Passing The Hat: An In-Depth Look At The New King's Quest

by Joe Juba on Jul 28, 2015 at 06:10 AM

The first episode of King's Quest launches today, and we're marking the occasion by revisiting our detailed feature about the reboot from earlier this year. We visited developer The Odd Gentlemen and talked to the team about it goals for the new King's Quest and the challenges associated with resurrecting a classic franchise.

(This article originally ran in issue 262 of Game Informer and was published online on March 6, 2015)

Anyone who played adventure games in the ‘80s and ‘90s probably has a list of favorite series and one-off titles from the era, like Quest for Glory or Day of the Tentacle. However, one franchise towered above the others in those days: King’s Quest. Sierra’s flagship product from designer Roberta Williams set the genre standard with gorgeous visuals, rewarding puzzles, and accessible storytelling that players of all ages could enjoy. Even though the last official entry released in 1998, many fans have yearned to return to the adventures of King Graham and the rest of Daventry’s royal family. That time has finally come; it’s time to dust off your blue adventuring cap and step into Graham’s boots once again. Developer The Odd Gentlemen (supported by Activision’s newly revived Sierra branch) is bringing back this timeless and revered series in a way that honors the past and brings something compelling to a new audience.


A Classic Returns

Considering The Odd Gentlemen’s previous work on titles like The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, the fact that this quirky and clever studio is making an adventure game is already exciting. Dealing with a well-established property like King’s Quest adds a special level of challenge to the project, since the team wants to respect the previous entries while still exploring new territory. “This isn’t a reboot, and it’s not necessarily a sequel,” says creative director Matt Korba. “It’s a reimagining. Everything that exists in the past games is still canon. These stories exist between those stories.”

Over the course of five episodes, the new King’s Quest lets players experience Graham’s previously unknown adventures. “We’re definitely not retelling the old games,” Korba says. “We’re nodding to them and respecting them, but this isn’t King’s Quest I HD.” The new scenarios deal with some of the blank spots in the King’s Quest timeline. How did Graham become a knight in King Edward’s court? How did his young love with Queen Valanice develop?  

“It’s great, because when [Sierra] created the games, they left a lot of really cool breadcrumbs for what could have been side stories,” says The Odd Gentlemen vice president Lindsey Rostal. “It was like, ‘Hey, let’s pick this up and start to develop these components.’”

These tales from the past are framed by Graham’s present; he is now a very old man, and he is recounting his adventures to his granddaughter, Gwendolyn. She’s an energetic youngster who eats up the stories of Graham’s exploits, and she is eager to have her own exciting stories to tell. The two characters are situated on opposite ends of the adventuring spectrum – Graham’s days are almost done, and Gwendolyn’s are just beginning – but their shared enthusiasm creates a special bond. 

Gwendolyn visits Daventry every summer, and spends much of the time in her grandfather’s bedchamber listening to – and learning from – his stories. This premise provides a unique opportunity to tie the past and present together; each episode has narrative threads in both time periods, usually linked by common themes. In the first installment, Gwendolyn (daughter of Alexander and Cassima) has signed up for a fencing tournament with her cousin Gart (son of Rosella and Edgar). Gwendolyn has doubts about her ability to succeed – doubts that Gart encourages. So Graham tells Gwendolyn about how he overcame the odds to become a knight. 

Each episode follows this core formula, with Gwendolyn seeking advice and Graham doling it out by telling a story. However, in the first episode, players get an additional sequence at the beginning that eases them into the reimagined universe.

Into The Well

The Slave Name
Graham’s son Alexander was raised in captivity, bound to the service of an evil wizard. During that time, he didn’t know he was a prince. He didn’t even know his real name – instead, he was called Gwydion. Gwendolyn is Alexander’s daughter, and her name is inspired by the one her father once carried. Though you might think Alexander would prefer to forget everything about that time in his life, the truth is the complete opposite. “Why would he name his daughter after his slave name?” says creative director Matt Korba. “Because, for him, getting through that is a moment of pride."

Instead of a bunch of cutscenes and tutorials, your King’s Quest adventure begins with Graham walking up to a well in the woods. Fans of the original should recognize the scene immediately, and the narration of old Graham sets the stage for the much younger Graham players are controlling: “I had not been back there in years, but it was the last place left to look.”  

Despite the team’s desire to avoid retelling familiar parts of Graham’s adventures, this opening sequence is an exception. It reinterprets Graham’s acquisition of the magic mirror from the dragon in the well from the first King’s Quest. If that isn’t significant to you, don’t worry. “We want to make sure that if you’ve played all of the King’s Quests and you’re the biggest fan – like I am – you are going to appreciate this and get the hidden nods,” Korba says. “We also want to be sure to make a game that, even if you haven’t played any of them, you can still enjoy this as your first one.”

