It seems as though, for many years now, there have been two major camps of activists in the computer adventure gaming field. There is one that believes that the industry as we know it today could not exist without the contribution of the Infocom series, Zork, which dates back to a mainframe version at MIT in the late 1970s. Others think that everything that came before the release of King's Quest: The Quest for the Crown in 1984 was irrelevant, and that is when the gaming industry truly began. Sierra On-Line believes that there can be no question which is the most influential series. To them, the answer is unequivocally King's Quest. However, I belong to the first field of thought, and strongly believe that the Zork series is the most influential.
Zork began paving the way for a new era of computer gaming as early as its release in 1981, or perhaps even earlier. Though the original game had to be split into three parts from its original mainframe version (as the storage media for microcomputers of that time was not very advanced), its impact was not at all lessened. When it arrived, it was a breath of fresh air, and different from everything else that had come before. After its release, games no longer had to be restricted to one or two word parsers--the sky was quite literally the limit, and even the earliest Infocom games had vocabularies of hundreds of words of every conceivable type. In Infocom games, you could communicate in full English sentences, using prepositions, adjectives, and even questions to proceed with the game.
It is entirely possible that the King's Quest series may be one of the most influential (or the most influential) graphic adventure game series of all time, but even that is in question. King's Quest: The Quest for the Crown brought a new type of animation into the computer gaming realm, but after that, the engine remained essentially unchanged until 1988, when King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella was released. Using high quality graphics and the new technology of sound cards to provide music, it took computer gaming to another plateau. Yet, King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder! was not really revolutionary--320x200x256 resoultion VGA graphics had already been seen in games such as Ultima VI: The False Prophet and Zork Zero when that game was released. King's Quest VI introduced no new innovations, and when King's Quest VII was released, 640x480x256 resolution on CD-ROM was already the norm.
In 1984, when King's Quest: The Quest for the Crown was released, yes, it was very impressive. You could move the character around the screen, see him move, see his world, and see lots of animation showing how he interacted with it. You could see practically everything that happened in the game. However, input was still very limited, and commands more complex than two or three words were generally not used in the game. After all, when a game understands the command LOOK TREE, who needs the word AT?
Eventually, it was Sierra that took the first step in removing typing from the game altogether, making the entire focus of the game the graphics and sound. When King's Quest V was released in 1990, it had very nice graphics, yet the game was missing. It was extremely easy, and seldom gave anyone more than a few evenings of trouble. All game interaction was reduced to a group of six or seven icons, which controlled all game functions. It did, indeed, seem a step backward. In the early 1980s, Infocom was allowing nearly all-encompassing communication, but at the dawn of the 1990s, it had all but disappeared. Ever since the series' inception, it seems as if graphics and sound have been all that has really mattered, and I doubt that The Mask of Eternity will be an exception. However, I also doubt that it will be the fantastic experience Sierra is currently claiming it will be.
It is said to employ a new type of 3D rendering technology to make the game a very realistic experience. However, 3D is not a new thing in adventure games. Alternate camera angles and 3D perspectives, the type of which were mentioned as being part of the new King's Quest game, have been used in games such as Wing Commander III and Alone in the Dark, to name only two such titles on the PC platform alone. Games like Myst, with very detailed near-3D images and Zork: Nemesis with paintstakingly rendered 360 degree room designs have also already done this. True, Sierra's new technology may prove to be the future of computer gaming, but, as games such as Origin's Strike Commander have proven, if the game's release is put off for too long, when the game finally arrives (and The Mask of Eternity isn't slated to arrive until Christmas of 1997), the technology employed seldom seems as impressive as it did when the game was first advertised. Sierra claims the reason for the delay is that 3D acceleration hardware won't be affordable until then. It already is, though, on the Apple Macintosh line of computers, which also support a 3D system that is better by leaps and bounds than anything PCs are currently doing. When The Mask of Eternity finally comes out for the PC line, I personally feel it will be old news.
However, whether or not the graphics are revolutionary, they must take back seat to what is truly important: the game itself. No matter how pretty the graphics are, or how incredible the music or voice work is, if the game is not strong enough, then the objective has not been accomplished, and the product is rarely, if ever, touted as an achievement. You see the graphics, you hear the music, but you remember the story, and you remember the game. Where it really counts, the King's Quest series is not at all the most influential series ever.
In Zork, though there was, admittedly, not much of a story, the gaming experience was immersive. There was hardly a moment when you didn't feel as if you were really in that world, living the adventurer's life. The story, as it was, evolved throughout the game until, despite practically nothing being said about your goal, it was as clear as crystal what your goal was. Infocom managed to achieve this using nothing but words, and such clarity of story and purpose is something that seldom seems to exist in the King's Quest universe. As the Internet's newsgroups indictated after the release of King's Quest VII, I am not alone in feeling this way.
