King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!



If King’s Quest IV was big, King’s Quest V was revolutionary.  This was the game which got rid of typing, and replaced the parser that had been a mainstay of the adventure game genre since Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure and Infocom’s Zork with an iconographic interface.  This was the game which introduced 256 colour VGA graphics.  It sold 500,000 copies, and was the best-selling computer game (in any genre) for the next five years.  It was rapturously received by the critics (1991 Software Publishing Association Excellence in Software Award for Best Fantasy Role-Playing/Adventure Program; Computer Gaming World’s 1991 Adventure Game of the Year; Best Multimedia Fantasy/Adventure Game).  (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

It may also be the single most widely criticised game Sierra ever made.  (Codename: ICEMAN and Manhunter are hated, but they’re too obscure to be hated widely.)

These criticisms can be summarised thus: the game is technologically advanced but the game design is primitive, because you can die, you can get stuck, and the puzzles are illogical.  (It also suffers from Cedric, possibly the most detested sidekick in the genre, and, in the CD-ROM version, amateur voice acting.  Simple solution: play the DOS version.)

King’s Quest V is not (as its critics suggest) a triumph of style over substance, a technologically advanced engine and pretty graphics disguising antiquated gameplay.  Instead, King’s Quest V is arguably a summing up of the genre thus far.  It was produced in 1990, the year of Sierra’s decennary, a time when the company would naturally both celebrate and consider its place in computer history.  What is more fitting than that King’s Quest V—the fifth game in the company’s flagship series, the most celebrated series in adventure gaming—should both look forward technologically, with its abolition of the traditional typing interface, and cast a glance backwards, to the early days of the company and its Hi-Res Adventures?  Just as The Colonel’s Bequest was a revision of Williams’s first game, Mystery House, so King’s Quest V is a reworking of her second, The Wizard and the Princess.  Both games are set in Serenia, and involve a snake blocking a path, a desert, a journey by boat (with a hole in it), islands, and a wizard’s maze.

The game may be seen as an attempt to create the ultimate adventure game.  As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Sierra’s concept of the adventure game is experiential (story-driven, and with an emphasis on the player’s immersion in the story, as in a good movie), unlike the intellectual approach of Infocom and LucasArts, which emphasize problem-solving.  Indeed, KQV was seen at the time as a relatively easy game.  The puzzles are relatively straightforward (find object and give it to person / use it on thing), and lack the baroque ingenuity of Day of the Tentacle or Discworld, or the MENSA-type conundrums of Zork III or Spellbreaker.  But it has an epic scale, a sense of scope, not before seen in a graphic adventure game.  King Graham’s quest to rescue his family and castle from the wizard Mordack takes him from the picturesque valley of Serenia,


through a desert infested by bandits and with a temple straight out of the Arabian Nights or Indiana Jones,


and a dark forest with a wicked witch,


over mountains,


where he kills a Yeti and escapes from a roc,


across the sea, to the island of the harpies,


and finally to Mordack’s castle.


Even 25 years later, the hand-painted graphics are extraordinary: visually rich, with lots of detail.


The accusation that the game is unfair and frustrating because you can die, you can get stuck, and the puzzles are illogical can be simplified: it’s challenging, and it’s not LucasArts.  Now, while Monkey Island, Sam & Max, and Fate of Atlantis are brilliant games, LucasArts’ approach should not be seen as a universal standard, the formula against which all other games either fall or stand.  Sierra’s design sensibility is different from LucasArts; it should not be penalised for this any more than Infocom should be. The adventure game genre is (or should be) broad enough for different approaches.

Let us consider some of the most criticized puzzles in detail:

The cat.

kq5cat  See the crown by Graham’s leg?  That’s the HOLD icon.

sierra_065This means that there’s some action you can take.  If the cat eats the mouse, it’s obvious that you did something wrong.  What do you have in your inventory?


Throwing the custard pie at the Yeti

sierra_073This is called lateral thinking.  Large hairy monster rushing towards you.  What do you do?  You don’t have any weapons – but you could (if you were clever) think of temporarily blinding it with a custard pie, so that it falls to its doom off that whopping great cliff in front of you.

