Wot I Think: The Silver Lining

By John Walker on July 14th, 2010 at 9:05 am.

Sorry to chop his face off, but no one wants to see menu options.

After much to-and-fro, King’s Quest tribute game The Silver Lining from Phoenix Online Studios has not only been granted a release by IP holders Activision, but the first episode is out now. A completely fan-made project, and completely free, it’s been eight years in creation. I’ve finished the first chapter, so here’s Wot I Think.

Clearly being a free amateur project, my expectations were appropriately placed. Interestingly, it both exceeded and fell short of them. Oh, and talking of falling short, I should mention right away that it’s extremely brief. We’re assured that further chapters will be longer, but this one won’t last more than an hour. In fact, skipping cutscenes and dialogue… 9 minutes 50 seconds. Of course that’s skipping the entire point of playing, but it indicates how little there is to actually do in the game.

What is immediately noticeable is the level of detail. The graphics are an odd mix of some very impressive scenes with reflective floors, working mirrors, and the like, and oddly blocky, extremely dated textures and character models. Oh, and it’s in 3D, which is no small feat for an am-adventure project. There’s also a really impressive number of detailed animations for specific actions – further signs of care going in – although they aren’t especially good animations. But it’s the detail in the writing that is most impressive.

Traditionally Sierra were always far better than LucasArts at making sure there was a description for nearly every visible object in the game, along with alternative comments for when you did something stupid, like spoke to a log. Phoenix Online have taken this and run with it, offering not just descriptions but detailed stories for almost anything you can click on. Look at a vase in the halls of the castle and you won’t hear, “It’s a vase.” You’ll instead hear a tale about the Queen when she was young, playing in these hallways. Look at the floor and rather than being dismissed you’ll likely listen to lines and lines about how King Graham feels about the situation he’s in – his son and daughter-in-law’s wedding being interrupted by a mysterious, cloaked figure, who has put the pair into an undisturbable sleep.

Conversations are equally verbose, and the volume of silly responses for silly actions is enough that you’ll likely give up trying before you’ll hear them repeat. And extraordinarily for such a project, it’s all voice acted. And even more extraordinarily, it’s voiced extremely well. There’s only a couple of amateur-sounding characters in there, the rest sounding more professional than some contemporary commercial adventures.

The real weakness in this script is – beyond some of the descriptions being just too much information when you just wanted to know if it could be picked up – far too many arch meta references to the fact you’re playing a game. Sure, this has been a theme in adventures since the 80s, but it doesn’t work here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the tone is far too serious. The game isn’t playing for laughs. Graham’s son is in dire trouble, a terrible evil is attacking the world, and everyone in the area seems to detest humans. His family are distraught, hope is lost – this isn’t a comedy adventure. So being told to visit an actor’s website isn’t really appropriate. And that would be the second part. It’s all very well to have a character wryly complain about the obtuse nature of adventures. It’s quite another to have the narrator start plugging things, no matter how much of a joke is made of it. They seemed to be taking this project extremely seriously, and aiming for a sombre tone – it’s absolutely eradicated by content like that.

Another gripe regarding the dialogue is the lack of an ability to carry on playing as it chatters away. If I’m going to be told the life history of a character because I looked at a mirror, I want to be able to walk to the next destination at the same time. But unfortunately clicking either to move, or even to right click to change the cursor icon, will skip that line of dialogue. And yes, of course dialogue should be skippable. But it would be very nice to walk about.

It would also be nice to walk about without walking into things. There’s a weird lack of pathfinding, meaning it’s far too easy to get stuck behind a pillar and run on the spot. It unfortunately makes things feel unfinished.

Beyond this, it’s very hard to comment much further. (Oh, apart from to giggle at King Graham’s hilariously silly walk animation.) Other than giving someone an object from your inventory, there’s nothing even approaching a puzzle in this first chapter. In fact, the second half is almost entirely cutscenes. While these guys aren’t making money from this, and so they don’t need to worry about people wanting to invest in the rest of the series, it still seems a shame that they’ve spent so much time introducing the story, but forgotten to introduce any depth of game.

The story focuses on trying to discover who the mysterious stranger is, what has happened to the young couple, and then learning of a need to enter dream worlds in later chapters. It’s much in keeping with later King’s Quest games, although certainly far less twee. It’s quite fun to be back in a world where dog-people officiating marriage ceremonies isn’t considered strange, and of course there’s a woman with green skin. It’s just the way of things.

