More than thirty years ago, a skinny guy with yellow-tinged skin and a feather in his cap strolled into the forest of Daventry on the hunt for three stolen treasures. The game was Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest I and the man, Sir Graham, would soon be king.
With eight installments and one enhanced remake released between 1983 and 1998, King’s Quest was Sierra’s flagship series and many players’ first experience with graphic adventures, myself included. Over time the format evolved from a text parser to point-and-click and the aesthetic went from 4-color pixel art to VGA paintings to Disney-style cartoons, but the family friendly, fairy tale-inspired storylines and gameplay stayed constant. (Well, until the last gasp action-adventure Mask of Eternity, but don’t even get me started.)
It’s a series Matt Korba, creative director of the upcoming King’s Quest reboot, knows well. “I’m a huge King’s Quest fan,” he confides as I sit down with him at the Game Developer’s Conference to take a look at a pre-alpha build. “In fact, it’s my favorite game series of all time.”
Right, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to say when you’re working on a game based on a beloved franchise. We’ll see about that.
The Odd Gentlemen’s creative director Matt Korba and community manager Nikole Zivalich let Emily don the famous adventurer’s cap at GDC.
Developed by Korba’s studio The Odd Gentlemen with support from Activision’s new Sierra label, the new King’s Quest is a five-episode series set to debut this year. “The game is completely reimagined; it’s not King’s Quest IX or anything like that,” Korba explains. “Think about it like when someone reimagines The Wizard of Oz, or Peter Pan. That’s how I see King’s Quest, [as one of] those classic fairy tales that keep being retold and reimagined.”
The game will be organized as a series of stories told by a “very old” King Graham to his granddaughter Gwendolyn (daughter of Alexander and Cassima, visiting Daventry from the Land of the Green Isles), about his past adventures. “As a story framing device it’s kind of set up like The Princess Bride or the movie Big Fish, except this is interactive, so the player’s choices in these flashbacks help color the story you’re telling to your granddaughter. So whether you want to tell a story of compassion, or wisdom, or bravery, you can do that, and the choices that you make will color that story,” Korba explains. Then, in each chapter, players’ choices will be reflected in a quandary Gwendolyn faces in the castle: “Based on your decisions she’ll solve her problem in a different way, so she’ll use bravery or compassion or wisdom.”
Chronologically, Graham’s retold adventures will be sandwiched between the existing King’s Quest games, which spanned around twenty years in Daventry time. “It’s sort of a coming of age thing, so you actually get to see Graham grow up,” Korba says of the planned story progression. “You start playing him before King’s Quest I, before he’s even a knight, a scraggly teenager, and [by the fifth chapter] you work all the way up to when he’s a very old man on his last adventure.” With this structure, the reimagined KQ can stay faithful to the canon established in the original games while also being newbie-friendly: “We’ve designed the game so that if you’ve never played any of the King’s Quests before you can just jump in with this and be fine. If you have played the King’s Quests before, you will understand the jokes on a completely different level. So they’re funny without the references, but if you realize, ‘Oh, that’s a reference to the bridge in King’s Quest II that you could only cross seven times,’ you can appreciate stuff on a different level.”
Although the first chapter’s main story takes place pre-King’s Quest I, during Graham’s quest to become a knight, it begins in medias res at a moment that will be familiar to many fans: descending into a well to steal a certain magic mirror from a fire-breathing dragon. “You know how in Indiana Jones they always wrap up a story before they begin with the main story? We’re kind of doing that with the opening of this. The directive [from Activision/Sierra] was to create new stories, but we also wanted to nod to the old ones,” Korba explains, noting that this sequence will double as the game’s tutorial.
The hand-painted art style is achieved “by actually hand painting it”— the 3D models are printed out on paper, physically painted over with watercolors, and reimported.
