A fairly detailed look at two computer games publishers’ differing approaches to the use of death in adventure games.

The Kid couldn’t believe it. He had conquered Monkey Island, Phatt Island, Scabb Island, Booty Island… and yes — even Dinky Island itself! He was invincible. Lucas Arts had shown him the light!

But now it had all changed. 1 minute into exploring the first surroundings of Xenon, in ‘Space Quest IV’ and all terror had broken loose. The stuff of video ‘nasty’s on shelves too high for this budding adventurer were suddenly less mysterious, and forming a powerful impression. A pitiless cyborg had screamed hideously, and hey presto — a tin bucket robot zapped the bejeezus of the protagonist of ‘SQIV’ — Roger Wilco. Very much a case of ‘Roger, Over and Out’.

What was going on? Why did the game seem so smug about him having to go back and start again? Why were there so many save/load slots?

OK, the point stood that he hadn’t really tested himself on the more visually primitive ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, and so he hadn’t had a chance to die Lucas Arts style. But Sierra’s principle message of ‘save well, save often’ really was being made itself known. If only he had been more deliberate and read a few pages of the manual. But impulsiveness is an easy sin to give into!

Ahem, OK, I better return to the first person from now on. I could go on all day with me suffering the agony of this cruel new world — with the identity crisis of being a space janitor or a king exploring a locale that turns from desert to forest and then to marsh without reason. But then I was in a sense late to the party. Already aged ten and many people that same age had be hardened on these ways to lose a game in double-quick time. And I suppose even more were hardened on video ‘nasty’s.

A fate worse than death? Or a chance to jump forward in time?

So it’s kind of funny really. I had greatly enjoyed the scope and grandeur of being a bragging pirate — the legendary Guybrush Threepwood. Although I quickly lost all my money on entering ‘Woodtick’, I still felt relatively unshaken. It was a world of cut-throats, but ‘Monkey Island II’s philosophy was pretty much the opposite of ‘cut-throat’ ruthlessness

The safety of that game was echoed in its predecessor (‘Secret’), as well as its belated sequel (‘Curse’). The game could be hard to progress through at times, mainly on the more difficult setting which was an option. But sudden death and crushing disappointment at not saving in time were not an issue. ‘Sam and Max Hit the Road’ was likewise cuddly and yet twisted in all the violence it had up its sleeve for the supporting cast of characters. Indeed ‘Max’ the rabbit would abuse cats, freeze humans, and if there was a colony of well-meaning meerkats in there, I’m sure he would have his wicked way with them too. ‘Day Of The Tentacle’ also was brash and dramatic but just as safe. It was perhaps the most non-linear game of its era and so unbelievably funny to boot. ‘Full Throttle’ was venturing back into dark themes that the ‘Monkey Islandseries had on the surface. But really apart from a game of dodgems with real cars, a group of inhuman bikers who smelt you despite blindness,  and later a build-up to the final set piece with a dangling truck, there was not much to suddenly pull the rug from under the gamers’ feet.

However if one looked hard enough more into the back-catalogue of Lucas Arts, there would be evidence of some harshness here and there. ‘Maniac Mansion’ — the forefather of ‘Day of the Tentacle’, had plenty of ways to die within minutes as well as much later on in exploration of the crazed Edison Mansion. Failing death, there was capture in a prison which could be solved with finding a loose bit of masonry, although if the gamer chose to hang about too long in dungeon confinement he would lose the game anyway.

Seeming death is actually something much tamer.

The aforementioned ‘Last Crusade’ was a tough game to finish and had some deaths coming thick and fast once the adventurer had got past Venice and into Austria. Every guard from the wimpy butler to the ultra-ripped Arnie lookalike (albeit with blonde hair) could punch Indy’s lights out and thus mean game over. Later past the castle, one could commit suicide by punching Hitler at the scene straight from the movie where Indy gets the Grail Diary signed. More specific obstacles were having the zeppelin turned round never to escape the Nazis, punch-ups similar to the castle in the gantries of the zeppelin, and not having either money or wit to get past check points on the way to the Grail Temple. Too many fights to get past Nazis eventually meant no energy and so a quick death came from a single punch. The final Grail challenge sequence also was tough but always restarted from Indy’s dad getting shot, avoiding having to save the game for once.

The follow-up Indy game, ‘Fate of Atlantis’ was a new story as compared to the film tie-in game I have just described. It was a major step-up in all areas and had more logical deaths which also were more sign-posted. One of my favourite ways to lose was actually in the final screen where an Atlantis god can give power to yet snuff characters out in the same breath. Three different versions existed, with victory, semi-victory with the loss of a friend, and thumping defeat with Indy gone and his friend unable to escape the devastation ensuing. Before the final set-piece there are a few ways to lose, mainly again from fist-fights but at least you have more realistic allocation of energy between fights and there are more chances to outwit the wicked Nazis unless you make the decision to go with your fists in one of the game’s 3 different paths to Atlantis.

Indiana and Sophia have one last chat before hell breaks loose.
The end-scene of Indy 4.

‘Zak McKracken and the Alien MindBenders’ is a game I hope to beat sometime soon, and a New Year Resolution for 2012 I might just keep. I am reliably informed that it has death aplenty but on the plus side there is just as much globe-trotting as in the Indy games.

So there is one end of the scales, with most ways to lose being on the whole fair. But the rival company to Lucas ArtsSierra, perhaps had games which were ultimately more of a relief to get past.

