For the better part of the last two decades the adventure game genre was thought dead. Or at least comatose. But in these past few years it's finally returning. And how diverse a return it's been! In one corner, we've had Telltale's streamlined, linear take on interactive storytelling. In another, we've got Double Fine remixing old templates with modern tech and style with Broken Age. And then there's Maniac Mansion creators Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick successfully Kickstarting their faux 1987 throwback Thimbleweed Park. So how will The Odd Gentlemen, the LA studio behind The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom and Wayward Manor, handle reprising King's Quest? The answer is a mix of all of the above in a way that's distinctly its own.
From the early press demo I see at GDC, King's Quest seeks to combine Telltale's episodic structure with Double Fine's lofty production values while staying true to the classic Sierra games with their penchant for comic deaths and multiple endings. This may be billed as a "reboot," but it's not the sort of modern update that fills vintage fans with dread. You won't be mashing buttons to fend off dragons, nor will you clumsily push blocks around to solve those popular "physics puzzles" that are all the rage these days. Instead, you'll be using your noggin to suss out the solution to many of King Graham's most entertaining problems. Or die trying (incidentally, you'll do that a lot).
That isn't to suggest that The Odd Gentlemen have simply followed Sierra's blueprint to a T. Like J.J. Abrams did with Star Trek, The Odd Gentlemen has come up with a clever narrative device that makes its King's Quest adventure simultaneously a re-imagining while remaining canon.
The new King's Quest will be a story told in flashback by series stalwart King Graham, now an old man, to his granddaughter Gwendolyn. Creative director and The Odd Gentlemen president Matt Korba, who insists that King's Quest was his favourite series growing up, likens it to The Princess Bride or Big Fish. While this reboot will primarily be a brand new adventure, it will occasionally touch on elements from previous games. For example, the demo we see concerns Graham snatching a magic mirror from a dragon, a story that transpired in the first King's Quest.
"It wasn't exactly how I remembered it, " old man Graham says. "But it wasn't all that different either."
This narrative tool is cleverly employed throughout. When the player attempts to make gangly, teenage Graham crawl into bed, the narrator will snap "This was no time to take a nap!" Try it too many times and he'll admit that maybe he took a brief snooze before facing the dragon.
He even reacts to player death - and there will be a lot of that - in humorous ways. "And that's what would have happened had I pulled the left switch," he says after his younger self pulled the wrong lever and got smushed by in a booby trap. "So you must know I pulled the other one" he adds upon the player re-entering the story.
Another time Gwendolyn calls BS on his tale of heroically charging into a dragon's mouth, i.e. dying. "I was just checking to see if you were still awake," he chimes in. It's not the first time we've seen this narrative device employed in an adventure game - Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Stanley Parable come to mind - but it's a great fit for this fresh take on a vintage series.
"I look at this the way people might look at The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan," Korba says. "A sort of classic fairy tale thing and this is our take on it." As such, this new adventure won't drastically alter the canon, but it will update and throw out a ton of references from past games.
This reboot will also be a much more ambitious affair. While the demo section is very linear - and meant to serve as a tutorial for the main adventure - the full game will open up a lot with several areas to go to at your own pace. Intriguingly, the order in which you solve the puzzles will influence the story.
"We took everything that makes episodic content manageable and threw it out the window," Korba jokes. "Why don't we change the character model every chapter? Why don't we change the setting every chapter?"
Unlike a lot of older adventure games, your choices in the new King's Quest will be primarily based on your actions rather than words. "We're really trying to do all of our choice through gameplay and not branching dialogue," Korba says. "We do have branching dialogue in the game, but we use it more for humour. Most of your choices are made by how you solve the puzzles and how you approach the problem-solving aspect."
While it will have a lot of flexibility in the story, Korba maintains that its plot won't go too far off the rails. "It can't ever be a story of murder or dictatorship or horrible things, because that's not in King Graham's character," he explains. "Gwendolyn will never turn her nose up and be like 'ew, I don't like that part of the story. Every action that you do she's excited about."
But what King's Quest lacks in scope it makes up for in detail. Korba is especially proud of how The Odd Gentlemen play with chronology as the story will skip around in time and flesh out seemingly innocuous details in interesting ways. For example, the cave that occupies the dragon contains an arrow in a stalactite and bed frames hanging from the ceiling. These bizarre backdrops will all make sense in time as the full game will have players revisit this same setting five years earlier.
Korba is quick to point out that he doesn't want the game to over-explain anything. Handholding will be slim to nil while many story elements will be open to interpretation. "We're really about allowing the player to skin whatever emotions they want on that dragon. So if you want to think that that's a vicious, cruel creature, that's fine. If you want to think he's misunderstood, that's okay too," he says. Later, you'll get to decide whether to free the dragon, fight back, or distract it long enough to snatch the mirror it's guarding.
"That colours the story. Either way Graham's telling his granddaughter the story about how he defeated the dragon, but it's either a story about how he bravely and heroically fought back against this hideous monster or it's a story about how he made a friend in an unexpected place. But it's never a story about how he cold-bloodedly murdered him or anything like that."
Indeed Korba would like this new King's Quest to be for everyone, young and old alike. "We wanted to create these family-friendly experiences that I think are lacking in gaming. We're all getting older and - I don't have kids yet, but I would like to - and I want to have games that I can share with them, just like I got to play these games with my dad and my uncle," he says. "And we don't want to make entertainment that's 'for kids'. We want entertainment that everyone can enjoy equally. And that, to me at least, is what Sierra used to do."