GOGathon: Roberta Williams’ Royal Progress

If you’re fond of a good feud, the videogame landscape of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s were a golden era for them. Nintendo vs. Sega is the classic one, not least because Sega went out of their way to bait and belittle Nintendo in much of their advertising; the Amiga vs. Atari ST feud was perhaps overstated by the media at the time but there was undeniably a bit of smoke to that fire, not least because of the intertwined personalities involved in the development of both systems.

For fans of graphical adventure games of a certain age, of course, the Sierra vs. LucasArts question is particularly memorable. It’s an open question how much of a genuine feud it was as far as the individual personalities concerned. I’m unaware of any actual personal rancour between the two studios, though Ron Gilbert’s famous Why Adventure Games Suck manifesto which yielded the guiding principles behind classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island was certainly taking issue with a lot of issues regarded as being distinct hallmarks of Sierra games, and Gilbert even snuck parodies of the infamous Sierra “You have died” messages into The Secret of Monkey Island itself, but I’m unaware of any return fire from Sierra itself. Indeed, a lot of the negative aspects people associate with the Sierra house style – arbitrary deaths, illogical puzzles, the possibility of putting the game into an unwinnable state, and so on – were most endemic in their early games.

In previous GOGathon articles I’ve looked at the Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria series. Notably, death is still possible in both of them, and I’ve come around to the idea that “can’t possibly die” isn’t necessarily a rule which should always be applied to point-and-click adventure design; it was fine for most of LucasArts’ works, which tended to be comedic in tone anyway, but slavishly following LucasArts’ lead without understanding why they did what they did would be just as bad as doing the same for Sierra, and in a horror-genre adventure it’s arguably preferable to have death be possible (and therefore a source of tension) than have a situation where the player can just sit wander about endlessly without progressing anything and never get into any real danger, which will kill tension quickly.

 

However, those deaths are much rarer and less arbitrary, all considered, than those in the earliest Sierra graphical adventures. Moreover, Sierra over time seems to have come around to the idea that puzzles should make sense – the infamy of the cat moustache puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3 is that a) the puzzle was never meant to be in the game, but was written in a hurry to fill the gap when the team ran out of time, and b) sticks out to the extent it does precisely because it’s an unusually absurd puzzle in a game whose puzzles are otherwise of a much higher standard – with the “Serpent Rouge” puzzle being a classic of the genre.

Perhaps most importantly, those games seem to be much more difficult – if not impossible – to actually put into an unwinnable state. It’s worth taking a look here Andrew Plotkin’s so-called “Cruelty Scale” for interactive fiction. (It was developed, strictly speaking, for text adventures, but applies to graphical adventures rather well.) Whilst Sierra adventures have a reputation for sitting towards the “Cruel” end of that scale, I would say that the latter-day Sierra adventures I’ve played have, whilst rarely being flat-out “Merciful”, at least shifted substantially towards “Polite”.

I’d note that some recent adventure games by other hands would, arguably, qualify as “Merciful” despite including character death – any game which, following character death, jumps you back to a point in the game immediately preceding the bit where you made the fatal mistake would be “Merciful” by the Plotkin definition of the term, since it still fits Plotkin’s crucial “you only need to save the game when it’s time to turn off the computer” and you don’t lose any of the progress you made before you went into fatal peril. I have a strong hunch that, with autosaves becoming more of a standard feature in games in general, if Sierra had continued producing adventure games into the 2000s they would eventually have shifted into this version of “Merciful”.

In retrospect, I think that a lot of the deaths (and, to a lesser extent, the illogical puzzles) in early Sierra games would me much more forgivable if the games were lower down on the Cruelty Scale than they actually are. That’s particularly the case these days, when save game capacity is plentiful. Whereas back in the day every byte of storage space on our hard drives and floppy disks and the like was precious, and using an arbitrarily large number of saved games simply wasn’t viable, these days the amount of storage people have available on their devices is vast compared to the size of a typical save game file for an early Sierra adventure. As such, whilst the effective number of saved games you can have isn’t strictly speaking infinite, it’s a large enough number that there’s really no reason not to save as often as you like, whenever you appear to have made progress.

