Posts Tagged ‘sierra’

As Halloween night draws near, Chad has taken it upon himself to dig into the vaults to bring you some of his favorite horror-themed video games in his Fortnight of Fright. Can you handle the madness? Read on, if you dare!

Baby, It’s Cold Inside

Back in the 1990s, Myst and the 7th Guest made the first-person point-and-click adventure game, games with minimal character interaction and a focus on puzzling, a booming genre on the PC. Douglas Adams would term these games a “beautiful void” due to their lovely CG graphics and general loneliness. You couldn’t turn a corner in a software store without a wall of these games staring you down; everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, and a lot of them weren’t very good. However, there were some exceptions to this – Sega’s Obsidian, Presto’s Journeyman Project, and Sierra’s Shivers series were quite good. Now, Sierra already had its fingers in the mystery/horror pies with Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria, and Shivers formed the oft-forgotten third part of the Sierra horror trinity.

So anyway, the plot of Shivers kicks off as your friends double-dog dare you to spend the night in a haunted museum while they presumably head out to Crystal Lake for a night of sex, pot, and getting machete’d. In any case, you break-and-enter into Professor Windlenot’s museum. Soon after this you find the professor himself, who has been dead for some time at the hands of malevolent spirits known as the Ixupi. These serve as the game’s antagonists, and if you aren’t careful, they will flat-out murder you. Yes, in the classic Sierra adventure tradition, you can (and at some point, presumably will) die. The goal of the game is to capture the Ixupi that haunt the museum using a talisman and a pot, all the while keeping your soul intact.

This endeavor takes place in the fashion typical of this kind of game – by solving puzzles, some of which don’t make that much sense. But they’re a challenge, even if they are silly at times (and hey, there’s nothing quite as bad as 7th Guest‘s infamous microscope puzzle). The game does a great job of setting up creepy atmosphere, particularly with its music. If there’s a constant that helps to set the tone in horror-themed games, the right music is one of them.

Shivers did well enough to warrant a sequel (Shivers: Harvest of Souls), but it’s the first one that I remember best. Today, the Ixupi look quite corny, but the mood and atmosphere is quite good. This was a good one that lived up to its name. I would recommend it, if you find a dusty copy lying around somewhere…it’s a good reason to fire up DOSBox.

Previous Fortnight of Fright: It Came From Red Alert!
Next Fortnight of Fright: – Monster Bash

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For a game to be based on a book is rare enough; for the game to be a relatively well-known, successful and important one is rarer indeed. While we’ve already seen the impact the Dune franchise has had on strategy gaming, we haven’t yet looked at the influence that Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar books have had on the role-playing genre.

Feist’s first novel, Magician, debuted to surprising popularity in 1982. Since then, he has authored numerous works that share its settings: the world of Midkemia and the rift-linked world of Kelewan. The initial novel concerns the young Magician-apprentice Pug as he is drawn into his education, into his first love with a fickle princess, and his embroilment in the escalating war with the invaders from Kelewan.

Magician (split into two seperate volumes in 1986, Apprentice and Master), was only the first of many Riftwar novels to come. Feist would produce a number of new stories, occasionally collaborating with other authors (among them William R. Fortschen, who wrote a few Wing Commander novels.). The Riftwar series is large enough to rival only Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (which has also had some notable electronic adaptations) and Piers Anthony’s Xanth (which barely qualify as stories so much as collections of puns and increasingly weird fetishes) in the fantasy genre.

The Riftwar books also established a number of fantasy tropes that would eventually become more or less standard in the genre. First and foremost, you know how it seems all dwarves are portrayed as Scottish stereotypes? Well, the dwarves of Midkemia are essentially the beginning of that trend, with Gaelic-inspired names and a brogue that James Doohan would find excessive. In addition, there is the matter of the rifts themselves. Guess who stole that?

Mr. Feist, I think you and Games Workshop have a lot to talk about. Namely, a Class-Action suit against Blizzard.

The Dynamix of A Classic

The Midkemia setting arose from a campaign setting Feist’s RPG group created in college. Therefore it seems somewhat appropriate that it would be adapted into a computer game. Dynamix (who had earlier developed the classic flight sim Red Baron and would later create the Starsiege series), which was a division of Sierra (which was THE developer if you were a PC gamer at the time) contacted Feist with the idea of doing their own take on the RPG, which would focus more strongly on story and the depth of the world as opposed to lots of dice-rolling type gameplay.

It’s rare that an elf is quite as badass as Gorath.

