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].”Continued on the next page...