Where this rough beast still abides: a retrospective of the Gabriel Knight series

Posted by Ingrid Heyn.
First posted on 19 January 2008. Last updated on 05 June 2011.
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Where this rough beast still abides: a retrospective of the Gabriel Knight series
This is an advertisement created by Sierra On-Line for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, circa 1993.
Where this rough beast still abides: a retrospective of the Gabriel Knight series
This is an advertisement created by Sierra On-Line for The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, circa 1995.
Where this rough beast still abides: a retrospective of the Gabriel Knight series
This is an advertisement created by Sierra On-Line for Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, circa 1999.

For more information, visit The Gabriel Knight 4 Campaign.

Unexplained deaths. A bizarre murder case going nowhere. A voodoo connection. A cocky too-charming-for-his-own-good writer struggling with an as-yet-unfinished mystery novel based on the voodoo murders. A haunting dream of guilt and blood. Old family mysteries and unwritten histories. Chill with ice...

It's intriguing enough to hook a great many readers as the plot of a book. It's just edgy enough to play to the mature, and just sufficiently imbued with classic mystery to appeal to everyone who's ever imagined being in the place of Poirot, Holmes, Colombo, Maigret... all of the great detectives of fiction and screen.

Yet, could it work as an adventure game?

Sins of the Fathers

Yes—it worked as an adventure game. It worked so well that Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers took the market and the critics by storm when it was released in 1993. The game won numerous awards and accolades from the industry. It also confirmed game designer Jane Jensen as a major talent.

Jane Jensen had done some previous work with Sierra On-Line before Gabriel Knight. She'd helped with the development of EcoQuest, Pepper's Adventures in Time, and Police Quest 3: The Kindred. Her first taste of actually designing and writing a major computer game, though, came with King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, which she co-designed with Roberta Williams. It was widely considered as among the best computer adventure game ever made. Its strengths were a tightly written and entirely captivating storyline, extremely well-integrated puzzles, and a brilliantly conceived choice of different possible endings, along with beautiful graphics for its time and a truly gorgeous music score.

Those elements have been carried over into Jane Jensen's other works, making her a standout among the elites of game designers. She clearly does not consider beautiful and effective writing an optional extra for games; she considers it the essential heart of an adventure game. Her legions of fans demonstrate that she's not alone in considering the narrative to be the intrinsic center of a good adventure game.

In 1993, most adventure games were using a traditional point-and-click interface (which now gives a charming or maddening retro-feel). This game was no exception in this regard, but with a look that was different. The difference came from the strong influence of graphic novels in the starkly black-and-red emphasis—blood, mystery, darkness, night, dreams, cries—and then the plunge into a more traditional look carried the story forward. The cut-scenes were remarkable for their use of graphic elements, showing the reactions between different characters from a chosen frame to the next.

The end result was a look that was highly artistic and often very warmly coloured, using the full 256-colour palette to full advantage on pre-rendered backgrounds. There seemed no sense of limit in the clever use of the 2D interface. It gave an ambience of both the real and the unreal, and the beautifully hand-drawn artwork was highly appealing. The perfect match to this look was the dramatic and almost narrative drive of the music by Robert Holmes (husband to Jane Jensen), from music which echoed with the sombre awe of the Cathedral of the New Orleans square to the throbbing animalistic ritual beat of the secret meetings in the swamp. The CD-ROM version of the game even included voiceover dialog, provided by the incredibly versatile Tim Curry, the well-loved Mark Hamill (of Star War fame), and the talented Michael Dorn (of Star Trek fame).

The interface, the graphics, the music—these were the elements that helped to add the depth to the story itself. Yet, it was the story itself which made Gabriel Knight the phenomenon that it had become.

The characters—the seductively drawling Gabriel Knight, the smart and delicately pretty Grace Nakimura (bookshop assistant), the wealthy and alluring Malia Gedde with whom Gabe becomes involved, the dogged Detective Mosely (of NAPD) whose friendship with Gabe doesn't prevent the latter from "borrowing" his credit card when needs must, the enigmatic and impressively large Dr. John (in charge of the Voodoo Museum) whose liking for pet snakes isn't the only weird thing about him, and a host of other characters—are not sketchy and flat. The dialog is snappy, sometimes funny, sometimes grim, but always fascinating. The inexorable drive forward as Gabe involves himself in the unsolved murders is chilling, as is the realisation that there is a family legacy which must emerge from the shadows, with the help of a mystery relative unknown to Gabe.

The blend of the natural and the supernatural, combining old history with mythology and a very real sense of that old history impacting on the personal lives of several of the characters (but upon Gabe in particular) was unique, and the story left many questions unanswered (as all the best stories do). Fans soon sensed that they had stumbled upon the beginning of something immensely big, something of which they had only seen the very tip. After the cataclysmic finale, gamers were drawn into the world of Gabriel Knight.

In the end, the story worked superbly as narrative. Sombre and gripping, with despair and hope combining like the interplay of lamplight with the dark shadows of the night, it was not a game that would soon depart from any gamer's thoughts.

