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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".