GOGathon: Gabriel Knight Trilogy

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In their peak years in the 1980s and 1990s, adventure games – both of the text adventure and point-and-click variety – liked to make a big virtue of the writing and dialogue which went into them – for instance, the term “interactive fiction” was applied to text adventures to stress their literary qualities. Of the major publishers of the point-and-click era, Sierra by far went the furthest with this by presenting the lead designers on their game lines in a manner akin to bestselling authors; from Roberta Williams’ positioning as the creator of the King’s Quest game onwards, each series tended to be strongly associated with a particular lead designer who was presented as an auteur, to the point where it wouldn’t be unheard-of for said designers to convert their game scripts into novelisations.

Jane Jensen had joined Sierra after leaving a systems programming job at Hewlett-Packard, seeking a more creative role. At first she cut her teeth as an assistant writer on various projects, including co-writing King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow with Sierra chief Roberta Williams – and given that this was arguably Sierra’s flagship series and was closely tied to Roberta’s name, that suggests that Sierra management thought highly of Jane’s capabilities. When you came into the top flight of writers at Sierra, your own series wasn’t far away, and Jensen was duly given her own series to head – Gabriel Knight, a series of occult horror mysteries in which the titular character goes to various atmospheric locations and uncovers a range of historical mysteries.

By this time, the “modern-day character investigating a mystery with historical roots in a location rich in architectural and landscape eye candy” genre has become well-ploughed territory in point-and-click adventures – it’s the premise of the Broken Sword, Secret Files and Post Mortem/Still Life series, for instance – and you could make a convincing argument that the Gabriel Knight games are at least in part responsible for this boom, as well as setting a new bar in Sierra’s efforts to present adventure games with complex, grown-up storylines and content rather than the more cartoonish efforts adhered to by most other developers. Thanks to GOG, the entire series is now available to all – making it a perfect subject for a GOGathon.

Sins of the Fathers

The first game introduces us to Gabriel Knight as a modestly successful author who hasn’t quite produced a bestseller yet but has just about managed to fund his dream of opening an antiquarian bookshop – St George’s – in the French Quarter of New Orleans. St George’s just isn’t paying the bills, however, so whilst Gabriel’s assistant Grace looks after the shop, takes messages, and occasionally does some research, Gabriel’s out doing the legwork to research his new book. His chosen subject is the so-called Voodoo Murders, a series of brutal slayings of gangland figures where miscellaneous voodoo trappings have been found at the scene. Luckily for Gabriel, the lead detective on the case is Inspector Mosely, who’s willing to give him the inside scoop because they’re old friends – and because Mosely’s enough of a glory hound to find the prospect of a favourable writeup in the book irresistible.

What Gabriel doesn’t know is that his investigation of occult practices in New Orleans, his unexpected whirlwind affair with the rich and powerful Malia Gedde (who’s closer to the crimes than Gabriel knows), and the terrible killings all have parallels with a much older story, one which Gabriel has been having bizarre nightmares about. As it turns out, Gabriel is the last son of a long line of Schattenjägers (“Shadow Hunters”), crusaders who root out supernatural evil wherever it hides. This is not the first time the Schattenjägers have encountered the corrupt voodoo sect responsible for the murders – and ever since the first encounter, the Schattenjäger line’s fortunes have been declining whilst the power of the sect has grown. The player must not only guide Gabriel safely through the dangerous territory his investigations take him through, but also reclaim the hidden power of the Schattenjägers lest it die out for good.

One of the most interesting things about running Sins of the Fathers on a modern computer is noting where the presentation has dated and where it still seems fresh. For the most part, the graphics seem good for the time and have dated gracefully; there are occasional moments of pixel-hunting (for instance, the bit where you have to noticed that Grace has put a snake scale in a small ashtray on a large desk), but the advantage of the limited screen resolution is that said pixels tend to be somewhat larger and more noticeable in the first place. In general, all the locations are packed with flavour whilst at the same time skewing towards the realistic; the exception is some of the final locations, when the action shifts to the voodoo gang’s headquarters which looks more like a generic James Bond villain hideout with a few voodoo-themed decorations than a place which has been the seat of occult power in New Orleans for centuries.

But it is the sound – provided you can adjust the DOSBox settings appropriately to stop hissing and skipping – where the game really shines. Sierra were riding high at this point in time and were able to score a particularly impressive voice cast, including Mark Hammil doing his best cynical Southern slob cop voice for Mosely, Michael Dorn playing voodoo conspirator Dr John, Leah Remini as the long-suffering Grace and Tim Curry taking the star role as Gabriel Knight. Curry brings to the party an utterly hamtastic New Orleans accent which fits the character right to the core – Gabriel comes across as something of a showoffy guy who is always at least partly in peacock mode, so it makes sense that he would speak in a mildly performative manner. In fact, I would say Curry’s interpretation of the character adds a lot to the script; the writing involves Gabriel doing a lot of things which sound like they are supposed to be suave but actually come out sleazy, if not creepy, and Tim latches onto that angle and runs with it to present a Gabriel who is a shallow, manipulative, and altogether kind of shitty individual who shapes up a lot when it becomes clear that he and the people he cares about are actually in mortal peril. (Though it’s worth noting that Grace calls Gabriel out on a lot of his shit so the skeevy angle to his interactions with women does seem to have been consciously written that way by Jensen.)

