Interview: Jane Jensen’s Pinkerton Road Adventure

By Richard Cobbett on April 23rd, 2012 at 7:30 pm.

I wonder what she's looking at up there. It must be really interesting...

After years of working on casual games, Gabriel Knight creator Jane Jensen is using Kickstarter to help launch her own studio – Pinkerton Road – which recently held a vote amongst contributors to decide its first project. That’s now going to be an adventure called Moebius, which you can read about here and add your pledge to to the pot. I caught up with her to talk about adventures, story, crazy fans, casual gaming and definitely not That Puzzle. (Much.)

RPS: Obviously, the first thing is that it’s great to see you back and looking at making more big adventure games. How’s the Kickstarter project going so far?

Jane Jensen: It’s been a really interesting process! I think I’ve finally relaxed, but the first weeks were very… tense. Nerve-wracking. It’s kindof a full-time job really, responding to people and keeping updates coming and all that stuff.

RPS: There were a few complaints from people early on that they weren’t as comfortable buying into a studio as a specific project. Have you seen any uptick now that people know exactly what game they’re going to get if they pledge their money?

Jensen: Yeah. We had an uptick when we made the announcement, and a lot more press that we’re definitely doing the Moebius game, and just recently I did an update to the reward tiers and the front-page to re-focus it and we definitely saw a good reaction to that too.

RPS: The other big question that jumps out is the fairly small amount being asked for – just $300,000. How’s this going to pay for a whole new adventure game?

Jensen: Well, basically the game we’re planning is about the size of GK1 – around 50 scenes and about 10 hours of play. Even so, that would normally cost at least double what we’re asking, but we’re putting in some cash, and the team we’re using is Eastern European. Their rates are pretty low, and they’re also taking a discount in exchange for some revenue share.

BeTrapped! It's Minesweeper, only you can talk to the jerk who put them there.

RPS: It still seems oddly ambitious, after Gray Matter was in development for about seven years, to be looking at getting two full-scale adventures out in one year…

Jensen: It’s interesting that people feel… I guess people aren’t as familiar with my casual game stuff, but at the studio I worked for-

RPS: Oberon?

Jensen: Yeah. There, the games had about a nine-month cycle, and they were just one after the other after another for about seven years, and the team I’m working with my new game worked with me on those. It’s a different kind of game, it is bigger in scale, but we’ve calculated that out. Another thing that helps me is that I pre-loaded the choices so that one of the games has a lot of the design already done, so… I mean, the answer is, you know, yes we can do it. It looks at this point like that’s not going to be the case, that we’ll only be doing one, which certainly makes things easier, but yeah. I’ve had a lot of experience in production. We do have a plan.

RPS: Outsourcing doesn’t have the greatest reputation in gaming though – Revolution for instance tried it with the fourth Broken Sword and… it didn’t go well. How can people know they’ll be getting the quality they expect from these teams?

Jensen: As I said, it’s a team I’ve shipped games with in the past – about four or five titles – so we’ve worked together a lot and I know what they’re capable of. They’re really excited to do more a full adventure game and the process is established, so to me it’s not a risk.

RPS: Cool. Moving onto Moebius specifically then, the winner of the Kickstarter poll. Firstly, how funny would it have been if a group like 4Chan had showed up at the end of the Kickstarter and swung the vote in favour of “From the pen of legendary thriller writer Jane Jensen… a Regency-era drama about sex and intrigue on a farm!”

Jensen: Well… I’d have found it unlikely! I think the audience we’re talking to on the Kickstarter is more the Gabriel Knight one, so I knew that game didn’t have much of a chance. As a designer, I’ve done a number of different kinds of titles and I think that would be really fun to work on… but I realise that’s probably not what my core audience expects or wants. It actually did a lot better than I thought it was going to do though. I thought it would maybe be received at a 10% level, but there were quite a few who thought it looked like fun… so that’s good!

This is probably not Malachi Rector. Unless we're looking at gaming's first really, really convincing transexual adventurer

RPS: For Moebius, a lot of it, from the name itself to the main character “Malachi Rector” having very a Gabriel Knight ring to him does seem to have a certain looping feel to it. Do you see it as going back to your Sierra days or a bolder kind of step forwards?

