When I was coming up in the video gaming world, it was all about jumping on the goomba, slashing the shrubbery and powering up your charge-shot. Running, jumping, dashing, platforming: in the early 1990s, as a console kid, I knew only to move and to move fast. Time was running out; the screen was pushing my character, me, to the right; the enemies were closing in. So when I first played Sierra Entertainment's Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero, I actually kind of hated it.
Move slowly, look at everything on the screen, type in your commands. What? I've never been comfortable with PC games, I find the sheer volume of buttons you can press overwhelming, and in Quest for Glory it felt like I could do anything. Needless to say, I wasn't initially a fan. But a friend pushed the floppy disks into my hand (all nine of them), and told me to give it time, saying I'd get used to the typed commands. Now, looking back some 20 years later, I realise how right he was. And I think Quest for Glory may be one of the best video games ever made.
The game, full of bright pixels, silly animations and puns that threaten to overwhelm the uninitiated, offered the player a simple choice when first booted up: did you want to be a Fighter, a Magic User or a Thief? From there, you could spend a certain amount of ability points on building up your hero. And then you're off: no real instruction, just a keyboard, a town full of non-player characters waiting to spill their info, and an intriguing, engrossing plot.
I'd wanted a game that pushed the player, rushed the player, but this wasn't that game. So You Want to Be a Hero showed me the value in paying close attention to details. As the years have gone by, I've become particularly enamoured with this game. It, and its four sequels, hold a rarefied place in my nostalgia. Like staying up late on a Friday night to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, the QFG games elicit a special, strange, internet 1.0 thrill.
If you've played this series of games, a couple of names are sure to stick out to you. Corey and Lori Ann Cole, the husband and wife team of co-developers of the first four Quest games, are synonymous with the adventure/RPG series.
I reached out to the Coles, in part because I've idolised these game developers for the last two decades, but also because I wanted to understand the conditions that went into making QFG. Calling in from their office in Oakhurst, California, we talked about how they came to make such a wonderfully weird set of games.
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VICE: Why did Sierra want to make a game like Quest for Glory?
Lori: It was a series of fortuitous incidents that led to us getting hired at Sierra, one of them was the fact that Sierra had published previous Ultima games and Lord British (moniker of Ultima series creator Richard Garriott) decided to take them away. And Ken Williams (co-founder of Sierra) really wanted to have an RPG.
Corey: He said, "Okay, Sierra owns the entire adventure game market," which it did at the time, "but there's this other roleplaying game market and we don't own that yet, and we'd like to." So he was trying to make the same amount of splash with roleplaying games that they had with adventure games.
I've read somewhere that your experience with Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop roleplaying game, helped you land the job at Sierra. Is that true?
C: We had a friend who we knew through science fiction conventions, and she was a contractor for Sierra. She did all the animation for Kings Quest 4, and she was in our meetings with Ken (Williams) and he had said, "We want to find a top-level, prize-winning, tournament level dungeon master to write these games for us." Which was a completely ridiculous phrase to say. But she'd played in D&D games with us, and we'd had another roleplaying game system we'd invented, that was skill-based, rather than the level-based advancement of D&D. And that got us as far as the phone call.
Did your experience as Dungeon Masters influence your development of QFG?
C: We had an interesting challenge; they were looking for a roleplaying game, they didn't want an adventure game from us. But the Sierra tools were specifically designed for adventure games. And they were really, really good for making Sierra-style graphical games, but they weren't designed for doing math, and moving square by square. It was designed for scenes, for "rooms". Each room of the game, whether it was indoor or outdoor, it was called a room.
So given these tools, what kind of roleplaying game could we make? Our tabletop games were always about actual roleplaying. Each character had a persona, and you were visiting caverns and all that stuff. And we thought okay, that we can do. So it looks like an adventure game, but it plays like a roleplaying game.
The thrust of this article is how the slowed-down pace of the game, the way it asked players to really take their time, was a huge influence on me. I'd never come across a game that wasn't forcing you through from one platform to the next. Can you tell me about that process?
L: The only way we had to create this sense of continuity and sequence was the idea that makes an RPG feel right, which is there are areas that you can't go to only because you can't deal with them. You're not strong enough to handle them. So that became the gating mechanism of the game.
C: And technology played a part in that. The restrictions that we had actually worked really well in getting us movie-like, script-like sequencing. Because back then most players didn't have hard drives at all. The game had floppies, and every time you went from one area to another you had to swap out a floppy disk. And we ended up shipping the game, the low-res version actually took nine disks. And we couldn't have people constantly switching disks so we had to really break it up into areas. So you got to one area at a time. Strangely enough, even though it was incredibly frustrating for us, it helped us with story structure and pacing.
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After the success of the original Quest for Glory, you went on to create several more inspired games in the series before "retiring". But now you've just successfully Kickstarted a new game, called Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. How did QFG influence the development of this new game?
C: We went through many different iterations of what this game should be. First we tried building a text-based game, and we thought that wasn't good enough. And then we considered a web-based with clickable hyperlinks, and that wasn't good enough, and it turns out what Sierra was doing originally was pretty close to good enough! But we are taking advantage of having 3D space.
L: The reason we went 3D is that we really did want to open up the world. Even with Quest for Glory it was all about immersion and making sure that the user interface was invisible and easy to not think about. We want you to be there in that game as part of that world, as part of that character.
So much for retirement, then?
C: We actually retired about ten years ago, around 2005, when game companies decided they all wanted 20-somethings and we couldn't get jobs in the game industry. And essentially this game pulled us out of retirement.
L: It isn't Quest for Glory, and yet it is. What we did was take the best parts, the parts that fans loved about Quest for Glory, and created something really different.
Corey and Lori Ann Cole, now of Transolar Games, are currently hard at work bringing the successfully funded Hero-U to life.
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