A particularly interesting decision is the casting of Virginia Capers to provide the narration, which she does in an unapologetically thick accent rather than adopting the sort of neutral newsreadery sort of accent you might expect for a narrator. This was clearly a decision made to add atmosphere and flavour to the game, but it also has an interesting distancing effect – because the narration is delivered in a very distinctive voice, it comes across as an actual flesh and blood person telling you all this rather than a neutral narrator, and you don’t get Gabriel’s judgement on something you’ve chosen to examine unless he has something particularly important to say about that. Combine that with Tim Curry’s performance of Gabriel-the-sleazeball and the occasional loss of player control – Gabriel plunges into his pursuit of Malia more or less completely independently of the player – and you feel less like you’re immersed in Gabriel’s story and more like you are on the outside looking in, with Capers sat beside you shaking her head at Gabriel’s folly, and you have just enough knowledge that Gabriel lacks to know to be scared when he isn’t. The overall impression created is of Gabriel blindly walking into the trap fate has laid for him, and the player not being able to change his course so much as shepherd him through the danger.

Speaking of danger, yes, this is a Sierra adventure game, so death is a factor to an extent to which it isn’t in, say, LucasArts adventures of this general vintage. For the most part, I don’t mind the deaths, in that they occur with plenty of warning and you can usually infer some clue as to what you need to do to avoid them. (Plus, most of the times when I got killed I was slain by Dr John, and being killed by Worf is kind of an honour.)

There’s two kills which I think are a bit more irritating though. The first one is an incident which happens at the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans, which is an auto-triggering event which occurs without prior warning if you go there on a certain day. As it turns out, the means of saving yourself are right there in the Museum so once you work out how to do that it’s alright – but as far as I can tell you need to undergo this attack in order to progress the game. How many people got to that stage, took the instadeath as a direct warning not to go to the Museum that day, and then got stuck?

The second death I find difficult is a bit in an ancient ritual site in Africa where the dead rise to defend the site against your trespassing. It’s an example of the sort of thing which is often frustrating when it appears in point-and-click adventures: a segment which looks and plays like an action sequence but is actually a disguised puzzle. In this case it looks like you should be able to avoid the zombies just by running fast enough and avoiding the room where there’s three zombies surrounding you. Nope – move away from that room (which should still get you to your desired destination since you are in a circular ring of rooms) and you’ll eventually get to a bit where for some reason which isn’t adequately explained you stop being able to move and a zombie kills you. No, apparently you need to go to the room with three zombies and then use one of the nearby vines – which haven’t shown any indication of being anything other than background detail up to this point – and swing on it past the zombies into the next room, in a dodgily-animated bit which doesn’t look at all like it should have worked. This departure from realism is particularly notable because for the most part the puzzles are a lot more logical than that; they all comprise solutions which do make sense and, for the most part, aren’t too contrived or silly, and very very occasionally can be solved in different ways. As I said, there are a couple of instances of pixel-hunting, though most of the ones I remember do suggest that you might be able to find something in that general area.

One thing which does occasionally throw up problems is the game’s interesting day-based structure. For the most part, this works quite well; each day begins with Gabriel exchanging small talk with Grace at the shop, catching up on his messages and drinking his morning coffee. The day ends once you’ve completed all of the puzzles required to finish the day; notably, some puzzles can be solved over a range of different days rather than necessarily being solved on the day they crop up, so the game is able to work in a little non-linearity that way. I actually really like the day structure because at the beginning it establishes a sense of the routine and rhythm of Gabriel’s life, as well as establishing the importance of his friendship with Grace (despite it being the sort of friendship where they’re regularly rude to each other). Later on, once the daily routine becomes disrupted in increasingly drastic ways, the scares that are associated with that are much more effective because they feel like a violation of what the game has previously established as being “normal” for Gabriel and Grace.

Unfortunately, after the first day or two it can become very confusing to work out exactly what puzzle you need to solve in order to end the day – particularly since there’s some puzzles which crop up where you’re not meant to solve them on the first day they appear (such as convincing Mosely to re-open the Voodoo Murders case once the high-ups in the police department declare it shut). Thus, you can get into a situation where several different puzzles could be the one you need to solve to end the day, but some don’t need to be solved today at all and some can’t be solved today, no matter how hard you try, and there’s no clear way of telling them apart.

What the game is crying out for is some sort of simple mechanic to let you know how much time has passed during the day, and perhaps to drop a hint on which puzzles you should be focusing on and which you can put on the back burner. It wouldn’t take much – just give Gabriel a wristwatch, and let the player examine it to prompt a reading of the time (tipping them off to how long they have left of the day) and perhaps a comment along the lines of “I think there’s still time to do X” or “I’m not going to rest a minute until I’ve sorted out Y”, that’d be enough.

One gameplay convenience the game does offer you – which I think is genuinely clever – is Gabriel’s handy little tape recorder, on which he records particularly important conversations. Unlike most point-and-click adventures, there’s two different commands for talking to people – one for idle chit-chat and very simple conversations, and one that opens up more in-depth discussions. These latter dialogues can get very involved and are absolutely crammed with important information, and thanks to your tape recorder you can remind yourself of the details wherever you happen to be in the game. At one fell swoop, a whole lot of backtracking and sitting through long conversations is avoided, and a massive pile of clues suddenly becomes portable and consultable whenever the player wants a hint.

