Following the critical and commercial success of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Jane Jensen pens a sequel that sees her “shadow hunter” chase werewolves and tap into his carnal side, all under the bright lights of Hollywood.
Written by David L. Craddock
Chapter 3: Gaming Goes Hollywood
Upon its release in mid-December of 1993, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers marked the dawn of a new type of adventure game. The characters were layered and realistic, and the narrative was multifaceted—dark and haunting, yet humorous at the right moments, and driven by a blend of history and mythology that made for a compulsively playable game. Gabriel Knight was an experience like none before it. Sierra co-founders Ken and Roberta Williams agreed, and gave Jane Jensen their blessing to direct a sequel. Jensen knew precisely the tale to tell.
By the end of Sins of the Fathers, Gabriel had relocated from New Orleans to his family castle, Schloss Ritter, in the fictional town of Rittersburg, Germany, and begrudgingly accepted his role as the Schattenjäger, German for “shadow hunter.” The character’s breakout novel, The Voodoo Murders, has skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller list, leaving him wealthy enough to bunker down in the family library and write his next thriller.
Since Gabriel had survived a crucible and achieved material success, Jensen decided the time had come to test his strength of character. She dug up her original idea of Gabriel investigating a series of murders that locals believed to be the work of a werewolf. Casting a lycanthrope as her antagonist achieved several goals. Critics and players had downed her cocktail of historical and supernatural elements thirstily, so it made sense to concoct a second brew with the same flavor.
And the werewolf, a man unable to stop himself from transforming into a bloodthirsty beast at the full moon, made for deliciously carnal symbolism.
“Thematically, at the end of the first game, Gabriel made this decision that he was going to take on the mantle of Schattenjäger,” Jensen explained. “I wouldn’t say he was a sex addict, but he was a womanizer. I wanted him to have to deal with some of those baser aspects of his personality. Werewolves were just perfect for that. The symbolism for the werewolf is letting out that primal instinct, that sexual instinct. So it worked.”
Jensen titled her sequel The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery and wrote her script. At the opening, Gabriel battles a foe stronger than werewolves and voodoo priestesses combined: writer’s block. His progress on his next novel is interrupted when a line of villagers carrying flashlights come to the castle in the dead of night to seek an audience with the Schattenjäger. Quipping that they should be carrying torches, Gabriel listens as the villagers tell the grim tale of a little girl slain in the woods by a wolf with human eyes. The murder took place in Munich, a rural area several hours from Schloss Ritter.
Given the choice between the jaws of a werewolf or the dreaded blank page, Gabriel heads to Munich. He follows the werewolf’s trail to a prestigious hunting club led by Fredrich von Glower, a charismatic baron who founded the institution on two philosophies. First and foremost was hedonism, a belief that encourages followers to maximize personal pleasure. The second was primitivism, a back-to-basics way of living dependent on instinct alone.
Back in New Orleans, Grace receives a letter from Gabriel explaining that he has started a new case, and that his assistant and housekeeper, Gerde, will be handling any research that comes up. Convincing herself that she is more perturbed at being left out of the action than by Gabriel spending time with another woman, Grace hops a flight to Rittersburg plumbs the Schattenjäger library. She unearths dusty tomes that mention a mysterious figure known as the Black Wolf, who became a close confidant of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. While Gabriel follows leads gleaned through his membership with the hunting club, Grace becomes entranced by the tragic tale of Ludwig II. So did Jane Jensen.
The Mad King
Prior to joining Sierra in the early ’90s, Jensen spent nine months touring Munich, Germany. She got caught up in the history of Ludwig II, the recluse king who died as mysteriously as he lived. Ludwig drew from his personal fortune to build extravagant palaces. Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan Castle,” was a retreat where he could escape the pressures of court and entertain friends such as Richard Wagner, the famed composer. Wagner was a pauper when Ludwig summoned him to Munich to compose operas. Ludwig, a closet homosexual, displayed a strong attraction to the composer; Wagner, who needed an affluent friend to absolve his debts, felt no compunction by leading the king on.
By the mid-1880s, Ludwig’s spending caught up with him. He was in debt, as was his kingdom of Bavaria. Ludwig paid for his castles and operas from his own pocket, but his court of ministers believed that he had stolen from Bavaria’s coffers. Anticipating that Ludwig would try to dismiss them from court, the ministers spread rumors that Ludwig was mentally unstable in an attempt to depose him. Whispers of “the mad king” swept through Bavaria. Ludwig retreated even further from the public eye until his conspirators cornered him at Neuschwanstein in June 1886. Following a failed attempt at escape, Ludwig went quietly. His captors took him to Berg Castle, his summer residence on the shores of Lake Starnberg.
At 6:30 p.m. on June 13, Ludwig asked one of his psychiatrists, Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, who had signed paperwork declaring the king insane, to accompany him on a walk along the shore. Gudden agreed and told his aides to stay behind. Two hours passed without word from the two men. Thunder rumbled and the sky broke open. For three hours, the castle staff searched in gales and heavy rain. They found the bodies of Ludwig II and Gudden near the shore at 11:30 p.m. Ludwig’s watch had stopped at 6:54.
