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Reviving Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers after 20 years

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For longtime game designer and writer Jane Jensen, adventure game series Gabriel Knight has been a defining work.

Jensen, under the umbrella of Sierra Entertainment (formerly Sierra On-Line), released the first game in 1993. Called Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, the point-and-click adventure game followed the titular writer as he investigated a series of murders. It was steeped in mystery, murder and the paranormal — just a few themes that Jensen adores.

But though the game itself was well-received, spawning two sequels and establishing Jensen as a master of her craft, it was part of a fading genre. By the time Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned launched in 1999, the gaming landscape had changed. Sierra was on its way out. Adventure games, it seemed, were dead.

Nearly 15 years after the release of the last Gabriel Knight game, players can now revisit Sierra's classic world. The 20th Anniversary Edition of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers — an HD remake featuring new content and visuals — is available for Mac and Windows PC. It's a return long overdue.

Glory days of darkness

For Jensen, the golden age for adventure games rose and fell with Sierra. Following her work on King's Quest 6: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow with Roberta Williams, she was given the chance to be "a designer on [her] own right" — to pitch her own game.

"At the time, you knew what a Sierra adventure game was," Jensen said. "You weren't really trying to invent anything new in terms of the puzzle type or the technology or anything like that. It was really all about the story and the character and the universe."

Inspired by the mysterious and paranormal, Jensen eventually hashed out Sins of the Fathers, a voodoo-tinged murder mystery. When asked why she was so drawn to dark storylines, Jensen said that it's a question you can ask of anyone who likes True Blood, or any other property related to horror. She attributes it to a natural human interest.

"At the time, you knew what a Sierra adventure game was."

"If you go to some of the museums in Munich or Paris, the medieval art was so bloody," Jensen said. "I think that was the horror of that era. That was their freak show. That was their True Blood, these gross religious paintings.

"I think humanity's always been attracted to that, and it probably has to do with facing our fear — facing our fear of death, facing our fear of pain and that inability to let it go mentally ... 'I'm going to die, what does that mean?' I think that's the role horror plays overall."

Jensen recalled the team's excitement while they were working on the first game in the series. Everyone was motivated, and everyone believed in the project to a degree she hasn't quite experienced since. The designer said that she was surprised by how well-received Sins of the Fathers was. It was the first of its kind in many ways. Both Sierra and LucasArts did light, humorous games, which she said helped set Gabriel Knight apart.

Jensen eventually spun the game into a trilogy, though the final entry, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, was a difficult product to finish in 1999. The company was undergoing layoffs and reorganizations, and would soon cease to make games under the Sierra On-Line name.

"By the time we were in production for [Gabriel Knight 3], we were the last adventure going on," she said. "The company had sort of been sold, and it was under different leadership. The whole industry was sort of saying adventure games were dead.

"It was a project that was much harder. It took three years, and it just seemed to sort of not have a lot of momentum."

Jensen didn't own the rights to Gabriel Knight, and so all its assets and property remained part of Sierra. Years later, she would be contacted by someone claiming to have pulled the game's original artwork out of a dumpster.

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Moving on, moving back

After Sierra, Jensen kept busy. Among her accomplishments are founding online game company Oberon Media and continuing to publish novels. Most recently, she launched studio Pinkerton Road with her husband, Robert Holmes.

But though Jensen remained active in new projects, she sometimes strayed back to Gabriel Knight. The property crossed several hands before Sierra ended up with its current parent company, Activision. In the meantime, Jensen pitched new Gabriel Knight games.

"I think we actually went into [an office] twice to do a pitch, and then probably another half-dozen times I spoke to someone over an email and tried to test the waters to see if there would be any interest in it," Jensen said.

"That interested house eventually developed into the revival of the Sierra brand."

Occasionally, she would hit upon someone who remembered and loved the franchise. But general interest from a producer wasn't enough to spin into a new game. You needed upper management, too, and they just weren't interested in adventure games.

"I've always wanted to continue it," Jensen said. "It just didn't seem like it was going to happen. You have to move on and do other stuff."

While Jensen was at Oberon, she considered the possibility of bringing Gabriel Knight to mobile. Around 2003, she pitched an idea and asked for the license back to make minigames on the casual market. It was a no-go.

Jensen, for her part, had stopped trying when Activision contacted her during the Kickstarter campaign to launch Pinkerton Road in 2012.

"I was totally stoked," Jensen said. "It wasn't even about Gabriel Knight. It was somebody in-house who was fairly high up and was a big fan of those Sierra properties. [They] were starting to think, 'We really should be starting to do something with these [games] on mobile,' and wanted to just chat — what kind of projects I could do with those franchises, and just sort of brainstorm about it.

"That interested house eventually developed into the revival of the Sierra brand."

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Back to basics

Activision announced its plans revive Sierra in August, starting with King's Quest and Geometry Wars. The company will release classic games from the studio as downloadable titles. Jensen compares the move to Telltale, which was founded by former LucasArts employees.

"It's not going to be exactly the same," she said. "They would probably modernize gameplay and be on different platforms.

"I think Telltale has been hugely successful. I would love to see someone like Activision put some of their money and power into doing more adventure games."

"I look back ... and I think 'How the fuck did I do that?'"

As for Gabriel Knight, the designer was given the license to remake the first game. Jensen said there are also plans to do versions on Android and iPad tablets, though strictly smartphones would be harder to accomplish with a smaller screen. Despite being eager to refresh it to modern standards, she's happy to leave its original personality intact.

"Nothing has really ever stuck the way Gabriel Knight has," Jensen said. "I think that tends to be the one thing that people remember and that people want me to do more of. I'm grateful that I have something like that, that people are still interested in it."

The designer currently has another early pitch she's "shopping around" — a murder-slash-romance FMV game set in Amish country — but is still interested in developing a new Gabriel Knight game. After completing the remake of Sins of the Fathers, Jensen hopes that she and Pinkerton Road can continue to be involved.

"I look back on [Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers] now, and I think, 'How the fuck did I do that?'" Jensen said. "I was really in my prime back then. I've forgotten a lot of it, and I thought it really stood up. It was really a good game."