King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!

Introduction

On the eve of the release of King’s Quest IV, series creator Roberta Williams had many reservations – many of which were shared by her company, Sierra. Their flagship series’ fourth installment was to cast a female character in the lead role in an era when the medium had a predominately male fanbase. Princesses were expected to get captured so they could be saved by the noble hero; giving one an adventure of her own was simply unheard of. On top of that, Sierra had just finished developing their new game engine: the Sierra’s Creative Interpreter. Having been specifically designed for 16-bit little-endian computers, they feared many longtime fans lacked the resources to play it. They could not have anticipated King’s Quest IV to sell 100,000 copies within two weeks of its launch. Many journalists had nothing but praise for the new female lead – a sentiment shared by fans of the series.

With this success, the series had a future after gaining a powerful rival in the form of LucasArts. It was therefore only natural for Sierra to keep up the momentum by developing a sequel. After the significant technological leap from King’s Quest III, the programmers were in the process of refining their newest engine. The second version of the SCI engine, SCI1, was to feature 256 colors. Ms. Williams once again found herself in the director’s chair for the game that was to showcase the engine’s new capabilities.

As was the case with King’s Quest IV, Sierra sought to make the game as accessible as they could. The original version would be released on a floppy disk while owners of top-end computers could utilize a format gaining popularity for its superior storage capabilities: the CD-ROM. Furthermore, it was during this time that PC game developers began taking note of the rapidly growing console market. Thanks to the successful launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the North American console market had recovered from its devastating 1983 crash, and it was soon outpacing the PC in terms of popularity. While PC gaming required a degree of expertise most people simply did not possess at the time, anyone could place a cartridge into NES and commence playing. By the end of the decade, anything released on the NES was guaranteed a significant return on investment for the developers. As a result, Sierra collaborated with the prolific, Tokyo-based developer Konami to create and release a port for the NES.

This installment, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!, was released in November of 1990. Sierra spared no expense making King’s Quest V, giving Ms. Williams and her team a budget of one-million dollars. The company’s gambit paid off, for the game, like its predecessor, was a commercial success, moving 500,000 copies over the next few years. For a significant length of time, it had been the best-selling PC game of all time until 1995 when Cyan, Inc.’s Myst surpassed it. Many magazines praised it for its exemplary VGA graphics and sound card utilization with critics considering it the single greatest installment in the series thus far. Was King’s Quest V able ensure the popular series had a leg to stand on in the new decade?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for the series thus far. Also, several puzzle solutions will be spoiled.

A mysterious clocked figure descends upon the land of Daventry. With a powerful spell, he summons a whirlwind to engulf the castle, and in a flash, it is gone. King Graham had been out on a stroll as this happened, and when he returns, he is shocked to see a larger crater where his castle once stood. Before he can fully process what has just happened, a talking owl named Cedric appears. Cedric, having witnessed the events firsthand, identifies the cloaked figure as Mordack. To make matters worse, Graham’s family had been inside the castle when Mordack whisked it away, leaving him completely alone. Wishing to help Graham recover his family and castle, Cedric takes Graham to the land of Serenia.

When they arrive there, Graham meets Cedric’s master: a wizard named Crispinophur – or Crispin for short. The good wizard is unsure what Mordack has against Graham or his family, but advises the king on how he can rescue them. Mordack resides on an island off the eastern coast of Serenia, and to reach it, Graham must traverse an imposing mountain range. He isn’t able to aid Graham directly, but gives the king his old wand and a piece of white snake that will enable him to speak with animals. With Crispin’s assistance, Graham begins on his most perilous journey yet.

Anyone who had been following the series up until this point and booted up the game without consulting the instruction manual was likely taken aback as soon as the experience began in earnest. Like King’s Quest IV, there isn’t a text parser in sight. However, attempting to type a sentence will not cause it to appear, for it does not exist in this installment. Continuing to take cues from their rivals at LucasArts, Sierra saw fit to implement a fully functional point-and-click interface for their SCI1 engine. Whereas in King’s Quest IV, the mouse was completely unnecessary, you will need it in order accomplish even the most rudimentary of tasks in King’s Quest V.

From the onset, the mouse cursor takes the form of what resembles an effigy of King Graham himself as opposed to the more familiar arrow shape. Left-clicking the mouse in this state will cause Graham to move to the location on the screen where the cursor rested. When you attempt to do this, you will learn that King’s Quest V is more sophisticated than its predecessor in terms of guiding your character with the mouse. If you attempted to do this in King’s Quest IV or the remake of the original King’s Quest, the character would simply head in a straight line to where you clicked. For King’s Quest V, the developers implemented an actual pathfinding system. If you click on a section of the screen distant from where Graham’s current position, he will usually take the most logical route to reach that spot. In most circumstances, if he doesn’t reach the spot to which you’re attempting to guide him, it is off limits.

