King’s Quest V & Sierra On-Line

Author: John Kest  //  Category: Articles, Home

What can I say about the King’s Quest franchise that hasn’t been said before? King’s Quest holds a special place in my heart and defines what a point-and-click adventure should be. In my opinion King’s Quest V ‘Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder’ stands out the most and makes me appreciate the series even more.


Computer adventure games in the late 1970’s did not have graphics, pictures and, at times, no sound. Early gamers were required to read text on the screen and enter one or two-word responses in order to control their character and progress in the game. The text in the adventure games would encompass a few paragraphs on what you, the character, would see when put in a certain location or situation. For instance, you’re in a room and there’s a tall bookcase with a shiny object sitting on one of the shelves that looks like a key. The game might require you to type a command such as ‘take key’ in order for your character to store it in their inventory and use it to unlock a door later in their journey. Games at that time were very primitive; nonetheless, there was a special company on its way to the industry, which would change adventure games forever.


Sierra On-line was one of the main players in the early 80’s that developed and published video games. Sierra was an amazing and innovative company started by Ken and Roberta Williams, which was located in Coarsegold, California. In the beginning, Sierra was based in Ken and Roberta’s household, and it later expanded into several other buildings. Roberta is a very special person as she has the gift of storytelling, which started very early in her life. As a young child she was always thinking of ideas for her stories and would put herself in the place of the hero. It didn’t matter if she was slaying demons or traveling to another dimension. Roberta was always coming up with fresh new ideas. Thanks to the supreme programming skills of Jeff Stephensen, Bob Heitman and her husband Ken, we have the privilege to enter Roberta’s universe and experience her stories first hand. Both Jeff and Bob created Sierra’s scripting language –SCI– a programming language that was a key part in making the adventure games at Sierra. Programmers wrote script in the SCI language that defined how objects in the game came together and interacted with one another. The programmers also established classes of objects such as the Actor Class (which includes anything that goes from one place to another; just like our hero, King Graham), as well as a Prop Class, which are objects that move but don’t go anywhere, such as a candle flame, or steam boiling from a witch’s brew-pot, etc. Finally, they also created a View Class, for objects that don’t require animation, such as perfectly placed object in the foreground or background. The Sierra programmers were pioneers in the video game industry and they had their sights focused on dominating the adventure game market.


Sierra entered the industry by creating the first graphic adventure game ‘Mystery House’, inspired by the text adventure game ‘Colossal Cave.’ It all started when Roberta played ‘Colossal Cave’ while Ken went off to work. Roberta finally completed the game and searched for other ones similar to it. However, her search came up empty. Roberta approached her husband about the idea of creating an adventure game. Ken realized Roberta was on to something big and this lead to the creation of ‘Mystery House’ for the Apple II. ‘Mystery House’ featured black-and-white pictures along with text, unlike ‘Colossal Cave’, which had no graphics or sound, only text. ‘Mystery House’ is a cross between an Agatha Christie novel and the game ‘Clue’ in a first person perspective. The game takes place in an abandoned Victorian mansion. The game requires you and seven other people to explore the mansion looking for treasures and in the process bodies are turning up dead out of the seven people you entered the mansion with. You must solve the mystery or you’ll be next. The game was a big step up the ladder for Sierra and this lead to many opportunities for the company in the future.



Later in 1983, Ken Williams was called upon by none other than the ‘Big Blue’ IBM, to come up with an adventure game for their top-secret computer, the PC Junior. The PC Junior was designed for home activities and entered the market rivaling the Commodore64 and the Apple II. IBM was really hoping and praying for a video game title that would exhibit the computer’s sixteen colors and three-voice sound. IBM also wanted to put the PC Junior’s 128K memory to good use. It was imperative that Sierra had to create a game that encompassed great art, graphics, animation, music and other effects. This is nothing shy of what they look for in a video game today. Sierra was under the gun as they had a deadline to make an adventure game for the PC Junior’s launch date. This was the moment of truth for both Sierra and IBM. Ken and Roberta were extremely nervous about the task that was given to them. Nevertheless, Roberta took a deep breath and got to work. Roberta gravitated to what she knew best and that is telling a great fairy tale. Behold, King’s Quest was born and the land of Daventry was introduced to all!




