Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Jane Jensen, creator and designer of Sierra’s Gabriel Knight
series of adventure games, and co-founder of casual games publisher Oberon.
Jensen describes books as her “first love” while growing up, noting that she “always wanted to be a writer”. However, the search for a “lucrative career option” that was unlikely to see her “waitressing at a Denny’s,” saw her majoring in Computer Science by the time she reached college age.
“I took a CS 101 class my first semester, because it was a pre-req,” she explains. “I enjoyed it and found I had a gift for it. I love logic and logic puzzles, and programming is essential one big logic puzzle.”
Working with mainframes as part of the course, Jensen had the chance to delve further into that passion, when she had the chance to play Crowther and Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure
and later exited the course to move into a career as an engineer with Hewlett-Packard.
After six years at the job, Jensen finally bought her first PC in 1989, followed “immediately” by the Sierra adventure games King’s Quest VI
and Manhunter: San Francisco
. “I was hooked big time,” she recalls. “I bought everything else in Sierra’s catalog and played it, then applied for a job there. Computer games were a way to merge my technology background with writing and that was very appealing.”
“I wrote to them and sent them a resume,” she continues. “I told them that I would do programming, QA, writing or whatever. I sent them a short story. Nearly a year later I got a call from them. They were putting together a 'writer’s group' to help the game designers with dialogue and game doc material. The manager in charge of that had found my resume and story and brought me in.”
The time before the interview saw Jensen facing some tough choices, though: not only would it mean a move from the Bay Area to Oakhurst, further inland in California, but the change from a Hewlett-Packard engineer to an entry level writer for Sierra On-Line would mean quite a pay cut as well.
After the interview though, she says, that wasn’t a concern any more. “I was ready to sacrifice a lot to work there,” she comments. “I knew I would love my job and I didn’t see a future in writing networking or operating system code the rest of my life. It bored the crap out of me.”
Manual Labor And More
Jensen’s first job was as a writer for Police Quest 3
and its manual. “On that one Jim Walls was the game designer,” she explains. “He’d done the previous two Police Quest
games. I came up with some story and puzzle ideas and he was open to them. But it was his game.”
On her next project, Jensen found herself with a good deal more responsibility, co-designing the educational children’s adventure EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus
alongside Gano Haine. It was an experience that she admits proved a challenge, not because it was her first time as a designer, but because it meant working in a team in a way she wasn’t used to.
“I was working with another writer,” she comments, “which I’d never done before. By nature, I’m very much a kind of get-into-my-own-head, autonomous kind of writer. And then we also had to please the creative director, whose ideas were often foreign to the way I saw the game at the time. So the fun part was actually working on the game. The challenging part was learning to let go as a creative person and compromise.”
The project went off without a problem though, and despite being “a kid’s game” the game was well received when released for PC in 1991. Jensen adds that it was “exciting” just to see the game on shelves.
She continued to learn more about game design the next year, however, when she worked as co-designer, co-director and co-writer with King’s Quest
creator and Sierra co-founder Roberta Williams on the sixth iteration of the series. Jensen describes the experience as “a formative” one, noting that the two tend to “design very differently”.
“Roberta liked to just sit down with a huge piece of paper and map out a world - locations, where you pick up what, very basic characters,” she explains. “I’m much more of a detailed story/plotline kind of designer. But it was terrific to see her technique and I do still try to ‘back away’ to that high-level view and do that once in a while during my design process.”
More importantly, Jensen had the chance to observe how Williams was “able to enforce her vision” while developing a game. “She’d write up pages and pages of very detailed comments and notes on each game build and, damn it, what she said went,” Jensen laughs. “And she was – almost - always right. That gave me a lot of confidence once I had my own game to ask for what I know is the right thing for the game.”
The partnership worked well, with Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow
hailed by many as the best of series when it was released, with the game soon being ported to Amiga and Macintosh as well. Jensen muses that “Roberta must have been pretty happy” with her work on the game, as she was immediately given the chance to pitch her own series. The idea she eventually came up with came from her passion for graphic novels and Anne Rice.
