It's easy to feel overwhelmed when browsing the list of 26 different commands in Fit for a King. Why are there so many actions, and what's the point of being able to ordain or bless someone? Then you experiment by Knighting a nearby dog and the whole thing starts to make sense.
Heavily inspired by Ultima 4, though notably more self-aware, Fit for a King is an unapologetically retro kaleidoscope of chaos. That dog you just made a knight of the realm? Well, you can marry it now. That envoy from a neighbouring kingdom? Off to the executioner's block with you. What about all the horses? Eject them. This is a horse-free kingdom now.
Increasingly, sandboxes are becoming open-worlds; Grand Theft Auto III was a sandbox filled with toys, whereas Grand Theft Auto V is a world full of activities. Sandboxes are about making your own fun with whatever is at your disposal, and that can come from player-defined goals as much as the actions themselves.
As Fit for a King content designer Tanya Short explains, "the openness of the text parser communicates that you can do whatever." Fit for a King has gone back to the time before context actions, delving deep into the old-school sensibilities of yesteryear, to conjure up a box of silly toys for you to play with
"Without that sense of player intentionality, that the player can actually intend to do something and then see the results, it's almost impossible to have a satisfying sandbox," continues Short, adding that "you need at least a few good verbs for a good sandbox."
Considering more contemporary open-ended games, Short says they are "much more like a theme park."
"You go there and see what will happen," she continues. "It's about exploring the space, and the world sort of reacts. It's more relaxing in a lot of ways, as you don't have to come up with a plan of action -- you can just sort of exist and enjoy. But you'll never get that feedback loop of satisfaction or subversion of what you were trying to do."
Fit for a King began life as a joke between Short and her partner Brent Ellison -- the primary creator and designer -- and is releasing on Steam today after around three years in development as an evening passion project. Short, who is CEO and co-founder of Kitfox Games by day, believes in the game and wants to see it succeed, but decided not to commit her company to it, partly in thanks to the success of Lovecraftian management-sim The Shrouded Isle, two years prior.
"Without that sense of player intentionality... it's almost impossible to have a satisfying sandbox"
Released in August 2017 thanks to a micro-publishing agreement with Kitfox, The Shrouded Isle exceeded all expectations. Kitfox provided a base level of hands-off support, like community development and booth space at PAX, and returned 80% of revenue to the developer. Although Short joined the development team as a writer, the agreement was engineered to help The Shrouded Isle succeed and profit, without drawing too heavily from either group's limited resources.
"Normally the problem with super niche projects like Shrouded Isle or Fit for a King, is that even though there may be thousands of people out there who like the game... how do they find you at all in the cacophony of Steam," Short says.
"Kitfox struggles with that for even our bigger projects. With Boyfriend Dungeon and Lucifer Within Us, we feel like we're climbing uphill all the time trying to reach the people who will love [those games]. But because we've invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into development, the stakes are much higher. So from my perspective as a business owner, these little micro-publishing projects are extremely low risk for the company, and extremely high potential gain for the developer."
As an old-school text parser, Fit for a King is the sort of game that almost couldn't exist at any other time than the current period of indie experimentation. That said, problems around discoverability don't appear to have improved much recently, with Steam still buckling beneath the weight of its uncurated catalogue, and the Epic Games Store offering exclusivity or nothing deals to indies.
"I admire Steam greatly for what they're trying to do," says Short. "I don't know if they will ever succeed, but it's a mountain that's worth trying to climb because it's really great to me to see a mega-corporation like Steam would invest in trying to help people find more different kinds of games. Because they don't have to do that... But they actually try to have people discover new games and try new things." It's currently a tough world out there for indie developers, and while oddities like Fit for a King likely have an audience, finding them is another question entirely. While micro-publishing arrangements offer opportunity and security for both parties, time will tell if they can forge a new path for indie developers with an experimental bent that struggle to breath in the crowded market.