King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

Introduction

Jane Jensen, the youngest of seven children, always had a fondness for computers. Attending Anderson University in Indiana, she received a BA in computer science, a quickly budding field at the time. Shortly thereafter, she found herself working for Hewlett-Packard as a systems programmer. She then felt inspired to enter the gaming industry after playing a classic adventure title called King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. As fate would have it, her passion for computers and creative writing, led to her finding a job at Sierra OnLine where she wrote the scenarios for Police Quest III: The Kindred and EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. Both games were successes for the prolific company, but she was about to receive a task of even greater and personal importance.

In the year 1990, company co-founder Roberta Williams placed the finishing touches on King’s Quest V. This fifth installment in the company’s flagship series became the single greatest-selling game in the franchise. The following year, Ms. Williams, impressed with Ms. Jensen’s work, had an interesting proposal for the then-newcomer. She had already begun preliminary work on the newest King’s Quest game, having conceived a rough outline for the plot. The two of them then began working alongside each other, brainstorming new design ideas in the process. Their goal was to retain the familiar tone of the series had established in previous installments while giving the game an identity of its own. Furthermore, Ms. Williams wanted players to connect with the game on an emotional level, deciding to fulfill this objective by penning a central love story between two characters.

With King’s Quest V having been a significant technical leap from its predecessor, Ms. Williams sought to set her sights even higher for its sequel. Co-director Bill Skirvin along with the artists began work on storyboards and character designs. One artist in particular, John Shroades, had sketched the eighty backgrounds that would end up in the final product. Taking advantage of the recent advent of motion capture technology, the team ended up transcribing the movement of live-action actors for the potential player decisions and subsequent character animations – of which there were over 2,000. Similarly, the game would feature over 6,000 lines of written messages. Handling this task was Ms. Jensen, who scripted the game, defining for programmers how it should respond to a given action.

Development of this game was completed by September of 1992. In an interview for The New York Times, Ms. Williams estimated the game’s budget was around $700,000 USD. The crew, led by her, Mr. Skirvin, and Ms. Jensen, consisted of twenty people and the project took fourteen months to complete. Although it was scheduled for a release in September of 1992, Sierra delayed it until the thirteenth of October. Entitled King’s Quest IV: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, the fruit of their labor was originally released on nine floppy disks for DOS and Macintosh. It was rereleased upon an emerging format – the CD-ROM – in 1993 for DOS and Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows. Taking advantage of this new format, the team added a voiceover for every single line of dialogue and included a ballad named “Girl in the Tower”, which was composed by Mark Seibert. Sierra sent a CD containing the song to local radio stations and included a pamphlet listing them along with every copy of the game. In the pamphlet, they suggested fans request the song to be played. The owners of said radio stations were not impressed; they legally threatened Sierra as a result of the myriad requests with which they were bombarded. This prompted a bemused Ken Williams to label the stations the real criminals for ignoring their customers – “something [he believed] no business should ever do”.

Although King’s Quest VI didn’t sell as many copies as the series’ fifth installment, it ended up being the single best-received game in the series. Every single one of its five predecessors was similarly well-received, yet King’s Quest VI seemed to possess something they lacked: staying power. When parsing the first five installments in the series from a modern perspective, one is likely to conclude they don’t hold up so well. They were all, to some extent, trailblazers, yet any contemporary review will invariably include phrases such as “fair for its time” or “aged horribly”. This isn’t true of King’s Quest VI – even now, you can find it on lists compiling the greatest PC games ever made. Is this the installment that allowed the series to finally escape the genre’s early trappings and deliver an experience worthy of being called an all-time classic?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers for the series thus far. Furthermore, many puzzle solutions will be spoiled.

Prince Alexander of Daventry and his family were kidnapped by a wizard named Mordack. He shrunk the royal castle and placed it in a jar in his laboratory. As it turns out, Mordack was the brother of Manannan – the latter of whom stole Prince Alexander from his crib and raised him as a slave named Gwydion. Alexander, discovering the source of Manannan’s magical powers, was able to earn his freedom by turning the wizard into a cat. As Mordack did not know by what means Alexander accomplished this feat, he had captured the prince and his family in an attempt to force him to undo the curse.

