By Connor Carson
It was through my mother’s eyes that I first discovered video games. She was a loyal patron to Sierra On-Line, the developer and publisher cofounded by Roberta and Ken Williams in 1979, and I watched, wide-eyed and delighted, as she played through their many titles – most frequently, King’s Quest (1984 – 1998) and Quest for Glory (1989 – 1998). My elder sisters learned to take the reins (or rather, the mouse) before I did, so I transitioned to watching them play instead. In an effort to include me they would usually bestow me with the task of reading the manual (in those days video game manuals often contained additional art, lore, clues and secret words without which the player could not hope to progress). I felt my assignment was an honorable one, but when, at long last, I took my place in the revered computer chair – with its worn, black leather and adjustable height – I learned then that the joy I’d known in observing my mother and sisters was a fraction of the thrill I felt captaining my own game experience. For the first time I was the active agent, unfurling my very own destiny with every “click” of the mouse and every “clack” of a key. I had evolved from loremaster, keeper of video game manuals, to a tried and true gamer.
I was completely enthralled with the graphical adventure displayed on our family’s chunky Macintosh monitor, so much so that I clicked my childhood into oblivion, devouring every title in our house (and there were many). A stickler for doing things in order, I started with Roberta Williams’ career-defining brainchild, King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown (admittedly, it was the 1990 remake). It follows the adventures of Sir Graham (later to become [spoiler alert] King Graham) as he strives to prove his worth to the dying King Edward of Daventry. Subsequent installments in the King’s Quest series began to introduce new player characters – most notably, they introduced female protagonists, Queen Valanice, and her daughter, Princess Rosella. This was particularly significant at the time given that most female video game characters were secondary, acting as either ineffectual eye candy, devoid of agency, or as banal props meant to bolster the male protagonist’s heroic arc.
Rosella’s introduction in 1988’s King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella was considered to be somewhat “controversial” at the time – so much so that some journalists have ranked it right beside the notorious rape scene in Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria. That the introduction of a female protagonist was as concerning to some as graphic sexual assault speaks volumes. For a green game enthusiast, such as I was, I felt no great shock in playing as a female character – I was blissfully unaware of the unchecked sexism prevalent in many video games of the time – but that the series title was “King’s Quest” did not escape my notice either. On the surface it was a masculine title, and the two words combined evoked a sense of power and purpose. The inclusion of female protagonists in that particular series affirmed then, as it affirms now, that quests of kingly calibre are not reserved for boys and men alone. That affirmation, though seemingly small, was extremely formative for the young, female gamer who would later confront many of the issues still plaguing video games today.
Having made my way through every King’s Quest title, I moved on to what would become my favorite series in the Sierra On-Line repertoire: Quest for Glory. The Quest for Glory series is not unlike King’s Quest – both draw on well-known narratives, introducing offbeat interpretations of familiar fairy tale. But where King’s Quest makes use of preexisting characters – such as Beauty and the Beast, the Seven Dwarves, Rumpelstiltskin, and even the Boogie Man – Quest For Glory takes its cue more generally from culture-specific folklore, incorporating the vampires, wraiths and rusalkas of legend. Its tone is notably darker than that in King’s Quest, but in a humorous sort of way, often utilizing exhausting, yet self-aware, wordplay and puns. It also manages to introduce an undercurrent of bawdy, adult humor just subtle enough to elude the understanding of most of its younger players.
Its ties to the tabletop roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, are revealed in both the magical cities each installment revolves around, and in its mechanics, which utilize character classes and ability scores. It’s worth mentioning that the differing character classes allowed for multiple solutions and endings, making the series revolutionary in its non-linearity (at least, compared to adventure games of the time). Having first selected one’s class (either Fighter, Thief or Magician) the player embarks on a quest as a generic, male hero without name or past. In each installment the player assists a variety of quirky, mysterious, and at times, promiscuous characters oppressed by tyranny and evil. Said evil manifests as the spirits, monsters and fantastical beasts of Germanic, Middle Eastern, Egyptian, Slavic and Greco-Mediteranean myth. Quest for Glory is simultaneously an homage to and a parody of fairytale and folklore, and that paradox lends to the series a campy sensibility balanced with heart and sincerity.
There were many other Sierra On-Line titles besides King’s Quest and Quest for Glory floating around in our CD-ROM drawer – I tackled Torin’s Passage (1995), Betrayal in Antara (1997), and even managed to sneak in Phantasmagoria (1995) with my cousins (but please don’t tell my mother). After a point, my parents stopped purchasing new titles, and I ran out of things to play. I was homeschooled through the 8th grade, so suffice it to say, there were few opportunities for exposure to the mainstream games being released in the early 2000’s. I had never heard of titles like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, or World of Warcraft. Then came high school and my initiation into the domain of public school. Friends and acquaintances – mainly teenage boys – raved about video games I had never heard of, and they sounded surreal compared to the old PC games I was still replaying. I told them about King’s Quest and Quest for Glory in an effort to reinforce my identity as a gamer, but they had never heard of them. I eagerly awaited an invitation to join them as they planned their weekend binges, but an invitation never came. When I outright asked if I could join I was let down in the blunt and hurtful way that only teenagers can manage. They told me that they wouldn’t have time to teach me, that I would be bored losing to them over and over, that whichever team I joined would be unfairly disadvantaged. The list went on, each excuse clumsier than the last, and that was when the realization dawned on me – I discovered that my self-assigned identity as “gamer” was reserved for the boys who silently assumed or verbally inferred that, as a girl, I was not capable of playing their games.
I should note at this juncture that I am not not writing this in an effort to decry those boys, nor to wag my finger at the industry. The exclusion and subsequent rejection of girls and women in video games, both as players and developers, is exhaustively familiar to most, and there are many better suited to the task who have already written and continue to write brilliantly on the subject. I write in an effort to thank Sierra On-Line for the sanctuary it provided when it was, at bitter last, my turn to confront the rejection that so many others had and have since known.
Those games were my longtime companions and a constant source of comfort at the most significant junctures in my life. When it seemed that contemporary games had abandoned me entirely, I returned to the Kingdom of Daventry and restored the Mask of Eternity, again. When, as an undergraduate, I faced depression for the first time, I helped a nameless hero save the Land of Mordavia from the Dark One known as Avoozl, again. When I met my partner, he and I freed Princess Cassandra and brought peace to the Land of the Green Isles, again. Some may call it nostalgia, others escapism, but for me, it was sustenance. It sustained and redeemed my relationship with games to the point that I began to consider a career in the industry. And now, at last a versed game enthusiast, game writer and game developer, I have finally begun to feel at ease when identifying myself as a gamer. I’m still clicking my life into oblivion, to be sure, but instead of reliving the same tired, old adventures, there’s a promise of new adventure yet to come – with luck, it will be one of my own design, inspired by quests of kingly calibre, and catered to a more balanced, more diverse demographic.
Connor Carson is a New York Videogame Critics Circle Intern and an MFA candidate at the NYU Game Center. She is a narrative designer and video game developer based out of Brooklyn.