With her successful series of adventure games that debuted on the Apple II computer, Roberta Williams proceeded to create King’s Quest in 1984. Once this game was ported to a greater variety of platforms, it became a bestseller. This paved the way for a sequel a year later: King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. It too became a hit with adventure game enthusiasts. While she was satisfied with her games from Mystery House to King’s Quest II, she relented that they were “essentially glorified treasure hunts”. The plots served no higher purpose than informing players of what their end goal was. This began to change by the mid-eighties. With computer platforms such as the IBM AT, Amiga, and Macintosh boasting a superior processing power compared to the previous generation, many new possibilities opened up.
Ms. Williams wished to take advantage of these machines to set her sights higher in the form of a brand-new installment in her popular King’s Quest series. She found herself leading a much larger team this time around, though it consisted of many of the same people who worked with her on her previous two games. The lead programmer was one Al Lowe, who made a living as a jazz musician before joining Sierra. He composed the music of King’s Quest II, and saw this as the perfect opportunity to learn the ins and outs of programming before creating something of his own while his wife, Margaret made the music. The game saw its release in October of 1986 under the name King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human. Like its two predecessors, King’s Quest III was highly popular among adventure game fans. It is common for retrospectives to cite this particular installment as the one in which the series began hitting its stride. Was Ms. Williams able to use the new technology to elevate her series to a new level?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain major, unmarked spoilers in addition to revealing many puzzle solutions.
Llewdor is a dreary country, being under the watchful eye of an evil wizard named Manannan. Its citizens cannot act out of line, lest they incur his wrath. Living in the same abode as Manannan is a seventeen-year-old boy named Gwydion. For his entire life, he has been held captive by Manannan as his servant, cooking and cleaning for him as the situation demands. Having no inherent magical ability of his own, Gwydion is completely powerless before Manannan, who, in turn, treats the poor boy like a slave. What is he to do?
When players were fully outlined the basic premise of the game, they realized King’s Quest III was going to provide an experience markedly different than anything that came before. The original King’s Quest featured a knight named Graham on a quest to save his kingdom. Having been crowned king, he journeyed to the land of Kolyma to save a maiden named Valanice from her imprisonment in a quartz tower. Both games operated on a similar principle – while there was a definable conflict, it lacked an antagonist to oppose him. Dahlia, a wicked witch who built a gingerbread house in Daventry was responsible for displacing one of the kingdom’s treasures while Hagatha imprisoned Valanice in the quartz tower to begin with. Considering this, one could claim they are the primary antagonist of their respective games. However, their status as such was nominal. This was evidenced by the fact that one could potentially go their entire playthroughs of each game without ever seeing them. In fact, it was entirely possible to obtain every single point in King’s Quest II without Graham encountering Hagatha at all.
King’s Quest III not only has a definite antagonist, he possesses a quality very few of his contemporaries had: an inescapable presence. Although games from this era often featured an antagonist of some kind, they typically only existed as the final obstacle between the player and the credits screen. Meanwhile, Manannan watches Gwydion’s every move and periodically demands a task be done. No other antagonist, regardless of how difficult their boss fights proved to be, could claim to have this kind of stranglehold over the player character.
To fully enforce this atmosphere of oppression, King’s Quest III won’t even consider attempting to carry out the command “KILL WIZARD” if one types it into the text parser. This is a stark contrast to older adventure games, which would entertain players taking the direct approach – for good or for ill.
Despite its radically different premise, King’s Quest III, having been built on the AGI (Adventure Game Interpreter) engine, features gameplay similar to that of its two predecessors. Every single action other than walking is carried out via the text parser that adorns the bottom of the screen. Valid commands typically consist of two components: a verb and an object. It isn’t necessary to form complete sentences in order for the text parser to understand your intent. Commands such as “LOOK BOWL”, “TAKE CUP”, and “EAT BREAD” will be understood by the parser without any clarification.
As an AGI game, King’s Quest III shares a similar interface as its predecessors. Once again, the menu is brought up with a press of the escape key. Any major function such as saving the game or examining the inventory screen can be carried out by cycling through this menu, pressing the appropriate shortcut key, or phrasing it as a command in the text parser. Though King’s Quest III was built on the AGI engine, it does feature many notable enhancements. To begin with, there is a subtle graphical upgrade between King’s Quest II and King’s Quest III. This game boasts much more fluid animation. On the first screen, the candles in Manannan’s foyer flicker, and once you are able to properly explore Llewdor, you can see the rivers flowing.