Fortunately for Alexander, his father, Graham, had been out for a stroll when the castle was stolen. This allowed the stouthearted king to journey to Mordack’s island. After a fierce battle, Graham emerged victorious, and slew Mordack. During the final leg of his journey, Graham found himself thrown in a cell in Mordack’s castle. He was saved by a young girl named Cassima. She was actually the Princess of the Land of the Green Isles. Not unlike Alexander’s original plight, she was enslaved by Mordack. With Graham having disposed of the wizard, everyone was allowed to return home.

Several months have passed since then, and Alexander finds he cannot get Cassima out of his mind. Though they met for but a brief moment in Mordack’s castle, he has become infatuated with her. He knows the name of the land from which she hails, yet not its actual location. Nobody he asks has ever heard of the kingdom. His mother, Valanice, tries to get her son to move on, but to little success. One night, the Magic Mirror adorning Castle Daventry’s throne room sends Alexander a vision. He sees Cassima in her home, calling out to him. Though the vision is vague, he realizes he can use the stars to pinpoint the kingdom’s location. Making use of a personal vessel, Alexander sets sail to the Land of the Green Isles. However, things take a grim turn when the ship is accosted by a powerful storm. The prince survives, having washed ashore an island with nothing but the clothes on his back. With his crew nowhere in sight and vessel torn to pieces, Alexander realizes the gravity of his situation, yet is still determined to find the Land of the Green Isles.

Like its predecessor, King’s Quest VI is played solely with a mouse. Indeed, by 1992, the point-and-click interface that originated in King’s Quest V became Sierra’s standard. It is accessed by moving the cursor to the top of the screen. As long as the bar is onscreen, the action is paused. Although the icons look slightly different, they perform the exact same functions as its predecessor. By default, the leftmost icon that resembles an effigy of Alexander himself is selected. Clicking anywhere on the screen will cause Alexander to walk to that location if possible. As King’s Quest VI features a pathfinding system, Alexander won’t necessarily attempt to reach the clicked spot by walking in a straight line.

The second icon from the left resembles a hand with the index finger extended. This allows Alexander to interact in some way with whatever or whomever you click. The days of the game telling you to get closer are long gone, so if there is something you wish Alexander to take or manipulate, you can click on the set piece in question straight away. There is also a subtle improvement in how the icon is shaped. The hand icon in King’s Quest V had all five fingers extended, making it a little tricky to determine where on a screen to click in order to get Graham to perform the desired action. Here, there is no ambiguity whatsoever; you only need to make sure the tip of the icon’s index finger is touching the set piece in question before clicking.

The next icon resembles an eyeball. This allows Alexander to examine the world around him. Although it doesn’t serve much of a practical purpose, it allows the writers to insert a lot of interesting flavor text. Indeed, one incontestable advantage King’s Quest VI has over its predecessor is that the designers put a lot more effort into building their world. In many ways, King’s Quest V could be considered a step down King’s Quest IV, but its distinct lack of interactivity was especially egregious. King’s Quest IV and its predecessors accounted for the various wacky commands players could potentially input into the text parser. It was to the point where players could go years without seeing every single response the games had to offer. King’s Quest V, on the other hand, limited the player’s interactivity to plot-relevant set pieces and little else.

By exploring the island extensively, you will happen upon a pleasant town with two prominent businesses: a bookstore and a pawn shop. You will have to visit both in order to complete the game, but you may find yourself taking the time to appreciate the effort the writers put forth. While you would be often greeted with a red “X” whenever you tried to look at an irrelevant set piece in King’s Quest V, clicking on any part a given screen in King’s Quest VI will cause the game to respond.

The writing obviously isn’t limited to flavor text – dialogue is also an important feature of this game. King’s Quest V was the first game to give its protagonist a definitive voice, punctuated by the narration switching from second-person to third-person. In order for Alexander to converse with other characters, you need only selected the fourth icon from the left – the one that resembles a word balloon from a comic book. It is when you have Alexander talk with the various inhabitants of this island that you truly appreciate how good the voice acting manages to be. King’s Quest V was notable for being of the first games to feature full voice acting. However, the goodwill is a little difficult to appreciate given that characters were voiced by Sierra office employees with little training. There was one shining star in the form of Josh Mandel’s performance as King Graham, but the rest betrayed the time period of the game’s release.