You don’t have a pie, you say?  You’ve eaten it already?  Oh dear. If you ate the custard pie in the mountains, you should look at your diet.  You’re in the middle of the mountains, in the freezing cold; your body is craving fuel; and you stick a piece of sweet pastry in your gob.  ‘I eat a healthy balanced diet of sugar, carbs, artificial coloring and flavors, and weigh 600 stone.’  Next course: elephant au gratin, a little fried hippopotamus, and cement pudding.

What, you ate it before climbing the mountains?  This is an adventure game.  Do you get points for eating the pie?  No.  Does eating the pie do anything useful?  No.  This is like eating the porridge in King’s Quest III or the magic fruit in King’s Quest IV, and then complaining that the game is unfair.


The mazes

sierra_066Mazes were a standard of the early adventure game.  The best of these—e.g., the Glass Maze in Infocom’s Sorcerer—were ingenious and intriguingIn the average maze, each room had the same description (“You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”), and the rooms weren’t connected  For instance, you would go north from Room 1 into Room 2, go south from Room 2 into Room 6, go east from Room 6 into Room 1, go west from Room 1 into Room 2, and go east from Room 2 into Room 7.  If you were unlucky, you would have a timer, so if you spent too long stumbling around the maze, you’d die of coal gas poisoning or be eaten by a grue.  You solved them by dropping an object in each room (to identify it) and trying all the points of the compass.  If you were very unlucky, the game expected you to do all the above, but didn’t give you enough inventory items to map the area properly.  (See The Wizard and the Princess.)

Mordack’s labyrinth is, as mazes go, one of the better ones.  It is a maze in the old school tradition; the way in which the perspective changes every time Graham moves in a different direction is clever.

The desert is fairly simple to map, but (as Scorpia in Computer Gaming World argued) would be better with boundaries, so you’re not stumbling across 130 screens.



Mouseholes and glinting things

Small objects (e.g., the coin, the key, crystal, the fish hook, the conch shell) all shine, so you should be able to tell that there’s something interesting there.

As for finding the cheese:

kq5beastkq5cell‘Nuff said, really.


King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne


King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne (1987) is a very similar game to King’s Quest I.  Again, the game is a treasure hunt in which the player explores an open landscape to find three objects: here, Graham is searching for three keys that will unlock a magical door in the land of Kolyma, which will take him to the ivory tower where the beautiful Valanice is imprisoned.

KQII is a quick and fun play, and not particularly difficult.  There are some advances in game technology: events are triggered by other events.  The player needs to read the inscription on the magical door in order for characters to appear, or places to be accessible.

However, the game is less satisfying than the first game.  Kolyma is a bigger landscape, with more wandering characters (the witch, the dwarf, the sorcerer, Little Red Riding Hood), but there are more “filler” screens, so it feels emptier.  The game is also somewhat disjointed; as Roberta Williams (King’s Quest Collection Manual, 15) has said,  ideas that she couldn’t work into the first game—’King Neptune, Dracula, everyone from Little Red Riding Hood, and that infamous rickety bridge you could only cross so many times…’—ended up here.  As a result, the story doesn’t really gel.


It also has one of the more infamously illogical puzzles in gaming history.  Now, the gnome’s name puzzle in KQ1 does make sense – one can see the logic behind it, even if it’s a mad cryptographer’s logic.  This puzzle, however, is mad.

kq2_014Graham is on top of the cliffs, but his way is blocked by a snake.  (A poisonous snake!)  You can “slash the viper into ribbons” with your sword.  Or…you can throw a bridle at it.  In which case the snake will turn into Pegasus, and give you a magical lump of sugar.

(This sounds incredibly ’60s.  Was there something in the water?)

Through the Three Doors of Perception…

Now, there are arguably some clues – but they’re not exactly fair.

First, the puzzle (according to the King’s Quest Wikia) is based on Greek mythology: Pegasus sprang from the blood of Medusa – but that’s only fair in hindsight.

