Jane Jensen - Gabriel Knight 20th Anniversary Edition interview
After teasing us with news of a "Mystery Game X" for many long months, at last Jane Jensen has revealed her big secret: Two decades after the release of Sins of the Fathers, the legendary storyteller is rebooting the Gabriel Knight series with a remake of the highly-revered classic. Eager to learn more about the "20th Anniversary Edition" of the game, we caught up with Jane to dig a little deeper into the project, along with taking a nostalgic look back at her beloved Schattenjager's origin story.
Ingmar Böke: Hi Jane, thanks for taking some time for us. Well… the news is out. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sins of the Fathers, adventure fans worldwide will soon have the chance to get their hands on your re-imagining of the original game. It’s no secret you'd tried to get hold of the Gabriel Knight IP for years, but weren't able to until now. What happened in the meantime that made this game possible?
Jane Jensen: This project actually started being discussed during our Kickstarter in 2012. I was contacted by somebody at Activision who was an in-house person who was very interested in bringing back some of the Sierra titles. So we had started to discuss that, and it seemed like it might be a good time for him to raise that option at Activision, given some of the really visible Kickstarter campaigns, and the heightened awareness of the genre, and more of the Big Fish and Telltale titles on tablet, and so forth. So he started actively pursuing getting that project approved within Activision and ultimately was successful in getting it rolling.
Ingmar: Before the recent announcement, there had been a lot of speculation about the status of the game and its long period of silence. Anything you can tell us about the hard road this game had to go through?
Bayou St. John as it will appear in the Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition
Jane: Well, a lot of the process on the project is of course under NDA, but what I can tell you is yes, it has been a while since we really first mentioned this game during the Kickstarter in 2012 to get to this point now, which is that Pinkerton Road has secured the license for the game and will be doing it with our own team, Phoenix Online, which has been working on Moebius with us for the last year and a half. So we’re in good shape now to run to the finish line and get this project out there. I’m really happy with the people at Activision that have really lobbied and tried hard to push this game, to get it out, and to help us get the licensing deal. So I have nothing but good things to say about those people who helped make this happen, and I think at this point we’re on track to just get it done.
Ingmar: The anniversary version of GK1 features some new design and story elements. I know you're not ready to talk about them in detail just yet, but what can you tease us with to get your many fans talking in the meantime?
Jane: We’ll have some behind-the-scenes content and a few new elements in the game itself. One of the things I wanted to do, since we had a chance to do a remake, was to up the New Orleans flavor a bit. But yeah, we’ll be talking more about that later.
Ingmar: What can you tell us about the visual style of the new game, which obviously differs a lot from the pixel art of the original game?
The remake's high-resolution backgrounds will bring loads of new details to familiar locations like St. George's Books
Jane: The background scenes were created in 3D, and they’re in high-res, retina-resolution, which is 2048x1536. The original game backgrounds were 640x295, so it’s really quite a difference. And then our 3D scenes for the new game were painted over to give them a more custom look, as opposed to a 3D texture-y look. The amount of detail on them is just stunning; you can zoom in on Gabriel’s bookshop and see the details on the railings of the balcony and the dust motes in the air. I think the art is really, really stunning. We’ve released some screenshots, so you can make up your own mind about that.
Ingmar: "Atmosphere" is one of the key words that comes to mind when I try to describe the original Sins of the Fathers. Please talk about atmosphere in the re-imagined version and which tools you are using to create it.
Jane: The story is the same, obviously, and I think the story itself created a lot of that feeling of foreboding and dread that players experienced in the first game. For the art we definitely tried to stay true to the spirit of the original but since we have such better resolution, to work in a lot more New Orleans flavor and voodoo flavor where we could. One of the screenshots that we’re showing right away is St. Louis’ cemetery, and if you take a look at that I think you can get a feel for how much atmosphere is in that scene. And then in the live game we’ll also have real-time atmospherics too, such as candlelight or smoke or dust motes in the air. So hopefully it will still feel very atmospheric.
The Gedde family tomb as it appeared in 1993, and now—steeped in atmosphere
Ingmar: Personally, I don’t know any game with better voice acting than the first Sins of the Fathers. Since you’re using new voices this time, how hard is it to compete with the original game and in what ways do the new voice recordings differ from the version we know from '93? Anything you can tell us about the cast of the new recordings?
Jane: Well, in a way we can’t compete with the original game. We were not able to use the original recordings—we didn’t even have the original recordings, and the audio in the game itself was very compressed, so it was impossible to just strip that out. You know, we really don’t want to talk about the cast yet because we want to have some stuff to keep people interested along the way, until we ship. [laughs] So we’ll be revealing some of that stuff as we go along. But I can tell you that the voices were done with BA Sound, which is a really wonderful voice studio in California, and they’ve done a lot of the Telltale games like Tales of Monkey Island, Sam & Max, and The Walking Dead, which won awards for its voice work. And I was on site for the recordings, to sort of co-direct that, and I think they turned out really well. So, you know we will probably never quite compete with the original, but I think we’ve got a really solid, strong voice cast for this game.
