Les Manley in: Search for The King

Posted by Steve Irvin.
First posted on 15 May 2011. Last updated on 15 May 2011.
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Les Manley in: Search for The King
The life of a tape rewinder is all it is cracked up to be.
Les Manley in: Search for The King
Les takes a detour looking for The King.
Les Manley in: Search for The King
Las Vegas can be a lonely place.
Les Manley in: Search for The King
Les is about to meet his adoring fans.
Les Manley in: Search for The King
The King lives!

Les Manley in: Search for The King, created by Steve Cartwright, is the first game in the Les Manley series featuring the adventures of an underachieving A/V geek named Lester P. Manley. Lester, or Les, works in a dead-end job as a manual tape rewinder at the failing local radio station, W.I.L.L., and pines hopelessly for the station's vivacious office assistant, Stella Hart. As a publicity stunt, Les' boss and station manager, J.B. Swiller, decides to sponsor a contest with a million dollar prize offered to the first person who can find The King (yes, Elvis!). He is sure that the station will never have to payout the jackpot, since The King has vanished without a trace long ago and is presumed dead. Les decides to change his fortunes by embarking on the ultimate search during his lunch break. After all, how hard can it be? Les is off to win the big prize, perhaps winning the heart of his fair Stella as well.

Released in 1990, the game comes boxed with both 5.25" Floppy Disk and 3.25" Floppy Disk versions included. Additionally, a 4-page newspaper feelie provides bits of the back story for the game. Copy protection, ubiquitous in computer games released in that era, is implemented in the form of a "parts catalog"—really just a card with pale blue images hidden underneath red print and stylish cardboard glasses with red revealing lenses. A hint book is also included, which is equipped with its own plastic red revealing strip.

Like many graphic adventure games of the era, the plot for this game consists of a series of disjointed and serialized events that, by themselves, do not have much to do with the main character's larger goals. These events also do not play into Les' sense of urgency in his quest to be the first to find The King or lead the story in any logical direction. For instance, it is justifiable to reason that the most likely place to start seeking clues about The King's whereabouts is Las Vegas or even The Kingdom (Graceland) itself. Yet, nowhere does the developing story assume that Les is thinking this logically or determinedly. Both Las Vegas and The Kingdom are visited in the game, but only after numerous seemingly random situations that eventually take Les there.

The game starts with Les figuring out his first big move, which is to ask the boss for a raise. This leads to obtaining some keys when the boss is distracted by the lovely Stella. From there, it is a series of seek-and-find as well as situational puzzles that take Les to different locations in pursuit of different objects in his search for The King. The approach is very linear, but also typical of other adventures games of the era. Frequently, this linearity forces you to give up some creative freedom in exchange for a more focused and controlled experience. Even in the best moments of the game, you are still led by the hand through a fixed series of entertaining and challenging events. In this sense, although the gameplay is at times funny and charming, the experience is not always satisfying. It really is not compelling enough to fully offset its linear design.

The game takes place in 4 major locations: downtown New York, the circus, Las Vegas, and The Kingdom. All in all, there are over 50 screen locations to explore. However, the game plays even longer than the large game world suggests, since a lot of time is spent in the trial-and-error repetition of finding correct command syntax to accomplish tasks and then revisiting the few locations you can access when you find yourself temporarily stuck in the game.

Most of the locations in the game are rendered in bright colors. The artwork is fun and well done. However, the interface suffers from a choice to limit the mouse control to merely leading Les around the screen. While Les can move by following the mouse, he cannot interact with the game world otherwise. Instead, text commands must be typed in a parser using the keyboard to control Les. It is not possible to click on objects to manipulate or learn more about them. The game itself is so parser intensive that it is easiest to just use the arrow keys on the keyboard too to move Les from place to place. In fact, the scarcity of sight clues, the heavy reliance on descriptions for clues in general, and the extensive use of the text parser gives the sense that the visuals in this game are merely pretty window dressing and the game itself is just an interactive fiction title in disguise.

The music in the game is both simple and appropriate. It varies from location to location and is a catchy upbeat MIDI fare. It has charm in a cartoony sort of way, so it works with the lighthearted themes of the game.

