So You Want To Be A Hero
Christopher Lee re-reads The Lord Of The Rings every year. My father makes a point of reading through the Bible every few years. Lindsey Ellis of That Guy With The Glasses Dot Com has clearly watched Hercules over and over again. We have these patterns, these repetitions, these cycles that we return to, the indulgence in culture, in art. I’m somewhat lucky in that I don’t imagine there are many people my age for whom the media of their youth, the piece of art which falls into the cycle, is not a book, or a piece of music, or a movie, but is a series of videogames. Thus, in April, the month of my birth, we are going to talk about nothing but these videogames, while I indulge myself in this journey down memory lane.
First things first, Quest For Glory I was not, originally, distributed as that – it was, when I was first given it, Hero’s Quest, to match the line of Space Quest and King’s Quest games put out by Sierra entertainment at the time (later to be joined by Eco Quest), and used the second of the big Sierra game engines, the SCI Engine. If you put Quest For Glory 1 alongside the original Space Quest 1 it sure as hell does not look good for Roger Wilco – the SCI engine had more colours, a better parser, and generally was just a smarter, better game overall. It also paused when you started to type, which considering there were timing and positioned based puzzles in Space Quest II was as sure as heck a good thing.
Some of the things I’m going to talk about you can easily dismiss as being, well, old hat, but you need to remember this game came out in 1989.I was six when I received this game on ten 5.25-inch floppy disks, and the idea of clearing out about six megabytes of storage space on my dad’s computer so I could play it was an enormous ask. On the other hand, if you’re, say, a fan of Mass Effect 2 (as I am), you’re going to see a lot of prototypical DNA of that game here.
You can choose your class at the start of the game, which opens up some options for you and cuts off others. You have a number of skills that change how the game world treats you, but that you improve by doing. People will react to how you behave, but not immediately. You’re rewarded for asking questions. There are multiple endings to the game, depending on how thoroughly you pursue all the possible quest threads. At the end of the game, when you’ve solved the problems in the little valley of Spielburg, you then are whisked away on a carpet, and given the option of saving your character, so that same character can move on to the next game!
What of the story? Well, honestly, this story has kind of become something of a template for all videogame RPG stories, in my mind (and was I blown away by JRPG story structures? Hell yes). You are an unnamed, unknown nobody who wanders into the sleepy little town of Spielburg, with the intention of becoming a hero. The manual suggests that you came here with intentions, after hearing about problems the Baron was having, but the game sure as hell isn’t going to tell you what you were doing. No, this is not a story about discovering anything about yourself but what methods of problem solving you like.
The game is a pastiche of European/Russian folklore, primarily European, with dryads, ogres, kobolds and fairies. Everyone is white, even the hyperbolic foreigner Abdulla Doo, and while the game is cut deep with a sense of humour that runs towards cornball puns (the classic Sierra many-deaths-of-you death messages are present) it tries amongst this to write characters with as wide a variety of tones and personalities as they could manage with limited interfaces. There is a real attempt to make characters varying degrees of sympathetic and dangerous – some very affable bad people, some very cranky good people, and even some outright ambiguous people to boot. The game even has a morality system of sorts that’s based on tangible cause and effect. If you break into people’s houses and steal from them, they will be more paranoid. If you kill an optional (but very hard) opponent, his friends will grieve him.
I think more than any other videogame I’d played to this point, Quest For Glory consumed my imagination with possibility. I know now, looking at the game, how limited it is – the text parser is a bit of a joke, and there are numerous areas created just to make the forest feel larger than it is. There are dead ends and ways to lose the game without ever finding out how to win, and the combat system is terrible, where you either completely obliterate your opponents or you are smeared to the floor as a thin paste. Despite all these things, though, even now as an adult, I’m still surprised to find – or rediscover! – things the original game still could do, still thought to do, or let you do.
What the game did that few videogames have ever done in so excellent a way since is scale up. It’s not obvious here in the first game, but all you really are doing is solving the problems of one small village and one small Baron. You’re rescuing missing children, helping people stock for the winter, and ultimately, raiding and defeating a bandit stronghold. Now, for a nobody to take on an established raiding force in their own lair, sneaking past their best defences (or fighting through them, hell) is quite damn heroic, and you can cap that off by outwitting an evil witch, too, but you’re still only a hero to that same small community. This matters, you’ll see more later.
In the end, this is a videogame that lets you practice picking locks by sticking your lockpick up your nose. It also is the first game to make me sob with grief over the death of a woman you never meet. This game affected me so deeply, emotionally, that I was convinced that it had to have a demonic influence in it – that I was being possessed by the videogame. I still can remember how, with shaking hands, I formatted every one of those disks, after telling my mother about my plan to do so. I destroyed a Christmas present to assuage my guilt at experiencing art – and then I spent the next ten years of my life invariably recovering and playing those games again.