Adult Swim's Kingsway is a fantasy RPG that's designed to look like a mashup of Windows or Mac OS circa 1995, and on paper that sounds about as exciting as typing up The Hobbit word-for-word in Excel. And yes, you read that right. We're not talking about a game that's meant to look like it could run on those systems à la Ultima or Diablo; rather, the operating system itself is the game, right down to emails for quests and persistent popups that assail your patience.
But it's much more fun in action. In fact, I've played no other game that so perfectly captures how magical the experience of using computers felt in the glory days or Netscape and AltaVista. Enough time has passed that many us now now regard PCs with the same mundane acceptance once accorded to cassette tapes and AOL trial CDs, but there was a time when performing even dull tasks on a computer felt like an adventure, something almost too fun to count as work. Interacting with "windows" on a digital plane? We might as well have been peeping through windows into alien worlds.
Kingsway, entirely the work of solo Canadian developer Andrew Morrish, is not a half-hearted attempt. It's astounding, in fact, how well its individual elements all work together. The only element that outright screams "fantasy RPG" is the map window through which your character plods along to destiny and occasionally uses to hobnob in shops and dungeons; everything else, whether it's inventory or the music selection, looks like something you might have screengrabbed while writing a term paper to the sound of a Soul Asylum single. Even the mere act of traveling resembles a dotted installation progress bar inching its way slowly rightward.
And true to the fumbling inexperience of that era, it's a recipe for chaos. Mere minutes go by before the screen gets splattered with popups for everything from quest to loot drops and stat allocation panels. The worst are the popups for the battles themselves, with individual enemies getting their own window that bobbles over the display while you try to click the buttons along the window's bottom to attack while popup moves. It grows maddening quickly, particularly when several enemy popups hog the screen at once, much as advertisements popups did on early browsers. You die if it gets out of hand (prompting a horde of popups that gleefully inform you of this), and then Kingsway fittingly cuts to a blue screen of death. It's a little like catching a virus, particularly the old, nasty kind that knocked PCs out cold.
It works, then, as both a game and a history capsule. It's the Cliff Notes version of discovering or remembering firsthand what early windows-based computing was like, and it certainly doesn't hurt that Kingsway manages to keep it fun in spite of this comparative abstraction. Its randomized tale and journey of high adventure enlivens the humdrum business of minimizing windows and checking notifications.
That may be its strongest message. For all of the annoyances popups and glitches may bring, the core experience of using a PC is still intensely rewarding and not a little fantastical, especially for those who us who remember the days when you couldn't call the local pizza joint for delivery without having a business card or a phone book. After all, isn't why we're all still here now, almost certainly reading this on some form of electronic device? Fantasy has become reality, and Kingsway helps us remember part of the way we got here.