As Jane Jensen gears up to write the third installment in the Gabriel Knight trilogy, a new regime and cutting-edge games threaten adventure titles with extinction.
Written by David L. Craddock
Chapter 5: Dinosaurs
Throughout the early-to-mid 1990s, Sierra pushed to stay current with technological innovations such as graphics processing units (GPUs) and sound cards. Text parsers, used in conjunction with graphics in the first four King’s Quest titles, were retired in favor of point-and-click interfaces in King’s Quest V and VI, as well as Jane Jensen’s groundbreaking Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. When industry analysts pronounced full-motion video (FMV) the next big thing, Sierra dropped hand-drawn graphics and filmed actors in front of blue screens to create Phantasmagoria and The Beast Within, the second Gabriel Knight adventure.
Competitors gave Ken and Roberta’s flotilla of ace designers a run for their money. LucasArts, originally founded by George Lucas as Lucasfilm Games, put out several high-quality adventures including Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and The Dig—all known for beautiful animation, colorful backdrops, witty dialogue, and clever puzzles. To many fans of the genre, Sierra and LucasArts were the top two names in the space. In 1993, a small development studio in Washington State, Cyan, gave them a run for their money (and consumers’) when it developed Myst. Thoughtful, ambient, and driven by exploration, Myst tasked players with clicking their way around a series of islands teeming with puzzles to solve and books that offered insight into the game’s rich universe and characters. While they poked around, wind rustled through trees, water lapped at shores, gears clanged, and electronic equipment thrummed with energy. Myst was so immersive and intricately detailed that the game only shipped on CD-ROM, a technology that Cyan’s multimedia tour de force almost single-handedly put on the map.
By 1995, a hail of gunfire had scattered all but the most popular of adventure games (namely Myst) off of sales charts and out of the public consciousness. “Basically, what happened was shooters came out,” Jane Jensen explained. “When Sierra started, PCs were hobbyist machines. They had slow processors and couldn’t really run action games. You had action games in the arcade at the mall, but PCs and Macs couldn’t run games like that. Adventure games were perfect: they were slow and didn’t require fast processors.”
Fast and affordable graphics cards gave players the power to mow down Nazis and demons in a blur of blood and bullets. When players tired of slaughtering artificially intelligent monsters, they turned to deathmatch. A few clicks of the mouse and players materialized in gladiatorial arenas teeming with weapons, ammo, armor, and other human-controlled players. Story, the raison d’etre of adventure games, was relegated to one or two paragraphs in instruction manuals that most players never bothered to read. Motivation in shooters was simple: grab a gun and shoot anything that moved.
Additionally, shooters held broader appeal. Adventure games were slow, and littered with brainteasers. Shooters like Quake and Duke Nukem 3D were adrenaline-fueled, pedal-to-the-medal explosion fests. Puzzles were straight and to the point: shoot the enemies, find colored keycards to open doors, and press the exit switch to enter the next level.
Seemingly overnight, adventure games had dropped to the bottom of the food chain.
Jensen did her best to ignore the growing rumble of discontent around the genre that put a roof over her head and kept the lights on. Following the runaway success of The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, she received authorization to design a third Gabriel Knight game. She had just the story in mind. She’d been up several late nights spent reading The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which posited that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and produced offspring that continued his line to the present day. The book’s authors also suggested that the legendary Holy Grail was not a golden chalice, but a metaphor for the womb of Mary Magdalene and the royal bloodline of Christ.
Scholars scoffed at the ideas presented in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, dismissing them as pseudo-historical. As it happened, blending historical ideas with wild theories and supernatural elements happened to be Jane Jensen’s specialty. “If I find a subject or location that I’m really passionate about, I know I can bring that passion to a story. I thought it would make a great theme for the game. But because this was Gabriel Knight, I couldn’t just do a treasure mystery. I had to make it paranormal also. I came up with the idea of having this bloodline of Christ involved, with the paranormal element being vampires, which makes sense because they drink blood. So the vampires were specifically interested in this particular bloodline.”
As always, Jensen plotted out her story before giving thought to gameplay and puzzles. Gabriel Knight 3 would take place over three days in July 1998, four years after the events of The Beast Within. Gabriel and Grace are summoned to the Paris estate of Prince James of Albany. The prince claims that vampires plague the grounds. Characteristically skeptical, Gabriel and Grace agree to spend a few days on the estate and keep watch. Late one night, vampires sneak on to the grounds and abscond with Prince James’ infant son. Gabriel witnesses the abduction and pursues the kidnappers onto a train. After hopping aboard, he takes a blow to the head and awakens in the South of France. A taxi driver drives him to a hotel in Rennes-le-Château, a historical village at the center of conspiracy theories involving the Knights Templar, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Holy Grail.