The actual writing of the game is very good – particularly when it comes to pitching a more serious plot than is typical for high-profile point-and-click adventures – but I don’t know that I’m quite comfortable with the story’s handling of race and voodoo. To her credit, Jensen seems to have done an impressive amount of research on the subject, and also drops fairly heavy hints that the dark rites adhered to by the villains constitutes an unusual practice which doesn’t necessarily originate in African Vodun, and would be regarded with fear and loathing by most Vodun and voodoo practitioners. Not all the black people you meet are into voodoo, not all the people involved in the conspiracy you encounter are black.

However…

The game puts forth a conspiracy theory that the fictional secret society it proposes is behind the Haitian slave revolt and the coming of voodoo to New Orleans, and has been the major power on the New Orleans occult underground for centuries. All of its leaders are black. The white voodoo practitioner you speak to the most is, it is strongly suggested, a flakey New Age sort that Dr John directs you to mainly for the purposes of misdirection. Most black people you meet are in fact either leaders of the sect or acting on its behalf, to the point where as a player I felt prompted to feel suspicious of every black person I encountered. (“Maybe that’s just a problem with you, Arthur” – well, yes, maybe it is… but if that’s the case, it’s a problem that this particular scenario didn’t do much to discourage.) Malia ends up desperately wanting to abandon the religion of her ancestors and her position in her culture so that she can be with Gabriel. The final conflict finds Grace, a Japanese woman, threatened by the cult, with heroic whiteys Gabriel and Mosely charging in to save the day.

There’s no one thing I can point to in the game and say “That particular incident pushes this game way over the edge,” but the sum of all the above is enough to make me feel deeply ambivalent about the plot. On the whole, I did enjoy the game – it’s the first Sierra adventure I’ve played which I could honestly say is a good, entertaining experience – but I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if it hadn’t set my Minority Warrior teeth on edge, and if it actually offended you I wouldn’t say you were being oversensitive.

The Beast Within

The second game in the series, The Beast Within was produced at a time when Sierra had more fully embraced the idea of producing horror adventure games for mature players – Roberta Williams was also getting in on the action with her Phantasmagoria series. And a decision was made that the Gabriel Knight series deserved the Phantasmagoria treatment – and that meant presenting it with Full Motion Video (FMV) graphics, for those were the new shitness. In other words, it was time to get in flesh and blood actors with real props and greenscreened backgrounds and have them act out all the cut scenes and animation required for the game on film.

FMV is a videogame aesthetic which has dated poorly. Part of this might simply be a result of the fad coming in well before computers were powerful enough to really do it justice. The frame rate and resolution on most FMV games leaves something to be desired, and is highly variable in this case – some scenes will look rough but, on the whole, pretty good, some just look awful these days. A more pressing issue, however, is that producing FMV is actually very expensive. You can’t dispense with your computer animation people because they still need to do all the backgrounds and special effects, but you have the extra expense of filming to contend with. This isn’t just a matter of providing costumes and the non-greenscreened bits of the sets and cameras, although those are all costs which Sins of the Fathers didn’t have to contend with. You also have to factor in the problem that paying actors to be filmed is much, much more expensive than getting them in to do voice acting.

The joy of voice acting is that it can be accomplished comparatively quickly. Nobody needs makeup, nobody has to mess around with costumes or props, nobody’s waiting around for the set to be made ready. Provided the recording equipment is functioning properly, the actors just need to come in, perform their lines until they accomplish a satisfying delivery, pick up their cheque and leave. It isn’t even necessary to book in a time when all the actors are available. Sins of the Fathers was able to snag Hollywood talent like Tim Curry and Mark Hammil in part because of this factor: it’s not that they’re cheap as voice actors go, but the fact that a voice acting job represents far less of a time commitment on the part of an actor means that you only have to pay them for the time they spend swinging by the studio to speak into a microphone – you don’t have to pay them for the time they spend waiting to film their next part. FMV lacks this advantage, meaning that a thorough recast was called for: Tim Curry is replaced in the role of Gabriel by Dean Erickson, for instance, and Leah Remini is replaced in the role of Grace by Joanne Takahashi (which at least resolves the slightly dodgy casting of Grace’s part).

In fact, money was so tight on the game that Jensen was forced to cut two of the planned eight chapters, and the director of the FMV scenes, Will Binder, reportedly would only allow two takes for each shot unless absolutely necessary because there simply wasn’t the money for more. The tight recording budget also means that Sierra didn’t record much beyond the absolute minimum they needed to make the game – so when the characters are standing about in a location they either look very static or are stuck in short, repetitive loops. The game looks at its best when there is a cut scene happening or when you are talking to a character; when you’re just exploring it often looks terrible except for the backgrounds, which are quite well-realised. As far as the sound goes, the actual voice acting recordings seem to be of a markedly poorer quality than the previous game. Sometimes the quality will obviously and jarringly vary from line to line, and occasionally you can hear what are quite obviously studio background noises in the vocal recordings. There’s also a stark lack of ambient background noise appropriate to the scene in many conversations, so (for instance) a conversation by the shore of the lake where Ludwig II died sounds like it’s taking place in… well, in a soundproofed recording studio. This effect is alleviated when Robert Holmes’ musical score strikes up, but there are too many conversations which take place in dead air without any backing at all,

The actual plot and writing of the game is somewhat more successful. As the game begins, Grace is still stuck behind the counter at the bookshop in New Orleans whilst Gabriel dithers about whether to keep it as a going concern or not. Due to his new duties as a Schattenjäger, he’s now living in Germany at Schloss Ritter, and has earned himself a little extra money by writing a fictionalised account of the previous case. Gabriel is stuck for ideas for his next case when some of the villagers of Rittersberg come to seek his help. A young child has been killed just outside of Munich – and her father is convinced that the culprit is a werewolf.

