Horror adventures are still few and far between. Convincingly chilling forays into the psychological monsters and physical threats of danger that are hallmarks of the genre are not often as visited as this week’s flavor du jour in FPS games. And that was still something of a problem back in the early nineties.
But Jane Jensen wanted to change that, innovating not only one of Sierra Entertainment’s most memorable titles, but establishing a remarkable standard in adventure games that titles today have difficulty reaching.
Released in 1993 on disk and later, CD-ROM with Tim Curry voicing the protagonist alongside a crew of stellar talent, Gabriel Knight was a mature, horror-inspired, adventure game that made no apologies for its subject matter. Nothing was dumbed down in this game. It treated players like adults because that’s who it was meant for. It was one of those mighty titles that pushed boundaries in a pre-ESRB world and made no apologies for it.
Gabriel Knight owns a store selling rare books and is hoping to write his own detective novel, though things could be better. Grace Nakamura is his assistant and erstwhile love interest, though he often uses her as a gopher for the things he needs to research for the story he’s writing. Before long, he soon becomes interested in a series of voodoo murders that have New Orleans worried and dives into the cases for inspiration.
Knight isn’t a nice guy. He speaks what’s on his mind, plays with innuendos when he can, is willing to use people to get what he wants, but at his heart, just wants to write his book and become famous. That’s not to say he’s a complete asshole. As the story moves along, layers of his personality slowly peel back as he is forced to confront his destiny as the last Schattenjager of his family — “shadow hunters” who seek out evil to destroy it. He’s the reluctant hero, the everyman who just wants to do what he wants, and foisted on top of his life is this destiny that he’s eventually made to acknowledge.
And that’s what makes him such a “real” person to many of the critics that have played the game. He’s not the “promised one” or comes off as an ass just to be one — he’s an ordinary, flawed guy who sees an opportunity to help advance his fortunes, and his character is challenged when something greater is eventually dropped into his lap. And he’s not the only character that comes off as if they were lifted from the streets and dropped right into the virtual world of New Orleans.
The gameplay divides the events over the course of several days. As Gabriel manages to tackle that day’s mysteries, it moves on to the next in a chase to find out just what is going on with each murder and where they are leading to. During each one, Gabriel is free to journey about and quiz characters as well as do a little research on his own.
Jensen has also gifted the game with an amazing breadth of dialogue the picks at each character as well as the story’s guts from a multitude of angles. Detailed topic lists lay an impressive body of story-related material at your fingertips from NPCs. It also brings in actual history on voodoo, it’s origins, and works in just enough facts to give Knight’s quest for the truth enough of a grounded sense of realism that looks beyond the game.
It also does little to shy away from the horror of the blood, gore, and nightmarish scenes that it brings to the screen. Satanism, blood sacrifice, and the frank nature of tackling such subjects within the framework of an adventure game without seeming like sensationalism. It only works to promote the other touchy subjects that Jensen wraps up in her mystery, and within her characters.
And that’s because Gabriel Knight brings all of these elements together in as much an artistic way as Stephen King or Anne Rice can in their own mediums making it a landmark not only for adventures, but gaming as a whole.
Today, Jane Jensen has her own studio, Pinkerton Road, where she plans to continue to spinning adventures and the characters that bring them to life. Her last game was Grey Matter back in 2010, but thanks to a successful Kickstarter, she’s going forward with plans for a brand new adventure called Moebius which will also be a first for the studio.
As for Gabriel Knight, you can snag it for cheap on digital distribution such as on Good Old Games and dive right back into the mystery, or go back at it for the first time. The interface may not be as “intelligent” as what we have to work with nowadays with the cursor automatically picking what it should be, but it’s no reason that Schattenjagers, old and new, can’t enjoy heading back to New Orleans for a small, spicy taste of the mature horror.