Trial By Fire
After Quest For Glory 1 promised more, the Coles were on the hook for more. That worked out well for Sierra, though, because the game they made was great, with personality and charm and other words that reviewers like to inflate like they have inherent meaning. From time to time I’ll complain about sequel releases in games, and time to time I reflect and realise that I’m usually comparing the changes between those two games, and between these.
First things first, the game is better looking. Using the same small resources, Quest For Glory 2 puts less effort into map areas that are just transitional. You will walk through a lot of twisty mazelike passages that look all alike, and the desert map sections are four repeated frames endlessly. On the other hand, the hero looks quite a bit better, and moves well. The game’s systems are improved, where the player can differentiate between telling someone something and asking them something. Sneaking cares about how much you sneak, not how many screens you sneak between, and the introduction of mouse aiming for spells and daggers allowed for some remarkably clever puzzles – such as showing you the difference between hitting someone’s chest with a thrown dagger, or hitting their leg. It became even more evident in the mage’s puzzles, where you could do cute things like ricochet shots off some surfaces.
None of the game was emergent – it was just an intricate and thoroughly constructed sequence of possible permutations. If you wanted, you could max out your skills and go out into the desert to hunt jackals and scorpions, could build up a huge reputation with the vendors in town, could buy everyone’s miscellaneous guff, earn the class distinctions that belonged to other classes, arm-wrestle a misogynist, burgle houses, consult an astrologer to hear about almost every major NPC, cuddle a tree, and almost none of it was essential. I imagine speed runs of Quest For Glory 2 are really short – there are a few day-specific events that don’t require high statistics, and almost all the puzzles in the game care more about some aspect of correct commands, rather than a skill-based practice. What made it great was the way it seemed emergent. I’ve learned that despite sinking possibly hundreds of hours into this game over my life, there are two major parts of the game I’ve never seen.
The plot is also a nice progression that most sequels don’t do. In Quest For Glory 1, you saved a barony, a village and a castle. You were dealing with bandits thanks to a capricious and meanspirited supernatural power – but you didn’t confront her yourself. In Quest For Glory 2, you’re trying to save a city, then another city, then the rulers of those cities. In Quest For Glory 1, you’re afraid of fighting bandits en masse. In Quest for Glory 2, you crush bandits, without even trying. Sure, it’s a joke, but it still shows growth.
The Quest For Disks
I can remember this game as a sort of unicorn for me. I wasn’t a very resoureful child at the time – my chances to obtain software were limited to my interactions with my friends who had computers of their own, which was typically a small handful of school friends – who also had church-operating fathers – and my cousin. My cousin was how I obtained Quest For Glory I – it was a Christmas gift. That began a small obssession for me – he had the sequel, but not when I visited him. He had a faster turnover of games – he could afford to delete games when he was bored of them, and disks were more valuable than the stuff stored on them.
I remember collecting single disks of Quest For Glory 2 over the course of eighteen months. Some were official Sierra disks, with their dot-matrix printed instructions and count on the top. Some were old Verbatims. Some were mislabelled Quest For Glory I disks. One was a rather cruelly blank prank. I never obtained the game this way. I came close – five of six disks, I think. I just remember that ache, the fascination, the wonder that this game represented in my mind, and how I was so close.
Once or twice a year, when dad had business in the area, or just wanted to spend a bit of money, we’d visit the Gamesmen in Penshurst. Dad was, apparently, friends with the owners, before the tragic shooting that claimed one and sent the other away from the place. They became a franchise, strangely connected in my heart but never quite… real. Never quite the same. Normally, we’d go around my birthday, where a fistful of five dollar bills from six or eight relatives could come together to form a pile of cheap games that weren’t going to move unless some kid picked them up. That kid, that kid was me. I played some awful games in that time, but I fucking loved them. I had months of entertainment in the strangest sources – mastering games which never expected anyone to even try.
This time it wasn’t near my birthday. I had no money. It was just a trip to look at boxes and wonder. I usually asked my dad for things when we went to these places, was told we couldn’t afford it, and that was that. I was a whiny kid, I’m sure, but basically, I remember most of the time, Dad answered ‘no,’ and with good reason. This time, I went, expecting nothing, and figuring I’d just see some nice game covers. Maybe dad would buy a game I could play too.
They had, in the cheap section, Quest For Glory 2, and they had it for twenty dollars. They had it. They had it. I had never seen that game in stores, and there it was, in a black-outlined box with a proud proclamation on the box itself that the game was only twenty dollars.
I didn’t ask for it.
I stood there in the store, holding that box and looking at it for a long time. No roaming around, no checking bargain bins. I remember just holding the box, turning it over, looking at every surface, holding it up to my face and squinting like I could peer into the screenshots on the back and see the wonder within them. I remember thinking so hard about asking my dad. But this was different. This wasn’t something I could cajole or convince or connive. This wasn’t something he’d like, and maybe I could play it too. This would be just for me. I remembered feeling very sad in that moment. I knew I was going to walk away from that store on that Saturday and that would be it. Back to scrabbling for the parts of that game that I wanted, that held a world out before me.
Two days later, dad came home from work with a plastic bag. In that bag there was a new game for him. I can’t remember what it was. It was more cutting edge, more interesting. I’d love to say I can remember it, I’d love to add that anchoring detail.
I just remember that also in that plastic bag was a copy of Trial By Fire.
We didn’t talk about it. He didn’t give me a speech. He didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. I went to the kitchen and did washing up without being asked, I did my homework, I cleaned my room. All of this, signalled just by the face of that game, in that bag. I remember I’d been bad at school that day. I remember that dad had reason to be upset with me – because well, detention. My school situation was unfair, but he didn’t know that.
Finally, I came to get him for dinner. Before I left his room, he handed me the box – and just said ‘Go put that in your room before dinner.’
It’s just a game. It’s just a game. It’s just a fucking game.
But it means something more to me.