Arriving in Munich, Gabriel soon discovers that there definitely has been some sort of beast attacking people in the city outskirts, and finds his investigations drawing him into the affairs of the Royal Bavarian Hunting Lodge, an elite club presided over by the mysterious Baron Friedrich von Glower (Peter J. Lucas). Meanwhile, Grace refuses to be sidelined and comes to Germany to try and research the background of the case. In the course of doing so, she begins to develop a curious theory: could Ludwig II, last independent king of Bavaria, have been a werewolf himself? Is there a connection between the mysterious man who inflicted lycanthropy on Ludwig and the present killings? And are the werewolf-themed paintings in the Singer’s Hall at Ludwig’s castle of Neuschwanstein an allusion to a lost Wagner opera with occult origins?

Nowhere near as problematic in its premise as Sins of the Fathers, The Beast Within offers an enjoyably silly brand of historical occult nonsense which draws as much as possible on real history – Ludwig II really was Wagner’s biggest fanboy, really did have these swooning infatuations with various men, really did decorate Neuschwanstein in this bizarre fashion (though the paintings in the Singer’s Hall have been tweaked to fit the plot here), and really did die under sad and mysterious circumstances. As part of this, Jensen takes Ludwig’s conflict over his sexuality and runs with it to an extent that sometimes becomes problematic. Whilst it was unusual for a point and click adventure 1995 to directly address sexuality at all (except in the sort of sniggering, juvenile terms associated with the Leisure Suit Larry series), let alone include characters who weren’t thoroughly heteronormative, and whilst the game’s stance that it was terribly sad Ludwig II was so unhappy about his sexuality and it was a mild tragedy he lived in a time when couldn’t be himself is more or less agreeable, it sets up an correlation between werewolves and homosexuality which is kind of troubling.

In the supernatural mythos of the game, Wolf Pride wouldn’t really work. Werewolves are immortal killers whose souls are damned and who are a danger to other human beings. Lycanthropy is a horrible disease and those who are infected live sad and lonely lives outside of society, seeking the company of their own kind only because they can no longer relate to human beings. Lycanthropes are driven by dark, animalistic passions and furious anger.

The only characters in the game identified as (or hinted as being) gay or bisexual are either wolves or are under consideration for becoming wolves. (Well, there’s a Ludwig II scholar who drops a hint that he identifies with Ludwig in certain respects but is glad he lives in a more tolerant time, but we don’t get to know him well enough to do more than guess at what he’s referring to there.) These characters fall into two types: Predator McBadgay on the one hand, and Sadface McLonelygay on the other. On the “predatory” side of the equation we have Baron von Zell, von Glower’s former “golden boy” who is intensely jealous of Gabriel’s friendship with von Glower and has “depraved murderer” written all over him. We also have Otto Preiss, a man whose lusts are completely out of control and with whom “no one is safe” according to at least one character, and who has been under active consideration for recruitment into the werewolf gang.

Turning to the ever-suffering lonely gaywolves, we have Ludwig II, who in the game’s secret history became a wolf due to his infatuation with the prime wolf and then committed suicide when all other means of ceasing to be a wolf failed him. There is also Baron von Glower himself, who it is established bestows the curse of lycanthropy on men because he is the loneliest of all lonelygays and needs a lonely gay wolf friend to be lonely and gay and wolfy with.

There’s also the matter of von Glower’s interactions with Gabriel, and specifically how Jensen seemed to be about to go in a very brave direction with them but then holds back at the last minute. More or less as soon as they meet, the Baron makes no attempt to hide how very interested he is in Gabriel. For his part, Gabriel does nothing to discourage this, though it’s not clear whether this represents genuine interest on his part, or playing along for the sake of progressing the investigation, or an utter failure to work out what the Baron wants. At the start of Chapter 5, you find Gabriel waking up nude in an expansive bed having spent the night at the Baron’s place, and it looks for all the world like Gabriel and the Baron actually had sex whilst the player was attending to Grace’s quest in Chapter 4.

Then the Chapter 5 intro movie takes a weird turn. We flash back to the previous evening, where Gabriel and the Baron are drinking in the Baron’s living room and there’s all this chemistry between them and it appears for all the world that they are about to kiss. Then this random woman who we have never seen before and we will never see again shows up, deposits herself in the Baron’s lap, and starts furiously kissing him. The Baron then lends her to Gabriel for the night, which is fine for Gabriel but does leave the Baron in the position of wistfully strolling into the bedroom after the heterosexuality-saving lady has departed, gazing mournfully at nude sleeping Gabriel, and being all sadface when he realises that Gabriel is wearing the protective talisman of the Schattenjägers.