Although it is firmly established that you use the mouse cursor to move Graham, anyone versed in adventure games knows this is only a fraction of the experience. After all, one doesn’t complete an experience such as this simply moving back and forth between screens until it decides to end. An adventure game frequently involves talking with other characters, soaking in the scenery, and finding creative ways to circumvent any obstacles that dare block your progress. None of this would be possible if the mouse was only capable of moving Graham. In order to perform these actions, you must raise the cursor to the top of the screen.

One playing the original version would see a blue bar with various icons appear when the mouse enters the top portion of the screen. It is similar to the interface in previous games in that accessing this interface pauses the onscreen action. The biggest difference is that while the menus in AGI and early SCI games were primarily a means by which players could adjust options, this one allows you to change what action the mouse cursor performs.

The leftmost icon is the one automatically selected for you, causing Graham to walk to the selected location. The next one in line, which also resembles a smaller version of Graham, prompts him to run to the selected location instead. The eye shaped icon is for examining set pieces. Although it is largely unnecessary, it does result in a fair amount of interesting flavor text that adds character to the setting. The hand icon causes Graham to interact with whatever you clicked. What the interaction entails depends on the context. The icon that resembles Graham’s face with a word balloon next to it allows the king to talk to whomever you click on. As NPC interactions are the bread and butter of any good adventure game, this is very useful. If you so choose, you can cycle through the icons by right-clicking.

The bag icon opens up the inventory screen. The corresponding icons perform the exact same actions within this window, allowing Graham to examine or manipulate the items when clicked on. The cursor icon allows you to select an item. When the cursor transforms into the object, you can click the “OK” icon to return to the game. This, in a sense, allows Graham to equip the item you selected. It is automatically selected when you exit the inventory screen, but it also appears to the left of the bag icon if you intend to use it later. The icon shaped like a floppy disk allows you create or load a save file. Sensibly, if you wish to end your session, you must click the stop sign icon. The slider bar permits you to adjust the game’s settings. The three adjustable options affect the game’s volume, speed, and level of detail. In certain parts of the game, NPCs may interact among themselves and others may have unique animations. They are less likely to play out if the “Detail” bar is set low. Finally, the question mark icon informs you what each icon does. If you weren’t currently reading a review of this game, it may have served some purpose. As it stands, its value is quite dubious.

The CD-ROM version of this game significantly condensed the interface. Having two icons for movement was rightly deemed redundant. There was no reason why a player would ever use the slower “walk” icon over the one that allows Graham to run. If the game was designed in a similar fashion as King’s Quest IV and featured perilous spiral staircases, it may have served a purpose. While falling off of ledges is still very much possible, it’s not exactly the persistent threat it once was. Furthermore, in order to save, reload, or quit, you must click the slider bar icon to reach the appropriate options.

Though many old-school adventure game enthusiasts extol the values of the text parser, I feel the new point-and-click interface is a step in the right direction. Sierra had admittedly shown a lot of improvement when it came to implementing text parsers. Attempting to play Ms. William’s first game, Mystery House, is nearly impossible due to the parser usually understanding but a single phrase for each action. By the time Sierra launched the first version of the SCI engine, they learned to accept the various ways in which players may phrase their commands. It was to the point where newer versions often added new phrasings to prevent players from getting stuck. Nonetheless, the ability to place a cursor on a set piece in an attempt to interact with or examine it prevents this problem from happening in the first place. If nothing else, the new interface eliminates the problem plaguing many classic adventure games wherein you were unable to identify certain objects due to graphical limitations.

Exploring Serenia reveals that it is far more compact than Daventry, Kolyma, Llewdor, or Tamir. Up until the release of King’s Quest V, Llewdor was the smallest region, only consisting of twenty screens. Serenia, on the other hand, only contains twelve normal screens. Once again, I feel this change was for the best. One of the subtly irritating aspects about any of the preceding games in the series was the sheer number of superfluous screens in each region. This was especially noticeable in King’s Quest II, but this problem had existed in every installment leading up to this one to varying degrees. The case could be made that this added to the game’s challenge, for it counted on players to be perceptive. However, in practice, it just wasted their time as they looked for items that could be useful on their quest. With Serenia only being twelve screens large, you’re not going to spend as much time wandering around aimlessly.

As a possible natural consequence of the radical shift in world design, no longer will you have to worry about a monster popping up randomly and killing Graham. From the very first installment, random encounters had never worked in this series. Just when it seemed as though Sierra had caught onto this with King’s Quest III, they became more annoying than ever in its immediate sequel – even if they were technically fewer in number. With King’s Quest V, the developers finally realized how annoying it is to play a game only to get killed by a fast-moving monster against which you have no defense.