“I had the idea that a mystery plotline would work really well with the interactivity you wanted in a game,” she recalls. “Find clues, examine clues, question suspects, etc. But I didn’t want to just do a straight mystery series; I wanted to involve the supernatural.”
The main character of the game began life as a paranormal investigator, but was soon re-imagined by Jensen as having come from “a family line of witchhunters” in New Orleans, which she says seemed “a much better idea”.
“Or so I thought at the time,” she adds wryly.
“At the time, [Sierra co-founder] Ken Williams
was like, ‘Well, I’m a little disappointed in this idea - I wish you’d come up with something lighter and more cheerful. No one wants to play something dark and depressing on the computer. But I guess we’ll let you go ahead’. That was pretty nerve-wracking,” Jensen comments. “I worried that he was right, that it would flop.”
Nonetheless, Jensen began work on the game. “I work on the plotline first,” she says of her methodology. “I find the puzzles fall very naturally into the story structure and I am somewhat cognizant of where and how the puzzles will fit when I write the story, but at that point the story is my focus. After I have the story down, I break it down into a game design where you add in structure for locations, puzzles, inventory items, dialogue topics, etc.”
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers
was released for PC in 1993 to an immediately enthusiastic audience, a reception that Jensen describes as “fantastic”, adding that obviously “people were ready for some darkness and drama”.
“Of course,” she qualifies, “I had the advantage of being on the Sierra label, which was the
label at the time. Any new Sierra series was big news. It got good reviews almost across the board and a lot of attention. I was very, very lucky.”
Immediately after the release of the game, Jensen was asked by the company to work on a sequel. While the process of writing the game was approached in much the same way as its predecessor, Jensen’s confidence with the characters meant that she felt secure in being able “to push Gabriel’s ‘bad boy-ness’ or internal darkness to its limit”.
There was also a change in interface, to a more simplistic point and click format which she considered “better” at the time – a decision she feels has been vindicated by the ‘simple is better’ approach of the “casual game market” currently.
The development of the game didn’t quite go to plan, though, with “one entire chapter cut” and another two merged due to the expenses of filming the live actors. “It’s not so much that it ‘went over budget’ as it was that we didn’t realize how much it would cost when we started out,” she explains. Still, she adds, despite the cuts for the game seeming particularly “brutal”, they didn’t come as a “huge surprise”.
“There nearly always comes a point in a game, usually a lot later than I’d like, where cuts are required. That’s because, well, I design big games.”
Despite the budget problems, The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
performed exceptionally well when released in 1995, winning game of the year in Computer Gaming World
and even receiving positive reviews from mainstream press.
“I had a lot of dreams and hopes for the game,” Jensen says, “but so often things don’t quite work out that way. With Beasts Within
, it did make a very positive impact in the market. I remember that Rolling Stone
and Entertainment Weekly
gave it extremely positive reviews. That was definitely the height of the ‘computer games and Hollywood will merge’ craze. It was a heady time. But that didn’t exactly happen.”
Beasts Within, Sacred Blood
After the game’s release, Jensen began a novelization of the first Gabriel Knight
game, which she notes provided a few problems in terms of her “letting go of the game” – much of the dialogue in the book came right from the game, as well as the general structure, which she says “felt stilted”. Even then, the book sold well enough when released in 1996 that she was able to start working on a Beasts Within
novel, though she made the decision to “just relax and go back to the root story, not worry about how the game structure turned out”.
“On the Beast Within
novel,” she grins, “I said screw it, and just rewrote the story from scratch, changing it as I liked and writing all new scenes and dialogue. The end result was a lot better. I was able to retell the story in a natural way, the way any storyteller will embellish a story the more he or she tells it. Since I didn’t have to worry about a filming budget, I could go to any location and describe any scene. It was fun.”
