Date: Originally written June 2004, revised March 2013
Release Year: 1993, Developer: Sierra, Publisher: Sierra, PAGODA Link
I can’t exactly remember when, but sometime during last year I diagnosed myself with BAAGS (Buy All Adventure Games Syndrome, see here) and immediately started to seek the past classics in adventure genre. After playing some essential classics like Monkey Island and Broken Sword, I was immediately drawn to Gabriel Knight (GK) Series, since supernatural mysteries always intrigue me and the series and it’s creator Jane Jensen always receive lots of praises from the adventure gaming community. Now that I played the game, I can certainly understand why this game is beloved by so many. This is one of few games where everything from story to puzzles work in perfect harmony. To me, this game is the textbook definition of a perfect adventure game.
Much More Than Your Typical New Orleans Voodoo Mystery
Voodoo (the religion) and Hoodoo (black magic) are certainly very interesting subjects, and they have been the main theme of countless number of books, movies and music albums. I guess the main reason why it intrigues so many people is the fact that it’s history is rooted in African tribes, and many people (including myself) has very limited information about that part of the world. Thus, voodoo related stories are always more mysterious than their Western counterparts, and they are usually much more gory and graphic. Since New Orleans is famous for having a lot of voodoo practitioners, almost any voodoo mystery that takes place in US ends up being connected to there. GK is no exception, however it offers much more than your typical New Orleans voodoo mystery.
Gabriel Knight is the owner of a bookshop that sells rare books, however he is certainly not an eccentric intellectual figure that you might expect from such a title. He is a handsome devil with a macho attitude and a great sense of humor. But at the same time he has a lot of struggles; bookshop is on the edge of going bankrupt and his alternative career as a writer is not looking very promising. Gabriel is certainly the kind of fictional characters that I like to play; he is definitely charming and interesting, but at the same time he is not a super hero and has certain flaws like anybody else.
In the beginning of the game, New Orleans is plagued by so called Voodoo Murders. A number of underground criminals are found murdered and the evidence in the crime scenes implies that Voodoo rituals are involved. Gabriel thinks that these murders may inspire his new book and and uses his connections within the police force (Detective Mosely, an old friend of Gabriel, who is also a central character in the story) to get his hands on the information related to the murders. As you can guess, after a while Gabriel starts his own line of investigation and the story picks up from there. Although story starts as a fairly standard supernatural mystery, it gets much more interesting as we start learning about Gabriel’s ancestors in Germany and eventually two story lines converge towards the end of the game. Overall, story is written and executed perfectly, it is certainly above the standards of the games of it’s time and much closer to the quality you would expect from a a well written mystery movie or a novel.
Characters are also very different than what you would normally see in a computer game. Especially side characters like Grace, Mosely and Dr. John are so well written, you feel like they were based on real people. Game’s dialogue system helps a lot in this aspect. For every character in the game you get to choose from an extensive list of subjects that involve both topics related to your investigation and off-topic stuff like their life in New Orleans. Although these dialogues are usually very long, they are so well written that you do not get bored at all listening to them and they also reinforce the character development and immerse you within the gameworld.
Visuals, Music and Voices
Visually, game looks fine and the graphics are on par with other Sierra games of that era. A feature that I especially liked was the closeup on characters faces during dialogues, where you can see lip-syncing and expressions on their faces. I think I first saw this feature on King’s Quest VI, but it is clearly improved in this game.
In terms of the audio, GK is amazing. Composer Robert Holmes does a fantastic job at creating a diverse soundtrack, there are all kinds of instrumental pieces ranging from haunting orchestral sequences to high beat jazz music. The main theme is especially very catchy and likely to be stuck in your head for a while.
The game also contains an all-star cast for voice overs. Gabriel is voiced by Tim Curry and although many people finds his performance over the top, I enjoyed it immensely. His southern accent sounds a bit faked, but Gabriel’s sense of humor and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) is very well captured by his voice. Mark Hamill does the voice of Mosely and he does a great job too, for me the funniest moments of the game was the conversations between Gabriel and Mosely. Only annoying voice over is the voice of the narrator, who sounds like an old voodoo lady with a very heavy accent. To me that was actually one of the main weaknesses of the game, hearing her irritating voice every time you examine an object. You can disable her voice from the menu, but then the game becomes very silent, which is not very enjoyable either.
Seamless Integration of Puzzles and Story
So it is clear that this game excels in character development and storytelling, but what about the gameplay? GK definitely does not disappoint in this area too. The puzzles are a perfect mix of inventory and logic puzzles. There are lots of variety, ranging from object manipulation to decoding Voodoo codes. Furthermore, more challenging puzzles are seamlessly integrated into the story. This is one of the most difficult things to do in an adventure game, because more challenging a puzzle is, usually it looks more absurd in the story. However, two of the most interesting puzzles in the game (Voodoo drum sequence and decryption of messages in the crypt) are so naturally embedded in the game, they feel like they are part of the story rather than artificial obstacles in your way. This is why Jane Jensen is not only an amazing writer, but also a very skilled game designer.
The only bad thing I can say about the gameplay is the clumsy interface and action sequences, which are both inherited from other Sierra titles. The interface gives you a number of options to discover and manipulate your environment, but you end up frequently using only a subset of them and scrolling between these different actions is just painful. Action sequences are very sparse, I guess there are only 3 or 4 of them, but they are not designed well and it is very easy to get stuck, especially at the sequence towards the end.
Gabriel Knight is a milestone in adventure game design and it is a perfect example that PC games can have realistic characters and a detailed plot with adult themes. Graphics and interface is clearly outdated by today’s standards, but the game is still definitely worth playing for its amazing story and fun puzzles.
The Good: First class story telling, well developed characters, seamless puzzle-story integration, excellent voice overs, beautiful soundtrack
The Bad: Slow and redundant interface, action sequences
The Ugly: Narration of the voodoo lady