Finally, it’s worth nothing that, for its time, King’s Quest V was absolutely stunning. Although a game boasting 256 colors and VGA graphics seems quaint by today’s standards, you have to remember AGI and early SCI titles only featured sixteen. After a mere two years following the release of King’s Quest IV, this is remarkable from a technical standpoint. Every single screen in the game was painted by hand and translated into digital form. I can believe that because even now, it’s easy to appreciate just how much work went into crafting these backdrops. Compared this installment, previous King’s Quest entries merely turned protagonists loose in an exotic backyard. Roberta Williams may have made history when she conceived the first adventure game to use graphics, but with King’s Quest V, she was among the first to capture the essence of an epic film. Before this installment, only King’s Quest III came close to accomplishing this feat with its protagonist, Alexander, escaping his master Manannan and learning who he truly is. While a valiant effort for its time, King’s Quest V clearly has the superior presentation.

When she created the original King’s Quest, Roberta Williams had to realize that with the shift to a third-person perspective, the journey wasn’t being experienced firsthand by the one playing the game. Giving them a character to control, she needed to give him a name, a role, and a purpose, hence Sir Graham of Daventry. Despite this, trace amounts of her pioneering Apple II titles remained throughout the first four installments of the King’s Quest series. Barring a few notable exceptions, the characters lacked dialogue, placing the onus on the players to infer how they react to each new development. Although Daventry’s royal family members weren’t silent protagonists in the traditional sense, it was still far more common for their dialogue to be summed up rather than displayed onscreen. To complement this, the narration was still written from a second-person perspective despite the player and the character they controlled being manifestly separate entities.

King’s Quest V thus takes the evolution of Ms. Williams’s work to its logical conclusion on two fronts. To begin with, King Graham has an actual voice this time around. You don’t read a brief summation of his dialogue; you get to see exactly what he says for yourself. In this installment, Graham is firmly established as a stoic man with a kind heart. He is also assertive and perceptive when the situation calls for it. One of the minor antagonists of this game is yet another wicked witch. When he finds a way to block her spell, he wisely tells her nothing, even doling out a few cutting one-liners in the process. It does make a lot of sense; one doesn’t exactly face off against a dragon, three powerful witches, or a giant without any idea of what they’re doing – at least not if they expect to live to tell the tale. To cement this change, the narration is now written in the third-person. The narrator describes Graham’s actions – not yours. Despite this, the fact that you’re the one who ultimately guides him to success remains unchanged.

The CD-ROM version notably added voice acting to the game. While the idea of having voices in games wasn’t new in 1990, what made King’s Quest V stand out how every single line – whether provided by the omniscient narrator or a character within the story – is acted. Before this point, games with voice acting, such as Ys Book I & II, would still convey dialogue through plain text, only having the most important lines vocalized.

Sierra employee Josh Mandel had the honor of voicing King Graham. Although his performance was, for the most part, well-received, he later expressed dissatisfaction with it. He had theater training, including from Carnegie-Mellon and the American Conservatory Theater, which included a lot of onstage experience. He would often try to use his knowledge to complement what the narration says of his character. Using the eye icon on Graham himself would reveal that he is “heavy of heart”. Attempting to examine a bluebird early in the game causes the narrator to say that it would have cheered Graham up had it not been for his family’s plight. One could hardly blame his general despondence given the circumstances – and this is after watching his kingdom fall into ruin, sacrificing his daughter, and nearly succumbing to a heart attack.

Curiously, none of this is conveyed in Josh Mandel’s performance. He would later state in interviews that he tried to inject certain moods and emotions in his vocalizations, but they were invariably overruled. According to him, Ms. Williams would counter with “He’s never tired; he’s King Graham!” or “He’s never worried; he’s King Graham!” Although this may seem disappointing, if it’s one effect I like from his performance, it’s that it conveys just how determined he is to rescue his family. He isn’t terribly emotive, you get the sense that no earthly force could even come close to stopping him from reaching Mordack’s island. Various evil forces will try, but as long as the player shares that determination, they are doomed to fall in the end.

The most significant reveal this game has to offer is when Graham learns of Mordack’s motivation. Stealing a castle along with its inhabitants isn’t something even an evil wizard does out of boredom. Sure enough, it turns out he has a brother by the name of Manannan. Every eighteen years, he would kidnap boys at birth and raise them as slaves. However, the most recent one, who turned out to be Prince Alexander of Daventry, used Manannan’s own powers against him, turning the powerful wizard into a harmless cat. Even with his own impressive magical powers, Mordack can do nothing to return Manannan to normal. He has therefore kidnapped Alexander in an attempt to get him to reverse the spell the prince cast upon his brother. Alexander correctly points out that he can do no such thing, but Mordack doesn’t believe him, threatening to feed his family to Manannan if he doesn’t cooperate.

