No other game has had such an impact upon my childhood development and made such an impression on the person who I am today than the original King’s Quest. It’s also possible that it’s the most influential piece of media that I have ever experienced in my lifetime, but that would be a difficult fact to determine.
The year was 1984 and I was six years old. I was over my friend Evan’s house, who I envied because his dad let him watch R-rated horror movies like Cronenberg’s The Fly while I had to battle my parents any time I wanted to watch something that was PG. Because of this, I had to resort to reading novelizations for movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I also received my horror fix by reading the work of Stephen King. Yes, my parents were okay with me reading stories about supernatural clowns who kill children, but they felt Jeff Goldblum tearing off his skin was inappropriate for a six-year-old. My reading comprehension was also very advanced for my age and I was far ahead of the rest of my first-grade class in this subject, but flash forward to years later in junior high and I would no longer be a gifted student. Instead, I was below average, although this was partially due to fearing school because I was the victim of bullying. The bullying may have stopped in high school, but I continued to receive poor grades, and this didn’t stop until I graduated from college the first time.
Recently, I was walking around my neighborhood and walked on Evan’s street, but I couldn’t figure out where he used to live. On that afternoon thirty years earlier, my dad was also spending time in the house. He was friends with Evan’s dad, who was one of the few parents who he spent time with when I was that age. Evan’s dad was showing us this thing called a “computer” that I had never seen before. It was an IBM PCjr, which was IBM’s first computer for the home computer market and, according to Time Magazine, “One of the biggest flops in the history of computing” at the time of its release. Evan’s dad (neither I nor my family can recall his first name) was showing us the first computer game that I had ever seen, and that game was King’s Quest, which had been developed specifically for the PCjr by computer game company Sierra On-Line. It belonged to a genre of computer games called adventure games, which were popular in the eighties and the nineties. King’s Quest was the first 3-D animated game of its kind, meaning players interacted with the game’s surroundings through their actions or by walking around. Prior to its release, all adventure games were either text-based or consisted of “unanimated rooms” that players couldn’t interact with visually. Sierra was a pioneer of adventure games and most of their popular games belonged to the genre until the genre’s decline in popularity.
Despite King’s Quest’s primitive graphics, I was fascinated as I watched my friend’s dad play the game and provide commentary. I had played video games before, but I had never before seen a game where the player interacted with their environment by typing commands. Watching this little pixilated figure who was known as Sir Graham walking past a castle’s moat monsters was as engaging as watching the rare PG-rated movie that my parents let me see. I was in awe as he went behind the castle into its gardens, typed, “Get carrot,” and picked it up. And then it utterly blew my mind when he went to a goat pen, typed, “Show carrot to goat,” and the goat actually started following him, then Sir Graham tried to walk across a bridge with the goat, but a troll appeared to block his path. And the next thing that happened was incredible: the goat kicked the troll into the river, allowing Sir Graham to continue on his way.
It may seem like I’m exaggerating as far as my reactions to the events that I just described, but let me assure you, this is an accurate record of my experience at the time.
After this experience, I wanted a computer of my own, and my quest to obtain one was easier than Sir Graham’s quest for the three legendary treasures of Daventry: I just had to bug my parents a little and wait a few months for my birthday.
Three days before the end of the year and I was the ecstatic owner of an IBM PCjr, which I ended up sharing with the rest of my family. In addition, my parents also bought me a copy of King’s Quest, which consisted of a single floppy disk. It also came with a short booklet that contained a typed story that provided background info about the game: King Edward the Benevolent was having trouble impregnating his wife, so a sorcerer showed up and promised to help if they gave him their magic mirror that predicts the future. They took one last glance in the mirror and saw a young man being crowned king. Thinking this was their son, they gave the mirror to the wizard. But alas, it was all a lie. Years later, the queen was sick and on the verge of death. A dwarf appeared and offered to trade a plant’s root that would cure her for the kingdom’s shield “that protects its wearer against danger.” King Edward accepted the dwarf’s offer, but he had again been lied to, and the queen soon died. So the king needed a new queen, and he found her when he came across a young princess who was surrounded by bloodthirsty wolves. Rescuing her, the king asked for her hand in marriage, and she accepted. But on the night before their wedding, she stole Daventry’s chest “that is always filled with gold,” transformed into a withered crone, and escaped out of the castle by riding on a broomstick. Following the thefts, the castle fell into ruin and the kingdom transformed into the kind of place where you wouldn’t want to raise your children. So the king entrusted his best knight, Sir Graham, to recover the treasures and return Daventry back to its former glory. And if the knight were to complete his quest, he would become king (hence the title of the game).
I treasured this booklet, which contained paper that was artificially aged in an attempt to make it look older that it was. I believe my edition of the game was a later version that came out a year after its first edition because according to Wikipedia, it originally didn’t have this intricate backstory. But I’m one hundred percent sure that the game came with the story. Another thing that’s odd about the story is that the treasure thieves are very incidental characters in the game and are no longer the keepers of the treasures when it begins. Instead, they are enemies that will either kill you and bring the game to an end or annoy you: the witch cooks you in her pot, the dwarf steals from you, and the sorcerer casts a spell that freezes you, “leaving you at the mercy of the forest creatures,” which sometimes results in your death and other times causes a run-in with the dwarf.
