In the 1980s, the adventure game was dominated by the puzzle. The Infocom text adventures were elaborate brain-teasers, often written by and for people with backgrounds in science and math. Even when Sierra popularised the genre, making it more accessible by adding graphics and animation, problem solving was still the point; story was secondary to puzzle and exploration; and characterisation almost non-existent; King Graham of Daventry or Roger Wilco were ciphers in whom one could not be expected to take any personal interest. (Neither really speaks in the EGA games.) They were an entry into the world of the game, a puppet the player could control and use to explore.
As technology progressed, so did what the adventure game was capable of. There were two main paths the adventure game went down: ‘adventure’ or ‘game’. LucasArts took the puzzle-driven approach of Infocom, and cloaked it in a more attractive, less drily mathematical guise; the problems became ever more baroque (notably Day of the Tentacle, with its time-travelling conundrums), while the writing and dialogue became cleverer and funnier. Sierra, on the other hand, placed the emphasis more on ‘adventure’, bringing the game closer to cinema. An average Sierra game of the 1990s has more emphasis on emotion and characterisation than a LucasArts game, with some downplaying puzzle solving, or subordinating it to the story (the Laura Bow and Conquests series, and to a degree Quest for Glory).
And then there is Gabriel Knight (1993).
Here, designer Jane Jensen took the genre’s growing interest in characterisation to its logical end: she gave players a character whose personality, as much as the adventure he appeared in, was the focus of the game.
Gabriel Knight, unsuccessful novelist and bookseller, is an anti-hero. Whereas the Sierra protagonist (with the exceptions of Manhunter and Leisure Suit Larry) was likeable—bumbling, naïve, yes, but likeable—Knight is not. For most of the game, Knight is an unengaging character: a womaniser, arrogant, and generally obnoxious. (The sexist comments and the byplay with Mosley – ‘you goddamn wiener’ – are particularly grating.) And the game is aware of this. Indeed, the game is about Knight’s maturation: the Jungian process of individuation as adventure game, complete with monsters from the collective unconscious, dream sequences, symbolism and an entire ossuary in the family closet.
Knight investigates a mystery (a series of ‘Voodoo Murders’ in New Orleans), and ends up discovering his family history and himself: what sort of man he is, what sort of man he could be, and his purpose in life.
It’s tricky to pull off; making the protagonist downright unlikeable from the start, and then gradually humanising him. This is why a murder mystery is such a good choice. A mystery is a ‘hook’: it has a strong structure, which a more open-ended adventure/quest story lacks. From the start, there are crime scenes to be searched, clues to be followed up, and witnesses to be interrogated.
And voodoo and New Orleans are irresistible ingredients for a story, as John Dickson Carr (Papa Là-bas, not one of the old boy’s best) and the makers of Live and Let Die knew. To its credit, the game largely avoids sensationalism; voodoo is treated as a serious religion, with distinctions made between various types (historical, current, hoodoo or black). It never goes down the dubious path of equating voodoo with evil or superstition à la H.P. Lovecraft. The cult is evil not because vodou is evil but because they worship a destructive loa.
And so the player’s focus is on investigating the mystery with Gabriel’s character an irritation; the connection between the Voodoo Murders and Knight himself is not apparent until a couple of days into the game.
Naturally, the gameplay is deep rather than broad; although Knight’s investigations take him to Bavaria and Benin, most of the game takes place in a few locations in New Orleans over ten days, with new events happening as the game progresses. (An approach which Sierra had used with success in the Laura Bow games, Quest for Glory, and Freddy Pharkas.) Knight’s investigations gradually reveal layers of the characters, who all react to his questions in different ways. Indeed, the game unfolds through character (talking and finding information), with puzzles as necessary to advance the story. There are some difficult puzzles (finding where the conclave is meeting in Bayou St John), but few have great neon signs saying ‘This Is A Puzzle’; rather, the puzzles are organic and integrated to the story, and the player wants to solve them to advance the story.
A remake of the game was released in 2014. Although an interesting game, it does not hold a voodoo candle to the original. The problem is the graphics. The original game was in 256 colour VGA, and (as Richard Cobbett points out) those colours are used to great effect. The remake, like Jensen’s recent Gray Matter, is more photo-realistic, using 3D modelling. As a result, the game looks too bright and clean; much of the atmosphere is lost. This is particularly true of the Snake Mound in Benin, one of the scariest places in an adventure game; the remake lacks the original’s sense of danger. The Voodoo houngan in the remake is more stylish; instead of the near-Star Trek bland corridors of the original, the corridors are decorated with African masks and statuary. (I’ve loved African art since I was a kid: afternoons in the Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale in Brussels, looking at exhibitions of witchcraft and initiation rituals; my parents’ books on African masks…)
Perhaps the game’s greatest descendant is not the two sequels that followed (werewolves and Wagner in Bavaria, with too much video footage of bad actors; and vampires and the Grail in France), but Revolution Software’s Broken Sword series, with a similar blend of historical mystery, modern day crime, and exotic locations. Unlike Gabriel, though, George Stobbart, the American abroad, is actually likeable.