Players guide Graham down the forest path and toward the well. Like many modern entries in the genre, you control the character directly, and interact with objects in the environment with the press of a button – you won’t be using a text parser or cycling between “walk” and “talk” icons. “We wanted to boil everything down to a one-button context, so that the puzzles come out of the depth of the gameplay, not necessarily the weird interface,” Korba says. Even though the way you interact with it has changed, King’s Quest is still a pure adventure game in the classic sense, emphasizing puzzles, exploration, and storytelling. You won’t see any technical platforming sequences or action-heavy combat encounters. 

After lowering the rope and climbing into the well, Graham sneaks through a series of tunnels in a vast underground cavern, the snores of the dragon thundering from within. Mattresses litter the environment along the way, and even hang from the ceiling by ropes. As if echoing the player’s thoughts, Gwendolyn’s voice interrupts, “Wait a minute! Beds hanging from stalactites?” Graham assures her that all will be explained. In fact, later in the episode, players return to the well as an even younger Graham, and see the origin of several things – stray arrows, forgotten skeletons – that might have seemed too convenient or conspicuous the first time through. Most episodes will stick to a single phase of Graham’s youth rather than time-hopping, but this helps tread both new and familiar ground for the first episode.

The puzzles in this section aren’t too complicated, considering it is the player’s introduction to the mechanics. Graham encounters a few switches that need to be turned and platforms that need to be lowered, but the most rewarding moments come from your non-essential interactions. When Graham walks by a bed, you can choose to have him jump in. Via narration, old Graham explains that this is an urgent situation, and no time to hide under the covers. However, if you continue to jump in the bed, old Graham admits that he did take a brief nap on an abandoned bed in the depths of a cave.

At one point, Graham chooses between two switches to open a door – one with a skeleton lying nearby. Even though the correct answer is obvious, the temptation to pull the lethal switch is tempting, and the results are predictable and amusing. “Obviously, death was a big part of the originals, and we want to keep that in,” Korba says. “We’re not going to have anything where you’re playing the game for six hours and then get stuck, but we really like the deaths.”

If you kill Graham, the framed narrative structure makes it easy to jump back in. Old Graham explains the situation like, “That’s what would have happened if I did that,” or silences Gwendolyn’s protests with excuses like, “I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.”

Next: Dealing with morality and exploration in King's Quest

Different Kinds Of Good

The Black Sheep
Most of the original King’s Quest titles star King Graham or members of his family. The one exception is King’s Quest VIII: Mask of Eternity, in which a man named Connor has the leading role.  This eighth installment is also a divisive entry in the series; it transitioned to 3D graphics and incorporated more action elements. How is The Odd Gentlemen approaching this anomaly in King’s Quest history? “King’s Quest VIII exists,” says creative director Matt Korba. “We’re not doing a lot with Connor – we might have a cameo fit into it – but we’re focused on the core family.”

Graham makes more significant choices than what switches he pulls. At the end of the well sequence, he comes face-to-face with the massive dragon guarding the magic mirror. Simply dumping a bucket of water on the beast won’t do the trick this time; Graham distracts the dragon and makes for the exit, but eventually is cornered and forced to make a decision. Using a bow he finds in the well, Graham can shoot the beast in the eye, blinding it and buying time to escape. He can also shoot a feeding bell, drawing the dragon away. Lastly, he can shoot the shackles binding the dragon, setting it free.

Whichever path you take, you see consequences of these actions ripple out into later events and episodes. A blind dragon might cause problems for the people of Daventry down the line, while one that Graham freed out of compassion could offer him assistance. One important thing to note is that this choice is gameplay-oriented – not conversation-based. “We’re trying to do all of our big choices through gameplay,” Korba says. “We do have branching dialogue, but we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a choose-your-own-adventure game through dialogue.”

Another important point about Graham’s choices is that all of them are appropriately heroic. “We didn’t want it to be ‘good Graham’ or ‘bad Graham,’” Rostal says. “Graham is always good. He always does the right thing, and we wanted to reinforce that through your decisions.” In these situations, each of the choices embodies one of three core traits: wisdom, bravery, and compassion. However, you aren’t likely to stick with a single approach the whole time. “In any given playthrough, you’re going to change those up,” Korba says. “We’re going to challenge you; we want to make sure that each playthrough isn’t just one of those paths.”

One of the things to consider when making your decisions is the fact that Gwendolyn is listening. “Each episode, Gwendolyn has a problem of her own that she faces in the castle – things you would normally deal with growing up,” Korba says. “The story that Graham shares with her influences how she faces her outcome at the end of each episode.” If Graham shoots a dragon in the eye to blind it, what message does that send to his impressionable granddaughter? You have to balance the Graham you want to be against the Gwendolyn you want to influence, and you see the results of those actions as Gwendolyn’s character develops over the course of all five episodes.

