Former British genre market leader Level 9, under newly arrived competitive pressure of Magnetic Scrolls releasing their adventure games with lush illustrations, took the big leap into graphics with Knight Orc… Though what is unfortunately all too often overlooked is that this game broke major new ground in experimental gameplay and turned conventional storytelling upside down. So far that it still feels fresh today, but also so far that it's somewhat difficult to actually play.
What Level 9 actually had in mind at the time was a multiplayer online game, in the style of a MUD, but more advanced and with graphics. A proto World of Warcraft, if you will. They went as far as developing a game engine. Various factors led them to abandon this idea, but a number of remnants of this can still be found in Knight Orc. Actually, Knight Orc somewhat proudly pretends to be exactly such a game, with (fake) players joining, running around, following their own agenda – which most of the time revolves around looting treasure and killing orcs.
The protagonist, however, is not one of these adventurers. The goal is not to collect treasure items and store them in the right place (unlike in the rather traditional Magnetic Scrolls titles of the time). Rather, the player finds himself on the receiving end of the genre, as a lone orc abandoned and locked out by his kin. Easy prey for all sorts of wannabe-heroes of which there are all too many in this world. Most unsuspecting first time players had death occur all too quickly, but instead of this ending the game, it sent them straight to a weird scene which made it even more apparent that there was more to this game world than met the eye at first glance, before simply spitting the protagonist back out into a random place and letting him continue.
Level 9 didn't stop with providing a deliciously novel narrative perspective with a highly entertaining voice showing total disdain for everything and everyone around, leading to flawlessly working comical effects all over. They went full on meta by unmasking this world to be fake. A sort of amusement park where guests (the adventurers) can live out their naive fantasies, monstrous "enemies" being provided by robots. Just that through futuristic technology, it all seems real enough. After the first (of three) acts, the protagonist stumbles across this secret of his own identity by accident. Subsequently, the player can switch between the "adventure world" and the real world, a barren storage house, at will.
So far, so amazing. Based on such a concept, all sorts of ideas could now run wild. Genre deconstruction and transhumanism being just the starting point of all those imaginable and previously unimaginable wonders. Just that Knight Orc isn't quite this game. In gameplay terms, one limitation and one – for the lack of a better term – defect limit the game from unfolding its full potential.
Limitation insofar that the switching of the current location between real and adventure world remains almost exclusively a gimmick. Of course, it is funny to take a look and inspect that man behind the curtain in all its mundane detail, with magical apparitions suddenly turning into simplistic mechanical constructs. Yet, the massive gameplay potential of those mirrored locations, where manipulations in one version could have interesting effects in the other, is only used in one single puzzle throughout the entire game.
To understand what may be considered a "defect", consider the game's origins again. Knight Orc doesn't just pretend to be a MUD-like; at its heart, it technically still is. Although there is only one human player obviously, the other characters – although computer controlled – are not just props, but real actors. The core of the game is a flexible world simulation, the world state being changeable in many ways. The player not being the only one with the ability to change this state, solving the game can turn into a frustrating task, for example when another character just can't be located anymore or if someone has displaced an essential item. Worse, even effects on the overall world state which the developers likely never intended may be possible if the wrong combination of actions are committed by the actors.
Where does all this leave Knight Orc today? It is a game which reeks with ambition. In places, it feels like it was ahead of its own time by decades. In its best moments, like when its protagonist spits out a particularly cruel description of something, it will make you laugh out loud in surprise. But then, when some unexpected roadblock shows its ugly head, it also can't be denied that in spite of all its comfort features (with commands such as GO TO or FIND), it's not a very smooth playing experience. It's a game which is important, in spite of never really becoming influential. It may not be a must-play, arguably not even a must-know, but for sure it's a must-know about.