When you are in the practice of doing this, a lot of the issues with Cruelty become alleviated to begin with. If you make sure to save very regularly, there’s practically speaking no difference between a Polite game and a Merciful game beyond the loading time required to restore a save game – which, for old games like these on modern devices, is nigh-instantaneous. Equally, if you are in the habit of making regular saves, there’s not really a difference between a Tough and a Polite or Merciful game – as per the criteria, a Tough game makes it obvious that you’re about to get into danger before it happens, so if you’re in the habit of saving regularly you damn well should have saved before the Tough game springs its trap and will most likely restore as soon as it’s done so, and if you didn’t save then that’s kind of on you, not the game.

No, in these days of ample saved game space it’s the Nasty/Cruel games which are the major problem (along with games which set tight limits on the number of saves you can have). In Nasty games you only realise that the game’s become unwinnable after this is the case – which means you’re much more likely to lose progress, even if you’re otherwise assiduous about saving – and in Cruel games it might never be clear that the game’s unwinnable. The fact that early Sierra games often ended up in the Nasty/Cruel corner is, to my mind, what established their reputation going forwards.

It makes sense, then, that faced with this sort of thing there’d be a backlash, and that a company which not only engaged with that backlash but devised a solution to the problems in Sierra’s gameplay would attract attention. LucasArts adhered to the “you can’t get in an unwinnable state” rule even more closely than they did to the “you can’t die” rule (which they toned down for more dramatic, less comedic games), and the result was that they gained a reputation for being accessible, approachable, fair to the player and a joy to experiment and mess about in.

Way back in the day, a young Arthur was very much in the LucasArts corner as a result of these considerations – I was drawn to LucasArts games thanks to reviews praising these aspects of them, and then stayed thanks to the humour on display, the great writing and game design on display, and the colourful characters. (Not that Sierra’s games were without their own sense of humour – but next to LucasArts’ games they often ended up looking a bit more serious.)

The result of this is that I’ve not delved as deeply into the Sierra catalogue as perhaps I should have, given my enjoyment of adventure games. Having covered Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight, though, I find myself increasingly keen to catch up, and between that and some recent GOG sales I’m now in a position to do so.

I’m therefore going to kick off a new run of GOGathon articles focusing on Sierra adventures, and I’m going to get the pain out of the way first before I start in on the more forgiving later adventures by tackling the games which, to a large extent, established Sierra’s infamy: the first three King’s Quest games. I’m not, for what it’s worth, going to address the Hi-Res Adventure series that preceded these games; so far as I can tell, they weren’t graphic adventures so much as they were text adventures with rudimentary illustrations. Whilst they were undeniably important entries in Sierra’s history, I feel that they are a different category of game from their later graphical adventures. (In particular, the fundamentals of gameplay are basically the same as other text adventures, whereas the graphical adventure format Sierra premiered in King’s Quest had significant implications for gameplay itself.)

King’s Quest: Quest For the Crown

The original game feels, in comparison to later Sierra adventures, more like a tech demo than a fully-developed graphic adventure – and that’s because that’s precisely what it was, a game produced on commission from IBM to show off the capabilities of their new PCjr platform. The plot, such that it is, is paper-thin: the King of Daventry is sick and you, Sir Graham, have been tasked by him with retrieving the three great treasures of the realm which had been stolen away by trickery during the old King’s misfortune-riddled reign. Do this, and he will bequeath the kingdom to you.

That’s all very well in theory, but the actual adventure beyond that is a rather directionless process of exploring the map, collecting items, and solving puzzles themed around classic fairytales. Everything seems arranged in a semi-random fashion, and there’s at least one puzzle which is truly obnoxious – it involves a clue which just shows up in an entirely different location and has no associated hint that it’s relevant to the situation where it’s used, and then in the earliest editions of the game the way you actually implement the clue is utterly counter-intuitive. Basically none of the principles of good adventure game design and all of the errors of bad design that Ron Gilbert identified in his classic essay on the subject are present here, along with a plot so shallow that you couldn’t drown an ant in it.

