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Remaking  Gabriel Knight : A 20th-anniversary postmortem

Remaking Gabriel Knight: A 20th-anniversary postmortem

March 31, 2015 | By Katie Hallahan

Article Start    Page 1 of 3  

Written primarily by Katie Hallahan, with input and feedback from Cesar Bittar (Producer), Richard Flores (Technical Director), Jane Jensen (Designer/Director), Aaron Light (Programming Lead), Emily Morganti (PR Consultant), Mikael Palsio (Video Editor), Elisa Pavinato (2D Art Lead), and Wayne Sung (QA Lead)

Even compared to other indies, Phoenix Online Studios has an unusual origin story. We started out as fans of adventure games who wanted to make our own -- but had no idea how. We worked for 10 years on an unofficial King's Quest sequel that survived two cease & desist orders to finally release episodically as The Silver Lining.

We then moved into commercial development with Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, and last year we started an indie publishing branch to release other developers' games alongside our own. As fans of adventure games and Sierra games in particular, though, two of our most exciting projects have been the games we developed with Jane Jensen: Moebius: Empire Rising, and the 20th anniversary remake of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers.

Jane Jensen is a writer and game designer who got her start at Sierra On-Line in the 1990s. She worked alongside Roberta Williams on King's Quest VI, then went on to create the Gabriel Knight series, which was recognized at the time as being one of the first dark, mature adventure games with a complex story and characters.

Jane made three games starring the reluctant "shadow hunter" Gabriel Knight before Sierra shut down in 1999. Over the years she tried unsuccessfully to pitch new Gabriel Knight games to Vivendi and later to Activision, who had acquired the rights to Sierra's IP, but when those didn't pan out she figured the Gabriel Knight era of her life was over.

In 2012, after almost a decade designing hidden object games, Jane wanted to get back to full-scale adventure game development and crowdfunded Moebius. The success of her Kickstarter campaign caught Activision's eye, and the company approached her about doing a 20th anniversary remake of the first Gabriel Knight game, Sins of the Fathers, with the goal of introducing the series to a new audience on mobile devices as well as computers. If the remake came out well, the new Gabriel Knight game Jane had long dreamed of making could finally be a reality.

As huge fans of Jane's work, we at Phoenix were all extremely excited to be a part of the next page in this series' story. At the same time, it was a huge responsibility and we wanted to make sure we did it right -- that this game got the love, attention and hard work it richly deserved.

What Went Right

1. The Game Itself

When you're remaking a classic adventure game, you can't ask for a better game than Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Sins of the Fathers was a surprise hit for Sierra when it released in 1993: Critically acclaimed and honored with awards like Adventure Game of the Year from Computer Gaming World and Best in Show at CES (the precursor to E3). Even two decades later, it's a fan favorite that regularly shows up on Best Adventure Game of All Time lists. If you've ever heard the line "What can you tell me about... Voodoo?" in Tim Curry's over-the-top N'awlins drawl, this game probably has a special place in your heart.

If you're one of the few unfamiliar with that iconic phrase, here's the game's premise: Gabriel Knight is a roguish womanizer, writer, and bookstore owner of middling success in New Orleans. While investigating a rash of serial voodoo murders as material for his next book, Gabriel uncovers secrets not only about a real voodoo cult in New Orleans, but also his own family's supernatural history. He also falls for the rich, beautiful, and mysterious Malia Gedde, who herself has a connection to the world of voodoo. The more he learns, the more entrenched he becomes, and before long Gabriel's life and the lives of those he cares about will be in danger if he can't accept his destiny and put a stop to the murders.

Compared to family-friendly fare like King's Quest and comedies like Monkey Island, Gabriel Knight was one of the first adventure games to have a dark, adult-oriented storyline. Jane's storytelling skills are readily evident, from the well-researched voodoo history and New Orleans settings, the complex and memorable characters, and the witty dialogue and banter, to the equally compelling plot: a dangerous set of murders, a forbidden love story, family secrets, unshakeable destiny. Composed by Robert Holmes, the music is consistently wonderful, with the Gabriel Knight main theme on the menu screen getting the game started with a bang. And the puzzles are thoughtful, with every action you take moving the story along and revealing more of the mystery.