That there are such impressive cutscenes, huge amounts of dialogue, and piles of love poured in, is a remarkable achievement. The team deserve enormous congratulations. It’s likely to be a decent new entry in the King’s Quest series, that knows the history of the franchise extremely well, and intends to add to it with passion. Hopefully they have written much more puzzle content for later chapters, because combined with a promising plot that could make for an enjoyable run.

The Silver Lining is free, and available now from here.

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38 Comments »

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  1. MWF says:

    A pseudo-interactive, movielike cutscenes-galore muddle with barely any depth?

    Wow.

    A fanmade project that has managed without a hitch to capture today’s gaming spirit of any big blockbuster and publisher release.

  2. James G says:

    I was never much of a Sierra fan back in the day. The games always seemed far too content to kill you, or trap you in an unwinnable situation, for what seemed like arbitary reasons. The Lucas Arts school of advenruring, especially post Monkey Island, always seemed more appealing as a result.

    I realise that the lack of puzzles in this segment may make it difficult to judge, but was there any evidence of the arbitary death situations?

    • John Walker says:

      Well, there were none in this chapter. I couldn’t say beyond that.

    • Clovis says:

      Obviously allowing the player to get in an unwinnable situation is awful, but I always enjoyed the Sierra death scenes. I played those games first and was then annoyed when I couldn’t walk off cliffs in the LucasArts games. In fact, that made them feel dumbed down, haha!

      Anyway, the death scenes are especially fun in the, er, funny games. Whenever I got to a new location in Space Quest, I’d first focus on how to kill Roger Wilco in diverse ways.

    • Shih Tzu says:

      You know, I never played a Space Quest game. Maybe I should grab the 4-5-6 pack from GOG, just for kicks. After I finally get around to playing through Time Gentlemen, Please!, I suppose.

      There’s one death animation I remember really liking in King’s Quest VI. The lights went out while you were in a dangerous labyrinth (which of course you could enter without the necessary tools to get out, argh), and all you could see were the two white dots of your eyes. And then there were strange sounds… and suddenly each dot was on a different side of the screen.

      Gore without the gore!

    • Fumarole says:

      I found the entire SQ and KQ collection on DVD for $20 a few years ago. A quick Amazon search indicates they’re still available.

  3. Adrian says:

    I don’t care if its short or has more cutscenes that actual gameplay. Developers today are too afraid to loose sales if they don’t apply the “formula” to their games.
    These guys are not making any money off this so i think its cool they didnt go for the normal adventure aproach with many weird and way too easy puzzles (which always annoys me in adventure games, i only digg hard puzzles :) )

  4. Reverend Speed says:

    I… LOVE adventure games.

    I remember playing the early version of this and being driven to frothing rage by the pathfinding, the awful acting, the inane narrator and animations that weren’t just substandard but were so bad they drew all your attention, preventing you from appreciating some of the quite pretty backgrounds.

    So looking forward to trying this, then!

    Kotaku’s take on the release: http://kotaku.com/5584586/the-silver-lining-episode-1-micro+review-absence-makes-the-heart-grow-colder

  5. sfox says:

    Their forum says “Chapter 1 was meant as a long winded introduction that was meant to welcome you back to the world of King’s Quest and just get you completely set up. Chapter 2 throws all the gameplay and puzzles at you.” and that’s why this episode is short and lacks puzzles.

  6. fgds says:

    It looks to me like you have to sign up to download. I hate these stupid forum registrations and all this jazz
    any mirrors/links?

  7. Fwiffo says:

    This is a testament to why you don’t let the fandom make games. Fandoms will always care more about exposition and tiny plot details that matter to nobody else before they’ll consider sensible gameplay mechanics and it shows here.

    The goal here is not to get new King’s Quest fans, hell no. It’s not to give those who warmly remember playing the originals when they were young a blast from the past, no way. It’s purely aimed at the fantards. The people who argue over tiny things that even the developers didn’t care about at the time. Result? An impenetrable mess of self serving reference laden goop that only uber fans will care about.

    I was hoping they wouldn’t fall into this trap. I really was.

  8. Commander Gun says:

    As a long KQ fan (i played KQ1 when i was eight and barely knew any english), i was looking very much forward to this. There were some fan remakes already of KQ 1 and 2, and especially 2 is a very good adventure game, look for it on the Adventure Game Studio (ags) website.

