Impressions: Gabriel Knight 20th Anniversary

By Richard Cobbett on August 26th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Turns out the Sins of the Fathers was having a whole lineage devoted to burning witches and still never inventing smores. Luckily Gabriel is more prepared. If only there was some lava or something around to add that extra sulphur kick. Also, more witches at around 3AM when the munchies really strike.

Reluctant shadow hunter Gabriel Knight returns to the scene of his first case soon, and we’ve played through the first few days (though for this one, we’ll be talking just about a recent build offering a polished up version of Days 1 and 2). Will history repeat itself both inside and out of the game and turn a 90s adventure classic into a modern one too? Here’s some impressions.

Gabriel Knight is, and by no small amount, one of my favourite adventure games of all time, and one I hold very dear – an early glimpse at a world that truly embraced the kind of narrative and atmosphere and maturity that we now take for granted, but was in sadly short supply back in 1993. I remember seeing the first screenshot, of Grace apologising to one of Gabriel’s many conquests that “Gabriel is a lout. I mean, he’s out.” I remember the issue of InterAction, the official magazine that proudly declared itself “A Blatantly Biased Look At The Games From The Sierra Family,” showing this world not based on dungeons and dragons or fairy tales or whatever, but inspired by the likes of Angel Heart. Obviously I’d never heard of that movie at the time, and wouldn’t in fact see it for another decade (It’s really good by the way), but it was clear that here was something special, to be anticipated and savoured and remembered and talked about some twenty years hence.

It certainly wasn’t the only adult adventure out there, with Sierra’s own Dynamix and Coktel Vision alone having several under their belts. It was however one of the first heavy hitters, held up as proof that gaming was now a grown-up thing – a tale of voodoo murder and dark history set in a world of New Orleans where one man had to uncover a conspiracy, atone for the sins of his fathers… hey, it was even in the title… and fill millions of players’ heads with all kinds of voodoo trivia that they would, probably, never be able to use. It also taught the world one valuable life lesson – never beg sympathy from a Cajun. Why? Because everyone knows you have to be Creole to be kind. Badoom-tsssh.

The thing is though that while I love the original, I’ve never been sure what the point of a remake actually is. First, the original is easily acquired and a few pixels the size of cats never hurt anybody. More importantly though, as great as it was, it was a thing very much of its time – and it’s not the graphics that date it. Twenty years is a long time, and standards have changed. The horror elements that once worked so well now feel quaint, the main story of Gabriel and his monster hunting family has been done to death, and most of all, the pacing that was fine for a 1993 adventure is now just so, so, so slow. There just never seemed any real chance of it recapturing the vibe… the spark… the raw of-its-timeness that made the original so important the first time around.

Disappointingly, I seem to be right so far. But that’s not the only reason I feel let down.

I spoke to one with eyes held low, she didn't seem to care. Neither blinked for entire hours, we just stood there and stared.

This remake is, to be clear, basically fine. Fine. It’s Gabriel Knight; the same story, the same script, the same game, save a couple of tweaks here and there and a little streamlining, such as no longer being able to go to the Napoleon House, Voodoo Museum, Dixieland Drugstore or Grandma Knight’s home on Day 1. I understand the reasoning, to make it clearer what you’re meant to do, but it still feels a shame; making the world feel so much smaller, as well as losing the earlier pointers to Gabriel having a life outside of torturing Mosely and waiting for his destiny. That said, other simplifying changes are very welcome, including making it much easier to find that bloody snake scale on Lake Pontchartrain, and making it much easier to find that bloody snake scale on Lake Pontchartain. Yes, I’m including that one twice, and considering throwing it in a third time.

What’s missing though is the vibe, the atmosphere, and most importantly, a sense that this remake was done with a full understanding of why decisions were made the first time around, despite Jane Jensen being on board. It’s hard to explain why it doesn’t work, but… okay, try this. Imagine taking a TV show, upscaling it to IMAX size, and passing it off as an IMAX movie. It’s not going to fly, because the creative decisions that went into the original can’t simply be copy and pasted into another format. Here for instance, the move from a letterbox view to a full screen has major knock-on implications for the setting. The letter boxing added a sinister claustrophobic nature to the world that added to the sense of menace all around despite it taking most of the game for anything to really happen, and that’s gone. Just as notably though, the original rooms are built around that aspect ratio, with the result that their redrawn ones… especially stretched out across a widescreen monitor… can feel cavernous. Gabriel’s detective pal Mosely especially seems to have less of an office than a warehouse, while the roof of Gabriel’s bedroom is now about twelve feet high. In itself, no, that’s not a big deal, but a change of view this dramatic calls for more reworking than redrawing.

