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.