By this point in its history, King’s Quest had quite an extensive lore, and the presentation upgrade allowed the writers to explore the elements already established more extensively. It’s interesting watching Ms. Williams take these seemingly random plot points and explore their consequences. While every bit as unsympathetic as his brother, Mordack has a fairly understandable motivation for taking away Castle Daventry along with its inhabitants. He genuinely respects his brother and wants to see him restored to his rightful form. Regardless of how long it takes for Graham to reach Mordack’s island, he still hasn’t carried out his threat. Although this facet is primarily to allow players as much time as they need to complete the game, I find I enjoy its underlying implications. Even if he holds most of the cards, Mordack realizes if he harms Valanice or Rosella, Alexander won’t tell him anything. Naturally, if he kills Alexander, Manannan is stuck as a cat for the rest of his life, so no matter how threatening he makes himself, he realizes they have reached an impasse. Still, Graham can’t afford to take that chance, and this revelation really hammers home just how big the price for failure is.

It is a shame, then, that as you actually progress through the game and see what it has to offer, you get to watch all of this goodwill fade away into nothingness. Anyone seeking to criticize King’s Quest V will inevitably mention Graham’s travel companion, Cedric. If you ever see a list of the worst video game sidekicks, Cedric is all but guaranteed to show up on it – and in many cases, he will secure the top spot. It’s easy to see why he is so reviled. The information he gives is mostly useless and he is a coward, staying behind whenever Graham ventures into dangerous areas. Graham is more audibly annoyed by his whining the closer they get to Mordack’s island. When they eventually arrive, he insists on turning back despite the two of them being stranded there.

While the voice acting generally isn’t good, being mostly covered by Sierra staff members with limited training, Cedric’s voice is grating even by this game’s standards. There is only one instance in the entire game in which he does anything useful, and true to form, it is by complete accident. It’s to the point where Sierra themselves realized he was a mistake, and had him make cameo appearances in future games such as Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist and Space Quest IV with the sole purpose of inflicting various indignities upon him. Although I will say Cedric isn’t the worst character I’ve ever seen in a game, he is terribly written and utterly contemptable. However, as bad as Cedric is, he is, at the end of the day, a mere symptom of various larger problems plaguing this game.

Although the land of Serenia is fairly small, you will soon find by thoroughly examining the region that there isn’t much to do. You’ll wander around in circles again and again only to realize no further progress can be made. Sure, there are plenty of problems just waiting to be solved by an altruistic king, but no matter how hard you try, you won’t find anything you can use to address them. It’s not as though you’re unobservant; the supplies you can obtain from Serenia are just that limited.

Though Serenia itself is only twelve screens in area, there are four different regions you can access from there: a town, a desert, a dark forest, and a mountain range. As a result of a poisonous snake blocking the path to the mountains, they cannot be accessed right away. Although the town has many potentially useful items, Graham is strapped for cash as a result of Mordack stealing his castle and with it, the magic chest containing an infinite number of gold coins. The silver coin he can find in town can be used to purchase a custard pie from the local bakery, but that is the extent of what Graham can accomplish there at first. If you choose to brazenly ignore the sign reading “Enter at your own risk!” posted at the entrance to the dark forest, you will quickly learn the wicked witch residing there doesn’t take kindly to strangers, turning anyone who enters it into toads.

Through the process of elimination, it would appear the only place to explore is the desert. To anyone who had been following the series up until this point, this is wildly counterintuitive. The only other game in the series to feature an endless desert was King’s Quest III, and even a cursory exploration of it reveals it to be an elaborate dead-end. Attempting to explore the desert in King’s Quest V would seem fruitless at first. The only thing that would result from it is Graham dying from dehydration after wandering too many screens. However, through elaborate trial-and-error, you will eventually discover the desert contains several oases, a temple, and a camp occupied by bandits.

For want of an in-game map, the only way to successfully navigate the desert is by drawing one of your own. This is an incredibly tedious process that doesn’t add anything significant to the challenge. You explore the screens around the oases only to reload once you realize Graham is about to die. To make matters worse, the points of interest are placed in such a way that Graham will only have just barely enough endurance to reach to each one. What really makes the desert frustrating is that there is boot you must find in order to progress. It is in a nondescript section of the desert, and depending on how you reach it, you may find you can’t double back to the last oasis you used. The bandit camp itself consists of two tents. If you attempt to enter the larger one, a bandit will accost and kill Graham in a single strike. Though this makes sense if you reach the camp when it’s occupied, this still happens even if no one else is in sight. In the event you failed to save, you’ll likely have to waste more time retracing your steps.

Along those lines, what causes the quality of King’s Quest V to sink like a stone is that the programmers have a tendency to punish any kind of mistake with death. This had been true to some degree throughout the series, but the team went completely overboard with this installment. Serenia differs from its predecessors in that it does not wrap around at all. Instead, it makes use of natural barriers to prevent any further progress in a certain direction once you’ve reached the edge. To prevent players from going too far to the south, a raging river cuts off your progress. If you attempt to enter it, you’ll learn Graham no longer has the ability to swim in spite of the magic fruit granting him longevity. By itself, this is a severe punishment for clicking the wrong spot. The programmers could simply have made it impossible to move into the river, but they decided instant death was the best recourse for going off the rails.