Inside a pretty murder site where I had no right to be, I found a picnic spot at last, close to the bourgeoise.

The use of colour is arguably the biggest problem throughout the bits that I’ve seen though. Gabriel Knight was inspired by graphic novels and restricted to a 256 colour palette, and the artists used every shade of it to push the atmosphere of each scene – the warmth of St. George’s, the coldness of the murder at Lake Pontchartain, and most dramatically, the otherworldly opening of each day – blood red letters splashing over vivid pools of green and purple and an amber sky that doesn’t get to rise. Here though, not only are those individual elements nowhere near as strong even at their darkest, they’re soon flattened by the light in a way that smacks less of “Welcome to our dark game of mystery” as “Cool, looking like a nice morning in New Orleans.” It’s just not the same.

I dreamed of chintz of startling pink, of a style just out of sync. The girl was hot and all that jazz, but man her taste did stink. (Though the real question was why she had a picture of the two of us from a VGA life on her mantelpiece, right where nobody could possibly miss it...)

Again, it’s not that the art is in itself bad. It does however often seem to miss the point, stepping away from elements that worked so well to create atmosphere the first time around instead of seeming to acknowledge their importance, and making some genuinely bizarre changes. Socialite and definitely not villain Malia Gedde for instance has swapped her moody, fire-lit library and its expensive chairs for brightness and… chintzy pink leather? The murder scene at Lake Pontchartrain, originally cold and moody and in the middle of nowhere, is now orange-soaked and peaceful and looking like quite a nice place for a picnic. This quickly has a dreadful knock-on-effect with Malia’s graphic novel style intro when she rolls up in her car and we no can longer have the powerful, iconic contrast between her warm world of orange and Gabriel’s of blue. The art also gives her an oddly neutral expression rather than the actual emotion of the original… that shock before she can steady herself and regain control of the situation, foreshadowing the strange relationship to come.

It’s just so disappointing. Gabriel Knight was all about style and mood and atmosphere. 20th Anniversary is technically solid, well drawn, and to be fair sometimes looks really, really good – St. George’s and the Voodoo Museum being standouts on these Days. It feels oddly passionless though; screen after screen of proficient, cucumber-flavoured meh that’s far more concerned with technical realism than pushing the intended mood or needs of the story they’re telling.

Too much fake tan she wore as she approached, she was what I am not. Bright orange now from head down to toe, save any bits that she forgot.

One thing that the remake had no choice but to start afresh with though are voices, due to the original recordings not being available or good enough quality, and much of its cast being either out of a remake’s budget or inconveniently dead. The replacements I’ve heard so far are at least okay, though sometimes it can be difficult to judge between better, worse, and simply different. Grace for instance sounds flat to me, but to at least some extent that could be down to just not being Leah Remini. By far the biggest improvement so far is the Narrator, sticking with Virginia Capers’ strong accent but talking a lot faster. The weakest so far however is Gabriel himself, who always seems to be doing an impression of Tim Curry doing his already dodgy New Orleans accent. (Yes. Yes it was.) It’s distracting when it’s okay, and when it’s not… well, think “Schattenjager Elvis.”

It adds a few things to the mix too of course, including the aforementioned streamlining of the puzzles, a Journal that replaces the tape-recorder with quick reminders of what to do next, a full hints system, and behind-the-scenes bonus content. This is a really great idea, frustratingly executed, showing storyboards and early pencilwork and comparison shots… trapped in a really small window in the middle of the screen, with no way to blow them out and actually get a good look. There are also a few comments from people like Jensen and composer Robert Holmes, but again no space to actually put them, so all there seems to be are thrown out snippets like “The police station music has a sense of humour. Inspirations were Animal House and Airplane” and “The player encounters the murder scene right away on day 1.” Yeah. Not exactly the inside scoop there, guys.

The museum was shut, the puzzles cut short, but answers still I craved. A power cut cost me all I had, but thank sweet Christ, I'd saved.

Again though, the issue feels a bit deeper; a lingering lack of passion – that the updates are only concerned with the surface level, that the art takes the safest possible path, that the flow changes are less about the sense that this is how Gabriel Knight should be as just, well, talking down a bit to modern adventurers as poor startled children who couldn’t possibly handle things like a bar that doesn’t serve an immediate purpose. This also unfortunately extends to some of the weakly implemented edits and additions, like nobody having taken a moment to fix the line where Grace comments on Gabriel’s hair sticking up despite him now having the lion’s mane look from the later games, or the way that looking at the newspaper claims that the front page story is about the Voodoo Murders when the new zoom-in to show it reveals it to be a puff piece for Jackson Square that no paper would dream of wasting a headline on on the slowest of news days. Or, most embarrassingly, that there’s a big pile of Gabriel’s novels in his cabinet that are credited to “Blake Backlash” (and in one case “Black Backlash”), which Beast Within players will know is his detective rather than his pen-name, and definitely not the name of a female orthodontist as discussed on Day 1.