This will be the first official King’s Quest adventure in 3D (no, sorry, Mask of Eternity doesn’t count). Even so, the hand-painted, subtly cartoony artwork is a good fit, mixing the lushness of KQV and VI’s VGA backgrounds with KQVII’s fluid animation, plus dynamic cinematography those 2D games never could have achieved. “It was really important to us to create the game that, if they’d never stopped making King’s Quest, would be the one that came out in 2015,” Korba explains. “Not necessarily making a game that looked exactly like King’s Quest VII or King’s Quest V. Those exist, and those are awesome and you can [still] play them, those original games are always there. And also [there have been] fan remakes that are very faithful adaptations moving it along that same style. It was more important to us to hit the core of what worked [in King’s Quest].”
Though the interface is still being refined, Korba describes the intended controls as a system designed to work on both PC and consoles, that combines the concept of a smart cursor (like the magic wand in King’s Quest VII, which automatically performed the only available action) with the more complex icon-driven interfaces of King’s Quest V and VI. When you activate a hotspot, icons representing the available actions will appear on-screen mapped to buttons on the controller. On PC, you can use a mouse instead. “We have these icons inspired by King’s Quest V, basically, so we can examine, and we can use, and we can speak, and things like that. … It’s not point-and-click but it’s still an adventure game. It’s sort of move and click, if you see Graham as my mouse.”
And move he does, with way more style than the pixelated sprite that made off with the magic mirror the first time around. “Because adventure games are a lot about exploring and walking around, we wanted to make sure we had a really good character controller, so he feels really good to move around. That said, this is not an action platformer,” Korba says, acknowledging that the trailer might have mistakenly given that impression. In fact, Graham jumps and climbs automatically when necessary, no dexterity required. And when he reaches an area in the cave where he has to sneak past the sleeping dragon, he tiptoes all on his own—just one example of a unique animation created to enhance the storytelling: “There are no ‘modes,’ it depends on what story beat we’re trying to hit. So right now he’s tiptoeing, that doesn’t mean there’s a stealth mode in this game, it’s purely only for this section. He does it automatically, there’s no sneak button. It makes [the game] really hard to make, because we don’t get to reuse anything.”
Navigating Graham through the dragon’s underground lair—which is significantly larger than the original’s two screens and full of charred skeletons and, curiously, double beds—Korba notes that since the bulk of the first chapter is chronologically set before this intro, all apparent non-sequiturs will be illuminated later in the game. “Because of the way we’re telling the story, we get to play with time a lot. So the main part of the story takes place five years before this, and so you’re going to see a lot of weird stuff in here, like why is [there a] skeleton crushed under a bed, why are there weird switches in here? That’s all going to be explained later. Similar to a Breaking Bad or even the movie Big Fish, we’re putting in these little breadcrumbs and then everything comes full circle.” (Indeed, right around the point where the player will be wondering what’s up with all the beds hanging from stalactites, Gwendolyn chimes in to ask. “We’ll get there,” her patient grandfather replies.)
While exploring you can sometimes go into a close-up view to see an area in more detail. “As we were playtesting, people really wanted to explore more and more and look at the art closer, so we added some investigation triggers, so you can scan around and get close, and get more clues,” Korba explains. “Sometimes you can pick up something in this view. But you can’t just switch to FPS whenever you feel like it, it’s not Call of Daventry or anything.” Graham has a traditional inventory to hold the items he pockets, and in a throwback that will have old fans cheering, picking up an item or solving a puzzle is rewarded with a familiar “you got points!” chime.
Gameplay in this initial section involves reaching the dragon, then distracting it long enough to steal the magic mirror. “Talking to [Sierra’s founders] Ken and Roberta [Williams], the main thing [for them] was always story and gameplay working together. Our biggest guideline is, ‘What’s the story moment, and what puzzle or gameplay would be best for that?’” Korba says. Early on, most puzzles involve manipulating the environment to progress past obstacles; in the dragon sequence, for example, you’ll figure out how the contraption that feeds the dragon works and modify it to achieve your own goal. (Who’s actually feeding the dragon will be revealed later, in the part of the game that takes place five years earlier.) While more advanced graphics and technology allow for more complex scenarios, they’re similar in spirit to pushing a boulder to reveal a hidden hole or finding a way past a troll guarding a bridge, as we did in King’s Quest I.
