Irony is famously hard to define. One simple way to nail it down, I find, is to simply call it cosmic sarcasm. Reasonably expecting one thing to happen and getting something unexpected instead? That there’s irony, youngster. Another example would be playing video games all by oneself and enjoying a submersion into a fictional world that is marked by a feeling of belonging. Ooh, baby, that’s delicious irony. And it’s the veritable platinum trophy of solo gameplay. Can I experience this all by myself and end up so drawn into a virtual world and its story that I feel decidedly not alone?
I’m here to argue that the best of those experiences come in finely-crafted sequels. There’s something about returning to a gaming universe where, to quote that funny show about curmudgeonly, basement-based alcoholics, everyone knows your name.
What’s better than wrapping oneself up in the sights and sounds of an engrossing adventure, achieving notoriety, and standing as the apex character in town? Coming back to that world with a bit of well-earned swagger, that’s what.
And I hail Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, as the first and best game that goes beyond additional content in a familiar world. This one, boys and girls, managed to make us lone wolves feel like we belonged. Saddle up and bring a few waterskins, because we’ve got ourselves a pair of desert kingdoms to save.
Hero’s Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero released on PCs and Amigas in 1989. It was the first entry in the Quest for Glory series and a surprise success. The game’s creators and the bigwigs at Sierra On-Line were startled by its strong sales figures; for about a month, this new title was the highest-grossing game in the developer’s history. The brainchild of married team Lori Ann and Corey Cole, Hero’s Quest was a study in golden-age gaming fusion: it was a point-and-click game with plenty of textual input, a fantasy-adventure game with deep role-playing elements, and a character-driven game wherein the player chose between three distinctly different spins on the main character.
Playing as a tow-headed, wet-behind-the-ears graduate of the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School for Heroes, players chose whether to approach the first chapter of their hero-ing days as a fighter, a thief, or a magic user. Each class used a distinct set of equipment and improvable skills to overcome obstacles. Is an angry monster between you and everlasting glory? Unsurprisingly, fighters lean on strength and swordplay skills, opting for the direct and bloody route through that meanie. Alternatively, a thief, master of stealth and agility, will likely hurl daggers or simply sneak past the beastie altogether. Lastly, a player embracing the arcane path will take advantage of spells to make sure the monster stays right where it is or, should that fail, a flurry of fireballs at range to handle things from a safe distance.
The first game set the basic pace and tone for the sequels that followed, including enough puns to put a carload of dads to shame, references to fairy tales and folklore from cultures around the world, and a save-early-safe-often ethic common throughout Sierra’s adventures. Ultimately, the series would run for five games, ending with Dragonfire in 1998, and part one even had an official re-release with improved graphics and smoother gameplay in 1992.
Quest for Glory 2 was ordered up faster than the Coles expected, and by all rights, they outdid themselves and their fantastic first game on all counts. QG2 was released in 1990, a single year after Hero’s Quest, (which was retconned shortly thereafter as Quest for Glory 1, thanks to some short-sightedness on the copyright team at Sierra) and served as a “bridge” game between the company’s use of EGA graphics with its 16-color ceiling and the then-cutting edge 256-color palette of VGA. This left the programmers and designers hamstrung by technical difficulties and an already-outdated system, plus, readers will recall, an abbreviated development schedule. But! Clever settings and workarounds—the washed-out color palette and the spikes of more easily-rendered blues, reds, and purples lend themselves well to the desert surroundings of the game world—ended up producing a game marked by ingenuity.
It’s also a final product with more than one wink and nod toward a parent company moving in a distinctly totalitarian direction, and so is also a fine example of a product thumbing its nose at its own parents, in a sense. The Coles were not shy about how restrictive they felt their employers were being, and certain characters and situations in the game bear more than passing similarity to real-world gaming personnel and policy.
Oh, and the whole game runs on a timer—and this came out long before a looming lunar calamity propelled players in Majora’s Mask, mind you. Trial by Fire takes place inside a single game-world month. Take longer than that (and you’d kind of have to be lazy to the point of antihero-hood to fritter away all that time without a growing sense of foreboding), and the baddies win in an ominous cut scene featuring an evil djinn towering above a doomed city. And since rest, as well as food and drink, are critical parts of maintaining the heroes health, well… one must not fritter away one’s heroic hours. Plus, since certain events play out only on specific days along that month of imminent disaster, the whole in-game world begins to feel alive. The threats to our temporary home must be dealt with within a day or two of their arrival or the city falls. Once the endgame begins, a dark ritual must be halted within a small window of minutes or it’s curtains for you and everyone good and decent in this 16-colored world. And of course it runs this way: there’s either a bona fide hero in town or some poser is wandering the streets in a funny vest, so let’s show the good people which one they have on their hands!