For King’s Quest VI, Ms. Jensen, Ms. Williams, and Mr. Skirvin spared no expense for the newest installment of their flagship franchise. The voice actors hired to bring these characters to life were professionals from Hollywood. To ensure they got optimal performances out of their voice actors, they recruited Stuart M. Rosen to direct them. Mr. Rosen was notable for having won eight Emmy awards for his work on a popular children’s television program called Dusty’s Treehouse. Voicing the protagonist is none other than Robby Benson – best known as the actor who portrayed Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Through his portrayal, you get a sense that Alexander isn’t a carbon copy of his father.

Graham was a determined, no-nonsense character who didn’t suffer even the slightest bit of injustice lightly. Though Alexander doubtlessly shares his father’s determination, this is where the similarities end. The prince of Daventry is a bit more melancholic than his father. This isn’t to say Alexander is depressed, but while his father was brutally honest at times, he often resorts to more tactful approaches to the various situations in which he finds himself. It does stand to reason; Graham had been a loyal knight before living a life of luxury as a king. The result is a character who, while a great ruler, often dispenses formalities.

Alexander had been raised as a slave for nearly eighteen years of his life. He grew up in an environment in which the act of placing even one toe out of line would be met with swift, brutal retribution, so he is less directly confrontational than his father. However, this soft-spoken individual is not to be underestimated, for he is easily capable of addressing injustice just as well as his father – something Manannan learned too late. He even showcases a droll sense of humor that wouldn’t feel out of place in a British comedy on occasion.

Although Robby Benson is the clear star of the show, the supporting cast turns in exemplary performances as well. Even minor characters are voiced convincingly, and they feel as though they exist for a reason other than to advance the plot as a result. It’s easy to tell that everyone involved this game was giving it their all. Even the narrator, who had no shortage of dialogue due to the thousands of possible actions, sounds much more enthusiastic than his predecessor. From the beginning, Ms. Williams envisioned her series as an interactive cartoon, and given the sheer amounts of well-written dialogue and intriguing flavor text present, I would say King’s Quest VI is the installment in which she truly succeeded in that goal.

An adventure game wouldn’t be complete without some kind of inventory management system, and King’s Quest VI sensibly uses one similar to that of its direct predecessor. To access the menu, you must click on the pouch-shaped icon in the interface.

Within this window are icons similar to the ones that appear on the bar at the top of the screen. They perform similar functions, allowing you to examine the objects in closer detail or otherwise manipulate them in some fashion. Just like the game world itself, the amount of potential interactions has been increased significantly. Whereas using the hand icon in the inventory window proved useful all of one time in King’s Quest V, in this game, it allows you to gain information that couldn’t be perceived with one’s eyes. As the speech icon’s presence indicates, you can even attempt to have Alexander speak to the items in his inventory. Most of the time, this is yet another rich source of flavor text, but there are a few instances in which Alexander will gain a small traveling companion.

Another subtle, yet important change is that you can use items on other items within the inventory window. King’s Quest V fell woefully short of its predecessors in that you could only find and use items exactly as you found them. Using certain items could give you another one in exchange, but it wasn’t quite the same thing. Once again, if you try to use incompatible items on each other in this game, chances are that the narrator will give a humorous response.

Lastly, the icon furthest to the right, which resembles a mixing board fader, takes you to the options screen. Here, you can create a save file, restore one, or restart from the beginning. The same three option sliders from King’s Quest V are present in this game as well. You can adjust the volume, speed, and the amount of detail the game is to animate. Even this aspect has a subtle change I like. In King’s Quest V, you had to restart the game every time you began a new session. You could immediately restore a save file, but it was a little inconvenient nonetheless. King’s Quest VI, taking cues from how console games handled the ability to save, allows you to restore a file directly from the title screen. Because King’s Quest VI also includes an optional tutorial, the help icon was rightly deemed superfluous and subsequently excised.

Although King’s Quest VI is a substantial improvement over King’s Quest V, it was made with the realization its predecessor did indeed bring about a few positive changes to the series. To wit, King’s Quest VI distinguishes itself from early installments with its compact world design. The island Alexander finds himself stranded upon is, not counting indoor areas, only seven screens in size. However, it’s easy to get the impression that every single screen in the game serves some kind of purpose. There’s not really a punishment for exhibiting any kind of wanderlust either. From the series’ inception, King’s Quest had featured random encounters wherein staying on a screen for a long enough time would cause the protagonist to be accosted by a monster or other hostile force. Even after other Sierra franchises such as Police Quest proved they were unnecessary, the teams behind King’s Quest insisted on keeping them. It wouldn’t be until King’s Quest VI that the designers finally did away with them. The game does have a select few poorly telegraphed deaths, but they do not result from merely loitering on a screen for more than five seconds before a lightning-fast foe zooms into view.

