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The definitive ranking of King’s Quest games

Kylie

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Or at least somewhat definitive. This list will exclude the current, episodic King’s Quest, whose first chapter was released last July. Because it is yet to be completed, we’ll have to hold our judgement. But…it’s got Kuvira voice-acting in it, so how bad can it be?

If you were an 80s/90s child with nerdy parents or a Gateway computer, there was a fairly good chance that you grew up playing the King’s Quest games, by Roberta Williams. These games, set in the fictional world of Daventry (apparently also the same world where Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Beauty, Dracula, and Little Red Riding hood live), centered on the epic adventures of the royal family: whether it was Prince Alexander escaping forced servitude and discovering his true identity, King Graham hunting for some tail, Princess Rosella trying to cure her dad’s heart condition, or Queen Valanice…being an overbearing mom.

The first four games were the famous “text input graphic adventure” (for lack a better term), a style that aged so poorly it was rather famously mocked by the wonderful Homestarrunner.com with “Peasant’s Quest.” From there it switched to point-and-click style adventure games, each with their own set of flaws. Still, they were groundbreaking at the time, and apparently paved the way for all graphical adventure games. So to honor them, and the many bby-geeks they produced, I bring you the definitive ranking.


10. Wizard and the Princess (1980) / 9. Adventure in Serenia (1982)

I’m not going to lie to you: I just found out that these two games were a thing about 10 minutes ago. Apparently this is about the king who kicks it in KQI, which leads to Graham’s ascension. I gave Adventure in Serenia a higher ranking because at least I’ve heard of the damn continent. But come on, if you don’t have that “King’s Quest” title, you’re not at all worthy of our time. Get out of here!

8. King’s Quest VIII: Mask of Eternity (1998)

This thing barely qualifies as a King’s Quest game. In fairness, I think we see Graham in the intro? We definitely see him as a petrified stone statue, that’s for sure.

This gritty, poorly designed point-and-click/action-adventure game (if you’re wondering whether they work well as a hybrid, they don’t) was really just Roberta Williams’s attempt to suck money out of our pockets while she experimented with gaming mechanics by using a franchise title that was already recognizable.

I don’t remember much about it, other than the fact that there were multiple CDs, and the better part of my time was spent trying to get around multiple grey screens full of poorly rendered 3D objects with controls that felt about as smooth as attempting a swan dive with an elephant strapped to my back.

I have nothing good to say about it. I don’t want anything to do with Connor, his anachronistic name, or his dumb face. Booooo.

Also, this was released the same damn year as Baldur’s Gate (I won’t mention OOT because consoles are quite different). Let’s just take a minute to appreciate how truly horribly this game has aged compared to its peers.

7. King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne (1985/1987)

In some ways it seems almost perverse to put a game so quintessentially King’s Quest this low on this list. The lowest, if we’re talking about “true games.”

However, Romancing the Throne basically took KQI, added slightly different colored images, put in puzzles with even less logic, and called it a day.

Worse still was the story. Graham just became king, and apparently his first immediate concern is his royal lineage. Which…sure. Why not. Lucky for him, the Magic Mirror of Plot Convenience shows him that there’s a total babe locked away in a tower in some land that sounds disturbingly close to “Chlamydia.” And I guess she’s the only single chick around, because you’d think there’d be someone a touch more convenient to court.

Who could possibly refuse that?

So he just pops off his throne and leaves Daventry without so much as bothering to put anyone in charge. Fuck, even Anna did better in that regard.

Once in Chlamydia, he has to find a portal to the “tower realm.” So he aimlessly wanders around this forested place until he finds a locked door. Oh and we get a super helpful hint engraved on it: “make a splash.” Guess what? Graham then goes underwater to Neptune’s Kingdom, gets a key, and heads back. Opening the door reveals…a second door. This takes him, I don’t know, into the sky? Past some friendly ghosts? What the actual hell is going on here?

This checks out.

All I know is that if you thought Sierra Logic™ was slightly shitty in KQI, wait until you have to throw a goddamn bridle on a snake that magically turns into Pegasus.

Oh and that second door? Behind it is a third fucking door! Also, there’s a bridge you have to cross to go visit these doors in the first place, and if you do it too many times, it breaks. Just because. And then it’s game over.

I don’t even remember what the shit you have to do to open the third door. I think kill Dracula? Who by the way, didn’t do anything bad at all. He was just chilling in his home. But whatever, once you get that thing open, you’re transported to the beautiful tower realm where the water is purple and the ground is blue and the only difficulty is climbing a spiral staircase.

What’s at the top? Oh, it’s Valanice. She makes out with you and good game!

Except wait, did we even know that she was trapped in this tower? It seemed totally unlocked, and the Tower Zone is definitely a sweet place to live. Did Graham just like, barge in on some chick in her home?

This was the *entire* game. Nothing but Graham’s quest to find a hot girl, who may or may not have wanted to find a hot guy.

There’s no villain at all, unless you count Dracula taking a nap. Compared to the others in the series, this one is a pass.

6. King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! (1990)

So here’s the thing…like I said, there’s two types of King’s Quest games: the text-venture of the early four, or the point-and-click of the following three (ignoring KQVIII, naturally). Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder was the first to pioneer the second type, which I happen to find infinitely more engaging.

Unfortunately, KQV was a hot, hot mess.

Like, I’m being a bit unfair. The story was interesting…kinda. I mean the plot actually followed the events of KQIII, where Alexander accidentally pissed off a sorcerer. So the sorcerer’s brother exacted his revenge by stealing Graham’s castle. With his family inside. Literally. He shrunk everything and put it in a little glass jar.

So, you really do feel for Graham when he starts freaking out. But, here’s the problem: he then seeks out the help of Crispin, the friendly neighborhood wizard. And this old fart is like, “well I could totally help you, because I completely deus ex machina this thing at the end anyway, but instead here’s a wand that needs new batteries, and an annoying talking owl.” And thus begins Graham’s true quest, where you have to travel through Serenia to find Mordack’s castle and get your family back.