Ingmar: Your husband Robert has contributed a re-orchestrated soundtrack to this game. Music has always been tremendously important for the GK series, so what can you tell us about Robert's recordings? Will there be any new pieces?
Jane: There were like 40 or 60 pieces of music in the first game, which is a lot! So I think right now—as far as I know—Robert isn’t doing any totally new pieces, but every one of those songs that was in the original game is being completely redone on his latest equipment, with totally new instrumentation and effects—it’s really amazing. We’ve released the main theme already so you’re able to hear what that sounds like, but the new music is going to be awesome. It’s a similar jump in quality to what we’re seeing with the art.
Ingmar: How involved are you with the production, and how is the work distributed between you and Phoenix Online?
Jane: Pinkerton Road is the publisher for the game; we’ve licensed the title from Activision, and Phoenix Online is the development team that we’re using. I’m acting as creative director and designer on the project, so I’ll be overseeing it all the way along. I mean, it’s my baby, and this new release is definitely my baby. So similarly to the way that Phoenix and I have worked together on Moebius, I’ll be overseeing the whole production. But it’s a very strong dev team and they’ve improved a ton, even over Moebius, so I’m very excited to be working on this project with them.
Ingmar: A while ago you indicated that the game might be episodic. Is that still the plan?
Jane: No, right now we are not planning to make the game episodic.
Ingmar: This industry has changed a lot since 1993. Even with all the fans of the original game, where do you see the audience for this new version?
Jane: Of course, we hope that the people who are existing fans of Gabriel Knight will purchase the game and help our sales, and be sort of our core “viral army” if you will, but, yeah, I definitely see a new market. On tablet there’s been a lot of success with the Telltale games and with Big Fish “lite” adventure games, so I think Gabriel Knight is a natural—it’s very story focused, so I think it’s a natural extension of those products. So we’re hoping to find a new market there, and a new generation of fans. Of course, the more that we can accomplish that, the more chance there is for the Gabriel Knight franchise to continue on into more games and a new generation.
Ingmar: How realistic is it for fans to hope that all of this might ultimately lead to production of GK4 somewhere in the future?
Jane at home on Pinkerton Road
Jane: Well, the fact is that this is the first time that I’ve been able to collaborate with the license holder on a Gabriel Knight game, which is really frickin’ huge for me [laughs], and I hope that the Gabriel Knight fans can recognize that that is an enormous accomplishment, in and of itself. Over the years, I went and tried to pitch a Gabriel Knight game at least three times to the various license-holders and didn’t have much luck with that. So just the fact that we’re [Pinkerton Road and Activision] collaborating and we’re making a project together is a big step forward. Of course, one of the points about doing a remake is to rejuvenate the Gabriel Knight name and the Gabriel Knight brand, the idea there being that if we’re successful with that, then we would have more titles, maybe even GK4 next. Hopefully we won’t completely f**k it up [laughs], and you know, if we get decent sales and decent reviews, I think there’s a good chance that we could move on to do GK4.
Ingmar: We can't talk about the new version of the game without having a look back at the history of the original, so let’s move on to that now. The initial question that comes to mind is how the main characters were born and what your original ideas for this new IP looked like.
Jane: At the time, which was like 1992, I had just finished co-designing King’s Quest VI with Roberta Williams. After that project, she suggested that I pitch my own game series to Sierra, which was wonderful and very supportive of her. I really wanted to do something that was a paranormal mystery because I figured that an investigation mystery would make for very natural gameplay and puzzles, and I’ve always sort of followed that theory since then. And I, at the time, just loved anything to do with the paranormal. Actually, believe it or not, that GK concept was just before X-Files came out. X-Files first hit in 1993 but it was after the GK design was written, so I guess it was just in the air that entertainment was moving toward the paranormal. Of course, now, everything is paranormal, right? Like True Blood and Twilight, and, god, everything.
So my first concept for it was to maybe do a professor who was a paranormal investigator, but that seemed too much like Indiana Jones, which at the time LucasArts was doing adventure games for. So I came up with the idea of a family who sort of had a legacy of fighting supernatural evil, and I’ve always been kind of fascinated by the Inquisition, so this was sort of modern day witch hunters and the conflict between wanting to hunt down evil—and is it really evil?—and getting into some of those issues. And then when I decided to do the voodoo, New Orleans plot, that really informed a lot of Gabriel’s initial personality that carried through the series.
Jane (back row, center) and the original Sins of the Fathers team
Ingmar: How did you come up with the idea to use voodoo and New Orleans as themes, and what did you do for research purposes?
Jane: Initially I had a couple ideas for the first game. I really wanted to do werewolves in Germany, which ended up of course being GK2, but when I started to think about telling a character’s origin story, I really wanted a plotline that had to do with him uncovering his family past, and this idea of them being these Schattenjagers or witch hunters, and that really leant itself to the voodoo and the New Orleans plot. I’m not sure why… I loved Angel Heart—it was one of my favorite movies—and I loved Anne Rice when I was in college and a lot of her stuff is set in New Orleans, so I just had this interest in it, and interest in voodoo that I wanted to explore in a story. As for research, at the time I wrote GK1, I had never been to New Orleans. I’ve been there since, but I really did all my voodoo and New Orleans research pretty much with books. Now everything I do is Googled, but at the time I actually called, like, a New Orleans bookstore and had them send me some picture books of New Orleans, and that’s pretty much how it happened.
