The King’s Quest series has always been a “family” game, but this seems aimed at a younger audience than earlier games. From the start, the series had always been influenced by fairy tales, but here it’s unmistakably Disneyesque. Not only is it cartoony; it even opens with one heroine (Rosella) singing, and the villain is dressed in the “evil” colours of black and purple. (The other heroine, Valanice, is, for some reason, modelled on Cinderella’s stepmother – all eyebrows and bouffant.)
Unfortunately, while it’s a beautiful game to look at—the animation is excellent: clear, crisp, brightly coloured; and critics understandably raved when it came out—it’s a different thing to play. The game veers between being “twee”, downright childish, and often dull. Rosella’s character has degenerated since KQIV. In that game, she came across as competent and plucky. Here, she’s downright irritating. (Her ‘Oh noooh!’ is the sort of thing that sends shivers down the spine. Nails and chalkboards spring to mind.)
The gameplay is frustrating. The interface is simplistic: one cursor for everything (and a curse from the player). This removes the player’s ability to explore, the interactivity that was one of Sierra’s strengths. Since the player has less freedom, and less to do, the game feels pretty but empty. Sierra has borrowed Lucasarts’ habit of having the player character comment on the action, rather than (which I prefer) an omniscient, rather sarky, narrator. There are no subtitles, or a text option, so one has to hear every conversation. One can’t save games—it didn’t help my enjoyment of the game that I had to replay Chapter 5 because the game “froze” when the black wind grabbed me.
From the flourish of horns in the opening bars to the nearly ten minute opening there’s a sense of something big about King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988). You think you know what a computer can do? Look at the graphics! (This was the first game to use Sierra’s Creative Interpreter, or SCI, an advance over the old AGI engine.) Listen to the 40 minute score, written by Hollywood composer William Goldstein! (This was the first PC game to support a sound card.) Move the mouse cursor! (This was the first Sierra game to support the mouse.) This isn’t just a computer game, Sierra proclaims; this is a new form of storytelling: interactive cinema, with an emotional impact on the player: “Can a computer game make you cry?”
The game is set in the distant land of Tamir, over a period of 24 hours. Princess Rosella of Daventry (one of the first heroines in adventure gaming) must find the magic fruit that will save her dying father King Graham, and the talisman of the good fairy Genesta (stolen by the evil fairy Lolotte). If she fails to accomplish either of these quests, both Graham and Genesta will die.
In an interesting twist, Rosella does the bidding of the forces of evil. ‘Bring me a unicorn!’ shrieks Lolotte. ‘Bring me the hen that lays the golden eggs!’ ‘Bring me Pandora’s Box, the most evil artefact in the entire world, which I shall use to usher in an age of terror the world has never known!’
In terms of gameplay, it’s not too different from the earlier games. The player explores a regular-shaped landscape (a grid of screens 6 by 5), inhabited by creatures from myth and fairytale. Most of these want to eat you. These include:
And Lolotte’s bat-winged henchmen.
Even the trees are dangerous.
Frankly, there aren’t many things in Tamir that don’t want to eat you. There are the dwarves and the fisherman and his wife – they’re just rude, until you oblige. There’s the minstrel, who’s only too happy to inflict his out of tune renditions of the Beatles on you.
There’s the unicorn, which is tamed by Rosella.
Let’s not read too much into this.
Most of the puzzles are clever. The one puzzle that gets criticised is finding the golden bridle. It’s solvable, but it’s rather an obtuse solution.
(SPOILERS) You have to travel to Genesta’s island. (You should be able to guess that there’s an island in the sea, since a) it’s mentioned a couple of times in the introduction, and b) Genesta and her fairies fly off to the west.) You then have to swim into the ocean, and get eaten by a whale. (Which admittedly takes luck.) Trying to escape from the whale has been known to make strong men weak at the knees, and drive hardened gamers to the demon drink.
It’s actually not that bad a puzzle – the issue is that it’s an action puzzle (climbing around on the whale’s tongue without falling off, and without being overcome by the mephitic halitosis fumes), rather than a logical puzzle. There’s nothing wrong per se with puzzles that rely on physical skills or dexterity: navigating staircases, mountain paths, rock mazes, whale tongues and all. Even the old text adventures had action sequences – in Zork, for instance, you had to kill a couple of monsters to win the game. But as adventure games became more “point-and-click” (and cerebral), action sequences vanished.
Then Rosella (with a subtle yet unmistakable aroma of ambergris) is washed up on an island. On this island is a bridle. Several commentators have complained that you can’t see the bridle, and so the puzzle is unfair. Is it?
Now, in modern adventure games, everything has a hotspot. In practice, this often means that the backdrops are pretty but static. Since you can tell with a sweep of the mouse or a press of the spacebar what you can interact with, you can ignore the scenery.
Sierra games don’t work like that. Indeed, the third “Tip for New Adventure Players” is to:
“BE OBSERVANT. Look at and examine everything you can. When you enter a new location type LOOK AROUND. When you open a box type OPEN THE BOX. If you want to see the contents of the box type LOOK IN THE BOX. When you want to talk to a fisherman type TALK TO THE FISHERMAN. The descriptions and close-ups offered may provide valuable clues.”
Because there aren’t any hotspots, the environment teems with hidden possibilities. From being a pretty picture, it becomes something to explore.
Let’s look at the screen above. Can you do anything to the pelican: talk to it, feed it, eat it? Can you climb the tree, or chop it down to make a boat? What’s that black thing near the island on the lower right? Can you do anything with the boat sticking out of the water? Can you drink the seawater? Wandering through the forest, you don’t know what’s lying under a rock or up a tree.