I’m not going to walk you through all the ludicrous things you have to do along the way; that is worthy of its own post. But the voice acting is just painful, and Cedric makes Navi seem pretty chill. It’s a poisonous snake!

Oh also, despite this being point-and-click, don’t worry…the puzzles still make no goddamn sense. You have to dump honey on the ground, and stick some gems in the honey to catch a greedy elf, or something.

You have to throw a pie into the face of a mothafuckin’ yeti.

Of course this is the answer.

And when all is said and done, after you have this epic magical showdown with Mordack (you found a way to charge your wand with cheese), Crispin just saunters his ass into the frame and with one flick of his own [fully functional] wand, frees your family from the glass jar. WHY DIDN’T YOU DO THAT BEFORE, CRISPIN?

The only good part of the game is when there’s a glorious minute in which you think Cedric might get eaten by a wolf, but the narrative forces you to save him. Ugh.

Still, this is hilarious to replay, which lands it slightly above Graham’s booty call.

5. King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown (1984/1987)

You know, the thing is, I really don’t enjoy playing Quest for the Crown all that much. But at the same time, it’s what made the franchise what it is. And I’m told it was groundbreaking at the time it was released, so kudos?

The story itself is middling at best: King Edward just realized that the Land of Daventry consists of like, a goat and a rock. So he tells Graham, his best knight, to go grab him three treasures. Um…sure. Apparently they were “long-lost.” So Graham does as he’s told, and when he gets back, Edward caulks it and gives the throne to Graham. Probably because the only other option for succession was that goat.

The only taxpayer around

Along his travels, Graham also encounters a lot of randomly magical people who borrow mythology from a variety of fairy tales. Which is kind of fun. However, the ridiculously precise text inputs required to actually do anything, or that goddamn beanstalk where you need pixel-perfect movement can take some of the joy away.

Then there’s also some Sierra logic. “Guess my name?” says that dude who is obviously Rumplestiltskin. Oh, I know. It’s “Ifnkovhgroghprm, clearly.”

But like, it’s fine. Fun even, if you have a couple of hours to spare. And the fact that it so clearly aged horribly almost makes it age well in a weird way, you know? It’s like a game that belongs in a museum.

4. King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride (1994)

I’d say that of all the games in this series, The Princeless Bride was the most divisive. Tonally, it was far different than anything in the series. It was very…Disney-ish. And far be it for me to cry “sexism,” but I can’t help but notice it was also the one with two female protagonists.

Sorta reminds me of the pink Legos, though the “Poolside Paradise” set was perfect for reenacting Sunset Boulevard or A Little Night Music.

And then there was the camp, oh the camp. You could either fight it and roll your eyes at the fact that there was a literal bull working in a china shop, or you could just roll with it.

I recommend the second, people, because it’s downright hilarious. There is a town named “Falderal” in the “Nonsense Land of Eldritch” and you have to swallow a literal grain of salt to enter it. Where upon you meet the mayor, Archduke Fifi le Yipyap. Not sure what happened to his duchy, but I guess being mayor is a plum gig.

Should I talk about the story? Valanice is being all Mrs. Bennet and trying to find a proper match for Princess Rosella. Or, consort I guess, because I’m quite sure she’s actually the heir. I mean, she was raised as the heir and certainly knows the most about it, and I think Alexander takes himself out of the equation due to the events of KQVI. So why Valanice is being this pushy is beyond me. To really secure the lineage? Obviously that was an issue Graham found extremely important too. Maybe there’s high child mortality in Daventry or something.

Anyway, to get away from her mom’s bitching, Rosella…how do I put this? She jumps into a pond. Reasonable. Unfortunately it turns out to be a magical whirlpool that she gets pulled out of through a portal by a troll king. But whoops! Now she’s a troll too. Valanice hops in after her, but gets spit out in a desert. So you play the game as both of these women.

Your missions are as follows:

  • As Valanice, you must search for Rosella. You are equipped with your daughter’s comb, which makes you cry when you look at it.
  • As Rosella, you must stop being a troll.

The game is told in chapters, with alternating point-of-views. And of course, you end up having to solve problems for other people around, like giving a mortician a spine, finding a rat to power a grave-digging machine, or helping Ceres, who was turned into a tree. There’s also an evil enchantress, Malicia, who is trying to gain control of the land by using the troll king. Or making a volcano erupt. I don’t quite remember, but it was vaguely logical—trust me.

The thing is, this was just downright fun to play. The puzzles usually had more than one solution, and made sense on a fundamental level. I personally think starting the game off in the desert was a mistake, because the lifeblood of it is really the rich and diverse cast of characters. Some are better voice actors than others, but they all had personalities and quips. I’d take that rando troll working the forge who was hilariously bad at hitting on Rosella over Crispin the stoned wizard any day of the week.

Where it loses points is the fact that Rosella is suddenly made into a whiner, unlike the proactive, self-sacrificing badass we knew her to be. Then, I’m sorry to say, Valanice as a protagonist is just lolsy. But dare I say it, at times this game was…oddly touching? I don’t know how to explain it, except that the quiet moments stay with you more than anything.

It also gets knocked lower due to Edgar’s Nice Guy™ routine. KQIV Rosella would have never fallen for it (she quite canonically didn’t, in fact). Just consider this game the Return of the Jedi of the series. It was good, you know, but there were definitely fuzzy wuzzies, and something was just plain off in the princess’s scripting.

3. King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human (1986)

To Heir is Human was the first game of the series without Graham as the protagonist. And boy was that a refreshing change. Don’t get me wrong, Graham is…lovely. But being able to get away from Daventry and its goat for a little was rather nice.