But environmental puzzles aren’t all the series reboot has to offer. Later the game will open up in “a section that’s basically like King’s Quest I, where you can roam the whole forest, and you can grab something from one side of the map and try to figure out where it goes.” There will be plenty of fatal possibilities along the way, but since King Graham is telling this story years later, clearly he didn’t really die—“That’s what would have happened if I had pulled that switch” he might qualify for Gwendolyn, or “I was just checking to see if you were awake”—a clever way of working KQ’s infamous deathtraps into the framing story.
Many of the game’s puzzles will have alternate solutions, and certain choices you make will influence Graham’s legacy. “Not only do your choices affect the moment-to-moment, like you’d expect in any game that has choice, but they also help shape the legend of King Graham, whether he’s remembered as Graham the Brave or Graham the Wise or Graham the Soft of Heart,” Korba explains. “Of course it’s King’s Quest, and it’s Graham, so you can never be Graham the Violent or Graham the Horrible or Graham the Bad Guy. It’s all still Graham, the events all still happen, you just get to shape how they’ve happened.”
One example involves how you deal with the dragon. “We really wanted the player to be able to craft their own feelings about the dragon, whether you think the dragon is misunderstood, or you think he’s this violent creature, or you’re kind of scared of him, that’s completely up to you. At the end of this section after you’ve escaped with the mirror, you have a choice whether you want to set the dragon free, whether you want to distract the dragon, or whether you want to fight back against the dragon. Either way we’re telling the story of how Graham defeated the dragon, but whether he’s telling the story of how he bravely fought back against this violent creature, or he’s telling a story about how he made a friend in an unexpected place. And there’s no wrong choice.”
The Odd Gentlemen’s mandate may have been to reimagine King’s Quest, but this feels like a natural evolution of how Roberta Williams handled the dragon the first time around, when more noble or clever puzzle solutions yielded more points. “A lot of the stuff that we’re doing, [Sierra] touched on in King’s Quest,” Korba agrees. “They had multiple endings, they had choice. It’s easy to forget and then you go back and play KQI and you realize there’s multiple approaches to all the puzzles.”
After the tutorial set in the dragon’s lair, the episode will go back in time to Graham’s arrival in Daventry. In the original King’s Quest, he was already a knight and we learned how he became king. In the new game we’ll get his origin story. “You can tell Graham’s a little bit frumpy, he’s not quite the hero we even saw [in the tutorial],” Korba comments on young Graham’s scrawny appearance. “He arrives in Daventry because there’s a big tournament going on; the winner of this tournament becomes a knight.”
Daventry’s many bridges have gone missing (an oddity that will be explained later in the episode), so Graham’s running late. After finding an item to act as a wheel on a broken cart, he makes it to the tournament only to find himself stranded on the wrong side of a river with four other knight hopefuls. “We really wanted the puzzles to work with the story, so through these puzzles we want it to feel like the first day of school; you just showed up and people are bullying you a little bit,” Korba explains. Each of the knight hopefuls has a leg up on Graham in some way—one’s stronger than him, another is faster, etc.— but rather than being told all this through narration, you’ll uncover these traits through the puzzle-solving required to get Graham to the opposite riverbank. One of these puzzles requires shooting an arrow in first-person perspective (a skill it turns out young Graham isn’t much good at), but for the most part they seem fairly traditional, with any necessary action such as jumping, climbing, or swimming happening automatically.
“Graham wants really badly to become a knight,” Korba says of young Graham’s motivations. “His father was a knight, his grandfather was a knight. His great-grandfather was a dentist, but his great-great-grandfather was a knight.”