Although you can have Alexander explore the island to your heart’s content, you’ll find there’s not much you can do other than soak in the scenery. The plot will not begin in earnest until Alexander visits the castle in the center of the island. The guards naturally won’t let just anyone into the castle, so Alexander must show them proof of his lineage. By showing them his royal insignia ring, he soon finds himself in the company of a vizier named Abdul Alhazred.

It is here Alexander learns that, whether it was by chance or fate, he now stands in the very land he and his crew sought out. Alhazred shows gratitude for Alexander’s family due to Graham having rescued Cassima, but quickly sends the prince on his way, telling him the princess isn’t seeing visitors. Cassima learned upon her homecoming that her parents fell ill and passed away as she was held captive by Mordack. In the six months since, she has sequestered herself in order to grieve for them.

For those who have played King’s Quest V, it is no surprise that Alhazred is lying through his teeth. Graham learned from Cassima that Alhazred was the one who offered her to Mordack. Then again, the character’s very name betrays his true nature in case his general demeanor wasn’t an indication. Abdul Alhazred is named after the fictional author of the Necronomicon in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos universe. Regardless, the prince can do nothing with this knowledge even if Graham told him. It would merely be his word against Alhazred’s, and with the vizier holding all of the cards, he realizes he can do nothing at the moment. To make matters worse, the ferry that allows passage between the four main islands of this realm has been dry-docked. Thanks to the other islands quarreling with each other, the land has become extremely dangerous.

Fortunately, his quest is not in vain, for the pawn shop owner has a magic map. Being highly valuable, Alexander reluctantly buys the map by pawning his royal insignia ring. Not unlike Manannan’s magic map, this artifact grants Alexander the ability to teleport between islands. Because Alexander doesn’t need to have visited these locations in order to utilize the map, it is substantially more useful than the previous one. The Land of the Green Isles consists of five islands, and when you begin exploring them extensively, you will realize this is the most intricate world the creators had crafted thus far.

The Isle of the Crown, being the site of the royal family’s castle, is the capital of this country. With its architecture, character designs, and a man peddling new lamps in exchange for old ones, this island has a distinctive Arabian flavor. It subverts the typical depiction by having lush vegetation, but its influences are undeniable.

The western, comma-shaped island is the Isle of Wonder. True to its name, this island is home to many strange inhabitants. Before Alexander can even explore the island properly, he finds himself blocked by the five Sense Gnomes. They are so named because each member represents the five classical senses. From there, you must creatively use your inventory items in order to trick them.

When Alexander repels them, he gets to explore a land that could be best described as an amalgamation of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Toolbooth. Landmarks include a swamp with milkweed plants, cattails, and dogwood trees. The milkweed plants are actual bottles of milk and attempting to touch the cattails causes them to meow in unison, prompting the dogwood tree to bark loudly. The garden is a treasure trove of curiosities with baby’s tears plants resembling human babies and clinging vines that will strangle anyone who foolish enough to get too close to them. The island is a diarchy ruled by two queens – one white and one red. Guarding their domain are two knights of the same colors. All four of these characters also happen to be sentient chess pieces. It doesn’t quite explain why they believe things such as rotten eggs and lumps of coal to be acceptable gifts for the royal family, but certain traditions can’t help but seem strange from an outsider’s perspective.

The large island dominating the north portion of this land is known as the Isle of the Sacred Mountain. With nothing but a steep cliff greeting Alexander upon arrival, there would appear to be nothing to do at first. He would therefore do well to take a page out of the Isle of Wonder’s book by reading the writing on the wall.

Starting with King’s Quest III, the series implemented some form of copy protection. King’s Quest III itself had an extensive spellcasting system with recipes that could only be found in the enclosed manual. King’s Quest IV had a more traditional example, requiring players to search the manual and type the word to which it referred upon launching the program. The floppy version of King’s Quest V would occasionally pause in order to make players cast spells using the wand Graham started the game with. To ensure players could not easily copy the pages, players had to answer using symbols representing each letter of the alphabet.