This game centered around Prince Alexander, only SHHHH we don’t know it’s him. We just know this person as ‘Gwydion’, the boy-slave in the evil wizard Manannan’s castle. No, quite literally, the first few minutes of the game is you emptying his chamber pot and feeding some chickens.

The thing is, you were also (in secret) breaking into Manannan’s magical man-cave and baking a cookie that would turn him into a cat. You could only do this when Manannan would go to town, and woe betide you if you weren’t able to satisfactorily hide everything upon his returns.

Real talk: this game was hard. I’m not actually sure it’s possible to get through without a guide. I never bothered trying. Even once the wizard becomes a cat, you still have to solve some not-at-all intuitive puzzles (and do more magic shit) to secure passage to Daventry, across the ocean.

Then, upon getting there, you learn that there’s a princess that’s about to get killed by a three-headed dragon, and she’s your sista from the same mista! Yeah, the Leia to your Luke, and boy is that an apt analogy, because she up and sacrificed herself to this dragon to prevent the total destruction of her land and is just in general a BAMF.

But you save her, and even get a happy family reunion. Welcome home Alexander! I hope this sudden excitement doesn’t have any negative health consequences for your parents…

For the text-venture, the inputs required weren’t nearly as precise as the first two games, so it felt more accessible. There was also the fabulous tension with Manannan’s arrivals and departures. You really felt that stress as you did what you could to navigate Alexander out of his servitude. And even though getting through it without aid seems like a near impossibility to me, for that reason, the replay value is incredibly high. Add to that an overall logical plotline, and we’ve got a solid game here!

2. King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988)

I think I’m going to get a lot of shit for this choice. Because whenever I’ve talked about King’s Quest to others, this game really is never mentioned. But boy should it be.

First and foremost, I’m quite certain that a female protagonist actually was super groundbreaking in video games at the time. And Rosella is the hero we both need and deserve.

Immediately following the events of KQIII, King Graham has a heart attack. Probably because he had spent the morning mentally preparing himself for his daughter’s death, only then to have not just her burst back into the castle, but also his long-lost son who they basically forgot about.

So Rosella gets upset and runs out of the room to cry, but fortunately the Mirror of Plot Convenience reveals a fairy named Genesta who’s like, “Yo Rosella. I live in this place called Tamir, and there’s fruit here that could totally save your dad, if you let me transport you here.” So the princess lets this happen, but once there Genesta is all, “well on one condition: I need my amulet that a jerk named Lolotte took from me.” Simple simple simple.

We then follow Rosella (who gets disguised in peasant clothes for some reason) as she traipses around yet another land full of fairy tail references to save her dad. I should point out, this is all while Alexander and Valanice do fuck nothing by Graham’s bedside.

No seriously, don’t trouble yourselves. He’s only mostly-dead.

Rosella, meanwhile, is running around Tamir (which by the way, is stunning, and there’s some sweet music for a change) with both middle fingers raised. She steals arrows from cupid himself and gives not a single fuck. She pulls a Jonah and ends up in a whale, but does she just accept that? Nah, she climbs up his tongue and tickles his uvula with a giant feather.

…why am I rating this game so high on the list?

Also Lolotte, as it turns out, is a total dillweed. She’s an evil green-skinned witch who has her skeleton flying minion-things do evil stuff. I think. I know you get captured, that’s for sure. And her homely green-skinned son Edgar falls for Rosella, and it’s kind of adorable.

Eventually, Rosella figures out a way to kill Lolotte, which means she gets the stupid amulet back for Genesta. Oh and she also picked up the life-saving fruit along the way. To thank her, in addition to giving her free transport home, Genesta also pimps out Edgar and makes him hot. But because Rosella is awesome and takes her responsibilities seriously, she’s just like, “nah, I have shit to do.”

“I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee”

Then she comes home and saves her daddy! Huzzah!!

Seriously, I have nothing bad to say about this game, other than the fact that I personally prefer point-and-click to text-input. Play it. And start stanning Rosella with me, because no one seems to. It’s always Alexander, Alexander, Alexander!

1. King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow (1992)

But…there’s actually good reason why that’s the case, and it’s this game. As I said before, KQIII is a strong set piece in the series. But Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow makes this entire franchise.

I challenge you to look at this still and not start humming the Bookworm theme.

What’s weird is that the story is mostly shitty. Alexander became smitten with a maid/slave person that Mordack had in his castle in KQV. Her name is Cassima, and she’s the princess in the Land of the Green Isles. Alexander then just spent his days creepily pining for her (I’m telling you…Rosella is the heir, even at this point), until the Magic Mirror of Plot Convenience shows him a glimpse of Cassima’s land.

So he rushes to a boat, and accidentally smashes it in the voyage. I think his crew survived, but Alex himself washes up on the shore of the Isle of the Crown, the main island in the Land of the Green Isles. He heads to the castle, and tells the literal guard-dogs that Cassima is his friendo and said he could drop by anytime. But we’re told by the super trustworthy Grand Vizier, Abdul Alhazred (okay, there may be a few racial problems with this game), that her parents unexpectedly died while she was away with her own kidnapping, and she’s locked herself in a tower to mourn them.

Oh and she’s engaged to him ¯\_(シ)_/¯.

Alex is like, “whaaat there’s no way I misread her cues!” So either because he’s suspicious, or because he has nowhere else to go maybe, he decides to do some digging around. See? Shitty story.

But as it happens, he ends up uncovering this major plot of Alhazred’s, where he created feuds between each of the isles so that in that chaos, he could murder Cassima’s parents and claim control of the realm. He also has a magic shape-shifting genie who can disguise himself as Cassima for a sham wedding.

This is actually the short, short version. You have the option of bringing her parents back from the dead to expose this too. Yikes.

