When the new King's Quest was first revealed back at The Game Awards' debut in 2014, I was immediately intrigued — captivated, really. King-to-be Graham ran and leapt across rubble. He explored beautiful woods and the luscious countryside. He descended into the cavern of a dragon. "Once upon an astounding time," rang out the rousing narration.
And yet, when I finally got to play it, the game just felt... empty. Dull, vacuous, lifeless — call it whatever you want, but there was something missing from the world of King's Quest, something that kept it from feeling alive. In searching for the cause, I realized I had to look more fundamentally than just video games: what makes the world of any fiction feel alive? What gives each world its unique flavor and atmosphere? In finding the answer to that fundamental question, we'll be able to discern how King's Quest, a game which seemed at its announcement like it had so much spirit, ended up so oddly soulless. As it turns out, the answer lies in people, in how we relate to the real world and how we use proxies (characters) to relate to fictional worlds.
The unique life and flavor of a world stems from somewhere in the relationship between the audience of a work and the work itself. It's our emotive perception of the work, how we feel about it combined in some way with how we think it feels about us, and a lot of that comes down to characters and the things that happen to them.
It has a lot to do with that whole "show, don't tell" idea. Stating facts about a world or a story is all well and good, but for an audience to feel something towards those facts, you need to show what they mean, viscerally, to people, characters. The world needs to impact characters and let the audience vicariously experience that impact. Similar to the way that we create our perception of the real world by how it affects us and how we affect it, we create our perception of a fictional world by how it affects and is affected by its characters — particularly, the protagonist, assuming there is one.
Think of it first exemplified in movies. In the simplest of terms, scenes of violence between or to characters in a film create a cinematic world which feels hostile, dangerous, and — depending on the style — perhaps exciting. Similarly, scenes with cheerful music over characters dancing happily, surrounded by bright colors and comfortable things, might make a movie jovial and happy-go-lucky. Both of those elements together in, say, a protagonist like Alex DeLarge will get you the disturbing, nihilistic, innocent-yet-psychopathic tone of A Clockwork Orange. The key point is that you feel the tone of a scene through the people, by looking at their moods and how their surroundings affect them.
That's only scratching the surface of an incredibly complex idea, but it's important here because it starts gettin' real funky when you apply it to video games.
Video Games Have a Uniquely First-Person Perspective
Think about it. In a video game, you are the main character. Outside of cutscenes, you control the protagonist — some games even let you create them. So, suddenly, there's this weird but unmistakable connection between the game world and the real world, the video game and you. When the main character is in some capacity you, a world's atmosphere and flavor are created not only through vicarious meaning, but also through direct meaning — meaning to you, the human being. You are no longer the consumer of the world, but a part of it. A major piece of your perception of the world is now based on the experiences had specifically by you, the player.
What does all this mean? It means that a game's mechanics and tactile interactions — what happens to you — are crucial in creating the distinct feeling of any game's world, in making a game "come alive." You need to be able to interact with things, and the game needs to be able to interact with you for the things in its world to have meaning, and thus, life.
Here's a great example: Deadly Premonition and its traditional American small-town setting, Greenvale.
Deadly Premonition — intentionally or not — makes very interesting use of its mechanics and interaction. Visually and cinematically, the game sets up a world which is drab, pale, and above all boring, a true blue American small-town where "everybody knows everybody." There's one local hotel, some diners and bars, a couple minor bodies of water, and loads of repetitive vegetation. You're treated to a palette of stupendously dull colors and animations and character models that might have been impressive on the Sega Dreamcast. Yes, some, perhaps even a lot, of that stems from budget constraints, but intention is not the point here: the effect works pretty well. Deadly Premonition creates the expectation of a dreary, smotheringly mundane world.
But on a tactile and mechanical level, Deadly Premonition's Greenvale is the polar opposite of mundane; it's eccentric. What you can interact with and how those interactions take place are so seemingly random, unnecessary, and pointless that this small-town of Americana normalcy becomes an exciting, foreign land where nothing is what it seems.
