There are sword and sorcery games, and then there are those set in Daventry.
Daventry, the fantastical homeland of the “King’s Quest” series, is to the video game universe what Middle Earth is to the world of fantasy literature. But if Daventry isn’t a household name, there is no questioning the landmark status of Sierra’s “King’s Quest.”
Home to one King Graham, Queen Valanice, Princess Rosella and more, “King’s Quest” was pioneering for the way it emphasized characters and story in a medium where play has been given precedence. In the mid- to late ’80s, “King’s Quest” and the games of Sierra made the case that the video game medium would evolve into a form of interactive cinema.
It wasn’t to be. Action, arcade and gunplay would soon dominate, rendering “King’s Quest” and other so-called adventure games to near-relic status. Now that the “King’s Quest” brand has sat dormant for more than a decade, tiny downtown L.A. studio the Odd Gentlemen is prepping a comeback.
And with it a return of the cartoonish fancifulness that marked the franchise’s eight prior core games. Tonally, early looks at the Odd Gentlemen’s reboot channels “The Princess Bride” with an air of vintage Disney. Studio co-founder Matt Korba even goes so far as to say the game is influenced by rides at Disneyland, this as he sits in his disheveled office and guides King Graham through Pirates of the Caribbean-looking caverns.
Speaking recently in the seventh-floor offices of the PacMutual building — don’t be wowed by the Pershing Square-adjacent address, as offices of the Odd Gentlemen are more a glorified storage room — Korba and studio Vice President Lindsey Rostal spoke ambitiously of crafting family-friendly entertainment in a medium where the most heavily marketed games often target men.
“It needs to feel like you’re playing a fantasy movie, with a Jim Henson/Disney style to it,” said the 33-year-old Korba of his approach to “King’s Quest.” “A big thing for me is gamers are getting older. We’re having kids. I really want entertainment that can be enjoyed by people equally, not just, ‘Hey, I’m an adult and am going to play with my kids and just appease them by playing through an arcade game.’ There’s not a lot of entertainment like a Pixar movie. That’s what we want to create.”
The Odd Gentlemen’s timing may be right. Companies such as Telltale Games and Double Fine Productions are releasing games in which dialogue and character development are king.
Successes of the last two years, such as Telltale’s games inspired by “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” as well as Double Fine’s old-school “Broken Age,” which raised more than $3 million on Kickstarter, have shown there’s an audience looking for a more cerebral interactive experience. “That’s making the big guys pay attention,” Korba said.
Big guys such as video game powerhouse Activision, which has been the keeper of the rights to the classic Sierra adventure. “King’s Quest” was briefly associated with Telltale, but signs of life in the genre inspired Activision to reactivate the Sierra brand in-house.
Korba gushes that “King’s Quest” is his favorite game of all time, and Sierra Publishing executive Kurt Niederloh said the Odd Gentlemen’s passion for the project as well as the company’s core belief that games should be story-driven was what led to the young company being chosen for the project.
Roberta Williams, the Seattle-based creator of “King’s Quest,” has long been retired from games. While unavailable for comment, she has given the staff of the Odd Gentlemen her blessing and participated in a media event to unveil the new trailer.
Still, this will be the first major close-up for the Odd Gentlemen, a 20-or-so person team that began with a title, “The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom,” that Korba developed while attending the game program at the University of Southern California. For this ornately designed puzzle game inspired by silent cinema, Korba and then-partner Paul Bellezza spent their final semester at the university shopping it, eventually landing a deal with 2K Play.
If Korba and his team seemed on a fast track, forming a company while finishing school in 2008, the Odd Gentlemen almost crashed and burned while trying to develop a game inspired by “King’s Quest” and other adventure titles of yore.
“We were working on an adventure game a few years back that nobody knows about,” Korba said. “Unfortunately, there were some issues with the publisher and the game got canceled. We were super sad.”
Rostal, 30, said things were so dire that the company was two weeks from closing, and at one point she was panicked that she wouldn’t make rent. Meanwhile, Korba took odd jobs for the studio, doing back-end on work on Facebook games he declines to mention.
Relief came when the group sold “Flea Symphony,” a musical puzzle game for mobile devices. The company then began work on the arcade-like game “Agent P DoofenDASH,” inspired by Disney’s “Phineas & Ferb.” Next, the Odd Gentlemen partnered with author/graphic novelist Neil Gaiman for the lighthearted haunted house game “Wayward Manor,” a not totally successful puzzle game.
“With every project we’ve done we tried to push the bubble a little toward a game like ‘King’s Quest,'” Korba said. “The project had its issues, but we got to start to craft our melding of puzzles and story. … Can you discover a guy is a raging alcoholic just by playing a simple block moving puzzle?”
Lessons learned will make their way into “King’s Quest,” which will be released in an episodic form beginning in fall 2015. Although it already possesses a sprightly look in its in-progress state, Korba and Rostal confessed that the game is keeping them up at night.
Korba’s former advisors at USC think the Odd Gentlemen is up to the task. “Matt’s games are so deeply rooted in character and fun, playful scenarios that really remind me of the tongue-in-cheek attitude of early adventure games,” said Tracy Fullerton, director of USC Games. “He’s the perfect guy to reboot that tradition into the modern playscape.”
Finding the audience won’t be simple. Video games rarely receive the reverential revival treatment of film, and Rostal noted that some of her staff members are so young that they have “never existed in a world where” “King’s Quest” games were regularly coming out.
Older fans can take comfort, however, as the game hasn’t been remolded with modern action controls. Set around an aging King Graham telling stories to his granddaughter, the plot is simple, and veteran players may recognize some magic mirrors, colorful dragons and pesky trolls.
“A lot of the games that we grew up with had interesting and fun characters,” Rostal said. “The past decade that’s kind of gone by the wayside. We tend to joke about guys with biceps and really square jaws. We’re not going to be the squared-jaw company.
“We need to return to that whimsy that’s kind of missing right now in the industry,” she continued. “Everything is serious. We’re going to head down another path.”
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