Then at the same time, Alexander has to, once again, solve a whole lot of problems for other people. But every facet of this is engaging. The puzzles make sense! Seriously, the biggest stretch in logic I can even think of is reading a boring book to an oyster to get a pearl (though you do need the CD manual to solve the Cliffs of Logic). And every single character you come across feels rounded, from the gruff-but-lovable ferryman to the stoic Lady Aeriel and Lord Azure, to the oddly feuding brothers, Bump on a Log and Stick in the Mud. Even Jollo gets a pass.

The music is good; the voice acting is great. I mean, we’re talking Robby fucking Benson as Prince Alexander. It’s funny, too, but serious where it needs to be. Ffs, it gave my four-year-old self a very strong mental image for what happens when you die.

There’s also a satisfying ending and a bittersweet ending, depending on which puzzles and paths you take through the narrative. So due to these twists and turns, it makes replaying a treat.

I don’t know if it’s just my rose-colored glasses. Perhaps people who didn’t play it growing up will find it stupid. But in my mind, this holds up quite well over the years, and truly made the franchise what it is.


Images courtesy of Sierra

 

Kylie is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals on a mission to slay all the tropes. She has a penchant for complex familial dynamics and is easily pleased when authors include in-depth business details.

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Gaming

The State of the (Gaming) Union

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The PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X represent the half-life of the 8th generation consoles. Given that, an apt question is, where are we?

It’s hard to explain.

The 8th generation has brought us remastered game after remastered game. And we love what’s been served up; the Bioshocks, the Uncharteds, the Crash Bandicoots, the Gears of War. It’s exciting, to play the games that shaped our childhoods on these newer consoles. And then we pull those out and put in, what? Another Call of Duty (CoD). I remember the trailers for CoD 3, way back on the PlayStation 3 in 2006. And now this November we’re getting another World War Two-set Call of Duty.

Dice gave us something only marginally fresher with the release of Battlefield 1. But with the exception of mustard gas and trench warfare, not much else is different. There are still all the modern scopes you could dream of, and you’re spoiled for choice if your taste is for something automatic (though period accurate). It’s New, but we’ve Seen It Before. But now with 64 players per server on Conquest. Which is still a raucously intense good time. Sometimes more is better.

The Metal Gear Solid saga ended with the release of The Phantom Pain, and while it was an interesting game from a technical and gameplay standpoint, it didn’t feel much like a Metal Gear. There were flashes of it—most of the missions in Africa, the battles with Sahelanthropus, and some of the story with the child soldiers. But beyond that? It felt tame, as far as Metal Gear games were concerned. In its defense, however, that was less the fault of director Hideo Kojima and the suffocating effect of Konami, Kojima’s publisher’s influence.

Mass Effect Andromeda was a beautiful shooter, but a crappy Mass Effect game. In Andromeda, decisions were mostly arbitrary, the story was lukewarm at best, and the romances were all over the place in quality, mostly lackluster or even bad. In a series that had always been short on the men-loving-men (mlm) options to date, Andromeda was even more barren at launch than the previous entries. Bioware’s talked about fixing these issues, too, but so far hasn’t really done anything to remedy the situation.

And while Bioware does bear some of the blame for the mess that was Andromeda, it isn’t all their fault. Electronic Arts is the publisher that oversaw Bioware’s production of the game. It set the new Bioware IP up to fail almost from day one, with constantly accelerating deadlines, no unified vision, and an almost entirely rookie team spread across three physically separate studio locations hundreds of miles apart. And even if those disparate pieces finally found a way to work coherently together, they were undermined by the accelerating deadlines.

So where are we? The titanic force of Activision, 2k Games, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and such believe we want more multiplayer-only cooperative games or the same rehashed franchise, but with a different location. This is what their focus groups tell them. The evidence of this exists not just in the modern slew of games on the shelf but in the developmental difference in a game called Fuse.

When it was first introduced, it had a unique art style, it was almost wacky, it was quick and light and interesting and fun and cool. And then the developer, Insomniac Games, turned to Electronic Arts for help with getting the thing published. The result was the game was neutered, broken, and beaten into a stale-gray GrimDark knock off of the same old Call of Duty veneer that’s gotten increasingly more worn-out with every new release.

This is the difference between catering to an audience, and catering to a focus group. The latter is boring as hell. And year after year, we the audience clamor for something different.

In the midst of this dysphoria between audience and publisher, there are developers that heard the cry, and delivered a remedy.
Guerilla Games did something new with Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective game that takes place from the point of view of Aloy, a woman and an outsider, as she struggles to find a place amongst her tribe and the larger world beyond. It’s not necessarily post-apocalyptic, it’s post-technological. It’s beautiful, interesting, thought provoking, fun, and combines so many rare little touches that it feels utterly unique. It reflected an audience that’s largely ignored by the Triple-A publishers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the talking heads who tout the invulnerability of those publishers predicted its failure.

Which must be terribly embarrassing for them, considering how well the game has done, critically and commercially.
Telltale Games continues to release narratively immersive and entertaining new entries into the episodic game market. Some big studios noticed the popularity of the newer format and tried to compete there. Square Enix, a publisher on the same scale of Activision and Ubisoft, released their new Hitman game in two-mission chunks. Except there was a huge difference. While there’s an over-arching story throughout the episodes of a Telltale game, each “episode” features a coherent beginning, middle, and end that’s unique to that story, and influenced by the chapters that preceded it.

Instead of understanding this and building the new Hitman game to fit the episodic format, Square Enix just amputated a complete game and released it in small chunks and called it good.

The result? In spite of some of the most finely finessed gameplay and most beautiful graphics of the series, the game was tonally inconsistent, the pacing was unpredictable, and the little chunks of story you got in the small cutscenes didn’t actually set up a narrative to experience so much as just introduce the next sandbox for Agent 47 to kill his way through. Thus? An episodic game that’s quite clearly not designed to be experienced in the little pieces you got, but compiled as a whole. Personally, the game became more fun to replay linearly when there were more episodes to go through at a time. Because it comes together that way, like it was designed to.

Anyway. I digress.