While the graphics and interface of the original were dated, the real magic of Jane's games is the story, and this story had already stood the test of time, and that's why we were so excited to develop this remake.

2. Working with the Original Designer and Composer -- and with Activision

Working on this remake with Jane Jensen (series creator and designer) and Robert Holmes (the original composer and producer, and now Jane's husband!) was a huge benefit. The game, characters, and world are all close to Jane's heart, and she was excited about working with them again. She's very particular and detail-oriented -- she knows what she wants for a scene or character, and if there was ever any question of what something should look like, sound like, and so forth, we had the best possible source immediately available to us. We couldn't have had a more motivated creative director. Robert, too, was excited to recreate and improve the music that a generation of adventure fans had fallen in love with.

Jane was very hands-on throughout development, meeting with all of the teams weekly and constantly sending notes on the cutscenes, the animations, and the builds, giving feedback on the execution of the new puzzles, suggesting tweaks that could be made to improve the game from front to back. Any changes that were made from the original we were all confident of, because they were being made with the direct input of the original designer. More information on this is in point number 3.

The logic of Gabriel Knight - click for larger version

Overall, throughout the process, Jane and Robert were not only dedicated to improving the game with their ideas, but very open to hearing ideas from our team, too.  Robert notably worked with a lot of feedback from some members of our team on the score; in the end, he went through at least 59 revisions of the score in his quest to get it right!

And then there was our experience with Activision. It's not uncommon to hear horror stories about working with a big company -- and the Sierra franchises have had a long history of sitting on a shelf with the license holders not being interested in them.

But in our case, Activision's involvement in this project was a big part of what went right. Without the company's belief in its potential, there never would have been a Sins of the Fathers remake at all. Activision was extremely responsive and supportive during development, and trusted Jane to know how to handle her game.

All of the additional material we used in promoting the game leading up to release was quickly approved, and Bob Loya, the head of the new Sierra indie branch, personally gave his support by mentioning the game in a number of interviews as we approached its release. We really couldn't have asked for a better partner.

3. Minimized Design Time Gave Us an Opportunity to Fine-Tune

Since we had an almost complete design doc from the original game, the pre-production design -- which could have taken six months or longer for a brand-new game -- only took about three months. The script was written, the puzzles were planned, the scenes and characters were designed, and even the music had already been composed.

That's not to say there wasn't still design work to be done: The script had to be trimmed down to fit the updated game interface, working in a much higher resolution meant new details needed to be planned and added to scenes and characters, and the MIDI required some re-orchestrating as well. Having a mostly complete GDD from the beginning meant we had more time and bandwidth to make these changes and add in a few new puzzles.

One example is in Day 6 of the game, where Gabriel has to break into his friend Mosely's office in the police station. In the original game, this involved some cop clichés and the New Orleans equivalent of a donut shop -- amusing and not a bad puzzle, but it broke the sense of seriousness that the story had taken on by that point.

The new cutscene

In Jane's novelization of the story this scene played out differently, so we changed the gameplay to more closely match that, which also added a new cutscene to the game. We ended up with a puzzle that achieves the same end, but better supports the story by adding to the creepy atmosphere and reinforcing just how much power the voodoo cult had over the city of New Orleans.

We were also able to use the original scenes and characters as references for the new ones, and able to provide references and suggestions for updating the graphics to include a lot more detail, now that we were working in high-res. Not starting from scratch had its advantages and allowed us to focus on those details early. It allowed Jane to be able to get the characters and screens to finally look the way they were meant to, to her -- the definitive looks.

Gabriel's various looks

Gabriel, for example, has three very different looks in the original games, and his final model in the remake has aspects of each. His grandmother and Wolfgang's assistant Gerde also got makeovers. For the backgrounds, the location that got the most updating was Schloss Ritter, which rather than looking like the huge stone castle of GK1, was made to look more like castle seen in GK2.

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