Capitalizing on the warm reception Grace had received as a playable character in The Beast Within, Jensen designed GK3 around sequences that alternated between Gabriel and his sharp-tongued research assistant and love interest. While Gabriel trails the kidnappers, Grace hits the books and feeds the Schattenjäger information.
With the story in place, Jensen turned her attention to acquiring a game engine. Playing to the company-wide manifesto decreeing that products should be tailored to the latest tech trends, Sierra’s higher-ups decided that GK3 should be powered by a proprietary 3D engine built from scratch. Jim Napier, an experienced programmer hand-picked by the brass to work on Gabriel Knight 3‘s tech, kicked off work on the G-Engine. Napier’s G-Engine was like a fully-equipped tool chest. It could push polygons, render animations, and play crisp sound effects and tracks—everything Jensen’s Gabriel Knight 3 team needed to encapsulate the puzzles and story she had in mind.
Smack in the middle of production, however, Sierra threw Jensen a curve. Napier was plucked from Jensen’s team and assigned to SWAT 3, a strategy game. Left without a lead engineer experienced in 3D programming, the G-Engine was left unfinished, and Jensen’s team began to drift.
Drawing the Drawing Board
Gabriel Knight 3 had absolutely zero chance of shipping by the end of summer 1998. Scott Bilas knew that. He’d reconciled it within hours of starting his new job as lead engineer on Jensen’s team that March. He just wondered if reality had sunk in for everyone else.
Bilas had wasted no time getting up to speed. As outlined in an exhaustive postmortem Bilas wrote for Gamasutra, he’d discovered that Napier had built a sample application purely to demonstrate the technological muscle of the G-Engine. To his horror, the remaining developers on the GK3 crew had grafted other game elements on top of the prototype. He understood the thought process behind their experiment: take what Napier had left them and add what was missing to get the game back on track. But the experiment had gone awry. Tangles of poorly written code sprouted from Napier’s well-organized base like creepers snaking out from between blocks of stone. Every time the team thought of a new feature, they just bolted it onto Napier’s prototype, resulting in an unfinished, disorganized, and unwieldy amalgamate of half-baked ideas.
Running the prototype, Bilas discovered that the results were worse than he’d anticipated. Most games popped up seconds after players clicked their icons. Loading GK3 took more than one minute, an eternity in early 1998: the launcher had to amble through tens of thousands of art, sound, code, and script files scattered across nearly as many folders just to arrive at the menu. Locating each asset was like picking out the proverbial needle in football stadium filled with haystacks.
Every hour Bilas spent with the mangled and maimed G-Engine revealed more problems. Documenting every deficiency, he went to management and made a bold suggestion: scrap the G-Engine and build a new 3D framework from the ground up. To his relief, Mark Hood, Sierra’s general manager, threw his full weight behind Bilas’s proposal. Hood believed in Sierra, in Jane Jensen, and in Gabriel Knight.
Bilas assembled a roundtable of engineers from other projects, including Jim Napier, to help him prioritize game systems—everything from visual elements such as the user interface and fonts, to the technical underpinnings that blasted polygonal characters and environments to the screen. Discussions lasted several weeks. Once Bilas got everything finalized and the roundtable disbanded, the project proceeded apace. Bilas and his engineers gutted the G-Engine and rewrote its core over a weekend. One of the tools they added was Sheep, a scripting engine that analyzed new art assets and integrated them into the game immediately, allowing artists to preview their work in the game environment within seconds instead of hours, days, or weeks.
Next, Bilas and his team set their sights on GK3‘s story content. Jensen’s script consisted of hundreds of lines of text that engineers had coded into the G-Engine by hand. That approach caused several problems. Without Jensen’s supervision, the script was rotten with continuity errors, lines devoid of logic, and unfinished scenes. More critically, typing the script by hand into the game code prevented Jensen from having direct access to text. To revise a line of dialogue, she’d had to go on a scavenger hunt through code. Bilas reorganized the script into text files that Jensen and her designers could manipulate directly.
