Looking to the Past
During the ’80s and ’90s, Sierra Online was a pioneer and major player in the computer software market, particularly in the graphic adventure genre. They introduced important innovations to adventure games, which had been purely text-based experiences with parser interfaces until then. Sierra introduced actual graphics to the genre – primitive and crude line drawings at first, and more elaborate as time went on, culminating in cutting edge full-motion video and early 3D graphics. Later, they helped to replace text interfaces with point-and-click controlled games.
Sierra employed teams of talented programmers, artists, and designers, who created many long-running, award-winning franchises, such as the bestselling King’s Quest series, the popular adult humor Leisure Suit Larry series, and the shorter lived horror series Phantasmagoria. But standing head and shoulders above them all – due to outstanding characters, emotional and well-written stories, and memorable performances by its cast, were designer Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight games.
The Nature of the Beast
Published from 1993 to 1999, the Gabriel Knight trilogy are incredibly gothic adventures, with all the old-school pixel hunting and inventory-item-combining that we came to love during that period. Gabriel himself, during the course of the first game, comes to learn about his family’s historically long-running role of Schattenjäger, or Shadow Hunter, and as such it falls to him to seek out and destroy supernatural evil.
Each game dealt with a different occult theme: Sins of the Fathers focused on slowly revealing Gabriel’s destiny to him and the player, all while being entangled in an active voodoo cult in modern-day New Orleans. The Beast Within saw Gabriel investigate a spree of vicious murders and mutilations in Bavaria, and ultimately infiltrating the inner circles of a pack of werewolves who had been around for centuries. The third installment, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, centered on the kidnapping of a royal heir to the throne and facing down a horde of vampires in the bargain.
Even though a quick summation of the games’ plots makes them sound fairly campy, their popularity came from the mature themes Jensen integrated throughout the stories, and from the fact that they were presented as serious games, never as shlock-value or tongue-in-cheek. There are strong themes of friendship, loyalty, and love, that run particularly through the first two games. There are complicated relationships between the heroes, Gabriel and his research assistant Grace, and the “villains” of the games. The lines between good and evil are blurred a little, as Jensen imbued even the antagonists with charm and likeable personalities.
Gabriel is at best a hunk, and at worst a womanizer of sorts, but he too is portrayed with charm and good humor. He has strong ties his detective friend Mosely and Grace, the latter of which at times flirts with becoming something more than just a partnership. But his bonds with Malia Gedde in Sins and Baron Friedrich Von Glower in Beast made for some of the most memorable character interactions and developments to be found in adventure gaming.
While the first GK title didn’t delve into too much history (rather providing much local New Orleans-style voodoo flare), the second and third games of the series saw Jensen take a much heavier approach to integrating historical themes into the narrative of her game.
In The Beast Within, the legend and mysterious death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the works of composer Richard Wagner not only played a part of the story, but were vitally tied to the finale of the story. The game’s use of full-motion video and CD-quality sound meant that players were getting the real thing – actual images shot on location in Munich, and actual Wagner-inspired classical opera music. Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned wove historical themes and pieces of the myths surrounding the Knights Templar and Freemasons well before Dan Brown became famous for doing so.
Apart from compelling and ambitious stories, the Gabriel Knight games were also memorable for the many talented performances it brought to the table. Sins and Blood were both animated games, supplying much well-known voice talent, like the inimitable Tim Curry in the title role, and Mark Hamill as Mosely. Also present were actors like Leah Remini, Michael Dorn, Leilani Jones, Dorian Harewood, Jennifer Hale, Simon Templeman, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. The live-action Beast also offered great performances from leading men Dean Erickson and Peter Lucas, with Joanne Takahashi as Grace. While the names may or may not be immediately recognizable, their performances remain unforgettable to players familiar with the games.
Looking to the Future
Towards the late ’90s, adventure games were on the decline in popularity, and Sierra was putting its focus into other areas by the end of the decade. It didn’t help that the third Gabriel Knight received the lowest rating of the series (certainly not bad, but lower than the others). It was announced that there were to be no further games developed in the series. Jensen went on a bit of a hiatus from videogame design, focusing instead on writing.
However, the old-school adventure game has made something of a retro comeback in recent years. There is still a love for these types of games, and many of us fondly remember classic series like this. With Jensen helming the recent mystery adventure title Gray Matter, the stars are all perfectly aligned for a possible return of the supernatural detective; as someone who owns both of the Jensen-penned Gabriel Knight novelizations and even produced a bit of GK-themed fan fiction myself, I for one am eagerly awaiting a comeback, silver bullets and garlic cloves at the ready.