Although it’s difficult to blame developers for not wanting their work to be pirated, absolutely none of these ideas worked in practice. Casting spells in King’s Quest III accounted for a significant portion of the available points. This meant a majority of the puzzles in the game amounted to following instructions to the letter as opposed to exercising any kind of ingenuity on your part. Although King’s Quest IV was a step in the right direction insofar that the copy protection didn’t technically intrude on the gameplay, having to look up a word in the manual for every new session quickly became tiring. The copy protection in King’s Quest V was unusual because it created a plot hole. The narrative would attempt to justify the copy protection points by forcing Graham to perform a magic spell with a wand given to him by a good wizard named Crispin. This was strange considering the narrative explicitly stated that Crispin’s wand had little vitality left in it. Indeed, a significant endgame puzzle involved charging the wand so Graham could use it in his climactic showdown against Mordack. Attempting to wave the wand at any other point in the game would prove futile, making it a little too serendipitous that it happened to work exactly when Graham needed it.

The reason I say this is because I find myself giving a lot of credit to how King’s Quest VI handles its copy protection. The creators did something that was so simple, yet perfectly fitting with the adventure game ethos – they created actual puzzles around the information imparted by the manual. While King’s Quest V stopped at creating symbols for each letter of the English alphabet, the writers of King’s Quest VI gave each one an actual meaning to the civilization that spawned them. Although it is a little irritating consulting a physical document, thus robbing this sequence of any kind of diegetic logic, it successfully fulfills its purpose without bringing the experience’s flow to dead stop.

When Alexander ascends the Cliffs of Logic, he soon finds himself in the presence of the Winged Ones. Their society is modeled after ancient Greece with its architecture and mythology. Upon arriving in their domain, Alexander is captured and brought to King Azure and Queen Ariel. The king is a lawful individual, for he was told by Vizier Alhazred to execute any intruders. However, through his method of ingress, Alexander inadvertently fulfilled a prophecy. It is said that whoever climbs the Cliffs of Logic shall venture into the catacombs and defeat the Minotaur lurking within. Alexander’s timing could not have been better, for the Winged Ones’ own Princess Celeste was chosen as the beast’s latest sacrifice.

Although King’s Quest VI does an excellent job excising the myriad problems plaguing its predecessor, even fans of the game will admit the catacombs could have been better designed. To begin with, you need a very specific set of items from the other islands in order to navigate it properly. The game does give the player a bit of a break in that Alexander is only tossed into the catacombs if he is carrying the required items. If he isn’t, Queen Ariel will instruct the guards to release him temporarily for a chance to prepare instead. He will be tossed inside whether or not he has the required items, however, so one had better scour the other islands carefully before returning. Alternatively, one could initiate the original cutscene until Alexander is brought to the catacombs automatically, but nobody playing this game blind would think to do that.

If someone returning from King’s Quest V still had Mordack’s maze fresh in their minds, it is worth noting that navigating the catacombs isn’t quite as irritating. Your perspective stays exactly the same with each new room, so it’s easier to find your way around. However, as you attempt to get your bearings, you could very easily guide Alexander into a bottomless pit. To be fair, the guidebook does contain a map for navigating the catacombs, but it’s a little difficult to figure out at first. Only completely safe rooms are marked on the map. This proposition practically counts on the player to have fallen victim to a death pit at least once. Even if the player deduces how the rooms are marked, they soon prove to be a little deceptive. This is because while all of the unmarked rooms are dangerous in some way, not all of are instantly fatal. In fact, a few need to be entered in order to advance. Two trapped rooms in particular require items from the other islands in order to escape. That the developers finally began to realize rendering the game unwinnable is not a good design choice demonstrates a level of self-awareness they previously lacked. However, it doesn’t change that if you don’t have them, you cannot win the game.

This flaw is especially apparent because King’s Quest VI is otherwise excellent when it comes to not bombarding the player with cheap death scenarios. A majority of the hazards in the game are obviously dangerous to the point where it requires a particularly daft player to fall victim to them. It’s generally unwise to traverse a thick swamp, touch a web belonging to a black widow, or blindly wander across a room full of marked tiles, after all. The pathfinding itself is improved to the point where you are unlikely to fall off of ledges regardless of how narrow they are. In a game with a noticeable lack of cheap deaths, it’s jarring that it can still be rendered unwinnable fairly easily.