So I spent the night of my birthday pretending to be Sir Graham and occasionally encountering these enemies because I had no idea how to avoid them. Now, playing an emulator on my computer, I realize the best way to do this is to walk along the edge of the screen whenever possible, but this is not something that most seven-year-olds are able to figure out immediately. Not only did I have to deal with the treasure thieves, but there was also other enemies to avoid such as an ogre and a wolf. I found my many deaths frustrating and my only defense against it was to save the game whenever I thought I made progress in the game, like when I obtained an item such as a golden egg. But saving the game was extremely tedious: it was impossible to save game data on the computer. Each time I did it, I needed to replace the game disk with a floppy disk that was initially blank and save the game onto it, then put the game disk back into the drive. This was equally obnoxious whenever I got killed and needed to restart the game from a saved game. But this was nowhere near as aggravating as the game controls. Sir Graham’s movements were controlled by the arrow key, but his actions were carried out by typing commands into the game’s parser at the bottom of the screen. Often, it was extremely difficult to determine the correct thing to type. Sometimes I knew exactly what Sir Graham should have been doing, but I didn’t know exactly how to phrase it. The game was merciless in requiring me enter the exact words that the game’s creator’s programmed the game to understand. A typical response was something in the vein of “You cannot do that,” although the later version that I’m playing right now on a rom emulator is more personalized: “Please try something else, Sir Graham.” All of this was made even more difficult because I had never used a keyboard to type before. I would often play the game with my father, who would type out the commands for me, but after a while, I began to do it myself. And a little later, I would end up using my newfound skill to write stories.
I would spend some afternoons after school in my dad’s office while my mother was working. He had a computer for me to use, but it didn’t have any games. So I would occupy my time by writing a “story” on the computer on an old version of WordPerfect. The “story” was about an adventure that my friends and I had inside a haunted house in an attempt to find the pirate treasure that was hidden inside. I keep surrounding the word “story” with scare quotes because I kept adding to it each afternoon and it ended up being hundreds of pages long. This was not the first “story” I had written, but it was the first one that I typed, as well as the first that was longer than one page.
In my first grade class, my teacher, Mr. Frasier, was a proponent of creative writing and he often assigned us stories to write for our homework. My mother still has those stories today and I looked them over recently to discover that they have a lot in common with my prose poetry. They can even pass for prose poetry and involved such things as sentient coffee stains and the personification of seasons. The following is an example:
Spring fever is harmful. Spring fever is imaginary. Spring fever is invisible. When spring fever came in our classroom he went into Mr. Frazer. But he fought spring fever with his willpower. Spring fever tried again but it was winter.
Although I had already written stories for the class, it didn’t really give me any opportunities to make creative decisions as far as my characters. I believe the decisions I made in regards to Sir Graham had a big influence on my decisions in my “story.” I would be confronted with problems in the game and my job was to solve the problems. If I failed to do so, I couldn’t proceed in the game and I will wander around aimlessly and get very bored. Usually, the problems were solved by using certain items that I picked up during my travels. The solutions in King’s Quest were rather simplistic, while the solutions in adventure games that I played later on were often convoluted and absurd. One notable aspect about the puzzles is some of them had more than one solution, and the “kind” solution gave me more points than the murderous solution (for example, you get more points if you recover the chest that is always filled with gold from a giant by putting on a ring of invisibility, waiting for him to fall asleep, and stealing it from him rather than shooting pebbles out of a slingshot and killing him). In addition, the game rewards the more creative solution: feeding cheese to a giant rat to get past him is favored over giving him a generic object of value such as a pouch of diamonds. Not that the points mattered to me as a child. They were like points in an arcade game: meaningless unless you’re attempting to get a high score. The only thing I cared about was recovering the lost treasures of the Daventry and becoming king.
More often than not, the solutions in later adventure games were the most ridiculous possibilities imaginable. They required a lot of thought to solve and the secret to proceeding was to often ask myself, “What’s the most unlikely, roundabout way of going about this?” For instance, imagine if you needed to find a fish so you can lure a giant cat away from the treasure that it’s guarding. You would assume this would involve constructing a fishing rod, but the process would be a lot more complex. Instead of attaching a string to a stick and baiting it, you would more likely have to break into a coin-operated crane machine by employing the services of a car thief (who you bribe by getting him a date with the Home Shopping Network host who he loves, which is another intricate process), then stealing the machine’s mechanical claw and using the claw to catch your prey.
Don’t believe me? Take 1999’s Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, which was Sierra’s final adventure game. At one point in the game, you must rent a motorcycle. But since it’s an adventure game, you cannot simply rent it. Instead, you must impersonate a police detective in order to obtain the vehicle. To do this, you must wear a fake mustache (even though the detective doesn’t have a mustache). But again, this is an adventure game, so obtaining a fake mustache isn’t as easy as it would be in real life. You must create a mustache out of cat hair. Again, this is not as easy as it should be. The way to do this is probably the most complicated adventure game solution ever. If you don’t believe me, google “cat hair mustache puzzle” and learn why the genre is no longer popular.
Currently, I write humorous, absurdist fiction. I believe my childhood playing adventure games is the reason why I do so. And it all began with King’s Quest.