Jensen: I think it’s just the kind of game and story that is pretty core to at least the more successful work I’ve done. I mean, it has a lot in common with Dante’s Equation, a big novel I wrote, and Gray Matter has a lot of that too. I guess I have a science-fiction side, but I don’t tend to write science-fiction set on other planets or way in the future… I like that sort of Matrix-like skew on reality, and I’d say Moebius is in that camp. Moebius is probably more like Gray Matter and Dante’s Equation than Gabriel Knight, but they all have that similar thread.

RPS: Given how weighted towards story your games are, are you worried about having to tip your hand too much for the fans – spoilers, reveals and so on?

Jensen: Yeah, it’s definitely a balancing act. Even right now I can’t say too much about the core concept of Moebius without giving too much away. The character has to find that stuff out!

RPS: Quite. I remember one Gabriel Knight demo – one so early it was still using the Forever Knight-ish title-screen – which gave away a ton of the story, day-by-day. Definitely not the ideal way to go into a mystery thriller…

(Note: I subsequently dug up a copy of the demo and it wasn’t anything like as spoilerific as I remembered. Not sure whether I played a different version sent out before Sierra realised it was being too showy, or just got it mentally mashed up with something else. Someone lend me a time-machine and I’ll go back to the 90s to check it out. And buy Apple shares…)

Jensen: No! I never knew that! Yeah. Well, I think the more we can talk about the art and process and not give away too much of the story, the better. I’m sure we will be showing other characters as they’re developed and things like that, but it is tricky. People always want to know more, right? Especially the press. It’s all “Tell me something you haven’t told someone else!”

RPS: Indeed. Of the other titles then, I know the plan at the moment is to look at making them further down the line and if possible, re-acquire the Gabriel Knight license from the ever-smoking ruins of Sierra, but are there any plans to reveal what would have happened in Gray Matter 2 or Gabriel Knight 4 if they don’t end up happening?

Jensen: To release the story anyway? Interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I guess at some point… if all hope is really lost… it would be a small mercy to say ‘this is what the story would have been’. I actually think things are more positive than that, so hopefully we won’t have to resort to that – but yeah, a last-straw effort to relieve some of that curiosity…

Gray Matter 2 lost the vote, but it's still a possibility going forwards. (The sequel may also spell 'Grey' correctly...)

RPS: Moving to your recent stuff, you’ve largely been working in casual games for a few years. How have you found that audience compared to writing for ‘regular’ gamers?

Jensen: Well, the reason I was attracted by that market in the first place is that the audience tends to be people like me – older women – and they’re much more interested in story. Having worked in this industry a long time, I’ve certainly found myself in positions where I was working on a project and the other people on it… usually guys… were like “Oh, well, there’s no point spending money on story, everyone’s going to click through, nobody cares about this…” and I was… well, you might not want to, but I know there are people out there who want to.

That’s something I really like about that audience, and I hope I’ve had some influence on the market and how it’s gone. I did a lot of hidden-object games, and every single time I’d try to put more adventure-play in it. First it was just hidden objects, and then we had inventory items, and then scenes between objects that were adventure game scenes, and character topics and every time, just wedge in a bit more of the adventure experience. I think right now there’s just so much hidden object gaming on the market and it’s all so much the same, a really good third-person adventure game that was cute and wonderful would be really great in that market.

That’s one of the things we’re focused on as a studio. I see our audience as two-fold – that group, which I think we can bring to third-person adventure games, and the existing, older adventure audience. It’s important for us to do that. The more units we can sell, the more designers we can hire and the more products we can put out, so it’s in the interests of the old-timers to welcome this new audience.

RPS: Of your casual games, are there any in particular that you wish your ‘proper’ adventure game fans would give a chance and check out?

Jensen: I think the last one I did was Dying for Daylight

RPS: That’s the Charlaine Harris one, right?

Jensen: Yeah. There’s a lot of humour in that, I think it’s fun and it’s got a lot of adventure elements in it. For people who like the British cozy thing, which I do a lot, I did one called Dr. Lynch: Grave Secrets, which was an original IP and has a fond spot in my heart.

