Video games normally come in two flavors: a game based on mechanics or a game depending on the strength of the story. This was discussed quite a bit while playing Planescape: Torment, but that was in a much more combative examination. Gabriel Knight uses its story to its advantage. It is much more limited and, in some ways, traditional than Torment, but the writing and characters that comprise it are top notch creating a living and believable world.
Main characters in video games are commonly avatars for the player. They may have some initial motivation in the game based on the story, but serve mainly as a vessel for the person controlling them to insert their own wants and desires. This makes sense for role playing situations or when mechanics are at the forefront, but when telling a story independent of the player's actions, the player's decision can cause some very strange disconnects and is better served with a character with his or her own independent motivations. It all depends on what kinds of constraints are applied to the character including actions that can be taken, where the player can go and what story elements can be completed at what time. Story based games that give the player excessive agency in this respect may seem nebulous or loose when not integrated well. Good examples of this are the Ultima series and Skyrim. It is possible to spend hours wandering those worlds exploring, fighting, and discovering hidden areas because of the agency provided, but the story can fall by the wayside. I'm still considering writing my very late review of Skyrim, and I'm afraid it won't be as glowing as many I have read.
Adventure games in the modern era provide very limited abilities for the player. It is not possible to do whatever the player wants, even with the tools provided. For example, when using something in the inventory like a knife on another character, the game will usually just say "Nope." whereas RPGs such as Baldur's Gate or Oblivion will let you try attacking... even if the results are game breaking or controlled in a more subtle way. (E.g. Important characters are immortal.) Taking away this ‘simulation’ or agency gives adventure games more power as a narrative device to tell a story with strictly defined beats and moments. Unfortunately, many adventure games tell rather bland or boring tales for a medium that allows so much authorial power. Gabriel Knight, on the other hand, plays it to the hilt and uses this power to create one of the tightest adventure game stories created along with some of the most realistic and masterfully written characters to be seen in the genre.
All actions that occur in games are represented visually, so the slack left by the inability to accurately represent emotions or subtle events falls squarely on the shoulders of writing. The failures of many games come from the inability to pick up this slack and to reveal character information in a way that is interesting, natural, and appropriate for the story. King’s Quest covers this by having each new character provide Graham with information dumps to instantly provide an archetypal picture of that person or animal. Space Quest skirts this responsibility by having all characters be caricatures or easily recognized references because that is how many comedies work. Gabriel Knight takes the challenge head on and meets it with surprising grace. All characters of relative importance are introduced naturally and as fully rounded people rather than caricatures or tools to be used for the continuation of plot. Each has his or her own set of motivations that are not obvious from the start and are revealed piece by piece as the conversation progresses. This is in no small part to the dialog tree technology introduced for the game allowing any previously covered subject to be brought up with any character. Not only is it more natural than simply slicking ‘mouth’ on a person and listening to their info dump, it also has the effect of making you, the player, feel as if you have tripped up a real person by asking them something they did not expect. Ask Magenta Moonbeam about the voodoo murders and you can sense her shock at having someone ostensibly concerned about researching voodoo for a book bring up a subject she may very well be tangentially involved in. Strong characters such as Dr. John hesitate if Gabriel brings up ‘Cabri sans cor’, hinting subtly that he may not be all that he appears. When combined with the ability to ask all characters about their own well written back stories, the game transcends one-dimensional game writing to provide truly well rounded literary characters.
Thankfully, the best example is the titular character himself. Gabriel Knight is not a paragon of virtue or a complete buffoon, but a normal guy. He is probably like someone you know. He's kind of a jerk sometimes. He's lazy and rough around the edges, but he's still your pal and you like to have beers with him every once in a while... a great starting point. Then, Jane Jensen continues by giving him his own motivations. When asking about subjects, Gabriel may be confrontational when the player wants to politely inquire. He may have more emotional responses to female characters that make the player cringe. He is his own man, and even though the player has agency over his actions, he or she cannot control his thoughts and speech. This same strategy was used in Mass Effect (which I have not played yet) to great effect and is lauded by reviewers and players alike. Gabriel feels like a real person that you may not like all the time, much like in a good novel or short story. Some of my favorite characters in literature are people I love to hate such as Ignatius Reilly in a Confederacy of Dunces or the truly loathsome Humbert Humbert in Lolita. I don't hate Gabriel, though... at least not most of the time.
Characters are rarely written as true people in most games. Novels and short stories must rely on words to represent the characters accurately because any falseness will be detected immediately by the reader. Video games have the enormous crutch of being able to represent the character as a ‘physical’ being. You can see him or her moving on the screen, speaking, performing actions, thus eliminating the need for the imagination to create this image. This enormous burden lifted, our brains recognize the image as a character that does not necessarily need to have good writing. The problem is, this often rings false when performed badly. Take Skyrim, for example. The characters of the world are modeled fairly well for a modern game. They walk around, perform tasks, and stop to chat with each other, yet many people (including me) are put off by them. Characters find you and talk to you as if they would always tell some stranger about their jealous competition to court a girl. Of course, why wouldn’t I speak to you about my troubles with the local guild? This forthrightness and hyper-unrealistic frankness is a problem. I say hyper-unrealistic because it is bananas to think you as a player should have to become best buddies in the game by hanging out, small talk, and learning about each other. But it is also the job of the writer to trick the player into thinking this is normal. For me, Skyrim is like living in a beautifully simulated world with majestic mountains and misty rivers, and then entering a city where everybody is just a cardboard cutout with a speaker attached to them repeating the same insipid responses over and over. Gabriel Knight tricks the player brilliantly by providing cagey conversation responses, frequent refusals to answer personal questions, and appropriately revealing answers. Any time you hear a clue or revelation about a character, it feels as if Gabriel earned it and was not simply given this information to continue the plot. It may also help that Jane Jensen is writing characters that exist in our world as it is today.
[The conversation screen.]
Many video games are flippant about writing the characters that exist in the world. The player will be expecting information dumps or caricatures used as check points to get to the next area feeding this attitude further. When writing is taken seriously, a magical connection between the author and player occurs. This ‘quality’ that shines through is often recognized in what are considered sacred cows of games. Commonly cited examples are Planescape: Torment (endlessly motioned here and elsewhere), Deus Ex, Fallout, and Portal. Even though they are not perfect, they provide good touchstones for authorial intent and a human connection through the medium. It is a rare treat to feel truly connected with an author through any medium, be it books, movies, or games. I can only think of a few times this has happened for me, but I can say for sure that playing Gabriel Knight is one of them.