Too much thinking, argues a blacksmith in the new “King’s Quest,” leads to inaction. She says this as if thought were a lamentable trait. Let’s be thankful she’s a fictional blacksmith and not a video game publisher.
Conventional game design wisdom often puts forth the theory that the new, the technologically advanced and the action-packed are greater than something with a lived-in feel and many a conversation.
Conventional game design wisdom is sometimes wrong.
It’s the difference between, say, the personal and the mechanically sound — a watch with slick, up-to-the-minute tech versus the clock with old-time appeal. With history come stories to tell, and occasionally some bad puns.
This brings us to “King’s Quest.”
In the world of video games, the “King’s Quest” series is downright ancient. Its origins date to the early ‘80s era of the floppy disc, the medium’s equivalent of parchment. A reboot, developed by downtown L.A.'s the Odd Gentlemen and released this week, centers on a rather traditional theory: A fairy tale needs few embellishments other than story and charm.
Like a weekend trip to a renaissance fair, the Odd Gentlemen’s take on “King’s Quest” is filled with eccentrically cheery characters and unexpected oddities. Littered with bumbling knights and opportunistic sorcerers, “King’s Quest” places a premium on humor and harebrained characterizations. Six-plus hours in and it was still charming to watch our hero Graham lift his feet off the ground and splay his legs every time he blew into a gigantic stone bullhorn.
As such, “King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember,” the first of five planned chapters, is fantasy at its most fanciful. The Odd Gentlemen has taken the classic Sierra series, once thought left for dead, and turned it into a family-friendly and -playable cartoon in which a young Graham makes his bid for knighthood.
Here, dragons are nice touches, but feisty, vendetta-holding squirrels can be just as dangerous — or as memorable. Armor certainly helps in a battle, but perhaps not as much as a freshly baked pie. And a broadsword can most definitely clear a path, but it’s maybe not as helpful as garden tools.
Light, modern-day touches abound. Bridge trolls this time around don’t necessarily need to be fed with goats. Instead, they need a mediator for a labor dispute. The animals live, usually, in this affable update.
Key to the game’s success is how it handles nostalgia. Rather than rely on it, or drown in it, the Odd Gentlemen has made the act of reminiscing a part of the game.
“King’s Quest” is told through narration, as an elder King Graham, voiced endearingly by Christopher Lloyd, entertains his granddaughter with far-fetched tales of heroism. It’s a smart yet simple move and one clearly influenced by “The Princess Bride” (the film’s Wallace Shawn even voices a pipsqueak of a wannabe knight who’s not too dissimilar from his famed Vizzini character).
If the player makes a wrong move and directs Graham to be eaten by wolves, Graham and the young Gwendolyn (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) will interrupt — Graham with a pun, and Gwendolyn with a groan. It’s a clever throwback to the original, which was created by retired game master Roberta Williams. After all, it was common in “King’s Quest” for players to be met with untimely, and nonsensical, deaths.
The Odd Gentlemen is cognizant of the “King’s Quest” legacy but certainly not chained to it. A brief
bit of history: “King’s Quest” was pioneering for the way
it emphasized characters and story in a medium in which play has been given precedence. In the mid-
to late ‘80s, “King’s Quest” and the games of Sierra made the case that the video game medium would evolve into a form of interactive cinema.
That hasn’t yet happened, although companies such as Telltale Games, as well as titles such as “Life Is Strange” and “Broken Age,” are once again making the case that the future of interactive entertainment lies with strong narratives. While the hand-drawn animation of “King’s Quest” may not be as ornate as a Disney cartoon, the look is personalized and painted, so much so that the story-first focus recalled “The Sword in the Stone” more than it did any recent video games.
When it comes to game and puzzle design, the Odd Gentlemen made some contemporary and smart concessions. Just when backtracking through the kingdom of Daventry starts to feel tedious, Gwendolyn interrupts and tells her grandpa to hurry the story along. As for the actual challenge of the hidden puzzles, “King’s Quest” isn’t necessarily strenuous, but a couple of dilemmas had me stumped for a good hour or so.
Quests may involve having to decipher a few words of an imaginary language, traversing a dragon’s cavern or matching wits with another knight-to-be via a board game. They’re manageable brainteasers, and the emphasis is often on ridiculousness. How ridiculous? A knight carries around a pet squirrel … in his breastplate.
By and large, the Odd Gentlemen opted for a rather fluid approach. There are multiple paths, for instance, for Graham to take to snare the eye of a beast, one of the game’s early tests, but the player isn’t confronted with a this-or-that choice, one that too often makes today’s narrative-driven games feel like giant choose-your-own-adventure novels.
There are choices to be made in “King’s Quest,” but they largely feel invisible to the player. Graham will ultimately visit all the locales, while the few townsfolk in the game subtly try to influence the player by expressing their visions for the perfect knight.
There are some very minor dings in the armor. One puzzle was solved without even knowing it was a puzzle, as Graham encountered the solution before the problem. It’d also be nice to have the option to skip some dialogue after Graham heard it the first time, but there’s nothing that really detracts from a loving update of a classic franchise.
What’s important is that the Odd Gentlemen has created a rich world worth exploring. After encountering a salesman who was protecting his goats from trolls by fashioning fake unicorn horns on their heads, one is left eager to see who (or what) Graham will stumble across next.
So bring on the puzzles, even if some of the characters in the game may long for more action. “Inaction,” the blacksmith tells Graham, “is just boring.”
No, she’s just playing the wrong games.
‘King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember’
Developer: The Odd Gentlemen
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One
Price: $9.99 for the first episode