In Deadly Premonition, vending machines sell standard, packaged foods like crackers and cookies, but they cost thirty-five dollars. The game has one of those irritating sleep meters to systemize getting tired and resting to maintain your strength like normal human beings do, but has the most convenient places available to do that be crappy, otherwise meaningless shacks on the side of the road. You can even sleep in a jail cell, just not the occupied ones. For no discernible reason, Deadly Premonition bothers to have the protagonist's facial hair grow slowly over time and even lets you shave it off in certain locations, like bathrooms, or a random art gallery anteroom inbetween exhibits full of actual flesh-eating zombies.
The wonderful oddities even double over themselves when interacting with a pay phone reveals that it's actually a save point, which isn't odd on its own — we're used to games hiding their save points like that. But then, after you've saved, the phone actually charges you in-game money for the call. You have to pay money to save the game.
Everything about Deadly Premonition seems, at first glance, like a bland attempt to mimic reality, but when you interact with it, you never know what to expect, and that absurd uncertainty becomes the meaning the game conveys to its players. Granted, the effect is far, far from perfect. There's all sorts of unused potential for expanding the idea, and a lot of its use may very well be unintentional, but the point is that, in some capacity, it does work. The world has a distinct flavor because its features have a tactile meaning to the player. It's interesting and pretty damn funny to play. It's memorable.
And that brings us to The Odd Gentlemen's new King's Quest game.
King's Quest's Failure is Tangible
At a glance, the world of King's Quest appears exciting, colorful, mischievous, and inviting. There are fierce dragons, towering trolls, and bright, leafy trees. The voice actors are zany, and their characters are often of questionable sanity. Everything on the surface is built to strike a whimsical yet fantastically epic tone.
Yet despite that, the world feels so empty and lifeless, and the major reason is just that Daventry means so little to players. You have no opinion of the world because, the moment you go to touch it, to see what everything means, there's nothing there.
Compare the tactile elements of Deadly Premonition's deceptively mundane Greenvale, as described, to the world of the new King's Quest, or at least the Daventry of its first episode, "A Knight to Remember."
In the latter, the only mechanic at your disposal for the vast majority of gameplay is walking, and the objects and features of the world often don't even have collision meshes to match the look of their 3D models. Walk up to a grove of trees, and it's actually just a hexagonal invisible wall, without even an action button prompt to give it the faintest of tactile meaning. Visually, Daventry is a splendidly wooded fairy tale kingdom, but mechanically the world becomes something more like a maze of invisible geometry.
Hell, King's Quest is an adventure game, and there are barely even any objects to click on and interact with, a crime against the old point-and-click games which were often full of pointless-yet-fun little clickables put there simply to color their worlds. Then, the majority of what you can actually prompt with your action button — narration, character conversations, and the occasional little animation — takes place in a cutscene anyway, further separating it from the tactile world you actually walk around in. You become like a courier for the protagonist, just walking him from cutscene to cutscene. In the end, there's almost nothing here that you can interact with; as far as the world of King's Quest is concerned, practically, you don't exist. So, to the player, Daventry doesn't exist.
The only bits of King's Quest that have even a little bit of life are the occasional, Telltale-esque conversations in which you engage other characters, where there is a bit of feedback dependent on your dialogue choices.
Unfortunately, King's Quest's boring, fetch-questing structure even gets in the way of that. Because progression is typically based around the next "thing" you need to find, dialogue always circles back to where you need to go next or what item you need to find. This fetching is the truly essential part of your conversation, and since your dialogue choices tend not to have any impact on that, the NPCs are as much boring signposts as they are characters to talk with.
And That Tactile Failure is Nothing New
Despite what I'm sure it seems like, I'm really not here because I just hate the new King's Quest. I'm obviously not a fan, but if it worked well enough for you, that's cool; what I'm proposing is how it ought to have worked better. The point I'm trying to make is that games need to use their mechanics and player interactions in distinct and interesting ways if they want their worlds to be interesting. If they want their players to think of them as more than a series of signposts and chores, they have to actually be more than that — on a real, tactile, human level.
What you can do in a game and what it can do to you are a huge part of what gives a game its distinct flavor and tone!
And this is something all sorts of games have issues with. King's Quest is a strong example from the games I've played recently, but it's far, far away from being the only game to waste the potential of its world by not bringing it to life in a tactile way.