Of course I had accepted that straight arcade games, either in a cinema foyer, or an arcade in town offered addictive one level at a time, no save types of games.

But still Sierra’s philosophy of having hard knocks wasn’t accepted by my young self till maybe 6 months of having my CD-ROM drive settled into my VTech machine.

The ‘Space Quest’ games had the best jokes, and that extended to ways you could die. The first in the series — ‘The Sarien Encounter’ had a very hostile race against time to escape one spaceship right at the start, which also was mirrored in the end. Between those bookends of countdown doom were many other dangers. Death by acid — taste, touch, or smell. A spaceship which ran out of control and crashed in the desert. Having ale which is easily past the 40% alcohol mark and thus collapsing in the desert and dying from parasites — one I actually only now encountered today on YouTube and not back in the mid 90s. Strangest one of all was pressing a button begging you ‘NOT to PRESS IT’ and ending up in another Sierra franchise (‘Conquests of the Long Bow’) — yes you can breath and move in that world but sadly your spacecraft has no time to readjust in time before hitting a big cliff and exploding.

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Sequels later on were just as artistic with demises. Number Three, ‘The Pirates of Pestulon’ had easy ways to die by falling off heights, being cut by automated production lines, exploding on a lava planet if without a helmet, and – most memorably – being screwed up like a pin-up poster by a killer android.

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The very next sequel I have mentioned briefly earlier on. Known as ‘Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers’, it showcases many places you can come to a zappy end courtesy of the trigger-happy Sequel Police. If you have seen them arrive in your time zone when you need to buy a few things, and you waste time on the Astro Chicken game-in-a-game, there is a whole posse of 6 to take you out permanently upon returning to the main action. But by the same token they try their hardest to shoot you on a futuristic skate-park and if you are sharp enough you fool those suckers into a race where they come a convincing second. But perhaps the most disturbing death/loss involves downloading into Wilco’s son’s mind the mental ghost of the villainous Sludge Vohaul, although it is designed to happen by your own suicidal purposeful actions.

I could gleefully move onto ‘Space Quest VI’s catalogue of snuffing it. However by then the punch was greatly softened by a ‘try again’ option which restored you whether you had a saved game or not to call upon. This seemed to be Sierra caving in a bit to pressure from rival game companies as well as customer feedback. While less annoying it made their games lose a little edge, although not fatally so.

I have played fan remakes of ‘King’s Quest’s 1 and 2, and although you can die there is less notably unexpected than with other similar games. This isn’t the case with the excellent third entry in the series — ‘To Heir Is Human’ (experienced as a multimedia remake). A finely crafted game with a strong underlying plot and story, you will be tested to the limit. To escape your home on the cliff tops involves a careful step or fifty — one wrong move and its curtains. Then there is the issue of several time-limits — if you are not back home when your evil master returns, then you can be in a real fix. A malicious cat is also trouble. Even if it sits on the other side of a step on the staircase, just moving to the ‘safe spot’ means a tumble and a presumably broken neck as you can’t just get up. Later perils in the game involve the pirates’ plank, the yeti that grabs you in double-quick time, and the final climatic show-down with a dragon that has more heads than legs.

Along with ‘Zak McKracken’, I have put down the very next sequel ‘King’s Quest IV — The Perils of Rosella’ as a game to try and beat soon into the New Year. I have already drowned and had trees crush me in just basic exploration so the signs are good for more terminal amusements to come.

My childhood game ‘King’s Quest V’ is full of notorious dead-ends which can overlap with deaths as well. I will cover them down properly in a forthcoming article. The game is unfair at times, and you basically have to die by trial-and-error to find out what you need or what to do with your inventory.  To add to the two deaths mentioned earlier is a particular ‘favourite’ involving a genie being released, who bizarrely doesn’t thank you so much as trap you in his place for the next ‘500 years’. At least you live a long time, but I suppose there will be no-one who knew you left alive to greet you when it comes to parole time.

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‘King’s Quest VI’ is a tough game but much, much fairer although there are some excellent ways to die which reward wilful impulsiveness rather than just simple exploration. Only the labyrinth on one island is mean enough to be basically an instant death if you enter the wrong room without any real warning. Otherwise you can get a signpost of the following dangers: killer guard gnomes with one ‘specialist sense’ such as smell, a black widow spider, some clingy vines that sound like man-eaters on a Friday night on the lash, and many others which I can mention in the ‘KQ VI’ review proper. What makes the frequent final death screen cool is the fact that on the harder victory path of the game you can get there whilst still alive and soon enough meet Death himself. He doesn’t have a hood and scythe so much as a padlock tying him to a chair, but he is still epic and yes you can get killed by him as you would expect or even hope for!

So there we go. I’ve given you a rundown of two rival companies’ efforts and the difference in philosophy as to how a computer game should treat its brave protagonists. I certainly can now look back and enjoy sudden death as to my adult eyes there is less intensity and thus no reason to really get upset. Furthermore the experience of time taken treading back on old steps to have another go at a puzzle, forewarned, seems so much less laborious than it did as a kid who felt that two hours was a long time.

Lastly I wish you a mega-fun Christmas and if you choose to revisit these games during the holiday season and happen to have a character death or thirty , then the sound of ‘ho-ho-ho’ should encourage you to keep plugging away.

(Martin Hudecek)


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