In the February 1995 issue of Computer Gaming World, on page 66, Charles Ardai wrote that, "King's Quest VII is one game you'll have to see. Not so much because of the puzzles, which are negligible, or the brilliance of the writing, but simply because its execution and the quality of its presentation make this game one of the landmark titles in the field." For Roberta Williams, who has always claimed that the writing is the most important thing in her games, this is hardly high praise. But, King's Quest VII is not the first game in the series in which the writing has, in the final analysis, seemed to have been of very little importance indeed.
The first game had Sir Graham, a knight, look for three treasures so that he could become the king (with no other real story connecting the three quests) and the second one found Graham, after becoming king, searching for three keys to open the doors that would lead to a bride he saw in a magic mirror. The later games in the series improved slightly on the original formula, bringing a little more in terms of characters into the series. But Sierra's earlier games seem shallow and empty compared to the character development of the robots in Infocom's Suspended, the murder suspects in Deadline, and just about everyone in every way from the magnificent A Mind Forever Voyaging. Since all three of these games were completed prior to, or at the same time as, the first two King's Quest games, what Roberta did in those games was no new achievement.
Of course, whether it was when the games first came out is an entirely different question altogether. Looking back at the King's Quest series, especially in the earlier games, we see that established fantasy and fairy tale elements have always played an important part. Despite claims that Roberta has used King's Quest to try to move away from stereotypes, the games in her series paint a very different picture. The story of King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne, for example, dealt with King Graham having to rescue a damsel in distress from a far-away tower. She then became so enraptured with him that she married him on the spot. This is very stereotypical fairy tale behavior for women (shown in "Sleeping Beauty," "Rapunzel," and "Snow White" to name but three such stories). In addition to this overused plot device, there was never a reason for the maniacal behavior of the villainess in King's Quest IV beyond her stunningly one-dimensional hatred of Genesta, the Fairy Queen. The troll that torments Rosella in the same game seems to have only one thing on his mind--killing her. One dimensional villains and trolls are very stereotypical, both in fairy tales and in computer games, yet they seem to show up more in the King's Quest series than just about any other series.
But the shallow villains and one-dimensional monsters are by no means alone. Just about all of the King's Quest games' major characters have seemed rather shallow and empty, being completely noble, with little (if any) ethical shading. It is Graham's duty, as a good and loyal servant to his King, to find the treasures for him in the first game, rescue Valanice in the second, just as it is his son's duty to do so for his sister in King's Quest III, and for Rosella to save her father in King's Quest IV. The good characters have always been "good" and the evil characters have always been "evil," the only reason being that they are that way. Unless the decisions which Roberta deemed ethical in the games were followed, they could not be won, or the full score could not be achieved. The evil wizard in King's Quest V must be destroyed solely because he's evil, as must the Vizier in King's Quest VI. For a company that his touted the series as one that deals with values and ethics straight on, there are seldom any answers that aren't easy.
Though the InterAction article claimed that, for the first time, the ability to kill monsters you encounter would be incorporated into The Mask of Eternity, this has been a factor from the beginning of the series. In the original King's Quest, you have the option (though it is not necessary to do so) of killing a giant you encounter with a sling, a la David and Goliath. In King's Quest III you use a magic spell to destroy a mighty three-headed dragon, while in King's Quest IV, Cupid's bow and arrow are provided to kill the evil villainness of the story. In King's Quest V, the evil wizard at the end of the game is killed by you after you cast a magic rain spell to extinguish the fire he changes himself into. Killing has almost always been the easiest way to get what you want in both adventure games and computer role-playing games, and King's Quest has employed that tradition time and time again, and, in The Mask of Eternity, killing is required in order to complete the game. When killing is the only option, where do morals and ethics come into play?
In order to answer the question of whether the Zork or the King's Quest series is more influential, we need to decide whether or not, in the final analysis, gameplay, puzzles, and challenge are more important than graphics and sound. If it is the latter, then perhaps the verdict is unavoidable, and King's Quest really is the most influential series ever. Yet, when only two of the games in the series--the first and the fourth installments--advanced the technology of the industry, can that really be the case? Or, is Zork, which redefined what could be done with parsers and programming, and forced the player's mind to create the images in which the game was traversed, and furthermore did it at the dawn of the personal computing age more responsible for the industry as we know it today? That's a question no one can answer for you... You must decide it for yourself.
The opinions expressed above are those of Matthew Murray, and in no way represent those of any software company, nor were they intended to do so.
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