The “mad king’s” cause of death remains a mystery. An autopsy declared that he had died of drowning, but no water was found in his lungs. He’d expressed no feelings of suicide before his death, and he was an excellent swimmer. Rumors swirled that political enemies ambushed and murdered him, and that Gudden was a bystander who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gudden’s autopsy pointed towards signs of strangulation. Popular theory and logical deduction suggest that Ludwig killed him, although no hard evidence exists.
Like any good storyteller, Jensen spliced history and conjecture to form her own theory. She carved out a space in Ludwig’s history for her “Black Wolf” as another of the king’s confidants, and also planted seeds of a lost opera written by Richard Wagner that could be used to force the Black Wolf, or any werewolf, to reveal himself. She divided The Beast Within into six chapters split between Gabriel and Grace, and gave each character a specific role to play.
“Grace was playable for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted to have the Ludwig subplot in there, and it didn’t make sense for Gabriel to be doing [research]. Second, she was a very popular character in the first game, so I thought it would be fun to increase her role in the second game. It made sense for her to be tracking down the Ludwig and Wagner stuff, and for Gabriel to be focused on the werewolf plot right from the beginning.”
Adding a playable character was Jensen’s first addition to The Beast Within. The second took the form of the technology that would power the game: full-motion video (FMV) starring real actors. “Ken [Williams] was always trying to figure out what the next big thing was going to be in the industry and make sure we were on top of that, especially for their top games,” Jensen said. “If they’re going to put a million dollars into a project, they wanted to ensure that it would be cutting-edge when it came out. Phantasmagoria was the first [Sierra] game that used FMV. I went to the [Sierra] studio in Oakhurst and watched them film a little bit of that, and they said, ‘This is how we want to do Gabriel Knight 2.’ I was like, ‘Okay. Wow. This is really, really different.'”
Filming FMV games tended to be a lengthy and expensive process. Full crews were assembled to film actors on location or in front of green screens. Scenes could go on for several minutes or just a few seconds, such as when the game director’s script called for the character to perform mundane actions like trying to open a locked door. In post-production, an editing team cleaned up the footage and added audio and special effects, like a Hollywood film. The difference was that the “movie” would not play out linearly; player actions dictated which video clips the game played.
Shifting from hand-drawn backgrounds to green screen called for Jensen to shelve the first Gabriel Knight‘s icon-heavy verb interface. In place of rows of icons, she would use a simple mouse pointer known as the smart cursor. First used in Phantasmagoria—written and directed by King’s Quest creator Roberta Williams—the smart cursor responded to context, saving players the hassle of choosing verbs. Clicking on a character initiated conversation, while clicking an item signaled for Gabriel or Grace to walk over and examine it. Contextual actions afforded the smart cursor simplicity; anyone, even consumers unfamiliar with games, could understand that clicking on a character launched a conversation, while clicking on a dirt path made their character walk. It was foolproof.
On the other hand, the smart cursor came with a downside: some critics and players considered it a little too foolproof. No longer needing to figure out when to use a specific verb (such as WALK or TALK) on a character or background element stripped virtually all puzzle-solving from the game—one of the main appeals of adventure games, second only to the stories. By using a smart cursor, designers were effectively telling their players to switch off their brains and just click around until stuff happened.
Jensen wanted to tell another mature story, but she also knew fans of the first Gabriel Knight had enjoyed the investigation and interrogation elements. As a way to concentrate on telling a complex story while still appealing to adventure fans, she penned a script chockfull of puzzles and mysteries. One highlight that occurs early on involves Gabriel trying to sneak past the red tape at a Munich zoo so he can get a look at a pair of wolves. The zookeeper won’t let him in; understandably, guests are not permitted to get that close to animals that could tear out their throats (and, worse yet, incur a lawsuit from grief-stricken families). Players must use Gabriel’s tape recorder to extract key words from their conversation with the zoo supervisor, then string them together in the right order to an audio clip of the supervisor granting Gabriel access to the wolf pens. Players must then find a walkie-talkie and play the conversation to complete the puzzle.
Gabriel’s segments were rife with such patchwork puzzles. In contrast, Grace’s segments were more research-driven, which enabled Jensen to further distinguish the two characters and ensure that players wouldn’t get bored. Pursuing knowledge of Ludwig II and his connection to the Black Wolf requires Grace to visit many of his castles in the region, including the breathtaking Neuschwanstein, the very same gleaming bastion of turrets and fluted towers that served as the model for Disney’s famous snowy palace. Walking in Grace’s shoes, players get to tour various castles and decipher bite-sized puzzles. For example, they learn that Wagner broke up his lost opera into disparate scrolls and hid them in nooks and crannies throughout Neuschwanstein. Players must first root out the hiding spots, then go through and collect the pages—easier said than done due to the presence of guards sprinkled across the grounds, vigilant for patrons who might attempt to put their filthy mitts all over Ludwig’s priceless artifacts. To get around them, players must sneak around and cause distractions—such as spilling a vial of water on a priceless chair and accusing a “kind” (“child” in English) of wetting himself while sitting on it.
