Gabriel Knight easily slips into my top 5 adventure gaming experiences. Although I will admit to liking the second more (the entire trilogy is solid), the original is the zenith of Sierra's traditional design philosophy. It isn't perfect, but it is as streamlined and 'fair' as any of the Sierra games can be. All death sequences are very well telegraphed and have solutions that do not require items that may have been left behind in another screen, but we'll get to that. First, my general impressions.
Birth of a Shattenjaeger
Gabriel Knight attempts to straddle the line of solid story and puzzles better than any other Sierra game I have played. Although it is ostensibly a story game at it's heart (as are all adventure games as Ron Gilbert lucidly points out), it is also a game of puzzles that gate your progress. The game achieves this pretty well by having fair and mostly reasonable puzzles sprinkled throughout to prevent the player from blowing through the plot. I will talk about these in a bit, but I want to talk about the strengths of the story first.
I was chatting with Gary from Watch Out for Fireballs about the plot of the story and he wisely pointed out that although it is not a great work of literature, it is a very solid piece of genre fiction that should appeal to anyone who is interested in adventures and occult horror. The voodoo angle is very fresh ground that is sadly under-trodden by many authors and mediums. When coupled with what must have been a lot of research on the subject, the whole foundation of the story is quite solid and very interesting to entertain as a horror/conspiracy plot. This nicely beds the story of two sets of star crossed lovers belonging to families forced to reunite as enemies after a century.
The most interesting facet is the game's attention to the fact that neither the 'good' (Gabriel) or the 'bad' (Malia) are enemies at a basic level. Both of them have been drawn into their roles solely because of their blood and heritage. This is an old but powerful metaphor for analyzing the motives and character of anyone we encounter. Although there are possibly predetermined parts of our personality, we are all products of our environment and upbringing. How that manifests itself is the mystery. I enjoyed the tragic bit of sappy forbidden love and it made the whole game round up quite well in the finale.
As for the game play itself, it was fairly standard adventure fare: gather items, use them together, and solve puzzles. What GK features that other games don't is its intensive dialogue tree. This mechanic leaves no doubt that the story is the goal of the game and any puzzles that are introduced are purely for pacing and game play reasons. The dialogue in the game is, for the most part, very good. I have discussed it before, but I will just mention a few items since I have finished the game. The actual 'writing' is quite good, meaning the text displayed on the screen. The voice acting, on the other hand, is very hit or miss. Tim Curry does a good deep and gruff voice, but his accent is very strange. Almost a traditional Georgian accent. (Georgia being the state, not country.) It also tends to fade in and out of several different accents as the situation changes. The best work is heard when Gabriel becomes flustered or frustrated; the worst is when he calls out his tragic "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"s. I guess I am a little more sensitive to this kind of thing since I grew up in the southern United States, but I'm sure everyone can agree Curry's accent for Gabriel is bizarre.
The rest of the cast is adequate and gets the job done. The two best actors I will mention had to be Mark Hamill who played Detective Mosely and Leah Remini who took the role of Grace. Both of these actors had both natural delivery and stayed in their established tone through the whole game. Mosely was especially impressive as a character because instead of being a bumbling cop for Gabriel to upstage, he was actually a very competent policeman with sensible thoughts and actions. In my opinion, he is probably the best written secondary character in the game.
I know I am spending a lot of time talking about voices that don't matter, but this was a huge deal when CD-Roms were first released. The very fact that digitized sound was coming out of a computer was insane. My first 'talkie' game I owned was King's Quest 6. It came with our CD drive and had full voice acting that impressed both my parents and me. Although it is cool, these advances moved to the front of game design rather than good game play and culminated in the hilarious and now mostly ironically appreciated full motion video games. Although there are some truly good ones (Gabriel Knight 2, Tex Murphy, etc.) , most of them were cash ins that were not good at all. Speaking of things that matter, let's move to the game play.
The game play of Gabriel Knight is... good. Most of the puzzles are sensible and make sense inside of the world. There are a few that seem silly such as guiding a mime to distract a police officer or dressing up as a priest to speak to an old woman. There are some brain ticklers like decoding secret messages on the tomb, parsing what the translation could mean, and then making your own message to find the voodoo ritual. And then there are just bad ones that seem unfair like swinging on a vine that looks as if there is no way to interact with to kick a zombie. I would say it is pretty difficult, but not terribly so.
All of this comes together to make one heck of a game that not only has a good plot, but some interesting puzzles that usually mesh well with the environment and plot. Although it does stumble, it actually makes one of the most coherent and satisfying narratives I have seen in an adventure game. When finished, it truly feels like a complete game and has stayed its welcome and left when it knew it was getting annoying. If only more games had taken this advice, maybe the genre would be stronger today.
P.S. Thanks to everyone following @backlogkiller on Twitter. If you haven't, just click the 'Follow' button and I promise not to clog your timeline. I like to crack jokes and give some additional insights as I am playing. @ replies welcome!