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Interview: Jane Jensen's Pinkerton Road Adventure

Mo' money, Moebius

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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