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Interview

Jane Jensen Interview – Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

I played Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers back when I was far too young for it, and it stuck with me. As someone who, at the time, primarily associated adventure games with bright colours, humour, and wacky adventures (Monkey Island, King’s Quest, etc.) the moody tale of a struggling novelist investigating a series of paranormal murders in contemporary New Orleans was a bit of a revelation. Solid writing, superb voice-acting, genuinely logical puzzles, realistic locations, all-too-human characters, and a plot that successfully married the real world with a dark, hidden, supernatural side… well, much as other adventures had some of those elements, Gabriel Knight was something special. It was new and exciting and interesting, and I’m not alone in thinking it one of the finest adventures of the 90s – which is saying something, because that was an era with a lot of good adventures.

So it’s not really an exaggeration to say that I’ve been wanting to chat with Jane Jensen for almost 20 years. Now, with the release of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition a few short weeks away, I’ve got my chance. I lament that I didn’t quite have time to pick Jane’s brain about all things occult, but that probably wouldn’t have made for a very interesting interview, so it’s perhaps for the best that we stuck to topics like the design of the original game, the reasons behind the remake, hopes for the revival of the franchise, what’s changed and why, and all sorts of other little bits and pieces.

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IncGamers’ Tim McDonald: For the record: your name, your job title, and what that means in terms of what you’re doing on the Gabriel Knight remake!

Jane Jensen: I’m Jane Jensen, and I’m a game designer, and I have an indie studio – called Pinkerton Road – with my husband, and we’re currently working on the Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition. I’m creative director and designer on that.

TM: So. What can you tell me about… voodoo?

JJ: [Laughs] I can tell you a lot about voodoo, but you’ll have to play the game to learn it all!

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Look, I’m sorry. I had to ask. Okay?

TM: I suppose the most obvious question to start with, then, is: why remake Gabriel Knight? It was extraordinarily well-received and lots of people have very fond memories of it, so… why remake something that’s still so beloved?

JJ: Well, the original game was released in 1993. It’s very low-resolution – the characters are cute little blobs, and it really doesn’t impress a modern market. I guess our old fans still play it, but there aren’t too many new people that have adopted it.

Ideally, we’d like to bring back the Gabriel Knight franchise. We’ve been talking to Activision and we thought the best way to approach it was to redo the first game, which was basically like a pilot episode; it shows how Gabriel Knight becomes a Schattenjager. And from there, we might be able to proceed with new episodes.

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Things have changed a bit since 1993.

TM: So was introducing new people to the franchise the primary reason for the remake, then? From what I understand this isn’t just a graphical update – you’re changing some of the puzzles, too.

JJ: We’ve added some new puzzles and some new scenes, and a couple of the older puzzles were changed as well, but it’s mostly the original gameplay with some additional material.

TM: Out of interest, which of the older puzzles were changed? I remember with not-much-fondness the clock puzzle in Grandma Knight’s house, amongst other things. Most of them were fine, and logical, and great! That one, though…

JJ: [Laughs] Well, that one hasn’t changed!

On… Day Six, I think it is, you sneak into Mosely’s office, and the original puzzle involved distracting the cops with a beignet vendor. It was sort of a silly sequence, and by that time in the game I felt like the mood should be much more serious and scary. So that puzzle has been revised, and we’ve added a new cutscene in there. How you get into his office is a brand-new puzzle sequence.

We’ve also added some exteriors to try to increase the feeling of being in the French Quarter of New Orleans, as a lot of the original game’s rooms were interiors, so we’ve added some nice exterior shots. Little things like how you get the snake scale at the crime scene has changed, too.

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Previously, the police station had no exterior. Now it does!

TM: I noticed that! A welcome change.

JJ: A few of the puzzles that we thought could be improved, we improved, and then we added new ones. But I’d say 95% of the content is the same.

TM: Yeah, I noticed when I was playing the press trial version that the majority of the dialogue is word-for-word with the original. So the script, at least, certainly seems to be basically the same thing, and I guess that was kind of the point of it – it’s very much a remake rather than a revision.

JJ: Yep.

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The banter between Gabriel and Grace was always one of the highlights, for me.

TM: I feel I have to tell you that when I first played Gabriel Knight, I was about 10. It traumatised me. It was excellent!

JJ: [Laughs] Oh no! I’m sorry.

TM: I was possibly a bit too young for some of it. [Laughs] But the trauma was partly because it had this wonderfully creepy atmosphere, particularly when you started to find out a bit more of what was going on. Nowhere within the game world felt safe, and I get the feeling that was a very intentional part of the design. There were little bits and pieces hidden in the art, or subtleties in the dialogue, which made the atmosphere feel very oppressive – and yes, I’m deliberately avoiding specifics here to avoid spoiling anything.

JJ: It’s good to hear that. I hope that we have – and I think that we have – reproduced that. I just got through playtesting Day Ten on the latest build, and we’ve been putting in a lot of little polish elements like more sound effects, and little lighting effects, and I think it does feel… moody, like the original. But of course, in a higher resolution! [Laughs]

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The comic book-esque cutscenes are still present, although thankfully they’ve also been re-drawn.

