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Sierra: Reality Check
By Julie

Loyal Completionist readers may recall that I was lamenting the loss of the Sierra adventure game a few weeks back.  That article inspired the staff here at the completionist.com HQ to dust off those old titles and give them another go.  We decided to start with the King’s Quest series (my favourite), so first up to bat was King’s Quest 1.  We’re on KQ6 right now, and debating the merits of playing through seven and eight, since seven was stupid, and eight was basically an over the shoulder hack and slash.  I feel I should be honest, though, and now that I’ve removed my rose-coloured nostalgia glasses, and seen the first five games up close and personal from beginning to end, I have to amend my opinion of them, though only slightly.

I remember watching my parents play the first few KQ games when they were originally released, and it took them weeks to finish each one.  If you sat down to replay one of those titles, and you knew what to do, it would take maybe two hours.  Tops.  The rest of those endless hours were spent trying to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing.  I don’t want to seem like a hypocrite, since I’ve said several times that games now are too easy, so let me clarify.

Present day puzzle games rarely require anything more than minimal brain power, and even clever puzzles are ruined by having obtuse hints rammed down your throat.  I believe this phenomenon was caused by the generally shortened attention span of humanity, and the internet.  Twenty years ago if you wanted to know something, you had to put in a bit of effort.  If you didn’t know someone personally who had the answer, there were libraries, and encyclopedias, and various other means, but they all required you to try. You had to really want to know.  Now if I want to know something, a few mouse clicks later, I know.  I also probably know several other things I wasn’t even looking for, and I likely stumbled upon at least one kind of weird porn.  With endless information at our fingertips, why should we ever endure the agony of not knowing something for even a few minutes?  It’s become human nature to be intolerant of ignorance.  When we want to know, we want to know now, and thanks to the internet, we can.  Just this morning I was sucked down into a Wikipedia spiral that started off with crows and ended with the history of Scandinavia.  The question “I wonder…” is now always answered easily and immediately, so we’ve lost the inclination to work for it.

While this has greatly increased my knowledge of useless trivia, it has sadly eliminated an entire genre of gaming that I am sad to see gone.  And it’s our fault.  Those hints are there because without them we’d be running to an FAQ almost immediately after getting stuck.  Access to instant knowledge coupled with a short attention span have decreased the amount of time we’re willing to work on a puzzle from hours to minutes.  So, after reaching this conclusion, I thought that reliving games from a simpler time would once again show me what it was like to use my mind instead of the internet.

When we booted up the first game, I was excited at the prospect of being intellectually challenged instead of just led by the nose.  Chris and I both scoffed at the notion that we would resort to an FAQ.  That’s what brains are for we said, deriding the people with less fortitude than us, who had ruined the genre.

I would now like to admit that I was wrong.  The original KQ games (KQ3 and KQ4 in particular) were too hard.  We did end up resorting to FAQs, and I would be willing to bet (with great confidence) that no one reading this would have been able to get through them without one, if they really had no foreknowledge of the game.  Usually when Chris and I resort to FAQs, we slap our foreheads and feel guilty and stupid for not trying something that in hindsight seems obvious.  Not so in this case.  Each FAQ search, which we approached with heads hung low, ashamed that we were reduced to such things, left us baffled.  How could anyone ever hope to figure these things out?  I’ll admit that we didn’t put in days and days of being stuck before caving to an FAQ, but I honestly don’t think we would have ever been able to get past these spots otherwise, no matter how long we tried.

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different result.  If that’s true, then I’ve got news for you:  You have to be insane to play King’s Quest games successfully without cheating.  And by cheating, I mean using an FAQ.

Games are supposed to be fun, and I don’t see how anybody can find the fun in picking apart a game for hours and hours and hours, only to find out that something you did at the very beginning essentially screwed you over, and made the game unfinishable.  Then there’s the insanity mechanic of something only happening every twentieth time you walk onto a screen.  These two things combined lead to serious paranoia.  So you’ve been stuck for hours, but if you just keep wandering aimlessly, maybe something will eventually appear….. OR, maybe you made a mistake somewhere, and you’re basically wasting your time.  The catch is that you never know which is the case.  Should you toil ever onward, hoping you’ve missed something, or go back and try to do something differently?  Even if you decide that you’re hopelessly stuck, and you restart, which of the myriad of actions you’ve already done was wrong?  Or were any of them wrong?  Did you just not find something?  Anxiety attacks + frustration = not fun.  I can accept that I’m stuck, but knowing that I was possibly stuck in such a way that I couldn’t correct it without restoring to an earlier save made me feel helpless.  I don’t want to be herded towards my goal, but I’d like my goal to at least be achievable.