Second, the bridle is one of three things given to you by a genie – the other two are the carpet (which got you to the cliff tops in the first place), and the sword (which you use to kill the snake).  So, using adventure game logic, the player could reason that since he was given the bridle at the same time as the carpet and the sword, he could use it here.

Third, the shape of the bridle itself:

kq2_031If you squint, it does look sort of like a snake – the yellow bits are the eyes, and the grey bit is the mouth.  But it’s a long bow to draw.

To solve this puzzle properly, the player has to rely on intuition rather than on reasoning.  It’s rather like one of those late Miss Marple stories (I’m thinking here of 4.50 from Paddington or “Greenshaw’s Folly”) in which the old dear is able to deduce the murderer’s name, accomplice, alibi, motive and method, based on a series of wild guesses that wouldn’t pass muster in a court – but that happen to be right, because she’s the Amazing Psychic Jane.

Although I wouldn’t encourage you not to play King’s Quest II, a better version of the game is AGDI’s King’s Quest II: Romancing the Stones.  It is not so much a revamp (as the SCI version of KQ1 was) as a revision, a new game “inspired by” the old one.  For a fan game, this is excellent; it feels like a Sierra game from the early ’90s, with its sharpness of writing and the wealth of puns and throwaway lines.  (Although the vampire section feels much more like Quest for Glory IV than King’s Quest.)  Particularly impressive is the way in which the plot is tightened; there’s a logical reason for every event in the story (including the snake puzzle), and characters are given new motivations and roles.  In short, it’s a story- and character-driven game in the line of the later—and better—King’s Quest games.

King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown



“A Sierra 3-D Animated Adventure Game, simply stated, is an interactive movie where you become the main character.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the adventure game dominated the home computing market. In the early days, there was Infocom, with text adventures like Zork, Wishbringer, Planetfall and A Mind Forever Voyaging. Later, there was LucasArts, with Monkey Island, Sam & Max, and Indiana Jones.

The industry leader was Sierra On-line, based in Coarsegold, California. It was Sierra which published the first adventure game with graphics, rather than just text. It was Sierra which published the first adventure game to use animated, interactive graphics rather than text or static graphics. Later games would use professional graphic artists and animation teams, Hollywood composers to produce scores, and fully voiced casts (at first Sierra staff, then professional actors)—all in the company’s goal of creating truly interactive, high-quality entertainment.

Sierra games covered a broad range of genres and tones, including science fiction comedy (Space Quest), fantasy RPG (Quest for Glory), murder mystery (Laura Bow), sex farce (Leisure Suit Larry), Western spoof (Freddy Pharkas), supernatural thriller (Gabriel Knight), police simulator (Police Quest), historical epic (the Conquests series), post-apocalyptic science fiction (Manhunter), and edutainment.

The company, known at the time as On-line Studios, began in the kitchen of Ken and Roberta Williams. Although their early Hi-Res Adventures—among them Mystery House, The Wizard and the Princess, Mission: Asteroid, and the enormous Time Zone (with some 1,500 screens)—were successful, it was Roberta Williams’s King’s Quest series that made Sierra big.

It’s hard in some ways to be objective about King’s Quest. King’s Quest IV was the first adventure game I ever played; King’s Quest V was the first game I ever owned. (Not counting DOS games like Aldo, Snipes, Alley Cat and Snarf that came with the computer.)


King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown(1983) was groundbreaking. The game was famously commissioned by IBM to show off its IBM PcJr, a machine which had 16 colour graphics and 128K of memory (a huge amount in those days). The game that Roberta Williams designed is a straightforward quest: go out and find three treasures. Sir Graham (that’s you) is asked by King Edward of Daventry to find a self-refilling chest of gold coins, a mirror that shows the future, and a shield which makes the bearer invincible.  If he succeeds, he will inherit the throne.

Compared to the text adventures Infocom was making at the time, this was fairly basic. While the first Infocom game, Zork, was a treasure hunt, the company had since progressed to trickier, plot-driven games. What made King’s Quest extraordinary is that it was the first adventure game to feature animation.

