What we now call "adventure games" were once much more commonly referred to as "interactive fiction." It originated largely as a marketing term, and was eventually backed away from by commercial publishers for marketing reasons - Infocom was the company that most famously integrated the phrase into its product line, and this caused it to be associated strongly with their text-only adventures, which was undesirable to publishers moving toward games that accentuated graphics.

Anyway, the point of all this is that "interactive fiction" was a term that implied something more than just a game, and the abandonment of it maybe had more of an effect on the medium than anyone realizes. It implied something on par with literature in quality, a striving to create something beyond simple sales products calculated to press emotional and psychological buttons at a profit margin.

Gabriel Knight is a sales product, and one that had some significant investment - a budget that topped over a million dollars with a massive staff, cutting edge (for the time) lip-synching technology and Hollywood-caliber voice talent. It was created to move copies, and needed to move a lot of them, but it also managed the rare feat of moving the markers of the genre and the medium forward as well.

I don't mean to suggest that the game features Nobel-caliber writing, but it's certainly a leap and a jump ahead of everything that came prior to 1994. The achievement here, in terms of using gaming as an engrossing storytelling medium, is about how all the elements come together to create a rich experience that is capable of being just as stimulating to the imagination and just as edifying as a good book.

The game itself is a fairly standard adventure, chronicling 10 days in the life of Gabriel Knight, a layabout owner of a small used book shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Gabriel apparently lives off the slim proceeds of his bookstore and his efforts as a (quite mediocre) novelist, spending his days mostly waking up at the crack of lunch and rolling out of bed to go seduce loose women. He's currently working on a novel about voodoo, however, made more promising than his usual literary efforts by a string of mysterious "voodoo murders" in the city and his in with childhood buddy Detective Mosely, lead investigator of the murder cases. As Gabe toodles about New Orleans doing research for his book, however, the situation gradually becomes a lot more complicated. Gabe's vivid nightmares, hidden family history, and chance encounter with a mysterious socialite heiress named Malia Gedde blend together with the voodoo killings into something that starts to more and more appear to be destiny, a destiny that won't afford poor Gabe his lazy bachelor lifestyle anymore.

Though the game plays like a standard Sierra adventure - it uses the top-screen drop-down icon bar and familiar menu system - it has a number of unique qualities. I think the most notable is that it's one of the first PC CD-ROM games to have genuinely good voice acting throughout, enough so to make it worth the while to invest the extra money/effort in picking the game up on CD rather than just grabbing the usual stripped-down abandonware copy floating about the Web as a 10 MB download. Gabe is voiced by Tim Curry, who may not do the most accurate New Orleans/Creole accent, but certainly does a memorable one and one that really suits the character to a T. Leah Remini (hot chick married to the fat UPS guy on that one sitcom) voices Gabe's long-suffering store attendant Grace, Mark Hamill plays Detective Mosely, Michael Dorn (Worf from Star Trek) plays a major supporting character with a lot of dialogue, and longtime television vet Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. even gets a small part as another important supporting character. Those are the "big names", but the lesser lights all sound quite professional and do a fine job as well.

A lot of Sierra conventions are broken with, as well, and it's to the benefit of the game. For starters, the dreaded Sierra Hang-Ups and Laborious Arcade Sequences are nowhere to be found here. There are deaths, but very few, not until fairly near the end of the game, and none are unfair. The game's pacing is also very slow and deliberate, and it is very rich in plot detail, character development, and dialogue. In fact, the chief knock against it that I've seen is that it's a little *too* deliberate and detailed - of the ten game days, the first five or so are largely action-free and consist largely of conversation. Personally, I don't share in this criticism - I think the amount of puzzles-to-dialogue is quite acceptable throughout the game, and much of the dialogue is actually quite optional. There's really an amazing amount of optional dialogue - of the twenty or so major characters that you speak with over the course of the game, you can often ask about their personal history, their take on events unrelated to them, and minutiae in their area of special knowledge, and get well-written (and acted) dialogue rather than filler responses. Conversations are also "recorded" automatically using a tape recorder that Gabe automatically receives at the outset of the game, and can be played back at any point. I do admit the game is heavy on talky-talky even if you're taking the "just the facts ma'am" approach to it, but it's made fascinating by the amount of research and detail that went into historical and modern voodoo practice in New Orleans. You can even get a dose of interesting city history, or just get to know the personality of the supporting characters better.

The game is also darker and more "mature" than anything Sierra On-Line ever put out save Phantasmagoria. It has plenty of suspense, and maybe even some horrifying moments, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "horror game." It's more of a detective/mystery game that can be by equal turns comic and grim, with an overall semi-dark tone and ambiance.

Aside from the fleshed-out characters and the integration of the real-world thematic material, the atmosphere is the main point of interest here. Robert Holmes contributes an exceptional soundtrack fusing jazz, blues, orchestration and pounding African rhythms (do make arrangements to have a good MIDI playback source of some kind before playing), the voice acting ranges from very competent to excellent, the character portraits and hand-drawn background art are excellent, and the "patented lip-synching technology" during the intimate conversations is actually pretty well-done and looks close enough to reality to pass muster most of the time.

Links :

* Gabriel Knight XP Installer/Patch - makes the game run under Win XP, fixes a bunch of game-crashing bugs and automatically switches to and from 256 color mode, but only for the English PC CD-ROM version of the game
* Soundtrack @ Quest Studios
* Strong Man, the real hero of GK

Videos :

* Gameplay Video

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