The Beast Within

It's no surprise that Jane Jensen was soon asked to begin work on a second game for the newly found series, and it's no surprise that anticipation was reaching fever pitch by the time of the game's release.

The same sense of the supernatural mingled with reality was to be evident in the sequel. The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery would focus on a different creature than a possessing vengeful spirit, but the legacy of the Ritter family would continue to unfold as events forced the narrative to roll forward.

This time, knowing it had something remarkable on its hands, the development team wanted this game to be something equally remarkable on the technological front. FMV (Full Motion Video) had first been used in 1983 by the classic arcade game Dragon's Lair, but its initial use was limited to action styled gameplay. Clearly, the use of pre-recorded animation of film quality offered an exciting possibility for realism within a game, but in general the early adoption of FMV in video games had been disappointing. Phantasmagoria, Sierra On-Line's first game to use its own proprietary FMV format called VMD (Video and Music Data), entailed many weeks of bluescreen filming for the main character alone. It promised to be something hitherto untapped in the same way in computer games, and it was immediately decided that the Gabriel Knight sequel would adapt the same technology.

Not only was a full cast of actors hired to play the characters of the game (endlessly having their scenes shot in front of a bluescreen), but the crew (as directed by Jane Jensen's vision) also took shot after shot of real locations in Germany where the plot would play out. These photographs were then used by the artists to create some of the most stunning backgrounds ever crafted for a computer adventure game. The look was detailed, elegant, almost palpable, and indeed very beautiful. Both the interiors and exteriors were created with loving care—the blue-tinged forest of the night, the dirt-encrusted cave, the elegantly sweeping staircase, the richly luxurious interior of the hunting lodge, the amazingly beautiful castle of Neuschwanstein, the sombre style of the opera house—all of them done with meticulous attention to texture, perspective, shadow, depth, and detail. Adding to that was the pre-recorded video of the cast acting out all the possible actions of the game's narrative, and something very special was bound to eventuate, but only if the story was as good as that of the first game.

It was.

In fact, for some fans, the game represented the best game of the entire series.

The story leads quite naturally from the ending of the first game, to place Gabriel Knight in Germany where he begins to learn what the responsibilities of his family legacy impose upon him. From the disturbing disappearance of a baby unfolds a tale that combines present terror with past horrors. The past is not dead. It has waited, carrying with it an old curse that cannot be dispelled by anyone but him—a Schattenjäger. Even King Ludwig (in a fictional account of a real historic figure) proves to be an important aspect of the game's story, for he rests uneasily...

From Schloss Ritter in Germany to King Ludwig's outrageously beautiful castle in Bavaria, the action follows an increasingly frightening spectre of possibility. Here are beasts... and never more powerfully has the humanity of man been so evident when it must live side by side by the inner monster.

The game was remarkable for its characters and for the way in which it could evoke some degree of (often reluctant) sympathy for all those whom Gabriel must destroy. Once again, the historical blended with the mythological. History was retold in the fine hands of Jane Jensen in such a way that it was nearly impossible to tell where real history ended and her imagination began. It was seamless and utterly riveting.

The directing by Will Binder was cohesive, lyrical, and almost symphonic in the attention to detail of the incredible array of elements that made up the film-like quality of the game.

The music was, once again, a feature of the game, and more so than ever before. Robert Holmes was again called on to compose considerable portions of a "lost" Wagner opera, which would play a pivotal role in the narrative. Brooding and evocative, the music of the game helped to add to the patina of fascination which the game imparted.

The game was not without criticism. Some critics claimed that the standard of the acting was not always as high as it could be. In part, this might have been due to the huge requirements placed on the actors, each of whom had to cope with multiple possibilities in the story because this was a game, not a film, and the game could move in several different directions, depending upon the choices of the player. Not only was the volume of acting intense, but the fact that it was virtually all done in front of a bluescreen would have been an enormous strain. However, most fans felt that the acting increased in conviction as the story progressed, possibly due to the actors finding that the coming resolution gave their acting a cohesive center towards which the narrative was driving.

Released in 1995, the game created an uproar of public approval as well as critical acclaims. The story and its development within the overall framework of the game made it a very worthy successor in the Gabriel Knight series, and the high volume sales ensured that it was a financial as well as an artistic success. It quickly garnered a host of awards and accolades from the industry.

Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned

It was inevitable that there would be a third game in the Gabriel Knight series, but its development turned out, in many respects, to be a nightmare. These developed from an initially poorly designed engine; for Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, the SCI engine had been entirely ditched and the team was expected to create, from scratch, a new 3D engine for the game (called GEngine). While this engine was in development, vertex-based graphics were already being created, and this would prove a thorny problem as the game engine had to be entirely redesigned. Cyclone-swift staff turnover was just another symptom of the increasing problems that stemmed from using badly designed elements which, when bugs developed, were patched up instead of fixed at the source. The game cost more than double its initial budget, and took almost 3 years to complete (1 year past its projected release date). Yet, in spite of the technical difficulties, the game had an opulently splendid storyline that used elements from the Rennes-le-Château mythology to create a heart-shaking denouement that would leave few gamers unmoved.