Games made by Telltale or Guerilla or Arkane are not the norm. The game industry is in a feedback loop of only ever putting time and effort into developing Triple-A games that satisfy a focus group. And that focus group just keeps calling for a new and improved CoD, because Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the freshest thing – in 2007.

If that sounds callous forgive me. Except look at the number of first person shooters with a military flavor that it spawned.
It’s a lot. And the problem with emulation and not innovation is not that we don’t like first-person-shooters with guns we can recognize and political situations that aren’t entirely dissimilar to the world we live in. We do; even with consistently shrinking sales year after year, CoD remains a best-selling series.

The problem arises when the mimicry these successes spawn fail to emulate the things that made the original interesting. I’ll explain more about that in a moment.

The audience, those of us out here wanting to buy games, are calling for something else. Jim Sterling expressed a similar sentiment in a remastered episode of the Jimquisition, citing variety as the actual spice of life.

We, as an audience, don’t want one game with only slight variations between them. We want different experiences. XCOM 2 is a turn based strategy game that is so successful it’s threatened to become its own franchise by itself. Which would be awesome, because it’s a fantastic game. But it’s something of a unicorn in the ever-expanding Call of Duty emulator market. XCOM 2’s turn-based strategy is quite a Far Cry (pun intended) from the traditional game being published. Unrelated to this, Far Cry 5 looks beautiful and for once in my life I can say I’m absolutely excited by a game being made by Ubisoft.

Moving on. Let’s look at another piece of the 8th generation that’s gaming speed on both console and PC markets.

Virtual Reality is a trend hot enough right now that the PC market is adapting and evolving its hardware to compete with the consoles directly. Alienware and Dell had booths that focused on their new VR-ready hardware at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). That would be exciting, too! Except, there doesn’t appear to be anything really unique about VR. At that same E3, Bethesda showcased its own VR experience, where Fallout 4 and Skyrim were now VR compatible. Which would be cool, if it didn’t look incredibly cumbersome to play, and not particularly evolutionary.

VR doesn’t feel like a unique platform to play games on. It feels like a gimmick. And an expensive one at that, with the barrier to entry for most VR devices costing far more than a standard console. Oculous Rift costs $600, and the HTC Vive costs $800, and that’s before you have a PC to plug them into. Given how expensive that is, what does it offer in terms of gameplay? Not much. Roller coaster simulators and arcade shooting galleries.

Despite its cost, however, I have a point of contention. I don’t think the rules of this storytelling medium have been figured out yet. To explain, I need to flash-back to the earliest days of gaming.

In 1972 when the original Pong released with the first Atari home console, I imagine there was a similar sentiment. Video games are a gimmick. Nothing more. I mean look at it! It’s just moving two paddles and bouncing a ball between them. And yet, Ashley Johnson, voice/motion capture actress for the character Ellie in The Last of Us won TWO BAFTA awards for her role in the game and it’s DLC. She earned two of the most coveted awards in acting for her role in a video game.

This is the level gaming has evolved to. More than forty years separates the release of Pong, and the release of The Last of Us. Gaming has evolved by quantum leaps in that time. And the leaps have almost always involved narratively pushing the hardware you’re telling a story on. Hideo Kojima did this every time he released a game. He did it first with the 1987 release of Metal Gear on the MSX2. And later on in 1999 with the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation One.

We have yet to see that innovation in VR gaming. That’s not to say we won’t; actual VR gaming is relatively young and we have yet to meet the inventors that are going to take VR and make it something worth paying attention to. But for the moment, it remains unimpressive.

What about the rest, though? There’s a surge in popularity for open-world games on the scale of The Witcher 3. First things first, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Narratively, it’s fascinating. Visually, the spectacle is almost incomprehensible and when encountering monsters, often terrifying. The sound design is equally brilliant and the music is haunting and evocative. It is worthy of the almost obscene number awards heaped upon it. It’s not without faults, however; a game that features such a diversely imagined bestiary can’t seem to invent a fantasy world with people of color in any role.

But the success of the game has led to emulation. It’s almost inevitable. We’re still inundated with Call of Duty 4 impersonators, and that came out ten years ago at this point.

The problem is; when a game succeeds, those trying to mimic the game to replicate its success often mimic the wrong parts.
The Witcher 3 would have been a poorer game if it had been made by Ubisoft on the production deadline of an Assassin’s Creed game. Which is to say, an open world game is not just about the size of the sandbox, it’s what you do in that sandbox. And climbing towers to unlock vantage points doesn’t keep me wanting to play for 100+ hours. Sooner or later, you’re gonna run out of towers.

Fallout 4, dodgy story, bugs, and all, fills its world with interesting things to do and encounter as you explore. Which is the point of an open world game. It’s about inhabiting the world. Any world. Even quasi-linear games like Dishonored 2 and Prey, both created by Arkane Studios, are brilliantly rich and dive deep into the mythos of their chosen worlds. Because immersion isn’t necessarily connected to how detailed or photorealistic your graphics are. Journey and Azul are two other games that are fascinating and invoke great emotion when played. And they can’t technically hold a candle to the graphical fidelity of Batman: Arkham Knight (post patches.)

Which leads me to the point. Eventually, the purpose of games isn’t to maximize the number of polygons in a character model. We will eventually hit a technical wall where we can’t make something any more realistic. And that’s okay. The entire Borderlands franchise remains graphically interesting despite its age because it is stylized. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, showed its age within a year.

Firewatch would have been a poorer game if it had tried for outright realism instead of building around its own stylization. Because even stylized, it is beautiful to look at. The sunsets gave me moments of pause to simply stare at the visual of it.
The whole point of this is to demonstrate one thing: gaming is not a one-size-fits-all market. And what was interesting once, ten years ago, may not be what’s interesting now.

