King’s Quest [1984]

The most infamous puzzle in King’s Quest [1984] is the Rumpelstiltskin puzzle. Schematically, this puzzle is strikingly identical to the hideous Odysseus puzzle in Zork [1980]: Based only off knowing the general milieu of reference material (fairy tales here, Ancient Greek mythology there) and a loose aesthetic association (between Rumpelstiltskin and a hut made of straw versus Odysseus’ encounter with a cyclops) the player has to make the leap of intuition and enter the correct mythical figure’s name. There’s also, in both cases, a clue left halfway across the map on a piece of paper of no inferable logical connection to nor evident attempted plausible claim to this clue’s knowledge on the circumstances of the puzzle. This means that applying the clue to the correct puzzle is an arbitrary shot in the dark, and nearly needs another clue that doesn’t exist. (On a non-design note, it also shows an understanding of gameworlds as highly artificial places where all components are part of a complete and intentional gestalt on both the part of the designer and implied player. Applied to the real world, such an understanding of providence, significance, and interconnectedness would be called something along the lines of “mystic.”) One edge King’s Quest has over Zork in an easiness competition is that it explicitly prompts the player to enter their guess for a name here-and-now, and if you get close, it acknowledges that progress and gives you hints. One edge Zork has over King’s Quest is that you get infinite chances, while King’s Quest gives you exactly 3 chances, and if you’re the implied ideal first-time player, you will need exactly all 3 of those chances since each one deploys a hint that shepherds you to the next part. But as with the Babel Fish, “save-scumming” is so common that game designers have openly engineered the game around the fact that you have infinite chances at everything.

Both puzzles have an alternate way around them: You can give the cyclops a couple items that are otherwise useless for no motivation other than generosity, or you can much more easily fail entirely at the King’s Quest puzzle, which gives you a key instead of some magic beans. The key unlocks a door that will bring you to the exact same location as the magic beans, at the penalty of having your treasure stolen by a thief character for certain on the staircase. (Sidebar: I’ve seen people complain about the pain of having to walk up a diagonal stair graphic with no diagonal movement, but you can move diagonally in this game and it’s fine. Maybe not on DOS?) This is easy to work around, though: just do the Rumpelstiltskin puzzle before you have any treasure. Without the magic shield treasure that stops baddies from attacking you, though, the upcoming confrontation with the giant is much more difficult, so you’ll need to use an alternative method for that as well… and so on. You can still beat the game.

The entire game works like this. King’s Quest’s original design mandate, handed down by IBM to Sierra, was to have multiple solutions and a dynamic world. Adventure games had had alternative solutions to problems implemented going back to Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77], but in King’s Quest they saturate the whole game. The effect is such that, even though Infocom and their Zork has objectively the more-thoroughly-simulated systemic world model, one where water puts out fire as a general rule, experientially King’s Quest feels to me slightly more like I’m wandering through a world, even though putting an object down means you can’t pick it up again. It’s arguably an “open world,” even, given that almost the entire map is unlocked to wander freely at the beginning of the game. (I thought I could get away with not covering the Ultima series until Ultima 4 [1985] because I would not be covering anything influenced by Ultima before then, but King’s Quest in theming and design might possibly be, considering Sierra published Ultima 2 [1982] so they were definitely aware of its paradigm.) This perception of openness is not, it is important to note, because the additional solutions constitute “player choice” — the player is not, in most cases, in possession of the information and tools with which to make a choice or even possibly to know that there is a choice to be made that they are making, at least until replay, when curiosity might strike. Likewise, they don’t seem like “branching paths” when you’re in the river. I didn’t actually do a lot of thinking, nor classic “trying everything on everything else,” nor even dying. Contrary to the reputation of Sierra and in particular later King’s Quest games for asinine difficulty borne of unpredictable off-the-wall solutions, I found myself stumbling casually and effortlessly into puzzle solutions on nothing but bedtime story vibes and being surprised when I arrived where one of the big prize treasures were waiting for the taking. (Which, yes, does mean they were unpredictable, but this is not such a vice when it doesn’t arrest progress through the game’s story.)