Press X to Sook-Eh

RPS: How has your approach to adventure game story changed over the years? Do you still think regular puzzles – inventories and so on – are still the best way to tell them, rather than character focused problems and the like?

Jensen: I think I try to use both. I mean, as you pointed out in your Gray Matter review-

RPS: Oh… uh… (cough)… you’ve read that?

Jensen: (laughs) Yeah – it was brutal!

RPS: Just to be clear, I liked a lot of Gray Matter, honest. I had some big issues with it, especially the pacing, but the concept and characters were really fun.

Jensen: I mean, I do try to make a lot of character interactions and puzzles based on what a character would do, like the magic puzzles in Gray Matter… which I grant you, did not turn out that well… and the stuff with David, retrieving memories and the isolation tank and so on. I make an effort to come up with some original things that aren’t just ‘use x on y’, but in the end it’s a combination. You need a lot of things, and those basic puzzles are good stand-bys.

'And if you ask me, it's a very good thing that we don't have a passive-attraction that will take another two sequels to play out! That would be awkward, and I'd never get my hair washed...'

RPS: On the creative side, as both the writer and head of the studio, do you worry about not having an editorial level to veto and sanity-check ideas?

Jensen: No, because normally that comes from player experience and feedback. For example, when I was at Oberon, I did have quite a bit of creative control as the creative director and co-founder, but most of the feedback that was really valuable was from alpha-testing and watching people try to use the product and what they were getting and weren’t getting. That’s absolutely necessary… I definitely need that sanity-check.

(Just to cut the obvious snarky comments off at the pass, I know how many people are thinking of That Puzzle right now. Before posting, you might want to check out this interview where Jensen is absolved of writing it. Still, by adventure law, it has to come up, so…)

RPS: Okay. I don’t want to drone on too much about That Puzzle, but do you get any satisfaction from the fact that the Old Man Murray guys who made it into such a meme are now going to be dogged by cake references for the rest of their careers?

Jensen: Well… there’s such a thing as karma, I guess.

RPS: And that concludes the That Puzzle portion of the interview! On a totally different note that I’ve often wondered about – many of your adventures have been set in real-world places. Do you get a lot of fans making pilgrimages to go see them?

Jensen: Yeah, I do get e-mails like that and that’s so awesome. This one girl sent me a photo of herself in front of Neuschwanstein and she was lifting up her shirt and she had a Schattenjäger tattoo on her stomach. That’s my classic!

RPS: I must admit, I was in Bavaria a few years ago, and I made a point of looking around for some of the locations used in the backgrounds – Marienplatz, Neuschwanstein, the Photoshopped alley where the werewolf attack took place in Munich…

Jensen: Oh, cool. You know, I never thought that would be a big deal, but now people have told me that, I’m much more conscious about trying to use really neat real-life locations. It’s just awesome that people have that reaction to it. I know a few people have been to Rennes-le-Chateau, which is way the heck in the middle of nowhere, but a beautiful spot. Interestingly, I did go there while working on GK3, but I’d never been to New Orleans when I did GK1.

Pay $50 and you get e-books of the two Gabriel tie-in novels. But will they be yellowing and ink-splattered like my copy? They will not. (That is probably a Good Thing...)

RPS: It didn’t show! Okay. Outside of games then, it’s been a long time since Dante’s Equation – why no more books? Especially in the wake of Dan Brown’s multi-volume dribblings, it’s surprising we’ve not seen anything for a while.

Jensen: Well, I did Millenium Rising and then Dante’s Equation, and that took about three years. I just put so much into that, and it was one of those projects that was almost beyond my capacity really – the themes I was trying to play with and the scientific research, and when that came out and didn’t get a huge amount of success… I don’t know. I just felt like, maybe this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. I guess I reached the conclusion that I’m an okay novelist, but a really good game designer. It’s something that’s equally left-brain and right-brain, about being technical as well as a storyteller, and I felt like I was more unique in that field.

