Shadows of Darkness
I’m going to start this one with a bit of a strange warning. Touto, you will be upset by this. Please understand if you read it all, and if you do not feel you are strong enough, you do not have to read it at all. Please, don’t hurt yourself by reading about my hurt. I hope though, if you do read this, you will see why I respect you, even when things upset you.
Also, this retrospective has massive spoilers in it. I really do recommend that you try the games before reading this if you’ve any intention to do so.
Quest For Glory 4 is a remarkable improvement over Wages Of War. While Wages of War was uncertain about how they wanted to use their engine, with its point-and-click movement, Quest For Glory 4 is much more confident. The windows port of it is a little shaky, but hey, it was 1994 and Windows 3.1 wasn’t exactly a renowned game platform. The combat system is a bit weird – I remember being quite good at it, but anything you practice for a hundred hours probably becomes easier. It was a stranger attempt to make combat more arcade – and it even included an AI version that could fight for you, if you were all thumbs. Other than that, the game’s core is more or less the same. Items, skills, pointing, clicking, solving puzzles, balancing the resources of your stamina and time, sleeping and eating and stabbing things – there isn’t anything here you haven’t seen already.
The game still has stats that determine how well you do at things, and if you’re weird and obsessive you can drag all those numbers up to a very sassy 400. There is some incentive to do so, if you like numbers that are larger than other numbers, and some point in the game, you will notice a tangible difference when you start random fights in the wilds to collect coins and miscellaneous junk, but you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to try and do everything in this creepy little valley of Slavic horror.
Quest For Glory 4 also abandoned Quest For Glory 3’s world map, and returns to a screen-by-screen small valley just like Quest For Glory 1. I preferred this, especially when they made sure that there were fewer ‘empty’ screens – more than a few areas had something in them, whether that was a hawk or a particular random encounter or a goddamned grieving ghost of a lost woman, pining for her husband who had never stopped missing her.
Oh yeah, the big change from the previous games is that Quest For Glory 4 is fucking dark.
It plays with the same goofiness of the earlier games, of course. There’s a mad scientist trying to bring a woman made of vegetables to life, like Frankenstein. There’s a gravedigger who makes amazingly bad puns. There’s a talking bush. There’s also John Rhys Davies, as the narrator, going for full Hammer Horror style histrionic when the narration comes to a tense head.
It’s also a game with suicide, sacrifice, and a dreadful hybrid of Lovecraftian horror and the Slavic myth of Chernobog.
QFG4 is to my mind the ‘last’ Quest For Glory game. By the time the fifth game, Dragon Fire came out, my world and outlook had changed, and I simply did not know the game existed. Despite Dragon Fire coming out when I was old enough to easily obtain it, I never did. I own a copy – but I’ve never bothered to play it. I don’t know why. Therefore, QFG4 represents a finale, and a strange one. Strange because of how it impacted me, but also strange in how my very twisted, distorted view of the world in my adolescent years, played into how the game felt to me. This started with the character of the Dark One – Avoozl.
I don’t think I can tell you what Avoozl was, to me. Oh, sure, I can tell you he’s a big bad horrible thing, an evil so dreadful nobody wanted to use his name until it was necessary for puzzles. I could use terms like ‘lovecraftian’ or ‘horrifying,’ but that wouldn’t do justice to what I saw in Avoozl. That’s just description, a pile of words thrown over a shape. Avoozl was something more and more dreadful, to me.
When I played Quest For Glory 4 for the first time, I was still a Christian. I was still a Christian who believed in a very fundamentalist, very literal and controlling fashion of the faith. I was a Christian who genuinely believed that as a fifteen year old virgin, I had committed acts of adultery by looking at women on magazine covers. I believed in a literal devil and demonic possession. I believed that Satan took control of media in the world to convince people of ideas that would make us easier to control. This had happened to me once before – after a nightmare inspired by the first game, I was convinced that there was something wrong with the game, and I had to ‘purge’ the disks, wiping them all, one by one, ritualistically.
I had read my Bible enough, however, to know that the book hinted in some terrible places about the other gods.
I very, very seriously thought Avoozl might exist.
I know, it’s ridiculous! Laugh at me if you want, but this was the perspective I had! And in this game, I was being given a glimpse of, of, of a world with more gods. Of a world where a Christian warrior was not opposing ideals and cusswords, but was taking up an arm against something so much worse. When this topic breached the surface, when Avoozl flashed his fins, unnamed and terrible, I was suddenly galvanised. This world was full of demons, ghosts, the dead, horror and fear.