TM: So how much did you know about voodoo and the occult, prior to designing the original Gabriel Knight?

JJ: Well, I’ve always been interested in the paranormal. Growing up I read Stephen King and Anne Rice and John Saul and all that sort of thing, and – when I could find them – I liked non-fiction books on things like witchcraft. Not that I did anything like that! [Laughs] And ghosts. If I’d been a teenager now, I’d be watching all those Real Ghost shows.

But I was just always interested in that sort of thing, so I picked up a lot along the way. The voodoo topic, particularly! The game was made in 1993, and in the late 80s there were some really good voodoo movies out. The Believers with Martin Sheen, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Angel Heart… So those were all big influences on me, but when I actually started on Gabriel Knight and decided to use that, I did have to do quite a bit of research.

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Also: poetry, hinting about your objectives for the upcoming day. Although I think you can probably see what I mean about “creepy.”

TM: How did the original pitch come about? Did Sierra come to you and tell you that they wanted a more mature adventure, or did you pitch a game about someone investigating the occult?

JJ: I joined Sierra as a writer, and we weren’t necessarily supposed to ever become designers – we were there to write dialogue and documentation and things like that. But I got a chance to co-design King’s Quest VI with Roberta Williams, and I was sort of the in-house person overseeing that while she was working from home. So I guess I did a good enough job, and at the end of that they let me pitch my own series.

Again, I’d always been interested in horror and darker stuff, and that’s the kind of fiction that I read. I loved graphic novels like Sandman and Hellblazer, so that’s what I wanted to do – something along those lines. I also thought that a mystery was, in general, a really good plot for an adventure game, because a lot of what you do as a detective make for very natural puzzles. So I came up with Gabriel Knight.

I don’t think that they were really looking for anything more mature or darker at the time – in fact, there was some resistance to it because it wasn’t a cute, funny game – but they let me try it.

TM: And it seemed to work out!

JJ: [Laughs] Yeah! And now, of course, everything is dark and paranormal and creepy, and it has been for 10 years or so.

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The new version of the Gedde Mansion interior is gorgeous.

TM: So that’s changed, but how has adventure design itself changed since the Sierra days? You’re now working with a smaller studio and a smaller budget, but… do you prefer working this way and having more control, or do you miss having the larger manpower and the larger budgets that I’d assume you had back then?

JJ: I would go back to that in a minute, if I could. [Laughs] Being part of a studio like that, that had a really great reputation and had a big fanbase, and their games were anticipated, and they had a magazine, and they had all sorts of series… it was a golden age for adventure games.

TM: You shouldn’t sell yourself short, though; you have a fair number of fans. I think the fact that Pinkerton Road was successfully backed on Kickstarter proved that there are plenty of people wanting more games from you.

JJ: Yeah, but just in terms of the environment I’d rather work in – I’d go back to that if I could. It’s much more difficult to be an indie studio, and the marketplace is much tougher now for adventure games. But we’re still able to make them, so that’s the great news.

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For some reason, this makes Gabriel think “Why yes, I should start interfering with the police investigation and looking into this myself. Nothing bad could possibly happen!”

TM: This is a bit of a tangent, but Activision recently announced that they were reviving the Sierra label with a new King’s Quest game (and, of all things, Geometry Wars). Do you have any feelings towards that?

JJ: I’m really excited about it. Actually, it was part of why we got Gabriel Knight in the first place. I started talking to some producers at Activision a couple of years ago, around the time of our Kickstarter, and those guys are the same guys that eventually got the Sierra brand thing going inside Activision. They’re basically people that are very passionate about that old Sierra brand, in-house, and that’s what we needed. So I’m really grateful to them.

At the time we got the Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers license, they didn’t have the Sierra initiative going. They were very instrumental in me getting the rights to do that remake, and after we’d already finalised that deal, they announced they were doing this whole new brand in-house. They’re great guys, and I’ve spoken to them several times since. I think we’re both really looking forward to maybe doing some projects together on that Sierra brand, in the near-future, hopefully.

TM: It’s good to hear that the Sierra revival is actually starting from the right place, with people who seem to genuinely care about the license.

JJ: It’s a good thing. It’s a very good thing.

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In case you missed it.

TM: There’s one thing I really want to ask about, which is perhaps a bit of an elephant in the room. The original Gabriel Knight had a stellar voice cast – Tim Curry, Leah Remini, Michael Dorn, Mark Hamill; lots of big names. Was there ever a possibility of using the original voice recordings, or did you always know you’d have to re-record the voices?

JJ: At the start of the project we looked into that option, but so much of that stuff was dumped when Sierra sold. A lot of the art and assets from the game were basically put in a dumpster, so the only access we had to the audio was to strip it out of the original game – which was terribly compressed, so it really wasn’t of a quality we could use again! Plus, according to the SAG rules, if you were to re-use it you’d have to pay everybody again, and at the current rate… Well, to do that exact game again, it would’ve been a huge amount of money that we didn’t have as part of the budget.

