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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Review: Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Fathers

Back in the Nineties I was going through my "supernatural detective" phase. The Slayer was slaying, the Charmed Ones were charming, and in a point-and-click adventure game released in 1993, the Schattenjäger (German for Shadow Hunter) was hunting.

I first glimpsed pictures of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers in computer magazines, and of all the images that intrigued me, it was this one that really captured my imagination:

The mausoleums, the angel statue, the strange lettering on the crypt, the trench-coat wearing hero... I wanted nothing more than to escape into the sheer atmosphere of that place. Then for one of my birthdays, I received the game as part of a special collector's edition (which also included a novelization of the story) and could finally delve into the mystery first-hand.

Gabriel Knight is a thirty-something novelist and second-hand bookstore owner struggling to get by. His most recent novels were hardly successful, and he can barely afford to pay his shop assistant Grace Nakimura to mind the store while he researches his latest book: a crime-drama based on the real-life killing currently taking place in New Orleans. The press have dubbed them "the voodoo murders" due to the strange paraphernalia found around the bodies, and Gabriel thinks that would be a great hook for a new book.
Thankfully his best friend Mosely is a detective assigned to the case, who isn't too stringent about police regulations and prepared to give Gabriel an inside look at the investigation.

As you've probably guessed, Gabriel becomes more and more embroiled in the case, especially once he meets a beautiful New Orleans socialite called Malia Gedde. But what makes the whole thing even stranger is that certain aspects of the voodoo murders bear eerie similarities to a nightmare that Gabriel has had since adolescence: burning rings of fire, a woman who transforms into a leopard, a dagger that dissolves into three wriggling snakes, and a man who hangs himself from a solitary tree.
As the game processes, the meaning of the dream and Gabriel's part to play in these strange events becomes clearer...
Most of the backstory can be found in the graphic novel written by Jane Jenson and illustrated by Terese Nielsen, and because it was included with the game and clearly designed to be read before playing, I'll go into it in more detail...
In Charleston, South Carolina, 1693, a German man by the name of Gunther Ritter arrives at the scene of a brutal ritualistic murder to offer his services to the frightened town elders – including one Mayor Crodwell. Gunther is a Schattenjäger (or Shadow Hunter) whose sacred duty is to hunt down evil-doers of supernatural origins.
Recognizing the work of witchcraft, Gunther promises to find the culprit, but is distracted by the arrival of a slave-woman called Eliza. As the investigation continues, the two of them keep crossing each other's paths, and Gunther learns that her true name is Tetelo, captured in Africa and eventually bought by the lecherous Crodwell.
He shows her his protective talisman, a relic handed down from father to son throughout the generations of Shadow Hunters in his family, which depicts a lion and snake bound in eternal combat. She tells him of the concept of "zinstgi", in which a man and women are brought together by the will of universe for reasons that are unfathomable to mortals – and both agree that this is what they feel for each other.
Gunther lays a trap for the witches, knowing that they're targeting the crew of a certain slave ship. But instead he is captured by the coven and wakes up to discover he's about to be sacrificed by a woman in a leopard-cowl. It's Tetelo of course, but when her dagger strikes the talisman she's brought to her senses and manages to escape into the forest as Gunther's men attack.

