The Gabriel Knight series, a tour in ’90s adventure game development

In 1990 Sierra On-Line was looking for suitable people for a writer’s group the company was putting together to elevate the writing and dialog for its games and the accompanied written material. The game business was maturing, ambitions were skyrocketing, and the competition was getting stiffer than ever. Being situated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range hours from the buzzing big cities, attracting new talent wasn’t always easy. While the company was known and loved by people in the business getting people who weren’t necessarily computer literate like writers and managers could prove a challenge. Going through applications and resumes, the manager for the newly established group found a resume accompanied by a sample of a short story sent in almost a year earlier by system programmer and aspiring writer Jane Jensen.

Jensen, like Sierra On-Line co-founder Roberta Williams, had experienced William Crowther and Don Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure on mainframes in the early days of computing and discovered that she not only enjoyed the interactive piece of fiction but also found an interest in logic and programming. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science from Anderson University in Indiana Jensen joined Hewlett-Packard in 1983 as a system programmer. While she on the side was writing fiction and trying to publish a novel and various short stories it became apparent that her creativity and passion for writing wouldn’t be fulfilled as an engineer with HP.

In 1989 Jensen purchased her first personal computer and now had a chance to experience where a decade of advancement in technology had taken the interactive fiction genre. From the rudimentary text-only games of the late ’70s to On-Line Systems‘ text-parser-driven graphic adventures of the early ’80s to the now fully animated titles like Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest series. The adventure games of Sierra soon captured her imagination and after a year of fascination and enjoyment, Jensen decided to unsolidified applying for a job at Sierra. Merging her technology background and experience with her love and passion for writing was appealing indeed.

Jensen was brought in for an interview in 1990 and whatever hesitations she had before, completely evaporated. She was ready to leave the Bay area and her high-paid secure job at HP for an entry-level creative position as a computer game writer, in the woods close to Yosemite National Park.
Jensen joined Jim Walls and his team working on the third installment in the popular Police Quest series where she contributed with story elements and ideas for puzzles before getting together with Gano Haine and co-designing the 1991 children’s adventure title EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, her first project working as a fully-fledged game designer.

In 1992 Jensen joined veteran designer Roberta Williams as co-designer, co-writer, and co-director on the highly anticipated sixth installment in the King’s Quest series. During the project, Jensen got an unprecedented insight into Roberta’s over 10 years of experience not only working as a game designer but also as a director, managing and leading a team down the same path, incorporating her visions into the final product.
King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow when released in 1992 became an overnight commercial and critical success and is widely regarded as the pinnacle title of the series. Jensen’s successful involvement with writing, directing, and designing didn’t go unnoticed and she was immediately given the opportunity to pitch ideas for her own game.

Jensen, partly inspired by the 1987 American neo-noir psychological horror film Angel Heart, eventually landed on a murder mystery thriller, unfolding in New Orleans, with supernatural elements and a much darker setting than what Sierra’s adventure games were otherwise known for. While co-founder Ken Williams had hoped for a more cheerful setting and story he had full confidence in his designers and a go-ahead for the game was given.
Jensen began work on the plot narratives and when the overall story was in place it was broken into game design elements for locations, puzzles, items, dialogue trees, etc. The game’s production was handled by Jensen with assistance from Roberta Williams. Jensen’s husband and producer Robert Holmes joined as the game’s composer.
During development, the internal tools at Sierra, which were in a constant state of flux, were updated to SCI 32. The switch from the earlier framework led to almost six months of battling issues, nonetheless, the game managed to reach late Christmas shoppers when released on the 17th of December 1993.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was released to an immediately enthusiastic audience. With the strength of Jensen’s writing, along with the game’s mature and dark nature, Gabriel Knight filled a void in Sierra’s otherwise very strong adventure game portfolio.
The titular character, an author and book store owner in New Orleans is investigating a strange series of murders when he learns he has descended from a long line of Schattenjägers, Shadow Hunters. After undergoing a spiritual trial, Gabriel becomes the new Schattenjäger, called on to stop those who use supernatural methods to threaten others

An 11-disc floppy version and a CD-ROM version of Jane Jensen’s first Gabriel Knight title, Sins of the Father were released simultaneously right before Christmas in 1993.
The floppy version came without voice acting and had an animated sequence switched for still images. The multimedia version came with superb voice acting, done by well-known actors like Tim Curry, Leah Remini, Virginia Capers, Mark Hamill, and Michael Dorn

Immediately after the release of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, Jensen was asked to work on a sequel. While the game earned Consumer Electronics Show‘s Best of Show in 1993 and Adventure Game of the Year by multiple gaming authorities the title missed its predicted sales mark and didn’t become a major commercial hit. Regardless, being well-received and lauded for its more mature and darker theme and extremely well-written story, Jensen felt she could push the darkness of the sequel even more than she had done with the first.
Technology was rapidly evolving and with adventure games being the AAA titles of the time, developers always strived to comply with new techniques to stand out from the otherwise crowded genre. While the first title had been created with the now-classic 2D painted backgrounds and 3rd-person animated character approach, the team pursued to do the sequel in Full-Motion Video, FMV. Hollywood and computer game development was at the time predicted to merge but the lack of experience in live-action film production and the challenges with real actors acting for a game on blue or greenscreen resulted in various issues throughout the development phase. The team had to continuously adapt to this unproven method, ultimately resulting in going over budget and having to cut one entire chapter from the final game.