Ingmar: Angel Heart, with Mickey Rourke and Robert de Niro, is an outstanding movie. How much of an impact did it leave on the story of Sins of the Fathers?
Jane: Yes, I loved Angel Heart at the time, and actually when we started working on this remake I watched it and had the team watch it; there’s just so many wonderful atmospheric effects in that movie. As for how it influenced the plot, I think just the fact that I really wanted to do a game in the setting of New Orleans and involving voodoo. I also love the movie The Serpent and the Rainbow, and that was influential as well.
Ingmar: When we met in London a few years back, you told me that GK1 was quite controversial when you originally pitched it to Sierra. Obviously it differed from all the other games from the company and Ken Williams was not too happy about the mature route you wanted to take. Please share your memories of that “conflict” and how you convinced Ken and the others to pull this project through.
Jane: Yeah, it’s true… I pitched Gabriel Knight after King’s Quest VI, and at that time there really weren’t any paranormal adventure games on the market. Sierra was doing, you know, King’s Quest, Space Quest, Larry, Hero’s Quest, and you think about some of the LucasArts games—Monkey Island, Indiana Jones—everything was humor-based. And when I pitched Gabriel Knight, Ken said he thought it was too dark, that people wanted to laugh when they played games and not be upset and scared. He said he’d let me do it, but he quote-unquote “wished I’d thought of something else” [laughs], which really caused a lot of self-doubt in me at the time because I was a new designer, and I was like, am I doing the wrong thing? Am I wasting my chance here?
Jane posing in front of Sins of the Fathers' iconic trapezoid box
But I decided to go ahead and go for it. I didn’t really have to convince Sierra to do it. I mean… the thing about Ken that I really admire was that he very much believed in the creative vision, so he wasn’t the one to step in and say “no, you can’t do that” or “I think that’s stupid.” He trusted me to have the vision for it, even if he wasn’t sure about it himself. So all the kudos in the world to Ken for the way that he managed that company.
Ingmar: What are some of your memories from the development of the original game?
Jane: This was twenty years ago, so I’m not sure if I remember all that much, but the team that we had was on the second floor of the Sierra building in Oakhurst. We were using the Sierra engine, of course, and I remember that we did have an engine revision right in the middle of the project; we were sort of forced to move to the new version, and that caused some real problems and delays, so that was pretty disruptive and scary. But I think probably the biggest memories I have of that first project are very long hours. We had I think a year from the time I started on design to ship on that game. I remember lying on the floor under my desk just, like, sleeping, because I was at the office for so many hours.
Jane with the original voice of Mosely, Mark Hamill, and two other Sierra employees
I also sat next to Robert Holmes on that project; he was the producer and composer on that project, and when we first started Gabriel Knight people did not know that we were dating, so that was kind of a big brouhaha when that news broke. I also loved the voiceover sessions; that was really my first time either meeting stars like that, celebrities like that, or really hearing my own writing being read by actors. By good actors. So I drove to LA for a lot of that, sat in the studio and listened to the director and the actors, and I was totally star struck meeting Tim Curry and Mark Hamill. And hearing them read my dialogue was just a real career highlight for me.
And then another memory I have is when they shipped the game, actually the day that it released—in those days they actually had things called “boxed products,” if you remember that [laughs]—and in the Sierra building there was a warehouse in the back of the building where they actually manufactured the games and put them in boxes and shipped them. And so the day that it first went on that assembly line, Robert and I and some of the team walked down, and there was a kind of a platform that overlooked the conveyor belts there, down in the factory, and we watched the first boxes going down that conveyor belt to be shrinkwrapped and put into shipping boxes, and you know, seeing that Gabriel Knight title there in that box on that conveyor belt, it was just… it was the first time I, as a writer, had ever had anything actually published that was completely my own, and it was just an incredible feeling to see that come off the assembly line.
Ingmar: Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead have recently had an enormous impact on story-based games. If you were making an all-new GK game now, what if anything would you do differently now than you would have in 1999? And what’s it like working on a remake of a 20-year-old game when the genre has changed so much since 1993?
The sacred chapel of Schloss Ritter
Jane: Moebius has been influenced by games like that, Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead, but Moebius was also to some extent defined by what our Kickstarter backers really wanted to see and what we promised during that campaign. So I would say the next game that we do will be even more influenced by games like that, in terms of our approach to adventure game design. For GK1, it’s just such a classic that you really can’t mess with it too much. You know, we’re trying to balance staying true to the original game and the fans, for the purposes of nostalgia and also just not to mess with a formula that worked, with making it as playable as possible on newer devices like tablets. I anticipate that as we really get to do some playtesting and watch others play it, we will do some tweaking, but I’m aware that people want to see the game they know and love, and so it probably will not change all that much.
Ingmar: Thanks a lot for taking time for this interview, Jane. We wish you lots of success with the anniversary edition of Sins of the Fathers. All the best!
Jane: You’re very welcome! Thanks so much for covering the game on Adventure Gamers.