In this, the second installment of our protagonist’s path to glory, the credits sequence sees the freshly-minted, battle-tested Hero of Spielberg crossing into a desert plainly inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights via magic carpet (because OB-viously). Our destination? Shapeir, a shining jewel of a city, nestled against impassable mountains on one side and seemingly endless sand on the other. Along for the ride are three familiar faces from our previous adventure, such as the wayward merchant Abdulla and married innkeepers Shema and Shameen. The latter are members of the Katta, a very internet-age-friendly merger of cat and human; a people native to our new environs.
As was hinted at in the first game, our new digs are fraught with danger and mystery: it seems Shapeir’s twin city, Raseir, is in a terrible way. Its benevolent Emir is missing, and in his absence, repressive tyranny has taken root. Most Katta have been forcibly ejected from their home city, and those few that remain skulk about in the shadows with their human counterparts, scrambling to escape the iron fist of the usurper force, and fearing the insidious sorcery said to be lurking behind it all.
According to omens read in the stars, the peaceful city of Shapeir is soon to face its own terrible plight. True enough, our hosts are soon besieged by deadly magical entities based on the four elements, each of which threaten to plunge Raseir’s twin into darkness. Worse, a prophecy claims a dark god is soon to rise to end the age of light, and the constellations suggest that the reckoning is nigh. It’s up to our hero to learn what he can of the land’s mysteries, master new levels of skill, contain the elemental threats, and beat back the looming shadows.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
The Quest for Glory series capitalized on something most games of its day lacked, and that plenty of AAA titles lack to this day: an ever-deepening sense of belonging the player gets to feel as the saga continues.
See, it’s one thing to step into the shoes of a mighty hero, to select a playstyle and forge ahead, with sword glittering, lockpicks polished, or magic all a-crackle. That’s just plain fun, no doubt about it. But it’s something altogether different to allow players to feel welcomed into a world, challenged by it, and slowly and inexorably drawn into what feels like in an important space within that world. Quest for Glory 2 doubles—nay, triples—down on this dynamic.
Regardless of the character type one chooses—or imports, since the creators recognized early-on that dedicated players might be willing to do a bit of amateur programming to have a chance at literally bringing their hero along for this new adventure rather than building another one—we begin our quest with plenty of useful traits and abilities. We are, after all, the banisher of brigands, the rescuer of royal kiddos, the bane of Baba Yaga, etc. from our first foray into heroism.
Yet the arid land of Shapeir proves to be more difficult than our first stomping ground. The creatures are tougher, the villains far more cunning. The culture of the place is also jarringly different from the sleepy, chilly locale of the first game. For one thing, Shapeir itself is an absolute maze, a sprawling web of all-too-similar passages leading to over a dozen unique locations. Simply wandering out of the main plaza means getting hopelessly lost and even risks death by dehydration while one blunders around a foreign city as if the universe revolves around you, new fish!
Our first assist comes in the form of a mildly magical map. At first, this is merely a top-down view of those labyrinthine passages. But visit a location once and the map adds a representative icon for said hotspot, allowing one to simply warp back to a locale at any time. Thus, asking friends for directions helps flesh this enchanted proto-GPS out until it’s a veritable testimony to one’s growing familiarity with an at-first intimidating capital city.
Soon, our roster of friends grows as well. New faces like Rakeesh the liontaur and deposed king as well as Uhura the warrior serve as fellow expats, sympathizing with our character’s initial dizziness over the new environs. At the magic shop, we meet Keapon Laffin, the gnome proprietor perpetually floating on a miniature cloud above his wares. Even merchants and minor, space-filling characters offer chances to haggle, learn about the Sultanate’s gossip and traditions, and joke around between harrowing brushes with evil. The dialogue options are limited by technology, and the game’s text bar accepts a relatively narrow number of inputs to help us. Still, the bonds forged are ahead of their time in gaming, with Rakeesh and Uhura spinning tales of their native lands and cultures while we train, and Keapon mixing rhyming hints to our many troubles in with his harmless puns and pranks. Oh, and we get to bond with a trusty steed! Er, dinosaur. Doggosaur? Whatever, we get a cute lizard-horse-dog thing and he’s adorable.
Then, the final chapter of the game swiftly takes this all away. And friends, the feeling is stark. The elementals now defeated, the hero must at last cross the fearsome desert to arrive in Raseir, and it is every bit the dark reflection of Shapeir our allies have worried and warned us about from the beginning. There, we have no friends. No magical map. No silly puns to break up the danger. The city is bleak, starved, and outright hostile to outsiders. The wild swing in tone highlights just how good we had it across the burning sands. In crumbling Raseir, we’re forced to make ugly deals with unsavory smugglers, suffer abuse and humiliation by the corrupt guards, and inevitably fall prey to those who wish us ill. And being caught out and about after dark is an instant Game Over.
The contrast this throws against so much of the rest of the game is deliberate: we’ve been delivered into loneliness. Pushed out of belonging. And the mind positively reels. I mean, yeah, before you know it, we stand atop the city’s highest minaret, villain plunging to his doom, and are hailed as the savior of two cities. And adopted as the new Prince of Shapeir!
