Backed by the approval of Sierra’s co-founders, Jane Jensen gathers a development team and specs out the fine details of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers—and rubs elbows with Luke Skywalker.
Written by David L. Craddock
Chapter 2: The Voodoo Queen
(Originally published in the Patreon edition of Episodic Content on 13 October 2015.)
Eager to delve into development of Gabriel Knight, Jensen began plugging in Sierra’s adventure-game components. Like King’s Quest V and VI, Jensen’s gothic adventure utilized a point-and-click interface. Jensen imported common verbs such as walk, operate (use), and look. More importantly, Jensen expanded the interface as a way of mollifying long-time players who believed that the scant amount of actions in newer King’s Quest games oversimplified puzzles. “When we did Gabriel Knight, I made a conscious choice to have a more extensive interface. I think King’s Quest V had recently come out, and there was a lot of backlash against it being so point-and-click [driven]. I made a decision to have a more intricate interface.”
Jensen separated King’s Quest’s all-in-one “talk” action into two distinctive actions: talk, and ask. The “talk” icon initiated banter between Gabriel and other characters that added color to the characters and story, while the “ask” icon brought up a list of topics that triggered deeper dialogues. A telltale chime sounded when characters revealed new bits of information, which added new conversation topics to subsequent interrogations. When players got stumped, they could listen to previous conversations through a tape-recorder interface, the trusty sidearm of the aspiring novelist.
Jensen populated Gabriel Knight with lots of locations for players to explore. From the warm interior of St. George’s Books to the verdant lawns of Jackson Square Park, where bands broke out into renditions of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” every location made extensive use of the Sierra Creative Interpreter (SCI) engine’s 256-color palette. Friendly locations such as taverns and St. George’s exuded warmth, while Gabriel’s family castle in Germany exhibited lots of blues and grays to accentuate cold and loneliness, states appropriate for a family line doomed to die young and alone.
“I usually try to cull some reference art for mood and style, and then the artists go through the process of doing a sketch, and that gets approved at every step of the way,” Jensen said. “Generally, I do operate as creative director on my games, which means I approve every step of backgrounds, characters, and so forth as we go through the process.”
Before her art team painted backgrounds, Jensen briefed them on key elements that they needed to depict. “First, [I write] a story outline, which is around 100 to 150 pages. That gets translated into a game design document, and that can be around 300 to 400 pages, and that includes the actual puzzles. Then there are room specs. A room spec would be, ‘These are all the things that ever happen [in this room] through the whole game design.’ You can’t expect the artist to go through and hunt that stuff down. So, for example, in Day 1, Gabriel comes in [to St. George’s Books] and Grace takes a snake scale off his face. You need to outline everything that’s going to happen in that scene, and the stuff that absolutely has to be there for puzzles, like the snake book and other stuff he’s going to pick up.”
Riffing off her game’s mystery influences, Jensen stuffed every screen with puzzles that wove a tapestry of overarching events. One puzzle involves a visit to the police station to shoot the breeze with Gabriel’s best buddy, Detective Mosely, who shares details of the murders with Gabriel in exchange for a prominent role in Gabriel’s novel. Mosely can’t share evidence with Gabriel, however, calling for players to exercise adventure-game ingenuity. During the visit, players learn that a drawing taken from a recent crime scene could help him make progress in the “Voodoo Murders” case. The drawing, which depicts a vévé, a religious symbol used in voodoo ceremonies, is under the watchful eye of an officer in the lobby. Players must figure out a way to lure the officer away from her post so they can get their hands on the drawing.
“The really good thing about a mystery is there are a lot of actions you would take in a mystery story that would translate well to game puzzles,” Jensen explained. “That just tends to work with mystery plotlines; it would be much harder to do in a romance, for example. It’s a matter of trying to think about the story flow. I had to get an artist to reconstruct this vévé and break it down into as many little pieces as you can, then sort of step back through it and think about the hoops players have to jump through to solve [the puzzle].”
