“Hasn’t everyone in Daventry heard this?” Gwendolyn admonishes her grandfather, King Graham, as he settles in to tell her a bedtime story about how he and his wife first met. “You climbed the tower, rescued Princess Valanice, fell in love, and lived happily ever after.”
“Fairy tales have a bad habit of simplifying matters of the heart. They weave tales where love just happens,” Graham muses. “The real story is far more exciting than what you’ve been led to believe…”
The Odd Gentlemen's Matt Korba channeling his inner King Graham.
So began my GDC demo of King’s Quest: Chapter 3 - Once Upon a Climb, led by the game’s lead designer Matt Korba. The episode is set near the end of King’s Quest II, after Graham has solved all the nonsensical puzzles keeping him from the tower where the woman he’s destined to marry is imprisoned. In the original, this is the point where Graham climbs a tall staircase, subdues the hungry lion standing guard, and gets the girl—no questions asked. But not this time. “This is the one [episode] where we’re twisting a little bit of what happened. This is probably the closest we’ll get to playing with the classic games,” Korba explained as he navigated a more mature, noticeably bulkier king toward the iconic tower. “We’re kind of playing with the King’s Quest II stuff because, you know, King’s Quest II is very much like Rapunzel: he climbs up the tower and instantly falls in love and gets married two seconds later.” In The Odd Gentlemen’s reimagining of this classic damsel in distress tale, true love isn’t quite that simple.
Before any wooing can even take place, Graham needs to get into that tower. A sequence where he climbs the tower by judging which footholds will hold his weight is similar to earlier puzzles that had him crossing chasms by jumping on the correct rocks. Korba confirmed that they’ve discontinued the inclusion of QTEs as a result of player feedback, but the developers would still prefer to give players something active to do during sequences like this, instead of a straight cutscene. A few deaths later (accompanied by the requisite bad puns from Grandpa Graham), he reaches the top of the tower and, with a variation of Sierra’s “Girl in the Tower” theme swelling in the background, comes face to face with his one true love.
Just one problem: there are two girls in the tower, and Graham doesn’t know which princess the magic mirror sent him to save. I selected the lighter haired girl in purple—she seemed friendlier—but of course she rejects Graham’s hasty marriage proposal out of hand. (“You don’t even know me! I don’t even know you! You didn’t even ask my dad!”) Unfazed, he turns to the darker haired girl in green and repeats the question. “Well, I might have said yes,” she answers with disdain, “but I loathe second place.”
“It’s kind of like an episode of How I Met Your Mother,” Korba explained. “They both have very distinct personalities: one’s more competitive and into board games, and the other one’s more artistic and musical. It’s not as simple as just picking the one on the left or the right.” (Or as simple as asking which one is Valanice, seeing as the girls’ names are Vee and Neese.) “They both have affinity, basically, and every puzzle you do in the game you’re going to start to earn favor with one of them or the other, and [whoever you end up with becomes] your canon Valanice for the series.” Oh, so is that why, two episodes in, we have yet to see Queen Valanice’s face? Clever, clever.
Chapter 1 may have been a love letter to old-fashioned point-and-click adventure games and Chapter 2 more like a survival sim, but Korba characterizes Once Upon a Climb as something else entirely: a romantic comedy. “It’s a style I haven’t seen in games too much—you see Japanese dating simulators or Mass Effect where you’re trying to sleep with everyone on the ship, but nothing that focuses on the awkwardness or the comedy [of romance]. And basically Graham also becomes a princess in the tower: they’re all now trapped in this tower that they can’t escape from, and that’s the impetus for the entire chapter.” But that doesn’t mean we should expect cramped quarters, like the underground dungeon that made some players claustrophobic last time: “There’s a secret about the tower that makes it much bigger than [it first seems], and there’s also the witch Hagatha who’s keeping everybody in the tower, and her story.”
The Odd Gentlemen have been paying attention to players’ feedback—while some liked Chapter 2’s increased difficulty and more serious tone, others felt it was too hard and too dark compared to the first—but the third episode’s lighter tone isn’t a direct result of this. All along, they’ve planned to explore a different sort of gameplay with each chapter, similar to how Sierra tried new experiments with each installment of the original series back in the day. “I think people aren’t used to that from an episodic game. We’re trying to do something a little different,” Korba said. “We do get to respond to feedback because we’re making them as we go, so when people are like ‘We need dialogue skipping,’ we can put that in. But it’s always been planned that whatever Graham’s going through, we want the player to go through. So Chapter 2’s dark—we wanted players to have to go through the same anxiety that Graham’s going through [as a new king]. With this next chapter we want to make players feel the flirtiness or the fun or the awkwardness that comes with being told you’re going to marry someone in this tower and trying to figure out, ‘Oh shoot, there’s two people up here. Who is the mirror talking about?’ … It’s definitely much lighter and much funnier [than Chapter 2], so hopefully people will appreciate that.”
Length-wise, we can expect the new episode to be closer to Chapter 2’s runtime than the surprisingly meaty Chapter 1. “Nothing’s ever going to be as long as Chapter 1 was,” Korba laughed when I asked the dreaded question. “That was 6-8 hours, which is very long for an episodic game. We’ll never dip below what’s expected… I mean, [Chapter 1] was never meant to be that long; that was just because it was a big story and there was a lot of stuff we had to get done, and for the time we had to work on it, that’s what we were able to pull off. I don’t know yet what the full length of this chapter is, but they’re not going to get shorter than you’d expect [for an episodic game].”
With the midpoint episode of this five-part series slated for an April 26 release, how are The Odd Gentlemen—and perhaps more importantly, their bosses at Activision/Sierra—feeling about the King’s Quest revival? “So far everything’s been great, feedback’s been great, sales have been good,” Korba said. “For me the big success is that we get letters from parents and kids all the time, like ‘I played this game with my grandma; thanks so much for making this’ and ‘here’s a picture of me playing with my kids.’ Tumblr’s full of fan art and tattoos; someone got a tattoo of the Achaka made-up language on their arm. So that’s all been really good. We’ll see what happens in the future, but I feel like we did what we set out to do.”