RPS: Is it something you might try again at some point, maybe with Pinkerton’s own IP? I remember you did a short story about Sam’s Christmas in Rome for Gray Matter…

Jensen: Yeah. Short-stories, especially ones that revolve around the games are fun and people like that kind of stuff, as a teaser or in a big-box. I can see that happening again. Whether I do a full novel again, I don’t know. I guess it depends on whether I’m taken over by some fantastic idea that has to be a book… and if I have the time!

RPS: Thank you for sparing some of it.

The Pinkerton Road Kickstarter has just under a month to finish raising its $300,000. Tier awards include the two Gabriel Knight novels in e-book format, original artwork, digital soundtracks, and copies of The Scarlet Furies CDs. The Gray Matter soundtrack is also on Spotify and iTunes, and makes for great writing background music. Just saying. It does however have two big spoilers in its track names, so be careful if you plan to play it.

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31 Comments »

  1. Alistair says:

    I backed this to the minimal ‘give me a game’ level. My only one apart from Andrew Plotkin. Apart from quite liking other things Jane Jensen has done, she does seem to have wrestled her way through some complicated productions in the past, so I don’t think this new approach is going to be tough for her. I’m thinking in particular that GK1, 2 and 3, and Grey Matter, all used different technologies yet all got shipped as working products. So I don’t think there’s much chance of the game falling short or not materialising, as is bound to happen for some kickstarts.

  2. Bungle says:

    I’m really starting to like Kickstarter. Down with all publishers!

    • Ysellian says:

      Hate to be a pessimist, but it only takes one failed kickstarting project to make it all tumble down and make people “realize” why publishers aren’t willing to throw money at certain projects.

      • ShadowXOR says:

        I’ll quote someone from reddit on this one:

        “Remember that first time you paid 60 bucks for a game and it turned out to be absolutely horrible? Remember how, after that, you stopped buying games forever?”

        Bad things happen, it won’t ruin everything.

        • Ysellian says:

          I disagree with that example. Kickstarting is similar to pre-ordering a game and not at all similar to purchasing a full product. The success of kickstarters is based on the confidence people have in the devs to deliver them a good product and this will take a hit if people get a shitty product.

          What I will concede is that if the first batch of Kickstarting games are all a success than things will be a more different, but this first batch cannot fail IMO.

      • eks says:

        I guess it won’t be any different then how it is now then? I purchase games with traditional publishers all and regret it all the time because they are terrible. If everyone stopped buying games when they purchased a dud there would be no video games industry at all.

  3. Yachmenev says:

    Richard Cobett: Considering the questions about the puzzles in her game, what are some examples of adventure games with good puzzles according to you?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      There are many, and in many different styles. Day of the Tentacle is arguably the best puzzle-box adventure, where the different pieces click together with their own internal but very rational logic, Zork: Grand Inquisitor turns lateral thinking into an art-form with puzzles like removing the word “Infinite” from an “Infinite Corridor” to progress. Quest for Glory offered RPG-like stats with traditional puzzles to give them multiple solutions and extra flexibility. Spider and Web is a three-way deception between the player, the character and the antagonist… I could go on, but won’t because I’m currently paying five Euros for an hour of Wi-Fi in a very poncey hotel.

      The problem with puzzles is that the distance between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ does tend to be measured in the length of time it takes to solve them. Sometimes something that sounds stupid when described actually makes total sense with the internal logic of a game when presented. Something that sounds reasonable becomes horrific or stupid when you take a step back and look at the context – a Scotland Yard detective stealing money from a beggar to make a phone-call for instance, or another game I played where at one point you steal a bottle of wine from a friendly bartender by mixing up chlorine gas to scare him away.

      For me though, puzzles per se aren’t really the core of adventure games, it’s story, and exploring a world that encourages you to poke and prod at the world instead of seeing it as a series of targets or things to hit with a sword. They’re a facilitating device to make those stories interactive; the genre is far, far bigger than inventory objects and dialogue trees.

      • Yachmenev says:

        Good answers. :) I think that you´re being really harsh on Gray Matter, but you do have interesting arguments.I hope you get an opportunity (and want to) write a longer article about the subject here on RPS. Considering the attention the genre is getting now with the kickstarters and the good indie games, you can say that it´s needed.

