Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Adventure of the Week: King's Quest III (1986)

This week, we're tackling the third in Roberta Williams' classic 3-D animated adventure series -- King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human, released by Sierra On-Line in 1986.

This was the last of the KQ series to be developed solely for Sierra's original AGI technology, and it's a marked improvement over the first two games.  It opens with animated credits and a looping introductory sequence, and a more ambitious musical score that presages major improvements to come in the near future.  It's also the first King's Quest game to star a character other than Graham, with a story that begins in an apparently unrelated context, far away from Daventry in the land of Llewdor.  As the game begins, we meet young Gwydion, a 17-year-old boy kept as a slave by the evil wizard Manannan:

Gwydion's quest to escape from the wizard also represents a big step forward for Roberta Williams' interactive storytelling -- there's a strong sense of plot development and time pressure here, compared to the random exploration and arbitrary puzzles of King's Quest I and II.  We'll examine the game in detail in the following paragraphs, so readers who intend to play this game themselves are advised that there are many...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The first act of the game requires careful time management, as Manannan keeps a close eye on Gwydion and only leaves him alone for twenty-five-minute periods of travel or sleep.  Gwydion can't carry any unusual items or leave any evidence of his exploration where the wizard might notice it, which creates a terrific amount of tension as the minutes tick away.  Time is also of the essence on a larger scale, as Gwydion only has foodstuffs sufficient to feed the wizard three or four times, and if mealtime demands cannot be met, it's curtains for our hero.

Gwydion's chores are also always on the agenda -- sometimes Manannan orders specific actions, like emptying the chamber pot.  At other times, a player action like TAKE BROOM leads to an extended sweeping animation, the same as SWEEP FLOOR, during which we can't do anything else -- the game informs us that You're too busy sweeping if we try.  The chores are useful for looking busy while Manannan's around, and for killing time while waiting for him to go away.

As was often the case with Sierra's early games, the graphics and text are sometimes out of synch -- the oaken bucket in the kitchen looks more like a metal pail, for instance.  The parser doesn't recognize a lot of interesting props, and the generic responses cause some unusual behavior; I tried to aim the wizard's telescope, yielding What's a north?SEARCH [object] returns Is it lost? for unsearchable items, and the command interface handles some prepositions but seems to be a two-word parser at heart  -- HIDE IN FIREPLACE acts just like HIDE FIREPLACE, though LOOK THROUGH TELESCOPE is recognized as distinct from LOOK TELESCOPE.

Learning the wizard's journey, sleep, and dining schedule is important, as is exploring the house and concealing any interesting items under Gwydion's bed so the wizard will not suspect his houseboy is plotting an escape.  Of course, "interesting items" are defined at the designer's discretion, leading to some contrived situations, as when Gwydion picks up a dead fly, and we are told that he is disgusted at carrying the deceased insect, so he just pulls off and keeps the wings.  Perhaps his enslavement is driving him toward Renfield territory, but he seems to be all better by King's Quest VI.

One challenging/irritating feature of the earlier King's Quest designs remains in full effect here -- there are plenty of tricky paths for Gwydion to navigate using the keyboard arrow keys or a joystick, with many opportunities for a fatal misstep.  Even leaving the wizard's mountaintop and getting home again is fraught with peril:

Randomly appearing hazards continue as well -- there are a couple of unsavory bandits, the wizard's nasty cat who likes to trip Gwydion on treacherous staircases, and a Medusa who can turn him to stone.  But some of the situations are handled more gently this time around -- when we encounter the classical Three Bears, if we trample on Mama Bear's flowers or knock on the door while Papa Bear is home, we are rebuffed with a swift paw swipe, but the attack is not fatal.  Of course, there's also a giant spiderweb that can't be examined, the parser tells us, because You need to be closer -- but once we're close enough to get a good look at it, Gwydion becomes trapped in the web, and a massive spider descends and swallows him whole.

Even though game number three runs on the same engine as the first two, we see considerably more variety and detail in the map and its look, with more incidental animation effects to enliven the scenery.  There's also a magic map for faster navigation that fills in as the player explores; it doesn't work everywhere -- crucially, it can't be used while in the water -- but it does remove the need to draw a map by hand.  The main world map is simple and grid-based, but the uncharted ocean and desert areas aren't consistent -- we can't always go back the way we came.  Roberta Williams decided to abandon the auto-mapping feature in later games, feeling it made the game too easy:

Early on, Gwydion has to learn about Manannan's wrath by trial and error.  We can't ever hide from him, even if we're in a room with good cover, and Manannan's temper is influenced by the gravity of the offense.  He will zap Gwydion into dust if he catches him with contraband; if he finds Gwydion wandering around in town, the first offense gets us zapped back home, and the second subjects us to a lengthy workout (to the accompaniment of what I believe is the disco music from the original Leisure Suit Larry!)