As strange as it sounds, this segues into what I feel to be the biggest problem with King’s Quest VI; the backtracking you must do is a little much. Unlike King’s Quest V, which radically changed scenery around the halfway point, King’s Quest VI takes place in the same area. Many important items can only be obtained after triggering certain event flags. The most egregious example occurs shortly after obtaining the magic map. In order to get past the Sense Gnomes, you must obtain a bottle of magical ink that turns Alexander invisible. The bottle is initially in the possession of the pawn shop owner, and only after Alexander purchases the map will the bottle be thrown into the garbage. Although one could return to the village immediately after getting the map, most players would be liable to use the map immediately. The hypothetical player would then wander around the new islands before realizing they can’t make any progress at all in any of them until they go back to the village and obtain the bottle.

Even after fooling the Sense Gnomes, which greatly expands the territory Alexander can explore, he will have to do a lot of backtracking. This is because the ink bottle is not an isolated incident. One of the first items you can obtain is a copper Daventry coin. With it, you can purchase an item from the pawn shop. You have a choice between a mechanical nightingale, a flute, a paintbrush, and a tinder box. You can then return whatever you purchased in exchange for one of the other three items if you so wish.  There is no way to know in advance what item you will need in a given scenario until you’ve been confronted with the obstacle in question. If you chose wrong, you must waste time making a return trip to the pawn shop. Needless to say, this quickly becomes tedious.

The backtracking issue is especially obvious whenever you’re made to explore the Isle of the Beast. The small, eastern island is an oppressive land with dense vegetation and many hazards. People generally don’t get to explore much of it thanks to three magical barriers: a pond of boiling water, a stone archer, and an enhanced rose bush. It is impossible to clear all three obstacles in a single run. Just beyond the pond of boiling water is a brick, which is one of the items required to complete the catacombs. In order to avoid being shot by the stone archer, Alexander must have a shield ready, which is found in the catacombs. If you didn’t think to explore the area opened up by clearing the catacombs immediately, you must back out of the island a third time and retrieve the scythe required to clear the enhanced rose bush.

Fortunately, once you have cleared the rose bush, the game’s pacing improves significantly. By this point, the player will have learned from the white and red queens that the beast who lends his name to the eastern isle stole their most valuable treasure: the Singing Stone. However, when Alexander meets the Beast himself, he isn’t afforded an opportunity to ask about the stolen artifact, for it turns out the magical barriers were intended to protect would-be visitors. Anyone who steps into his domain will eventually transform into a beast. The witch who placed the curse on the Beast did allow for one way to dispel the enchantment: a maiden must willingly share his company.

Conveniently, the Isle of the Crown contains an abode with an evil matriarch who treats her stepdaughter like a slave. Sympathizing with her plight, Alexander tells her of the Beast, and is able to convince her to return to his isle. In 1992, Disney had received a new lease on life after spending a majority of the 1980s dangerously close to bankruptcy. It’s timely, particularly when considering who provides Prince Alexander’s voice, that King’s Quest VI would combine two classic Disney films for one of its puzzle solutions. Lifting the curse causes the game to split into two distinct paths. Alexander could return to the Isle of the Crown and stop the wedding as soon as possible. While treading the shorter path does have several unique puzzles, doing so will cause the player to miss out on several interesting story beats.

Rescuing Celeste also causes a fifth island to reveal itself: The Isle of Mists. Being even smaller in size than the Isle of the Beast, the Isle of Mists is home to druids who are one with nature. Just like the inhabitants of the other islands, they do not appear to take kindly to strangers. Indeed, their first course of action when Alexander appears before them is to burn him alive in a wicker cage. The prince can save himself if he put the magical knowledge he picked up from Manannan to good use by preparing a rainmaking spell. Once the concoction comes to a boil, a fierce rainstorm douses the fire. Recognizing Alexander’s magical prowess, the druids immediately set him free. The Winged Ones’ oracle told Alexander of two restless spirits, and it is surmised that she referred to Cassima’s parents: King Caliphim and Queen Allaria. With the aid of another spell, Alexander departs for the Land of the Dead.