As you puzzle your way across the river and go on to compete in the tournament, Korba says Graham’s failures and eventual success will shed light on the type of hero he is. “Graham’s not the fast knight, he’s not the strong knight, he’s not going to use weapons. He’s going to use creative thinking. And he’s got quite the journey ahead of him. He’s going to have to defeat each of these knight hopefuls and he’s going to have to use his brain, because he’s not going to be able to wrestle with the giant or run faster than the speedy guy.”
How Graham became a knight is only the scope of the first chapter. “We deal with stuff like how he met [his future wife] Valanice and what happened after he met Valanice, and we go farther forward than the [original] games did as well,” Korba says in closing. And like any good King’s Quest game, a villain is lurking in the shadows: “I can’t talk too much about that but it starts to form in this chapter and it develops. It’s one of those things where if you go back and [replay], you’ll see all these clues leading up.” As far as episode length goes, the developers can’t speak to future episodes yet but do expect the first chapter to be “pretty hefty” since it has a lot of story to tell.
By the end of our hour-long demo, I’m convinced: Matt Korba is a huge King’s Quest fan. Of course, with only the first of five chapters in development so far, The Odd Gentlemen still have a ways to go before they’ll complete Graham’s reimagined adventures. But hey, we KQ fans have had a lot of practice in waiting, and judging from this early look it’s a game worth waiting a little longer for. All hail the once and future king!
Read on for a Q&A with The Odd Gentlemen’s resident King’s Quest junkie.
Emily Morganti: How fun has it been to work on a new, official King’s Quest game?
Matt Korba: It’s been the most fun game I’ve ever worked on. We’ve been a studio now for almost seven years and in that amount of time we’ve shipped around seven games; puzzle and story’s always been our focus. I really hope [King’s Quest] works—not only for us because I want to continue making games like this, but also for everybody else who’s working on games that are narrative focused or humor’s a selling point. We’re lucky that Telltale has had the success with The Walking Dead and that there’s been all that interest in Double Fine Adventure [Broken Age], because that allowed us to do a game like this. It allowed Sierra to reach out and us to be like, “Yes!”
Emily: How did that happen?
Matt: Before [the Sierra label] was back, we met with Activision a few times. They mainly did licensed content and we mainly did original content, but they really liked our creative stuff. We actually worked on an adventure game that got cancelled a couple of years ago… it was before The Walking Dead and it had similar sort of choice things in it, and when we went to shop it around people were like, “No, these games don’t work anymore, sorry.” That was before the success of The Walking Dead, so in our pitch meetings we could show off that side of it, so when this came across [Activision] reached out to us and said, “What would you guys do with it?” [We said] “It’s going to be hard to make a King’s Quest IX because everyone’s so attached. The directive was to do a reimagining anyway. So we came up with the basic idea of Graham telling stories. I think one of the things Roberta and Ken really appreciated was that it was always about the family. With [Mask of Eternity’s protagonist] Connor they attempted to move King’s Quest to a new generation, and I think they were really pleased with how we figured out a way that Gwendolyn could be the new addition.
Emily: You showed an early build to Roberta and Ken Williams. How did that go?
Matt: It was awesome. I should mention that being the big fan of the series that I am, growing up playing it with my uncle, I wasn’t really interested in doing [this game] unless I could have the blessing of Roberta and Ken Williams. I was super nervous going into it, trying to imagine how [I would feel] if years later someone was remaking my first game. But they were amazing, they were super pleasant people. They loved the game and they gave me a lot of good feedback, not only on the game but also on the company, because we really want to create family friendly entertainment. That doesn’t exist that much anymore; there’s not a lot of games you can play with your kids. I don’t have kids yet but I plan to, and as they’re getting older I want to have shared experiences. I solved the Cliffs of Logic with my uncle and I want to be able to do that with future generations. [Ken and Roberta] had some great advice about that, and we talked about story gameplay and art. They used to have this pyramid that was those three things—can’t be too much story, the interactive novel type of thing, it all needs to work together. And Roberta was just giddy, like ‘Oh I never play games, but this is a game I would play,’ and every scene she was like, ‘Are you actually controlling him here?’ and she’d be like, ‘Can you die here? Can you die here? Can you fall off that bridge?’ We checked with them to make sure the references we were pulling from were the same things they were inspired by, and luckily we were correct on that, which was a huge relief.