King’s Quest is a major formal milestone for the Adventure Game for reasons far removed from this philosophy towards puzzles, though: it is considered the first “Graphic Adventure,” a transitional form towards the eventual “Point-And-Click Adventure” when the text parser is dropped for the mouse. Sir Graham is a sprite that moves around on the screen according to the buttons the players press, interacting with other moving sprites, whereas in Sierra’s previous efforts at Adventures-With-Graphics the pictures were still images. Often, you have to manipulate the sprite around enemies and obstacles and get up close to objects to interact with them, which fundamentally blurs the line between what is accepted as an orthodox Adventure Game and an “Action-Adventure” like Adventure [1980] — “Action-Adventure” has hung on as a term for games for generations hence, but it only ever made sense in the early 1980s and even now in 1984 is breaking down into a meaningless soup before our very eyes. One can’t take recourse to mere history to explain how King’s Quest is an Adventure Game and Adventure isn’t, either: Adventure (and for that matter Rogue [1980]) have just as strong a claim as King’s Quest to being a mere iteration on Colossal Cave Adventure, which after all is one of the most influential games of all time. In a sense, and this is the sense that Steam tags seem to be operating on, any game with a little buddy you pilot through a big world is an “Adventure Game.” Especially if you’re collecting objects.

In a classic treasure hunt game, scoring points is a superfluous appendix. You get your points mostly through getting treasure and solving puzzles, which is a direct index such that beating the game’s narrative is simply synonymous with getting the maximum possible amount of points. (Although getting a point can create a puzzle where otherwise there would be no signal, as in CCA’s Witt’s End.) In King’s Quest, though, you can win the game and complete its narrative with a low score. It uses its points system instead to editorialize not just on the player’s progress through the game, but on the player-avatar’s behavior in their role as a knight and future king. Bowing before the king is proper, and worth 3 points. Using the invisibility ring to avoid an enemy is worth negative 2 points, judging stealth as cheap cowardice for a knight and a player, perhaps inheriting also an idea of invisibility rings as inherently corrupting and immoral from The Lord Of The Rings [1954-1955]. Where in Mystery House [1980], killing Joe the Gravedigger was simply unnecessary and otherwise uncommented upon, killing in King’s Quest will almost always cost you points in the trade-off compared to non-violent solutions to the same opposition. The only exception to that is that you get 7 points for killing the cannibalistic grey witch who lives in a gingerbread house — more than for any other single action of the game besides securing the three prize treasures that are the titular purpose of the game. Like Joe, this action, this character, this region of the map, is not on the critical path at all. Unlike Joe, the game’s narration comments upon your murder instead of leaving it for you to make up your own mind about. It calls you courageous, it posits as justice that this witch should be summarily burned alive. Yeah!

The figure within American pop culture of the good monarch is fascinating to me. I think your average American doesn’t have any particularly strong opinion on monarchs, until such time as it becomes immediately relevant, like the unfolding tabloid drama around the British monarchy that compels some to take sides for or against racism, or the propaganda to overthrow foreign monarchs (for a non-anti-monarchical strategic reason.) Ever since we had that revolution that threw off monarchy, we haven’t had any direct experience with it (other than first-generation immigrants,) and thus haven’t widely thought deeply about the subject since. And so it is that American pop culture can end up championing a romanticized telephone-game notion of monarchy, often underthought and carelessly deployed, and then ram right up against the conflict between America’s foundational liberal cultural values that still get parroted to schoolchildren today and the bedtime stories of say, noble King Arthur passed down to those same schoolchildren at night. Sparks fly, revealing contortions ensue, and King’s Quest is no exception.

