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As an MMO player, I don't actually play many other video games. MMOs take too much time, basically; although I recently max-leveled my main toon on City of Heroes, I am now happily pursuing advancement with a host of alts. I like City of Heroes, and I'm comfortable with the system. Somewhat illogically, when I do try a new game, it is usually another MMO—a free week or 10-day trial gives you access to all the content any lowbie gets, and they're free, after all—but of course I am predisposed to find them lacking. I didn't particularly like World of Warcraft when I played it briefly for work,[1] and accurately or not, most other MMOs that I try seem like someone has just slapped a skin on something that is basically WoW. Probably I am mentally exaggerating the difference between the interfaces of CoH and WoW, and anyway, WoW does have over 50% of the U.S. market, so it's not hard to imagine why many developers might choose to emulate their gameplay. But whatever the reason, the other MMOs just don't grab me, and as a penurious graduate student with a limited amount of time for recreation, I am rarely tempted to drop $40+ on a single-player game for my PC.

There was a single-player game, however, for the release of which I waited with bated breath for MONTHS. When it finally came out last year, I was in a frenzy to install it. That game was . . . King's Quest III, remade by Infamous Adventures with Adventure Game Studio (AGS).

I believe I was 8 or 9 when I played the original King's Quest III for the first time. We were big on the Sierra adventure games in my house—actually, we originally got into the series when we read about KQ4 in some PC magazine that my father got, but he insisted that we start from the beginning and work our way up. Somehow this didn't actually involve KQ2, which our good friends had but, for reasons that escape me as I'm sure they were not moral, never got installed on our home machine. Come to think of it, I'm not sure our copy of KQ3 was legit, but we did have it. Of all the King's Quest games, I remember it with the most clarity and fondness. I'd been looking forward to the remake since playing AGD Interactive's remakes of KQ1&2, although I was sort of expecting the same people to do KQ3.

In fact, KQ2 is probably the best of them, since—although I haven't yet played KQ3 through, my various moves having eaten up a lot of my time since I downloaded it—it makes substantive changes to the original. (Which, admittedly, I never actually played all the way through even as a child, but word on the virtual street has it that the game had a lot of plot problems.) AGD Interactive added significant new content, both puzzles and plot, in addition to updating graphics and providing voice acting, and that's probably what makes the game so appealing, although I enjoy the other remakes, too.

It's not just that I want to replay the games of my childhood, although the improved graphics and the addition of voices to storylines that I could almost recite do give me a little thrill—replaying my childhood in technicolor. (This is what makes the Black Cauldron remake listed on the AGS website so totally unappealing—the graphics are ripped directly from the original. Explain to me again how this qualifies as a "remake"?) I've avoided rewatching Thundercats ever since it came out on DVD because I'm pretty sure that it would only serve to tarnish my cherished memories of prancing around the house in my Lion-O pajamas, waving the wooden sword my dad made for me, bellowing "Thundercats, HO!" The King's Quest remakes hopefully come closer to meeting your nostalgic expectations than exactly mimicking the source material.

I think I liked KQ2 best, however, because of the new-new material, and because even the new-old material was sort of unfamiliar to me—but based in a favorite narrative world of my childhood, and, though updated to VGA, still recognizably "vintage." I was beginning to despair that this is something that I will ever be able to share with my own children, unless I just decided to hide modern computing technology from them until they started school, like in that book where the whole town gets cholera and then the kids figure out that they've been raised in a historical reenactment experiment. Or I guess I could just teach them Klingon and tell them to stay away from that Federation tech.

The problem is that I'm not just rereading a story when I play KQ remakes. I am rereading myself, the world, a piece of things that has changed dramatically in the past two decades, as if I yearned to send telegrams or churn butter. To illustrate: in order to write this column, I had to tell myself very sternly that playing Quest for Glory 4 was not, in fact, a vital research activity, and that I needed to stop looking for a new cavern guard for the Kobolds and start actually writing my column.

Quest for Glory 4 ½: So you thought you were a hero? is an entirely new entry in the QfG series, ostensibly occurring between QfG4 and QfG5 (as you might imagine), with strong parody elements—mainly in the form of swear words and references to sex, such as when you put the hand icon on yourself and the game chastises you for attempting to wank—but it is also an adventure game in the proud point-n-click tradition. It is a Sierra-esque game making fun of itself, which the Sierra games generally did, but with added perspective and the freedom to say things that Sierra-for-real would have restricted to Leisure Suit Larry, and even LSL never referred directly to "whorehouses," if I recall correctly. Speaking of which, the MIDI version of "Lady Marmalade" alone is worth the download, but then there are gems like this one:

Maybe it doesn't seem that funny if you didn't spend your childhood and early adolescence gnashing your teeth, wondering how the hell you were supposed to catch the unicorn, or picking up acorns and shit "just in case," but it's entertaining to have the game acknowledge the weird, often arbitrary nature of the "puzzles" that characterize the format—the fact that the logic of the game is not the logic of the world as we know it.

The logic of the game, actually, is the logic of the story, the ballad, the folktale. It is melodrama. QfG4.5 has already won my heart not only with the MIDI "Lady Marmalade" but with the ghost of a murdered girl and her finger bone, which I am assured will reveal her killer "when the time is right." Anyone who knows me knows that I am a sucker for ghastly magical murder revelations.

