Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Commentary: Gabriel Knight Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition

Adventure Gaming Then and Now

A recent advertisement about Toy Story's 20th anniversary made me feel old.  Then, I

saw an article about the original, critically acclaimed Sierra Games' point-and-click adventure Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers also recently celebrating its 20th anniversary, at which point I realized I have been gaming for a LONG time.  Needing something to lessen my withdrawal after completing Dragon Age: Inquisition, I delved into the Steam library and decided to take a little trip down memory lane by replaying GK, this time in its 20th Anniversary Edition format. I have always considered GK one of my favorite game series of all time, in the company of other greats such as King's Quest, Monkey Island, and Leisure Suit Larry (that's right, you heard me!), and it was a huge reason I came to love point-and click-adventures. So I was excited to revisit this title and see what creator Jane Jensen added to the mix 20 years later.

The Story

You play Gabriel Knight, a bookstore owner and less-than-successful writer who is investigating a series of brutal "Voodoo murders" in New Orleans for his latest book.  With the help of his book store assistant, Grace Nakamura, and his buddy Detective Mosley at New Orleans Police Department, he becomes immersed in a terrifying web of cults and voodoo practices to find the truth.  In the process, Gabriel unlocks secrets about his family's past and, perhaps, his own future. 

One note about the story that is somewhat amusing, playing the game 20 years later, is the historical and technological context.  Set in the early 90s, there are no cell phones (what do you mean I have to call from a land line and use a phone book?), discussions about research conducted in actual libraries (what, no Google?!) and references to East and West Germany. Ha! To be fair, most of the game's dialogue and visuals don't come across as dated--unless you consider Gabriel's and Det. Mosley's sexist comments dated, but hey, that stuff still happens now!


Okay, so it's been 20+ years since I played GK for the first time, so my memory of the nuances of the game are a bit diminished.  That being said, there were multiple features that stood out to me as improvements/enhancements in the 20th Anniversary Edition compared to the original:
  • Higher resolution graphics with great color and improved detail
  • Re-imagined soundtrack and audio to include at least some new voices
  • Great remastered cut-scenes in graphic novel-like artistic style
I understand that there was new puzzle content added for the 20th Anniversary Edition as well, though my poor memory was not able to differentiate that from original content--many of the old puzzles were familiar to me, but not enough to where I remembered how to solve them!

The point-and-click interface still harkened back to the good old Sierra format, with an action wheel for viewing, taking, or operating an object.  The inventory interface still allowed for the combining of items and close examination of items, and actually highlights which items are eligible for combinations or closer inspection.  Also in keeping with the original format is the presence of Gabriel's journal, in which he chronicles his daily activities for reference throughout the game. It also serves as a repository for hints-on-demand and one new addition: an "Extras" section with some bonus content including concept art from the original game, commentary from Jane Jensen and other creative team members, and some video interviews. The bonus content was interesting to peruse, but I expected it to be more extensive.

There were a couple features that I recalled being downsides from the original that unfortunately were not improved in this 20th Anniversary edition. First, there is inherent lag in the point-and-click action during critical, time-sensitive scenes throughout the game.  For example, it was super annoying to futz around with multiple clicks to watch Gabriel casually walk from point to point to maneuver around a bunch of undead in a cave.  No sense of urgency--in fact, quite the opposite--slowness to the point of having to replay through multiple scenes just because of the lackadaisical nature of Gabriel's movements...not to mention all the characters look like they have a stick glued to their back as they're walking around. 

The second annoying feature was some of the really nuanced "triggers" for solving puzzles, in typical Sierra game fashion.  Like having to click on and read every name plate at Gabriel's family tomb (fairly irrelevant to the

immediate plot) in order to trigger a rodent to knock over a vase that has a $20 bill in it, thereby advancing another puzzle.  Really? Could such tedious things not be eliminated in the updated edition? Perhaps I had more patience for such roadblocks as a 14-year old gamer, but as a working-parent-gamer with extremely limited time to play, it's frustrating to spend time on these little moving parts.  It left me feeling lame using hints just to get the story moving forward again.

Lastly, there seem to be some glitches with the dialogue in that sometimes the conversations would overlap--one character would begin their response before the other had even finished. Again, minor, but occurred often enough to be annoying.

There is one more feature I found a bit bothersome--Gabriel's voice. I loved that Tim Curry did his voice in the original. The new voice actor, who I am sure is wonderful in other performances, really made Gabriel seem beyond sleazy (I know, he's meant to be sketchy, but the ridiculously deep voice just seemed over-the-top). Moreover, the voice just didn't fit with Gabriel's visual appearance at all in the 20th Anniversary Edition.  It just felt "off" through the whole game.  I'm sure Matthew McConaughey would have been up for the job, why didn't you use him? ;)

But let's end on a positive note, shall we? The above shortcomings aside, the real beauty of GK is in Jane Jensen's masterful storytelling and the suspense created by the twisting, carefully crafted plot line. Even knowing the endgame of The Sins of the Fathers up-front, there were still scenes that left my skin crawling.  Getting caught up in Gabriel's world, from his personal transformation to his mysterious encounters on multiple continents, makes it possible to overlook the other issues I mentioned. 