How did people do this before the internet?  I can see how maybe searching frantically over and over for a clue might lead to some random event eventually being triggered, but how did they ever figure out that the only answer was to restart the entire game?  How many hours of tearing out your hair and typing every obscure command conceivable into your computer did it take before you just gave up?  The success of the franchise clearly shows that these games continued to be popular, so what gives?  With small doses of internet help, these games are great, but I had a hard time getting my head around people playing them otherwise, even people who lived in a time where if you wanted to know where you’d seen some actress before, you wrote a letter to  TV Guide.

It made absolutely no sense to me until I remembered one little fact.  They used to sell hint books for Sierra games.  They also had a pay-per-minute hint line that you could phone.  While the internet and our ever shrinking attention spans may have made it impossible for us to play these games without an FAQ, it does help assuage the guilt to know that even twenty years ago these games pissed people off so much that they paid money to get help.

So, while I would highly recommend going back and replaying these games, or playing them for the first time if you missed the boat originally, I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much if you have to go online when you’re stuck.  Sierra wanted you to need help, that’s why they made non-linear games that let you screw yourself into a corner without even realizing it.  Accept that fact, hit up an FAQ, and enjoy the experience for what it is.  While it’s unfortunate that the internet indirectly stopped people from making games like this, the other side of that coin is that nobody has to pay $0.99 a minute anymore to find out that feeding pie to an eagle makes it impossible for you to defeat a yeti.

Julie pretty much hits the nail on the head here, on multiple points.  For me, the thing I found the most annoying/frustrating is not knowing when to pull the plug and go back to an earlier point in the game.  As there is literally no way of knowing if you have messed things up royally, it’s hard to gauge just how far up the creek you’ve gone without your trusty paddle (that almost sounds like it could have been a puzzle in a King’s Quest game).

KQ3 was the most egregious offender of all the games in respect to making you wonder aimlessly while waiting for a timed game event to occur.  In the meantime, you’re left to wonder if you should reload or restart the game entirely.  There is a span where you literally have to put down the keyboard for 30 minutes while you wait for a point where you can continue on again in the game.  Spoiler Alert: It’s when you’re on the pirate ship.  I figure the statute of limitations on spoilars for that game has elapsed.

For the record, the only game where we had to go back a significant amount of time was KQ4.  We were about 75% done the game and had made a mistake way back on our third action of the game that forever destined us to failure.  Replaying that large chunk of the game nearly made steam rise from my ears but I managed to keep it in check.

Julie did neglect to mention one other possibility of how people played these games way back before the internet: they didn’t finish them.  I bet there would be a significant number of 5 1/4″ floppies out there with unfinished KQ saves on them.  Enjoy them, landfills.  They are yours, now and forever.

5 Comments • Comments RSSTrackBack URI
  1. Rob
    2009-05-21 13:44

    You should definitely play the Hero’s Quest series. I don’t think it was ever as bad for the impossible solutions like King’s Quest.

    I actually remember that stupid pirate ship thing…

  2. NawtSoMuch
    2009-05-27 16:48

    I think I was stumped by Hero’s Quest II, but alas that was a looong time ago.
    Anyone here ever play the Wing Commander series? Now THERE was a game series.

  3. Sue
    2009-06-04 12:48

    Julie, your father and I finished every one of those games with no help from hint books or pay-per-minute helplines. You kids today have no patience.

  4. 2009-06-05 6:51

    orly? Well, I seem to recall that we had a hint book in the office for KQ3. The one where you needed the piece of red film to decode the answer? Did you just buy it for decoration? Busted!

  5. Sue
    2009-06-09 19:31

    The hint book (which I totally forgot about) was a Christmas stocking stuffer type thing. If we used it at all if was only once or twice at most. And even so, that is just one of the KQ games, and we finished all of them. I stand behind my original assessment…kids today have no patience.

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