As in earlier King's Quests, Gwydion can drown if he swims too far out into the ocean; unlike the earlier games, there's no real reason for him to swim around in this one.

The relative morality of the series also persists here -- the game has no qualms about letting Gwydion steal coins from the bandits, for example.  He can spend them in town on useful supplies, or at the tavern, getting drunk on rum or ale (although wasting money may jeopardize other necessary purchases later in the game.)

Most of the random items found in the game prove useful as ingredients for various magical spells, with telltale references like interesting cactus denoting the only one Gwydion can actually pick up.  I didn't realize that the spells were only printed in the game manual at first, and I spent a lot of time trying to read the wizard's spell book in-game without finding any useful details.  I also mucked about in the kitchen trying to use the lard and fish oil and mixing bowl to come up with some way to take the wizard's cat out of commission, which also proved unproductive, as I couldn't PUT anything in the BOWL.

The AGI engine shows its age in a couple of ways -- non-player characters aren't able to enter a room of their own accord, or maneuver on anything but a random path, which leads to unusual situations like Manannan appearing in the dining room to tell us he's ready to eat, if that's where we happen to be, then disappearing.  He won't actually show up in the dining room until we exit and return to find him seated at the table.  And while the clock ticks away in real time, even while we're entering commands, it freezes whenever a text popup is displayed; this is particulary noticeable when we STUDY BOOK in the wizard's lab and are able to page through quite a bit of material in zero time.

King's Quest III continues Ms. Williams' fondness for "keep re-entering the room until the character you want to avoid isn't randomly there" pseudo-puzzles -- I don't mind the randomness of it so much as the fact that we don't see these characters arrive or leave, or if we do the world isn't handled consistently.  Here, we can witness the three bears returning home, but the house may still be empty if we step out and return; once inside, we need to get a bowl of porridge (that's just right, of course) and a thimble.

My text-adventure habits tripped me up dealing with Medusa in the desert - I kept trying to HOLD MIRROR and enter the room, but the mirror failed to deflect her petrifying stare.  It wasn't until I used the magic map to teleport into the room that I realized what I was doing wrong -- it's a matter of facing AWAY from her as she approaches, then doing a HOLD MIRROR when she's in range.  It hadn't occurred to me that it was vital to keep Gwydion facing away from her, though it makes perfect sense in a visual context.

I was able to get through much of the game without a hint, but I needed help to find the key to Manannan's locked cabinet -- as it turned out, I had not looked on top of the closet in the master bedroom.  I had assumed the solution would be less mundane, somehow.

The process of mixing the spells is quite exacting -- even one wrong step is fatal -- and the instructions in the manual aren't always accurate or easy to follow.  I had particular trouble with the invisibility potion -- while I did not need to actually track down a spoon for other recipes that required stirring with a spoon, this one required Gwydion to have the wooden spoon from the kitchen, and the knife.  Thus prepared, I still had problems following the manual's instruction to measure a spoon of cactus juice -- MEASURE SPOON OF CACTUS JUICE only yielded What's a measure?   I persisted, trying and failing to USE SPOON, DIP SPOON IN JUICE, USE SPOON TO PUT JUICE IN BOWL, PUT CACTUS JUICE IN SPOON -- and finally consulted a walkthrough, to learn that I had to SQUEEZE CACTUS JUICE INTO SPOON.  Furthermore, if we PUT CACTUS JUICE IN BOWL without measuring it as the game expects, we are told You carefully add the spoonful of cactus juice to the bowl... after which the spell fails in a fatal and confusing manner.

One spell at least has some flexibility in its invocation -- we can mix a generic flight essence, and fly like a spider or like a fly, depending on whether we dip fly wings or an eagle feather into the result.  This spell can be used several times, and the nature of the options provides a clue for dealing with the giant spider, reaching the Oracle and learning about the ultimate quest Gwydion must face -- rescuing his sister Princess Rosella from a three-headed dragon:

The AGI graphics are a bit of an issue in finding some of the spell ingredients -- the pixels on the ground beneath a tree are acorns, it turns out; I had thought they were walnuts as in KQ1, and so failed to pick them up when I first tried, leading me to conclude they were just decorations.

In trying to get some hair from the cat for another spell, I mixed the sleep powder and attempted to use it on the animal.  But the game doesn't recognize the basement as a "dank, dark place" per the invocation requirements.  I finally discovered that (with persistence) Gwydion can just TAKE CAT, then TAKE HAIR.

