Few words meant something to me in videogaming history quite like Quest. I used to associate Quests with a particular style of mechanics, which I was lucky enough to watch evolve from one standard to another, culminating with one of my long-term gaming loves, Quest For Glory. There was something to the word Quest. It was a totem, rather than actually the word for a thing you had to do. Not once during my childhood was I ever called to explain that word to myself or anyone.
They were Quest games.What did Quest mean?
Quest literally means a particular task, usually of some weight or value, something big and hard you have to achieve. In the earliest days, the Quest games were exactly that. In Kings Quest, you were charged – literally by the king – to find objects that would let you become the King yourself. In Space Quest, you woke up as a janitor on a spaceship, finding a super-weapon stolen, and with no support, you had to go get it back, because there was nobody but you.
The name Quest after this point, though, became the brand. The brand that slowly, but surely, started to get lost. And I feel nothing stands taller as a signal of All Those Things going wrong as Space Quest ]I[.
A Meandering Nowhere
After Space Quest 1, the adventures of Roger Wilco were expanded with Space Quest 2. In 2, there was this confusion about your start. You were a hero who had saved your home planet, you’d stopped aliens from turning planets into stars, you had literally stormed an alien battleship on your own and killed a bunch of bad guys. The evolution from nobody to nightmare presented in Space Quest 1 had reached its zenith.
2, therefore, started you in exactly the same place. You were an underappreciated nobody janitor, being chewed out by your boss for not being very good at your job. Then you were kidnapped by someone who was hurt in your first quest, and the game played out as an escape, that led into saving the day from the clutches of evil. However, the finale of Space Quest 2 was jumping into an escape pod, leaping out into deep space, and then going into cryogenic stasis, as if the developers were admitting they had no good ideas for what to do next.
That’s when 3 showed up.
3 was a new engine for two developers who had no idea what they were going to do. This shows in the game, too. In 1, you wake up during an invasion. In 2, you’re kidnapped within the first five minutes of the game. In 3… you wake up in a garbage dump. You then wander around in the rubble, looking around for… something. Anything. A way out. That way out then leads to one of the starkest adventure-game moments I remember. You can scan the galaxy for locations you can warp to.
There are three.
You can go to a volcano planet, which is a dead-end. You can go to a tourist planet. You can go to a McDonalds, which is a dead end. In the vastness of space, presented with a near infinite space, the developers of Space Quest decided to give you an entirely linear path and nothing to do.
There’s no quest to 3.
The Tapering Place
Here, check out this image. This is the map – broadly speaking – of all the screens of Space Quest ]I[. See those top left screens? Around seventeen of them? That’s just your starting area. That is the game when you have nothing, almost no guidance, and you’re just milling around trying to find something to do.
Then the next area is just as large… but those screens are, mostly, empty. There are things in those screens to keep you from doing anything or going anywhere you shouldn’t. On the first planet you visit after the junker, there’s one thing to do, more or less.This continues, getting more and more narrow, until the final area of the game. About half of this game happens in the first area – it’s easily a game you can finish in around an hour, if you know what you’re doing, and when you do that, it becomes painfully obvious just how much of an unenthusiastic phllhhbbbbtttt the last piece of this game is.
Hell, remember that burger place? There’s a mini-game there. And if you haven’t finished this mini-game, it is entirely possible to finish the game without ever having a motivation to do anything.
The game even lampshades it! Some actions make no sense if you don’t finish the game, and if you do them, the game flat-out says ‘that’s a bit weird, but oh well, let’s do it.’
The Hated Overbeing
The real message, I fear, of 3, however, is in the last part, when you’re on Pestulon. Now, the game is called The Pirates of Pestulon, which is a way more exciting title than it deserves. It’s not even a clever pun, software pirates of Pestulon. The force to fear on Pestulon aren’t pirates, stealing and raiding. They’re surveyors. They’re software assessors. They are, broadly speaking, a jab at corporate-American early-90s perception of megacorporations like IBM and Microsoft.
It’s in this that the game is actually kinda odious? Because the game presents people who work for corporate software companies as identical, homogenous drones, ugly, pig-faced people with big glasses and dweeby names. It’s really strange, too, because the end of the game involves delivering the game’s creators (really), to Sierra (really), on Earth (I said REALLY), and then, literally, wandering off. Sierra, at this time, were not some startup indie – they were getting the first anchoring contact of The Corporate to them – the earliest licks of the pressure that would eventually drive their developers to avoid the hell out of them.
This all winds around the central tentpost of the background story here, where Sierra were, at this time, quickly being regarded as dicks by their software developers. You didn’t see this discontent in the Kings Quest series, perhaps because Roberta Williams was classier than that, but also perhaps because she had helped found the company, and didn’t see the company’s problems in the same way.
Space Quest 3 is this strange little fart of a game, where the developers clearly stopped caring halfway through, where the game’s developers considered Sierra a desireable alternative to corporate work, and where the idea of assigning the player an objective was lower priority than just getting the game done.
It’s an interesting artifact of a game, perhaps in part, by how little care it had for what was still, for its day, a remarkably polished product.