To give Roberta Williams her due, of course, she was working here with an entirely new way of presenting an adventure game, and as such the principles of best practice in graphic adventure design hadn’t yet been enunciated – the field needed something like King’s Quest to make its mistakes and to learn from. Prior Sierra adventures, despite their emphasis on graphics over text description, arguably still worked in a text adventure idiom; this is because they presented you with a static picture of the location you were in and more or less all interaction was done via the text parser. As in a text adventure, there was no need to position yourself onscreen to interact with anything – if you could see it, you could type parser commands relating to it. In effect, the illustrations just substituted for the room descriptions in a typical text adventure.

King’s Quest is in a fundamentally different paradigm to that: as we now expect in point-and-click adventures today, Sir Graham is physically present in the scene presented to us, and we must guide him around the place in order to accomplish things. Sierra were especially proud of the pseudo-3D aspects of the engine – Sir Graham can walk in front of or behind objects, rather than being confined to the 2D plane of your monitor screen. To interact with something onscreen, Sir Graham typically needs to be in physical proximity to it; positioning is now a constantly important factor, unlike in Sierra’s previous adventure games.

Now, at it’s best this is one of the more immersive features of point-and-click adventures, but in King’s Quest Williams still hadn’t worked out how to make the positioning stuff interesting and non-frustrating. For instance, you can’t do much with an item onscreen until you are in its general proximity, and a lot of the things you need to examine and interact with here look, on the face of it, near-identical to mere scenery. This means that to make sure you don’t miss anything you really need to examine every rock and tree you see, and since you don’t exactly hustle across the screen this takes an interminably long time.

In addition, there’s the insta-kills based on positioning. The bridge over the castle moat, the beanstalk you climb up to reach the giant’s realm in the clouds and the stairs which provide an alternate route down from there – all of these are things where if you get your footing wrong, you fall and die, and it’s not necessarily obvious that you’ve got your footing wrong. (The beanstalk is chronic for this; I ended up save-scumming it without shame because there seems to be almost no rhyme or reason distinguishing “safely clinging to the beanstalk” to “falling down”.) It’s no wonder that in 2016 someone would put out a parody of the old-school Sierra adventures entitled Stair Quest, consisting entirely of narrow stairs and twisting paths to follow in the manner you need to do here.

Between this and the thinness of the plot and setting, King’s Quest doesn’t have much to recommend it save for one thing: although the interface remains a little archaic, with its blend of text adventurer parser and more modern point-and-click interaction, it’s nonetheless an interface which you can get to grips with quickly, smoothly, and naturally. Compared to a grand swathe of other games of a 1984 vintage, this is a huge deal, because there actually aren’t many serious-minded PC games from this era which are quite this user-friendly.

Computer RPGs of the era were incredibly fiddly; they, and more or less all other genres, have advanced greatly in the intervening time as superior computing power combined with new design ideas have made more and more quality of life features a standard part of the format. Point-and-click adventures, conversely, have largely moved on from King’s Quest less in the specifics of the interface (beyond ditching the text parser and providing a more purely click-based interaction process) and more in the nuances of good game design.

In other words, King’s Quest doesn’t present the third-person point-and-click adventure genre in its most mature form, but it’s tantalisingly close to it, which given that it pretty much pioneered the format is kind of a huge deal. When you look at it in that context, the shallowness of its plot and storytelling is a bit more forgivable – Infocom’s text adventures, generally regarded as the benchmark in that genre, hadn’t really developed that much further in terms of storytelling depth in 1984.

King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne

Having won the throne in the first game, King Graham turns his mind to marriage, because whilst selecting heirs via dangerous quests might have been his predecessor’s thing, Graham would prefer to confer a bit more in the way of stability and continuity on the realm of Daventry. Many eligible women of the kingdom seek his hand, but for some reason none of them pique his interest.