So, Who's Playing?

While I found GK 20th Anniversary Edition to be well worth my time, I recognize my bias toward both retro gaming and point-and-click adventures.  I am unsure who is playing this game now, outside of old gamer folks like me for nostalgia. I hope that GK has been successful in reaching a new generation of gamers and rekindling a love for the series (and adventure gaming), but I don't know if this updated version hit the mark enough to draw in a greater fan base. I think some of the flaws I am willing to overlook as an old fan may be detracting enough to turn away potential new fans.  It seems that the 20th Anniversary Edition is positively reviewed by Steam users, which is promising.  Unfortunately, the news feed on Jane Jensen's and Robert Holmes' Pinkerton Road website is woefully outdated, leaving us wondering if there's enough momentum behind GK to crank out that 4th game in the series. Only time will tell.

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Toddler (and Parent) Guide to San Diego Comic Con

OK, so I'm not a prolific blogger, thanks to a toddler, another one on the way, and a full-time job.  But the recent San Diego Comic Con Open Online Registration reminded me that I never posted anything about our experience at SDCC 2015 with a 15-month old.  When planning (and I take my planning seriously), there were few online resources for Con-going parents and a lot of unknowns, so I want to share some tips with anyone out there who may be going to SDCC 2016 with one or more young children in tow.

Cosplaying? Things to Consider.

Packing. We always cosplay at the cons, and that can have a big impact on logistics with the kid factor, especially little ones.  Packing limitations and baggage fees on flights can be a real issue when you add up your cosplay pieces in addition to baby/toddler gear.  One option to minimize volume is to plan on stocking up on baby
essentials once you arrive in San Diego. Another option is to ship out portions of your cosplay gear in advance, if you are staying somewhere that accepts packages (see accommodations section below), or to a local friend if you are lucky enough to have one down there.

Cosplay Preparation and Execution. Select your cosplay ensembles carefully! 
1. Don't traumatize your kid.  If you plan to do something that significantly alters your appearance, or anything that could be scary for a young one, I strongly recommend you get your kid familiar with the cosplay well before Comic Con by putting it on in front of them at home.  If they react poorly and don't acclimate to your cosplay appearance, you may want to rethink your choice so you don't end up walking around with a screaming kid at the Con.  Since we did Mad Max on one day of SDCC last year and my husband and daughter were Master Blaster, we let her see my husband put on the helmet and gear several times to make sure she was comfortable with it. Fortunately, she was!

2. Preparation time.  If you think preparation for cosplay is a long process without kids, multiply that times two or three with a toddler's schedule in the mix.  Plan for a less intensive cosplay (less make-up, less assembly on-site, etc) to minimize the stress and have realistic expectations about how early you are going to get out and about for the day's activities.

When assembling my fairly elaborate Princess Aura cosplay, I
didn't fully consider how appealing all the beading and sequins
would be for my 15 month old.  This photo also captures the
reality of hauling a toddler through Gaslamp in cosplay.
3. Cosplay construction, assembly and accessories. It is widely accepted that babies and toddlers love to grab, pull, and stick things in their mouths.  Especially colorful, shiny things. If you are going to be wrangling your kid while in cosplay, it may not be a great idea to have an ensemble with lots of small, shiny parts, sharp edges and or embellishments that are easy to pull off--in addition to creating wardrobe malfunctions, it can also result in some unanticipated choking hazards! This is something that I wish I would have taken more seriously when planning our cosplays for SDCC last year.

The Accommodations Dilemma
Lodging is something that all SDCC attendees struggle with--the hotel reservation process sounds almost as stressful as the online badge registration process! Even before we had kids we opted for the vacation rental option.  If you are going with more than just a couple folks, financially it can be as costly to stay in individual hotel rooms as it is to rent a 2 br condo for the week. With children, having the flexibility of a kitchen to prepare your own meals and a living space for your kid(s) can be even more beneficial.  It may be a little late to secure something for SDCC 2016, but you can try your luck with listings on Homeaway.com, Flipkey.com, TripAdvisor, and vrbo.com.  Typically, property managers or owners release their properties for the week of SDCC around the beginning of the year (if not sooner), but they usually rely on wait lists from past inquiries to send such notifications...so it's never too early to do your research on vacation rentals.  It's well worth the advance planning; we stayed in a 1 br unit in Gaslamp walkable to the grocery store and Convention Center and the convenience saved us a lot of stress.

Getting Around
I admit that as a non-parent attendee at SDCC I used to judge parents that were pushing around their SUV-strollers through the crushing crowds around the Convention Center.  Why aren't they using a baby carrier? Well, as a parent now, I'll tell you--San Diego is hot in July, and your toddler will be hot, cranky and uncomfortable in one of those carriers after about 15 minutes of walking around Gaslamp, leaving you with carrying them by hand (back-breaking after a morning of walking around) or trying to track them on a baby-leash through the crowds.  That being said, it's really annoying pushing around a stroller, to the point that we opted to not even try taking her into the actual Convention Center.  Not even worth the hassle.  I don't have a great solution for this problem, but it was certainly a thorn in our sides for getting around the heart of the Con and something about which you should manage your expectations. 