As the new engine came together, Jensen concentrated on nailing down GK3‘s design. One of the new features that excited Jensen most was a fully-controllable 3D camera. Players would be able to pan away from characters and explore nooks, crannies, and bends in hallways and rooms at any time, just like camera operators on a movie set. “I tried to think of puzzles that would [take advantage of] the 3D space. Like, maybe a piece of gum under a table, or the whole Le Serpent Rouge puzzle—that was built around the 3D landscape. It was fun to think of ways to [design puzzles] that could only be done in 3D.”
Perhaps no puzzle took greater advantage of GK 3‘s 3D space than Le Serpent Rouge. Jensen based the puzzle on the genuine Le Serpent Rouge, a series of poems that allude to secrets hidden within Saint-Sulpice, a soaring Roman Catholic church located in Paris. Over the course of the game, Grace uncovers the collection of poems and becomes absorbed in deciphering their riddles. Unlike most adventure-game puzzles, Jensen designed this one to span several in-game chapters. Every so often, Grace would harness new information to peel back another layer of the poems, revealing new images, text, and clues that players would use to solve the next stage of the puzzle later on.
Despite the possibilities inherent in a free-roaming camera, the mechanism saddled the art team with a great deal of extra work. In previous Gabriel Knight games, players had only seen what Jensen had wanted them to see. There had been no need to draw, say, the kitchen of Grandmother Knight’s home in Sins of the Fathers; players couldn’t enter that area, so there was no need to waste time creating it. Giving players a free-roaming camera meant that players could theoretically pan anywhere at any time. Every piece of architecture, every little object on the screen, had to sparkle in the event that players opted to give it a close-up.
Jensen’s art team earned commendation from around the office for the attention to detail they poured into their work. The ability to drift freely around locales such as Rennes-le-Château, with its verdant canyons and sweeping mountains, drew oohs and aahs from around Sierra’s offices. The praise buoyed the team’s spirits. After months of inactivity, things were finally looking up.
As time went on, morale plummeted. Reports from websites and magazines indicated that games such as Grim Fandango, a critically acclaimed adventure designed by famed LucasArts designer Tim Schafer, were selling poorly. Internal politics inflicted just as much damage. While GK3‘s environment artists got pats on the back for their scenery, employees muttered over the game’s 3D characters, which were janky and ugly. The voice acting—such as the southern drawn provided by Tim Curry, who reprised his role as Gabriel—ranged from over the top to just plain bad.
To Jensen, the lack of enthusiasm over the project was nearly palpable. “The Gabriel Knight 1 and 2 teams were very, very passionate about what we were doing. It didn’t feel that way to me on Gabriel Knight 3. It felt like we had a lot of turnover, and that the people on weren’t necessarily enthusiastic about it. The whole idea that [adventure games] were passé had affected the whole company and our team.”
Corporate restructuring took its pound of flesh from Sierra and team morale. In 1996, less than a year after the release of The Beast Within, a commerce company called Comp-U-Card International made an offer to acquire Sierra. Walter Forbes, CUC’s chief executive officer, wanted to expand into the videogame business. Forbes offered Sierra founder Ken Williams billions; Williams, who strived to do what he thought was best for his company’s future, saw the zeroes at the end of Forbes offer as an insurance policy. Sierra was already profitable, but billions in the bank practically guaranteed that his staff would have jobs for decades to come. Williams sold his shares of Sierra in exchange for shares in CUC, a common type of transaction known around Wall Street as a stock swap. The deal was finalized in July ’96. That September, CUC announced plans to merge Sierra and a number of other recent acquisitions—including Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North, purveyors of WarCraft and Diablo—into a brand new software division.
Almost immediately after the sale, Ken Williams stepped down as CEO of the company he had founded and headed CUC’s new software division as vice president. The move seemed ideal for Williams. As Sierra had grown bigger, he’d gotten buried in bureaucracy, and had desired to get his hands on products. CUC’s executives had other ideas. In 1998, CUC and HFS Incorporated, another consumer-driven company concentrated in real estate and travel packages, merged to form Cendant Corporation. According to Williams, everything went downhill from there.
In a letter written to his employees in 1999, Ken Williams explained why he had sold Sierra to CUC. “Because CUC was offering to buy the company at a price roughly 90% higher than it was trading, the decision was out of management’s hands,” he said—meaning that, as the CEO in charge of a major company, he was obligated to make business decisions that made financial sense for Sierra’s future.