Graham decides to consult one of the great treasures of Daventry he recovered in the previous game – the magical divinatory mirror. The mirror shows him the Princess Valanice, from the realm of Kolyma, who has been imprisoned by the jealous witch Hagatha atop a quartz tower in an enchanted otherworld concealed behind three magical doors. Graham realises instantly that destiny is calling on him to quest again, and pausing only to swap his crown for his trusty adventuring cap he sets of for Kolyma in a bid to rescue Valanice.

In terms of its basic interface, King’s Quest II is much the same as the first game, right down to King Graham’s model being the same, and in terms of world size the game is about as large as its predecessor (the first game has 80 locations, this one has 92). That said, the game is undeniably richer than its predecessor. The puzzles tend to have more logic to them (with a few puzzles having alternate solutions, as was occasionally the case in the first game), the written descriptions are more detailed and exciting than the terse declarations of the preceding game, the NPCs feel more detailed and the world feels more varied.

Once again, classic myths and fairy tales play a major role (as does, er, Count Dracula), but whereas the characters in the previous game weren’t especially well-defined (there’s not much about Rumpelstiltskin that really gives away that he’s Rumpelstiltskin, for instance), here the characters are all vividly realised by comparison; Grandma feels like Grandma, Red Riding Hood feels like Red Riding Hood, and so on. The writing in general seems a bit deeper and more polished, too – if you get too forward with Valanice once you meet her and type MARRY PRINCESS into the parser the game points out that you only just met and maybe you should get to know each other a bit before you actually get hitched.

Puzzle design is once again the major flaw of the game. Don’t get me wrong – it’s come forward in leaps and bounds since the original. However, where it makes a misstep, it’s a pretty serious misstep. For one thing, in an attempt to make the world feel less static, Williams has some NPCs not constantly be present in their usual place, but has them show up or not at random. For instance, when you go into Grandma’s house it might be Grandma in bed, or it might be the Big Bad Wolf – and if it’s the wolf you need to hustle out of there before he eats you.

This has two effects. The first is that if you don’t realise that enemies aren’t always in their home locations, you might think that getting in there represents some puzzle, when in fact you just have to enter and exit repeatedly until they aren’t there. The second is that if you are expected to solve a puzzle by interacting with a character who only appears in a particular location sometimes, like Little Red Riding Hood, it can be tiresome to walk around and around until you find the location they appear in.

This is exacerbated by the fact that some aspects of the game only become accessible after you’ve performed some actions, and not always in a way which has an obvious in-world logic. For instance, each of the three enchanted doors you must unlock in turn to reach the mystic otherworld where Valanice is imprisoned bears upon it an inscription which gives a hint as to where you need to go to find its key, and the essential prerequisites for reaching those places only manifest when you have read the appropriate inscription.

This is awkward for two reasons. The first is that there’s no apparent in-universe chain of cause and effect between you reading an inscription on a door and, say, a mermaid showing up at the beach, or the antique shop opening, or the ferryman to Castle Dracula starting work. The second one, which exacerbates the first one, is that the doors are across a bridge which only allows you to cross it the precise number of times you need to solve the game, then collapses if you try crossing it again. Once you realise that the bridge is dangerous, you are going to only want to cross it if you absolutely have to, which means you’re going to be reluctant to go across even though you have to in order to read the inscriptions and activate the puzzle solutions.

In some respects the game is more playable today, when storage space is ample and there is no real shortage of saved games, than it was on original release, when storage space meant that there’d likely be a limited to how many save games you could have. Pity the player who’s dumped hours into the game only to find that they crossed the bridge once too often and now can’t complete the game without starting over. Still, Romancing the Throne is a clear evolution in the right direction. (Even the stairs are less fiddly.)

King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human

The third game in the series casts you as Gwydion, who lives in a house on the top of a lonely mountain in the land of Llewdor as the slave of the wizard Manannan. Little does Gwydion realise that he is, in fact, Prince Alexander, the son of King Graham and Queen Valanice of Daventry, kidnapped by Manannan when he was a small child. Gwydion-Alexander is seventeen, and unbeknownst Manannan has a custom of killing his servants and abducting new ones when they hit eighteen, because at around that point they start getting rebellious and defiant in his experience.

