Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
Video game publishers often do crazy things to promote their latest releases. In extreme cases this gets them into trouble with the law. Perhaps the most bizarre case of this occurred around the release of King’s Quest VI in 1992, when radio stations threatened to sue the video game company Sierra On-Line over a cheesy four-minute pop song called “Girl in the Tower.”
Featuring a male and female duet, “Girl in the Tower” was a love ballad written for the sixth installment of the King’s Quest franchise. It took place between the lead characters Prince Alexander and Princess Cassima and was an unexpected treat for those who managed to complete the notoriously difficult game. The piece was the work of Mark Seibert, the music director at Sierra On-Line (now Sierra Entertainment) at the time.
The vocal version of “Girl in the Tower” appeared exclusively on the CD-ROM edition of the game, while an instrumental version was present on floppy disk. This gave Sierra co-founder Ken Williams an idea. To make sure that all Sierra fans could hear the complete track and to drum up some additional publicity, Williams put a flyer with the request line phone numbers for various radio stations across North America in the game’s box. He also sent the same stations a copy of the CD and advertised the campaign in the winter 1992 issue of Sierra’s gaming magazine InterAction.
He hoped to get the song into the radio charts, though most DJs refused to play the track—despite interest from listeners. Their reasons for not playing it varied, but regardless, one fact remained: Sierra fans had inadvertently jammed stations’ phone lines by calling en masse. Some of these radio stations even threatened to sue Williams for the publicity stunt.
Speaking in 2003 on the Sierra Gamers Forum, Williams recounted: “I had the idea to try to get airplay for the Girl in the Tower—to see if I could get it to start showing up on radio bestseller charts. My vision was that if we could start getting momentum behind the game music on radio, then I could start a new category at music stores, for game music.
“We sold around 400,000 copies of King’s Quest VI the first week. Imagine 400,000 people calling radio stations at the same time to request the same song. Some played it—but, most just got angry and called me, or had their lawyers call me. We jammed the phone lines. Radio stations threatened to sue me. I don’t remember what crime they alleged that I committed, but in my opinion, the radio stations were the criminals for ignoring their customers—something I believe no business should ever do.”
In order to find out more, I decided to track down some callers who had requested the song in 1993. I searched through old Sierra forums and social media for references to the failed radio campaign. Two individuals eventually responded through Twitter to my request for more information. The first was the user @sdwolfpup. She says she attempted to get the song on the air in San Diego on B100.7, but was never successful. The other caller, Allan Simpson, had a similar story.
He shared with me how he’d requested the song with a friend: “On the list [of stations] was Champaign WLRW-FM 94.5, which is in Champaign, Illinois. We called the number, and asked to request Girl in the Tower. We both remember listening forever, waiting for the song to be played. They never played it.”
Talking on the subject today, Williams clarifies: “Radio stations were saying they were going to sue us and that we needed to stop immediately. Our gamers were flooding their lines. We did stop, but I remember thinking that the radio stations could not tell us to stop.”
Sierra was very much ahead of the curve when it came to promoting video game music. Investing in great musical talent like William Goldstein and Al Lowe, they predicted the important role music would come to play in building an enjoyable gaming experience. It was this mentality that led to the creation of “The Girl in the Tower.”
As work began on King’s Quest VI, Seibert had the bold idea of including an accompanying song to promote the game. This would be inspired by the slew of movie themes that had become popular in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. He ran this thought past Ken Williams and the game’s co-designer, Jane Jensen, who both accepted the proposal. Jensen agreed to write the lyrics, while Seibert worked on the composition of the song. Once all the pieces were in place, Bob Bergthold and Seibert’s wife Debbie were enlisted to sing.
In the liner notes to the Sierra Soundtrack collection, Seibert states: “Girl In The Tower was an idea I came up with when I found out that King’s Quest VI was going to be a love story between Alexander and Cassima. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to write a top-40 type love ballad to be sung as a duet. As I explored the possibilities, I found some of the motifs from the original Cassima theme worked well in this style.”
Elaborating on this in the present day, he explains: “I think I was just trying to capture the “Movie” feel for our games. So often at the theater I was hearing the ‘Single’ release during the closing credits and I thought—why not do this for one of our games?”
The resulting song was a deliberately over the top affair that now acts a time capsule to the popular tastes of the day. Beginning with a slow piano melody, it gradually picks up intensity throughout its duration, culminating in a collection of huge choruses.
While it may sound very much of the time to modern day listeners, it represented an earnest attempt by a large company to give video game music the respect it rightly deserves. This should not be sneered at or forgotten by a present day audience, even if it did get the company into a spot of bother.
RELATED: GND Weekly with Andrea Rene: Gaming from Prehistoric Times to the Apocalypse