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King’s Quest gives a wink to old fans with throwbacks, unwavering focus on story

It’s hard to conceive of a better moment for King’s Quest to stage a comeback. At a time when most game stories amounted to little more than “The princess is in another castle,” Sierra On-Line and a small handful of others set out during the ’80s and ’90s to tell meaningful tales in gaming’s nascent interactive spaces. Rudimentary graphics didn’t, and still don’t, dull the staying power of names like King Graham or Roger Wilco. And now, in an era when innovative new approaches have bred experiences like The Walking Dead and Gone Home, Roberta Williams’ beloved creation feels like it’s primed for a return.

That’s where The Odd Gentlemen comes in. The Los Angeles-based studio is bringing back King’s Quest under the creative direction of co-founder Matt Korba. A mix of new and old ideas are at work. The game still belongs firmly in the “adventure” category (rest easy, Mask of Eternity haters) and it’s built on exploration and puzzle-solving. Story matters, and choices have tangible effects on certain outcomes, but The Odd Gentlemen’s take is built more on action than words. There’s also a five-chapter structure that’s become so popular among games of this sort, but it’s not strictly a single, contiguous narrative.

“If you’re really a King’s Quest fan, you’re going to catch so many nods.”

“The game is really about the stories that old Graham shares with his curious granddaughter, Gwendolyn. And so each episode focuses on one of those stories. We’re telling stories in between the original games,” Korba tells Digital Trends. “So we completely reimagined it, it’s a new King’s Quest, everything’s re-thought and it looks similar but different. But we’re keeping the details that were set by Roberta and Ken and sort of elaborating on those.”

The first chapter, which involves a dragon, a magic mirror, and a secret buried far beneath an old well, charts Graham’s path to becoming a knight. Longtime fans might view it as a prequel of sorts, since it follows Graham’s journey prior to the events of the original game. Later episodes are set to look at how the future king met his queen, Valanice, and other important scraps of lore. The intent is to deliver a story that stands on its own two feet while still showering the faithful with all the knowing winks they could hope for.

King's Quest_GDC Screenshot_3
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“If you’re really a Sierra fan, you’re really a King’s Quest fan, you’re going to catch so many nods,” Korba says. That mode of thinking was evident even in The Odd Gentelmen’s original pitch, which voiced a need for the game to feature a parade of riotous death sequences. In earlier King’s Quest adventures, death pursued players at every turn. Rudimentary save/restore systems of old are replaced in the revival with an autosave approach, but expect Graham to meet his demise in any number of hilariously painful ways.

More jokes are still to come. Korba is actively writing King’s Quest even now, and some ideas remain to be tackled. Who doesn’t remember the byzantine copy-protection process that the old games relied on? Who wouldn’t crack a smile at a joke that plays with those memories? “I haven’t written anything in yet about the copy protection, but I still have more to write,” Korba explains. “It’s a funny joke if you haven’t played them, it’ll still work. But if you really know what all the old King’s Quest games were, you’ll get it on a whole other level.”

“The stories take place in flashback and the choices that you make in that flashback affect the future.”

The fundamentals remain the same even if the process has changed. The cursor icons of old that players used to walk around, examine objects, pick them up, speak, and more… they’re all gone. In their place is direct movement — no more point-and-click — through the 3D environments and a contextual button that prompts Graham to interact with a particular object or being in the most appropriate way.

“It’s still very much an adventure game. There’s inventory, there’s puzzles … you can physically move Graham around the environment,” Korba says. “We’ve completely redone the interface to work on consoles, without having to use a mouse [cursor]. So you can run up to things, you can use your inventory items on things, you can solve puzzles like that. Everything’s been boiled down to a contextual button instead of having to select different verbs. And because we’ve made the interface simple and easy to pick up and use, we can make the puzzles more in-depth, more challenging.”

The effects of these changes are apparent in the very first chapter, which presents players with an open environment and a series of problems to work through, in any order. In some ways, this mirrors the approach of the fan-favorite King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, which was similarly open-ended. In The Odd Gentlemen’s take, however, your choices have consequence. In the first chapter, the order in which the starting set of problems is tackled reverberates into the rest of the story. Just not in the way you might expect.

King's Quest_GDC Screenshot_2
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“The stories take place in flashback and the choices that you make in that flashback affect the future,” Korba says. “So each chapter, Gwendolyn has a problem that she’s facing in the castle, and based on your decisions in the game, it affects the type of story [Old Graham is] telling her, whether it’s a story of compassion, bravery, or wisdom.”

Compassion, bravery, and wisdom represent the three pillars of choice in The Odd Gentlemen’s King’s Quest. Graham is many things, but he is never not a “good” guy. The story simply acknowledges that the concept of “good” can come in several different flavors. This also feeds into the reason why Gwendolyn isn’t a playable character. As Korba puts it, “[King’s Quest is] all about how the choices and decisions you make and stories you tell affect your children or your grandchildren.”

We would like to create games where story is at the center and we get to create these unique, silly worlds that are just fun and charming.”

It’s a sensible evolution for a series that grounded itself in choice and consequence — albeit in a more rudimentary manner — going all the way back to its earliest days. It’s easy to forget when you’ve gone 20 or 30 years without touching one of these games, but Sierra’s work on story-driven adventures toyed with choice in their own, unique way. “They had alternate paths to solve each puzzles, you got more points if you did things the tried and true Graham way versus taking the violent path,” Korba says. “So we’re playing a lot with choice and with branching.”

Hearing all of this, it’s clearer than ever that 2015 is a perfect moment for King’s Quest, and really for Sierra, to stage a comeback. The Odd Gentlemen’s take might appear similar to something like The Walking Dead at first glance, but the team is leveraging the familiar five-part structure, choice-driven gameplay, and affecting story in very different ways.

King's Quest_GDC Screenshot_4
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“There’s less choose-your-own branching dialogue adventure type of thing and more puzzles,” Korba explains. “We do have some that are based off of dialogue, but most of them are based off of the way you solve a puzzle versus a multiple choice type of thing. It is a different style of game.”

He quickly adds: “However it’s still a game where story comes first and story is the driving point for it. We’re excited to see more of these games be successful. I really hope that everyone has success at this because we would like to create games where story is at the center and we get to create these unique, silly worlds that are just fun and charming.”

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Adam Rosenberg
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Previously, Adam worked in the games press as a freelance writer and critic for a range of outlets, including Digital Trends…
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