Luckily for Gwydion but unluckily for Manannan, Gwydion’s already feeling inclined to test his boundaries, particularly since Manannan has taken to spending a large amount of time going on long journeys and sleeping – during which time Gwydion is not under his supervision. Perhaps a peep at the wizard’s spellbook will give Gwydion the means to break the power of Manannan, return to Daventry, and be reunited with his family… and maybe even help them overcome the crisis that has overcome Daventry in the intervening years.

1986’s To Heir Is Human is at least as big a step up over Romancing the Throne as Romancing the Throne is over Quest For the Crown. Artistically speaking, whilst the game is still clearly designed with the constraints of mid-1980s computers in mind, Sierra’s developers go the extra distance in getting more out of those constraints than they did in previous episodes in the series. The land of Llewdor is beautifully realised; for the sections where you revisit Daventry there’s a nice mix of familiar, reused areas from Quest For the Crown and other areas which are clearly based on updated versions of the locales from the first game, reflecting the disasters that have befallen the kingdom.

In addition, the story is greatly improved, both in terms of the writing and in terms of the puzzles, with a greater cohesiveness than the previous two games. OK, the fact that the Three Bears’ cottage happens to be in Llewdor is a bit random, but by this point having some fairytale characters here and there feels like a hallmark of the setting, and they’re absolutely adorably implemented.

That aside, however, the puzzles are much more logical than in the previous two games, and are much better-integrated into the flow of the story. Much early action is focused on furtively accumulating the ingredients you need to complete various magic spells (lovingly written out for you in the manual) without Manannan realising you’re up to something and murdering you out of his ruthless suspicions. Once you’ve dealt with Manannan, the most pressing constraint on you is gone and you get to explore a bit more, you discover the peril that Daventry is in, then it’s a matter of hustling there and using your spells to deal with that threat. There is a logical structure there which makes substantially more sense than that of the previous games.

Manannan, as an NPC, represents perhaps the nuanced NPC behaviour implemented in an adventure game to this point. The process of defeating him involves a certain amount of trial and error (and regular saved games) to figure out his schedule, so you can make sure that when he’s awake and active at the house you’re a) where you’re supposed to be and b) not carrying anything which will make him suspect you’re dabbling in magic; you can only act with comparative freedom when Manannan is either sleeping or off on his travels, and when he’s at home you better hop to in order to complete any chores he assigns you or there’ll be trouble.

The actual spellcasting process is a lot of fun too. It was actually a sneaky copy protection method, of the sort which only really worked back in the days when photocopiers (or, later, PDFs) were not amply available: the actual instructions for casting the spell weren’t included in the game itself but were printed in the manual, presented as the legible portions of Manannan’s spellbook, so to cast a spell you have to have Gwydion turn to the right page of the spellbook in the game (based off the page number presented in the manual) and then go through the steps as written out in there.

The steps are flavourful enough by themselves, and on top of that, the spells generally don’t yield immediate effects – instead, they give you items which must be used correctly (often with evocative magic words) in order to unleash the magic, which both adds a further level of copy protection and makes the magic particularly flavourful. It’s a small thing, but adding this sort of constraint to the spells makes Manannan’s magic feel a bit more magical: if the spells can do anything without any constraints that feels less like magic and more like utter arbitrariness, whereas if his magic is the sort of thing which depends on the user preparing ritual implements and potions and the like to get the effects they want then that suggests that it’s engaging with some sort of cosmic principle which requires it to work that way.

Now, that said the Manannan puzzle isn’t perfect. I like the fact that you have to figure out the wizard’s schedule to avoid him, and make sure your journeys into the surrounding countryside end before he gets back home or wakes up. This is a feature which actually makes me more forgiving of the fact that there’s an infamous Sierra stairway/narrow path puzzle between the top of the mountain and its foot, which you have to cross every time you visit the Llewdor countryside, because that adds a timing factor to getting home. (There’s a nice quality of life feature in the provision of a magic map which allows you to teleport between regions of Llewdor you’ve already visited, so you only have to go up the path when you’re returning from Llewdor.)