King’s Quest is, fundamentally, a game about justifying monarchy. Your overall goal is to make the player character, the knight Sir Graham, the king of Daventry. To become king, he must satisfy the conditions of the titular quest handed down to him by the existing, heirless, king. The king’s lack of heir steps around any discomfort with hereditary rule, and substitutes instead the much more comforting-to-20th-Century-Americans notion of meritocracy. Suffice to say, this situation is ahistorical, but also openly fairy-tale enough that I won’t belabor the irreality of it. It is a fantasy for the powerless to inject themselves into, of being noticed as someone especially deserving of a special destiny and esteem. Meritocracy is also a childish fantasy that’s pretty deferential to power, since those who have power deserve it by virtue of being good at it. (This is how you sidestep the discomfort around hereditary rule by the time you’re playing Graham’s children in future games.) It’s founding a dynasty understood as being basically like getting promoted up the corporate ladder all the way to CEO, and thus essentially Americanized. But leaning on meritocracy requires that you define what merit is, and if you talk about it for too long, how merit justifies rulership.

The three prize treasures that the king tells you to find are actually each metaphorical for a way the state justifies its existence. The magic shield ensures that you and your kingdom can not lose a battle; in essence a state must have the military ability to defend itself or it loses its claim to sovereignty. The magic chest is always full of gold coins; this magic chest is basically the national mint, especially if you’re a subscriber to Modern Monetary Theory. It seems less important than military victory, but the state must have control over its currency, and when people use that currency they are recognizing the legitimacy of that state. Finally, there’s the magic mirror that tells the future. This could be taken in a lot of different ways. In one manual, it essentially plays the role of a Farmer’s Almanac, which I believe is one theory floating around for how the whole rulership thing got started in the first place, but one that doesn’t hold a lot of water. You could also think of intelligence-gathering in general, be it spymasters or the CIA. That’s a little cynical, though. Too realpolitik for King’s Quest’s ideology. I think instead it basically boils down to “wisdom.” The state is good because the ruler will be able to anticipate future crises and events and steer the state through them cleanly, and we’re back around to meritocracy — with the implicit anti-democratic edge getting more apparent now. The obverse implication of our ruler deserving to rule because of their wisdom, and the state in turn being justified as something that can enact their wisdom for the betterment of all, is that this wisdom is exceptional.

Sir Graham also demonstrates kingly virtues that aren’t tied to the tripartite treasures. I’ve already covered how he acts as an agent of swift, brutal justice, but he also, if played how the points say, demonstrates compassion. There is a side-plot where the future king visits a cartoonishly poor husband and wife, standing in for the peasantry of Daventry as a whole, and gives them a magic bowl that replenishes with food forever. This is in-line with the rest of the justifications for Sir Graham as worthy king of Daventry on the merits, showing that they are benevolent providers for the indigent populace of peasants, who would be helpless to feed themselves without their vital managerial aid in distribution and production of the necessities. I feel it is important to note that both the justice and this charity take place in the only two houses in the game, making them two halves of the same coin. Everywhere else is either the castle where royalty sits or untamed wilderness. It is only those who live in houses who are surely citizens under the jurisdiction of Daventry, for better or for worse, even though the entire territory is also ostensibly Daventry.