Games like The Witcher 3, Journey, Azul, Dishonored 2, Prey, XCOM 2, Fallout 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and even Overwatch, demonstrates that the one-size-fits-all philosophy of the biggest publishers is outdated at best and outright ignorant at worst.
And while I haven’t mentioned all the best high-points in the 8th generation, this goes to illustrate a singular point: we, as gamers, want more. And the companies that provide it—Arkane, Naughty Dog, Guerilla Games, Ninja Studios, CD Projekt Red, among others—are going to be more successful than the Ubisofts and Activisions and the Electronic Arts that rehash the same games with improved graphics and expect us to be impressed.

Because we’re not. And the diminishing returns of each consecutive CoD reflect that.


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Analysis

Solas, Bull, and the King’s Gambit (a Little Game of Mind-Chess)

Angela D. Mitchell

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A look at one of the great moments in Dragon Age: Inquisition, as two former antagonists demonstrate how smart they really are.

One of the most brilliant conversations in gaming occurs between Solas and Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition, yet, depending on their choices, it’s a scene many gamers may have missed.

Spoiler Warning for all of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

“I’ve got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you’re moving a pawn? Are you even trying anymore?”
“Think about it, my friend.”

With a new Dragon Age title reportedly on the horizon, now is a perfect time to revisit great moments in the previous trilogy. In Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI), The Iron Bull’s all-important loyalty quest, “The Demands of the Qun,” sets up a huge number of game-changing possibilities for the Qunari character, who is a complex mix of subtlety, humor, and divided loyalties. If you save Krem and the Chargers, the family of lovable rogues and misfits Bull had assembled (one rescue at a time) over the past decade, you save Bull as well. Even though he goes through a tough period of adjustment and fear at going rogue, or “Tal-Vashoth,” Bull will then continue to evolve and enrich both his character and relationships as the game story continues.

However, if you don’t save his family, or if you skip Bull’s loyalty quest altogether? Bull’s character development is markedly different, darker, and more tragic. And you also miss one of the best and most beautifully conceived dialogue sequences in all of gaming.

Unexpected Comfort

While he’s happy to have saved his loved ones, Bull is now haunted—unmoored and uncertain, filled with guilt for turning his back upon the Qun, as well as with the fear and anxiety that he’ll lose control and give in to his own savagery and rage (something that actually happens sometimes to Qunari who escape the shackles of life under the Qun).

However, when Bull turns away from the Qun, one of the first companions to react with comfort (after a sympathetic Inquisitor) is, somewhat surprisingly, Solas, who shows real warmth, caring, and support in the aftermath. Previously critical and disapproving of Bull’s loyalty to the repressive Qunari regime, Solas appears genuinely moved and impressed when Bull leaves for the sake of the Chargers. It’s not exactly surprising that the secretive ancient trickster god of elven rebellion should heartily approve of Bull’s actions, but it is a warm and believable character note. And, it’s another example of the way the game’s banters show us actual relationship progression between our companions depending on our choices, and it leads to a terrific scene.

The Iron Bull (true to form as a lifelong spy) is subtle and cautious, characteristically protecting his pieces as he lays his traps.

In the aftermath of his choice, Bull himself is now nervous, defensive and on edge, terrified of what he’s done and of what he may become. There’s also an element of guilt here for Bull—how many Tal-Vashoth did Bull himself hunt, kill, or capture in years past on behalf of the Qun? Were all of them savage, as he had believed? Or were any of them like him—sane and fully cognizant, and simply unwilling to sacrifice all they loved in order to live under a repressive yoke any longer?

“You are No Beast”

While Bull is wrestling with this issue, Solas speaks up. In their first moment of real warmth together, the following conversation takes place:

Solas: You are not Tal-Vashoth, Iron Bull, not really.
Iron Bull: Well that’s a fuckin’ relief.
Solas: You are no beast, snapping under the stress of the Qun’s harsh discipline. You are a man who made a choice… possibly the first of your life.
Iron Bull: I’ve always liked fighting. What if I turn savage, like the other Tal-Vashoth?
Solas (firmly): You have the Inquisition, you have the Inquisitor… and you have me.
Iron Bull (quietly): Thanks, Solas.

I love this conversation for so many reasons. It’s an important moment for both characters: Bull, no longer operating under his previous, smooth-talking secrecy, is now actively admitting doubt and fear. Meanwhile, Solas is no longer detached and cold. He not only offers support and friendship, he is telling Bull directly, “If you need me, I’m here.”

It’s a pretty huge moment for the quiet elven mage, whose previous impulses were typically to stay silent versus to speak, to observe but not to act, and to disengage, not to engage. Significantly, it’s also one more moment that shows us Solas’s journey on his way to falling in love with the modern world in which he’s found himself…even the muted, corrupted version that now exists under the presence of the Breach and the Veil.

It’s interesting to observe Solas’s situation in counterpoint to Bull’s; Bull may have just passed his own crisis of faith, but Solas is just beginning.

The King’s Gambit

Not long after this moment of encouragement, in a genuinely compassionate gesture, Solas tries to distract Bull from his pain and anxiety by suggesting (with a slight glint of mischief) a nice game of chess. And not just any chess… MIND-CHESS. As in, no board. Just the two of them, playing mental chess as they walk and fight their way through the countryside.

Of course… as you do.

What’s fun here (and impressive) is that Bull makes noises about the inconvenience of playing the game that way, but he’s actually more than willing, and pretty soon the two men are off on their game. And when they do, I geek out the entire time. First off, because, MIND-CHESS (and why, yes, I do have to keep referring to it in all-caps), and secondly, because it’s another great way to show how brilliant Bull actually is under all the deflective tough-guy bluster, acquitting himself impressively even in a MIND-CHESS game against the freaking elven god of mischief himself.

Solas is bold and reckless, sacrificing his rooks, one bishop, and (tellingly) his queen, achieving checkmate with with the perfect piece of symbolism—his last remaining bishop (or “mage”).