More generally, the fact that Manannan has a general schedule – but doesn’t adhere to it 100% (he will often do things a little late) – goes a long way to making him feel like a real person. More than that, it also gives a sense of time passing in the wider world as well. (The game is the first to include a clock at the top of the screen showing how long you’ve been playing, which is what Manannan’s schedule is based on.)

The big problem with the schedule is that you do have to adhere to it. When Manannan is at home and awake, you’re greatly constrained in what you can do, and even in terms of what you can carry – some items are sufficiently suspicious for you to be toting about that Manannan will kill you if he discovers them on you. (In the case of his magic wand, Manannan murders you simply if it isn’t where he expects it to be.) The result of this is that there’s points in the game where you essentially have to hustle back home, stash away grand sections of your inventory, and then wait an indeterminate amount of time before Manannan goes on another journey or heads to beddy-byes. Any time a game is encouraging you to just sit there and not play it is deeply annoying.

The contraband issue is also slightly annoying. Items in your inventory which Manannan will kill you for possessing are marked with an asterisk, but I didn’t see anywhere in the manual to explain what the asterisk meant. I feel like deliberately not explaining an aspect of the user interface for the sake of a puzzle isn’t really dealing with the player in good faith.

On a similar level, the manual could do a better job of explaining to you how the actual spellcasting process works. In particular, it doesn’t mention that you need to turn the spellbook in the game to the appropriate page to start the spellcasting process, and then when I tried turning the book to the correct page it took me a bunch of tries before I hit on a phrasing of “turn to page X” which actually worked. Still, at the same time at least the spellcasting challenge means you aren’t just randomly grabbing stuff without any idea of what its use is; you know from the spellbook what spell components you will need to complete the game, so you can actively seek those components. (How Gwydion knows this before he reads the actual spellbook is a question left unanswered; Sierra games of this vintage didn’t have a sophisticated theory-of-mind understanding of the difference between player knowledge and character knowledge.)

There’s also at least one spell ingredient which is really annoying to get because it relies on a) a creature which randomly appears on only one or two of the locations in the game and b) that creature dropping something at random when it actually appears, and the frequency of its appearance is way too low. I don’t think you necessarily need the item in question to complete the game, but you have no way of knowing that early on and your natural inclination is going to be to try and get every single spell in all its variants set up in case you need them later on, given Sierra’s infamous tendency towards letting their adventures get into unwinnable states because you didn’t do something at an earlier stage of the game.

Still, the “get rid of Manannan/cast the spells” section of the game is easily the strongest, and represents perhaps the best gameplay in any Sierra adventure up to that point. The rest of the game is actually pretty easy – because you have all this magic power to throw at your problems – and so it feels like Roberta Williams ends up throwing a bunch of annoying busywork at you to pad it out. There’s a bit where you’re stuck on a pirate ship where the only real puzzle is to get your stuff back (fairly easily) and, optionally, listen to a conversation between some mice to learn where the pirates have stashed their treasure (and get a shovel to dig it up). Again, it’s a moment in the game which requires you to basically sit there and wait (whilst the pirate ship completes its journey to Daventry) rather than actively playing.

The worst bit of the game in terms of padding, however, has to be the crossing of the mountains – a long series of “narrow pathway” screens, complete with the tricky, fiddly navigation issues those always present in Sierra adventures (why they thought that these constituted acceptable gameplay when their game engine categorically was not suited for it is beyond me). It’s a sequence which makes the Stair Quest parody so richly deserved. To Williams’ credit, she does at least let you skip over large chunks of it by using the spell that turns you into an eagle, though there’s at least one screen where you are forced to navigate it the old-fashioned way.

(There’s an actually amusing staircase kill elsewhere in the game, mind; if you’re not careful, the wizard’s annoying cat will be sitting on the stairs down to the wizard’s laboratory, and if you go too near the cat it trips you up. That gets points largely for being a peril you can avoid easy if you pay attention to where you’re going, and the staircase itself isn’t that difficult.)

