I’ve always enjoyed story-driven games going back to the days of text adventures and on through Sierra Online’s graphic point-and-click games. Two of my favorites from the early 1990s pushed storytelling over gameplay: Rise of the Dragon from Dynamix (wikipedia) and Sierra’s Gabriel Knight written by Jane Jenson. Both games included intriguing plots, dark mystery stories, and some light-hearted wit. Rise of the Dragon delivered a strong graphic novel look with cinematic cutscenes, and Gabriel Knight held onto the familiar interface of other Sierra games with graphic novel clips. As far as storytelling in computer games, Gabriel Knight excels. Both original games may still be played using an emulator if one doesn’t mind the low-resolution graphics.
Gabriel Knight is a financially struggling author and owner of a rare books shop residing in New Orleans. Gathering material for his next novel, Gabriel begins investigating “The Voodoo Murders” by interviewing locals such as his friend, Detective Mosely, and Dr. John, a voodoo expert at a museum. An assistant at the bookstore, Grace Nakimura, helps out with research. Gabriel also suffers from nightmares that connect him with his family history.
21 years later with 20th Anniversary GK 1
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition tells the same story as the original with updated graphics and minor gameplay changes, for better and worse. This updated edition makes the game more accessible to the modern player with access through Steam for Windows and Mac, or (soon) Android tablets and iPad. This anniversary edition is a low-budget update to a big-budget original.
The original game presented a dark feel with quality artwork, a nice soundtrack, and top voice talent delivered by Tim Curry, Mark Hammill, Leah Remini, and Michael Dorn. The new voice cast does a fine job, but lacks the delivery and memorable impact of the original. While the graphics have been updated for higher resolutions, the overall art quality has taken a step back. The original had the backing of a big company financing great talent of 1992. The update is an effort of indie publisher Pinkerton Road founded by GK creator, Jane Jenson, and composer, Robert Holmes. Since the original is still playable on PCs, the best reason for an update is to bring the classic to modern platforms.
Gabriel Knight is a story-driven mystery following the titled character. Solving the mystery means paying attention to the narrative and dialogue. Interacting with items, looking or handling, may also reveal clues. The most action the player finds are a few scenes with timed events, reasonable enough time for some thought before reacting. The player may reload or retry a scene without penalty. Total time to finish the game should take less than 20 hours.
In the original, a handful of the clues on where to go or what to do next were quite vague. Like many adventure games, a player might deploy a strategy of waving the mouse around to spot clickable hotspots in the scene turning the game into a guess-and-click adventure. The anniversary edition has alleviated the problem by making labels for interactive objects appear on command and by including a rather nice hint system. A tap on current score box or the spacebar reveals all hotspot labels for the scene. Gabriel keeps a journal with a page providing access to limited levels of hints, each revelation with just enough nudge to help the player back on track. Welcome improvements.
The new edition also includes new puzzles at the cost of interrupting the story. The puzzles are of the guess-the-code and move-tiles varieties that are without challenge making them seem tedious. My biggest complaint of story-driven games is including arcade action or puzzles that fail to move the narrative. Rise of the Dragon included brief (skippable) arcade sequences that felt like another, cheaper game. Do the creators feel they need to reach a wider audience or diversify the game? If a puzzle feels out of place and doesn’t involve the story, it doesn’t belong in a narrative game. The new puzzles add nothing to the story.
Art and Visuals
Whether the updated visuals are an improvement are not may depend on personal taste. If you try the original Gabriel Knight, consider playing in a window to help alleviate the blockiness of low-resolution graphics on a modern screen. You’ll be treated to scenes where the characters blend well with the static backgrounds. The new edition uses 3D models in 2D scenes which in the worst cases end up appearing like paper dolls over painted backdrops. Some updated scenes work well. The family castle in Germany is a pleasing update. Other scenes seem to have sacrificed the dark feel the original conveyed. Occasionally the animated characters move awkwardly, too.
Given modern animation software and production tools allow low-budget studios to create nice looking games, there’s not much excuse for Pinkerton Road to let animation and visual style slide. The result isn’t bad, but more work could have been put in. In the end, the updated graphics didn’t detract from my enjoyment.
Much improved over the original are the cutscenes. Graphic novel cells have been fluidly animated with nicely drawn and colored characters. Besides the story, this is the treat for the anniversary.
The anniversary edition includes a compendium of design and historical notes. These may be accessed using the star icon revealing a note for that scene. Finishing the game unlocks the entire “Shattenjäger Archives” for review from the main menu. Having played the original back in 1993, I found these notes interesting and fun. A little nostalgia, but also informative offering insight into game production history.
The original Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was a popular game in 1993 due to its compelling story, stylish artwork, and great voice acting. The 20th Anniversary Edition delivers great animated cutscenes, a nice hint system, and improved accessibility on modern machines. It would have been nice to see more care put into atmosphere, but the final word on the updated graphics depends on player taste or aversion to low-resolution blockiness of the original. The new puzzles are unnecessary. In the end, it’s the storytelling that matters and this anniversary edition delivers.
I recommend to those interested in storytelling or narrative games who hasn’t played the original to give Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition a try. Even better, wait for the tablet version for Android or iPad where this sort casual story-driven game should do well on.