Basically, everything about this situation is fantastically cool. The only way it could have possibly been cooler is if a glitter-covered unicorn riding a dragon had landed in the middle of a nearby field and sung an impromptu rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Maybe with Corypants doing a little soft-shoe nearby. (Too much?)

But we don’t really need anything else. Not even visuals. The fact remains that just listening to these two men play chess in their minds is a terrific high point in the game, and the scene would be equally so in any film or novel.

Meanwhile, even though I’m a pretty mediocre and erratic chess player myself, I love the game, and found the entire sequence absorbing and beautifully written. Kudos to Patrick Weekes, David Gaider, and the DAI writing team because—as usual with Dragon Age: Inquisition—the scene is successful on many levels at once.

The Immortal Game

First off, a little history. The game played by Bull and Solas here is actually a reenactment of one of the most famous chess matches ever played, referred to as “The Immortal Game” or “King’s Gambit.” The original game took place informally between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky on June 21, 1851 in London (on a break during the first international tournament). It quickly achieved fame for its daring, creativity, and for the showstopping drama and brilliance of its final moves. It is considered to be the epitome of the dashing, “romantic” chess of the time.

The game created an electrifying sense of drama and suspense, and was so impressive at the time that when the game was over, and he had lost the match to Anderssen, Kieseritzky himself actually telegraphed a recap of the entire game to his Parisian chess club, just to share the experience. From there, it quickly became a sensation in chess history, with the French chess magazine La Régence publishing the entire game in July 1851. As its fame grew, it was eventually nicknamed “The Immortal Game” by the Austrian Ernst Falkbeer in 1855, and the name stuck.

Chess as Personality

What’s fantastic about this particular game serving as the match between Solas and The Iron Bull is that it’s a gorgeous encapsulation of both men and their personalities. Solas developes his pieces early and makes moves that are dramatic and aggressive while Bull responds more circuitously, warily hunting for weak spots. While some might assume that Bull would be the aggressor and Solas the cautious one, for me it’s actually very true to form that Bull, as a lifelong spy, would be more subtle and careful in his approach, protecting his pieces as he lays his traps. Solas, on the other hand, is bold, almost reckless, sacrificing his Rooks, a Bishop, and (tellingly) his Queen, while laying the final trap for checkmate with his Bishop (“Mage”), and two Knights.

It’s a superb and beautifully layered scene that recreates one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of chess… and yet manages to use that existing chess match to tell us everything we need to know about these two characters. There’s even a sly elegance to the dialogue that communicates just a hint of its 19th century origins, with Solas for instance naming the King’s Gambit and Bull accepting in gentlemanly fashion. Adding an additional layer to the action is the fact that the two are literally translating the game into and out of their own cultures for one another, with Solas fascinated by Bull’s Qunari names for his pieces, even as Solas himself also does a bit of this, in calling his Bishops “Mages.”

It’s All in the Voices

The writing may be beautiful, but it’s the voices that must truly convey all of these constantly shifting and subtle emotions (remember, it’s a series of banters, so it’s set forth as a series of aural, eavesdropped conversations). With some serious heavy lifting before them in this scenario, voice actors Freddie Prinze, Jr. (The Iron Bull) and Gareth David-Lloyd (Solas) do an especially wonderful job here. Just as they do in embodying these characters in their struggles and losses throughout the constantly shifting stakes and scenarios of the entire DAI game story. I especially love the way their voices contrast during the swift back-and-forth dialogue of the game itself; Freddie’s against Gareth’s, with Bull’s rich, deep voice against Solas’s lighter one with its beautiful slight Welshness.

I’ve played DAI several times now, and I’m always delighted that these particular two men, both so well matched in subtlety, intelligence, and their capacity for deceit, are the ones playing this game. That, and the fact that they’re both former antagonists who are now on their cautious way to a friendship, one chess move at a time.

Most of all, I love the fact they’re both palpably having so damn much fun. The prospect of quiet, reserved Solas having fun is not exactly a frequent sight within the game (unless you romance him, which I highly recommend, as it’s by far the most complex portrait of Solas, and is so intrinsically tied to the main story). But he is—Solas is having a blast, and it’s even more fun to realize that he’s even enjoying the fact that he might just have underestimated Bull the tiniest bit. In return, Bull’s having just as much fun while being distracted for a little while from his inner fears, worries, and guilt.

And then, the final move: “You sneaky son of a bitch,” growls Bull cheerfully, as he realizes what Solas has managed to do. At that moment, he’s probably remembering what he himself had said about Solas not too long before—“Half our targets never even see you coming.” And Solas just proved him right, yet again. A great example of how I don’t think there’s any small detail to this game that is inconsequential.

When Bull concedes, he says “Nice game… mage,” and the title is one of respect. As is Solas’s subtle reply of, “And you as well… Tal-Vashoth.” It’s Solas capping the moment, bringing it full circle, and noting for Bull’s benefit, yet again, “You are Tal-Vashoth. And you are still yourself.”

The Bigger Picture

Upon analysis, the big-picture symbolism of Solas’s strategy here is almost painful, by the way, if you’re playing a romanced Inquisitor: He sacrifices several major pieces, and then, decisively, his QUEEN, in order to win. This can be seen as foreshadowing of both Solas’s breakup with (and betrayal of) a romanced Inquisitor… as well as the future sacrifice of Flemeth (Mythal). And let’s not forget that it’s the MAGE that takes down Bull’s King. The symbolism is all just perfect.

My own question is: does it also foreshadow Solas’s future plans post-Trespasser? It just might. Look at the game from a big-picture perspective:

  • Develop a multitude of pieces as early as possible
  • Place key pieces in strategic and useful locations
  • Sacrifice those necessary (no matter how powerful… or beloved)
  • Create compelling distractions to pull focus
  • Hide in plain sight
  • Pounce, kill, and win
  • Sit amongst the wreckage of the world and weep for what you’ve lost

Okay, fine, that last one was added by me.