To reiterate: we never see this woman before or after this scene. Moreover, the shift in the Baron’s behaviour seems abrupt, as though Peter Lucas can’t quite bring himself to buy this part of the story. Moreover, the Baron shows himself to be more or less exclusively interested in men in every other part of the game. It’s almost as though someone – maybe Jensen, maybe the higher-ups at Sierra, I really don’t know – decided that although everything points to Gabriel bedding the Baron, on balance it would be Not Appropriate for him to actually do so, so Random Sexlady was invented on the spot to remedy the situation.

Grace’s story has its own problems. Her decision to come to Germany and help out seems motivated mainly by jealousy – specifically, jealousy of Gerde (Andrea Martin), Schloss Ritter’s housekeeper, who she suspects Gabriel of ploughing. She is incorrect – Gerde was actually into Gabriel’s elderly uncle from the previous game – but that does mean that a sizable chunk of Grace’s story is taken up with her being horrible and disapproving at Gerde and being angry at Gabriel, despite the fact that ostensibly she and he aren’t actually an item. Grace’s other major motivation – helping Gabriel so he doesn’t get himself killed – is somewhat more respectable but doesn’t actually contradict the idea that Grace is fucking her own life up for the sake of being of service to Gabriel, and whilst it is nice that you control her for most of the final chapter (in which she makes the arrangements necessary to corner the Baron and slay him to free Gabriel of the curse of lycanthropy), it’s still mildly disappointing to have this supposed strong female character whose universe revolves entirely around some dude who’s actually kind of a dick to her.

I actually found the final chapter to be disappointing for reasons other than Minority Warrior axe-grinding, though. Up to then, in fact, the game had been downright gripping despite the missteps identified above – the Gabriel chapters were tense, increasingly claustrophobic, and offered a really great scare when Gabriel finds the werewolf in his lair (one of the few moments in the game where the FMV graphics really work in conveying something truly disturbing), whilst the Grace chapters which alternate with the Gabriel ones present a silly but really fun secret history that unfolds through Grace’s research that shows an intense level of attention to detail – to the point where the game includes a tour of Neuschwanstein complete with audio commentary. The puzzles don’t exactly pop (aside from one rather neat one involving splicing a tape with Gabriel’s fancy dual-deck tape recorder) and entail a certain amount of backtracking, and there are certain parts where the in-story logic of why you have to accomplish certain things before other things occur is somewhat unclear, but in general I was enjoying it a hell of a lot before Chapter 6 sucked all the momentum out of proceedings.

The issue seems to revolve in part around those two cut chapters, the removal of which seems to have necessitated a hasty rewrite of Chapter 6. I don’t know exactly what would have been in the missing chapters, beyond the fact that in one of them you would have played Ludwig II hiding the four parts of Wagner’s lost wolf opera before his arrest – a bit of content which is conveyed instead through a dream sequence – but there are things here and there you can infer. For instance, the documentation surrounding the opera suggests that to have the required occult effect, a set of special crystals are required, but there’s no puzzle surrounding their acquisition, which feels like a rather big omission.

A more glaring omission, however, is the option of an ending in which Gabriel just ends up by accident or choice becoming a werewolf permanently. The Beast Within sets up some interesting parallels with Sins of the Fathers: in both cases, the prime mover behind the nefariousness Gabriel is investigating becomes infatuated with Gabriel but is conflicted as a result of Gabriel’s Schattenjäger status. In the first game, you have a good ending in which Gabriel is saved at the price of the destruction of his beloved, or a more downbeat ending in which Gabriel succumbs to the same fate as her; to give Gabriel the choice to just become a wolf would seem to be an interesting twist here.

This isn’t mere counterfactual speculation without basis in the text, however. As a matter of fact, the game lays a lot of groundwork suggesting that this choice was actually going to be offered as part of the original plan. The most notable example is a long letter from the Baron to Gabriel begging him to join him in his life of lonelygay wolfery. This extends for several pages, and is one of the longer documents in the game, so the natural inclination is to take it seriously. On top of that, you have Meryl Smith (Judith Drake) – a comedy tourist from the Midwest who happens to also be a powerful medium that gives sages advice to Grace in her missions. Not only once but twice does she make utterances that suggest some sort of major choice is coming up; earlier on in the game, she does a tarot reading for Gabriel and proclaims that he is going to find himself torn between two natures and two paths are going to open up before him in the near future. The second time is after Gabriel is wolfbit when Grace specifically asks her about von Glower’s offer of alliance, and Meryl specifically and unambiguously says that this is a momentous choice Gabriel will have to make for himself.

No such choice is apparent in the endgame. Instead, you get a frustrating section where your viewpoint switches to first person for some goddamn reason, and an incredibly irritating conclusion where not only do you have to suss out how to switch from controlling Gabriel to controlling Grace and back – a mechanic not mentioned in the manual and not used before this point – but also display precisely the sort of lightning-fast reflexes that adventure games by and large make a virtue of not demanding. I got irritated with the final chapter before I reached this point due to its plodding pacing (because nothing builds up the tension for a climactic confrontation like being stuck on a bunch of pointless busywork

In short, budgetary constraints and a money-sapping departure into FMV carved a massive hole out of the heart of this game, and the edges of the wound are starkly obvious. Between that, the “women are so catty with each other” angle with Grace and Gerde, and the Emergency Heterosexuality Defence Woman incident at the start of Chapter 5, I have to say I’m far more fond of the game that The Beast Within occasionally hints at being than I am with the game it actually is.

Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned

The third game in the series saw yet another radical shift in graphical presentation and was accompanied by another shakeup to the cast – Tim Curry returned to the role of Gabriel, whilst both the returning characters from previous games got new voice actors – David Thomas does a reasonable job of mimicing Mark Hammil’s Mosely voice, whilst Charity James becomes the third actress to play Grace (marking an unfortunate return of the racially insensitive casting).

Irritatingly, the GOG download does not seem to include the graphic novel which was originally bundled with the game which explains exactly what is going on at the start and how Gabriel and Grace get entangled in the situation – you can piece it together fairly quickly in the early stages of play, but it’s still jarring to begin with. (This isn’t the only defect with the GOG version – I had to download a patched .exe file to actually start the game because the version you get from GOG looks for a CD-ROM where, because you’ve downloaded the game, there isn’t one.) A summary, based on what I inferred during play: Gabriel and Grace were hired by Prince James of Albany – the extremely wealthy heir to the Stuart dynasty, who felt that he and his family were in need of the services of the Schattenjägers. James feels that his interests are under threat from the so-called Night Visitors, a sinister nocturnal cabal who exhibit decidedly vampire-like behaviour, and is in particular worried that they might have designs on his newborn son. The Jacobite bairn is, in fact, kidnapped by the Night Visitors, and Gabriel sets off immediately in hot pursuit, with Grace to follow later once Gabriel traces the Visitors down to a particular area.

Gabriel, in fact, is able to tail the Night Visitors to a charming valley in the Languedoc region of southern France. The valley is home to the small town of Rennes-le-Château – epicentre of a sweeping range of conspiracy theories and alternative history ideas erupting from the mysterious behaviour and inexplicable wealth supposedly displayed by local priest Father Saunière during the 19th Century. The story goes that Saunière attained this wealth after uncovering certain documents during a renovation of the town church of St Mary Magdalen, and that these documents were the key to a great treasure in the area stashed by one of its former lords – the Merovingian kings, or the Templars, or the Cathars, or perhaps all three. The nature of this treasure is hotly debated – perhaps it is conventional wealth, perhaps it is the Holy Grail itself, perhaps it is a conceptual secret that the Church or other powerful institutions would prefer to be kept secret like the tomb of Christ (who, according to this theory, enjoyed his post-crucifixion retirement years in the region, where presumably he blended in with all the other retirees) or genealogical evidence that Christ had children with Mary Magdalen.

At first, Gabriel pays little heed to all this talk of treasure beyond using a local sightseeing tour of landmarks significant to the mystery (which his old pal from New Orleans Mosley happens to be on) as a cover for his snooping about in pursuit of the Night Visitors. Once Grace arrives, however, her natural curiosity is piqued – and before long Gabriel’s investigation of the Night Visitors and the kidnapping and Grace’s scrutiny of the mystery are turning up unusual parallels that suggest that the two matters are inextricably intertwined. Does the bloodline of Christ run via Rennes-le-Château down through the ages? Does Prince James’ baby have this blood flowing through his veins? And if that is the case, is there really a conspiracy of vampires who seek to use their dark powers to usurp the station and capabilities of Christ himself?

Emerging a full four years before The Da Vinci Code made Christ/Magdalen slash fiction a publishing phenomenon, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned has perhaps the best backstory of any of the Gabriel Knight games. The best part of The Beast Within was piecing together its audacious “Prince Ludwig was a woofle” theory, but this plot makes that seem positively mild. Jane Jensen has clearly taken in the wackiest takes of the Rennes-le-Château mystery including The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which popularised the “Christ had kids” side of the enigma, and Laurence Gardner’s even sillier Bloodline of the Holy Grail which went out of its way to support the case of ludicrous pseudo-Jacobite charlatan Michel Lafosse (Prince James here seems to be based on Lafosse as he would have liked people to believe he lived rather than Lafosse’s actual circumstances) and promote the idea that the mystery dates back to ancient Egyptian magic and secret wisdom and maybe-alien technology (which provides both a deliciously blasphemous explanation for Christ’s miracle-working and the origin of vampires). Having brought in all this material, she has crossed over as many of the most unusual strands of Rennes-le-Château theorising as she could, and then found a way to seamlessly add vampires, demons and wizards to the mix to come up with the most deliriously, vertigo-inducingly wild theories yet, a plot which it is a pleasure to unravel.

For the most part, the actual writing of the game is solid too. Each character benefits from a personality as distinctive as their character design and voice acting, and ongoing strands like the will-they won’t-they romantic tension between Gabriel and Grace are developed interestingly. This time around, Jensen seems to have been allowed to include gay characters without throwing in random prostitutes to salvage their heterosexuality, though her handling of them is occasionally clumsy. Jean, the day receptionist at the hotel where Gabriel and the tour group stay, is presented as being quite effeminate and is subjected to occasional gay jibes by Gabriel despite his sexuality never being directly addressed. Somewhat more finesse is shown in the depiction of Lady Howard and Estelle, an aristocratic British actress and her travelling companion who are fairly clearly in a relationship; for the most part they are treated as simply two more treasure hunters, though players who get into Estelle’s confidences will get some of the inside story on how they want to find the treasure in order to elevate Lady Howard out of her financially embarrassed position (Estelle being acutely aware that on a nurse’s salary she can’t maintain Lady Howard in the manner she is accustomed to). In most respects, the fact that their relationship cuts across class boundaries is actually of more significance to the plot and their characterisation than the fact that they are gay. Even then, the narration from both Grace and Gabriel – you play both at different stages in the game, as in the previous one – sneaks in comments here and there drawing attention to stuff like the way Estelle and Lady Howard were eager to swap a room with two single beds for a room with one double bed (“not that there’s anything wrong with that!” Gabriel sniggers) in a way which frames their relationship as weird and funny and transgressive, which is rather unfortunate.