The enhancement most people would notice first is the timer situated in the center of the status bar during normal gameplay. Its functionality goes far beyond informing players of how long they’ve been playing the game. In a stark contrast to its predecessors, King’s Quest III is far more dependent on timed events. A majority of these timed events concern Manannan in some capacity. When Gwydion is assigned a chore, he will have three minutes with which to complete it. There are four such chores for you to fulfill: feeding the chickens, dusting the study, sweeping the kitchen, and emptying Manannan’s chamber pot.
If the chore is not completed within the three-minute time limit, Gwydion will be punished. Being a wizard, Manannan’s punishments are a lot more creative than simply sending Gwydion to his room – though that too is something he can potentially do. Depending on his mood, Manannan can transform Gwydion into a snail, attach his legs to the ceiling of the kitchen, or force him to perform aerobics against his will. If Gwydion sufficiently frustrates Manannan with his insubordination, he will be executed on the spot. After five minutes have passed, Manannan will announce to Gwydion that he is going on a journey. This gives Gwydion roughly twenty-five minutes to do as he wishes. Despite what conventional wisdom may imply about the nature of wizards adhering to a strict schedule, Manannan is usually off by a few seconds – typically in the direction of running late. Naturally, this works to your advantage, for those precious few seconds could be the difference between life and death.
One subtle change effected by the timer’s presence is the game speed does not affect the internal clock. In King’s Quest and its sequel, setting the game to its maximum speed would cause anything that functioned on a timer to resolve much more quickly. For example, if you obtained the fairy’s protective spell in King’s Quest II, it would expire sooner if the player set the speed to “Fast” or “Fastest”. This is because events were only in real time when the games operated at “Normal” speed. In King’s Quest III, everything operates in real time. If Gwydion takes roughly thirty seconds to complete a task, increasing the speed will not cause him to work faster. All it will do is create an amusing animation where he seemingly performs these tasks at the speed of light. Though this sounds annoying, it’s actually to the player’s advantage. Because time is of the essence when Gwydion is exploring Llewdor, operating on the “Fast” speed allows players to accomplish more tasks in a shorter amount of time. Conversely, attempting to play the game at “Normal” speed would be a gigantic disadvantage to the player.
Even if one went into this game without any knowledge of the basic premise, it’s clear that Gwydion needs to find some way to dispose of Manannan. Such an outcome would be ideal, but it’s easier said than done. The best place to start would be in the forbidden rooms of the house. Manannan frowns upon Gwydion snooping around his study, bedroom, or observatory, only granting him permission to enter these rooms if he has assigned him a chore there. Should Manannan catch Gwydion in these rooms, he will yell at him and assign him another chore.
Scouring Manannan’s bedroom turns up many interesting items, including a hand mirror, a magic map, a key, and a vial of a fragrant substance labeled “Rose Petal Essence”.
The one rule King’s Quest and its sequels firmly established for countless adventure games to come is to pick up anything that isn’t nailed down. Even the most seemingly useless piece of trash one could find was of some use to the protagonist. What King’s Quest III does is deconstruct this basic adventure game trope. Should Gwydion possess any evidence that he has entered any of these rooms without authorization, Manannan will execute him. This development stands to reason; after all, Manannan is fully aware of what Gwydion is holding. It’s perfectly normal for someone to be carrying around a bowl or a spoon, yet having a magic map on one’s person is highly suspect. In order to tell whether or not Gwydion can carry an item safely in Manannan’s presence, one can look at the inventory screen. Manannan will kill Gwydion if he carries any item marked with an asterisk in his presence.
Because of this, players will need to get rid of these items by the time Manannan is due back. Luckily, a place Gwydion can store his belongings exists. Manannan cares so little for Gwydion that he never enters the latter’s cell-like bedroom for any reason. Gwydion can take advantage of this fact by hiding his items under his bed. With one notable exception, items hidden underneath Gwydion’s bed will be completely safe from the wizard’s prying eyes. You can hide and later retrieve individual items or your entire inventory at once. Taking individual items requires you to remember what you put underneath your bed, but this isn’t an issue because performing chores doesn’t require inventory items and once Manannan is away, it’s better just to retrieve your entire inventory.
