The King's Quest reboot embraces everything that made old-school adventure games so wonderful

Scripted zaniness galore. An unreliable narrator. King's Quest looks to be shaping up into something special.

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As I was sitting in a dark little cubicle during E3 last week watching a presentation for King’s Quest, I started to wonder how much it cost to make. This was no idle speculation—no meaningless mind-wandering. Quite the opposite. I was trying to figure out whether we could officially say the adventure game, that much-maligned genre, was a “Big Deal” again.

After all, here I was watching a demo that featured extensive voice acting from Christopher Lloyd and Wallace Shawn, among others. It’s a game where I was expressly told all the artwork is literally hand-painted—the art team prints out flattened meshes of the 3D models and fills them in with watercolors. It’s a game where some interactions have upwards of twenty unique pieces of dialogue—go on, keep telling King Graham to hit the knight with his hatchet. Believe me, he’s got plenty of excuses why he shouldn’t.

It was fascinating, like suddenly I’d slipped into a parallel universe where the ‘90s never ended and shooters never became the dominant genre and everyone just decided to keep on making adventure games the right way. And this from Activision, the publisher who also brings you your yearly dose of shooter excess, Call of Duty.

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Always the hero

Which is not to say we’ve had bad adventure games recently. Quite the opposite, in fact. Both Nordic and Daedalic have been cranking out fantastic titles over the past few years, from Book of Unwritten Tales to Memoria.

But there’s nothing quite on the scale of King’s Quest. It’s seemingly small stuff, like the amount of dialogue. One of the most common signs of quality in the adventure genre, going as far back as text adventures, is whether you get unique responses for item combinations, i.e. “The cat’s allergic to marmalade” instead of a generic “That won’t work.” It’s a sign that a) The developer already thought of the stupid thing you wanted to do and b) The developer had enough time to think of and program in a dedicated reaction.

Modern adventure games often get away with a scarcity of language, though. We have a lot of generic “That won’t work” responses and very few unique interactions. Part of what fascinates me with King’s Quest is it’s seemingly full of hidden silliness.

To demonstrate this, the developers showed us what happens if you—for example—lead King Graham in the “wrong direction.” Or, in other words, adventure.

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First, some important set-up: King’s Quest is a frame narrative, a la Princess Bride or Big Fish or (in games) Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. In other words, someone is telling someone a story, and thus there’s an unreliable narrator at play.

In King’s Quest, Graham is the unreliable narrator. He’s telling his granddaughter Gwendolyn a story, and his narration is a constant source of humor—for instance, saying he “rappelled gracefully down a cliff” as we watch a cutscene where he tumbles haphazardly down a slope and hits every tree on the way to the bottom.

Got it? Good. So, to return to Graham heading the wrong direction:

Graham is supposed to head east. We’re told this by Graham himself after he “gracefully” reaches the foot of the cliff. Of course, this being a game and we being ornery and rebellious, we head west instead. This forces Graham to come up with an excuse for why the player headed the wrong direction. We head back east, and Graham backtracks again. We meander west again, and Graham comes up with another excuse. And so on and so forth.

I don’t know how many different pieces of dialogue were written for this one interaction, but it seemed like a lot. And that’s just one really silly example. There were a ton of others demoed along the way, with a similar range of unique lines attached.

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Again, it’s about scale. It’s not like other adventure games want to cut it down to a bare minimum of dialogue, but dialogue is costly both to write and to perform. King’s Quest is impressive because it builds in what’s basically superfluous dialogue that only a handful of players will ever experience—similar to the superb Stanley Parable.

Choose your adventure

This same approach seems to influence puzzle design, too. If there’s one way King’s Quest seems to differ from its predecessors, it’s that we weren’t killed off two dozen times in our half-hour demo. The classic Sierra games are notorious for being grueling, but King’s Quest…well, it looks more modern. Friendlier.

Part of that is a dedication to multiple puzzle solutions. I don’t know whether that’ll be the case for every puzzle, but in our demo we were shown a lengthy, circuitous solution for the problem of “Crossing the River”—one that took multiple item interactions, and was very “adventure game-y” in its execution. And then we were told about a much easier, obvious solution later that’s just as valid.

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It’s interesting—a very different approach from the classics, where the obvious solution was oftentimes treated as a chance to ensnare or kill off the unwary player. This King’s Quest takes the opposite tack, encouraging experimentation rather than punishing you for it.

The Odd Gentlemen seem to be lifting from modern influences too, with a greater focus on branching storylines and choice/consequence interactions. Our demo centered on Graham's giving Gwendolyn advice—advice which will then play into Gwendolyn’s modern-day story. I’m curious to see whether, with the implied size and scope of King’s Quest, we get more defined branches than what we see with Telltale’s “illusion-of-choice” fare.

Bottom line

All in all, King’s Quest impressed the hell out of me. There’s a reason we crowned it one of the most exciting games of E3.

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It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful, and Christopher Lloyd’s silly dialogue for King Graham never failed to put a smile on my face. I laughed for almost the entirety of my thirty minute demo. I’m not incredibly excited for the episodic nature of the game—I’m sort-of burned out on that format after two years of Telltale games, and I don’t know why the adventure genre in particular seems so fond of it. But regardless, this looks far better than I ever dared to hope when I heard Activision was funding a King’s Quest revival. It looks as spirited and playful as the originals, with a hefty dose of big-budget polish and modern design thrown in.

So yes, assuming the finished product is as good as what I saw last week, I think we can officially say the adventure game is a “Big Deal” again. And that’s welcome news, so long as I don’t find myself standing in the shower in a few weeks forlornly contemplating why I need a sugar cube to protect myself from poison thorns.

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