What Events are Kid-Friendly, Really?
It was a bit more challenging than we anticipated to find truly kid-friendly venues around Comic Con.  Our 15-month old could only gawk at the parade of costumes in Gaslamp for so long from her stroller before we needed someplace she could roam around and touch stuff.  These options are far and few between, at least for the really young audience.  A shout out to NerdHQ, the Nerdist Conival and Petco Interactive Zone for providing the more kid-friendly sites around Gaslamp that were not suffocatingly crowded and allowed us to keep track of our toddler wandering around.  Thumbs up to the FX Fearless Zone for allowing my husband and me to "swap out" watching our daughter outside each activity so that both of us could enjoy the events without losing our place in line. Thumbs down to the Adult Swim Carnival for not exercising some latitude with their 18+ policy.... they denied us entry with our toddler to their general outdoor carnival area even though we just wanted to swap out who was watching her so we could go into the different attractions. I understand it's a liability thing, but my kid could just as easily look at their booth "visuals" from outside the gate as from inside.
Some events, like the Ghostbusters Mass Hysteria Party, were
held at bars, but staff were generally welcoming and we just
made it work.

We decided that the density of the crowds inside the Convention Center was not worth the effort of bringing our toddler in, not to mention the inability for our toddler to actually see anything without waiting in a long line--an unfortunate feature of almost anything at SDCC, not compatible with a toddler's attention span.  That being said, SDCC has recognized the logistical complications of toting a young one around the Con, and offers a sort of day care service near the Convention Center where you can pay by the hour. We didn't use this service--wasn't really comfortable with the idea given the age of our daughter--but this might be a great option to utilize for parents with slightly older kids.

The Morning Advantage
Ok, so maybe it's not much of an advantage since Gaslamp District is pretty sleepy in the mornings.  But with a toddler in tow, the mornings are the best time to get out and about: streets are less crowded, you kid is energized and likely in a better mood, and you may be able to get the jump on some of the SDCC off-site attractions that are impossibly crowded later in the day. Do your research in advance to see what activities open earlier in the day and take advantage of being the early bird!

Food, Glorious Food

Eat In.  A general good strategy with or without kids: make a run to the grocery store at the beginning of your trip to stock up on portable snacks, beverages, and breakfast items.  This is even more necessary with children.  You will be hard pressed to keep babies/toddlers from having a meltdown after a few hours without stopping for snack time or lunch--and asking them to be patient at a sit-down restaurant may be a bridge too far.

Eat Out.  I would recommend avoiding restaurants as much as you can with a toddler...the wait is too long at most places, and by the time you are seated you'll be left shoveling in your food while your kid has a meltdown. The only pro is that most places are so noisy, your kid's screams will likely be drowned out by all the other activity.  If you do want to eat out,  here's my recommendations based on our limited experience:
- The best strategy we found was to order something as take-out and head over to the less chaotic open green space at Petco Park.  We ordered some awesome sandwiches at Brickhouse Deli (adjacent to the green area) and brought our food over to the grass and had a picnic-style dinner outside with the kiddo. It was probably the least stressful meal that we had and a lot of fun. 
- The second-least stressful meal we had was at Diwali on 5th.  We had a reservation for our group of 8, they had a table almost immediately, and seated us in an area where it wouldn't matter much if our toddler started screaming. But service was fast, food was delicious (if you like Indian), and we had a meltdown-free meal.
- The Panera Bread by Horton Plaza opens early for breakfast and has both take-out and online ordering/rapid pick-up options...all good features when you have kids with limited stay-time in restaurants.

My Plug for the San Diego Zoo.
I know, it's a crazy idea. You came to San Diego for Comic Con and not to see the city. But if you have young kids I strongly suggest you consider a day away from the Con with your kids to go to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. It's too good to miss, family-friendly and can compete with the best spectacles your kids may see at the Con. Well worth a trip and only about 10-15 min from Gaslamp (public transportation accessible).

By realistic expectations, I mean expectations consistent with all the crazy SDCC factors--those I have mentioned above--paired with the everyday realities of being a parent. Know that your kid will still likely need that afternoon nap time, some snacks, and a break from the over-stimulation.  Accept that unless you make plans to trade off child care duty with your spouse, take a shot in the dark with a sitter, or have a really nice SDCC friend who can watch your kid, most evening events may be a no-go for you. To be honest, the toddler-parent experience we had at SDCC 2015 was fun, but was enough of a shift from our past experiences that we've decided to write off SDCC for several years until our kids get older.  But every kid is different, parents are different, and the trade-offs may still make it worthwhile for you depending on your situation.

My experience is by no means comprehensive.  If you are an SDCC parent who has done the Con with a toddler in recent years, and have additional advice to offer, please include it in the comments below so everyone can benefit!