A thorough examination of Manannan’s study reveals a lever hidden behind a large book. By pulling it, the floorboards rise up, revealing a hidden staircase. By descending down the staircase, Gwydion happens upon a laboratory. Resting on the desk is a tome entitled “The Sorcery of Old”. By thumbing through this book, Gwydion realizes that the spells it contains can allow him to at last obtain his freedom. There’s one slight downside to this proposition; the game doesn’t inform you of what these spells entail. The description merely informs you that they exist. This isn’t an oversight; nowhere in the game are these spells explained to the player. In order to find out what they are, you must consult the enclosed manual.
If you want to cast a spell, you must know which page number it’s on and type “TURN PAGE [NUMBER]” into the text parser. Said number is the Roman numeral on the bottom of the page. From an outsider’s perspective, this design choice would appear to be very strange. After all, the ideal adventure game should contain all of the information necessary to you completing it within the world the creators crafted. It makes no sense to have vital information exist in the instruction manual – even in an age when creators expected players to read it before diving into the game. The reason for this design choice is twofold. To begin with, it allowed developers to convey a lot of information in a physical form. This was important because with such limited disk space, developers had to mind the amount of text they inserted into a game, lest they exceed the capacity of their chosen format.
More importantly, devices capable of copying disks were becoming more readily available around this time. If somebody knew a person who owned such a device, they could copy computer games, potentially getting them for free. As a result, companies that crafted PC games were attempting to find ways to combat software piracy. What King’s Quest III did by placing the spells in the manual was make it difficult for anyone who obtained an illegitimate copy to complete the game. Only one real copy was necessary to illegally duplicate a game. If it got to the point where people were making illegal copies of illegal copies, it would be nearly impossible to determine who had the original disk. Because of this, copied disks generally travelled faster than copied manuals. Moreover, because there are seven different spells Gwydion can perform, copying every page would be a cumbersome process.
While this may sound like Sierra triumphing over the pirates, it does result in one of the game’s biggest flaws. Part of the challenge of King’s Quest and its sequels was discovering creative uses for the various items lying around Daventry and Kolyma. This doesn’t happen during the first half of King’s Quest III. When you explore Llewdor, you’ll know of a given item’s purpose before you’ve discovered its exact location. For example, if you explore the desert and find a small cactus, you know that somewhere down the line, you’ll use it in an invisibility spell. What’s worse is that finding these ingredients and performing the associated spells ultimately comprises 140 of the 210 available points. This means a majority of the game’s puzzles are the result of simply following the manual’s instructions rather than of any ingenuity on your part. It’s especially egregious when you realize two of the items crafted in this fashion, a stone capable of teleporting Gwydion at random and dough that allows him to understand the language of animals, serve little practical purpose. Crafting the latter even runs the risk of spoiling the game’s big twist.
This is a shame because I have to comment that Llewdor is a better designed world than Kolyma. Part of what made the level design of King’s Quest II so boring is that a significant fraction of the screens had no purpose to them at all. King’s Quest III has its own fair share of useless screens, but they aren’t nearly as prominent. Given that you only have twenty-five minutes to explore before Manannan returns from his journey, spending less time wondering where to go or what to do is highly appreciated. Even better, the magical map Gwydion finds in Manannan’s bedroom allows the player to teleport to any screen they’ve visited, effectively cementing the concept of fast travel long before it became common practice.
One of the greatest improvements King’s Quest III has over its contemporaries concerns a mechanic that had existed from the very first installment: random encounters. The original King’s Quest had screens in which a monster would accost Graham within seconds of entering it. These encounters were, to put it charitably, highly annoying. Fewer things were more infuriating than dying and consequently losing a fair bit of progress because a wolf appeared out of nowhere and killed Graham. None of these screens contained anything important anyway, so once you learned which areas were dangerous, there was no reason to visit them at all. King’s Quest II fixed this problem in a way that missed the point of why they were so disliked. By expanding the monsters’ territories into several important locations, exploring Kolyma was a constant battle against the random number generator. However, among the random encounters was a fairy who would grant Graham a protective spell. Though it only lasted for a limited time, Graham could always renew it for no cost. Once again, this made the random encounters pointless because there was no reason why a player shouldn’t have a protective spell cast on Graham at all times.
