RE:Play – Gabriel Knight 1The Dark Herald
“I dreamt of blood upon the shore, of eyes that spoke of sin. the lake was smooth and deep and black, as was her scented skin…” -Gabriel Knight
Cliche: defined as “an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.”
Dirty little secret of the writing business. Cliche is our bread and butter. It serves a vitally important purpose. It lets the audience know everything they need to about something or someone without having to write an entire background chapter for each person you meet.
You run into a fat man with bourbon on his breath in a wrinkly and disheveled suit, he has oily hair that looks like it was combed yesterday and a three-day growth of beard. The fat man flashes you a detective badge. Thanks to the magic of Cliche, you the reader, already know everything you need to about this cop. You are prepared for it when he does the things he does. You expect it, without the writer having to go through the trouble of giving him an in-depth biography.
Cliche is a very useful tool. Sure it’s cheesy but if you do it right. It is just the right amount of cheese.
And speaking of just the right amount of cheese, let me tell y’all about Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Father.
The first and to my mind best of the Gabriel Knight games was released by Sierra on December 10, 1993 (yes, the date is important, put a pin in that one). It was the last of great franchises launched by that company. It came out when they were at the top of their league and they were really trying to up their game (literally).
In truth. Gabriel Knight wasn’t so much a game as it was an interactive novel. Admittedly, a choose your own adventure kind of novel where your adventure ended in death quite a lot but that was the flavor. It was also a mystery and mystery was in Sierra’s DNA. All of the early text-adventure games from Zork to Mystery House were firmly embedded in that genre. You were always trying to put together the clues that would tell you what had happened and what needed to be done.
Mysteries were at the heart of all Sierra games. Even in their role-player, Quest for Glory, you had to ask all of the townspeople of Speilburg what the problem was and then ask more questions in order to figure out how to solve it.
Jane Jensen was a budding novelist when she was hired to write King’s Quest 6. That one did so well that she was given her own title and she went ham on it.
Gabriel Knight begins with the Sierra logo portrayed (prophetically as it turned out) like a tombstone. You then see a montage with a lot of flash cuts of still scenes that shows a man in late 17th century dress presiding over the burning of a witch. The witch turns into a jaguar while roasting away and suddenly the images flash to a dead man who has been hanged from a tree. A man sits bolt upright in bed clearly awakening from a nightmare, it is the same man who had been hanged. Say hello to Gabriel Knight.
Then we see actual opening credits, which as I recall was still a little unusual back then. It might have been a contractual requirement because for once the voices weren’t being supplied by “Jimmy the Intern.” Sierra actually spent money on the voice talent and they spent it wisely. The cast had Mark Hamill, Micheal Dorn (Worf), and Tim Curry providing Gabriel’s voice in a thicker than gumbo “Nu Or’lens” accent. Even the names you don’t recognize have fairly long entires in IMDB. All of the voices were provided by professional character actors who are real workers.
When we first meet Gabriel Knight he is a mystery novelist who owns a bookstore in New Orleans. This was a more common cliche at the time, (dating as it did from a time before B&N and Borders had wiped those guys out). Gabriel’s assistant is a firecracker with a hot librarian vibe, her name is Grace and she takes no shit from her boss. She clearly has a little bit of a thing for him but she is way too proud to admit it.
Knight: How come we haven’t gone out yet?
Grace: I’m still waiting for that lobotomy. As soon as I get it, I’ll let you know.
Good stuff. (also, never hand a woman a straight line like that)
Gabriel, in a desperate search of inspiration for his next book (brother, I feel your pain) turns to the biggest mystery cliche there is and becomes a Jessica Fletcher. A mystery writer turned amateur sleuth. But Jensen made it work. Knight is so naturally intrusive and obnoxious that you can totally buy his butting into everybody’s business. Speaking of intrusive. Gabriel would shatter the nerves of modern Human Resources departments. He hits on every woman he meets and cops a feel off of his own assistant. Jensen built her character using fairly blunt and obvious instruments. She constructed Garbreil using mega-blocks but the cliches did their job and you buy him as a character. You believe in the flow of it because you know Gabriel Knight would do the things he did.
There is a series of ritualistic killings going on in New Orleans that the newspapers (game released in 1993) have dubbed the Voodoo Murders. “Mudder most foul.” Knight has a friend who is a fat, sweaty detective (but he smiles a lot so you know he’s a good guy). He’s running the investigation and he tolerates Gabriel’s blatant intrusiveness.
One of the story’s outstanding strengths is the setting. The Big Easy is brought to sweaty, artery clogged life in glorious VGA. There are Beignets carts and buskers in the parks, streets that haven’t been cleaned up since the last Mardi Gras, and the cop behind the counter at the station is gobbling down a muffuletta* sandwich. The cemetery has those famously beautiful New Orleans mausoleums** but some of them have markings on them and candles and offerings out in front. This lets you know that voodoo is in the air. Oh, and Worf runs a voodoo shop.
This game was originally listed as horror but the truth is that it was Urban Dark Fantasy which wasn’t a recognized genre when this game came out.
As Gabriel pursues his amateur investigating, he starts to discover a long-buried family secret. That he comes from a long line of Schattenjägers (shadow hunters), their job was to fight the forces of darkness. Part of this had to do with a talisman that held protective powers but was lost by the Schattenjäger who burned the witch from the nightmare sequence. As Gabe investigates these murders he becomes aware that all of these things are tied up with a curse that is on his family.
I’m not going to go into the plot in more depth because in 2013 there was an excellent remaster of this game. It did a great job of updating everything and I haven’t finished playing it yet. I’ll tell you more when I’m done with it.
The game-play is standard for its day with the story taking place over the course of ten days. Each day requires Gabriel to complete a series of tasks in order to trigger the next day, with plenty of ways to Sierra yourself to death along the way. There are also extremely annoying puzzles that have to be solved. Honestly, these things were the worst part of the game. Not very intuitive and it took you right out of the story. Some of these were so out-there that I think their only real purpose was to sell hint-books.
The Gabriel Knight stories were the last game series created by Sierra before it’s downfall. The Sins of the Father is generally held as being the best in the series. It made the most effective use of the technology available to it. The two sequels had good stories but suffered badly from the presentation. 7th Guest had had monster sales so all of a sudden every adventure game in the mid-nineties had to have inexpensive actors trudging through their lines in front of green-screens. The new guy was NOT Tim Curry, he just wasn’t. The last game, Blood of the Sacred Blood of the Damned was the weakest of the trilogy. While it did bring back Curry’s voice, the characters were rendered using blocky 1999 third-person 3d graphics.
It did spawn a few comics, written by Jenson herself. Difficult to find now but not impossible.
Sierra’s specialty was text/graphics adventure gaming. Doom was in sight for this genre. Literally. Doom was released seven days after the first Gabriel Knight was launched. FPS games had been around for a couple of years but no one thought that Wolfenstein or Blake Stone was anything but flashes in the pan. Doom was a game-changer. Sierra Entertainment finally gave in and released Half-Life in 1998, one year before it launched the last Gabriel Knight game. Four years later Sierra closed its doors.
To wrap it up after nearly thirty years Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father is still a fun and engaging game. It has held up.
Available in its original form on GOG and in the new version for $20. If you can get past those annoying damn puzzles and love text/graphics adventure games then this one remains a must-play.
*Turns out muffuletta is Sicilian in origin. I did not know that.
**Water table is way too high to bury anyone in New Orleans, also there are no basements so I have no idea why vampires go anywhere near the place.