As the IBM manual proclaimed: ‘Sir Grahame [as he was then known] can go behind, in front of, and even between objects.’ Marvel as Sir Graham walks behind trees, or in front of rocks! Wonder as he walks off a cliff and plummets to his doom! Gasp as he walks into a river and forgets to swim! ‘The animation,’ you see, ‘allows Sir Grahame to climb, duck, jump, or swim.’ Rather endearingly, the manual even reassures players that, no, they haven’t done anything wrong when Graham walks off screen. From our jaded 21st century perspective, this seems a storm in a teacup. ‘He can walk? Ha! My several gigabyte video card lets me run crouching along a metal gangway and strafe enemy snipers from twenty yards!’ Back in 1983, however, this was big stuff.

Let’s put this in perspective.

Here’s Zork, the classic text adventure game:



Here’s Mystery House, Williams’s first game, and the first adventure game to have graphics and text:



Later Hi-Res adventure games like Time Zone and Wizard and the Princess would have better graphics. But they were still static.



And here’s King’s Quest:

The adventure begins…


It’s like something from another world.  The colors are bright and clean.  You see that bridge?  You can walk across it, or fall off it and get eaten by alligators.  You see that tree?  You can walk before, behind – not necessarily between, above, and below, but you get the drift.  O my Daventry! my new-found land!

The game is still engaging today—and certainly far more playable than the Hi-Res Adventures such as Wizard and the Princess, in which one spends the first hour wandering around a desert maze picking up rocks and getting bitten by scorpions. (Coming soon from Masochism Tours.)  It’s a very open-ended game: one can explore Daventry—its forests, its lands in the clouds, its underwater caverns, and its grottoes and glens—as one wishes, and solve the various quests in any order. Simply put, King’s Quest is fun.



In some ways, this is a hybrid between the adventure game and an action game. The game takes full advantage of the 3D animation, with plenty of arcade sequences:

The beanstalk. One false move, and… SPLAT.


Like Zork, there are elements of a dungeon crawl, with wandering monsters (an ogre, a dwarf, and a sorcerer) and points gained by finding treasures.


However, since this is an adventure game, one gets higher points for solving problems in a clever way, rather than resorting to brute force. (For instance, one can kill the dragon or the giant, but the ‘better’ solution is to douse the dragon’s flame, or for the giant to fall asleep.)kq1_007


One of the impressive things about the game is that nearly every puzzle has an alternative solution: there are two ways to get past the dragon, to get rid of the giant, to cross the troll bridge, to get past the rat, and to get past the leprechauns.



The gnome’s name puzzle is often trotted out as one of the worst puzzles ever designed.

“Sometimes it’s wise to think backwards…”

Williams herself described it in the King’s Quest Collection Manual as ‘in retrospect, …an awfully nasty puzzle…, but that was a typical “advanced” puzzle in those days.’ In fact, it’s straightforward compared to some of the brain twisters in the Infocom games (the Royal Puzzle or the Mirror Puzzle in Zork III, the Vault Puzzle in Spellbreaker), which seem like entrance tests for MENSA. Moreover, it’s an optional puzzle: if the player doesn’t get it right, he’s given a key and can go up an easier way to the Land of the Clouds.


A revised version was released in 1990, using the SCI (Sierra Creative Interpreter) rather than the earlier AGI (Adventure Game Interpreter).

And the adventure begins…again. Complete with grinning serpent.

This was, for some strange reason, a critical failure: players objected to the game being modernised.   (For those of you who don’t want to type at all, there’s also a fan made VGA point-and-click version released by AGDI.)

The SCI remake is definitely the better version. It’s more engaging: the graphics are better, there’s more text, and it has music (rather than the beeping and grinding of a PC internal speaker).  And the inhabitants of Daventry doesn’t look as though they’re suffering from jaundice.

On top of everything else, the inhabitants of Daventry had been cursed with an excess of bilirubin.

This is the witch’s house in the original version:



And in the new version:

sciv_008Notice how much more atmospheric it is?  And, yes, those are kids who have been turned into gingerbread.






The animation is definitely better, too:

Look, Ma! I made a GIF.




All in all, I have a lot of fondness for King’s Quest I.  More than thirty (!) years after it was made, it still has plenty of charm.