I could tell the developers began to grasp how annoying these random encounters were as they made King’s Quest III because there is only one group of enemies that adhere to this pattern. When roaming Llewdor, Gwydion may happen upon a pair of bandits. Being bandits, they won’t actually kill Gwydion if they capture him, instead content to relieve him of his possessions. Much like in King’s Quest II, it’s possible to retrieve your items, though it requires a bit more sleuthing to find their hideout.
When wandering the desert on the western edges of Llewdor, Gwydion will happen upon Medusa. True to her mythical counterpart, she will turn Gwydion to stone if he lays eyes upon her. She will also turn Gwydion to stone if she simply touches him. Though it’s easy to get the impression that she too is a random encounter, her appearances are fixed. In fact, because she effectively guards the desert, she is an obstacle Gwydion must overcome rather than avoid. Naturally, the best way to do this is to give her a taste of her own medicine.
This is immensely satisfying for anyone who died simply exploring in King’s Quest or its sequel, and it shows that Sierra was learning from their mistakes. Only one of the two random encounters in Llewdor is fatal and it’s easy enough to dispose of the more dangerous threat.
This isn’t to say that the map design of King’s Quest III is without its flaws. The biggest problem arises when you’re attempting to descend the mountain atop of which Manannan’s house is perched. This proves to be an exercise in immense frustration as you’re navigating Gwydion down narrow pathways. The slightest misstep will cause Gwydion to fall to his death. To make matters worse, the final stretch of the first screen involves guiding Gwydion through a path that’s obscured by a giant boulder, making it very easy to fall off by accident. As one final measure of inconvenience, the magical map cannot teleport Gywdion to the top of the mountain; only to its base. This means that every time Gwydion needs to return to Manannan’s house, you must navigate two screen’s worth of these winding paths.
Once you’ve managed to find the ingredients and returned to the laboratory, you’ll naturally want to craft every item you can. The textbox you get from examining the book on the table in the laboratory implies that one of the spells will allow Gwydion to get rid of Manannan. Though Gwydion can’t exactly kill him, a careful examination of the manual reveals a spell that will do the next best thing.
That’s right. In order to win his freedom, Gwydion can attempt to feed Manannan a cookie that will turn the latter into a harmless cat upon consumption. As it so happens, Manannan demands to be fed when he returns from his journey. Does such a solution sound too good to be true?
That’s because it is. Manannan, being the powerful, if chronically late, wizard that he is, would recognize a magical item if he saw it. In fact, to ensure that he doesn’t simply kill Gwydion outright when he returns, the player must remember to cover their tracks. This involves closing the secret staircase, concealing its lever with the book, returning Manannan’s magic wand to his cabinet, and hiding any offending items from his sight. Though somewhat time-consuming, I do like this touch because it does firmly establish Manannan as a meticulous slave-driver in the purest sense of the term. Though not invincible, these developments tell players that getting rid of him is a much more involved process than fighting any given action-game antagonist. They need to perceive the setting from his perspective to have any kind of success or avoid a certain death.
Still, though two of the spells yield items of dubious value, including a recipe for a cookie that appears even more blatantly useless seems highly suspicious. Though it may seem like Gwydion’s ticket to freedom, it is indeed useless in its basic form. What is the solution? Find a way to feed Manannan the cookie without his knowledge. This task may seem impossible, but a certain fairy tale may provide Gwydion with what he needs to see it through.
Inexplicably, the land of Llewdor is home to the Three Bears. You can enter their abode while they are out on a walk. Inside, you’ll discover a table with three bowls of porridge. Although one bowl is too hot and the other too cold, the third is at a temperature adequate for human, and presumably ursine, consumption. This bowl of porridge is what Gwydion can use to rid himself of Manannan. By crumbling the cookie into the porridge and giving it to Manannan, Gwydion can seal the powerful wizard’s fate.
