There was a time when FMV (full motion video) games were all the rage, but few succeeded as well as Jane Jensen’s The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery did. A game that even surpasses the first Gabriel Knight and perfectly fits the horror theme of our special gaming week.
The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery (PC)
(USA 1995, developer/publisher: Sierra On-Line (defunct), platform: PC)
Schattenjäger Gabriel Knight has to investigate a series of murders in the surrounding area of Munich, while her partner Grace Nakimura unravels the mystery of King Ludwig II’s death.
Bavaria, a land of fairytales, folklore and sausages
This is a truly epic story Jane Jensen came up with. The way the present-day murders, which at first seem to be connected to normal wolves, a hunter society and the past of Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, and Richard Wagner are connected is unparalleled even today, mixing fact and fiction like no other game. The atmosphere is both romantic, as seen in vistas like Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee where Grace has to do research, and dangerous, like the dark Bavarian woods. Munich is also a central part of the investigation and a stark contrast to the rural surroundings. Unfortunately, it’s also very clichéd, e.g. with a big-boned police chief, a Gepetto (Pinoccio’s father/creator)-like cuckoo’s clockmaker, and another big-boned sausage vendor. An American elderly couple (with the woman turning out to be a psychic) is a bit too much farcical comedy as well.
However, despite some obvious German/Bavarian prejudices and an often too romanticized view of King Ludwig’s history, Jane Jensen manages to present a mystery that is fascinating, captivating and intriguing. Visiting all the real places, reading museum infos, and looking at paintings feels like actually walking there in person. The sense of place is spot on despite the problematic use of actors who aren’t German. Unfortunately, this reliance on historical facts is at times detrimental to the pacing of the story, as reading through countless pages of text is necessary to trigger events. The writing is excellent, and Jensen does a good job to mix her own writing with actual historical writing. But there could have been less exposition.
The same is true with supernatural elements finding their way into psychological, cognitive science. Even if Grace’s connection with Ludwig II is believable when she learns more about him, the romanticized presentation often goes too far and ends up as being nothing more than TV drama. Gabriel’s assistant comes across as way too emotional and downright nasty sometimes. This might be due to the actress who isn’t a really good one, but it’s also down to the writing. Gabriel is better off, and his growing (even with a sense of homoerotic) friendship with the hunter’s lodge leader Baron von Glower is a nice example of a more subtle approach. Dialogues full of philosophical discussion still end up to be too long at times, though.
Do you spreken die Deutsch and good acting, ja?
Of course with an FMV game, the main question is in how far the acting can convey what the writing wants to achieve. Despite Dean Erickson as Gabriel and Peter J. Lucas as von Glower showing likeable characters, they don’t come without overacting and forced humor. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare well, either, leading to unintentionally funny scenes which result from Americans trying to sound German, like Kriminalkommissar Thomas Leber played by Nicholas Worth. So the acting wouldn’t win any Oscars, and even for TV standards it’s pretty bad, with the atmosphere obviously suffering in tense moments. However, if one gets used to it, watching the actors and actresses do their work becomes a guilty pleasure.
Point, click, and watch puzzles (dis)solving
Fortunately, the gameplay fares much better than in most FMVs, as it plays like a full-grown point-and-clicker. Despite long video sequences and dialogues, one always takes an active part in the investigation by following leads, e.g. talking to various suspects and other people, opening up new topics in dialogue trees, but also solving puzzles. It’s too bad that most of these conundrums struggle with a grip on reality.
Even if they’re meant to be believable, e.g. when Gabriel has to take a pawprint, mixes water with plaster and carries the bucket to the place and back, the long video sequences make it slow work. Even more problematic are solutions which are so obscure and silly that it breaks immersion as well, not even taking into account why Gabriel should carry around a neatly wrapped sausage or other, heavier stuff with him. But then again, this is a problem the point-and-click genre has always been suffering from: convoluted puzzles which seldom have anything to do with reality, made even more obvious in FMVs.
The lack of clues is frustrating enough, but what makes the game even more difficult to play are timed sequences and instant deaths. There are way too many of these, something Sierra titles have always been accused of. Most of them can be avoided, but some, e.g. two hunting sequences and one hiding scene, give too little time to react.
Low budget looks but impressive opera sounds
It seems pointless to write about graphics in an FMV, but one can discuss how backgrounds, special effects and music in particular are used. The video quality is, from today’s perspective, disappointing with a pixellated look that even in its higher resolution with interlacing is dated. The use of real actors in front of inserted photos isn’t perfect, either, but one can get used to it. Special effects are another thing entirely, especially computer-generated morphing sequences which look quite low budget. Unfortunately, there are also a few glitches in the game, with stuttering in sounds and some system crashs during video sequences.
The soundtrack on the other hand is excellent and unique. Its recording quality is much higher than in the previous game with an emphasis on bombastic setpieces, while it’s also part of the story, mainly the lost opera of composer Richard Wagner which was written exclusively for this game. Although as a German one feels that it lacks a refined language (grammar included) and the performance with actors is a bit too long, it’s still amazing to see something like this in a game.
An epic tale with medium problems
The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery is a unique title in the FMV and adventure game genre. While there are obvious flaws in acting and obscure puzzles, it succeeds in creating an atmosphere that is often romantic, enchanting, but also suspenseful, dramatic and even funny (notwithstanding unintentionally). While its portrait of Bavaria and Germany isn’t without its problems due to clichés, this is more than just a tour guide.
The mix of fact and fiction might stumble at times (and so does the medium in which the story is told), but the way everything comes together is remarkable. There hasn’t been a game since with its own opera, which shows how much ambition and attention to detail Jane Jensen put into this sequel. As someone like me who’s been to most of these locations, I can safely say that even many years after its publication, The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery gives a pretty realistic presentation of them.
A funny (or not so funny if you live there like myself) note: The original release in Germany didn’t have dubbing and subtitles. What was even worse: it had some violent scenes censored with a black screen and a description of what happened. The later localized German version was uncensored, though.
Buy the digital version on
If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page :). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using one of the GOG or Amazon links and buying the product also helps ;).