In addition to what you can see, there are locations you need to visit or actions you must take that are played out off screen. For instance, a bathroom interior in a hotel suite is never revealed visually; Les enters it from a view inside the suite and is gone from your sight while you "look" at and "examine" various objects that you must imagine are there. It is not difficult to assume the presence of a commode, a sink, or a mirror. Nonetheless, this type of puzzle results in tedious trial-and-error until you finally find and examine the right imagined object. It feels oddly sloppy or unfinished, as if the developer does not want to spend the time creating a bathroom scene for the location.

Some of the puzzles in the game require you to go on fetch quests for certain objects (including a few that are time sensitive), but most of the puzzles require you to figure out what to do next in order to advance the story. Quite a few rely heavily on powers of observation to pick up details that are not obvious when first entering a location. Again, the idea is to try to "look" at every object in every scene, conspicuous or not, visible or imagined. Subtle hints are displayed in descriptions and dialogs—sometimes a single word, or a play on words, reveals the clue. The same also applies when scouting for clues in certain locations, such as the circus, where important locations are inaccessible until you "look" at them from an overhead isometric map view. Another example involves talking to the strongman about his daughter, the attractive fortune teller. He tells you not to touch her. However, it is important later that you remember this exchange and actually touch her in some way to obtain an object that, ironically, ends up helping the strongman. Often, it is necessary to "ask" a person about an object in the location you are in or about another person in whom you are interested (The King, maybe?). Patience and curiosity are required to succeed here. The developer boasts with tongue-in-cheek in the game that its parser is a cut above that used by its competitor (namely Sierra On-Line). Such a claim may or may not be true, but the trial-and-error nature of finding a phrase that can be understood by the parser creates the real possibility of never finding the correct way to ask or say some words that rewards the efforts. It is possible to get stuck in the game not because you are not on the right track but because you have used the wrong command or syntax. To be fair, this is not a limitation unique to this game, since many games from this era suffer from the same shortcoming.

Regrettably, success in solving this game requires Les dying, only to be resurrected so he can enjoy the hard earned fruits of his adventures. You can see this hackneyed plot device coming a mile away, since you are actually given an object called the Resurrection Ticket early on in the game. For me, this device feels contrived and is a definite letdown. Also, it is possible to find yourself in a new location without the right objects in the inventory and no way to backtrack. Thankfully, upon arrival in a new location, the game always informs you that you are missing some objects needed to finish the game. This allows you to restore to a previous game save to try again.

Pathfinding can be problematic in this game. Some stairways and diagonal paths prove difficult for Les to enter by simply walking up to them. For example, in the hotel suite, it is not obvious at all that Les can enter the bathroom when the first effort to walk through the door does not allow him inside. However, you can "wiggle" Les through the doorway (using the arrow keys) to finally move him through. In another scene, it is painfully difficult to find the "just so" location near a hot tub for Les to make a key observation and perform a necessary task.

A particularly annoying bug occurs very early in the game. There, Les disappears off the bottom of the screen while finding his way to the front of a winding bus depot line. You can "reacquire" him easily enough by moving around, but he can only "exit" at this point from the very left side of the screen, where he takes a shortcut straight through the handrails. He can walk outside the depot onto the sidewalk, but such detour does not trigger the expected scene change. The only workaround is to restore from a previous game save and try again.

Perhaps my greatest criticism of this game is that Les' personality rarely seems to flavor the story or motivate his actions. There is just not much spice to entice. While the game itself manages occasionally to be witty, the humor comes more from the narration and comedic situations and less from Les himself. Supposedly, Les is compelled only by a couple of motives: the first is the beautiful Stella, and the second is the whopping million dollar payday, both of which will mean an end to his dead-end existence. Yet, these motives never really seem important to Les as the story plays out. With few exceptions, Les just does not show himself to be funny or even interesting as a character. Les is supposed to represent the "average" guy. However, the "average" guy probably has more to offer than this "two-dimensional" (pun intended) star of the show.

Overall, Les Manley in: Search for The King is a bit of a disappointment. The game is built on a fresh premise, but the overall experience of playing it is marred by a number of poor design decisions. However, the game still manages to provide a few laughs. It also has charm, owing to bright graphics and upbeat music. The game is fun at times, but it is not consistently enough to overcome its flaws.

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