The Land of the Dead is the single most intriguing part of the game. Although King’s Quest VI features significantly fewer cheap deaths than of its predecessors, chances are good that the average player will have fallen victim to at least one of them. Should this happen, they will be treated to the game over sequence, which involves Alexander’s spirit dejectedly entering the gates of the afterlife. However, this ultimately turns out to be more than a presentation choice, for now he can fully explore the area while alive. Alexander meets Cassima’s parents upon arriving in the Land of the Dead. Alhazred had murdered them in their sleep, and they are now two restless spirits who refuse to move on, fearing for Cassima’s life.

Receiving from them the ticket they need to pass through the gates, Alexander crosses the River Styx and finds himself before Samhain, Lord of the Dead. Literally throwing down the gauntlet, Alexander demands that the Caliphim and Allaria be restored to life. Impressed by his audacity, Samhain issues a challenge to Alexander: make him cry. The spirits inhabiting the room realize the sheer impossibility of the task, believing turning the sea to stone or fire into ice would be easier. Even so, Alexander has one item capable of doing just that. Expressing gratitude for having lifted the curse, the Beast gave Alexander a mirror that reflects the truth back at whoever gazes into it. Once a normal human, he denounced the gods and was consequently chained to the throne in the Land of the Dead, forced to hear of the deceased’s countless tragedies. As a result of carrying out this task for so long, he eventually grew numb to any kind of emotion.

Proving that truth can be the most dangerous weapon of all, gazing into Beast’s mirror reminds him of the weight around his neck as well as everything he has lost. Realizing that this is his fate for the rest of eternity, he sheds a single, grey tear. With this, Alexander has gone from being a lowly slave to an evil wizard to making Death himself cry. Although some players may have taken note of Alexander’s more emotive propensities and declared him less brave than Graham, this sequence demonstrates that he is indeed his son. From there, he is allowed to return to the Isle of the Crown so he may confront Alhazred.

As a King’s Quest antagonist, Alhazred is vastly different from his predecessors. The most obvious difference is that he has no magical powers to speak of – despite being a member of the same secret society as Mordack. While Manannan, Lolotte, and Mordack were all tyrants who believed might makes right, Alhazred got where he is as a result of underhanded political maneuvering. This makes him far more effective as a master manipulator than his magically inclined brethren. Manannan fell because he assumed Alexander – or Gwydion as he was called at the time – had no free will of his own. Lolotte’s abysmal treatment of Rosella caused her son, Edgar, to subvert her will, giving the princess the perfect opportunity to retaliate. Finally, Mordack was slain in a magic duel after Graham perfectly countered his attacks. While the exact cause of their defeat differed, they did have a common thread between them. Despite their vast intelligence, they seldom knew what to do when confronted with someone capable of opposing them, having relied purely on brute force to get their way.

Indeed, while Mordack jumped at the first opportunity to take revenge on Alexander and his family, thus neglecting to account for Graham, Alhazred actually demonstrates patience. He had first appeared before Caliphim fifteen years prior to the game’s beginning. By earning everyone’s trust for so long, nobody thought it odd when he finally put his plan into motion by murdering the king and queen. Before doing so, he had his genie, Shamir Shamazel, steal all of the other islands’ sacred treasures. With the blame diffused between the four other islands, the feuding ensured they couldn’t band together and overthrow him.

Moreover, despite knowing full well what a persistent thorn Daventry’s royal family has been to his society, he pointedly does not execute Alexander as soon as they meet for the first time despite having the authority to do so. He knows that if the public learned he killed the Prince of Daventry, an international incident would ensue. Make no mistake, he will stop at nothing to kill Alexander – he just has to make it look like an accident. His genie, in turn, disguises himself and tries to get Alexander to do something that will result in the latter’s death. The player can see through these attempts by taking note of the mysterious strangers’ golden eyes, though he also insidiously disguises himself as Lady Celeste in the catacombs. As a result, Alexander must demonstrate an equal level of cunning to have any chance of taking Alhazred down. If the prince succeeds well enough, he can uncover his deception, steal his genie, and save Cassima. Notably, only after he has lost absolutely everything does Alhazred think to finally take the direct approach by trying to kill Alexander personally. Even then, it’s not because doing so will fix his plans; he just wants to drag the prince down to hell with him.

