« Vintage Game Club: First Thoughts | Main | Murder in Iambic Pentameter »

September 09, 2010

It's Good to Be the King

On the advice of The Brainy Gamer’s podcasts and articles, I decided to pick up Little King’s Story from Amazon last week, and I’m really quite glad I did. The game is such a delight, and that’s really the only term for it, it’s really just delightful. It’s full of charm and quirky big-headed art and a cast of characters that draws on different elements¹.

The gameplay is a mix of something like a lighter version of Dark Cloud² and Pikmin. You don’t directly engage in combat as you try to take over the world, instead gathering a Royal Guard about your person and sending them into battle one at a time. You can only gather up a certain number of followers to take around the world with you, and your direct actions while in the field are largely strategic -- choosing a set of followers, such as a mix of soldiers and carpenters if you expect to go out and find a staircase to build. While followed, you can throw these followers out ahead of you to engage enemies, build staircases, and open up holes and things.

I’m coming to this game very late, and only through learning of it via the Brainy Gamer podcast³ back episodes; I don’t want to add much to what Michael Abbott and others have said. It’s such a lovely, quaint little game with charm oozing out of every byte. It's worth playing, and owing to relatively few titles breaking conventional molds on consoles, I think it's also worth picking up and supporting.

However, I’m always impressed when game designers find a little spot of what we who read Clint Hocking’s blog might call ludo-narrative resonance4, which to me often means finding room within your game’s fiction to reinforce constraints. In this case, the constraints were likely budget -- no one would look at this title and think it had a chance against something like a Halo in terms of sales. So, rather than providing the player with an easily accessible menu at any time to save the game or manage the kingdom’s assets, or even participate in the tutorial, the Little King has three Ministers who serve these functions.

Naturally, as they are important personages and not the hoi polloi the King trains into different functions from the idle riff-raff who are drawn to the Kingdom as you build homes and such, these Ministers are only available to the King when he sits upon his throne, which is situated in a closed, limited-rendering environment inside of the castle -- further, it’s a limited simulation, since none of the positions or current activities of those hoi polloi are currently visible, and thus needn’t be saved (for example) for the next session. The menus also only need to be rendered here, though admittedly they aren’t sufficiently complicated to be of real concern, and the tutorials are presented here in what is always (apparently) a safe environment. All narrative steps of importance seem also to take place in the throne room, so cutscenes can be managed in a single scene as interactions between the Ministers and the King himself.

All of that adds up to a nice bit of working within constraints, and doing so in such a way that the player hardly even notices, owing to its logic.

I’m really enjoying the game, and find myself returning to it again and again despite having a few games still in their packaging sitting on the shelf, and GTA IV to return to. Thanks again to Brainy Gamer for bringing it to my attention.

I should be back in the next few days with further thoughts about GTA IV, some more commentary on replaying Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and a final post about my art game (and maybe a little about the prototyping I’m doing on my next little indie game).

¹Your War Minister is a clear parody of the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote himself, and there is a cow who hangs about in your castle named Pancho, which contains echoes of Sancho Panza.

²The first one, with all the charm (and the terribly boring dungeons), not the sequel with so much more repetition (and terribly boring dungeons). While you don’t have to lay out your kingdom, you have the option of what “upgrades” you will purchase first, whether homes (which generate more citizens) or different training centers (which increase your abilities and unlock different areas on the map) or what-have-you (I paid for a florist... I have no idea what that will do for me).

³Highly recommended, by the way. I’ve only recently been listening to any podcasts, and I think that the Brainy Gamer one is my absolute favorite amongst gaming podcasts, which puts it in rarefied company, as my favorite podcast overall is This American Life.

4Strictly speaking, the better term would likely be consonance to play off of dissonance more directly, but I think the reinforcing they do makes resonance a reasonable term...

Posted by Brett Douville at September 9, 2010 10:15 PM