Staying Open

Exploration is a key part of King’s Quest, and after the linear intro in the well, the world opens up. Instead of a prescribed path, you have a whole forest to explore. The solution to every puzzle won’t just be sitting around in the immediate vicinity; you need to explore and observe, and this means paying careful attention to your surroundings and remembering details for later. “We’re really trying to focus on screens,” Korba says. “What’s the point of this screen? What’s the mood of this screen? What [the original KQ games] did really well is that everything had a purpose – especially in the earlier games…. When you go back and play King’s Quest I, it almost feels like an open-world adventure game.”

In the forest, time jumps back a little; Graham was already a knight when he went into the well to retrieve the mirror, but this sequence features a gangly teenage Graham hoping to gain knighthood. Each subsequent episode jumps forward in time a bit, showing Graham as he progresses from an awkward kid to a seasoned veteran.

To start down his destined path, Graham enters an elimination contest where he contends with three other knights. However, his odds aren’t looking good; before the tournament begins, each of the other contenders finds a way to one-up Graham by gaining entry before him. “We wanted to make Graham (and the player) feel not as strong as the strong knight, not as fast as the fast knight, and not as smart as the smart guy,” Korba says. 

Young Graham’s plight ties into Gwendolyn’s dilemma in the castle – her cousin Gart seems like a shoo-in to win the fencing contest, so why should she even bother? Gart doesn’t directly antagonize her; he loves her, but he’s pretty sure he’s going to succeed Graham as king, and thinks Gwendolyn should stop playing silly games. With any luck, Graham can inspire her with his tales of valor and ingenuity. We can’t reveal exactly how he overcomes his opponents to claim the knighthood, but it involves some of his signature quick-thinking and improvisation.

In some cases, the ways Graham accomplishes his goals vary, adding flexibility to your adventuring. For instance, Graham needs to obtain the eye of a beast to enter the contest, but there are multiple things in the forest that qualify – and each is obtained in a different way. In another instance, he needs to find a replacement wheel to repair a woman’s carriage, but several large and circular objects accomplish the task. This approach encourages experimentation, making players feel like they are finding their own solutions rather than hitting on the only one the game designer intended. Not every crazy idea works, but in true King’s Quest style, you want to fill your pockets with useful items just in case they come in handy.

“We have an inventory system, so you can try different things and get different results, like trying to give someone an item they’re not supposed to have,” Korba says. “That, to me, is a key part of what makes a game like this. We weren’t going to get rid of the inventory system, we weren’t going to get rid of that point-and-click feeling. We just couldn’t use a mouse for everything.”

The Odd Gentlemen's Lindsey Rostal and Matt Korba meet with industry legends Roberta and Ken Williams

Getting The Blessing

One Step At A Time
The first episode of King’s Quest releases in the fall, and while plans are still being made, Sierra and The Odd Gentlemen don’t want to keep fans waiting more than a couple months between installments. And what if the five episodes are a resounding success? Could we see even more King’s Quest in the future? “It’s definitely a structure that we’ve thought far ahead on,” says creative director Matt Korba. “But if we only make it to these five, this will be a complete piece.”

When it comes to influential figures in adventure gaming – and gaming in general – Ken and Roberta Williams are among the elite. The Williams co-founded Sierra – Ken was CEO, and Roberta designed games like King’s Quest and Phantasmagoria. The success of their company and the impact of their games had an enormous effect on the industry, and The Odd Gentlemen wanted to be sure that the new King’s Quest found harmony with the Williams’ view of the series’ identity. 

Ken and Roberta Williams have been out of the gaming industry since departing Sierra, but they agreed to meet and check out The Odd Gentlemen’s vision for the future of Daventry. “It was really important for us to get their blessing,” Korba says. “I was super nervous…but as soon as they walked in the room, my fears just went away.”

“What we saw felt like a natural extension of the series, but brought up to today’s graphic and interactive standards,” Ken Williams says. “Most telling was that both Roberta and I wanted to play the game. At least from where we were standing, it looked like they had nailed it on making the game fun. It is easy to make a game pretty, or showcase new technology, but making something that is fun to play is the toughest challenge of them all.”

“She actually said, ‘I’m excited to be able to pass the hat to you guys,’” Rostal says.

If the Williams’ opinion is any indication (and it should be), The Odd Gentlemen are on the right track. The studio understands what made King’s Quest great in the old days, and how to translate those pillars of gameplay, story, and visuals into a modern experience. Based on what we’ve seen so far, gamers won’t be disappointed – even considering the weight of expectation that comes along with the King’s Quest name. 

“Some people have asked, ‘Isn’t that a lot of pressure?’” Korba says. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it.’”


For more about King's Quest, read our impressions from GDC, plus an interview with Ken Williams himself.