One final compliment I can pay King’s Quest VI is how it handles Cassima’s character. Despite coming across as a classic princess character, there is an unmistakable touch of iron underneath the surface. It could be seen as early as King’s Quest V in which she saves Graham’s life, but it’s even more obvious in this game. When Alexander finally meets Cassima, he must give her the dagger he received from Celeste so she can defend herself. She ends up doing just that. Alexander eventually stops the wedding and ends up crossing swords with Alhazred. Unfortunately, the only weapon at his disposal is a weighty ornamental sword that was never meant to see combat. Even so, he does a reasonably good job fending off the vizier at first. However, his arms quickly tire out. At that moment, Cassima breaks free from the ropes binding her and stabs Alhazred in the shoulder, giving Alexander the perfect opportunity to deliver the knockout blow.

Although it seems a little hokey that Alexander and Cassima would marry so quickly after meeting each other, the narrative does demonstrate their infatuation is mutual. It also helps that if you took the long path to the castle, Alexander demonstrated he is willing to go through hell itself in order to rescue her. The number of attendees in the wedding depends on how many optional objectives you completed. Again, this is a gigantic improvement from King’s Quest V, which was difficult to complete without getting every single point due to most puzzles having exactly one solution. Here, the points actually play a role in the experience, dictating what kind of ending you get. For example, if Alexander discovers the sacred treasures, the rulers of the other islands will appear at the wedding. If he managed to steal Shamir’s bottle, thus becoming his new master, Alexander’s family will get to attend as well. The point system had existed from the very first installment, but getting them all in King’s Quest VI carries with it a sense of conclusive satisfaction the previous games simply didn’t have.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Charming writing
  • Excellent cast of characters
  • Sensible puzzle solutions
  • Good voice acting
  • Exemplary presentation for its time
  • Eye-catching art style
  • Multiple endings
  • Optimized the point-and-click interface
  • Random encounters have been completely eschewed
  • Great music
Cons:

  • Somewhat easy to render unwinnable
  • Exploring the catacombs is a little irritating
  • Backtracking gets tedious
  • Copy protection is slightly annoying

Believe it or not, despite having absolutely no doubt that King’s Quest VI is the indisputable pinnacle of Sierra’s flagship series, I find recommending it a little tricky. If one were to play it straight away without any idea of what the series was like before this installment, a lot of its appeal will be lost. Playing every single entry in the series up until this point really gives you an idea of how quickly the medium managed to evolve in the eight short years since the inception of the original King’s Quest. The first three entries only boasted sixteen colors while relying on the PC speaker for sound effects and music. Fast forward to 1992, and you get something, while having graphics only slightly more advanced than the average Super NES title, was a full-on Hollywood production by comparison with its excellent voice acting and distinct writing style. What I especially admire about King’s Quest VI is that it truly grew up with its audience. While early installments frequently referenced nursery rhymes and classic fairy tales, this game pays tribute to classical mythology, H.P. Lovecraft, and even Shakespeare.

The problem is that because many story beats are highly dependent on you having played the preceding five entries, the amount of enjoyment you will get out of this game is going to directly depend on your ability to accept the series warts and all. If you were able to power through the series’ innumerable rough patches, this is where your hard work pays off. However, if you find you couldn’t appreciate the scattered, yet intriguing story beats on your way to this installment, then there is a good chance even King’s Quest VI won’t change your mind. Then again, part of what allows this game to stand out from its predecessors is that the design choices are far more sophisticated. Tellingly, while King’s Quest V featured several puzzle solutions that made no sense from a diegetic standpoint, King’s Quest VI only has one such situation not counting the ones brought on by copy protection, and the writers proceeded to make a joke out of it. One would be hard-pressed to discover this brand of self-awareness in older adventure games.

I find that if nothing else, I can recommend King’s Quest VI to adventure game enthusiasts. Those who have familiarity with the genre and are privy to its ethos can easily soldier through the first five installments to reach this one. While I can’t exactly say King’s Quest VI is poor as a standalone experience, I do think that if you are going to tackle this game, it ultimately pays to experience the rest of the series in some way. Because it is easy enough to purchase the entire series in a compilation, you won’t have to go out of your way to do so. If you aren’t up to the task, I recommend watching somebody else’s playthrough of the first five installments so you are at least familiar with the important lore details required to appreciate the various character arcs. Even if it can be a little difficult to appreciate what King’s Quest VI accomplished from a modern perspective, it is important to know that many now-commonplace practices were made so thanks to this game.

Final Score: 7/10

6 thoughts on “King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

  1. Pingback: June 2019 in Summary: Midyear Mayhem | Extra Life

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