Later Gunther manages to meet with Tetelo in her cabin, and she explains that her father once angered their dark tribal gods by refusing to sacrifice Tetelo's life in exchange for rain. As punishment, they were captured by slavers – but now Ogoun Badagris has offered forgiveness in exchange for the lives of the men who enslaved his people.
Only having met Gunther, Tetelo is having second thoughts. Now all she wants is to leave her past behind and be with Gunther – just as she hopes he'll leave his past behind to be with her.
But he equivocates, and while he tries to think his way to a solution, Tetelo is captured by Mayor Crodwell and the townsfolk. Arriving as she and her tribe are about to be burnt at the stake, Gunther feigns apathy in order to save face in front of Crodwell, which is overheard by Tetelo just as the bonfires are lit.
Though she calls to her gods for salvation, it's Gunther who uses the power of the talisman to save her – which results in the slaughter of the entire village at the hands of the slaves. Believing herself betrayed, Tetelo takes the talisman from the shell-shocked Gunther's hands and abandons him.
This is the history that lies behind the story in Sins of the Fathers, with a few other blank spots (such as what Tetelo did next) filled in along the way. It's obviously a tale that has a fuck-ton of unfortunate implications when read in 2018, and it's unlikely anyone could write a similar story these days without being a little more sensitive about the issues it raises, but it still provides a rich backdrop for the gameplay that unfolds.
If your interest is piqued, you can read the whole thing for yourself here...
It's hard to explain why Gabriel Knight's particular premise appealed so much to me – after all, the fantasy genre is littered with Chosen One narratives. But when it comes to tales of this nature, the protagonist can be one of several different types: those that are chosen, those that step up, those that inherit a destiny, those that are randomly selected, those that are simply in the right place at the right time. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Some have superpowers, some are royalty, some are members of a special family with a specific fate.
In fantasy you might read of a prince who wields a magic sword, in science-fiction it might be a captain who works his way up the ranks. But I have a soft-spot for those characters that stand between the supernatural and the real world; a blend of warrior, guardian and detective. Think Constantine and Buffy Summers and the Winchester brothers. They quietly and anonymously fight the good fight, usually without reward or even acknowledgement, with their own set of tools, techniques and moral code.

The formula often comes down to three ingredients: an individual, a noble purpose, and a specific title that designates who and what they are. This is a premise that's been used thousands of times, both before and after the Schattenjäger: the Vampire Slayer, the Charmed Ones, the Avatar, the Witnesses, the Hooded Man, the Chrestomani, the Abhorsen, the Iron Fist, and what I find most interesting about them is that these designations are passed from one person to another.
Unlike King Arthur or Harry Potter or Emma Swan, all singular Chosen Ones with extraordinary destinies bestowed upon them through prophecy and right of birth, the above monikers are all job descriptions that are shared by many over the course of hundreds or even thousands of years, handed on from one generation to the next, in which the cause is more important than any one bearer of the title.
Perhaps my teenage-self liked following the idea to its logical (and fannish) conclusion: that all these warriors were out there somewhere, in different parts of the world, using their abilities to protect the rest of us. And Gabriel Knight in particular piqued my imagination since it was a game. At a time when Sierra was marketing their games as "interactive books", in which the player could expect a complex plot, developed characters, and atmospheric world-building with depth and detail, you discover Gabriel's heritage and his calling along with him.
The length of the game is divided into seven days, with a set amount of tasks Gabriel must complete before the sun sets and the story advances. Almost every day begins the exact same way: the sun rises over St George's Books, a paperboy wheels around the corner on his bike and throws a newspaper, and Grace picks it up before she enters the store.
Inside, Gabriel stumbles out of his bedroom, banters with Grace, and helps himself to a coffee. It's a routine that gets increasingly disrupted as the week continues, lending the proceedings a growing sense of suspense and fear.

