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Winning From Behind

I’ve written about King’s Quest III before, way back in September of 2016 in the context of unfinished stories. But that take doesn’t quite do justice to my feelings about the game, and given that I still have opinions about something that originally released back in 1986, it’s probably worth taking another crack at. I’m also going to spoil the living daylights out of it, so if you care about spoilers for a 34-year-old point-and-click adventure game, skip this one, I guess?

Unheroic Beginnings

You start off King’s Quest III as Gwydion, an older teenager (17, to be precise) who has been stuck as the personal slave of the evil wizard Manannan for as long as he can remember. Manannan rules over, or at least oppresses and bothers, a large enough chunk of territory that he uses a telescope to keep an eye on it from his mountaintop residence that you’re responsible for maintaining. But there’s a clock running that you can’t ignore, at least in the setting, if not the game mechanics: when Gwydion turns 18, he’ll be killed and the wizard will kidnap another boy to take his place.

The early part of the game is spent keeping your head down and doing various chores for Manannan, such as sweeping, preparing his meals, feeding the chickens, and so on. The game makes it abundantly clear that you are no match for Manannan in any sort of direct confrontation. If you don’t perform a chore quickly enough or otherwise to his satisfaction, he will teleport you into some sort of uncomfortable or humiliating situation, including sticking your feet to the ceiling for a while (and then letting you fall), locking you in your tiny room, and so on. Make him really mad or present yourself as a threat, and he’ll disintegrate you. He gets around his own residence by teleporting rather than walking, and, as mentioned previously, manages to dominate a sizeable chunk of territory, seemingly unaided by any sort of minions or henchmen.

At first it looks hopeless, but you have to try something – your life is at stake.

Cat and Mouse

And so you start looking for cracks in the wizard’s impenetrable facade. The wizard has two key weaknesses: first, he leaves occasionally, leaving you unsupervised for long periods of time, and second, he is arrogant enough to assume you’re not a significant threat to him (though he’s also smart enough that if you appear to be otherwise, he’ll take you out immediately).

When he leaves, you have the opportunity to prepare start undermining him. If your experience goes like mine did, you start by exploring the house in more detail – and eventually discover his wizarding laboratory. But you have to be quick, because he can come back at any time, and if he discovers you snooping – disintegration.

At first, even this doesn’t seem all that helpful to your situation, and then you realize that if you can get the right ingredients together, you can probably neutralize Manannan by turning him into a cat with the right alchemical formula. But scour as you might, you won’t find everything you need in his residence. In order to see that scheme through, you need to venture down to the village at the foot of the mountain.

Greater Risk, Greater Reward

There’s no physical barrier preventing you from heading down the mountain, but if Manannan discovers you missing, he’ll teleport you back home once or twice and disintegrate you thereafter. You can’t get away just by running down the mountain and booking it once he’s gone.

In fact, if you run down the mountain, you’re going to fall and die, most likely. You need to carefully pick your way down a treacherous path with no guard rails and fatal drops on both sides. Once you reach the bottom of the mountain, you discover a small, pleasant village and can get some tastes of human interaction that aren’t with a horrible tyrant. A particularly sweet moment has you petting a large, friendly dog for the first time. This gives you a taste of the world outside of Manannan’s house and some surprisingly prosaic reasons to keep looking for a way out. People outside of the house are living normal, contented lives. That could be you.

Springing the Trap

Taking down Manannan comes in a surprisingly anticlimactic way. He returns from a trip, like he has done numerous times before. He demands a meal, like he has done numerous times before. And this time, instead of something else, you set a bowl full of porridge with a crumbled up cat cookie in it in front of him. He eats it, and promptly (and permanently) turns into a cat. You’re free!

At this point, I should note that you find out that Gwydion is actually Prince Alexander – he is the heir of the kingdom of Daventry, and there’s a whole additional arc of him getting home and dealing with problems there. There’s probably some symbolic parallels to be drawn between the bondage of sin and the change and freedom that comes with repentance and salvation – the realization that you are the child of the king, and so on.

But even without the angle of royalty, there’s a strong message of hope and redemption. You defeat a powerful evil force not through violence and brutality, but by outsmarting it and transforming it into something far less dangerous. And the freedom to simply walk away from the oppression and terror you’d suffered under and make a new life is every bit as compelling and redemptive, even without the royal angle.

If Gwydion had walked down the mountain, taken a job as a farrier’s apprentice, married a girl from the village, and lived a quiet, virtuous life, determined not to see others suffer like he did, that would have been just as triumphant of a story. Many of us will never be special in an earthly sense, but even without a royal homecoming, the breaking of our shackles is something to celebrate.

I also have some gaming-related ideas that go along with this, but I’ll get into those next time. For now, I’ll just leave you with the story.

Image by Colleen O’Dell from Pixabay

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