Jensen’s recurring habit of having Grace get aggressively jealous of some attractive woman who catches Gabriel’s eye also returns this time in her interactions with Madeline, the travel guide. To be fair, for much of the game Gabriel is clearly interested in Madeline – more so than he seemed interested in Gerde in The Beast Within – and is also having long conversations with Mosely about how he likes Grace but she’s kind of too nice for him, so she isn’t just flying off the handle at Madeline for being sexy in proximity to Gabriel, but on the other hand grumping about being Friendzoned as a Nice Guy/Girl whilst the object of your attraction pursues jerks is an unappealing stance even if some sympathy can be mustered. In addition, the romantic subplot between Gabriel and Grace is presented with an abrupt plot twist right at the end of the game which is actually kind of poorly explained so at first it looks like Grace has been kidnapped rather than running away to join a monastery.

However, shaky handling of gay characters and a muddled romance isn’t what Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned is primarily infamous for. That, friends, would be the catstache puzzle, a puzzle in which Gabriel bullies a cat in order to produce a fake moustache so that he can disguise himself as a man who does not have a moustache. This lunacy was documented by Old Man Murray’s much-linked article on the death of the adventure game genre, and deservedly so. I would defend the game not letting you snag the hat mentioned in Old Man Murray’s article until Gabriel knows he needs it; if you want to tell a serious story in an adventure game medium you can’t have the main character grabbing stuff he sees no use for at random just in case it is needed later, because that would violate the internal logic of the story. In all other respects, the puzzle is just awful, a series of bizarre violations of in-game logic that pile ever-higher. (For instance, you can successfully approach Mosely to steal his passport from one direction but not the other because of a fumble he makes whilst eating a sweet – a fumble he only makes whilst you are watching him from the correct direction, despite the fact that this should have no real effect on his behaviour since he doesn’t know you are there.)

According to the development team, this was never supposed to happen. It would be unfair to Jensen to not point out that she didn’t actually design the puzzle in question: it was dreamed up by a producer late in the production cycle in order to replace Jensen’s own idea which simply couldn’t be implemented when it came to the crunch, and supposedly none of the team liked it but they rolled with it because they were tired and broken and just wanted to get the game out of the door at that point. If this is the case, it cannot have been an isolated incident. Other puzzles here fly in the face of Earth logic, like a bit where Gabriel reduces the swelling of a wooden window frame by smearing haemorrhoid cream on it. Other puzzles seem to have flaws which would surely have been caught in playtesting, like the bit where you are expected to recognise and pick up a pair of jet black binoculars sat on a jet black moped seat in such a way that unless you view the moped from just the right angle the binoculars at best look like contours on the seat, at worst are completely invisible.

According to insider accounts of the development process, the big culprit that ate up the budget, wasted everyone’s time, and prompted the rushed puzzle rewrites was the game’s 3D engine. Developed at a time when 2D point and click games were becoming deeply unfashionable and FMV was facing the inevitable backlash, it was decided that this would be the first fully 3D Gabriel Knight game. Unfortunately, Sierra’s efforts to develop their own engine was patchy at best, with an inordinate amount of time spent by the dev team ironing out bugs and glitches and severe limitations on what could actually be accomplished with the engine. However, it is evident from the finished game that the team struggled even when conceptualising how a 3D point-and-click adventure would work; even if it was perfectly emulated, what we get is a really, really strange way to implement a game. Rather than having a more conventional 3D approach where either the camera displays the world from a first-person perspective showing you exactly what the protagonist is looking at, or the camera shows a third person perspective where you can look around and change the camera angle as you wish but the camera view is always roughly centred on the protagonist, here the camera and the protagonist’s movements are completely divorced.

Specifically, the camera controls let you move the camera around the entire playing area you currently occupy, leaving whoever you are currently controlling behind, and Gabriel/Grace only move in response to you giving them instructions to walk to a point by clicking on it or if you instruct them to do something. Essentially, the team started by taking the static camera 2D point-and-click format they were used to and tried to think of ways they could use 3D to enhance that, failing to recognise that the point-and-click adventure format was shaped in part by the 2D graphics of the era the genre arose in and that a more fundamental rethink of the format was called for.

There are some advantages of the roving camera, mind – it does at least let you explore dangerous areas without moving your character out of safety – but these advantages aren’t exploited often enough to justify the eccentric format, or the jarring way the independent camera makes you identify less with Gabriel and Grace and hurts your immersion. I think this is mostly because in traditional point-and-clicks the camera doesn’t move unless the main character moves off-screen, at which point it follows them, so you’re always watching the main character and you’re always seeing the stuff in their immediate environment, whereas here you can get really quite distant from Gabriel or Grace and the overall effect is that you’re an invisible observer strolling around instructing them to go poke at stuff that they haven’t actually seen yet. On top of that, the camera controls are woefully incomplete; in particular, whilst you can go forwards and backwards, turn left and right, and look up and down, you can’t adjust camera height, which seems to be at the mercy of the environment in a rather unpredictable fashion, so as a consequence sometimes the camera ends up high in the air or right down on the ground and you have to wrestle the camera into position to look at something and click the “shift the camera over here to look at this object” button.

