fifth in structure is a rehash of the third – don’t ask *me* why, maybe someone suffered acute memory-loss, maybe someone wanted “to do it right this time”. The initial sandbox is as follows, in both (3, “Llewdor”; 5, “Serenia”): Start in the middle of the map at an unhelpful wizard’s keep. Desert’s to the west. Plot’s to the east, obstructed. Town is on the eastern edge with supplies. There’s an oracle behind a puzzle, to tell you about the linear-section – that is, about the plot, behind the eastern barrier. But the linear-section in each is totally different!! KQ3 was: ocean, shore, mountain-pass, destination; in KQ5 it’s mountains, then shore, then ocean before that destination. Evil wizard is in the start of KQ3, end of KQ5; but either way he has no effect on the plot of the other half of the game.

The fifth allows some exploration of the desert and the ocean; in the third these were irrelevant and railroaded, respectively. But the former is boring and dangerous as f$ck because it’s oasis-hopping where no-one tells you the oases. As for the latter, there’s only one island worth the finding. That ocean also highlights a “sin against mimesis” situation, already foreshadowed in Serenia, because your avatar can see ahead but only to the north. This does help in finding that island. But, *should* a puzzle be soluble only by use of game mechanics and/or of brute force sector-checking?

Then there’s that cowardly owl Cedric, who never ventures with you into a dangerous area, and never helps you otherwise; as sidekick he is much worse than the owl in the Clash of the Titans movie (the good one) and almost as bad as Navi from “Zelda”. Mostly what the dumb bird does is slow down the load of a page whilst it renders him flapping over to a perch. I swear, I cheered when the wolf got him. But unfortunately the wolf’s mistress got tired of his whining too and gave him back :^/ I am not alone in this; Sierra’s later games frequently refer to how bad he sucked as a NPC.

And then there are the puzzles… oh my, the puzzles. They are awful in their arbitrariness and stupidity. I mentioned the desert and the ocean already, which alone should be enough to sink any decent late-1990s-era text freeware. Let’s run down the rest: You summon a bear to the west by rooting through a (near invisible) barrel to the east. You get locked in a cellar where, somehow, your captors have padlocked your cell from the inside (lol). You’re rewarded when you rescue a disgusting rat, whom the baker’s cat is chasing out of his bakery – justly. The scrublands are bordered on the south by an instadeath sector inhabited by the world’s fastest scorpion, which you cannot anticipate because it’s south, and the wholly arbitrary scorpion somehow never ventures north. The hunger puzzle is not soluble by eating the pie (I know, it’s needed elsewhere, but still - mimesis). You find out a hole in your boat by taking it on your first mission and sinking with it (hope you saved your game!).

And now, the endgame. Two henchmen wander around Mordack’s castle (besides Mordack himself) – a monster, and wizard Manannan from the third game now trapped in cat form. These you may disable, arbitrarily, and apparently to no detriment if you don’t. Furthermore, you can only disable the cat by using the emptied bag of peas you had used earlier on the monster – which doesn’t even disable that monster permanently (why not empty the peas elsewhere and avoid the monster? And why doesn’t the monster or Mordack free the cat?). You find out Mordack’s naptime by hiding in the library and, once more, by using the Magickal Mystickal Power Of Looking Northward (why not Westward?). I remain unsure why Mordack would even want to catch some z’s given that at least the monster *must* have informed him there’s a prowler (you) about. Oh and the final contraption at the wizard’s keep, powered by mouldy cheese (WHY?!).

I’ll concede the wizard duel at the end was cool. Sure it’s a ripoff of two Disney flicks – Sword And The Stone and Aladdin – but if you’re going to be unoriginal, those are fine movies to rob from. And Mordack’s thuggery and creepy taste in decor made for a good villain. Pity we didn't see more of him earlier.

I got the feeling that Roberta and Ken Williams wrote the puzzles themselves. They owned the company, and it’s been widely disseminated around the Internet that toward the end of Sierra’s independent lifetime Ken, in particular, was becoming a jerk. In fact the guy who was doing the Space Quest games at the time got a big taste of Ken’s jerkiness right after KQ5 came out.

The puzzles are much better in KQ6, I guess because the Williamses were reminded that the KQ series was their tentpole, so had someone else – Jane Jensen – do much of the writing. At the least they’d listened to Jensen’s advice and credited her.

(And then Sierra screwed up again with KQ7. KQ8 might not be their fault though. The Davidson flock of conservative extortionists was interfering with that one. What Sarkeesian is today, the Davidsons were in the 1990s.)

posted by Zimri on 15:48 | link | 0 comments

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