It was so realistic.
These days it’s reasonably safe to admit you crush on a videogame character. There’s a subculture that talk about it. Even people who are proud of it. There’s fanfiction and there’s fanart and it’s all just acceptable. I had no culture like that, back then. I also didn’t have any friends, let alone friends I was attracted to, with whom I could stiltingly start those emotional experiments I imagined I’d have called ‘going steady.’ No, I was an isolate young man to whom videogames were an effort at socialisation.
Now, Quest For Glory 4 was not written for the sweaty pocket-mining department of gamers, per se, but it did have some raunchy stuff in it. A rusalka was designed to look beautiful, so she could horrify you and disgust you when she started to rot. A servant girl was obviously beautiful so she could startle you with her ‘unveiled’ appearance. These things stuck with me. I remember the shame and guilt I felt when I met the rusalka, as if my dad would burst through a wall and see what I was doing (which he never did). This is why I wound up rearranging my bedroom so much – to create illusions of space and safety, to put my back to a wall when I was using my computer, to hide the screen from anyone who simply entered the room.
That prurience, however, underpinned another element of my experience with the game, though. Katrina. Katrina is a character who guides you out of the swamp, teaches you spells, expresses concern for your wellbeing, listens to you, flirts with you a little, and is gone, poof, so regularly. Remember, this is pre-GameFAQs and such. If Katrina showed up at some point in the game thanks to a trigger, I didn’t know what that trigger was. I only knew that she was there, and I wanted to talk to her and I loved hearing from her. I kept thinking that I would eventually learn more about her, that she would stop evading questions and talk to me about who she was, about what she wanted.
When you find out who she was and what she wants, you’ll probably not blink. Me, I was hammered. She was the Vampire Lord. She was the one who oversaw Ad Avis in Shapier. As quickly as I realised I had a crush on Katrina, I realised I couldn’t do anything about her. Evil walked the land and it had in its fist my heart.
What followed then was a story about a hero saving a town, and thanks to that, the world. It was a greater scale than the previous games, yes, but only because the threat to this town was something that would also completely consume and ruin the world. Recurring throughout the story, though, was the strange theme of sacrifice. Strange because to me, the meme was that sacrifice was our ideal. It was what we, Christians, did. Greater love hath no man than this, we were told.
Then I watched as an old man died to give his wife peace.
I watched a monster surrender its life to save a child.
Beyond Good And Evil
I think this was a game that introduced into my young mind a level of complexity that nothing else I was able to experience did. With Katrina’s bubbling sexuality, with the sadness of the ghosts Niklai and Anna, with a story about suicide and death and vengeance from beyond the grave, with the repeated theme of people giving up their lives for others… I was horrified to think at the time that this game, this marvelous, wonderful, intense game, was the work of Satan. It could not be. It could not be, that this game that tried to say that a monster was a moral person underneath, that you could leave behind something that you would never enjoy if it benefitted others, that this, these ideas could be the result of sin and manipulation.
No, this was a noble game. This was a game that told a story about an evil thing that couldn’t exist, and a dark, horrible place full of fear that showed the world the way I thought the world actually was and how in that place, people found peace. Some people fought for it. Some people killed for it. Some people died for it. Some people died for other people’s.
Toby gave his life for Anna.
Katrina gave her life for me.
I remember shutting the game down that first time. I remember walking away, going down into our back garden, down by the little brickwork barbecue and the piles of red leaves and flowers, and finding a place where I knew my parents wouldn’t look for me. I remember sitting with my arms holding my legs and my head on my knees, and crying. I remember crying for Katrina, I remember crying for that act. She was bad. She was a vampire, she wanted to take over the world, she had lied to me, she had manipulated me, she had used the fact I thought she was beautiful against me.
And my heart ached knowing that in that time and place, with that one moment, she still gave up her life for me.
It’s mawkish bullshit now. It’s pointless, stupid shit. If you look back at it and read it now, it even tells you ‘you realise that she loved you.’ It’s not good writing. This game isn’t going to win awards for writing. You finish this scene by telling a dirty joke. I am sure that I can take this game to a dozen people I know and respect and they will tell me why it is god-awful, why it abuses the player, why it hurts women and why anyone who liked it clearly has never met a woman.
It can’t change that this game broke my heart, and broke me.