I also discovered that the eagle feather does not work as a "small feather" -- and after looking around in the woods on the screens with resident birds, and finding nothing of use, I finally remembered the chickens in Manannan's yard.  It seems odd that there's not a single stray feather in the coop or on the ground, but it's relatively easy to catch a chicken and pluck a single feather. Using the spell that allows Gwydion to listen to (though not communicate with) animals, we can also discover that he is actually Prince Alexander, heir to the throne of King Graham of Daventry.  While the game's subtitle (and that of sequel King's Quest IV, with the benefit of hindsight) make this no big surprise, it still seems odd that Manannan's chickens know this information while Gwydion/Alexander himself does not.  Those are some pretty clued-in domestic fowl!

Once Manannan is out of the way and Gwydion is free to come and go as he pleases, the story shifts gears to preventing Rosella's imminent demise.  Gwydion can pay to book passage on a ship to Daventry, but of course it turns out the crew are pirates who steal his possessions and throw him in the cargo hold.  It's not too difficult to regain the lost inventory, as long as we save game before entering each new room to avoid random pirates, but escaping the ship takes some patience.  Casting the storm spell on the boat proves fatal, and the lifeboat below decks isn't helpful.  The magic map refreshes once we're onboard the ship, but it's not safe to teleport into the ocean either.  We actually have to wait for the ship to reach its destination and drop anchor, then invoke the sleep spell in the dark, dank hold to put the ship's crew under.  Flying like an eagle works to escape the ship, and to make it most of the way over the treacherous mountain ahead.

At the top of the mountain, we encounter an abominable snowman who makes the Wampa from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back seem like a gracious and refined hotelier. We can avoid him and escape to the next screen if we're very careful and very lucky, earning Gwydion the chance to navigate several more of Roberta's tricky, frequently deadly trails and staircases:

After much saving, falling, restoring, falling, restoring, and maneuvering, and saving, and restoring, at last we reach the dragon, with our arsenal of magic spells in hand (if we forgot a critical one, it's time to restore to a point before we got on the ship and try, try again.)  After all the buildup getting here, the dragon itself is a bit of a letdown -- it's big enough, but it's drawn in a rather childish manner.  And the AGI engine (and the hardware it ran on) couldn't easily animate large characters, so the great green creature never seems like much of a threat, as it sits in place with a few extremities waving about:

That's not to say it isn't dangerous.  Casually walking in on the dragon means instant death, though we get a hint before dying as the game tells us It has SEEN you!  Going invisible allows us to reach Rosella, but attempting to untie her before dealing with the dragon invokes its fiery wrath, burning brother and sister both to a crisp.  Conjuring a storm to fry the dragon with lightning makes short work of the scaly beastie, and Rosella is rescued.

The game's not quite over yet, but the story starts to break down a bit here -- Gwydion unties Rosella and says, "Let's go meet the folks!"  Which raises a serious question -- how is it that our old friends King Graham and Queen Valanice don't know where their children are, and haven't gone looking for Prince Alexander for nearly seventeen years, leaving him to suffer a stunted and deprived childhood, when various royal and magical resources might have been brought to bear toward his safe return home?  And how is they've allowed Rosella to be the local dragon's next victim, without so much as a quest to try to prevent it?  Maybe Ms. Williams is subtly telling us that power corrupts, or makes lazy, anyway.

Rosella becomes a bit of a gameplay burden at this point -- she follows Gwydion/Alexander so closely that he's prone to fatal falls on the stairs while trying to lead her home; neither the map nor the random transportation spell are of any use at this point, so mastering the diagonal keys or plugging in a joystick becomes necessary.  Once we're on safe ground, a kindly gnome helps the siblings get back to the castle -- strangely, his musical theme seems to be lifted from the Saturday morning Smurfs cartoon.

The ensuing family reunion is awkward and strange.  The Queen has little more to say than, "Alexander, where have you been all these years?" And King Graham looks positively jaundiced, retaining the yellow skin of his early appearances while everyone else has rosy flesh tones.  But he has the strength to toss his adventurer's cap at the kids like a bride's bouquet -- and the action freezes before we find out who catches it:

Oh, the suspense!  Of course, history informs us that the next game in the series will be King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, so we can predict how this will turn out.

I enjoyed King's Quest III quite a bit -- it represents a big step forward for Roberta Williams' design approach, with a palpable sense of tension and solid plot development in the early going.  The later sections feel much more traditional, with lots of navigational challenges, enemies to physically avoid, and save/restore guessing at which spells to try.  But a good beginning goes a long way in an adventure game, and the emotional connections established while helping Gwydion escape from servitude help keep the story engaging to the end.


  1. At one point you say "fly like a spider" - I think you meant an eagle.

  2. Yep, you're right. Dang Steve Miller Band-phobia!