When you wander the desert, you may catch onto the fact that it expands quite a bit southward from where the river supposedly ends. If you thought about trying to get to the other side of the river by going one screen down from the entrance, you will be displeased to know the designers put a failsafe in place in the form of a tiny scorpion. Without giving the player the chance to move him off the screen, the scorpion stings Graham, killing him. It is a natural inclination to want to explore in an adventure game, so preventing players from doing so with such a severe penalty completely goes against the genre’s ethos. Barring Graham’s progress with another natural barrier would have been far more sensible.

Anyone writing an extensive critique on King’s Quest V is bound to mention the often nonsensical puzzle solutions. It stands to reason; if the player cannot follow the developers’ logic, they will often find themselves unable to advance. Once Graham has obtained a magical amulet from a fortune teller, he can enter the witch’s forest safely. However, you’ll soon learn by attempting to backtrack that Graham cannot escape. Leaving is possible, but it requires a very specific set of items. If he has the amulet, but is missing at least one of the other items, Graham will eventually fall victim to one of the many malevolent creatures dwelling in the forest. This is, once again, a case in which the game is punishing the players for exploring. What you must do is raid the witch’s house for three emeralds and travel to a fairly unremarkable screen. There, you must have Graham lace the ground with honey and throw all three emeralds away. A small elf will take the first two emeralds only to get stuck in the honey in an attempt to retrieve the third. Why the developers assumed any player would do this is unclear. The worst part is that if you do not handle this situation properly, you will have made the game unwinnable. In any other game, the puzzle involving the three emeralds would be the single most notorious leap of logic the experience had to offer. It is a true testament to the quality of King’s Quest V that this particular puzzle only barely stands out. Indeed, anyone who has finished this game can name several puzzles that are far worse.

One such puzzle involves the notorious Swarthy Hog Inn. If he has the boot from the desert in his possession, Graham will be alerted to a cat chasing a rat outside of the bakery. You have to select the boot and proceed to click a moving target. While it isn’t overly fickle, trying to do this at higher speeds can be next to impossible unless you know of the event ahead of time. This is a puzzle that is made far more complicated with the point-and-click interface. Had you been able to type a command in the SCI’s original text parser, players wouldn’t have this problem. While one could argue the point-and-click interface is more streamlined, it’s clear from this puzzle that the developers hadn’t quite figured out how to optimize it.

The reason you must save the rat is unclear at first. Near the bakery lies the inn. If you attempt to explore the inn or speak with the owner, you’ll quickly discover he and the two other men are professional criminals. Deeming Graham a troublemaker, they will knock him on the head, tie him up, throw him into the cellar. Once again, there is no indication that this course of action will lead to such a consequence. If you saved the rat, she will chew through the rope binding Graham, allowing him to potentially escape. I say “potentially” because unless you also have a cobbler’s hammer, you will still be trapped in the cellar, for a rusted padlock prevents Graham from escaping. Setting aside the obvious issue that the padlock wouldn’t logically be on Graham’s side of the door, he must escape because the inn contains many items he will need on his quest – including the rope used to imprison him. Purposely getting captured is not something anyone would think to do after the first time it happened. One would be forgiven for believing the inn to be a red herring when it’s not the case at all. Naturally, if Graham failed to save the rat, the game is impossible to complete. Although the game does draw a lot of attention to it, not rescuing the rat doesn’t have an immediate consequence, making it easy to save in an unwinnable state.

Along those lines, there is one moment in the game in which Graham must sling a rope to a ledge in the mountains and climb it. The branch is the more obvious choice, but if you try to have Graham climb the rope that way, it will break, causing him to die upon impact with the ground. What you needed to do was have Graham sling the rope to the rock jutting out to the right of the branch, which looks like a piece of scenery. This is especially infuriating because if you have Graham tie the rope to the branch, using the hand icon will only prompt him to try to climb it. Again, if this game ran on a text parser, this issue wouldn’t exist. You could simply type “TAKE ROPE” to get it back. As it stands, you have rendered the game unwinnable as soon as you made the decision to tie the rope to the branch.

Although these problems are dire, the actual puzzle solutions tend to be even worse. What many people believe to be the absolute most infamous one involves, of all things, the custard pie. A lot of time passes between the earliest moment you can purchase it and when it finally sees use. As Graham travels the mountains, he will begin to feel hungry from the journey. By this point in the game, Graham should have two pieces of food: a custard pie and a leg of lamb. He can use either to satiate his hunger, but he will soon happen upon a famished eagle. Again, he can either offer the rest of the leg of lamb or the pie to it. If you choose the pie in any of these situations, you cannot win the game. Graham will soon find himself facing off against a Yeti terrorizing an ice queen’s kingdom. It would seem to be completely undefeatable, and none of the items he has on his person appear to be strong enough to kill it. After repeatedly dying to it, the average player would, in frustration, try every single item to see any of them work. In no way could they have the capacity to comprehend what the real solution is.