The game’s story begins as an assassin ambushes the game’s starting party- Seigneur Locklear, a knight; Owyn, an apprentice magician; and the moredhel (a race of xenophobic elves) fugitive  Gorath. Gorath quickly dispatches the assassin, but the party is soon on the run from more assassins and making tracks for the city of Krondor. To tell the whole storyline here would spoil the game (in a recursive Page to Pixel moment, Feist novelized it as Krondor: The Betrayal). To say it without spoiling: Gorath’s character arc is one of the best in gaming.

Notice Locklear’s sweet mustache in the portrait.

While Betrayal at Krondor is certainly heavy on the storyline, it also offers a very large, open, 3-dimensional world to explore. From where you start (near LaMut), you can pretty much attempt to go anywhere on the map (and should, to find some enemies to fight so you can better outfit your party). You have to keep your party fed and your equipment in decent condition, as well as keep your health up. There are no magic points or Vancian spells-per-day here; spells consume hit points when cast, so you have to be careful not to overexert your magicians. Similar to the Elder Scrolls games which would come later on, characters developed abilities as they used them (although they could specify two abilities they’d like to specialize in, and these would grow faster).

The game’s epic, involving storyline and deep gameplay (as well as the ability to save anywhere and pick up where you left off with the “bookmark”) earned it high praise from a number of publications, taking Computer Gaming World’s Best Game of the Year in 1993, and the CD-ROM version of the game became one of the killer apps for the format (and one that has certainly aged better than, say, Rebel Assault). With a hit on their hands, what did Sierra have in store for Midkemia? The future, it seems, was shrouded in mist.

Two More Betrayals

Interestingly enough, Betrayal at Krondor ended up with not one, but two successors. Was one the true king and the other a pretender? Or were they both just a pair of jokers?

The villain of Return looks a lot like Bloth from Pirates of Dark Water to me.

The first and probably more obvious guess as to the successor was Return to Krondor, which, other than its setting, shares very little with its acclaimed ancestor. While the game stars Feist’s popular character Jimmy the Hand (or Squire James as speaking formally), the game is often considered to be far more linear and generally inferior to Betrayal. It’s not a total loss, but certainly disappointing as a follow-up to one of the more remarkable games of 1993. The game is pretty short, but it does have a decent and well-written plot going for it. It’s also notable for providing detailed crafting and lockpicking of the sort that weren’t common in RPGs of the era. So Return to Krondor is a mixed bag. But how about the other one?

Betrayal in Antara: “It’s only the Columbia River standing between us and Oregon City, YEEHAW!”

Betrayal in Antara does not take place in Midkemia, on Kelewan, or in the Riftwar universe at all. It’s a standalone story that takes place in its own setting and is entirely its own game. So why the claim to the throne?  Well, for starters, the game uses an updated version of the Betrayal at Krondor engine, and is a spiritual successor in its novel-style presentation. The game has more modern features than Krondor and is pleasantly stylized. The game doesn’t feature a revolving door of characters like Krondor did, rather focusing primarily on a trio of adventurers, some of whom do bear a resemblance to Betrayal at Krondor’s characters. The noble swordsman William is analagous to Locklear, and the young magician Aren is quite similar to Owyn. The odd one out is Kaelyn, who only resembles Gorath by being the third member of the party. The game is somewhat flawed, but is an entertaining enough adventure. If you liked Betrayal at Krondor, chances are good you’ll enjoy the yarn that Antara spins.

Unfortunately for those of us who enjoyed it, its lukewarm reception and Sierra’s collapse in on itself means that it is the last we’ll see of the Antara series.

Overall, Return to Krondor is a neat if slight addition to the Riftwar universe and a historical marker of where RPGs were at the time, while Betrayal at Antara is more of the bastard son that really takes after its old man. Personally, I don’t find Return to still be worth playing (it was novelized as Tear of the Gods), but Antara, in spite of looking a bit dated even when it was released, still has a good enough story and familiar enough gameplay to be worth returning to.  It wasn’t well appreciated in its day, but I happen to like it for what it is.

Return to Krondor unfortunately suffered quite a bit of executive meddling and was released in a somewhat unfinished state, and reportedly Raymond Feist was unhappy enough with the experience that he didn’t want to risk that experience again. This means we’ll probably never see another game set in Midkemia, as much as a Kingdom vs. Tsurani strategy game or Riftwar MMO would be enjoyable. However, Betrayal at Krondor’s legacy of storytelling and open world exploration has certainly lived on, as have Feist’s novels, which currently number at more than 30 books. So raise your mug of Crydee stout high and drink to the classics.