The peasants and the witch are also the only two non-royal humans in the game. Though this virtual kingdom is very populated for a video game of this vintage, it is otherwise entirely populated by animals (like wolves, goats, and dragons) or fantasy races (like elves, giants, and leprechauns.) These non-humans living outside of houses have an at-best ambiguous relationship with Daventry. Animals can not intelligibly be subjects of a crown, but it is entirely unclear if the giant or the elf are mutually-recognized citizens under the law and protection of Daventry, or just hanging around in the area, perhaps entirely unaware of a Daventry. At worst, entire swathes of the map operate under their own hostile sense of sovereignty. The bridge troll does not recognize your royal authority and wants to levy his own taxes upon you, for the ability to enter a territory they have claimed. The leprechauns have their own underground kingdom within what is ostensibly Daventry and will kill you on sight. Both of these have to be subverted by force and subterfuge respectively, the troll’s territory claimed and the leprechauns’ magic treasures stolen from out of their throne room to be brought to yours. This is the most realpolitik King’s Quest gets, although it makes no effort to explicitly justify these actions along any lines whatsoever. Like the murder of Joe the Gravedigger in Mystery House, it is unsettled and unsettling, an entirely open avenue. I can fill in pretty much any explanation I want for why in the game’s narration the human kingdom is inherently more legitimate than the leprechaun kingdom despite from a disinterested neutral perspective them looking the same, from hypothesizing Daventry as an human-centric ethnostate making land grabs, maximally uncharitably; to chalking it up to basic protagonist-centered morality; to shrugging it off with an unvarnished might-makes-right understanding of statecraft; to referring to a shifting-depending-on-computer-manual backstory from the manual that tells us the leprechauns started it and this is only tit for tat score-settling; to brushing off the bridge troll as a mere isolated criminal with no authority who’s not really worth sweating over pushing off his territory; or to interpreting the bridge troll incident as only an accident in the course of Graham’s stride, since it is laundered through the independent decision of a goat he brought along and not the Sir himself; to returning back to Sir Graham’s virtues as demonstration that he is more fit to rule and thus justified in seizing land and power and treasure, even though that’s circular reasoning when you’re questioning the virtue.

You might recognize all of those as, more or less, ways that real-life aggressive foreign policy can be and is talked about, with some modification around concepts like “protagonist” and “computer manual.” Given that the scenario in King’s Quest is so barebones and uncommented upon, that says more about how the political commentary apparatus processes situations where a state (mainly America) aggressively takes things in the real world than it does about King’s Quest. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it says something about my American familiarity with such explanations, that I can summon up elaborate but typical reasoning to overlay on an extremely basic matter-of-fact situation. The word for putting forward any of the justifications that make Sir Graham and Daventry look arguably good and noble in this situation — so not might-is-right nor ascribing it to a violent supremacist ideology, unless you’re the rare sort who thinks those are good and noble — is propaganda, or if that’s too scary a word, spin.

King’s Quest is propaganda for a regime that doesn’t exist. It’s a telling of events that tells on itself, with its pains to point out King Graham’s merit and elision of any justification for his less virtuous moments, either allowing the audience to fill it in with their own preconceptions or weaponizing matter-of-fact delivery to get people to simply not think about it. What clinches it is the grand finale, where Sir Graham, having proved himself worthy of the crown, is officially named heir to the throne by the king… who immediately keels over and dies of natural causes with no witnesses around besides now-King Graham himself. The only reasonable adult reaction to being told such a convenient story, even in a fantastic or allegorical context, is incredulity — “yeah, sure buddy, that’s how it happened.”

I still just don’t understand why or how you would make propaganda for a fake monarchy as an American, even if you don’t yourself understand that as what you are doing and your conscious goal is only to reiterate myths for children. I mean, Ken Williams is a noted right-winger, but I don’t think a royalist! I’m certain King’s Quest doesn’t intend to promote monarchy, nor does it in practice. Given that, what IS it doing that’s NOT monarchist propaganda, even though it hits all the beats on a surface level? Can a trope really just… survive through retellings for many generations past its social relevance if it’s just lying there empty, a dead and gutted fish picked over by birds? Surely nothing means nothing. The birds are bringing something of their own to fill the husk, but what? I can only make educated guesses about our relationship to the nationstate, or about attitudes toward the continuing existence of non-democratic or patriarchal power in our lives, but certainly nothing I’m confident about, just wild stabs in the dark. I just don’t get it! If you have half a notion or somebody’s dissertation on the subject to link me to or something, I’m all ears, hit me up on Twitter or Discord or leave a comment or something.