We thought about trying to reassemble some of that cast, but it’s been 20 years. People’s voices have changed, people are ill, people have retired, or their rates are crazy, so it just didn’t really make sense to do that, unfortunately.

Fortunately, we were able to work with BA Sound, and they do all the voices for Telltale. They’ve won awards for their voices on The Walking Dead, and we worked with them on Moebius. They love adventure games, which is important, but they’re also used to remakes – there was a big deal about the voices when the new Sam & Max was made, or in Back to the Future where they had to replace Michael J. Fox, so they’ve done this before. Personally, I think they did a great job. I love the casting, and was there for the recording. I think it sounds great.

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The remake is also full of design notes, which is a rather nice touch for fans of the original.

TM: I’m looking forward in particular to hearing… I forget which day this happened, but it was with Madame Cazanoux. Tim Curry acting as a New Orleans man pretending to be an Irish priest.

[Both laugh]

TM: That was an… impressive bit of voice acting, and I can’t imagine how much of a challenge that was for him, but I’m looking forward to hearing the new version of that.

JJ: Yeah, that’s fun. Some of my favourite scenes are with Cazanoux. The room is beautiful, the models are beautiful, and the actress that plays her in this version is really fun. It’s just a great sequence.

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I still haven’t played Grey Matter. I’ve owned it for years and it’s perpetually on my List of Things to Play, but alas, time is short.

TM: I’ve noticed that, with most games you’ve written or designed, the protagonists have tended to be male. Is there a reason for that? Is there any sort of character – gender or otherwise – that you find easier to write?

JJ: Well, in Grey Matter, one of the main characters – Sam – was female. But yeah, I do have an easier time writing men. I’ve written a number of novels, and very few of them have lead female characters. Millennium Rising was a Vatican priest and a male reporter, and they were the Mutt and Jeff of the book. Dante’s Equation, I had one female main character but the three other main characters were male, and she was definitely the hardest for me to write.

I think it’s because I have a lot of masculine traits myself, and I’m not the sort of female who wears nail polish or a lot of jewellery. I’m female, and I’m perfectly happy being female, but I’m not a real girly-girl, so it’s more challenging for me to write a female character like that. Thinking about it, Grace [Gabriel’s assistant] is fairly tomboyish, and so was Sam. So that’s the sort of female character I’m more comfortable writing.

TM: You’ve said that you’re hoping this will give you the opportunity to restart the Gabriel Knight franchise. Are you thinking more in terms of doing completely new games, or would you consider remaking Gabriel Knight 2 and Gabriel Knight 3?

JJ: Well… keep in mind that whatever I want isn’t really that relevant. [Laughs] Ultimately, the license-holder is Activision, so a lot of that will be a business decision. But! My ideal scenario would be to do three brand-new games that are three new adventures for Gabriel Knight. I’m not opposed to redoing the other two games, but I’d really like to work on a brand new story for him.

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Each of the games had their own approach. The original was classic Sierra point-and-click, Gabriel Knight 2 was a (surprisingly good) FMV adventure, and Gabriel Knight 3 shifted to 3D.

TM: With that in mind, then, how are you finding remaking Gabriel Knight 1?

JJ: With Gabriel Knight 1 it’s really been fun. I haven’t played the game in 20 years, because you play it so much when you’re making it that when it’s done you really don’t want to play it again, so it’s a trip down memory lane. “I remember that line! That’s really funny!” or “Oh, I remember this puzzle!”

It’s been fun to rediscover it like that. We’re getting close to shipping, so like I said I just played through it in the last two days, and I’m just remembering how much I love the game. It’s great to revisit something like that, which really is a highlight of my career, and is probably one of my better accomplishments. It’s nice to get a chance to relive it.

I love the remake, and I’m really excited about it. An old Gabriel Knight fan that’s been friends of mine for years recently played the latest build, and he was like, “This is like you had made the first game now.” So I hope that people love it, and that it helps refresh their memories about this franchise and this character, and that we can move on and make lots more.

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Finally, a shot of a late-game location, far past what I was allowed to play in the press demo.

TM: Let’s finish up with some broad speculation. You mentioned before that you were interested in ghosts, and there was a certain well-known easter egg in Gabriel Knight 3. If you typed in “gk4” into the SIDNEY computer, it came up with an article about ghosts.

[Jane laughs]

TM: Is that something you have in mind? I realise that a lot of this is down to marketing, business, licensing, and so on and so forth… but is a Gabriel Knight follow-up about ghosts something you’ve had in mind for awhile?

JJ: I had originally thought it would be about ghosts. I have a couple of different story options, but the one that I’m most fond of at the moment involves witchcraft, so that’s probably the direction we’d go if I get a chance to do it.

TM: Finally, is there anything you want to say to the fans or to those who’ve never played the games?

JJ: Spread the word. It’s at a good price right now, it’s available for pre-order, and the more success we get with this, the more chance we can convince Activision that people are really interested in seeing more of Gabriel Knight. If you like the game then spread the word, and I hope that people really love the remake like I do.

TM: Thank you very much!

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