        Great interview also. :)

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          As I said, there’s a lot of Gray Matter I liked, but it’s a game with a lot of structural problems. Those just happened to be closer to my mind when I was still blogging stuff – not least because it was a good way for me to to crystallise my thoughts on it a bit more than when they were just floating around my head. It’s the kind of game that interests me as both a writer and an adventure fan on a structural and character level, but much of the character stuff speaks for itself while you’re actually playing it and so didn’t leave as much to say for either good or bad that people who’d played the game already wouldn’t have seen.

      • Oof says:

        You mentioned Quest for Glory …! ;)

        Mr. Cobbett, please do try to find out what the Coles are up to …

        Also, yay for Jane Jensen! We need more of these smart, substantial types in the gaming industry. And if she gets to make games mostly on her terms, all the better.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          They’re up to this: http://www.transolar.com and http://www.theschoolforheroes.com/questlog/

          I’m mixed about Quest for Glory. I love the series – especially QFGIV – but I kinda feel that the series is done in a way that most of the other re-launch projects weren’t. The Himalaya guys are currently working on a fairly QFG inspired game called Mage’s Initiation though, which is a dreadful title but will hopefully be a fun game. http://www.himalayastudios.com/games/mages/#about-the-game

          • Oof says:

            I see. Well, there’s no point in them creating something about which they’re not passionate… Good for them.

            I have wondered why the nascent adventure-RPG genre never took off. It would seem to be peculiarly suited to adults, of which there are an ever-growing number that do game, and the developers that manage to capture that sector would be able to retire each night to a bed constructed entirely of the minty paper stuff. It’s a shame that the Coles, apparently, will not be part of that.

            Quest for Glory 4 remains the ultimate adventure game, in my estimation.

          • Oof says:

            Also, the look for Mage’s Initiation alone is inducing waves of nostalgia in me …! This is definitely on my radar. Thanks.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            “I have wondered why the nascent adventure-RPG genre never took off”

            There were others, but Quest for Glory was amongst the very few that were any good. Check out stuff like Kingdom O’Magic, Bureau 13 and Bloodnet for other takes on the hybrid. But I doubt you’ll play them for long.

          • Wizardry says:

            You didn’t like the Ultima series? Explain your avatar then.

            :)

  4. Dervish says:

    Do you still think regular puzzles – inventories and so on – are still the best way to tell [stories], rather than character focused problems and the like?

    Very misleadingly asked, I should say! I wonder if anyone has ever claimed that adventure game puzzles exist because they are the best way to tell a story. The story (ideally) sets up the puzzles, and I’m not sure it even makes sense if you try to flip it around. I also wonder what specifically makes a “character focused problem” no longer a “regular” puzzle.

    I think the real ideas here (which did manage to come across in her answer, somewhat) are “Aren’t random mini-games and contrived locks/keys a bit lame?” and “How can we integrate these things better?”

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Er, no. You say [stories] when it’s very much [adventure game stories]. And people *have* frequently said that adventure games are too easy etc. when they’ve gone outside of that and focused on just plain telling a story. There are exceptions to that, like The Last Express, which has basically five puzzles in the entire game, but to most an adventure is an interlocking collections of puzzles where challenge is expected.

      “I also wonder what specifically makes a “character focused problem” no longer a “regular” puzzle.”

      Because it’s far broader. A puzzle is at heart something with a solution – a key in a lock. A problem is something like “You can just kick the door down instead of finding the key, but there’ll be consequences later…” Heavy Rain is a… well, I hate to say ‘good’ example because I’m not a fan, but a definite example.

      I’d go on more, but I’m about to be disconnected from this hotel connection. Check out my article How To Save Adventure Games over on PCG.

      • Dervish says:

        Well, you can say it’s my misunderstanding, but from your first paragraph here it sounds like the real question was “Are puzzles necessary for a good adventure game?” and not whether puzzles are good at telling stories of any sort.

        I actually have read your article, and now that I reread it, it mostly clears up the other question. The interview makes it sounds like the important distinction is “regular” (e.g. inventory-based) vs. “character” but I see now that the real issue is puzzle vs. problem, per your definition. I get it. But again, I think my confusion is reasonable. “Problem” doesn’t connote the difference of consequences or multiple options–”puzzle” and “problem” are practically interchangeable in most cases, both having solutions–and it seems it would be more straightforward to just say “choices with consequences” if you can’t make it any more succint. I mean, did Jane Jensen know that you had that particular definition in mind?