Taking a page out of the Three Stooges’ playbook, Graham must throw the custard pie at the Yeti, blinding it, and causing it to tumble into the abyss below. This solution has left many a gamer completely lost for words. One couldn’t really blame them. In a game that, for the most part, takes itself seriously, defeating a Yeti by throwing a pie at it is jarringly out of place. This is the kind of solution one would expect out of a comedy game such as Space Quest or Leisure Suit Larry. Even then, it is most probable to have been drummed up as the result of sheer desperation rather than any kind of ingenuity.

Ultimately though, what I really dislike about many of the puzzle solutions concerns the implicit impacts they have on the narrative. Graham’s goal is to cross the mountains and set sail for Mordack’s island from the beach, but the poisonous snake blocks his progress. To remove it, Graham must shake a tambourine at it to scare it off. Until he obtains the tambourine, which is dropped by the fortune teller’s caravan after they leave, Graham simply wanders all over Serenia without any true purpose. The sheer urgency of his situation isn’t reflected in any way by what he is forced to do to succeed.

What I consider to be the most surreal moment in the game concerns how Graham deals with the wicked witch. One of the items you can retrieve from the desert temple is a brass bottle. Opening it releases the genie dwelling within. However, this one doesn’t grant Graham three wishes; instead, he ungratefully traps the king in the bottle for the next five-hundred years. There is nothing in the game that even remotely hints towards this outcome. It’s not as though Graham ever hears a rumor about the genie, nor is there any kind of warning inscribed on the bottle itself. It is a little suspicious how the bottle was left undisturbed when the bandits regularly raided the temple for its boundless riches, but nobody could extrapolate from this that whoever attempts to open it will be trapped inside by a genie. The contrivance surrounding the bottle comes to a peak when you’re eventually made to use it as a puzzle solution. Specifically, by having Graham place it on the ground in front of the witch, she will open it up herself out of curiosity. The genie proves to be even more vindictive with her, for not only does he trap her in the bottle, he makes it disappear immediately afterwards.

Observant readers will realize exactly what is wrong with this scenario. The set of action Graham must take in order to get rid of the wicked witch relies on knowledge he couldn’t possibly have. The bottle is, for all intents and purposes, a suicide button. However, from Graham’s perspective, it’s just an ordinary brass bottle he found in a temple. If he is curious enough to open it, he is trapped in the bottle himself. When he gains the knowledge of what the bottle contains, he can’t do anything with it. Despite this, he still decides to place the bottle before the witch so she can be cursed by the genie herself. Unlike throwing the bridle at the snake in King’s Quest II, this is not something he could have done by accident. The player is the only entity involved in this interaction who could potentially know of the vindictive genie residing in the bottle.

 

Regardless, the game acts as though Graham shares this knowledge when there is no possible method by which he could gain it without being cursed himself. What is especially bad about this proposition is that the game practically depends on the player having opened the bottle after obtaining it. To put it another way, not only did the developers include myriad cheap deaths, you often need to actively fall prey to them. This flies in the face of the medium itself; if you die in a good game, it’s your fault. King’s Quest V actively requires its players to die repeatedly to gain valuable knowledge while the various messages generated from these outcomes mock them for their stupidity.

To wit.

Dying is either a central part of the experience or a punishment for making a mistake – it can’t be both.

The player will have encountered every substantial flaw plaguing this game by the time Graham reaches Serenia’s coastline. The worst part is that they proceed to reappear for an encore performance once he makes it to Mordack’s Island.

King’s Quest V was a significant step up from its predecessors in terms of aesthetics, but there are at least two instances in which the artists utterly failed to convey important information to the players in the endgame. The first such instance occurs when Graham reaches the front door to Mordack’s castle. Most of the people looking at the above screenshot would assume there is one large step to the door. In reality, it’s a giant gap, and because the game doesn’t prevent you from falling off ledges, misinterpreting this screen will result in yet another cheap death. Because the front door is out of the question, Graham must find another way in. The good news is that a secret passage will take him straight to Mordack’s castle.

The bad news is that Graham will now find himself in a nondescript labyrinth. It is difficult to overstate exactly how difficult it is to navigate this maze. Whenever Graham turns, the perspective shifts. It brings to mind the illusionary first-person perspective present in many pioneering computer RPGs, but it doesn’t quite work. This is primarily because you’re still controlling Graham from a third-person perspective, making it highly awkward when you’re trying to get your bearings. If you click the eye icon on an empty space, a compass appears on the screen. It would be immensely helpful were it not for the fact that it disappears once Graham leaves a screen. Why it simply couldn’t be present onscreen at all times is unknown.

Once you do eventually find your way through, you will discover that Mordack has a servant of his own: a young woman named Cassima. After earning her trust, Graham learns she is actually a princess of the Land of the Green Isles. She was kidnapped by Mordack and he forced her to be his wife due to being a friend of a vizier employed by her father. When she refused, he made her a slave instead. This gives Graham all the more incentive to rescue his family and defeat Mordack, though he grasps the very real possibility that he may not survive.