I have to assume that Sierra included these interminable “navigate the narrow pathway” sections in their games purely for the sake of hype: adventure games of the era were often advertised by the number of locations (and indeed they often still are), and having these pathway/staircase sections allowed Sierra to claim to have implemented a larger number of screens. It’s a bit less shameless than having a screen where there’s no real gameplay involved, I suppose, but at the same time the gameplay involved in these screens (unless you’re skipping them in eagle form) isn’t a type of gameplay you want out of a point and click adventure.

Here, then, is the state of King’s Quest at the end of its first three games – and, by dint of that, the state of Sierra’s adventure game development process, what with King’s Quest having rapidly become their flagship line. King’s Quest III is a more ambitious and more inventive game than any of its predecessors, and whilst it does retain some baggage in the form of bad habits developed in the previous games, by and large better principles of adventure game puzzle design are creeping in.

The Emergence of the Sierra Style

A comparatively lavish presentation set against its predecessors, King’s Quest III is the first King’s Quest which feels like it is still entertaining to play in its own right, rather than playing it being something of an exercise in adventure game archaeology. And overall, the original King’s Quest trilogy had done an excellent job of not merely establishing an entirely new gaming genre – a genre eschewing both the twitch-based gameplay of the arcades or the arcane number-juggling of CRPGs of the era in favour of puzzles and storytelling, and as a result offered a gaming experience appealing to an audience who hadn’t been particularly well-served outside of text adventures at this time.

In addition to this, Sierra had also gone a long way to developing a distinctive in-house style. The occasional little easter eggs, in-jokes, and outright plugs for other Sierra games (right down to the dog in the shop in this game being named “Kenny” after studio boss Ken Willaims) help give the games the impression of being labours of love produced by a team of friends, rather than smoothly polished corporate products. The crediting of the games to Roberta Williams, granting her an auteur status (though not without making sure to credit the rest of the team as appropriate) rarely if ever seen previously in the games industry, also helps to lend the games a certain personal touch.

Overall, despite the fact that just as many hands were involved in making these games as any other game at the time (bearing in mind that the personnel involved in producing top-of-the-line games has inflated greatly over the intervening years), these don’t feel like games designed by committee, for good or bad. On the bad side, it does mean that some bad habits in game design slip through the cracks, but on the good side it did give the games a sense of genuine personality, a little dose of warmth and heart which makes it more endearing than a more meticulously product would be.

Of course, it could be that this wasn’t genuine at all and it’s just a bit of masterful corporate PR on Sierra’s part. And Sierra weren’t alone in this; other major adventure game developers of the era would increasingly take a similar approach, with Infocom upping the literary ambitions of their text adventures as they realised that this was a way they could compete with the more immediately impressive graphical offerings from Sierra and others, and LucasArts would also develop such an in-house style (especially in their more comedic adventures).

Nonetheless, if it was a PR stance, it was an effective one, with a compelling story behind it. You have Ken and Roberta Williams as the husband-and-wife founders of the studio, roping in friends and acquaintances to give them a break in game design where they saw potential (Police Quest literally came about because Ken befriended a retired highway patrol officer, Jim Walls, and reckoned Jim’s experiences might provide the basis of an interesting adventure game), and you combine that with the way Sierra undeniably developed a creative environment which consistently pushed the bar in terms of storytelling content and technology alike for the span of the Williams’ tenure, and that’s a powerful enough in its own right. Add in this informal, almost mellow style with which the company carry themselves and you have this delightful West Coast success story; you can imagine the Sierra team of this era going out on a company outing to enjoy, if not a Grateful Dead concert, then maybe a Byrds or Crosby, Stills, and Nash reunion or something.

This sort of highly personalised style not only propagated itself throughout the adventure gaming world as designers inspired by the works of Sierra (and Infocom, and LucasArts) went on to make their own games and imitated the approach of their inspirations, and perhaps it’s one of the reasons that the text adventure and graphical adventure subgenres have persisted so well as fields in which small studios and lone hobbyists can produce decent material; whilst the technical accomplishments of classic adventure games have become obscured by the passage of time, the personality invested in them still shines through, and the indie field is one where expressing the personal idiosyncrasies that would be polished out of a more corporate designed-by-committee produce helps your game stand out.