Those bleak moments when we simply don’t belong here are awful. Doubly so thanks to how well the rest of the game works at folding us into a place and its people. That sort of ownership brought me back to this game over and over again as time passed. There’s a polished, graphically-updated and licensed fan-version out there thanks to the folks at AGD Interactive, and I’m sure I’ll put my adventuring, uh, blonde hair, on again before too long. Because it’ll feel like going back somewhere that misses me. Somewhere I belong.
Quest for Glory 2 isn’t the only sequel that manages that, of course. The Witcher, Kingdom Hearts, and Portal are among a respectable number of more modern games by developers that recognized the power of letting players feel at home in their game worlds—and the brand loyalty that kind of feeling inspires.
But Quest for Glory 2 did it at a high level. And for me, it did it first.
THE EPIC SCENE:
Alright. Admission time. I’ve played every Quest for Glory as all three (four, counting the do-gooder Paladin in games three through five) character types—but canonically, I’m a wizard, Harry. There’s something irresistible about the path of the arcane in any series for me. It’s like, hey, yeah, I’m new here. And ok, fine, I get lost trying to find the bank, and maybe, maybe a lowly jackalman slashed me up and forced me to run away with my tail between my legs the other day. But! Abra-kazaam, dude! A fireball. Presto! I’m a levitating idiot lost on the way to the bank! You get the idea.
And just past the halfway point of a magic user’s sojourn in Shapeir, it’s likely that enough spellcasting practice and the right amount of wandering leads one to a very special place.
Down one innocuous alleyway we find a mysterious door.
Only the magically-inclined can open said door, and inside is the best, most prestigious magical academy this side of Hogwarts (and not to beat a dead 16-color-limit horse, but this came along before the kiddos were riding magical trains and guzzling liquified pumpkins in Scotland): the Wizard’s Institute of Technocery! Inside, we see coiling alabaster pillars, green flames hovering over braziers, strange voids leading to who-knows-where, and enormous portraits of the most famous magicians in history (and, of course, a few in-game references to accompany Merlin et al.). We can join the ranks of the few, the proud, and the unapologetically robed we’re told, but only if our casting and cleverness are up to snuff. The sorcerers-that-be teleport us to a strange, otherworldly plane, and our harrowing test begins! We find ourselves on the magical equivalent of a conveyer belt, forced forward as enchanted obstacles appear in our way. Fail to create a way over, through, or around any such barrier means a plunge into a magical abyss and ultimately failure. A few well-timed prestidigitations later, and voila! The assembled graybeards roll out the red magic carpet and offer us a chance to set our heroing days aside in favor of joining the wizarding elite in ivory towers far from the hero-work we’ve been doing.
And then comes the best part of all: turning it down. Boom!
Imagine. What’s more magically gangsta than turning down the agents of Big Robe and opting to keep it heroically real? You can’t get more Han Solo than that without straight-up murdering a Rodian, let me tell you.
We leave the halls of WIT that much more secure in our abilities and with the added bonus of going all Rick Sanchez on the magus establishment. Win, win, win, I say!
And, of course, this is all offered up with still more of that gorgeous sense of belonging: sponsoring us during our ethereal try-out were two friends from the first game, the enigmatic wizard Erasmus and his wry rat-familiar, Fenrus. They sing our praises to the welcoming committee, offer a few tips on the trial itself, and applaud our honor in opting to shut down our shot at ivory-tower admission. The whole deal is a nesting doll of ego-trips, and couldn’t we all use that from time to time?
Our in-game incarnation needs no fancy degree to feel connected to something grand: he’s already a hero. And as long as the game’s running along that month-long path to sandy Armageddon, so are we.
A LAST THOUGHT:
A common misperception about single-player gaming from non-gamers is that it’s a lonely enterprise. Heck, most folk hear “gamer” and instantly picture people wearing headsets, yelling n00bsense (TM!) to strangers. And that’s just not a representative picture for a lot of us. What Trial By Fire got so very right was recognizing what most solo gamers are really like. It nailed what we’re really after: that rare feeling of bliss we experience when we’re allowed to sink into a story. The humor, the challenge, the culture of a game become a kind of suit we wear while we play. It’s all fueled by the same sort of impetus that leads so many to enjoy Renaissance Fairs, LARPing, complicated board games, and the like. No one is going to leap into frame, frag us, and then proceed to happily squat over our faces. That’s, well, let’s say it’s not precisely the kind of “socializing” we tend to crave. But solo gaming, particularly engaging, richly-developed oases of immersive fun like Quest for Glory 2 represents, offers up a guaranteed form of fantastical belonging none of those can match. Because it’s all up to us, see? And our growing gang of pals inside the best game worlds.
As the wise Bowie would say, the shame is on the other side. But we… We can be heroes!