Sierra often gets kind of a bad rap for publishing games with unfair rules causing frequent death, constant restarts, and shattered dreams. Although this finger pointing is pretty well deserved (you choose which finger), it is a little embellished. Before going into Gabriel Knight and what it is about, I would like to just give a little background about the company and why one of the most highly regarded innovators in graphic adventures are simultaneously regarded as nostalgia darlings and maligned as the root of everything wrong with the genre.
Sierra On-Line (formerly On-Line Systems) was formed in 1979 by Ken and Roberta Williams. They hit it big when they released their first graphic adventure titled Mystery House. It was a simple little game, but had many of the tropes that would continue through later designs and a brand new innovation: graphics. Although they were simple monochrome line drawings, this style of game would form the basis for many future titles produced by the company.
[The first screen of Mystery House.]
By the mid-80's, Sierra had given birth to its now (in)famous Quest series comprised of several intellectual properties including King's Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory/Hero's Quest, and, my personal favorite, Space Quest. The success of these titles was mostly due to their colorful graphics, interesting stories, entertaining writing, and text parser interface that allowed the player to attempt any solution imaginable when approaching a puzzle. The trouble is, many of these ideas were met with the equivalent of “You can’t do that.” if the writer hadn’t thought of the idea before. The company continued cranking these out until it came up with a new graphic interface using icons for actions such as walking or using instead of typing which I am still not sure how I feel about. It makes solving problems a little easier by limiting your options, but also leads to strange disconnects between what you as a player want to do and what the game ‘thinks’ you want to do. This was continued up until Sierra stumbled upon a single contextual action cursor that was first used in Phantasmagoria (I believe).
All that mumbo jumbo aside, Sierra was known for its clout in the adventure game world and held huge sway over the market. This did not always have great results, either. Most Sierra games, especially early ventures, contained numerous and frustrating deaths and potential roadblocks. These could be falling off a cliff, drowning, bumping into an unassuming object, getting eaten by a speeding enemy, or even just taking too much time. If you forgot to save frequently or make varied check points, you could be looking at several game restarts and hours of lost progress. I will only just mention the fact that in many games you could miss items or perform an action that would make your game completely un-winnable several hours in the future with no prior warning. Some of the games used clever writing, humor, or slight hints to alleviate the sting of death, but the reality of poor design and tedious game play remained. This tactic was often used as a way to attach other products such as hint guides and to promote the use of their pay-per-minute help line. I find this to be good business but questionable morally and inexcusable from a design perspective.
[If you don't calibrate your sights at the range, you are boned 5 hours later.]
The debate about this kind of game play is well covered on the Internet and I just want to bring it up to give a little context for why I enjoy Gabriel Knight so much. Even though most players remember playing the games fondly as children, innovations by Lucasarts and other companies left a bad taste in mouths of Sierra players. Lucasarts games have no un-winnable states (that I can think of), the same quality of puzzles, and a more lucid UI. Eventually, in the age of increased Internet access and newsgroups, Sierra wised up and altered the progression of their games. Gabriel Knight is one of their best syntheses of puzzles, humor, fun, meaningful deaths, and writing.
Sins of the Fathers
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers attempted to do something that Sierra had not attempted yet: to tell a dark, adult-themed story filled with murder, gore, and horror. Happily, it was a success. It was written by Jane Jensen who had also worked on several other games up to that point including Police Quest 3, The Dagger of Amon Ra, and King's Quest 6. The title set off to do something very different from what had been seen before. Instead of focusing on hero cops, longing kings, or bumbling space janitors, Gabriel Knight is a pretty normal owner of a small bookshop in New Orleans looking for inspiration for his new book. Not a super exciting start, but it certainly gives the audience something easier to identify with than a prince looking for his love in a far away land.
Despite being a normal guy, Gabriel quickly finds himself moving into progressively darker territory as he tags along with his buddy, Detective Mosely, who is investigating a strange rash of murders plaguing the city of New Orleans. Voodoo paraphernalia and iconography left at the site lead Gabriel deeper into the seedy underground of true voodoo practitioners. Perceived threats come from all sides, everyone is a suspect, and things just get more hairy as he digs for the truth. The game quickly reveals itself to be one of the most intriguing games in the whole Sierra library.
[This is harsh stuff when you're 9!]
Despite the ever-present danger, deaths for the player are few and far between. It is impossible to be killed for the first several chapters and when you are in danger it is made very evident. Puzzles are constructed so that it is impossible (I think) to prevent really screwing yourself further down the road. From a design perspective, these choices make the game truly enjoyable and relieve much of the stress that comes from worrying about constant game ending situations.
The game also refines the user interface from former Sierra games that typically consisted of five commands: walk, look, hand, talk, and inventory. Because these were often confusing to the player and did not provide a clear indication about what would happen when used (e.g. the hand may pick something up, push something, open something, hit something, etc.), Jane Jensen decided to flesh out the icons to make sure the player and game had the same idea about what needed to happen. New icons included ask a question, make normal conversation, open, pick up, manipulate, and push/pull. These allowed the player to indicate if he or she wished to open the object, push the object, and so on. This also opens up other options such as if there is a chest on the floor, it can both be opened to look inside and pushed to reveal a hidden trap door. This makes interacting with the environment much more interesting.
Finally, speaking of the environment, the game is great to look at and listen to. It is set in New Orleans, but not the party down French Quarter that comes to mind. Gabriel will explore back alley voodoo shops, murder scenes, the infamous above ground cemeteries, as well as lands beyond. These are all beautifully hand painted and presented as very realistic and grungy areas. All characters are voiced by actors that you may recognize... Tim Curry, Mark Hamill (who always provides excellent voice work), Michael Dorn (Worf), and Leah Remini (King of Queens). They all put up top flight performances and are backed by a pretty good musical score composed by Robert Holmes. The whole thing comes together in a wonderful combination that has come to be one of my favorite graphic adventure games.
Once again, I'm not sure if I will blog the day to day about Gabriel Knight, but I will definitely post a summary. If you haven't, pop over to GoG and buy your own copy to play along with Watch Out For Fireballs next month. Also, check out their one year anniversary that is coming next week and give them some new listeners to celebrate with!