My last poem used and gone, I stared unto my screen. I prayed for some snark to fill the gap, to comment on this scene...

These are trivial things, yes, but trivial things build up, especially in a game meant to be a celebration. And unfortunately for me, even a couple of days built them up too much. I won’t say I’m not curious to see how a few of the later scenes have been redone and won’t be glad to get a remastered version of the soundtrack at some point, but nothing in the days I’ve played suggests that this rather than the original is going to be the definitive version. They both suffer from pacing issues, but the original just has more personality in everything from backgrounds to portraits, sprites that seem part of the world, better atmosphere despite the infinitely more limited technology and palette, and above all, makes all the pieces feel like they’re pulling together. The remake on the other hand has a simplified interface and streamlining, better music, a tolerable narrator and graphics better suited to modern monitors even if they are iPad aspect ratio. I know which I’d choose.

Drawn to auto-erotic aphixiation, I sought not to expire. But was in my pants at 3AM, I joined the heavenly choir.

What could improve things before release? Things like graphics and voice are obviously locked at this point, though a few quick changes where possible to the newspapers and Gabriel’s books wouldn’t go amiss. Realistically though, the biggest improvement for me would be to throw out the behind-the-scenes content in its current form and replace it with something good – allow full-screen views and zooms of the scans, and dump the dribblingly inane “The splendour of Malia Gedde’s home is a direct contrast to Gabriel’s lifestyle” obviousness in favour of some actual anecdotes, stories, talk of things like how the game changed over development and cut content, other directions the game might have taken, talk of the line is between the real and fictional voodoo, how the graphic novel style came to be and why it wasn’t continued with in later games… y’know, interesting things. As much as I prefer the original game to its remake so far, that would offer a solid reason to go through it again. Certainly more than the new tweaks and shiny scenery.

Still, I do hope it does well. It might just be my imagination, but 20th Anniversary feels less like a project in its own right as a glorified audition for that Gabriel Knight sequel that we never got, in much the same way as Leisure Suit Larry. The series didn’t have the same level of “Oh you bastards!” cliffhanger as, say, Tex Murphy, but it would be good to see the story conclude in some form, whether a new novel like Aaron Connors is doing for Tex, or a full-on new adventure. Whether or not this can bring in enough new fans to rekindle the fire though, I have doubts. Honestly, I think it might even do it harm, to show people a game that’s been talked up for so long only to have them go “Wait, what? This is it?” and just wonder what the hell the fuss was about in the first place. That’s a far more likely response than being blown away, even if a big reason for that is that so many great games that came later owe it a debt of inspiration. The original is still an indisputable classic, but playing the remake just confirms that it’s a classic that’s had its day, even if it does still have its Knight.

Gabriel Knight: 20th Anniversary Edition is due for release “mid-2014″.

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35 Comments »

  1. Commander Gun says:

    “bloody snake scale”
    Brrr, yes. It literally took me weeks to get past that one, as i didn;t had internet back then.
    Still, i have very fond memories of this game. I actually still have to play GK2 while having played 3 and although i liked that one too (no, don;t mention THAT puzzle, it was bad but not legendary bad), i never felt enchanted the way i did playing GK1.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I don’t like GK3. I love some of the ideas behind it, some individual scenes (the resolution of the Gabriel/Grace unspoken love especially) and the premise, and would still love to see another adventure – including a GK4 – give them another shot, but I found it a real mess. GK1 and 2 are definite classics though.

      • malkav11 says:

        3 is the Gabriel Knight I’d love to see remade. GK1 holds up just fine for the most part aside from some pacing issues and pixel hunts (it’s not like there aren’t plenty of AGS games being sold today that are very similar in terms of graphics but without necessarily having the same quality of art direction); GK2 is one of the very few good FMV games and aside from FMV games in general largely being a thing of the past hasn’t aged particularly badly either. It’s a little jarring to go from Curry to Erickson, but ah well. No helping it, really. Tim Curry may have the voice but he sure doesn’t look like Knight.

        GK3, on the other hand, is that wretched, ugly early 3D that made my eyes bleed even back then, really, really hasn’t figured out how to do an adventure game interface in full 3D, has the aforementioned questionable puzzle(s)…there’s stuff there worth saving, I think, and either adopting a decent 3D point and click approach or (if you absolutely must) using modern technology and interface design to present full 3D would go a long way just by itself, to say little of opportunities to go back and address gameplay weaknesses.