Meanwhile, now’s a great time to take a look at the dialogue for the entire chess match, so I’ve included it below, and have also joined all the separate banters into one, single conversation.

The Mind-Chess Banters (Complete):

Solas: How do you feel, Iron Bull? Do you need a distraction to focus your mind?
Iron Bull: Well, this area’s low on dancing girls. Sadly.
Solas: King’s pawn to E4.
Iron Bull: You’re shitting me. We don’t even have a board!
Solas (amused): Too complicated for a savage Tal-Vashoth?
Iron Bull (grumbling): Smug little asshole. Pawn to E5.
Solas: Pawn to F4. King’s Gambit.
Iron Bull: Accepted. Pawn takes pawn. Give me a bit to get the pieces set in my head. Then we’ll see what you’ve got.
Solas: So, where were we? Ah, yes. Mage to C4.
Iron Bull: Little aggressive. Arishok to H4. Check.
Solas: Speaking of aggressive. I assume Arishok is your term for the Queen? King to F1.
Iron Bull: Pawn to B5.
Solas: All right. You have my curiosity. Mage takes Pawn.
Iron Bull: You call your Tamassrans Mages? Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: You call your Knights Ben-Hassrath? Incidentally, Knight to F3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath makes more sense than horses. They’re sneaky, and they can move through enemy lines. Arishok to H6.
Solas: Pawn to D3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to H5. Ha! All right, take some time. Think about your life choices.
Solas: All right, Bull. If you are prepared: Knight to H4.
Iron Bull: Arishok to G5. So, you giving up the Tamassran at B5 or the Ben-Hassrath at H4?
Solas: Neither. Knight to F5.
Iron Bull: Pawn to C6. Left your Tamassran hanging out.
Solas: And you, your Knight. Or Ben-Hassrath, if you will. Pawn to G4.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: Hmm. Tower to G1.
Iron Bull: Ha! Pawn takes your Tamassran—or Mage, or whatever it is.
Solas: I get the idea.
Iron Bull (teasing): Too much time playing with spirits, Fade Walker.
Solas: We shall see.
Solas (after a pause): If you have a moment, Bull: Pawn to H4
Iron Bull: Arishok to G6.
Solas: Pawn to H5. Careful.
Iron Bull: You’re the one who lost his Mage. (Chuckling) Arishok to G5.
Solas: Queen to F3.
Iron Bull: Oh, clever. Almost trapped my Arishok. Ben-Hassrath to G8.
Solas: Mage takes Pawn, threatens Queen.
Iron Bull: Ugh! Arishok to F6.
Solas: Knight to C3. You’ve developed nothing but your Queen.
Iron Bull: Don’t get cocky, you’re still one Tamassran down. Tamassran to C5, by the way.
Solas: Hmm. I will need to consider. (Pause) After careful consideration: Knight to D5.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Pawn at B2.
Solas: Mage to D6.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Tower. Check. (Pause) What are you doing, Solas?
Solas: King to E2.
Iron Bull: All right, Tamassran takes Tower. Your last Tower, by the way.
Solas: Pawn to E5.
Iron Bull: Really. I’ve got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you’re moving a Pawn? Are you even trying anymore?
Solas: Think about it, my friend.
Iron Bull: All right, Solas. I’ve thought about it. Ready to finish this? Ben-Hassrath to A6.
Solas: Knight takes Pawn at G7. Check.
Iron Bull: Mmmhmm. King to D8.
Solas: Queen to F6, Check.
Iron Bull: And now my Ben-Hassrath takes your Queen. You’ve got no Towers. You’re down to a single Mage. Too bad you wasted time moving that Pawn to… to… (Pause) You sneaky son of a bitch.
Solas: Mage to E7. Checkmate.
(The Iron Bull growls. A pause.)
Iron Bull: Nice game… mage.
Solas: And you as well… Tal-Vashoth.
Sera (if present): Uhhhh… KING me!

If you have Sera along for the final banter, her presence, and that very funny line at the end, is the perfect capper on the game (and emphasizes what a feat it actually was, and how far beyond most people it would be).

It’s a terrific and memorable scene in DAI. But just remember—you’ll never experience it, if you don’t save the Chargers.

Watching the Game on a Traditional Chessboard

Do you want a visual representation of the moves while you listen to the conversation from the game? Take a look at this video on YouTube, which provides a seamless full aural and visual recreation of the game for easy visual reference by YouTube user Huevos Rancheros.


Images courtesy of Bioware

This article is a reprint (with minor modification) of an article originally published by Angela D. Mitchell on DumpedDrunkandDalish.com.

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Nazis Upset Over Wolfenstein II Promoting Nazi-Free America

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Following a tweet from the Wolfenstein official Twitter account that included a short video teaser for the upcoming Wolfenstein II, online outrage erupted due to the tweet’s harsh anti-Nazi stance and the trailer’s inclusion of the words “Not My America” over shots of Nazi soldiers marching. Because apparently, the morality of supporting Nazis is a question again.

The spin on Donald Trump’s infamous campaign slogan drew a hostile reaction from those who decided attacking Nazis is too political for a franchise that has always been based around killing Nazis. Some took it as an attack on conservatism rather than a clever slogan with a timely message, or some kind of unfitting attempt to make the series political by focusing on the very thing the series is about.

I wish I could feign surprise. This series has let players shoot Nazis for decades now without any significant negative reaction. Unfortunately, Nazis have become increasingly relevant lately for all the wrong reasons. I’m glad we have Wolfenstein to remind us Nazism is a terrible thing. Here’s hoping other games take their lead. Maybe even the Call of Duty franchise, which is set to return to its Nazi-killing roots with this year’s Call of Duty: WWII. I haven’t bought Call of Duty in years. Give me an ad like this, and I’ll buy five copies.

Bravo, Bethesda. Bravo.

Wolfenstein II releases on October 27. Buy it and make Nazism shameful again.


Video and Images Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks

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