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King’s Quest revisited


King's Quest welcome image. Once you launch the BAT file, this is the first thing that greets the player, along with an 8-bit PC speaker version of Greensleeves.

King’s Quest welcome image. Once you launch the BAT file, this is the first thing that greets the player, along with an 8-bit PC speaker version of Greensleeves.

I’m really fascinated by the history of computer engineering and, by extension, the history of video games. It’s watching the evolution that intrigues me: seeing concepts or solutions grow and mature into all new technologies or relationships. The other night, I opened my DOS emulator and played through “King’s Quest 1”. What a stark contrast to the kinds of interfaces we have today; these early adventure games demanded so much of the player and could be so cruel in return. There were so many skills that the player needed that were not part of the interface at all: mapping, save/restore system, etc. These early titles broke just about every rule of the Player’s Bill of Rights. Why were they so successful?


Welcome to the land of Daventry. We can see the player’s avatar next to the tree, Sir Graham, as well as the player’s first threat and obstacle: alligators and a bridge. Navigating your figure over this bridge can be tricky.

From this screen shot, we can see the basics of the interface: the score tells you how far you’ve gotten through the game as well as how much is left, the command prompt is waiting for a text entry. Sierra was pretty notorious for having a bad parser, and the commands that you would be expected to use were generally two word commands: verb + noun. In “King’s Quest 1” there was only one instance where they pulled the ‘guess the verb’ game; most of the challenges that the player faced were from super easy deaths. In one instance, you need to move a rock to find a dagger; if you’re standing on the wrong side of the rock, you die. There is no hint to explain this, you simply have to get killed, restore to an earlier point in the game, and then try again by standing on the other side. This is a clear violation of number three on the player bill of rights: “To be able to win without experience of past lives.”


Here you can see my save/restore method at work. Notice that you have so many slots, this is because in games of this type, it could be easy to make the game unwinnable. A good strategy would be to spread your saves out, giving yourself a wide spectrum of restore points.

Players would be expected to make detailed maps of the game world, noting where they found each item or each encounter. For instance, there’s a fairy godmother whom the player encounters in a specific location; she casts a spell that allows you to walk through monster territory unscathed. It’s pretty helpful to find your way back to that location. In the present day where people return products that they can’t figure out in 20 minutes, and the designer’s mantra is “don’t make the user think,” why would anyone pay money for an experience like this? Especially when we consider that this game sold for 40$ or more in 1987; that was a really big stack of money back then!

Thinking it over, I’m sure that the answer to the question has to do with the kinds of people that were buying computers in 1987. The computing atmosphere was slowly transitioning away from the hobbyists and computer enthusiasts to the mainstream. These early adopters, however, were fascinated by complex systems and were willing to dig into their new toys to see how they worked. Adventure games and text adventures also provided interesting systems with fantastical elements for the player to explore. Though the typical customer today would find creating a map of their game tedious, my friends and I found it great fun. As computer games became more accessible to the mainstream, the adventure titles slowly disappeared. Game publishers just weren’t interested in a niche market. Now that we have tools like “Kickstarter” which specifically allows niche markets to be serviced, we are already seeing a revival of this once dead genre. So, what we have in front of us are two starkly contrasting models of how people work: on one hand people don’t want to think and are inherently lazy; on the other, people find exploring and solving problems or puzzles very satisfying and will pay for the experience. It’s very easy to go down a cynical path with this and start making generalizations about the masses and what constitutes a viable mass product. But, considering Double Fine’s success, maybe that niche is not as small as once thought.

If you’re also interested in the history of computer games, and micro computing in general, I really suggest checking out the Digital Antiquarian. You can find his blog at this link.




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