Jane Jensen's storytelling seemed to grow exponentially with each new game in the series. Basing her plot somewhat upon the book "The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail", she crafted a unique story upon what's now a well-known and somewhat timeworn theme. This was where Jane Jensen's genius lay, in her gift in giving her narrative unique qualities.

The game's story has Gabriel and Grace accepting an invitation from Prince James Stewart and his wife Princess Patricia of Albany, but it is an invitation which turns out to be not entirely social in scope. A Schattenjäger may be Prince James' only hope to protect his family, for his infant son, Charlie, is in possible danger by mysterious "night visitors", who may be vampires...

A frantic chase after a kidnapping leads the trail to Languedoc, close to the isolated village of Rennes-le-Château, and it is here that the story becomes unimaginably bigger. For what is to come is not only the mystery of the strangely wealthy priest of the last century, but a much older mystery, and something much more awe-inspiring that relates to the Ritter family's own history.

In this game, the player was given unprecedented freedom, not merely with the possibilities offered by the 3D engine, but also with the nonlinear (within a linear framework) aspects of the game. Some critics complained that the game contained puzzles that simply pushed the adventure game genre's notorious reliance upon unrealistic solutions too far (cat hair, anyone?), and others claimed that the final sequence was too action-based. Yet, the game had much impressive strength. The narrative's sumptuous drama was matched by the modeling. The story was given exceptionally lovely backgrounds, all based on real locations. The interior of the Ste. Marie Madeleine (the village church which played so significant a part in the narrative) was splendidly recreated graphically within the game, and the admiration for the work of the entire development team was enormous upon the realisation that, with the player being given control of the game's camera, every location had to stand up to scrutiny from east to west, from foreground to background... because the player could go behind the scenes anytime rather than stay focused on the action happening immediately in front.

The music, composed by David Henry and Robert Holmes (the latter was the Main Themes Composer), once again provided a superb undercurrent and colouring of the entire game. The sense of series cohesion between the games was due at least partly to the consistent musical treatment as well as the strong narrative connection, each time surviving the different approach taken to the game's visual look and interface.

An excellent cast gave voice to the myriad characters of the game, including Tim Curry who reprised his role as Gabriel, Charity James (Grace), Samantha Eggar (Lady Howard), and René Auberjonois (Bigout / taxi driver).

Once again, the game won acclaims and awards from the industry that made it a critical stand-out. Yet, in spite of its overall success (a success that admittedly was not as overwhelmingly instant, commercially speaking), and the increasing clamour of fans for another sequel to answer those hauntingly unanswered questions raised in the third game, a fourth game in the Gabriel Knight series had not (yet) eventuated.

Gabriel Knight 4?

It's undeniable this is at least partly due to the problems faced by the last game, such as massive over-budget, significant release date delay, poor marketing, and the cry of doomsayers that "adventure games are dead". Adding to that are the current increased interest in games from other genres and the cost it takes to produce a cutting-edge adventure game nowadays, and it is easy to see that adventure games are facing, in North America (at least), a wall of inertia.

Are adventure games dead? Judging by the continued production of adventure games in Europe (for instance), the answer is no. Interest by fans of the genre continues to remain high, in spite of incredibly vociferous disparagement by those who prefer other genres. For example, Jane Jensen's forthcoming Gray Matter, to be published by Anaconda in 2008, is feverishly awaited by fans everywhere.

Still, adventure games are without a doubt facing enormous pressures. The easy money is certainly in the various other genres, games of which are being produced with monotonous regularity like sausages on a do-it-yourself-hotdog assembly line. So far, the major publishers in North America who can provide the resources and marketing for the next big adventure game are not biting with any certainty, although it's rumored that there have been serious discussions about a new Gabriel Knight sequel over the past years.

Where these discussions will go is a moot point. It seems incredible that the storyline of Gabriel Knight hasn't been snapped up for further development in a new adventure game, with Jane Jenson at the helm and her unique blend of history, myth, mystery, and the supernatural. Perhaps there is no better designer who can create a game to focus on precisely those superbly blended elements as Jane Jensen can. Can there be a better topic? A better time? A better opportunity?

There is also a growing interest among gamers in that essential element of story. Too many games today have derivative stories that are mere extras on which to base the game's action, whereas real stories, written by real storytellers (not just those who think they can write), actually touch the gamers. They lodge in the heart; they offer rich images, powerful characters, abiding moments that sustain. That is what Jane Jensen can deliver, and that is why the future of the adventure genre almost certainly depends on her.

A campaign (The Gabriel Knight 4 Campaign) to promote awareness of the Gabriel Knight series and to encourage Vivendi Universal to revive the series has been underway for over a year, with contributions in creativity and support pouring in from fans all over the world. The continuing interest, the multilingual support (the result of translations offered up freely by fans of the series) and the increasing support by new visitors all show that the interest in Gabriel Knight as a series continues to be very high indeed.

Certainly, Jane Jensen is ready for any such development. She has said that she has at least 2 storylines already developed for a possible fourth game for the series. If this is to eventuate, then fans will finally have those earth-shattering questions answered and will finally be able to delve once more into the strange, mysterious, richly rewarding depths of the world of Gabriel Knight.

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