Monday, 3 January 2011

Gabriel Knight and the videogame narrative...

So my wife and I have recently been getting our retro game fix from the Gabriel Knight series of point-and-click adventure games. The games were produced by Sierra and written by Jane Jensen who is still working in games today and is blogging about the development of her latest game, Gray Matter, here.

I'd played the first Gabriel Knight game as a kid (which may explain a few things given the content) but never completed it so revisiting it now felt like a tying up of loose ends. It's still one of the best written adventure games I've ever come across with a really compelling storyline and interesting characters. There's a real sense of impending doom that runs through the game and drives it along, plus the story is interesting enough to make you want to progress through the tricky bits in order to find out what happens next. The New Orleans setting and voodoo storyline provide an interesting background to a game that has a better structure than most films. The CD-Rom version even has some awesome voice casting including Tim Curry and Mark Hamill. It's something of a masterpiece really and if you are are able to get hold of it somehow I seriously recommend it.

But it's the second game in the series I really want to talk about. Gabriel Knight was something of an oddity in that each game in the series was produced with an entirely different format. In the early-to-mid nineties the prevailing format for adventure games was the interactive movie - essentially still a traditional point-and-click adventure game but with real-life actors taking the place of animated sprites. One of the first and most famous of these was The 7th Guest. I find these games fascinating now as they represent a vision of a future that never came to pass. It was an amalgamation of games and films - a film that you watched and also took part in. This was surely the way forward for all entertainment.

It wasn't. Games got better. Filming actors for games proved to be incredibly limiting and as graphics improved became completely unnecessary. At the same time, they were being produced by games people and not film people - the filmed sequences themselves always felt clunky and poorly realised. So the film element could not compare to actual films and the game element could not compete with other games of the time. With their epic storylines, extensive art departments and well-rounded characters games are becoming more like films now, but the interactive movie as a concept is dead.

That isn't to say that there weren't some really interesting titles released during that period. At their height some of them featured proper actors like Dennis Hopper in Black Dahlia, Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell in the Wing Commander games and Ripper which featured Christopher Walken, Karen Allen, Burgess Meredith and David Patrick Kelly...

And then there was perhaps the most star-studded of all Privateer 2: The Darkening with Clive Owen, John Hurt, Brian Blessed and more...

Although I can't speak for them all the games themselves were often let down by poor gameplay and bad writing. There were occasional standout titles, my favourite being Realms of the Haunting which benefited from a genuinely awesome storyline and a game that maintained a terrifying atmosphere throughout...

It was the writing that really made the difference. As most of the games were shot on bluescreen budgets weren't really an issue meaning writers could take their stories anywhere they wanted to. It's something of a shame that some of the greatest stories ever written are in videogame format and therefore unlikely to ever find a mass audience or to be sought out by anyone other than those revisiting their youth (like me). It is for this reason that I want to talk about Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within.

So at the end of the first game, Gabriel Knight learnt that he was the latest in a line of German demon-slayers called Schattenjagers. He accepts the call and at the beginning of this game Gabriel, (Dean Erickson)...

...has moved into his ancestral home, a castle in Germany. There he is called upon by the locals to investigate a series of grisly murders that have taken place in a village outside Munich. Meanwhile, Gabriel's assistant, Grace Nakimura, (Joanne Takahashi)... running his bookstore back in New Orleans, until she hears Gabriel is on a new case and hops on a plane to Germany to help him out. Not wanting to put her in danger Gabriel keeps Grace at a distance and concentrates his investigations on an exclusive hunting club run by Baron Friedrich Von Glower (Peter J.Lucas)...

Making herself at home in Gabriel's castle, Grace starts to research Ludwig II of Bavaria, a troubled King whom she discovers may have in fact been a werewolf.

Here's a trailer...

As a game
The Beast Within has its flaws. Primarily it is a perfect example of the problems that arise when you cross games with films. Take the scene where Gabriel creates a plaster mould of a paw print he finds on the ground. In a film you would maybe have a montage of the character mixing the plaster, applying it to the print and picking up the finished cast, all within a few seconds. You may even skip the middle part and cut from plaster to cast - that's called 'editing'. Here we see every second of the process, as if the game designers saw this ability to show the character doing absolutely everything without the restrictions of having to animate a sprite as an advantage. Characters are shown putting their coats on every time they leave a building, have lengthy introductions and engage in repetitive small-talk every time they talk to someone, and most frustratingly spend several long seconds 'looking' at everything the player clicks on. It's like editing never existed.

But the real problem is that neither of the two storylines are particularly suited to the videogame format. Grace's storyline primarily involves going to museums and reading books, which would work fine in a novel but doesn't make for compelling gameplay. Meanwhile, Gabriel's storyline is more character-based and is ultimately about him being drawn into Von Glower's club. Gabriel as a character is therefore passive and his story arc is a downward one, neither of which works particularly well in a game. This doesn't prevent writer Jensen from telling a fantastic story.