5 thoughts on “King’s Quest [1984]

  1. I live in a city called New Westminster (a.k.a. “The Royal City”, a.k.a. the once and future capital city of the settler province British Columbia). I’m not certain whether I could say we have straight-up MONARCHISTS in this city, but we definitely have a community of rich old folks who follow the news about British aristocrats + leave flowers out in weird public memorials every time some British royal person dies. I feel my experience here can maybe yield some different insight into what is up with these apparent North American ‘monarchists’!

    My 5-minute take re: what is up with all the ‘king’ stuff in King’s Quest is that basically: America is like Rome! It’s ‘anti-king’ in um, almost like a VIRTUAL sense; it’s anti-king insofar as British monarchy was an aesthetic focus to establish America’s independence AGAINST once upon a time. We can see a bit of Roman ‘anti-kingness’ whenever new powers appear to take everything things over; like, you’ll often find Americans protesting new power as tyrannical (‘Bezos Rex!!’), even though we can plainly see how the old power is just a gaggle of ‘Big Men’ who are essentially kings and remain in charge of everything (it’s just that like Caesar, they enjoy the political power to be known e.g. as ‘Senators’ instead of tyrants)

    I think the basic dream of America, and the dream that animates all the old ‘royal fans’ in my city, is basically the dream that ‘everyone’ (read: rich white people) can live as king of their own teeny-tiny castle (either a farm, ranch or large suburban house). Kingliness is associated most strongly with autonomy from social responsibility: things like ‘freedom from taxation’, or the freedom to enact horrific forced labor schemes upon people with lower status. American/Canadian bougies rely HEAVILY on exploiting lower classes in order to achieve upward mobility, and so these people come to harbor a natural unconscious fear that the dynamic could ‘invert’ (that they themselves could fall victim to the schemes they regularly use on others). I think they find comfort in fictionalized visions of a ‘ruling class’/’kingly class’ one can join by finding rare loot (and evicting whichever ” ” “bridge trolls” ” ” might stand in your way). Crucially I think it all relates to a social CLASS, rather than a monarchic arrangement with one sole king/queen.

    I have not played King’s Quest so really I’m just bullshitting based on this essay text! But I guess in this game we can see how things like ‘wisdom’ become divorced from their actual personal qualitative meaning (the human quality of being wise), and instead get rendered into rendered into magical property that some enterprising future ‘king’ can own. On one level we COULD say that it’s common in these stories for future kings to find magical loot (the sword in the stone etc). But I perceive some kind of difference here: It seems like this mirror is straight-up just a magic tool you find that grants you power, whereas the sword in the stone only moved IN RESPONSE TO a person already having ‘royal power’. To me this maybe the key distinction between being an American ‘king!/queen!’ versus a British monarch: The former group is a class to be joined using wealth, whereas the classic monarch is supposed to be INTRINSICALLY GOOD AT RULING due to their magical blue blood (and maybe they’d find the mirror by DEMONSTRATING vast intrinsic wisdom; they wouldn’t simply gain wisdom by finding a mirror).

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  2. “Kings” and “kingdoms” in fairy tales have exactly the same status in the modern American imagination as “giants” and “dragons” et al. That is to say, they are entities of pure narrative convention, to which are hooked various standard psychological functions. Some of those psychological functions relate to concepts of authority and morality, and yes, those concepts COULD be applied to social systems, and eventually to theory of government… but that’s the meandering route by which that relevance would have to be reached. (And the political frame of meaning will always coexist and contend with other frames: personal, interpersonal, domestic, etc. etc. More often than not in such stories, a King just serves as a basic parental figure, and the trappings of wealth and power are just comforts offered to appease the status anxieties of the audience who are projecting their own familial emotional frame onto the story.)

    Meanwhile, a literary history of the trope of “fairy tale kingdom” could show that, indeed, it originally emerged in a real-world context of monarchism, and had an implicit political/ideological function in that context. But that’s a literary-genealogical fact; it’s not a part of the contemporary American post-Disney unconscious experience of the trope’s meaning. (As experienced by, say, Roberta Williams.)