    I ‘played’ it last week, but to call it a game is an insult to gaming to be honest. They would be better off making this all a large trailer or, at least, too launch episode 1 and 2 together so that there’s at least to be some gaming at the end. I too was enormously frustrated at the meta comments about adventure gaming and about the narrator’s website. Make a fan Monkey-Islans if you want to have fun, but otherwise just focus on the game itself.

    The story so far is quite good, and the voice acting is nice as well. At the beginning, when i took my old adventurers hat in the palace, i almost got sentimental about it so i agree with Fwiffo that this game really is made for KQ fans.
    In the end, all i can say is that i look forward to the actuall 1st episode of new KQ gaming, ironically called ‘episode 2′.

  9. Clovis says:

    Given the lots-o-story-but-no-gameplay vibe here, I guess this is on topic. The other day, Kieron said:

    Everything that’s splendid about it was absorbed by the RPG (characterisation, plot, etc) with everything that was bad (its ludicrous puzzles) replaced with actual entertaining interaction. Because that’s the thing about the adventure game. It’s the one genre whose mechanics really were never part of its its core appeal. I mean, did we love Monkey Island for that fucking monkey wrench puzzle or attaching a banana to a metronome… or did we love it for the Cartographer/You do open heart surgery in here? or the every-relationship-I’ve-ever-had-redux of the Marley/Guybrush reunion? C’mon. Be honest.

    What’s your opinion on this, John? I’ve always thought the gameplay was the most important thing. If I wanted story, I’d just read a book or watch a movie. The reason I play adventures is to figure out the puzzles (meaning the story/inventory puzzles, not the actual puzzle puzzles). Having a good story is just icing on the cake. I will admit that the only thing I might remember later about an adventure is the story though. I can’t remember any puzzles from The Longest Journey, but I wouldn’t even know the story if not for the gameplay.

    • Schmung says:

      Oh, a thousand times yes – the false urgency thing is mind bogglingly irritating.

    • Schmung says:

      reply-fail :( was meant to be in the other section. I pressed the right button – honest.

  10. Weefz says:

    “seems a shame that they’ve spent so much time introducing the story, but forgotten to introduce any depth of game.”

    Hey, it worked fine for Dreamfall.

    I am looking forward to trying this. I missed the entire KQ series due to playing Leisure Suit Larry and Codename: Iceman instead, so having lots of backstory will get me caught up quite nicely. I suppose a mildly interactive history chapter is better than being forced to read it on Wikipedia in order to make sense of future games.

  11. bill says:

    Was gonna post this in the MI2 comments, when someone mentioned the “great” Beneath a steel sky” but

    “The real weakness in this script is – beyond some of the descriptions being just too much information when you just wanted to know if it could be picked up – far too many arch meta references to the fact you’re playing a game. Sure, this has been a theme in adventures since the 80s, but it doesn’t work here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the tone is far too serious. The game isn’t playing for laughs. Graham’s son is in dire trouble, a terrible evil is attacking the world, and everyone in the area seems to detest humans. His family are distraught, hope is lost – this isn’t a comedy adventure. So being told to visit an actor’s website isn’t really appropriate. ”

    This was exactly the problem I had with BASS. Everyone is murdered, evil nazi villains, people shot in the head, desparate chase to escape -> comedy with sandwiches, comedy seducing middle aged ladies, doing annoying errands for people when people are supposed to be chasing you.

    Weird things, adventure games…

    • Clovis says:

      Yeah, adventure games don’t actually handle [i]adventure[/i] very well. If the cutscenes are very adventurous it always seems odd when control is given to the player. Everything suddenly comes to a hault and you start picking up random items and sticking them together. Sometimes the designers try to keep the tension going by adding a timer (you have 5 minutes to use the items in this room to break the window and climb out before the guard comes back!), but that’s just annoying.

      Of course, that’s a problem in other genres too. Like in RPGs where you have to “SAVE THE WORLD! HURRY!”, but then spend hours trying to find someone’s missing necklace or whatever.

    • Weefz says:

      @Clovis, YES! Way way back when I was young(er) I used to miss loads of content in RPGs because I would take the “HURRY!” literally and rush off through main quest. I think it came from my early adventuring days of The Hobbit where time actually had meaning in the game.

      I would like to say that I’ve learned and now ignore the fake urgency but I did it again in my first attempt at Fallout 3. “Quick, get to the Vault entrance NOW!” they said, so I pegged it out the door. On my second playthrough I realised that the game seemed so hard to start with because I should have casually wandered around the vault, saved an old lady from some radroaches and generally ignored the blazing sirens and armed manhunt for me.