This isn't to say that contemporary games, with their vastly superior graphics and sound and various little interface tricks, can't also achieve melodrama (in the most desirable sense of the word), that they can't also tell Big Stories that cry out for verse and chorus. But there's a difference between a folk song and a video game, and there's a (smaller) difference between the point-n-click games I grew up playing and the games that are cutting edge now. King's Quest IV came on eight floppy disks. Eight! It was the most sprawling graphic virtual landscape I had ever explored.[2] It seems small and restricted now, of course, compared to the MMOs I mainly play or even the lush graphics of single-player games, no longer so strictly drawn as "rooms," but there's a nostalgic pleasure to returning, occasionally, to worlds that follow the form I learned as a child in King's Quest and Mixed-Up Mother Goose and Leisure Suit Larry. [3] Playing a good point-n-click adventure feels, in a way, like the pleasure of reading a well-written sonnet.

This idea of different types of games following different forms is not a new one; Henry Jenkins, although he notes that some games are of a form not conducive to narrative/storytelling (such as Tetris), argues in his piece "Game Design As Narrative Architecture" that many games that could be called narrative embrace a particular kind of narrative form:

. . . games fit within a much older tradition of spatial stories, which have often taken the form of hero's odysseys, quest myths, or travel narratives. The best works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne, Homer, L. Frank Baum, or Jack London fall loosely within this tradition, as does, for example, the sequence in War and Peace which describes Pierre's aimless wanderings across the battlefield at Borodino. . . . When game designers draw story elements from existing film or literary genres, they are most apt to tap those genres—fantasy, adventure, science fiction, horror, war—which are most invested in world-making and spatial storytelling. Games, in turn, may more fully realize the spatiality of these stories, giving a much more immersive and compelling representation of their narrative worlds. (Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture)

This kind of world-building may in fact come out of the improved technology, better graphics, exponentially larger memory, etc. available to game designers now. The early point-and-click games built worlds, too, but in most cases they did it with a kind of evocative pastiche rather than drawing on single source materials—Sierra's adaptation of The Black Cauldron seems, if anything, to have been a prime example of what, for instance, a Star Wars game should not be, according to Jenkins:

Arguing against games as stories, Jesper Juul suggests, "you clearly can't deduct the story of Star Wars from Star Wars the game," where-as a film version of a novel will give you at least the broad outlines of the plot.(13) This is a pretty old fashioned model of the process of adaptation. Increasingly, we inhabit a world of transmedia story-telling, one which depends less on each individual work being self-sufficient than on each work contributing to a larger narrative economy. The Star Wars game may not simply retell the story of Star Wars, but it doesn't have to in order to enrich or expand our experience of the Star Wars saga. We already know the story before we even buy the game and would be frustrated if all it offered us was a regurgitation of the original film experience. (Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture)

King's Quest stole right and left from fairytales and folklore—giants, dragons, unicorns, seven dwarves, Dracula, Baba Yaga. The occasional fourth wall-breaking in-joke was a permutation of the basis of the games themselves, which depended on players having a wealth of relevant knowledge that would flesh out the game. This still applies—WoW probably wouldn't have been so successful if all us nerds hadn't at some point dreamed of being elves—but it's possible that the limitations of the technology forced extra creativity with the source material. Obviously that's not the only way to make a good game; there's good free-verse poetry, too, and forms can get stale. What I'm enjoying most about QfG4.5, as I mentioned, is the way that it weaves together an honest appreciation of point-and-click melodrama with an insider's sense of humor about the whole enterprise. The Monkey Island games, which I played in mid-adolescence, displayed a similar sensibility.

Ultimately, I'm very glad to see people using AGS to create not only remakes and extensions of old favorites, but also brand new games like AGS's September 2007 pick of the month, Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy! There is a temptation to think of these games as something people do when they can't do the "real" stuff (and I find myself thinking, You could make a point-and-click adventure! Just badger your artist friends! Easy!), but I see the point-and-click now not as an obsolete technology, but a traditional form—one that can be deployed with irony (think South Park), but doesn't necessarily have to be, to be successful. I may have to start my kids on them early if I want them to appreciate them—how many adolescent poets scorn the sonnet as dead and boring, after all—but I think there is really something there to appreciate, a history worth knowing and building upon.


[1] That's right. I said it. I played World of Warcraft for work. Not at work or during work or after work. For work. In my first week on the job we also had to get a better graphics card for my office machine because the one I started with wasn't good enough to run EQII.

[2] Ancient Anguish, the MUD of my early adolescence, was much bigger in terms of "rooms"—probably so were the single-player text adventures like Zork, and those games hold a special place in my heart, too, but I have to admit I find them a bit less compelling now.

[3] I became consumed with the desire to own Leisure Suit Larry IV: Passionate Patty in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals when I read about it in one of my father's computer magazines—I was probably 11 or 12. He said he'd buy me a copy if I could do 100 crunches in a row. It was probably the last time I was enthusiastic about physical fitness until age 24 or so.


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman photo


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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