  5. avp77 says:

    Thanks for the interview. With all the Kickstarter projects out there, this seems like one of the most worthy.

    I can’t say I have an opinion on the GK games though, since I got them from GoG and still haven’t gotten to them (yes yes I know, they’re great get to them, etc….I did actually once own the boxed GK1, which came on something crazy like 14 floppy disks…can’t remember playing it though).

  6. qrter says:

    I’m sure mrs. Jensen is a lovely person, but that picture always makes me laugh. I just can’t help it.

  7. Hematite says:

    Speaking of That Puzzle, I believe Lewie shows the culmination of it on the front of the Bargain Bucket every once in a while, dodgy ‘stache and all. I thought I was very clever for recognising that all on my own, but I’m sure it’s pretty widely known among the erudite RPS regulars.

  8. Thiefsie says:

    Got to say… her mug being all over kickstarter doesn’t make me want to kickstart this project. That and the subscription kind of basis is why I haven’t dropped the $$$.

    I’m still cautiously waiting for kickstarter to fall bad for games.

    I’ve at this stage backed 4 projects, 2 games and 2 physical objects. The objects are already in production, the games however have at least a years gestation before they are even released… this seems… weird to me as there is no obligation to anything they are doing.

    It’s like a super extreme pre-order with greater risk (not retail backing for refund) and not even any real guarantee of what content you will get (if there ever was any with software regardless?).

    The lower threshold of entry helps ($15?) but it still strikes me as weird. I like this as a way of funding games that may otherwise not be made – but the risks are still fairly huge.

    You need one smartarse company to get huge backing and then completely rip everyone off somehow… Lets say the Pebble watch ships, and then they charge you $5 for every new custom watchface… or suddenly install ads into the device as has happened with many iPhone apps after paid release has been turned to freemium…

    Anyway… good luck to this crew. I’ve got sooooooooooooooooo many games to play!

  9. Risingson says:

    Thanks for the interview, Richard. I feel that, though we haven’t always the same opinion of things, we come more or less from the same world and same background, so I feel a lot of your references and such.

    About Jensen – who surely is reading this: I feel like the casual market has been something like a trap for her. She says that she enjoys making games for women like her, a bit older, but there’s a subtle story of alienation behind: Jensen enjoys mystery stories, supernatural stories and even casual gameplay, yes, like, I suppose, most of her friends. But she also designed adventure games, she has kind of a “geek” side that I feel she is not that confortable with: I’m using a lot of fantasy here, but it’s like she has tried to show GK to people, and that wonderful person she trusts said “but, I don’t understand why I can’t advance through the story here”. I suppose those casual market titles are satisfying for her – adapting literature aimed to women into a series of minigames that she has seen that are enjoyed by women – but, not only in the gameplay… I feel like the stories are really dumbed down, with stupidly “cool” characters who are supposed to be friends and such, with no real mystery at all, with lots of plot holes and…

    My advice would be: take a step backward, look at what you did in King’s Quest VI, and design with that entire game in mind.

  10. joe barry says:

    It’s like a super extreme pre-order with greater risk (not retail backing for refund) and not even any real guarantee of what content you will get (if there ever was any with software regardless?).

    The lower threshold of entry helps ($15?) but it still strikes me as weird. I like this as a way of funding games that may otherwise not be made – but the risks are still fairly huge.

    You need one smartarse company to get huge backing and then completely rip everyone off somehow… Lets say the Pebble watch ships, and then they charge you $5 for every new custom watchface… or suddenly install ads into the device as has happened with many iPhone apps after paid release has been turned to freemium…
    http://joebarry12.livejournal.com/

  11. Bluerps says:

    I did back the Kickstarter with a small amount of money, but I did so mainly because I liked Gabriel Knight 3, and I wasn’t sure if it was actually a good idea. I now feel much better about backing that project – the lady seems to know what she is doing.