At certain points, Jensen gave players multiple ways to progress. Some decisions incurred minor consequences. Players could steal rather than photocopy the vévé at the police station, but doing so angers the officer working in the lobby, who refuses to talk to Gabriel thereafter and bars players from accruing a perfect score. Other branches ended in harsher penalties. Near the end of the story, Gabriel must don a mask and learn a password to infiltrate a voodoo ceremony. Without both the mask and the password, Gabriel will die if discovered.
Jensen did not shy away from letting players make choices that led to Gabriel’s death. “You try to give players choice as much as you can, because the more you set out a straight path, the more you’re telling players the story as opposed to letting them tell the story. “Sometimes, when you have those options, there is a negative outcome that can happen. At that point, you have two choices as a designer: you can either take the choice away and force players down the right path; or you can let them choose. I prefer to let the player choose the wrong thing and then have a consequence from that. I think choices can be valuable. If Gabriel does not have the right password even with the mask on, you’re going to die.”
Gabriel and the Force
With her script finalized, Jensen directed her attention to assembling a cast of stellar voice actors. Stu Rosen, a director in Los Angeles, arranged auditions. Rosen recorded each audition and forwarded the tapes to Jensen for her approval. Some of the voice talent matched Jensen’s vision right away. Leah Remini, an actress who got her start on teen sitcom Saved by the Bell, was chosen to play Grace. Mark Hamill of Star Wars and Batman: The Animated Series fame voiced Detective Mosely.
Casting Gabriel proved more difficult. “I listened to a bunch of people for Gabriel, and we just weren’t finding him,” Jensen said. “Most of the people we were listening to were not very well-known. [Stu Rosen] said, ‘I know Tim Curry and work with him a lot. I think he could do this.” Jensen wasn’t so sure. Curry was an excellent actor, but was also something Gabriel was not: British. Rosen insisted on letting Curry read for the part. Jensen acquiesced and was bowled over by Curry’s performance. The veteran actor adopted a thick, Southern drawl that oozed charm and self-confidence–two traits Gabriel Knight had in spades.
When the cast assembled to begin recording, Jensen traveled to the studio to listen in. Normally confident and articulate, she walked through the corridors in a daze, grinning and nodding as she shook hands with the star-studded cast. Settling into the booth, the reality of her situation washed over her. “It was definitely one of the highlights of my career to sit in a booth and listen to people read my dialogue. It was pretty amazing.”
Halfway through development, Gabriel Knight hit a snag. Sierra pushed out a revision to its SCI engine and required all projects to migrate over to the new tech. Jensen and her team found the migration easier said than done. Engineers needed time to learn the ins and outs of the new code. Long hours followed. Rather than waste time driving back and forth to work, Jensen brought in a sleeping bag and crashed under her desk when fatigue set in. “I was just hugely ambitious and really, really passionate, and completely focused,” Jensen recalled. “That whole year, I was completely focused on that game. I wanted it to be the best and wanted it to be successful. My best memory of that project was the passion I had that whole year, and the team was passionate as well. They knew it was an unusual project, and it was nice to feel that connected to it.”
Days and weeks bled together, giving Jensen plenty of opportunity to become better acquainted with Robert Holmes, the composer assigned to Gabriel Knight–and the man she would marry. Jensen and Holes sat next to one another but kept their budding relationship under wraps until the project got further along. Wooing aside, Holmes had plenty to keep him busy in the meantime. The score he composed for Gabriel Knight matched the script’s complex weave of light and darkness perfectly, lowering or intensifying to complement the mood and visuals of each location.
In the back of its main building, Sierra kept a warehouse where all of its boxed products were packaged, stored, and shipped out to retailers. On the day Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers went on the assembly line, Jensen, Holmes, and the rest of the team filed onto a catwalk high above the processing floor. Together, they watched the boxes crawl along conveyor belts to a station where they were shrink-wrapped and packaged into larger boxes that would go out to stores. Exhausted and proud, Jensen and the others waited for Gabriel to make his big debut.
Preview for Chapter 3
Lights, camera, action. Following the critical and commercial success of the first Gabriel Knight adventure, Jane Jensen pens a 600-page script for the sequel that sees her “shadow hunter” chase werewolves and tap into his carnal side, all under the bright lights of Hollywood.
Choose Your Destiny