What happened next was equally out of his control. In early 1998, a few months after the merger between CUC and HFS was finalized, “it was discovered that someone, or possibly some group of people, within the former CUC organization had been fraudulently preparing financial statements,” Williams wrote in his letter. “The actions of this handful of people, who shall hopefully get their due, caused the plunge in Cendant’s stock price, and wiped out the net worth of many HFS and CUC employees, including many of you, as well as much of my own.”
The fallout from the Cendant scandal was enormous. Auditors discovered the CUC president Walter Forbes and his lieutenants had been cooking books for years, spinning hundreds of millions of dollars in profit out of thin air. To stay afloat after Cendant’s stock plummeted, the company jettisoned divisions to recoup cash. In January 1999, a media advertising firm called Havas bought the software division for approximately $985 million (in cash rather than stocks)–which included Blizzard and Sierra–and rebranded it Havas Interactive.
Deciding that Sierra could turn greater profits by focusing on publishing, Vivendi executives carved up the studio into six separate divisions. On February 22, 1999, Cendant closed the Oakhurst, California branch that Ken and Roberta Williams had opened twenty years ago–which had been renamed Yosemite Entertainment–and laid off 250 employees across the company-wide staff of approximately 1,200. Discouraged, frustrated, and helpless to do more than sit back and watch, Ken and Roberta Williams left the company.
“Sierra has been cut back to bare bones,” Roberta Williams lamented in an interview conducted with Just Adventure in early 1999. “Of course, I’m not happy as to what has happened to Sierra. It was in extremely strong shape and was doing very well when we sold it in 1996. Look at it now. It’s a travesty what has happened to Sierra.”
February 22, 1999, became known among Sierra survivors and casualties as “Chainsaw Monday.” The chainsaw had been revved up and wielded by Sierra president David Grenewetzki, who closed the Oakhurst office and laid off workers to “consolidate the groups and take advantage of a much-reduced cost structure,” he said in a press release dated February 26. “We never really digested all of our acquisitions and we’re missing some of the fundamental communications that comes from having people in the same place,” he continued.
From a business point of view, Grenewetzki’s reasoning made sense. Sierra had sprawled across offices in Oakhurst, CA, and Bellevue, WA, the location appointed as headquarters in the early 1990s when the company was growing by leaps and bounds. Three other companies that had been acquired by Sierra years earlier–Synergistic Software, Books that Work, Inc., and Pyrotechnix, Inc.–were scattered around California, Ohio, and Washington State.
Some Sierra employees were given the option to relocate to Bellevue. The fate of projects still in the oven would be determined according to who opted to relocate with the company, and who decided to cut ties. “If enough of one team says they aren’t going to move, then I guess that project is doomed,” Grenewetzki said in the press release. “We can lose a few people from each team, but if it’s a key person then there are some that are destined not to survive.”
Survivors saw the writing on the wall: consolidation today, execution tomorrow. Every month, the dwindling staff threw farewell lunches for friends setting out for greener pastures. Those who stuck around used their free time to spruce up their resumes. No matter how hard they worked to stem the tide, Sierra’s blood still flowed at a trickle.
Fearful that Gabriel Knight 3 would be next at the chopping block, Jensen and her leads prepared smoke-and-mirrors presentations to convince management that the game was almost finished. After every stay of execution, the team doubled down for crunch mode, believing the finish line was just in sight. Every time, the finish line proved to be a mirage. There was still more to do, and fewer hands on deck to help do it. Hours bled into days, which bled into weekends. Requests for vacations, holidays, and weekends were met with reproachful frowns. Morale sank lower. As Sierra crumbled around her, Jensen did her best to marshal her troops.
In his postmortem, Bilas praised Jensen’s determination and leadership. “The game’s design was a major success and deserves special mention. GK3 would have simply fallen over and died had we had a less experienced designer than Jane Jensen. Throughout the entire development process, the one thing that we could count on was the game design. It was well thought out and researched, and had an entertaining and engrossing story. Best of all, Jane got it right well in advance—aside from some of the puzzles, nothing really needed to be reworked during development. She delivered the design on time and maintained it meticulously as the project went on.”
Most teams at Sierra comprised 15 to 20 developers. Over Gabriel Knight 3‘s two-year development cycle, 45 developers worked on the project. By the time the game released, only seven remained.