      • Deano2099 says:

        I’m not sure I want a GK4 after Moebius now. GK3 and Gray Matter had flaws but also some brilliant ideas. Moebius didn’t have a single interesting puzzle and felt like it had been created by someone who’d never made an adventure game before (charter a jet to another city to buy a bottle of whiskey? Really?). I’d heard it was bad, but I wanted to feel the brilliant ideas behind a clumsy implementation. Instead it was entirely irredeemable.

        At least if they stick to remaking stuff it’ll have some good puzzles in it.

    • Juan Raigada says:

      GK2 is good. Of course you need to ignore the campiness of the FMV and acting (which takes away from the atmosphere), but the story and puzzles are on par with GK!, I’d say.

  2. Premium User Badge

    basilisk says:

    Is at least the technical side of it better than Moebius? Things like the very slow scene changes, ponderous switching between animations, generally very poor quality of animations etc.?

    I must say I expected this. GK1 is the only game of the trilogy that didn’t need this treatment at all, and I cannot imagine who is the remake actually intended for. This is almost certainly not going to revitalize the brand.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It’s pretty similar to Moebius. The models are a little better but the animation is still both stodgy and a bit dodgy (both when it’s working and things like Gabriel sticking his hand through Mosely’s neck when they’re taking the photo) and if you know the original you’ll spot quite a few short-cuts like Grace now wearing jeans instead of a skirt and Mosely having to use a fade-out to put his coat on. Scene changes take a few seconds and have a really, really long fade out and fade in on both sides. It also has a really annoying thing where if you skip text/dialogue outside of the conversation interface, the particle effects and background animations bounce around all over the place. This is still unfinished code though, so there might be some optimisation left to do.

      But yeah. If you’ve played Moebius, add about few smoothed edges and particle effects and you’ve about got the flavour of it. It’s more similar than it differs.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I must say I expected this. GK1 is the only game of the trilogy that didn’t need this treatment at all

      Yes; it’s from the era were adventure games were getting huge amounts of talent and money poured into them. You might be able to do better on technical metrics like resolution these days, but without attracting that much skill and effort again you’re going to get a product that looks (and sounds) worse.

  3. Stardog says:

    I hate these modern remakes of adventure games.

    They all look way uglier than the originals. That goes for Monkey Island, Broken Sword (kickstarter) and now this. The backgrounds are all 1 hour Photoshop jobs.

    It makes you appreciate the true skill that went into the originals.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Bit harsh. Most of the GK backgrounds are okay art in their own right.

      The two things that I really hate in redone graphics for these games are how shiny they always look, when the originals would usually have a sense of texture, and how poorly the models and backgrounds always work together in comparison to the low-resolution sprites that may have been simpler, but at least felt like part of the same world. Low-res just hides so many issues, and done well, still looks great. (Look at any art from someone like Ben Chandler). A couple of rooms in, you don’t even notice the pixels any more.

    • orient1 says:

      If you think the backgrounds in Broken Sword 5 could be done in an hour then you don’t know how art works. Most of them are fantastic looking and would easily take days to layout, draw and paint.

      Also, the backgrounds in Gabriel Knight 20th Ann. are clearly made in a 3D program then touched up in Photoshop afterwards. Is it the best way to capture the atmosphere of the original? Probably not, but making those scenes in 3D does take time. Much like Moebius, they’re technically proficient but the rendering style is far too clean, shiny and colourful, giving the game an artificial look.

      I’m not going to argue that some scenes in the Monkey Island remakes didn’t look cheap because they did. That’s budgets for ya.

    • Booker says:

      Broken Sword wasn’t a remake, that game was new. And I have to say the Monkey Island 2 SE was totally awesome. They did everything right with this one. Best redone version of a game I’ve ever played. Super pretty graphics, combined with good animations and the sound couldn’t have been better. AND they took nothing away from what made the original great. Only the commentary from Tim Schafer, Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman could have been much more elaborate. I was a little bit disappointed that there were only so few of them in the game. I wanted to listen to these guys for many hours. :P Other than that it was all glorious.

  4. Commander Gun says:

    Oh, and by the way. I actually loved the narrator for speaking slow and rather exotically. There’s this line, which, although it didn’t rly mind on the grand scheme of the game, sticks to mind: “Gabriel is carrying the fruh-fruh hairgel”. I loved that sentence. But then again, i was 13 at that time and still learning English, so that might have something to do with it :)

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Heh, I played Prisoner of Ice in French while learning it. (I got it on a cover disc while over there). It was okay until the end clapped its hands and went “And now, the weird shit…”

    • LionsPhil says:

      Her relaxed tone suited the game well. Tim Curry’s delivery of “what can you tell me about…voodoo?” is the line stuck in my head forever, though.