There are three reasons the writing in
Gabriel Knight 2 is awesome.

Firstly, the game's storyline about a secret hunting club made up of werewolves combined with its alternate history of Ludwig II manages to be interesting and original. It's also very cinematic, particularly in the final act. The best example of this is in the opera scene. If you have any intention of seeking out this game and playing it then read no further. If you have no intention of playing the game then I seriously suggest you watch the video below as it's pretty awesome stuff.

To fill you in on the plot, Gabriel has been bitten by a werewolf but has so far managed fight off the transformation. Grace has learnt that the only way to save Gabriel is to kill the Alpha werewolf - the werewolf who turned the wolf that bit Gabriel. She knows that the Alpha werewolf is Baron Friedrich Von Glower. She has also learnt that Ludwig II was working on an opera with Richard Wagner that when performed in a particular theatre has the power to cure a werewolf. She has found the lost opera, put it on in the correct theatre, locked Gabriel up in the basement and arranged for Von Glower to be present (in the same box as the police detective investigating the werewolf murders). Still with me?

Her plan is that the 3rd Act of the opera will make Von Glower human again which will also cure Gabriel. The problem is that the theatre isn't exactly the same as Ludwig II and Wagner's designs so she's not sure it will work as planned. Meanwhile, Gabriel has escaped from the basement and taken the place of the actor playing the werewolf in the opera. And so the stage is set for what has to be one of the most cinematic cut-scenes in video game history...

The second awesome thing about the writing is the relationship between Gabriel and Von Glower. Watch the first couple of minutes of this scene and you'll probably guess where I'm going with this...

While it is never explicitly stated that Von Glower is gay there are more than enough clues in the story that point towards this. Von Glower runs a secret club for men who want to connect with their primal instincts, which we later find out means a club for werewolves. He targets people he thinks will fit into this club and essentially seduces them into taking part, which is what he does to Gabriel over the course of the game. There's nothing malevolent about this - he sees Gabriel as a werewolf who hasn't yet 'come out' and proceeds to help him to do so. Then there are the parallels between Von Glower and Ludwig II, whose homosexuality is referred to when it arises as part of Grace's research. Finally there is the love story at the heart of the game - it is Grace's love for Gabriel that compels her to save him, but ultimately that love is never reciprocated.

The homosexual allegory becomes problematic when you consider that once Gabriel is 'turned' his condition is treated as a disease and the werewolves are portrayed as killers throughout the game. But at the same time this is offset by a fondness for Von Glower that is best summed up by Gabriel's final lines - 'Haven't you ever wished you could just follow your instincts? Live for the moment?... That was Von Glower'.

However you read it, this is pretty interesting, complex and potentially subversive stuff for a mid-nineties horror adventure game.

And this leads on to my final point - the structure and the plot itself is really interesting and comes to quite an original conclusion. This is perhaps best illustrated by the ending sequence of the game:

So what happens is this - Gabriel is the 'chosen one' and comes to Germany to seek his destiny. Except he's not very good at it. Rather than stopping the werewolf killings he instead becomes a werewolf himself. Meanwhile it's Grace, a secondary character from the first game who is forever being told she can't help because she's not the 'chosen one' and will probably get herself killed, who emerges as the real hero. It's a really interesting story, and in a film it probably would have worked fantastically. In a game it only half works, but it gets top marks for originality and I certainly enjoyed seeing it play out.

Video game narratives are already being revisited academically as well they should, I only hope that the lesser known video games are reassessed as part of this process because
Gabriel Knight 2 should surely be one of the key texts. If you are interested in seeing more and can't get hold of the game a few people have put the whole thing on Youtube. There's also a third game, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, and there's an internet campaign for a fourth game here.


Anonymous said...

“This is the greatest videogame patent I’ve ever read” –EmCeeGramr, NEOGAF

All of a sudden people started talking about this videogame patent and the novel “Gold 45 Revolver Technology” game-types it proposes:

The neogaffers rocked out with it:

“if i talk to the hooker and understand her feelings i’ll get a magical gold 45 revolver that shoots lightning and unlimited bullets. . . This guy is awesome. . . Vampire Communists battling Nazi Zombies holy s&%t best game idea ever. ”

Vampire Zombie Communist Hookers? Patent It!

Over at the Something Awful forums, a Bethesda employee stated:

“This may be the first time in history that, rather than blaming video games as the root of society’s problems, they’re being blamed for NOT being the solution.”

And I answered:

Anonymous said...

Just to correct: the opera (and the crystal chandeliers) weren't meant to cure any werewolf; it was designed to expose the Black Wolf (von Glower) by forcing him to change so that he could be killed or captured and then executed.

Chris Regan said...

Yes, thanks for that.