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Happy Birthday, Gabriel Knight

As Jane Jensen celebrates the 20th birthday of one of her most beloved creations with an all-new remake, we look back on a game that helped bring the medium into a new era of mature, thoughtful interactive entertainment.

By Pete Davison. Published 6 months ago

"The first time we have actually experienced fear from watching a computer game," is a quote from Computer Gaming World, proudly displayed at the top-center of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers' original packaging.

I had already played both Alone in the Dark (1992) and Doom (1993) -- both of which had thoroughly creeped me out -- by the time I came to Sins of the Fathers for the first time, so I was well aware of gaming's new-found capacity to grapple with players' emotions, but it felt striking and noteworthy for it to be acknowledged like this. Sins of the Fathers' gigantic box, housing 11 floppy disks, felt important. It wanted to be noticed. It wanted you to pay attention to it. And it wanted to prove that games weren't just for kids.

Twenty years later, Sins of the Fathers is one of my most fondly remembered games -- so much so that I go back and replay it every few years, with my most recent runthrough being just this year. I'm not alone in that, either; the series' enduring popularity over the years means that in most groups of gamers of a certain age there's at least one person who knows what cabrit sans cor' means, even if they don't speak French, or someone who will smile knowingly if you ask them what they know about voodoo in an exaggerated Irish accent.

In most groups of gamers of a certain age there's at least one person who knows what "cabrit sans cor'" means.

Here's St. George's Books, still dingy and dark even in hi-res.

With the decline in popularity of the point and click adventure game in the late '90s, Gabriel Knight's creator Jane Jensen disappeared from the front lines of game development for a while, though continued working as designer and director on a variety of crime-themed games in the early years of the 21st century. She poked her head up again a little more prominently in 2010 with the release of Gray Matter, a reasonably well-received point and click adventure for PC and Xbox 360, and again in 2012 with a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a brand new game and the formation of a new studio known as Pinkerton Road. She also acted as story consultant on Phoenix Online Studios' episodic adventure Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, which recently hit Steam.

Gabriel Knight has seemingly always been on Jensen's mind, though, even as she worked on other projects. One of the goals she stated on her Kickstarter was that she wanted to work on more games in the series, and having a successful first year with both Moebius (the game funded by the campaign) and a title known only as "Mystery Game X" would help ensure that would happen.

As it turns out, "Mystery Game X" is actually something that Gabriel Knight fans have been clamoring for for some time -- a full remake of Sins of the Fathers, set for release in the middle of next year. The new version, developed by Cognition creator and Jensen collaborator Phoenix, features redrawn artwork at 2048x1536 resolution (as opposed to the 640x480/320x200 of the original), a remastered soundtrack by the game's original composer Robert Holmes, and "special edition content." Gabriel himself has had a bit of a visual makeover, too, making him look more consistent with his appearance in the second and third games in the series.

In a move that some may find controversial, the voices have been recast, albeit largely out of necessity. While the original Sins of the Fathers featured an all-star cast including Tim Curry in the role of Gabriel Knight plus Michael Dorn, Leah Remini, Mark Hamill and numerous others in the various supporting cast roles, the new version has a new lineup. "The original actors are twenty years older," explains the team on the project's FAQ page. "Even if they were interested in reprising their roles, they probably wouldn't sound like they did 'back then' -- and the cost of getting some of those actors wasn't practical for the budget of this project." Not only that, but the original recordings were lost, and the low sound quality of the original files from the CD-ROM version wasn't acceptable for a modern game.

The new voices are the work of Bay Area Sound, who were responsible for Telltale's The Walking Dead, Sam & Max and Tales of Monkey Island as well as Jensen's own Moebius, and the new lineup of actors is apparently "true to the spirit of the original cast" -- the studio certainly has a decent pedigree if nothing else. Jensen and the team are coy on further details at present, but the voice work is apparently already done to Jensen's satisfaction, with more information coming as the remake gets closer to its release for PC, Mac and iPad in the middle of next year.

Knight is charismatic, sarcastic and flirtatious to a fault, but his Southern drawl and smutty jokes belie a keenly intelligent, inquisitive mind.

The bright colors of the stained-glass window here in Schloss Ritter highlight how the game is both colorful and atmospheric at the same time -- something a lot of modern games struggle with.

Anatomy of a Classic

It's worth looking back and contemplating why the return of Gabriel Knight to our screens is worthy of note, and why Sins of the Fathers itself was such a landmark game on its original release.

