At this year's E3, Jane Jensen announced that she would -- through a partnership with The Adventure Company -- develop a new adventure game series, codenamed Project Jane-J. Due sometime towards the end of 2004, the new work in some ways echoes Jensen's previous magnum opus: the Gabriel Knight series.
The Gabriel Knight mysteries were released over a period of seven years, from 1993 to 1999, a volatile period in Sierra's history. When Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was released, the company was still producing 2-D adventure games. The Beast Within appeared in 1995, during gaming's passionate but short-lived flirtation with Full Motion Video. When Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned was published in 1999, gaming had moved onto 3-D rendered graphics. At each step, the series embraced the new technology available, while remaining true to its characters, its storyline, and its adventure game roots.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Sierra. Though the game engendered a passionate following in players, there has been no hint of further sequels; a shame, considering that the third volume left many interesting questions unanswered. During her last serious talks with Sierra in 2002, just before the Vivendi buyout, Jensen felt the series' chances were slim. As time goes by, it seems less and less likely that we will ever see a Gabriel Knight 4.
As Ms. Jensen returns to the craft of adventure games, it seems fitting to look back at what I would consider her best work to date.
Jane Jensen began her collaboration with Sierra On-Line when she was hired as a staff writer in 1990, spurred by an obsession with adventure games and her dissatisfaction with the work she'd been doing as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard. Shortly after, she got her first real experience in game design working on Ecoquest I.
Her next project paired her with one of the grande dames of adventure gaming -- Roberta Williams, creator of the King's Quest series of games and co-founder of Sierra On-Line. Together they produced King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, thought by many to be the best game in the entire series.
Jensen is credited as co-author on KQVI and her touch and sensibility throughout the work are obvious. The story follows Prince Alexander as he journeys through the Land of the Green Isles in search of Princess Cassima, the woman he loves. The isles themselves are wonderfully developed with a complete history, told in the game's accompanying guidebook. The game also expanded what
was expected of the player while still keeping a streamlined interface. There was a "minimal" path the player could take -- basically leading to an unhappy ending -- but also a more complex, hidden one. Following the second path was worth the thought and effort required, as it led to a much more satisfying ending.
Both of these qualities -- an intriguing well-researched back story for the game to take place in and complex puzzles that could lead to multiple outcomes -- would appear in Jensen's first solo effort, the Gabriel Knight series.
Over the next few weeks, we'll look in depth at each episode of the series; however, all of them share certain qualities in common. They follow the adventures of Gabriel Knight, an American-born author who, over the course of the games, discovers his family's heritage as soldiers of light who stand against the darkness, hunters of shadows, Schattenjagers.
Gabriel, however, hardly fits the stereotype of the Conquering Hero. He's a rogue and a womanizer, selfish and self-involved. His attitude is that the end justifies the means. Set opposite to Gabriel is Grace Nakamura, his witty and self-assured assistant who believes it her sacred duty to puncture the bloated balloon of Gabriel's ego whenever possible.
Together, Gabriel and Grace tackle strange cases of historical, supernatural mysteries in which the past of the evil they face is as important as the present -- each of them representing one of the major thrusts of the narrative and puzzles.
Gabriel, in his nearsighted way, tends to focus only on the case at hand: suspects he can actually tail, or evidence he can illegally wrest from crime scenes. Grace takes the larger view, digging through archival evidence for clues in past cases, finding where history overlaps with the world around her. These two lines of investigation, historical and modern, drive both the characters and the story. Each game becomes a series of smaller mysteries presented to the player to unravel, layers upon layers peeling away to reveal the final solution.
The series appeared when Sierra's popularity was at its height, the first game being one of the last (and perhaps the best) productions done in the old 2-D format. It continued for six years -- through two generations of technological advancement -- to the "death" of the adventure game genre. During all of that time, it never lost sight of the complex, mature approach it brought to gaming -- the idea that an art form as young as the computer game could still provide a powerful, emotionally involving tale. For all of these reasons, the series is a major milestone in the history of adventure games.
The Gabriel Knight Mysteries seem to have come, for all intents and purposes, to an end. The final episode leaves several important questions open about Grace and Gabriel's relationship and future even as it finally reveals the source of the Schattenjager heritage. However, even without a definite conclusion, these three stories represent some of the best adventure games ever created. Deep and rich, they not only contain fascinating stories, but logical and intriguing puzzles that pull the player into Gabriel's world.
This series of reviews is both an attempt to understand what made the series so great, as well as a fervent hope that Jane Jensen will bring her sensibility of history, world-building, and layered narrative to her upcoming project.
(When originally posted, this article kicked off a week of Gabriel Knight reviews. You can still find them in the reviews index.)