31 – Preparations For A Trip To Kyrandia

I probably still have the original CDs–frankly, I hope I do, given that my appetite to play Hand of Fate has been awakened–somewhere at my parents’ house back in Jersey. I know for a fact that I’ve got my copy of the third game, because I happened to find it the last time I visited; it’s still there, but the back of the case blurb: “Remember that you’re one small trickster in a very large world.” Book Three: Malcolm’s Revenge, in which the primary antagonist, the mad jester, becomes the playable character in a chance to prove his innocence–

I am getting ahead of myself. But it feels unfair, to me, that Good Old Games–I am about to speak ill of Good Old Games and it kills me, fucking kills me to–should only be releasing the first Kyrandia game, because when I bought them, oh, let’s say I was thirteen, I bought them in the trilogy rerelease, that is, all three games on CD-rom. And there was no way, no way I’d play the games in order, from start to finish. And so I ended up experiencing the Legend of Kyrandia as three time periods, three distinct voices, three distinct characters, all at once. The first, where you play as the unwitting heir to the throne and the most traditional of the three, a good and heroic, if slightly bland and clumsy, character who goes on a quest. The second, where you play Zanthia, one of the greatest adventure game heroines of all time (no mean feat considering the sheer number of excellent female leads that adventure gaming, as a whole, featured in the 80s and 90s), in a comic epic. And the third, where you’re Malcolm, and where you’re now suddenly the only sane man in a world which is demented and hypocritical, and in retrospect a fairly bitter social satire.

Well, the rumor is that releases of the next games will be impending, and so either way, I think it’s time I take a trip back to Kyrandia.

Because I fucking loved these games. Hand of Fate, Book 2, that was by far my favorite. Malcolm’s Revenge had some finicky bits, some pixel hunting bits, but I remember the game allegedly had its share of alternate paths and endings.

Book one had death.

Death in adventure games–ooh, it was totally a controversial subject by the time I grew old enough to appear on the scene in ’94-ish. Sierra, in particular, was so famous for its many, many deaths and unwinnable situations that it’s still a byword for overly-unfair games. My favorite example, because it is one of the cruelest jokes ever played on a player by a developer, occurs in Space Quest II. Making your way through a series of mazes–oh, yeah, mazes, there used to be a shitload of mazes, mappable mazes, blind mazes, gimmick mazes, oh boy were there mazes!–you could come across a Xenomorph-looking thing. Oh ho, you say, because this is a Sierra game and you know what’s up, if I touch it it’s gonna kill me. So you save, and you walk right up to the Xenomorph–one of the reasons players not only tolerated but sought out Sierra’s many, many deaths was because they were often somehow ironic or funny or dark or in any case perversely rewarding–and, instead of killing you, a text box pops up describing how the creature simply gives you a big, sloppy wet kiss. Ha ha–and here you thought it was gonna kill you. And you go on your merry way, solving puzzles and getting through mazes and finally, a bit later, the egg that the creature implanted in you when it kissed you hatches and burst through your chest and you die. Hope you still have a save file from before you met the creature.

In the 80s, this kind of shit went unquestioned. Again, remember that Back In The Day, the simple economics surrounding a computer meant that if you had one in your home, you were probably Into Computers–which meant that you probably programmed. The frustrations of programming–spending time and effort to produce something which, as it turns out, contains some sort of flaw which causes the entire thing to break–are reflected in the unwinnable videogame state. Neglecting to pick up a key in the first room and needing that at the end of the game–is that any different from forgetting a semicolon in line 50 and seeing ramifications in line 500?

And so while early gamers got immense pleasure from untangling the particular sequence needed to beat King’s Quest and all of that, when the 90s started to hit, computers became more widespread. This is when we got Lucasarts Style–that is, games which had no death and which had no unwinnable situations. Look: All I’m saying is, if we had had Twitter back at this time, entire covens of friendships would have been fucking ended over Sierra Style vs. Lucasarts Style. Is including unwinnable situations too cruel to the player? Isn’t taking out death the equivalent of rounding off the corners and taking the stakes out of gaming?