Last of the Old Guard
In November 1999, Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned limped into the small space retailers reserved for adventure games. Long-time fans put down their shotguns and rocket launchers long enough to solve one last mystery alongside Gabriel. Reviews leaned on the side of favorable, citing the story, characters, and some of the puzzles as high points. Many adventure fans point to Gabriel Knight 3‘s Le Serpent Rouge as one of the most brilliantly conceived riddles the genre has ever produced. Unfortunately, one puzzle encountered early on would go down in history as one of the genre’s most infamous. The puzzle in question requires the player to go through a Rube Goldberg-esque series of obstacles so that Gabriel can disguise himself as another character, the returning Detective Mosely. Pulling off the ruse involves using Scotch tape to collect hair from a black cat, which serves as a moustache. Not only is solving the puzzle convoluted, but a more immediate problem is that Detective Mosely, the man Gabriel wishes to impersonate, does not even have a mustache.
Gaming writer Erik Wolpaw lambasted the puzzle on his website, Old Man Murray. “I’d like to use Gabriel Knight 3 to illustrate my alternate theory of who killed adventure gaming. […] In order to manufacture the moustache, you must attach the masking tape to a hole at the base of a toolshed then chase a cat through the hole. In the real world, such as the one that stupid people like me and Adrian Carmack use to store our televisions, this would result in a piece of masking tape with a few cat hairs stuck to it, or a cat running around with tape on its back. Apparently, in Jane Jensen’s exciting, imaginative world of books, masking tape is some kind of powerful neodymium supermagnet [sic] for cat hair.”
Wolpaw concludes, “Who killed adventure games? I think it should be pretty clear at this point that adventure games committed suicide.”
What Wolpaw and critics failed to realize was that Jane Jensen was not the mastermind behind the poorly-received puzzle. “Jane had a puzzle that we had to kill which was unfortunately replaced with the famous ‘cat hair mustache’ puzzle that the game’s producer [Steven Hill] designed,” Bilas explained in a 2012 interview with Game Informer magazine. ‘The gaming site Old Man Murray gave us an award for killing adventure games because of the cat hair puzzle, as I remember. The [development] team hated that puzzle, but we were trying to ship a game, and so we just let it go. Funny to think about it now.”
“It’s just typical Internet hate,” Jensen responded when I asked her for her take on the backlash to GK3‘s mustache puzzle. “Some guy wrote this scathing article about it, and I still have people who will harass me—people who have never played any of the games—because they’ve read that article and they think I’m the worst game designer in the world.”
Aside from rankle over the backlash to the infamous mustache puzzle, Jensen looks back fondly on Gabriel Knight 3. “I’m proud of it. I think the story has the most sophisticated puzzles and it’s a really fun mystery. It has an Agatha Christie feel to it because you have this set cast of characters and you know one of them has got something going on. I really love the story and the theme. It was not easy to figure out all the puzzle stuff, like letting you find the lost treasure of Rennes-le-Château, in 3D. I think it ended up being people’s least favorite, but puzzle-wise, it’s the most sophisticated game I’d done.”
Sierra’s new management did not share her views. Shortly after the game’s release, Jensen was given her pink slip. “I was contracted to do specific games. After Gabriel Knight 3, they just didn’t contract another game. There was no gold watch or anything like that. It was just: ‘Bye.'”
Still, Jensen harbors no resentment for how her run at Sierra ended. For her, the good times outweigh the bad. “It was just an amazing experience. I was a huge fan of Sierra games before I worked there, so it was amazing to meet Al Lowe, Roberta Williams—all these people I was a fan of, and to become a designer and design my own games. It was phenomenal and one of the highlights of my career, definitely. I loved working with the actors, the voice actors, the musicians. Really, all the people at Sierra Oakhurst were really great, nice people that I worked with. It was kind of a golden age in my career, and I don’t know if I appreciated it at the time.”
Like many fans of her irreverent shadow hunter, Jensen regrets that she was never given the opportunity to write a proper ending to the Gabriel Knight series. During the final moments of Gabriel Knight 3, Gabriel admits his feelings for Grace to himself. But when he rushes to tell her, he finds out she has left without him. Their unresolved romance is one of many threads Jensen wants to tie off.
“I wish I could go back to that character,” Jensen reminisced. “Gabriel’s just a great character. He was very successful, and I’d love to have another opportunity to write another game. I can sympathize with people who feel like it was left hanging, because that’s true.”
Choose Your Destiny