Halloween is over, but our gaming special week is just about to begin. If you’re wondering what happened to the counting method of 2013 (as Costume Quest being Day 8), just remember that this wasn’t really the eighth day of gaming, but the first one. Confused? You’ll figure it out. Until then, what better way to get into the horror mood than digging out some classics?
Mature storytelling wasn’t really that prevalent with more comedy-focused games by Sierra and LucasArts back in the days. But Jane Jensen (as former co-designer of King’s Quest VI) finally brought point-and-click mystery adventure game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers to the table and changed the genre forever.
Gabriel Knight (PC)
(USA 1993, developer/publisher: Sierra On-Line (defunct), platform: PC)
Antiquarian bookstore owner and aspiring author Gabriel Knight finds himself in a triangle of love and murder with a voodoo sect in New Orleans.
Cinema in gameplay form
The plot might be reminiscent of the voodoo mystery thriller Angel Heart, which is no surprise, because Jane Jensen herself said the movie was a big influence. But the way the story is told and how the characters interact is still impressive today. Sure, there are some clichéd and not so subtle relationship/love changes between Gabriel and Malia Gedde, a woman who is involved in the voodoo plot. However, the writing is generally very good and the characters are believable. Each chapter/day has enough surprises to keep them player going, making him feel as part of a thriller with mystery and horror elements.
The way the story and characters develop is also handled quite well. Gabriel coming to grips with his past, his relationship with bookstore employee Grace Nakimura, and the unraveling of the voodoo murders go hand in hand, providing an incentive to keep on playing or rather experiencing a cinematic-like story. The different endings are a nice touch as well, although it only depends on one specific decision and, taking the sequel into account, only one outcome makes sense.
Historical theory and investigative practice
There is also an emphasis on historical background knowledge about voodoo that permeates the game. This feeding of information is usually well interwoven with the story, e.g. when listening to a lecture at a university after following the lead to a professor or hearing from a museum owner about the different kinds of voodoo practices, its roots, and subsequent commercialization. Unfortunately, at times the overload of information turns the game into history lesson, even if it adds to the realism.
However, it’s the mix of investigation and puzzle solving that makes the title so memorable and different from its peers. The pacing is excellent due to new leads the player has to follow and therefore daily new challenges he has to face. The only problem is that there are few clues about where to go next or when something changes, one usually has to rely on the old trial & error method, going about the many locations of New Orleans.
The same holds true for the puzzles which are very obscure and downright frustrating at times, e.g. when one has to decode drum messages and then create one’s own sentences, which can be extremely hard with so many word combinations. There are also a couple of unfair death sequences resulting from awkward controls and not enough time to react. Some speed problems with newer PCs are also annoying, making certain scenes or events buggy to play. Two dead ends are unnecessary as well, even if these issues aren’t as prevalent as in previous Sierra titles.
The look and sound of New Orleans
Technically, the game shows its age despite some nicely drawn backgrounds. The main problem of the pixel art is that many important objects are difficult to make out. While the character portraits show attention to detail, the characters themselves often look a bit silly with their few animations, especially in more dramatic scenes. However, the cutscenes and the comic-book style in key parts of the game are still aesthetically pleasing.
Special mention has to go to the soundtrack and voice acting. The score fits the individual situations perfectly with either melancholic piano tunes, instrumental band music, or faster midi tracks. The main theme in particular is very catchy and memorable despite the low sound quality. The voice cast is quite impressive, considering that talents like Mark Hamill (Star Wars), Michael Dorn (Star Trek), and even Tim Curry (Rocky Horror Picture Show) reprising the role of the titular hero, give the game an even more cinematic feel. Unfortunately the narrator can be very annoying with her strong Southern accent and drawn out sentences, so it’s a good thing that she can be turned off. The rest of the voice actors do their job quite well, although some dialogue scenes could have been shorter and less exaggerated.
A classic or dusty piece of gaming history?
Gabriel Knight is considered to be a true classic of the point-and-click genre. As it’s always the case with these nostalgic assumptions, looking at it from today’s perspective, there are some problems, e.g. pixel hunting as well as abstract and sometimes due to its linearity even nonsensical puzzles
But despite these technical problems, the game remains an example of engaging storytelling with memorable characters and varied gameplay. Even if it can’t hide the fact that influences of cinema show the same clichés and overacting in certain scenes, Sierra’s title is a testament to the possibilities of mature gaming long before today’s Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead, or Life Is Strange brought it to non-gamers.
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