Perhaps you remember Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon for the Wii, a game so clearly meant to be a delicate, moving experience. Its goal was to put you into the shoes of the lonely, sensitive, naïve young boy, Seto, traveling across an intricately overgrown post-apocalyptic Tokyo. And, at times, Fragile Dreams really was beautiful, but that was namely during the cutscenes because, on a tactile and mechanical level, the mood just wasn't conveyed. Most of the time, the game had you hack-and-slashing the shit out of generic, repetitive enemies or traversing blandly linear areas in uniform fashion. See the disconnect? Though the case of Fragile Dreams' is especially sad because it's also a game that put forth some unique ideas in this regard. Like, it had this optional little addition that let you use a toy to attract stray cats, which could have been a wonderful, poetic mechanic had it been further developed and had the game at-all made room for it.
For all the absurd effort put into creating the audio-visual ambiance of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a game which I'd been following since its announcement and was eager to get my hands on at release, the game still couldn't quite manage the powerful atmosphere The Astronauts tried so hard to bring to the world of Red Creek Valley, and that's because the world simply didn't mean enough, on a tactile level, to its players. Everything looked right — my god was it gorgeous — and some of the audio was simply wonderful, but in tactile terms, the features of Red Creek Valley were little more than a cluster of invisible walls, a geometric mapping of where you could and couldn't walk. It all looked soft, but it didn't feel soft. You couldn't skip stones across the lake; it was nothing more than a texture. The traversal mechanics were homogeneous across the entire landscape of hard-and-fast collision detection. The trees functioned identically to rocks.
And none of these criticisms are meant in any way to say that the developers of these games are "bad" — I'll bet there are all sorts of things they wish they could have added but for which they didn't have the time or money — or even to say that the games are "bad." Hell, Fragile Dreams is one of the first games in which I ever got really, truly invested as a young teen. It's just that there's something missing from games like these; playing them, you can feel the absence.
I know full well that these games are all very different from each other, but I also know that they're all absolutely trying to create an atmosphere, to give the player a particular perception of their world. And they're all games. Their main character is, to varying extents, their player, and that means that to create memorable, living worlds with distinct flavor and tone, they need to embrace tactile interactions and mechanics. They need to include us.
But the Classics Are Still Alive and Kicking
And this is not a ridiculous idea. Deadly Premonition is Far, Far Away from the only game succeeding at it.
There's the subtle ambiance of Ico, created by the simple, minute actions the player can take to interact with it: picking up and laying down sticks, scrambling over ledges, making small calculated bounds, or, most powerfully, holding Yorda's hand. The tactile elements all work brilliantly alongside the audio-visual elements to create a beautiful, memorable tone.
Or, another renowned classic, Thief II: The Metal Age, where the simple act of jumping was a tense choice because it so easily might alert an adversary, and even one or two guards were a real, visceral threat. The world of Thief II was hostile; it succeeded in making you feel like the trespassing vagrant it meant for you to be.
There are more contemporary examples too, like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I only played very recently with a group of friends, where you could touch and move almost anything, all the collision meshes matched their models, and the lighting was beautifully warm and clear. Where the only variables out of place were the monsters, which you couldn't even get a good look at, lest they look back. They were the "glitch" in the smooth, harmonious play of Amnesia; they were terrifying.
Little Inferno too: a game where you didn't even know you couldn't move until that lack of tactile knowledge became central to the game's themes as it all drew to an unforgettable conclusion.
Then, there's the most famous example: Ocarina of Time. Hyrule Field at night as Kid Link, watching the sun go down, knowing the field would soon give birth to threatening skeletons — it may not be so scary now, but as a child, that's one of my most haunting gaming memories.
The list goes on, and the point is not that these games are perfect, it's that they understood their medium. They understood how to bring their worlds to life in a way that uniquely fit their subject matter. But there are so many games out there that just don't, and it's ideas like this that I think need to spread if we want to start seeing our games improve, if we want them to be more interesting, more memorable. In video games, the player is the protagonist, and the more we embrace that, the more our games will grow to be more flavorful, more memorable, and more alive.
Enjoy reading this? Check out Barry's previous editorial: "The Witcher 3's Introduction is Terribly-Paced and Too Restrictive of its Players"