These questions have been pretty much resolved–even the most hardcore adventure game nowadays is not nearly as cruel as Sierra enjoyed being, and in fact it will most likely use its extreme difficulty as a selling point. When I think back on Kyrandia, however, I think of its three games as detailing three very specific snapshots of evolving design. Book One has death, Book One has a maze, Book One has a death maze. Book Two broadens its world and, recognizing that its audience is also broader, takes out death. Book Three involves an obsession with morality. In fact, the series–I hope I am not reading too much into my memories–is extraordinarily socially aware. It may begin with a traditional foundling narrative–a normal boy finding out he’s Special and eventually growing to claim his birthright from its usurper–but it’s also savvy enough to give the distaff a much more interesting and much more fun game, and to abruptly shatter the games’ moral compass entirely for the finale.

But that’s where the series goes, and how it can be read as a whole. Right now, we’ve just got access to the first game. I’m going to be very interested to see how my memories dovetail with what the game actually is.

6

It’s not that I want to pick on Eric Wolpaw–I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t genuinely enjoy the man’s work–but he’s at least partially responsible for some of the most obnoxious memes to hit gaming culture. I’m a little afraid to talk about cake in front of gamers because, just as how I had a friend who would chirp Monty Python references at me, I know there is a very, very good chance that said gamer will scream THE CAKE IS A LIE, at which point–

No, let’s not go for violence.

The problem with Eric Wolpaw, really, is that he was a part of Old Man Murray, and the problem with Old Man Murray is that it was responsible for “The Death of Adventure Games“, which has legitimately gone down as a fine and funny piece of game-related writing. The article, responding to a claim that the adventure game is “dead”, frames itself almost as a Hercule Poirot-esque summation of the evidence. It is, at its core, an atomistic examination of a puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3, in such a way as to highlight how illogical and absurd the puzzle is. The article ends with the conclusion that the genre has committed suicide.

If I can tell you how many times people have quoted and summarized that article to me–or, worse, how many people have described that particular puzzle to me, as if they’d made the observation themselves!

It’s hard to blame Wolpaw for this, though; after all, the article is hilarious and astute, just as Portal’s script is very sharp, and it’s not your fault if you make some thing so iconic that fans quote you so much you abandon your career and run away to Africa. The GK3 puzzle–the cat mustache puzzle, as it’s often called–and The Longest Journey’s, uh, rubber ducky subway key puzzle are often seen as two of the nails in the coffin of adventure gaming.

Middle school was Sierra and Lucasarts, college was a lot of indie shit–Reality on the Norm, Ben Jordan, Chzo Mythos stuff–and then, I don’t know, I just…overdosed on it. The puzzles were *part* of it–but although adventure games almost always feature SOMETHING incomprehensibly illogical in them, we were now getting second- and third-generation adventure games from people who’d played the genre for their whole lives and had some ideas about how to avoid some of the more cmmon pitfalls, and puzzles in general were getting better. (Certainly avoiding death and unwinnable situations were two trends which helped matters.)

A lot of it might simply be it’s just a case of too much. After a while, even good adventure game stories–stories are, after all, one of the main reasons to play an adventure–get repetitive, as do good adventure game puzzles. I find I want a more direct control of characters–rather than directing a character, as you do when pointing-and-clicking, I’d rather have the character as an avatar as you do in a platformer.

But one of my concerns recently has been the level of violence in games–after all, it’s really hard to justify Bioshock Infinite, a game in you play a violent man whose presence has placed a city on lockdown, after we all watched news reports about a violent man whose presence placed Boston on lockdown. I think it’s ludicrous when people suggest that to kill a man in a videogame may be as bad as killing in real life, or comes from the same impulses–and yet, that said, I just want to do some other shit for a while.

The relationship that adventure games have had with violence is a strange one–after all, many games–particularly Sierra’s–are loaded with dozens of ways for your character to die. And certainly there are enough horror and mystery games whose plots revolve around murder. And yet for all of that, you’re usually not able to solve your problems with a gun–King’s Quest usually even rewarded you with more points or a better story if you went out of your way to find a nonviolent option. Moral implications aside, the point of an adventure game is more to figure out, using esoteric combinations of items, how to progress–shooting is an inappropriate verb.

I also wonder if Lucasarts’s focus on no protagonist death has something to do with it–it preserves a symmetrical relationship. There’s something extremely fair about a world where you can neither die nor be killed but you’ve just got to clever your way out of things.