Matt Korba loves King’s Quest.
It’s evident from the moment that Sierra and The Odd Gentlemen’s E3 presentation starts. Korba is the creative director and lead writer for the upcoming King’s Quest reboot (when asked what he does on the game, Korba deadpans, “Everything.”), and his enthusiasm for the series is dangerously infectious.
It’s not just the new game that he loves, either. Throughout the presentation, Korba drops obscure references to past King’s Quest titles. A water puzzle borrows from King’s Quest 1. The interface is icon driven, with images inspired by King’s Quest 5. The sound that plays when players pick up a new object is exactly the same as the one in King’s Quest 6; Korba made the sound designer try again and again until the audio cue was perfect.
For long-time fans, that’s incredibly reassuring; it hasn’t been around for a while, but King’s Quest is one of the most important series of games ever made. Back in the early 80’s, games didn’t usually tell stories, never mind good ones. Roberta and Ken Williams changed that with a series of adventure games that were just as funny and exciting as they were hard. Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann, an Israeli, actually taught himself English so that he could play King’s Quest. That’s right: without King’s Quest, gamers might never have gotten Uncharted or The Last of Us.
Roberta isn’t involved in the new King’s Quest, but she’s given Korba her blessing, and he’s dead set on honoring the series’ legacy. As Korba describes it, every King’s Quest game is built on a pyramid, in which story, gameplay, and art are all equally as important. Korba’s taking that foundation and adding another, thematic trio: compassion, strength, and wisdom. Together, these six tenets combine to create a sprawling, episodic adventure with multiple paths and hard-as-nails puzzles.
Structurally, Korba compares King’s Quest to The Princess Bride. King Graham (voiced by Christopher Lloyd, in what’s shaping up to be his best performance in years) is an old man, retired from the throne. Meanwhile, his granddaughter, Gwendolyn, is growing older, and needs her grandfather’s advice. In every chapter of King’s Quest, Gwendolyn comes to Graham with a unique problem. In response, Graham tells her a story.
That’s where the players take over. King’s Quest offers players multiple ways to reach the end of each chapter, and the decisions that they make change the story. That, in turn, affects how Gwendolyn acts; how she solves her problem is directly tied to how players decide to progress through the game. Gwendolyn and old King Graham are active characters in the story, too; Graham acts as a (sometimes unreliable) narrator, while Gwendolyn occasionally interrupts to provide feedback or question the story’s logic.
The point-and-click adventure genre has had a bit of a resurgence lately, thanks mainly to Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Double Fine’s Broken Age. However, unly Broken Age, King’s Quest has a branching narrative. Unlike The Walking Dead, King’s Quest is full of tough puzzles – and subtlety.
Although he doesn’t call them out by name, Korba doesn’t like modern adventure games that make it clear when players are making a “big decision,” and King’s Quest is more nuanced in its storytelling. Sometimes, the branching paths are clear. For example, in the first King’s Quest episode, A Knight to Remember, Graham needs to find a monster’s eye so that he can enter a tournament. Players can find the eye by talking to the blacksmith (who represents strength), the alchemist (wisdom), or the baker (compassion), and completing their respective missions.
But King’s Quest can be less direct, too. Some dialogue options may not seem important, but characters will react differently to Graham depending on what he said earlier. Some puzzles have multiple solutions, which tie in to one of the game’s three thematic pillars. Korba estimates that the first chapter of King’s Quest alone has more branches than any other branching adventure game, and it’ll take many playthroughs for players to find them all.
The different branches gave Korba the freedom to put in some hard puzzles, too; if one branch proves too difficult, players can always try another, easier one. At its core, King’s Quest is a traditional adventure game, and most of the puzzles involve collecting objects, using them at the right and place time (or giving them to the right people), and interacting with the environment in just the right way.
There are also some minigames, which were inserted into the game when it was appropriate for the story (the demo featured a dance-off with a bridge troll, which Korba says is the only place that minigame will appear). Oh, and players can die, although a generous checkpoint system means that death is more of a comedic aside than a real punishment.
The game’s models look hand-painted because they actually are: The Odd Gentleman’s art team printed out the 3D models, added watercolors by hand, and then scanned them back into the computer to be used as textures. King’s Quest is also laugh out loud funny, and it’s filled with content. At the very beginning of the game, if Graham starts walking the wrong way, the narrator gently chides him and turns him around. That’s not the end of it. Graham can try to head the wrong way again and again; it’s only after about eight attempts, each with its own line of dialogue, that the path closes entirely.
King’s Quest is full of that sort of thing; it’s Korba’s first game with a branching narrative, and as he says, “We went overboard.” Ultimately, King’s Quest will be better for it. While the game’s broken down into five chapters, each one stands alone. Graham will get older over the course of the game, but otherwise, every episode tells its own story.
The first chapter comes out in about a month, and Korba’s nervous. He shouldn’t be. The game is funny, attractive, and compelling; it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but for old-school adventure fans, it doesn’t get much better. Rest easy; the King has returned.
King’s Quest is in development for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. The first episode, A Knight to Remember, will come out at the end of July, 2015.