    • Chris D says:

      @Weefz

      I did pretty much the same thing at the start of Fallout 3. Of course my main memory of the opening was trying to slow down a guard by shooting him in the leg, figuring he was just following orders. I then watched in horror as his leg was blown off at the knee and spiralled across the room. Not entirely the effect I was going for.

      My navigation rule for adventures and RPG’s now is to never, ever go where you are supposed to until you have explored the mysterious siderooms first. Unless there’s a clock with actual numbers actually counting down. Then you can hurry. Or if you start getting bored of killing rats and inane conversations with peasants, that too.

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      phlebas says:

      I do the same – It is a dreadful immersion-breaker, though. Even if I’m playing a complete amoral toerag (and generally I’m not), then stopping to explore/run errands/pick flowers feels wrong when there are portals opening all over the country and a demonic invasion seems imminent. That’s one of the things I liked about Morrowind – the central plot, assuming you decided to follow it, was an epic tale of the hero’s growth into saviourdom rather than being driven by an immediate threat. An epic can take time to savour the little stories along the way; a thriller can’t.

    • Jakkar says:

      Excellent, phlebas.

      Yes, Morrowind did that right – something I was unconsciously aware of I guess, but had never articulated to myself.

  12. Quests says:

    Long narrative text-adventure-style descriptions for everything.

    I’m sold.

    Yes i am a Sierra fan-tard.

    and the danger of being stuck is a challenge for true elite godly gamers that accessibility-tards would call stupid. I hope you can get stuck in this game too.

  13. Clovis says:

    @Weefz: Heh, it’s funny you mention Fallout, because the first Fallout actually had a time limit. If you didn’t complete the game within X number of game days you would lose. I guess that essentially got patched out though.

    With Fallout 3 I generally assumed they weren’t serious. One mission had some guys trapped at the top of a hospital. The quest giver made a big deal about hurrying, but I didn’t do that quest for quite awhile. Even funnier, when everyone was all ready to make the (URGENT) final attack with the big robot, they ask if you are ready. I said no, and then wandered off for weeks of game time looking for more vaults. When I finally returned, they are, of course, all just standing around waiting for me. Having actual time limits is definitely not preferable, but the way it currently works is kinda’ lame.

    • qrter says:

      No, that wasn’t patched out, it’s still there. It always made me horribly nervous.

      In town, a bit later on, you had the option to send a caravan carrying water to your vault, but that would only shorten your time, as sending the caravan would direct marauders and bandits to the location of the vault.

    • Fumarole says:

      No, sending the caravan to the Vault does give you a greater window to complete the first half of the main quest; it also alerts Raiders and such to the location of the Vault. This is mentioned as a consequence of your actions at the end of the game. The time limit is far more than is needed for all but the most ass-dragging questers, among which I count myself. Of course this is not generally known on a first playthrough.

  14. Mr Lizard says:

    And remember, skipping cutscenes, dialogue, combat and loading times, Dreamfall was only 32 seconds long.

  15. Freudian Trip says:

    That 3rd picture… The guys grown bewbs.

    • Shih Tzu says:

      Well, given his habitual getup, I think Graham’s used to living outside traditional gender norms anyway.

  16. Igor Hardy says:

    Agree with pretty much everything in this review, but I actually appreciated the presence of traditional Sierra silly humor, mocking narrator and puns. The storyline by itself is an over-dramatic fairy-tale, so it is difficult to treat it very seriously.

  17. Risingson says:

    Sorry, I’m leaving. When you people start talking not about long descriptions but EXTREMELY WELL WRITTEN long descriptions (case of Sierra games), not deaths but fun deaths that provided sense of award and made you try everything (which was what Space Quest games were about mostly), and analize games’ faults as the only game’s fault and not the entire genre, I will come again.

    Now I’m packing and going to benicassim and be completely out for 5 days.

    P.S. The Silver Lining looks absolutely awful. Free and amateur and such, but horrid.

  18. Quests says:

    What happens when you leave the sland without grabbing the cloak?

  19. Future Man says:

    I’d like to point out the original King’s Quest games were silly games. I think in retrospect people remember them as serious games but there was a lot of humor there, though some of it wasn’t particular memorable (that’s being charitable).

    The series contained an eclectic mashup of various fantasy tropes that often went the route of parody. 6 was the most sober installment and that still featured dancing skeletons and many many puns. The tone was all over the place, the fore mentioned dancing skeleton puzzle took place right before a rather grim confirmation with death itself, in which you had to successfully barter for the lives of the love interest’s parents.