Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"King's Quest", PCjr, 1984.

In 1999 I spent a short period of time visiting an Internet friend just outside of Washington, DC, before we travelled to Europe together to visit the Assembly demoparty in Helsinki. While at his home, I noticed that he had a stock ticker app running on his desktop. Thinking this was peculiar for a 20-year-old, I inquired, and he replied somewhat sheepishly that the reason he was tracking the performance of a bottled water company is because an uncle had bought him stock in a video game company which made games that he loved, which had been bought by a company that had been bought by a company that had been bought by a bottled water company. So now he owned stock in a bottled water company which had totally abolished his beloved video games. That game company was Sierra On-Line, and now it was a line-item in a corporate restructuring.

Ever since this trailer was released last week by Activision, people have been coming out of the woodwork and bugging me: Rowan, did you hear that Sierra is making a new King's Quest game? I don't know if it's even possible to make a King's Quest game in 2014. (Does King Graham have regenerating health, used in tandem with a cover system?) The original Sierra proved itself that the brand was not only meaningless but outright confused in the post-2D era with their stab at King's Quest 8 in 1998.

I found the rows of Quest boxes hanging from the Radio Shack pegboard hugely compelling when I was a little kid; I must own up to playing the heck out of KQ4, largely because... it's the game that I had. It seemed simultaneously a step up from KQ3 AND KQ5. The sixth game was a winner, relatively, but quickly it was becoming apparent that Sierra at its best couldn't hold a candle to Lucasarts. Sierra's games were triumphs only relative to what they had done earlier: King's Quest was a great step up from Wizard and the Princess. I have fond memories of Conquests of Camelot and the Quest for Glory games due to their triumphs despite the Sierra baggage. None of their A-list franchises -- King's Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, or even Space Quest -- could be described as good games. They just got in early and defined a genre by imposing certain limitations and constraints, which continued to plague the genre generally until it became commercially extinct.

The late-to-the-party fanboys are out in droves celebrating the return of their beloved Sierra who had published Half-Life and Spyro. Really, the best you can hope is for a legendary company to backtrack slightly from dead and buried to being in steep decline?

One day in my dentist's office I found myself reading an article from one of the magazines there, a volume I ordinarily would never have chosen to pick up. In it, the author described how he and his wife would entertain themselves in their retirement by having yacht races with their friends, to see who could navigate from the US West Coast to Japan the fastest; the winner of the race would be the first eating fresh sushi right on the docks in Tokyo. That's odd, I thought, the author's name rings a little bell. Oh, wait -- that's Ken Williams, Sierra's founder. And his wife must be Roberta Williams. They peddled fairy tales to millions, bridging the eras of folklore and microchips, and now they shovel cash into a furnace for kicks. How banal.

So let's skip back a decade or so earlier and enjoy this ad from when they still appeared to have a future.

"IT'S LIKE PLAYING AN ANIMATED CARTOON!" From a review of King's Quest, Computer Games Magazine

No other computer games combine the graphics and animation of Sierra's bestselling 3-D Animated Adventures. They feature:

• dozens of animated characters that come alive -- they walk, talk, run, climb, even swim!

• hundreds of three-dimensional screens more detailed than any seen before -- animated characters pass in front of trees, behind rocks, even around other characters!

• optional joystick control -- use keyboard with optional joystick to guide the main character around a fantasy world.

• multiple solutions and variable scoring -- play again and again, each time uncovering interesting new twists.

The most fun you'll ever have playing adventure games!

Sierra's award-winning line of 3-D Animated Adventure games --

KING'S QUEST:

"a breakthrough in graphics-oriented adventure games —Compute! Magazine. For 128K Apple lle/llc, IBM PC/PCjr. $49.95.

NOW ON APPLE II KING'S QUEST II: Romancing the Throne: "the artists and programmers at Sierra continue to push available technology to its ever [] expanding limits" —Consumer Software News Magazine. For 12HK Apple lle/llc, Atari 520 ST, IBM PC/PCjr, $49.95.

NEW! The Black Cauldron: "the closest thing yet to a living game" -- Roe Adams, Computer Gaming World Magazine. Developed with Walt Disney Personal Computer Software Staff. For IBM PC/PCjr, $39. 95.

It's like playing an animated cartoon about a stickman falling off of a staircase ten thousand times! I appreciate the breath of fresh air the animated avatars must have been after cutting your teeth on Mystery House, but I don't know that this is really any closer to an animated cartoon than Pac-Man was. (Dragon's Lair on the other hand...) This wasn't new stuff, though perhaps the sight of it on your business PC was a bit exciting.

"No other computer games combine the graphics and animation..." WAT, graphics and animation? That reminds me of a zen koan my piano teacher once posed, asking which was more important to music: pitch or rhythm? Either in isolation is useless, and it's similarly hard to envision graphicless animation (my recent pitch black animated Auto-Awesome fail nonwithstanding.)

"dozens of animated characters that come alive -- they walk, talk, run, climb, even swim!" You can draw one stickman, why not 24? The "animation" involved in making these characters talk was typically flashing a single pixel in the middle of their face between black and white. Magical!

"animated characters pass in front of trees, behind rocks, even around other characters!" Here's the deal: this ad is written like it's selling a technical demo to a hardware store. It's like the early graphics demos that were technically proficient at showing revolving chromed spheres reflecting coloured Platonic solids, but were blown away when Pixar showed up and added a little story to the proceedings. You would think that Sierra would emphasis the storytelling and characters, but not yet. Truthfully, those categories as well were pretty feeble at this early time, but it may be the case that those were simply qualities the market wasn't yet demonstrating interest in.

"optional joystick control" OK, hang on, I need to nip off to the store to pick up five copies.

"multiple solutions and variable scoring -- play again and again, each time uncovering interesting new twists." Maybe for The Black Cauldron, but finishing a 200 point game with only 5 optional points missing doesn't qualify as that interesting a new twist from a 100% completion run.

"The most fun you'll ever have playing adventure games!" Now that's a outright lie.

I'm as keen as anyone to see increased interest in video game history, but the memory is still fresh in my mind of what undignified jig Activision made Zork do when they dug its bones up. I would rather Telltale had kept the license rather than Activision, who probably no longer have anyone on staff who ever worked on an adventure game (on the plus side, I snarked, they couldn't do a worse job of game design than Roberta Williams), but I don't get to call those shots. We'll see what comes of this.