Last month, Telltale Games announced that, among other properties, they would be developing new entries in the King’s Quest series. For me, this was met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, Telltale has been carrying the torch of the classic adventure game for the past few years (reviving them when most others had given up on them, to astounding success). On the other hand…this is King’s Quest. This is the grandaddy, the crown prince (pun intended) in the pantheon of graphic adventures.

Now, as much as I’ve enjoyed Telltale Games’ contributions (especially for their humor content), I do have some major concerns with them taking on this series. For all the things I love about Telltale, there are some things that always bug me about their games. First and foremost is their lack of challenge – an experienced adventure gamer can finish one in a couple of hours at most. King’s Quest games were many things in their day, but quick and easy was not one of them. While the first King’s Quest game is probably solvable in thirty minutes if you know what you’re doing, you aren’t going to know that the first time. The Sierra games reward things like patience, ingenuity, and occasionally spitting in the face of logic.

The difficulty of a Sierra game could border on cruel and unusually sadistic at times. If that isn’t to the taste of everyone, I hope Telltale offers a selection of difficulties (not unlike LucasArts’ Curse of Monkey Island offered normal and “Mega Monkey” difficulties).

And another thing: King’s Quest needs to be more dangerous than Telltale’s other titles. If you’ve played King’s Quest, or Space Quest, or any of the classic Sierra games, then you know that you can and will end up dying a few times. Thus far, Telltale has followed the LucasArts game design philosophy of not allowing the player character to die. This has been fine for Sam & Max and Tales of Monkey Island, which are both continuations of LucasArts series. But in continuing a Sierra series they should bring the you-can-and-will-die-frequently-and-horribly design philosophy back. It may seem inconvenient, but death in Sierra games could actually act as an anti-frustration feature when you were stuck. Because once in a while, when you can’t solve something, you just wanted to get Roger Wilco vaporized or march Larry Laffer in front of oncoming traffic in a cathartic moment of killing your idiot hero, complete with hilarious description. Something I’ve occasionally wanted to do to Guybrush Threepwood, and never been able to.

An essential part of the King’s Quest experience.

There is also the problem of creative control. King’s Quest has always been Roberta Williams’ series, and when she wasn’t writing it she put it in equally capable hands (most notably Jane Jensen’s in VI). While I don’t doubt Telltale can translate the style of generally solving problems through wits rather than violence, I do wonder what direction they’ll take the feel of the game in. The games were pretty consistent for the first six installments, never going too dark or too light. King’s Quest VII kept the tone while giving the game a Disney-esque graphical makeover, while VIII, almost universally considered to be the weakest of the series, went to a more generic (and darker) fantasy setting with added combat. Since then, Roberta Williams retired from the game design business when Sierra was acquired by Vivendi, and as such probably won’t have anything to do with the new game.

The new game should strive to hit the stylistic sweet spot of King’s Quest V and VI.

However, since Telltale has gone to the lengths of having Steve Purcell, Ron Gilbert, and Bob Gale involved in their respective franchises, it would be nice to see some of the designers involved in King’s Quest. The two best candidates for this would be Josh Mandel (who returned to reprise his role as King Graham in the fan-made remakes of KQ I-III, and in any case should probably be Graham’s only voice), as well as King’s Quest VI writer and designer of the Gabriel Knight series, Jane Jensen (whose latest game Gray Matter recently released stateside, and which I will eventually get around to reviewing). I’d personally like to see Jane Jensen involved because I’d saw my own leg off to play a new Gabriel Knight, and this seems like it could swing the door open for it.

Finally, I’d like to see Telltale improve the graphical engine they use. They’ve been using the same engine for the past five or six years, and King’s Quest seems like the perfect opportunity for them to trot out a fresh engine. The original King’s Quest games were always on the cutting edge of their times, utilizing things like 16-color graphics cards, mouse control, CD-ROM technology and, eventually, 3D graphics engines. This is no place to phone it in, Telltale.

This was as impressive in 1984 as Uncharted 2 was in 2009.

Now, I don’t want it to sound like I’m an overly demanding fanboy – I genuinely want the new King’s Quest to rock, to see Graham and Valanice and their brood return after an interminable fourteen years. I’m rooting for you, Telltale. I’m eager to return to Daventry and to see the glory of the old days restored.

Don’t let me and the legions of fans down, guys. I know you can do it.