In 1995 Jensen’s sequel, The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, was finally completed and released. It went on to perform exceptionally well, winning the Game of the Year in Computer Gaming World and even receiving positive reviews from mainstream media like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly.

Jane Jensen’s sequel, The Beast Within was released in 1995 to much critical acclaim.
The game came on six CDs, a testament to how much data the chosen full-motion video approach required

Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria, another title for the mature audience, utilized the same full-motion video technology as Jensen’s The Beast Within. Both were published within months of each other and faced multiple production challenges but Phantasmagoria became a huge financial success selling 300.000 copies, grossing $12 million in its opening weekend, and becoming one of the best-selling games of 1995. By comparison, it would take Jensen’s two Gabriel Knight games five years to sell the same amount of copies.

Following the release of the second title, Jensen began the novelization of the first Gabriel Knight game, with much dialogue coming straight from the game, as well as the general arrangement which affected the overall structure of the book. The book went on to sell well enough when released in 1997 for Jensen to start work on a novelization of the sequel. To create a better-structured book than the first she rewrote much of the story from the game, resulting in a better adaption when completed in 1998.

While Jane Jensen had been an aspiring writer for much of her adult life it wasn’t until the success of her first two Gabriel Knight games that she had a chance to have her writings published.
Jensen’s Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father and The Beast Within novels were published in 1997 and 1998 respectively

While Jensen was ready to embark on the third and what would become the last title in her Gabriel Knight series. The market for adventure games was in rapid decline, the huge amount of work and financial cost of doing high-end adventure games was becoming more and more unattractive and Sierra was feeling the heat. Although the full-motion video approach had initially sparked interest, it proved to be extremely expensive due to the need for actors, sets, and specialized equipment, presenting new and unique challenges not commonly encountered in game development. Numerous developers eagerly embraced the FMV trend, but lacking the substantial budgets and knowledge required, the sub-genre swiftly devolved into B-movie-like experiences, ultimately impairing the general perception of full-motion video games.

In 1996 the first two Gabriel Knight titles were re-released in the Gabriel Knight Mysteries: Limited Edition.
A sneak preview of Jane Jensen’s next chapter in the Gabriel Knight series: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned was included

By the mid-to-latter part of the ’90s, 3D real-time graphics was becoming the hottest thing around and while the approach was deemed fit for a number of genres it didn’t necessarily make sense with adventure games, regardless, the struggling genre went 3D without too many questions asked. Also, Sierra felt the Gabriel Knight series would benefit from a move to 3D graphics, to keep up with the time but more or less failed to acknowledge the format required a completely reworked pipeline and a new and skilled 3D labor force, all of which required both time and money, both of which being in short demand.
Delays and other various challenges led to Jensen not commencing on the third title before late 1996. A 3D engine had to be developed and a team assembled who could utilize the engine, craft the 3D scenes, characters, and animation all of which would require thousands of man-hours. It would take another three years of production before the game was ready to ship, during that time Sierra On-Line was going through some tumultuous times with Ken Williams stepping down as CEO when the company was sold to direct marketing service CUC International. Any clear direction disappeared and the adventure game development was neglected. The third title, Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned would become the last standing adventure game in production.

Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned was to become the last title in the Gabriel Knight series when released in November of 1999.

Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, when released in late 1999, received mixed reviews. Jensen’s story, plots, and puzzles would all be praised but the execution in emotionless 3D wasn’t a complete success story and was deemed unnecessary by many seasoned adventure game players. The high cost and long production time coupled with the declining market for adventure games, in general, resulted in no further titles in the series being commissioned.

Jensen’s three Gabriel Knight titles each tells the story of different periods during the ’90s. From the golden age of adventures, in the early ’90s to the constant struggle trying to adapt and keep up with the next biggest thing in technology alongside the declining market in the latter part of the decade. Despite technology and its pitfalls, Jensen proved herself to be an accomplished writer, better than most in the business. She experienced Sierra On-Line in its heyday, working with some of the most beloved designers there ever were, Roberta Williams, Jim Walls, and Corey and Lori Ann Cole to name a few.

Jensen would continue to work in games and in 2012 established the game studio Pinkerton Road together with husband Robert Holmes. A Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds for the studio’s first year of game development and in 2014 the studio released its first game, Moebius: Empire Rising and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition which included improved graphics, a remastered soundtrack, new puzzles, and gameplay elements.

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