King's Quest III: To Heir is Human (1986)



King's Quest III is a game I have no real nostalgic connection towards to, as I played it later on in the late 1990's and not in my much younger days. To that point, I was already exposed to a different school of game design, that had already begun to shun the design practices of the oh so distant 1980's. As such, I've never really warmed to King's Quest III, as despite it does have some commendable attributes to it, as Roberta Williams was trying out new things to spruce up the adventure genre, it really is a game that suffers from poor design choices as well as narrative that just isn't that interesting despite the good premises.

From the getgo, King's Quest III feels a bit different than the two previous games in the series. First off, it's not starring King Graham, but a 17-years old lad Gwydion, a slave of an evil wizard Manannan. His life is misery, working for the wizard, doing his bidding, obeying him in everything if he doesn't want to be killed from a whim of Manannan. But there must be more to life than this, so the plan is clear: to find a way of getting rid of the wizard and to escape the miserable existence.

If the setting of being a slave for an evil wizard is a step in a different direction as far narratives go, there are some differences in the gameplay as well. While the game itself still is a very traditional adventure game in the same way as KQI & KQII were, as in you move with cursors and type in commands, the big difference is, that the whole game is timed. And here is the first great stumbling block of the game: time.

The kitchen has important stuff, like food you can use to keep Manannan happy. This is also one of the locations you need to clean constantly, just like your master commands. 

I don't necessarily have anything against timed content in games. It's fully fine to have time sensitive tasks, as those can add to the gameplay by bringing in more feeling of urgency. Think of a mission where you need to disarm a bomb in 2 minutes, but the game just lets you muck about as long as you want without the bomb actually ever going off. But in King's Quest III it's not only some things that are tied on a timer but the whole of the game.

About for the first 15 minutes, you are entirely tied to the house of Manannan. You cannot leave, as if you walk beyond the front yard, he'll kill you, so what's left for you to do are some mundane tasks, like cleaning the house and what not. But you can't be too thorough, as if you pick up the wrong stuff, Manannan will kill you again for harbouring potential magical objects. You can, however, hide the magic stuff under your bed, so if you're fast enough, you can loot the house without Manannan noticing anything.

So after the first 15 minutes, Manannan informs of his intentions of going on a trip, which will give you a bit over 15 minutes of freedom. This means you can finally leave the house and really start looking for those much-needed magic items. Of course, you won't find a list from the game, but from the manual, which is an another stumbling block: the magic.

Besides collecting ingredients, this is what you do quite a bit in the game: first, you mix the ingredients by typing in exact commands, like "put two spoons of salt in a bowl". Then you need to type in the verses verbatim or you die. All the commands and verses are in the manual, so these really aren't puzzles.

As such the magic can be seen as one, huge copy protection, as without the actual manual, you won't be getting far. Not only are the ingredients listed there, the formulas for creating spells are there as well. The magic isn't a small part of the game either. What you are really doing for a good portion of the game is not puzzle solving, but picking up items and copying spell formulas from the manual verbatim in order create the 7 spells you need in order to finish the game. You do use spells to solve puzzles, but making them is very far from being one if you don't count spellchecking as a puzzle.

Let's get back to time. If you are a first-time player you don't know how long the game will give you. This is trial and error, but easy to figure out after the wizard kills you the first time you've ventured outside his yard. If you also are a first-time player, you probably won't be able to get all needed items and create the needed spell in order to get rid of Manannan, so you are again locked in doing menial tasks for a while before he again heads out. This continues for a while before you finally end up dead when you just don't any more things you can please Mannan with.

Now much wiser from the mechanics of the game, you can actually complete the spell ingredient collecting and spell making in half an hour. At least what comes to creating the cat transformation spell you need to get rid of Manannan. This is by far my favourite scene in the game, as when you finally get rid of the old coot, it's such a liberating feeling, as you finally get rid of the timer. Except you won't, as the next part is timed as well.

This will be your home for the next 10 minutes or so. Sadly enough there's nothing much to do when on board.

First off, you need to book a passage away on a ship, that will leave without you if you don't get to the ship in time. That's just a small annoyance though, as the next part on the ship is just boring, as there's nothing much to do there. Two mandatory things are casting one spell and collecting your possessions. One task is fully optional and will only serve as providing a full score. But again you need to wait around 10 minutes in real time before you can cast the spell you need to escape the ship.

The next step of the journey is like a pretty bowtie on a package filled with frustrating game design choices: you get to take part, like you already hadn't,  in an exercise of navigating narrow paths and slippery slopes on a mountain range before you get to Daventry, where you kill a dragon with two spells, save your sister Rosella, as you found out earlier that you actually are Prince Alexander of Daventry, and finally return home. You already had two screens of mandatory pixel perfect navigation in Llewdor, when you had to walk up and down the mountain path to the wizards house. And no, while one of the spells does transform you into an eagle or a fly, you can't fly up to the house, nor can your magic map help you either.

The magic map actually is one of the better design ideas in the game. Early on you can score a map from Manannan's house, which is updated with each new location you visit. Now, granted, the realm of Llewdor isn't a large one, but because of the time sensitive nature of the game, it is a nice thing to have a map at your disposal, that helps you teleport between locations quickly and safely. It actually might even be one of the very first implementations of such a feature in games and it really works very well.

This is the best-designed feature of the game. It's functional, clear and serves its purpose exactly as you'd hope it would. With the exception of that, it won't teleport you to the wizards house but on the root of the mountain, forcing you to walk the path up every time you need to return to the home base.

The setting really is the best part of the game. The story has a good premise, but it really isn't explored to the extent that would have made it save the game from what the design makes it. There is very little narrative in most of the game. Only in a couple of occasions, you get a bit more exposure about what is going on and who you really are, but that all is hidden in the midst of busy work. And really, the ways the narrative is told in these early games just isn't enough to properly convey a story of this magnitude, as the tech itself just wasn't mature enough to do that.

I like the spell system in theory as well. It is actually a nice idea to create the spells from ingredients, but sadly enough, the way it was implemented in the game and making them essentially non-puzzles, the system feels more like an annoyance rather than something that should grab the majority of the gameplay.

But Roberta Williams probably did learn something from making KQIII, as she went and made my favourite game in the series after this one. So maybe it wasn't a wasted effort after all, but a learning experience.

King's Quest III is easily one of the worst games in the series. It also is one of the worst adventure games Sierra published, as its design just doesn't work. As a game, it is filled with busy work, time limits and copying the manual to the game. I can appreciate, that Roberta Williams wanted to try new stuff, but in many ways, KQIII is just one, glorious misfire in an extent that it could be used as a learning tool on how not to design a fun, engaging games.

To experience the busy work simulator 1986 yourself you can head on GOG or Steam.

The happy end. This is also the moment where King's Quest IV begins.





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