      And the cast included Jim Cummings, Mark Hamill, and Michael Dorn, too. I suspect none of those have reprised their excellent roles this time.

  5. LionsPhil says:

    >read as far as the first screenshot under the fold
    >that portrait
    What in the twelve hells have they done to Gabriel’s face? Did they crowdsource the new graphics from DeviantArt volunteers?

    And he’s wearing a completely different face in the limo scene, with a goddamn smarm brow no less.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      He does look a bit dopey and clean, though it kinda makes sense to make him closer to the Gabriel of the other games and the lion symbolism does factor into a few bits of the story. It doesn’t help though that his portrait in the conversation window has him looking down as if avoiding eye-contact, less like a testosterone filled alpha male than a slightly chastened shaggy dog. Who really, really wants to know about Voodoo.

  6. Laurentius says:

    Who’s doing the “impressions”? , ah yes Richard Cobbett. Will he “diss” it like there is no tommorow? of course he will. Nevermind that bollocks, it’s looking might fine to me. More of such projects for me to throw my money at them.

  7. mvar says:

    ah at first i thought that someone was filming a remake of GK2. Glad they don’t, nobody can top Dean Erickson’s epic hair or the amazing atmosphere they managed to create in one of the best adventure games ever (personally i’d say the best). FMV games, such great times (even with Phantasmagoria’s 7-disc hell)

  8. JFS says:

    Schatten-nay-ger? That’d be “Schattenneger”, and you don’t want to say that.

  9. Det. Bullock says:

    Well, the style of the visuals isn’t something to write home about.
    Well, I still have mi GOG.com copy of the first game, if this spreads the Gabriel Knight verbum enough so we will have finally a Gabriel Knight 4, I’ll be happy nonetheless.

  10. Booker says:

    I really don’t get it, how back then like 10 dudes could make a game for almost nothing that was so good you played it several times and never forgot anything about it and now whole teams can’t pull off something half as sexy for much more. It really must be the lack of passion. For the craft and everything else. The original was oozing an incredible atmosphere out of every scene and whatever piece. But then again, I haven’t yet played it myself, so it’s probably too soon™ to damn it.

    Also, to hell with the people responsible for throwing the recordings of people like Tim Curry, Mark Hamill (!), Michael Dorn [...] away like it was nothing. Who would commit such a crime?!?

    • Det. Bullock says:

      The recordings probably weren’t of the best quality in the first place.

      • Booker says:

        Sorry, I don’t buy it. I’ve played the original like 5 times and even with the limited technological possibilities games had to operate within at this time, it sounded “okay”. I bet the actual recordings were a lot better than the downsampled version that ended up in the game. I don’t believe for a second that they directly recorded it in the same quality that the limited in-game tech would allow. It’s like releasing a movie on DVD doesn’t have to mean that it wasn’t recorded in HD anyway. LOWERING the quality is never a problem when the source is great.
        I’m pretty sure people wouldn’t even have noticed (that the recordings are old), if that would have been used again. Even so, it would have been a small price to pay to keep Tim Curry and the rest of the cast which I perceived as stellar. But maybe I’m the only one who liked it THAT much.

        Until I hear otherwise from someone who was directly involved, I’m going to believe that they simply threw everything away because archiving stuff wasn’t a thing back then. Pretty sure no one expected this game to become the cult classic it is. Hell there were countless companies that would even delete their source code for games… BioWare deleted most of the stuff from Baldur’s Gate, so when Overhaul started to make the Enhanced Editions, they couldn’t use the original renders (no longer existed) to offer higher quality backgrounds for example… There’s probably even copyright law at fault, because when a company goes out of business, which obviously happens a lot in the gaming industry, no one can touch this stuff because they don’t have the rights that would allow it. So the trash can is the easiest solution. Sucks!

  11. Paul B says:

    Who knew, that in Mr Cobbett’s doughty frame, beats the heart of a poet?

    (Loving the alt-texts for us picture-hoverers).

  12. S Jay says:

    “Again, it’s not that the art is in itself bad.”

    Judging by the pictures, it sure looks that way. The same weird style as Malachias Rectum (or whatever was the correct name of the other Jensen game).

    • Booker says:

      I also don’t get it. There are so many (almost) free and better engines out there now, that they could use. They really should switch to something else.

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