King’s Quest V is a very heartwarming and noble fable created in 1990 and ported to Windows, MS-DOS, Mac, Amiga, NES, FM Towns, and the NEC PC -9801. Sierra’s main objective was to captivate a brand new audience that wasn’t interested in adventure games. Sierra designed the game with an easy-to-use interface, making the game simple and less frustrating. They wanted to make King’s Quest V much easier than the previous four quests and I believe this is the reason why it didn’t receive the love that it should. Roberta’s creative process for King’s Quest begins by outlining the story and scribbling it down in notebooks and loose pieces of paper. She then edits her context and confides in her family for ideas and criticism. When Roberta is satisfied with her ideas, she then creates rough drawings of each scene, called rooms by game developers. Next, she sends her images and rough drawings of the scenes to the artists to give them an understanding of what she’s trying to accomplish. Not only does she give the artists images and an outline, but she also writes a small script on how the rooms will work. Things sometimes change as the story comes together in the development stages. The rough sketches and script are then put on a storyboard so the team can easily follow the plot and construct the game using Sierra’s custom programming tools.


Roberta continues King’s Quest V with the legend of the King Graham family who live in the Kingdom of Daventry. King Graham must save his kidnapped family from the evil wizard Mordack, who has taken them to his castle in a far away land out of vengeance on behalf of his brother Manannan, who was defeated by Graham’s son Alexander in King’s Quest III ‘To Heir is Human’, which is another great game! The story opens with King Graham returning from a nice walk on a sunny day. Graham returns moments after his castle is taken away by the evil wizard, and the only witness was a crafty old owl named Cedric. Cedric takes Graham to the distant land, Sernia, where his employer, the wizard Crispin lives and might be of some assistance. Crispin has been retired for quite sometime and can only offer Graham a small amount of help such as giving him a magical wand, which will allow Graham to communicate with animals. The wand is a critical part of the puzzle in stopping Mordack’s madness. Crispin also offers Graham the company of his owl, Cedric, who will lead him to Mordack’s castle where his loved ones have been taken captive. At first, Cedric is a pain–in–the–neck guide, but later he becomes a trusted friend. After Crispin’s house, Graham and Cedric will have to find their way to cross the great mountains, which is on the edge of Serenia, and then to Mordack’s island. However, you must first explore the town, the desert, and the forest of Serenia in search of items that you need for the long journey ahead. You must also perform good deeds for less fortunate characters, both animal and human, so you’ll be well rewarded in return. A great example of this would be when Graham encounters a helpless rat who is being chased by a hungry feline, and you must figure out a way to stop the cat in its tracks and save the creature. Later on, the rat returns the favor when you’re in trouble showing the bond between Graham and the animals that he helps. Graham also receives items from people after his good deeds in the town or in the forest, which will help him through the game. An example of this would be when Graham receives a cloak and hat from the tailor, which will protect him in the cold harsh mountains. Many scenarios like this occur throughout Graham’s journey and it’s nice to observe the interactions between him and the characters as the story unfolds. Besides receiving and obtaining items from characters, you must also be aware of hidden objects or anything that’s unusual or conspicuous, which is sometimes in plain sight. Look under or on top of things, and talk to everyone that you can. By doing this you will get clues and hints, which will help you solve the puzzles that you’re faced with. To control Graham in King’s Quest V, the mouse is preferred, but you can also use the keyboard’s cursor keys. King’s Quest V’s new player/computer interface completely eliminates typing. Talking, taking, using, giving, saving, and stopping are controlled by clicking one of the icons or pictures located at the top of the screen. If you want to pick up or use an item, point to the picture of the hand at the top of the screen, click, then point to the item you want to use, and click again. To open a door, for instance, point to the hand icon, click, point at the door, and click again. You can’t type ‘OPEN DOOR’ like in previous quests. To inspect an object, click on the eyeball icon, to talk to someone, click the picture of the face talking, and to save the game, click on The Controls Icon at the top of the screen, and proceed to click SAVE. The controls are straightforward and simple to use, and there’s nothing like a great point–and–click adventure such as this. Sierra does it very well indeed.




King’s Quest V has very beautiful digitized painted backgrounds, opposed to cold computer graphics, which are dull. The backgrounds in the game are something special, and their detail keeps your eyes glued on the screen inspecting all of the beautiful artwork. I’d have to say that the forest of Serenia and Mordack’s castle are my favorite locations in the game. Crispin’s house in the forest is also eye candy, being nestled in the forest in a cozy nook. This specific scene really shows the amount of work that the artists and programmers had to do. To me, videogames are not just only another expression of art; they constitute art at its very best. One of the very first steps in the construction of King’s Quest is making the backgrounds. After receiving all of their sources from Roberta, the artists take a single scene and draws a thumbnail sketch of it. Then the artists draws a larger sketch of the scene, and finally a highly detailed pencil sketch. Once Roberta gives her approval on the sketches, a final colored drawing is done in acrylics on an illustration board, and then it’s electronically scanned into computer memory. Backgrounds for King’s Quest I-IV were done differently as the artists drew directly on the screen using a paint program with a 16-color pallet. However, this technique wasn’t detailed enough to display the full impact of 256-color VGA graphics. King’s Quest V comes in two versions: one for computers equipped with 16-color EGA or VGA monitors, and another for computers capable of displaying 256-color VGA graphics. The EGA and VGA version comes with both 3.5″ and 5.25″ disks in the package. The 5.25″ disks are high density (720K for 3.5″ and 1.2M for 5.25″). The 256-color VGA-only version only had high-density disks (1.44M for 3.5″ and 1.2M for 5.25″). There were no packages for low-density media because it would take too many disks to do so. Sierra created separate packages to accommodate their customers computer specifications and budget.