This proves highly prophetic when you attempt to navigate Mordack’s castle only for Graham to be killed off by the wizard himself – seemingly at every turn. As it turns out, you simply cannot wait for too long on a given screen before he teleports into the room and kills Graham. Compounding matters is that Manannan can randomly show up on some of these screens. If he does and you fail to deal with him, Mordack will be alerted to Graham’s presence immediately. However, there doesn’t seem to be a way to dispose of Manannan. There is a dead fish you can toss to him, but other than distracting him for a few seconds, there would appear to be nothing more you can do.

As it turns out, a blue beast also patrols the castle, and can randomly show up on three different screens. One of the greatest improvements King’s Quest V made over its predecessors is that it had eschewed random encounters entirely when Graham was in Serenia. For the last leg of his journey, not only do they make a comeback, they are even worse than before. Unlike in the first three installments in which random encounters were signposted by an action-pausing text box, the blue beast shows up without warning. It doesn’t even have the courtesy to appear as soon as Graham enters the screen. Only when he moves to a certain part of a room in which it can spawn will it appear.

There is a silver lining in that the blue beast does not actually kill Graham upon reaching him. In fact, you may notice that if it does, the sound effect indicating you received a point plays. This means exactly what you think – Graham needs to get captured twice on purpose in order to complete his quest. He is then thrown in an oubliette with no obvious exit. A careful examination reveals that it contains a piece of moldy cheese. This piece of cheese forms the backbone of the single most infamous puzzle in entire game, but before he can use it, Graham must escape.

Thankfully, Cassima frees Graham from the cell. This allows him to use a bag of dried peas on the blue beast, causing it to trip and fall. Afterwards, he can distract Manannan with a dead fish and trap him in the now empty bag. With Mordack’s sentries now disposed of, Graham can make his way to the wizard’s bedroom.

Once again, the unclear nature of the art style makes it easy to not realize one can exit this screen to the south. Doing so will take Graham to Mordack’s library. There, after having established that lingering on a screen for too long will result in Graham’s slow and painful demise at the hands of Mordack, the player must have him wait for a minute or so. If they do, Mordack will appear in his bedroom to retire for the evening. Specifically, he must hide along the northern edges of the room to avoid being killed by Mordack. This is what makes playing King’s Quest V such a frustrating experience; it doesn’t even abide by its own rules, yet expects the player to keep up with its deviations.

After Mordack falls asleep, Graham has the perfect opportunity to steal the evil wizard’s wand. Though Graham is unable to use Mordack’s wand, he can transfer its power, thereby rejuvenating the one Crispin lent him. Upon accessing Mordack’s laboratory, there would appear to be a machine built for that exact purpose. However, even after placing the wands where they need to go, nothing happens. You need something to activate it, but you couldn’t guess that Graham needs to throw the moldy cheese into the bubbling liquid to turn the machine on.

I’m not going to mince words; this is the single worst puzzle solution in the entire series. Previous puzzles such as throwing the bridle at the snake, tossing away the three emeralds, or trapping the witch inside the brass bottle were dire, but there was a real line of logic to them. They were seldom courses of action a normal human being would think to do, but once you saw the solution play out, you could at least see why they worked. This puzzle doesn’t even have that going for it. Graham simply tosses the moldy cheese into the liquid and that turns on the machine for some reason. If the player has no choice but to brute-force a puzzle to advance, the designers have officially failed them.

The sounds of the machine alerts Mordack to Graham’s presence, but Cedric shows up just in time to shield the good king from the wizard’s attack. Realizing his wand has been drained of its power, Mordack assumes the form of a flying scorpion. Graham responds in kind with Crispin’s wand, transforming himself into a tiger. I will admit this final showdown is well-done. The transformation symbols actually require players to figure out how to respond to Mordack’s onslaught, and the solutions are creative. It’s a shame this is one of the few flashes of brilliance the game has to offer.

Once all is said and done, Graham attempts to use Crispin’s wand to restore his family and castle. In what is perhaps the worst timing ever seen in fiction, the wand chooses that exact moment to fizzle and die. Despite having done so much just to reach Mordack’s island let alone kill the evil wizard, there is nothing more Graham can do. Cedric, the only one he could use to relay a message to the outside world, is on the brink of death. Graham and Cassima are now trapped on the island forever.