The book was released in 1998, but work had begun on a third game in the series, subtitled Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned
, long before that time, in 1995. Jensen notes that it was “hardest of the three Gabriel Knight
games” to develop, mainly due to the events going on in the industry at the time – the adventure genre was becoming less and less marketable, and Sierra was beginning to show the signs of strain.
“It took a year for the game to even start,” Jensen recalls, “and then three years in production. Ken Williams stepped down during this period and the company was sold [to direct marketing service CUC International]. There wasn’t any clear direction anymore except that they weren’t big on adventure games. We were the last true adventure in production there. I was the ‘last dinosaur’ on the block. That’s the way it felt anyway. The 3D engine and scenes took a long time and the project just went on too long.”
Jensen notes that the decision to use a 3D engine for the game was due mainly to the fact that it was “the hot thing” for companies to do so. “There was no question of doing it any other way,” she says. While she found it a “fun challenge” to “find ways to use the 3D navigation to improve puzzles”, Jensen comments that her “preference would be to not use real-time 3D again”.
The press response to the game was mixed: though adventure game focused reviewers viewed the game in a favorable light, much of the mainstream gaming press rated the game as little better than average. Famously, Old Man Murray’s Erik Wolpaw
referred to one of the title’s puzzles as “genuinely deranged”.
Even so, Jensen feels “very pleased” with the way the title turned out. “The story is perhaps more obscure and bizarre than the other two games, but I really like it. I’m weird that way. I was very pleased with how the major puzzles turned out - that you could actually solve the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau. I found it very clever,” she grins, before chuckling. “Am I allowed to say that about my own game?”
The New Millennium
The title was the final adventure game ever produced by the studio, and proved to be the last major title in the genre for a number of years. Jensen moved on from the company, and the industry, releasing Millennium Rising
- her first non-adapted novel – in 1999, before co-founding casual gaming company Oberon Games
a few years later.
“I was, and still am, very intrigued by the demographics of the casual gaming market,” she comments. “My goals were to find a new audience for adventure games; to finally reach a demographic - older people and more women - who would like story-based gaming. The challenges, well, with a newbie start-up company we had to start small in terms of artistic vision.”
Jensen developed the adventures Inspector Parker
in 2003 and 2004 respectively, and notes that she felt it was good to be able to “develop the skill of thinking smaller” and to focus “on a very simple gameplay mechanic”. However, she soon felt the need to “get back to a big production”, and began talking with Toronto based publisher DreamCatcher Games about a project called Gray Matter
. “They wanted to do it in house and start their own development branch,” Jensen says. “Gray Matter
would have been their first in house project.”
The project faltered, though, with Jensen only commenting that it “just didn’t work out for them business wise”.
“I believe to this day they still don’t have any internal development,” she adds.
Fortunately, Jensen was able to announce at Leipzig Game Convention in 2006 that the title was under development with Tonuzaba Entertainment, and would be published by Anaconda Games. Currently slated for a 2008 release, Jensen comments that the game is “coming along nicely”.
“There’s always a rough period at the beginning when you’re getting the engine together and the basic process down, especially with a new team,” she muses. “But we’re past that and cranking through actual art and scripting now. There’s new stuff in the build each week. That’s when the game really begins. The art is terrific and we’re able to play through the first few chapters - and they’re fun!”
Through the development of Gray Matter
, Jensen has also continued to consult for Oberon, as well as designing games for them “on contract”. The company recently published the puzzle game Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile
, which Jensen – “a big Christie fan” - notes was “an easy, fun project to do”.
Currently though, she is focusing all her energies on Gray Matter
, and comments that her “priority is just to get Gray Matter
to market with a quality level that I believe is as good at the Gabriel Knight
“Long term,” she considers, “I really would like to see adventure games in the casual gaming space. We should be able to sell a million units of a good adventure game - not just mine but any good adventure. That’s what I’d like to see.”