Jensen’s final script weighed in at 600 pages. Once she finalized it, she and her producer, Sabina Duvall, began searching for actors. “When we first started out, we tried to cast some local people—basically cutting corners in a way that is pretty evident,” she admitted, laughing. “But after we got going, we said, ‘Screw it,’ and started casting people from L.A. So I think some of the early stuff we shot was cheesy, but I’m very proud of the game.” For the role of Grace, Jensen and her team selected Joanne Takahashi, an actress who had played a few bit parts on TV shows.
While auditions continued, Jensen and Duvall extended an offer to Will Binder, a Hollywood director who got his start working on the production team of Scent of a Woman starring Al Pacino, to helm the project. “I was offered the job to direct by Jane [Jensen] and our producer, Sabina Duvall,” Binder recalled. “Dave Plaskett, the production manager, and I hired Gil Neuman as the first assistant director, and we got to work. At that point, we were way behind schedule so we rushed to cast and complete pre-production and then started shooting.”
Binder’s first order of business was to relocate to Oakhurst and break down Jensen’s 600-page doorstop of a script, a process that involved listing the locations, characters, and props required in every scene. Next, Binder traveled around with Plaskett and Neumann to scout principle locations. The script called for locations across Munich and several of Ludwig II’s famous castles, as well as the fictional settings of Rittersburg and Gabriel’s castle. They decided on Bass Lake for the scene where Ludwig was found drowned; a wooded area for the site of the first werewolf killing that kicked off Gabriel’s investigation; and a hillside for a dream sequence in which Grace glides across a winter wonderland as a passenger in Ludwig’s sleigh. The rest of the scenes, roughly 90 percent of the script, would be conjured from movie magic that Binder and his crew needed ample time to invoke. Unfortunately, time was one resource they did not have.
The Beast Within was scheduled to shoot in the Sierra-owned studio where Phantasmagoria wrapped shortly before Binder and his crew moved in. They had six weeks to film as much principle photography as possible. From there, the production team would bifurcate. One production unit would go to Seattle and film scenes at an opera house with the actor who would play Gabriel—a casting as-yet undecided. The other would remain in Oakhurst to wrap up scenes with Joanne Takahashi, the actress cast as Grace.
Binder recalled the challenge of shooting a project so epic in scope. “An average feature film is 120 pages of script. The script for [The Beast Within] was roughly 600 pages. So, in essence, it was the equivalent of five feature films. We were effectively attempting to shoot five feature films in the same amount of time it takes to shoot one film. Add into that the fact that a good percentage of the action took place in [flashbacks], which added the additional complexity of shooting a period piece.”
Binder also juggled casting duties. He and his production team collaborated with Montgomery Parada Casting, a firm based out of Los Angeles. Binder and casting director Dan Parada sat in on every audition to help direct actors. When the time came to cast Gabriel, Binder only needed one audition to find his man: Dean Erickson, a Wall Street businessman who dreamed of breaking into film. Tall and ruggedly handsome with a charming smile and long, dirty-blonde hair, Erickson was the spitting image of Gabriel’s pixelated persona.
The aspiring actor flipped through the script and took an instant liking to Jensen’s shadow hunter. “He was written as a complex character. He was funny, but wracked by doubts and guilt. He had a cool facade, but there were plenty of emotional cross-currents beneath his cool. He was a hero, but a reluctant one.”
Erickson got Binder’s stamp of approval. Next, he needed Jensen’s. She received tapes of Erickson but was not convinced of his suitability for the role. Binder arranged a meet-and-greet to put her doubts to rest. Jensen admitted that she “wasn’t that impressed with [Erickson] on video, but when I met him in person, I thought he really looked like Gabriel. He just looked like this character. Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about his voice, but we auditioned him on-site.”
To test Erickson’s mettle, Jensen asked him to read a scene from the final chapter. The scene takes place at an opera house, where Grace has asked a friend to conduct Wagner’s lost opera in an attempt to expose Baron von Zell, the Black Wolf. But there’s a problem. During a late-night chase through the woods, Gabriel was bitten by another werewolf. In the scene Erickson was asked to read, Grace has locked Gabriel in a storeroom for his own safety—and for hers. Feverish and caged, Gabriel flies into a rage, screaming and cursing and battering at the door.
“I do remember that scene, that reading, and the look in Jane’s eyes that told me I had the part,” Erickson said. “I think I scared her a bit with my intensity during the reading, which was what she needed to see. I probably seemed like a nice, easy-going guy, so she had to make sure I had the fire to play Gabriel. Honestly, I had more than enough personal fire and anger to tap into for Gabriel Knight. As I’ve aged, I’m happy to say I have less so now.”
Preview for Chapter 4 (To be published 6 November 2015)
Dean Erickson gives an iconic performance as Gabriel Knight, while The Beast Within director Will Bender tackles the logistics of shooting a 600-page game script.
Choose Your Destiny