Emily: Who do you see as the audience for this game? Mainly old KQ fans? People who like The Walking Dead?
Matt: The hope is everybody. King’s Quest fans hopefully, but hopefully also people who play all the modern adventure games will play this. It’s not like we’re singlehandedly bringing back adventure games—they haven’t gone anywhere—but it’s been a while since there’s been this much backing behind it, with a big company like Activision/Sierra, and the resources that we’re able to pull in to the art, to the character controller, to the [voice] cast we have. So because we have something that has such broad appeal, and it’s funny, and it’s family friendly, the hope is that that we can get a larger audience back into the system. That’s really the goal, to be able to do these games again on a bigger scale and to have a wider audience. If we don’t get the King’s Quest fans or The Walking Dead fans or the adventure game fans, then we’re not going to be able to get that larger audience—that mom who looks at the cover of this and thinks, ‘I can play this with my family.’
Emily: With Activision and the Sierra brand, do you have a sense that they want to see how this game does, and then they’ll decide if they’ll do things with other IP?
Matt: I can’t speak on behalf of them, but even just on behalf of us, if this game does well it’s going to open up the possibilities a lot, and they have an awesome catalog. We get asked, “Are you guys going to do Space Quest?” and Quest for Glory is the other one that everybody keeps asking about. I’m not privy to all of their plans, but I think it’s one of those things where if this does well it opens up a lot of possibilities. Not just for Activision and Sierra, but for other companies as well, to create new games or use their catalogs from that time when story and fun and charm was at the forefront.
Emily: And Disney has shown that they’re willing to do it with the LucasArts stuff, too.
Matt: Right, that’s been really exciting to have Grim Fandango come back and actually sell really well.
Emily: Recent favorite games?
Matt: I liked The Walking Dead. It’s not necessarily the tone that I attach myself to, but I liked the gameplay and how they worked the story and the choices in with it. I liked Brothers, which people might not think about as a traditional point-and-click adventure game, but to me it’s a story game and the way that they incorporated the story into the gameplay was awesome, and the whole layout of it. I appreciated Gone Home. There’s always that debate, is this a game or an interactive narrative? I don’t really care about any of that stuff. I just care about if it’s fun and engaging, I don’t care if it’s a traditional game.
Emily: What’s your favorite KQ game?
Matt: I’ll pick a couple of favorites. I like KQI because, not only was it the first one I played, but it has a structure that I think we’re hitting later on in the [new] game. It sort of felt like an open world adventure game. It’s not Grand Theft Auto open world, but it’s like you can sort of go anywhere and try anything. It’s like the first [Legend of] Zelda; it was all about exploration and trying different things and there wasn’t a lot of handholding. I like KQIII because they have that scheduling system with the time. And then I like KQV and VI because they are when the charm really kicked in, and they have the [voice] acting, everything started to fire on all cylinders. Even when I go back and play particularly V and VI today, they hold up really well; they’re still funny and they still have all that charm and humor.
Emily: Have you played any of the fan games?
Emily: I really liked what AGDI did with KQII, the way they took a bare-bones story with a lot of things that didn’t make sense and they made them make sense.
Matt: Right, and that’s a little bit how we think about what we’re doing as well, just with the reimagining of it. King’s Quest started in ’83 and it went until ’98, and with every game they reinvented it. The story was fleshed out more. It was still about these central characters but the mechanics changed, and that’s what we’re trying to hit. Similar to those fan remakes where they took a little idea and expanded on that, we’re doing the same thing with ours, we’re taking details that were in the original idea and giving context.