After being killed by Manannan countless times and having to perform his menial tasks, getting rid of him ranks among the most transcendent moments one can have with the medium. Even I, who had to resort to using a guide many times, found myself beaming when this textbox popped up.
Even after this incredible triumph, dealing with Manannan brings raises it a simple question with a less obvious answer: “Now, what?” Disposing of him drove the entirety of the game’s conflict up until this point, but now that he has been robbed of his powers, there would appear to be nothing more to do. Given Manannan’s relationship to Gwydion, it makes sense that, despite being the primary antagonist, the latter would need to get rid of him immediately than in the obligatory climactic showdown at the end of the game. This is another facet that allowed King’s Quest III to stand out from the crowd – it experimented with the basic narrative structure of not only games, but fiction in general, to a brilliant effect.
With nothing more to do, Gwydion is free to explore Llewdor at his leisure. By removing a giant spider web covering a small cavern, the former slave finds himself face-to-face with an oracle. Throughout their playthrough, a majority of the people playing it were all asking themselves the same question: “Why is this game called King’s Quest III?” King’s Quest II was an obvious sequel, starring the same protagonist as the original and picking up exactly where it left off, so King’s Quest III would appear to have gone completely off the rails. Had Roberta Williams intended for King’s Quest to be a thematic, anthological series, this would have become apparent by the second installment. Indeed, when King’s Quest III was first released, gamers protested, failing to see any sort of connection between Gwydion and King Graham of Daventry. As it turns out, the two vastly different characters do indeed share a connection.
Gwydion was kidnapped by Manannan shortly after birth to be raised as a slave. After the evil wizard caught his first slave in his alchemy laboratory, he made it a tradition to kidnap a random child only to kill them off when they came of age. All of these replacement slaves were given the name Gwydion, demonstrating just how little Manannan cared for these children.
This Gwydion so happens to be the son of King Graham and Queen Valanice, the reigning monarchs of Daventry; his real name is Alexander. Nearly eighteen years have passed since the events of King’s Quest II and the once prosperous nation of Daventry finds itself in ruin once more. A three-headed dragon has reduced the land to ash. Only an annual human sacrifice is capable of appeasing the beast, but it only staves off the inevitable. This year, the chosen sacrifice is Rosella, the princess of Daventry and Gwydion’s sister. The king and queen are paralyzed by grief with their son having been kidnapped from his cradle and their daughter only having a precious few days to live. With this knowledge, Gwydion, or rather Alexander, must make his way to Daventry and save Rosella before it’s too late.
In 1986, video games were not taken seriously as a storytelling medium – neither by the general public nor by the creators themselves. The 1980s was a period in which gameplay invariably took priority over story. With even adventure games running on premises that were often summed up in two pages in an instruction manual, no one at the time could have expected such a bombshell revelation. The idea of a player character having such a massive secret behind them in 1986 was unheard of. With most eighties video game protagonists, what you saw was what you got. In King’s Quest III, despite barely uttering a word, the protagonist undergoes a remarkable arc. He begins the game the lowly slave named Gwydion. By the end, he triumphs over two fantastical antagonists and reclaims his true name and title: Prince Alexander of Daventry. What makes this arc stand out from its non-interactive contemporaries is that you were the one who made it happen, rendering it all the more affecting.
Admittedly, I have to say that while this is indeed an impressive revelation, it does come with something of a drawback. Specifically, the game begins deteriorating in quality once you have dealt with Manannan and are focused on getting to Daventry. Speaking with the oracle causes pirates to dock their ship at Llewdor’s harbor town. By bribing them with gold, Alexander is told he can receive passage on their ship to Daventry. He is then unceremoniously tossed in the cargo hold with his possessions having been stolen.
Escaping the cargo hold isn’t difficult, but once Alexander gets his possessions back and receives an item from the lower deck, there is nothing left to do on the ship. It is completely pointless to explore it at length for any reason, yet attempting to jump overboard and swim for Daventry will result in Alexander drowning in the ocean long before he reaches his destination. Therefore, one must take cues from the text adventures of old and by waiting. Because the command “WAIT” isn’t valid, owing to the game working in real time, you must simply leave it running. It takes anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes before you reach your destination. It’s not unusual for a game to have slow periods, but forcing players to idle for over ten minutes is inexcusable. It would be more understandable had it been part of an optional sidequest, but it absolutely does not work as something one needs to do to complete the game.