It’s important to remember the extent to which the Sierra adventures were major technical advances, of course – King’s Quest suddenly makes a lot more sense if you realise that it’s more of a work-to-hire tech demo than anything else. The problem with being the trailblazer, of course, is that you find each and every one of the pitfalls on the path, and quite likely fall into them, which those following you are then able to avoid with ease.

Ryan Scott of the Geekbox podcast has recently been doing Sierra Saturdays on the Geekbox YouTube channel, and on his video for King’s Quest III he offered what I thought was quite a cogent explanation for why the King’s Quest series are so infamously inconsistent: they tended to be the games which got to premiere brand new technology, with the upshot that they ended up hitting all the snags with that technology before the pitfalls become well-known.

That’s an interesting take, not least because it always seemed to me that King’s Quest was presented as Sierra’s flagship series. I guess there’s an interesting point of game design and promotion philosophy there: some development houses might, very understandably, take the view that if a particular game series is their flagship line, then quality of gameplay is paramount, and you should use your lesser game lines as testbeds for new technology so that the wrinkles can be ironed out before the technology is applied to the game line which your reputation is based on. (Almost all of the complaints people have about Sierra adventures are complaints which are wholly true for King’s Quest but much less true for, say, Phantasmagoria.)

It’s evident that Sierra took a very different philosophy – that technological advancements were paramount, and that it was therefore vital that King’s Quest be seen to be at the cutting edge of technology, even if that meant that sometimes the gameplay got less polished. For the era in which they were working, Sierra weren’t necessarily wrong. These days, quibbling over which game has superior technology underlying it feels a bit academic – truly major quantum leaps in technology to an extent which is clearly visible from a player’s perspective have become rare, what you get more of are gradual technical evolutions which largely take place “under the hood”, invisibly to players.

Let’s say you build two games, one using the current release of, say, the Unreal engine, one using the build before that. Would anyone who wasn’t a skilled game developer themselves really be able to tell the difference? Almost certainly not. Conversely, in the videogame market of the 1980s and 1990s, technical leaps were much more evident, and if a game was using old technology it was pretty obvious. Whilst the King’s Quest game line has suffered for it in terms of its long-term reputation, with several of the games having aged poorly, it clearly benefited from being first in line to get a technical scrub-up back in the day.

Whilst to a certain extent this treatment of King’s Quest makes sense, given its origins as a game deliberately engineered to exploit the technical capabilities of the PCjr to the hilt, it’s probably also connected to a certain extent to it being the game line most closely associated with Roberta Williams; perhaps it was felt that as co-founder and co-leader of the company she needed to be the standard bearer for its technical advances, or perhaps it was simply considered a perk of the position.

Either way, I can’t be too annoyed by this, because whilst Williams wasn’t shy of prominently associating her name with the series, she can’t be accused of monopolising the limelight either. Another function the King’s Quest series played was as a proving ground for designers who’d go on to helm their own lines for Sierra; that’s how Jane Jensen got the chance to do Gabriel Knight, that’s how Al Lowe got to do Leisure Suit Larry, and that’s how Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe got to do Space Quest. I have no idea whether Ken and Roberta Williams were pleasant bosses to work for or not, but I have to consider that it a good sign when the owners of a game design studio see their role as nuturing their employees’ talents in that fashion, rather than the employees being there to amplify the employers’ own talents.

And that takes us back to 1986-1987, where the adventure design process at Sierra reached the point when it could support the efforts of other designers, who would adapt the adventure game format to a strikingly diverse range of genres and stories. But I’ll get into that next article.

6 thoughts on “GOGathon: Roberta Williams’ Royal Progress

  1. I never could convince myself to realy like the series, although I already played the less cruel AGD-Remakes. But they have a magical flair which gets me to start them over again from time to time, though I rarely play a King’s Quest until the end.

    Like

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