At that exact moment, Crispin teleports into the castle, proclaiming he has a solution to all of their problems. With a couple of choice magic words, he restores Valanice, Alexander, and Rosella to their normal sizes and revives Cedric. It wasn’t bad enough that the player had to deduce many unintuitive puzzle solutions to get this far. Now, they’re subjected to some of the laziest writing the series had known by this point in history. Graham and Cassima were completely out of luck only for them to essentially win the lottery. While there is the possibility that Mordack prevented wizards from using magic to enter his castle, the narrative doesn’t make this clear. For all we know, the leaps of logic Graham had to make and the sheer amount of help he required from someone capable of causally observing multiple timelines were all rendered completely meaningless by a living deus ex machina. While it has all the affectations of a well-earned happy ending, the sheer contrivance required for Graham to receive it makes it nigh-impossible to appreciate it.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Excellent presentation for its time
  • Good music
  • Introduced a new point-and-click interface
  • Random encounters are mostly eschewed
  • Likable protagonist
Cons:

  • Bad voice acting
  • Nonsensical puzzle solutions abound
  • Obnoxious deuteragonist
  • Very easy to render unwinnable
  • Frequent cheap deaths
  • Gameplay boils down to trial and error
  • Reduced level of interactivity
  • Wastes a perfectly good premise
  • Severe divide between story and gameplay
  • Contrived ending

As a genre, the adventure game is not one that has held up well in the public consciousness. While a reemergence would eventually take place in the 2010s, as the 1990s drew to a close, they had fallen out of favor with PC gamers gravitating toward more action-oriented fare. Although fans of the genre lamented that the adventure game died an unceremonious death, it’s difficult to blame people from shying away from it considering the sheer amount of success King’s Quest V enjoyed. Any old-school enthusiast who grew up with adventure games can list the reasons why the genre failed in the long run by heart, and I guarantee every single point this hypothetical person would make appears in some form in King’s Quest V. It really is an amalgamation of the adventure game’s most maligned aspects – to the point of being an unintentional self-parody. Hated how adventure games ran on nominal logic? Annoyed at how easy it was to save in a “dead man walking” situation? Not pleased with the fact that the writers stuck the protagonist with a useless sidekick? All of those problems among others are present in King’s Quest V.

Even without the power of hindsight, King’s Quest V is a gigantic step down from its predecessor. The point-and-click interface was what the series needed to remain relevant, but it provides little interactivity. Part of the appeal of the text parser was typing the silliest commands possible and watching the game chide you for it. By King’s Quest IV, it is incredible how many possibilities the developers had accounted for. If nothing else, there was something very satisfying about reading the flavor text and seeing it gradually build a world. This isn’t the case with King’s Quest V; an overwhelming majority of Graham’s potential interactions are, in some way, required to complete the game. Of the few exceptions, many them will render the game unwinnable or, at best, yield fewer points for the player.

In a lot of ways, it is interesting playing King’s Quest V immediately after its predecessors because you really do get a sense of how much the medium has evolved since its humble beginnings. In spite of its flaws, it is one of the most important games in history due to having set the bar higher for the medium. Despite its subpar quality, the idea of having full voice acting in a game was simply unheard of at the time. Coupled with its incredible art style, King’s Quest V had a legitimate claim as the best presented game of all time in 1990. Having said that, I don’t think there is a reason to play this game outside of appreciating its historical role. It is rife with openly hostile design choices, and there is no substantial payoff for those persistent enough to suffer through them all – quite the opposite, in fact. The medium has come a long way since 1990, and to play this game would be to experience every single one of its growing pains firsthand.

Final Score: 3/10

9 thoughts on “King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!

  1. I’ve briefly played almost all of the KQ games and I do remember that some of them were rather hard/cheap (I don’t precisely remember which one was the worst, probably this one) but considering the whole series I think King Quest is a rather good adventure. I do prefer Lucas point and clicks but among the Sierra ones, probably this is the one I’ve played the most. What do you think about Sierra adventures?

    Like

    • I was ready to write off King’s Quest II as the worst game in the series other than Mask of Eternity, but after thinking it over a bit, I have to condemn King’s Quest V more because it has much worse of a design. There are several puzzles of the caliber of King’s Quest II’s worst in King’s Quest V. Sierra seemed to share Capcom’s “throw stuff at the wall until something sticks” strategy, and while they have made games that do hold up, you have to wade through a lot of failed experiments to reach them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is also a reason why I love more LucasArts adventures. As far as I know they have never released a bad point and click game, at least until these kind of games were fashionable, so mid-90s…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes! Pie yeti! Hahahaha, I remember that one the most of anything in King’s Quest.

    If I’m recalling right, this was the moment when the series started to swan dive into the toilet as far as quality goes. This is pretty bad, what with the preponderance of death scenes and the huge amount of walking dead states, but from what I’ve heard, the later entries get even worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that is, by a significant margin the most infamous puzzle in the game. This kind of anti-logic is the stuff of legends. There are a few I consider worse from a narrative standpoint, but it has left many Let’s Players flabbergasted. I managed to get a majority of the screenshots I used from this Let’s Play in particular: https://www.talking-time.net/showthread.php?t=8683.

      Sort of. I’m just going to say right now that even though I was pretty tough on the series up until now, it managed to do a complete 180 with King’s Quest VI… and then it manages to do a proper swan dive after that. It’s a really bizarre trajectory.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: May 2019 in Summary: Five Years of Blogging! | Extra Life

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