EGA Floppy disk version                          VGA CD-ROM version



While one group of artists works on the backgrounds, another is busy working on the animated characters. In the earlier Quests, the characters were drawn as pixels. However, King’s Quest V required a lot more work. Employees at Sierra donated cloaks and other items to the project and also acted the parts out of the script. Talk about dedication! The employees were photographed with a video camera, and the footage was used to construct individual cells of the action. The artists would then paint on top of the live action cells with a paintbrush program. Disney would use techniques like this as well. A standard character is created in a box 33 squares high and 16-18 squares wide. By changing the colors of the squares, the characters take on different shapes and activities. Animation is achieved by rapidly displaying several of these drawings or cells one after another, much like a flipbook. It would take 8 cells for King Graham to take one step to the right. A step to the left is handled by using a mirror image, which is a technique the helps conserve computer memory. Twenty separate drawings are required just for Graham to walk, and it takes several thousand drawings to animate all of Graham’s activities and actions. There’s so much involved in creating a game like King’s Quest V. Conserving memory is key to fitting all of the information on the medium of the company’s choice, in this case, CD-ROM. Sierra liked the idea that information could easily be transferred to compact disc. CD was a better choice for storage opposed to floppy disk, which took 10 or more discs to do the job of 1 CD. There was only one problem with CD-ROM. The speech in King’s Quest V couldn’t be recorded on the CD as direct audio. A voice-sampling technique was used to reduce the speech so computer instructions, graphics, music, and speech could all fit on a single CD-ROM disc. As I mentioned, Sierra also released King’s Quest V on 3.5″ and 5.25″ floppy disk. You can see a reduction in the graphics making the CD version a much better experience. The music compositions on the CD version are actually pretty good, and fit the middle age atmosphere in the game. Sierra was very well known for integrating quality music and sound into their games. King’s Quest IV was the first adventure game to be scored by a professional composer. For King’s Quest V the music and sound effects crew at Sierra used new techniques at the time called, simultaneous sound. Four musicians created the compositions on an IMB PC, a Roland Synthesizer, and audio software for MIDI and sequencing. It usually takes about 12 weeks to compose and record all the music for the game. It’s done in MIDI format first and then edited for other sound devices. The voice-overs in King’s Quest V are quite comical at times but  goes well with the game and it’s characters. The floppy disk version did not have speech, only text, which I like because of nostalgic reasons. Sierra ported King’s Quest V to floppy because many people did not have the money to upgrade their computer and many computers at the time were not equipped with disc drives. Sierra didn’t want to limit their sales so everyone would have the opportunity to experience the new quest.



I really like all of the characters in the game and the role they play in the story. King Graham is a well-drawn character that definitely fits the description of a nobleman who goes out of his way to help others. Cedric the owl is one of my favorite characters in the game. I like how Cedric flies from scene to scene with Graham, keeping him company, and he’s very comical at times, especially his voice! If you didn’t have Cedric, it would be very lonely and quite boring. Every character that Graham and Cedric encounter is well drawn and adds flavor to the game that keeps the story interesting. Queen Icebella is another well-done character as well as her ice palace, which is beautifully drawn. The Queen is a very territorial character and dislikes when Graham is passing through her turf. Graham must find a way to warm her cold heart in order to pass the mountains. In the end, Mordack’s castle is one of the coolest parts of the game. To reach his lair you must find your way through a difficult and confusing maze. You have to complete many objectives in his castle to spoil Mordack’s plans. I have played both the PC and NES versions, and I loved everything I experienced in both games. It boggles the mind because the game requires you to acquire so many items and figure out so many puzzles and, in my opinion, the game still holds up today. I was so satisfied when I completed the game. To top it all, just like any fable, it teaches you a moral lesson. Without a doubt, The King’s Quest series is one of the best series ever created, and that goes for all seven installments!


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