There’s also wonkiness relating to movement – there’s no “run” button that I can find, and most character animations are irritatingly slow. That said, you can hit escape to skip animations – even those for walking across the screen – and if you give a command when the camera is pointing directly away from Gabriel or Grace they will teleport to a position immediately behind the camera rather than walking the intervening distance (a bit like Creepy Watson) so you can save a lot of time that way.

It’s a shame the engine is so shaky, because it does have some strengths. In particular, the characters faces are more detailed than average for 3D games of this vintage and are capable of very nuanced expressions, which helps make conversations feel fleshed-out and real. For the most part, though, it’s an albatross about the game’s neck, and ultimately, as sympathetic as I am about the engine issues and last-minute puzzle rewrites, I have to review the game I have, not the game the dev team would have liked to have given me. On top of that, there are a number of plot threads that feel inadequately fleshed out. Although you discover that no less than two intelligence agencies, three secret societies, and the Vatican have agents interested in your activities, barely any of them take any active part in the conclusion whatsoever – the Vatican, French intelligence and the Priory of Sion basically don’t do a damn thing (the latter is a particularly bizarre choice because the Priory basically exists because of the Rennes-le-Château mystery), and all the rest really have to offer are two dudes who follow behind you not actually helping in any active, on-camera way whilst you do all the work in the final dungeon.

Ah yes, the dungeon. The final stretch of the game takes place in an underground complex which you discover via one of the better puzzles (which takes the whole sacred geometry deal many Rennes-le-Château theorists get giddy for and implements it in-game via Grace’s mapping software and the mysterious poem Le Serpente Rouge). It’s basically a series of fiddly wrong-click-and-you-die puzzles which get more arbitrary and annoying as you go along. This is a real shame, because whilst there are some shaky puzzles here and there, by and large the rest of the game actually does a good job of providing interesting, reality-grounded puzzles where you don’t even have to solve all of them to progress. Aside from the aforementioned Serpente Rouge, there’s fingerprints to lift, hotel rooms to sneak into, lies to expose and mysteries to uncover aplenty.

It’s notable that, in common with much latter-day Rennes-le-Château-related stuff that the names of Pierre Plantard and Gérard de Sède – the two hoaxers who originally concocted the whole Priory of Sion/treasure-as-genealogy nonsense in the 1960s and who so successfully took in the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – never come up. Facts and documents invented by the duo out of whole cloth are referred to as though they are legitimate historical data, without any real examination of what the actual sources for these things are. Where this would be infuriating in the hands of Dan Brown and other folk who try to seriously assert that there’s some truth to this gubbins, here it’s just silly fun and can be enjoyed on that level. It’s a testimony to Plantard and de Sède’s skill as hoaxers that the story has been able to rumble on with the two of them almost entirely fading into the background (save for those theories which assert that Plantard was the heir to the Merovingians, which was the original thrust of the hoax), and that the story keeps getting wilder and crazier with each retelling in ways neither man expected. (For instance, the Jesus angle seems to have been introduced by the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, prompting Pierre Plantard to loudly distance himself from that side of the story.) Likewise, it’s a credit to Jensen’s skill as a game designer that she was so able to recognise and tease out interesting gameplay from the enigmatic story that Plantard and de Sède concocted.

Unfortunately, the teething troubles and overall rushed nature of the game means that a lot of the finer points of the game are obscured. Jane Jensen’s new Pinkerton Road studio has announced that it’s embarking on a remake project that may hopefully culminate in a fourth game in the Gabriel Knight series; I would say that of all the games, this one the most in the need of a remake, or rather a complete rebuild from the ground up – this time, without the damn cat.

One Great Game Divided Between Three Lesser Games

The frustrating thing about the Gabriel Knight series is how close it all comes to really coming together and catching fire. If you had a game with the audacious backstory of Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, the emotional resonance and tight plotting of The Beast Within, and the deep, intricate conversations, fleshed-out characterisation and evocative sense of place of Sins of the Fathers, and if the puzzles were presented less as arbitrary roadblocks and more as natural components of the story and if the deaths were carefully signposted, then you’d have a classic game on your hands.

Unfortunately, Jensen and her team never quite managed to produce a game which covered all of those bases. The first game comes the closest, but tackles issues of race which it is ill-equipped to handle without leaving a bad taste in the mouth. The second game could, perhaps, have got there if it had had the budget to be completed according to Jane’s vision, though arguably there was an equal onus on Jensen to craft her vision appropriately in order to fit the budget she actually had rather than the budget she wished she had. The same goes double for Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, though in that case I think Sierra as a whole were taken by surprise by the complications which arose from the shift to 3D. On the whole, it does make me wish that the later games in the series had simply kept the 2D point-and-click format of the original, without the FMV and 3D embellishments which Jensen and her team clearly struggled to handle. Perhaps the remakes, or the rumoured fourth game, will finally realise the series potential; in the end, as with The Beast Within, I find myself more impressed with the stories and games that Gabriel Knight suggests rather than those actually presented.

6 thoughts on “GOGathon: Gabriel Knight Trilogy

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