First posted on 22 June 2003. Last updated on 26 November 2010.
Among the contemporaries in interaction fiction, Jane Jensen is a person who needs no introduction. As the designer of the famed Gabriel Knight series, she has won both critical acclaims from the game industry and legions of adventure game fans. A BA graduate in Computer Science from Anderson University in Indiana, she has initially worked as a systems programmer for Hewlett-Packard before her love of writing and gaming has led her to work at Sierra On-Line. With the success of Gabriel Knight, Jensen has later novelized the first and second of her trilogy games into books. In 1999, Jensen publishes her first original novel called Millennium Rising (later retitled Judgment Day). For the last 4 years, she has focused on her fourth book, Dante's Equation, which is scheduled to be released in July 2003 by Del Rey in the US and by Little Brown in the UK. We are privileged to have this exclusive interview with the author and game designer extraordinaire. In the interview, Jensen speaks of her past relationship with Sierra On-Line, her thoughts on the current state of adventure games, her new novel Dante's Equation, and her secretive Project Jane-J with The Adventure Company.
- You started with Sierra in 1991 and have been in the gaming industry off and on for 12 years now. What changes have you seen in the industry between now and then?
- In 1991 PCs were still hobbyist machines and slow enough so that they couldn't run arcades and action games. Both the PC and the console market have grown to be normal household items and that has a big effect on the types of games that are offered.
- Sierra was the pre-eminent adventure game developer and publisher from the mid 1980s until the late 1990s. What do you think caused the downfall of Sierra?
- Not being involved in the business decisions Sierra made, I can't give any deep insight. But the company really changed when Ken and Roberta left. They had the original vision for the company and it just wasn't Sierra anymore when someone new took over management.
- When you were working on the Gabriel Knight series, did you write the games with the intention of turning them into novels, or did those come about as a result of the success of the games? In either case, what were the challenges you faced bringing Gabriel Knight from one medium to the other?
- I didn't think about novels when I designed GK1. After the game came out and I got great feedback on the story I thought - well, I've always wanted to be a novelist, maybe I could start with a story I know works. The first GK novel was not the best thing I've ever done simply because I wasn't sure at the time how much of the 'game' to take out of it. And I had written the dialog once so I figured why rewrite it? For the GK2 novel I just threw the whole idea of the game away and told the story again from scratch. That worked much better.
- Here is the oft-asked and much dreaded question. Is the adventure genre dead or dying? Do you believe that hybrid games (such as action/adventure or role-playing/adventure games) represent the evolution of the adventure genre?
- No, I'm not a believer in hybrid games. What I do believe is that the young male audience is not the target audience for adventure games and that's why they have not done well in the hard-core gaming market. I get a lot of letters from women and older people who want a great story, a beautiful environment to explore, and who hate shooters and 'twitch' games - this is the adventure game audience and fortunately the number of this demographic playing games has been growing steadily.
- What do you think is the reason for the apparent lack of females in the gaming industry — you and Roberta Williams being the two standout exceptions? Have you seen a change of this gender gap in the industry over the past decade?
- I think the bulk of games are made by guys for guys. Most women (and I say most with full knowledge of the fact that there are exceptions) do not like to play shooters or RPG games. If you don't like to play something you're not going to end up designing it. Adventure games have always been an exception in the industry. We had many female designers at Sierra. Besides myself and Roberta there was Lori Cole, Lorelei Shannon, Christie Marx, Gano Haine... That sounds a lot more remarkable now than we realized at the time!
- Congratulations on your upcoming novel Dante's Equation. Can you give us a sneak peek about the story? What inspired you to write this book?
- There's quite a bit of material about it on my website (www.janejensen.com). None of my stories are ever explainable in a paragraph or less, but I'll give it a shot. One of the things that has come up in several of my other stories is the idea of the material world, the universe, being like a hologram — that everything is just energy waves and that we experience this energy as being 'projected' into 3D. Dante's Equation delves into the concept directly. It's about the discovery of a mathematical proof (the Equation of the book's title) of this energy concept. Along with this proof comes the discovery of a universal wave that turns out to be a physical law of good and evil, the creative and destructive impulse in all things. The discovery of this law could enable the production of some major nasty weapons so, naturally, everyone wants it.
Anyway, the novel is probably the most personal that I've written because it deals very directly with my own beliefs and philosophies - that good stuff and bad stuff go hand in hand in life and are deeply a part of the very fabric of life. Nothing's perfect but, you know, nothing's ever complete shit either. The book's a thriller but it has some heavy sci-fi elements.
- Your past works, including the last novel Millennium Rising, often have a heavy religious or philosophical undertone. Is this an accurate observation? Why do religion and philosophy interest you as a writer?
- As you can tell from the above, Dante's Equation also has these elements. In fact, I developed a whole cosmology for this book. Why does it interest me? Well, that's what all the BIG questions are about - Who are we? Why are we here? Why do bad things happen? Whose fault it is? What happens when we die? Religion and philosophy try to answer these questions, and the occult is as well. I guess I must be trying to also, at least for myself, because these are the subjects I obsess over time and again.
- How long did it take you to write Dante's Equation? Can you summarize for us the development process?
- I spent three years on it full-time and about a year prior to that on it part-time while I was finishing GK3. It was the hardest project I've ever done. It required a great deal of research in both the sciences and in kabbalah, which is heavily used in the book. Since I'm not a science person at heart the physics was a challenge. And the structure of the book was difficult. It has more sci-fi elements than I've ever done before and writing that kind of thing does not come easily for me. The novel underwent two major rewrites before both myself and the publisher were happy with it.
- One of the biggest announcements made at the E3 2003 is Project Jane-J from The Adventure Company. Can you tell us a bit about this "secretive" project?
- There's not a lot I can say other than what's already been printed in several interviews. It's a full-bore adventure game but I am trying to take a fresh approach. It will be an investigative mystery series like GK, but the cases revolve around the power of the mind and real PSI research and neurobiology.
- How far are you along in the development of the first title in this new series? How would you classify this game — a pure or hybrid (e.g., action/adventure) adventure title?
- I'm close to being done with the bible, which is the hardest part for me. That's the 'pulling things out of thin air' stage. The bible has the complete story scene by scene, the core puzzles and the overall gameplay style and philosophy are set. We are just putting a team together now and I'm really anxious to get into full production. It's going to be very fun and exciting for me. I've missed working with a team.
- How did your new venture with The Adventure Company come about? Were you actively seeking a new company to do games with, or were you approached by the company to work with them on a new series of adventure games?
- We (myself and my two business partners at Odyssey) were actively seeking a publisher for a new adventure game. We met with several publishers but The Adventure Company was the one that really clicked. They have great people and really understand and target the alternative audience.
- What advice (do's and don't's) can you give to our readers who are also inspired writers and game designers?
- The best way to become a designer is to work your way up inside a game company. I'd suggest studying as either a graphic artist or a programmer (depending on your skill set) and starting at a game company in that position, then building up your experience and reputation in house.
- What do you see do five years from now?
- I will definitely be focusing on games for the coming 2-3 years at least. But I do hope to do more novels eventually.
- Thank you, Jane, for giving us this exclusive interview. We look forward to reading your new novel Dante's Equation and hearing more news about Project Jane-J.
- Thank you!