    To draw a straight conceptual line directly connecting fairy tale kings with real-world kings, in a work from 1984, takes a kind of intellectual effort… because it is, in fact, perverse! You seem to be priding yourself on having made the effort to do an insistently literal political reading of King’s Quest, but sometimes that kind of effort should be taken as a warning that you’ve gone in the wrong direction. Then you end on a note of confusion — because you’ve taken such pains to confuse yourself! No need to be bewildered by a conclusion you had to fight so hard against the current to reach.

    Yes, the shield represents strength and the chest represents wealth and the mirror represents wisdom, and indeed that amounts to propagandistic iconography — but in the context of King’s Quest, “symbolic relics of propagandistic iconography, in the manner of ye olde European monarchies and their myths” are just another familiar and comforting trope qua trope, connoting the standard wonderful-land-of-the-imagination in which psychological signs can run free. The “meanings” of such signs ultimately depend not on the historical origins or even the names of the signs, but on the emotional lives of the reader and the writer, and on the cultural conventions operative in their own time. None of which, I think we can safely say, were about promoting monarchism.

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    1. Yeah, I think you’re pretty right. The figure of the king has story utility even if its social meaning is expired and irrelevant, it’s a free-floating pastiche drawn from post-Disney folk memory, and it doesn’t ultimately have a lot or likely anything to do with how we feel about real-world kings. The note of the confusion is precisely that I couldn’t figure out what else they could connect to, because (and I think I should have emphasized this more strenuously,) I’m also absolutely certain King’s Quest doesn’t intend to promote monarchy, nor does it in practice. Given that, what IS it doing that’s NOT monarchist propaganda, even though it hits all the beats on a surface level? Can a trope really just… survive through retellings for many generations past its social relevance if it’s just lying there empty, a dead and gutted fish picked over by birds? Surely nothing means nothing. The birds are bringing something of their own to fill the husk, but what? That’s the question I meant to ask, but reading it back, I totally did not make that clear and an edit for clarity is in order there.

      So I really like your point about family, and the comfort of wealth into which a player can project themselves into. That’s probably a better place to start thinking of what social meaning the king figure has, moreso than thinking of literal kings. (Maybe if I thought of it while writing, I could have tied it in with the quarter-formed thought about CEOs-as-kings…) I should catch myself more often when I’m grasping for an idea’s genealogy, in the future — bad habit of mine to want a certain conceptual essentialism from origins. I find such a throughline charming and even sometimes poetic, but symbols are more flexible than that, much more flexible.

      Where I disagree is that I didn’t ever feel I was fighting a current. Rather, I think I got carried along by an eddy current and sucked under. As you point out, the symbols (especially the relics) are pretty immediately obvious on the first layer. They positively leaped out at me, but, well, to mix metaphors, maybe I was barking up the wrong tree towards a dead end.

      Thank you very much for taking the effort to leave such an excellent comment and thorough critique. You’ve made me very excited and happy. (The only note that’s really gonna gnaw at me at night is the thought that I came across as too proud. I’m not sure what to do about that.) This sort of thing was exactly what I was hoping for: a different angle showing me how I got stuck. I hope it will make me a better writer and a better thinker.

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      1. Yeah, I want to apologize for saying you were “priding” yourself on going “against the current.” That was rude and I’m sorry. In retrospect it’s clearly just me projecting my own issues onto your essay.

        Sometimes I get excited by the feeling that some notion of mine is particularly juicy exactly because I had to resist standard channels of thought to arrive at it. But I’ve learned that such excitement actually tends to lead me astray, so I try to remind myself to resist the temptation. As often happens with advice I try to give myself, I end up compulsively giving it to other people who don’t need or deserve it. Please don’t stay up thinking about it!

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