Once the pirate ship makes it to Daventry, Alexander must navigate a massive mountain range while evading the abominable snowman. The snowman randomly appears on one of three screens, showing up on the third without fail. To get away from him, you must transform into a fly or eagle using the magic rose essence you crafted in Manannan’s laboratory. This moment right here demonstrates why having a real-time text parser is a bad idea. A blind player would have no reason to suspect the snowman exists, all but guaranteeing a death the first time around. Even if they could drum up the solution in two seconds, they would still need to type “DIP WINGS IN ESSENCE” or “DIP EAGLE FEATHER IN ESSENCE” as the snowman is bearing down on them. Even on the slowest setting, this is nearly impossible to pull off. The only feasible way to do this is by typing the command in advance, which is only realistic if the player knows about the threat to begin with.
Fortunately, even if the game falters all throughout its second half, it does have a solid ending – one that reinforces how different of a protagonist Alexander is from his father. Graham stood out from his contemporaries in that he typically found peaceful solutions to his problems. It’s true that he canonically kills Dahlia in the original King’s Quest and Dracula in the second, but neither are required actions in their respective games.
Alexander, on the other hand, celebrates his homecoming by marching right up to the dragon and conjuring a magical storm, striking the beast down with lightning.
After freeing Rosella from the stake, the siblings return to Castle Daventry to the immense joy of their parents Graham and Valanice. King’s Quest III may be one of the oldest adventure games in the medium’s history, but there’s little denying how much pathos these scenes carry even today. Eighteen long years have passed, and the Daventry family is reunited at long last. As a fitting end to this game, Graham tosses his famed adventurer’s cap to his children. The hat arcs through the air, but before we get to see who catches it, the game ends.
Drawing a Conclusion
King’s Quest III is a very difficult game for me to pin down in terms of quality. Its premise is every bit as unique and avant-garde today as it was when upon release. On a more basic level, it’s a significant step up from its predecessors in terms of tone, characters, and storytelling. While King’s Quest and its first sequel made you guide King Graham to success because he’s the main character, King’s Quest III marked one of the earliest instances in which players had to empathize with their avatar. Just from the opening scene, you get a sense of how terrible Gwydion’s life as a slave truly is. Along those lines, you would be hard-pressed to find a more detestable video game antagonist than Manannan in 1986. Sure, defeating him wasn’t as difficult as fighting the final boss in a given contemporary action title and there some villains who could claim to be more blatantly evil, but Manannan earns more ire because, from the onset, he holds all of the cards. It makes Gwydion’s inevitable escape all the more gratifying. If that wasn’t enough, King’s Quest III manages to have one of the medium’s first truly affecting plot twists – the kind capable of making a second playthrough a vastly different experience. Considering that most video game plots in 1986 were some variant of “Kill the bad guy and save the world”, King’s Quest III was an admirable effort.
I also feel this game is an example of what happens when a series grows up too quickly in a short amount of time. I say this because as an adventure game, King’s Quest III bears many of the genre’s worst aspects – possibly to an even greater extent than its two predecessors. A significant chunk of the game’s first half is going to be spent learning how Manannan functions. This involves a lot of trial-and-error and even with keen observational skills, anyone going into King’s Quest III blind is going to die frequently just learning how the game works unless they play very conservatively. The other problem is the fact that a majority of the game’s puzzles involves spellcasting, which translates to following the instruction manual to the letter. Because of this, your potential interactions with the world are rather limited, consisting of gathering the magic ingredients, using the items you craft, and little else.
Though its flaws sound like deal-breakers, I actually find myself at a loss as to whether or not I could recommend a playthrough of King’s Quest III because it’s good in a way few other games can replicate. If you’re trying to get into adventure games, King’s Quest III would neither be the best nor the worst choice for an introduction, as the strengths and weaknesses of the genre are represented in roughly equal levels. Whether you choose to try this game out or take a pass on it, know that King’s Quest III raised standard of quality not only for the franchise, but the medium as a whole.
Final Score: 5/10