Formative Years: Kings Quest 6

(Note: I’ve done my best to come up with 5 or 6 categories  that I can fit most posts into. This will be the first one, “Formative Years”, which will focus on games, experiences, etc. that have contributed to who I am today. If all goes well, it will be similar, but not congruent to, the “Gaming Made Me” series over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun or the “Memory Card” series at Destructoid.)

The late 80’s was an interesting time to be born as a future gamer. It is my understanding that at that point in time, gaming was just beginning to move past the niche market for good, especially with the release of the NES. At the same time, gaming was not the established mega industry that it is today. I feel privileged to have grown up just early enough to have vivid memories of the first games I played, while knowing that these experiences were somewhat unique. In other words, people will probably always remember some of the first games they played, but for the younger crowd, playing COD, Halo, and Madden for the first time will be experiences shared with a much broader audience when compared to the smaller gaming crowd that existed when I entered the scene.

The very first game I can remember playing was a text-based adventure in the very early 90’s. I was probably only 5 or 6 at the time, had poor reading skills, and therefore played the game with my mom. All that I really remember is that I had just gotten teeth pulled, I was drinking a milkshake, and that it was set in Dracula’s castle. Since I can’t remember much else, probably because I’ve mentally blocked out the game and the horrible nightmares it caused, it would make a poor subject for my first “Formative Years” entry. For that reason, this entry will be about the 2nd and/or 3rd game I ever remember playing.
I can’t remember if I played Kings Quest 6 before I played 5, or if I played 5 first, but 6th entry in the series  is the one that left the biggest impression on me. Kings Quest 5 is also one of my all time favorite games, but I replay 6 every single summer, without fail, year in and year out. Regardless of the order, Kings Quest 6 may singlehandedly be responsible for my lifelong enjoyment of video games

So it begins.

The game, simply put, is a masterpiece. Maybe I’m blinded by nostalgia, but the whole thing seems to stand the test of time exceedingly well. With the exception of the pixelated character models, which is to be expected, the game’s beauty transcends time. The landscapes and objects are all distinct and beautifully crafted;  the type of thing that I would gladly hang on my wall in lieu of “actual” art. As a matter of fact, I think my next project may involve getting a few printed on canvas. Pictures to follow.

Furthermore, the game’s soundtrack crammed about as much detail, emotion, and general sense of atmosphere into a few MIDI’s than most modern titles fit onto their 7.1 tracks (DICE and Bethesda games excluded; damn can they bring the sound and the music). Given the nature of early adventure games, where players encounter a single, mostly static screen at a time, the folks at Sierra managed to create a beautifully fused atmosphere by giving each screen its own music, rather than a continuous score undercutting the entire experience. Seriously, go and play the game. Try to tell me that the environments and tunes aren’t made for each other. You can’t, because they were.

Of course, the game would be nothing without great puzzles and a solid story. To me, this is what sets KQ6 apart from the newer wave of adventure games, mostly being released by Telltale. Granted, the old adventure games had it a little easier, with the benefit of being the first on the scene. Obviously, as a genre accumulates titles, it becomes harder and harder to break new ground. Nevertheless, Kings Quest 6 really got my goat in two ways.
First, it managed to weave a bunch of extremely familiar fairy tale threads into a single, surprisingly realized world. The most blatant example is the side story involving the Beauty and the Beast, but the entire plot is rife with familiar-yet-refreshing things that are so deeply embedded in our cultural conscious that it can be hard to figure out where we know it from.

Secondly, the puzzles in the game are nice and subtle. I will take this time to expound a bit upon subtlety in modern gaming. It doesn’t exist. Now, it should be noted that while subtlety in KQ6 often relates to frustrating difficulty (the type where you get near the end of the game and are forced into a game over for not having something that was easily missed 5 minutes into the game), difficulty and subtlety are not interchangeable. For example, Demon Souls is a wonderful example of a game that is difficult, but not by virtue of its subtlety. It is difficult in that it asks you to carefully plan and react to something of which you have no preexisting knowledge. In other words, regardless of skill, it will beat you down and force you to innovate. It is for this reason that I love that game so much.

KQ6 handles difficulty a little differently. It hides important things out of the way and allows you to use some items in multiple situations. Sometimes it gives you things that you only need if you play through the game in a given way (and if you’re like me, it will bug the hell out of you until you figure out why you have it). Naturally, a good deal of frustration comes along with this model of gameplay. I’m fortunate to have played the game when I was young and enthusiastic, because if I played it for the first time now, there’s is a good chance that I would have quit out of frustration after being forced to start over the first few times. Still, if you can get yourself to carry on with the game, it forces you into an enhanced state of awareness, where you want to compulsively explore every beautifully detailed nook of the game. At first, the compulsion is out of fear, but as the game goes on, it becomes a sort of adventurous second nature: a desire to find the game’s secrets.

This is all helped along by the fact that the game featured multiple endings decades before it became commonplace. Sure, you could cross dress to get into the castle, but if you explored and were innovative enough, you would open up hours of extra gameplay through several entirely new environments. To me, this sure as hell beats the “multiple endings” of some games these days, where you are  either begrudgingly called a hero (if you were an asshole) or overwhelmingly praised as a savior (if you were boring as hell) by the same character at the ending of the same scenario with the same overall outcome.

Spoiler Alert.

I’ve also always liked how KQ6 managed to take what is essentially a clichéd love story and turned it into something new and exciting. It didn’t rely on any crazy plot twists and you could basically tell from the outset who was evil and who the good eggs were. What made it so damn intriguing is that it took a tired premise, trying to reacquaint the hero with a lost/forbidden love, but then threw so many interesting characters and zany hurdles in your way that you were never quite sure what would happen next. By the time you reach the game’s conclusion, you are given a sense that you’ve completed an epic adventure and earned every bit of your victory.

At the end of the day, I chose KQ6 for my first FY entry for one reason: gaming is one of my biggest hobbies and much of what I look for in games was introduced to me by Sierra’s masterpiece. To this day, I fancy games that have a healthy dose of difficulty, a true sense of adventure, a vibrant world, and an epic scale. I’ve already picked a few games that will eventually pop up in future FY’s, solely based on the impact that they had on my perception of gaming and the sheer enjoyment I’ve gained from them. Not to ruin the surprise, but they include Shenmue, Morrowind, and Operation Flashpoint, games that unsurprisingly fulfill most of the criteria that I spontaneously made up based on my reflections of my first true gaming experience. I had better pick up an ergonomic keyboard, because if each of them gets their own post as wordy as this one, I’m in for some serious Carpal Tunnel. Happy Hobbying!