The simple answer to that is "maturity." While other games at the time weren't averse to flinging a bit of blood around in the name of being able to slap a "parental guidance suggested" logo on the box, games that told truly grown-up stories were a relative rarity. This isn't to say that story-based games weren't around at all, of course -- Gabriel Knight developer Sierra On-Line had been specializing in them for some years by the time Sins of the Fathers came out, with stiff competition coming from its longtime rival LucasArts -- but for the most part, adventure game developers in particular tended to focus on more cartoonish, light-hearted adventures such as early Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer titles like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, and Sierra's fairy tale-inspired King's Quest series.

Jensen herself had worked on a couple of titles for Sierra prior to going solo for the first time on Sins of the Fathers -- specifically, the third Police Quest game, educational adventure game EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, and King's Quest VI alongside veteran designer Roberta Williams. In 1993, she was given the opportunity to create her own game, and it ended up being regarded by many critics as one of Sierra's best titles -- even with it being such a big departure from what the company was usually known for.

Grace Nakimura remains one of the best, most realistic female characters in game history.

The remake is using the Unity engine, which means Knight will be 3D rather than a sprite. He certainly looks better than the low-poly model in GK3, though.

Knight himself is a big draw to the game, because he's an interesting character and, like most of his castmates, heavily flawed. He's not a gritty, foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping action hero; he's a normal person. At the outset of the game, he's a struggling author who runs a perpetually empty bookshop to make ends meet, supported only by his long-suffering assistant Grace Nakimura. Knight is charismatic, sarcastic and flirtatious to a fault, but his Southern drawl and smutty jokes belie a keenly intelligent, inquisitive mind -- indeed, it is his innately curious nature that draws him in to the game's central "Voodoo Murders" case, and subsequently into his supernatural investigator "Schattenjäger" (Shadow Hunter) role that persists through the rest of the series.

Part of Knight's trouble is that he doesn't know when to stop -- whether he's pursuing the affections of a woman he has his eye on, or getting involved in a case like the Voodoo Murders. His impulsiveness gets him into trouble on more than one occasion, and ultimately culminates in him being forced to reluctantly take up the Schattenjäger mantle his family has held for so long -- though his determination and stubbornness means he will always see things through rather than run away from his problems.

Nakimura, meanwhile, remains one of the best, most realistic female characters in game history. Intelligent, honest, forthright, non-sexualized and completely immune to Knight's flirtatious ways, she's his perfect sidekick. Her willingness to believe in the supernatural, ability to sense danger and talent for research help complement Knight's impulsiveness, skepticism and impatience, and indeed cooperating with Grace is an important part of all three games in the series. A lot of the relationship between Knight and Nakimura is left open to interpretation -- while at times she can act outright hostile towards him, particularly when he's being especially chauvinistic, it's clear that the two care for one another, perhaps as more than friends. To the series' credit, though, while the relationship between Knight and Nakimura is explored a great deal, it never descends into predictable "romantic interest" territory -- and that, in part, is what keeps things interesting.

Sins of the Fathers isn't just a story about two people, though; there's a large supporting cast of characters, each of whom is as well-realized as both Nakimura and Knight. An in-depth topic-based conversation system allows Knight to interrogate each of the game's major characters on a variety of subjects, with each question leading to an interesting conversation that reveals something about the story or the characters. In order to complete the game, it's by no means necessary to go through all the conversational options, but in doing so you learn a lot about the world in which Sins of the Fathers unfolds. You learn about the Knight family history, about the New Orleans setting, about how the various characters relate to one another -- and, of course, information about the underlying themes of voodoo that the game's overarching plot focuses on. The game also knows when to restrain itself, though -- Jensen doesn't feel the need to explicitly explain the origins of the relationship between Knight and his friend Detective Mosely, for example, because the story kicks off at a point where they've already known one another for years. Their relationship is, instead, made clear through the way they playfully (and, often, offensively) josh one another, and in the fact that Mosely is often willing to look the other way when Knight does a few things that would be somewhat questionable in the eyes of the law.

Sins of the Fathers remains, to this day, a fine example of what interactive storytelling is all about -- and the huge benefits having a good writer on your staff can bring to the experience.

Bonus points if you remember all the drum codes.

Above all, though, the most interesting thing about Sins of the Fathers is that it doesn't treat the player like a fool. It acknowledges that people aren't always honest or nice to one another, and that relationships are complicated. It explores the complex interplay between ancient traditions and the modern (well, '90s) world. And it tells a tale that, even when it delves further into the "supernatural" side of things in its latter hours, remains consistently believable and enjoyable throughout. It remains, to this day, a fine example of what interactive storytelling is all about -- and the huge benefits having a good writer on your staff can bring to the experience as a whole.

The remake will be a great opportunity for Jensen and her team to bring one of the best stories in all of gaming to a whole new modern audience… but, of course, if you can't wait, the original game and its two sequels are available right now on GOG.com.

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