But at the beginning of the game, before things begin to get more focused and streamlined, the gameplay is enjoyable thanks to the (relative) freedom it affords you. For the first few days you're not given a clear purpose that goes beyond "accumulate information", and so you can find yourself just wandering around, as if Gabriel was a real person. This is a game that feels lived in, where you can chat to pedestrians, take confession at the cathedral, read books, use the telephone, or admire the views of the French Quarter in New Orleans. It was a very open and free virtual world for the time, and it leads to a great sense of immersion.  
The puzzles on the other hand can be quite tricky, with a lot of lateral thinking required to reach the proper outcome. At one stage you have to make a clay imprint of a snake bracelet, though the clay is retrieved from the shores of a lake you visit early in the game and have no real reason to return to later.
At another point you have to infiltrate the voodoo cartel by planting a tracking device on one of their artefacts, then leave a coded message in a totally different place that tells them to take this artefact to their meeting (which requires you to read a half-translated message and fill in the missing letters) and then use the tracker to find your way through a maze of swampland.  
But hey, any game that doesn't treat you like an idiot is fine by me.
Another thing I've always appreciated is that the story doesn't piece things together for you. There's a lot of subtext here that has to be delved into – or ignored completely if you like, since a lot of it exists simply to enrich the story. It creates a dense tapestry of underlying clues and secrets that aren't essential to the gameplay, but which add to its depth and complexity.
For instance, the whole thing is filled with the motif of three snakes. They appear in Gabriel's dream, they're featured on a painting done by Gabriel's father that hangs in the bookstore, and they're an important clue towards the end of the game.
But there are other little bits and pieces littered about. At any point during the game Gabriel can read three separate books on the shelves of his bookstore: a book on snakes that triggers a comment from Grace on how snakes and dragons are symbolically linked, a book of poetry by Heinz Ritter than we're told he's been "drawn to" for a long time and which includes the line "drei drachen", and a German dictionary that informs us "drei" means three and "drachen" means dragon (among other pointless translations).
When Gabriel visits his grandmother's house, he's told in conversation that his grandfather used to be a poet and that he originally came from Germany. When he finds a handmade clock in the attic that features a dragon symbol and moving hands, any player that's been paying close attention will be able to open a secret drawer by moving the clock hands to three o'clock, and the dragon icon to the foremost place on the clock face.
Voila! The clock opens to reveal letters that identify Gabriel's father Harrison Knight as Heinz Ritter – though the game never specifically points out that the writer of the German poetry was Gabriel's grandfather.

And when the player finally reaches Gabriel's ancestral home, he discovers a stained glass window in a household chapel that features Saint George fighting the dragon. Again, the game doesn't explicitly point anything out, but it's obvious that this residual genetic/psychic memory is why Gabriel called his bookstore St George's Books AND why Heinz Ritter replaced three snakes with three dragons in his poetry and homemade clock.
The Rule of Three pops up elsewhere, from the fact that Gabriel is thirty-three years old, to exactly three hundred years having passed since the events that kick-started this whole drama, to an intriguing line said to Gabriel that informs him: "three women have loved you purely." Who these women are is never elaborated on; instead it's left up to the player to interpret for themselves.  
Another nice touch is that it isn't just Gabriel who is affected by the strangeness of events; the mystical atmosphere seeps into other people's lives and makes them uneasy whenever they cross paths with Gabriel. This ranges from the call-out team who have trouble finding the crime scene (we hear them on the radio, complaining about how strangely thick the mist is) to one-off characters like Max (an artist who reconstructs a voodoo symbol and remarks "it felt like it was watching me") or Marcus (a jeweller who comments on how difficult it was to make a copy of a voodoo snake bracelet due to the metal not setting properly).

There's a fortune teller who becomes temporarily possessed by an evil spirit after reading Gabriel's palm, an elderly Creole lady who insists she can hear the cartel's ceremonial drums at night, and (in the novelisation at least) a voodoo practitioner who provides Gabriel with a translation to a secret code – though she's astonished to find the complete alphabet on top of her drawer, despite not having seen it for years. Even the weather (a heatwave in New Orleans and a snowstorm in Rittersberg) is discussed by characters as something strange and unnatural.
It's hard to explain why this is all so great, but I think it comes down to that sense of immersion I spoke about earlier. I love that when the supernatural occurs, it doesn't just impinge on the main characters, but insinuates its influence into periphery lives, however briefly. That's something to remember in my own writing; something to expand and add depth to whatever else may be going on.
Then there's the foreshadowing, such as it is. Seeds are sown very early that are paid off wonderfully as the game starts to wrap-up, everything from the drummers that appear in the background of several scenes, to a throwaway remark from Mosely about how he and Gabriel used to play monkey-in-the-middle, to Doctor John's comment to Gabriel after hearing he's a meat-eater: "that must be the hunter in you." Nice line!
Even the shape of Jackson's Square (a real New Orleans landmark) holds unforeseen significance, and in the final act of the game Gabriel dons a wolf robe and mask – which ingeniously foreshadows the subject of the next game in the series.

Jane Jensen also did her homework when it comes to the game's subject matter, as most of the game's exposition on New Orleans and the practice of Voudoun is accurate. As she does to greater effect in the next game, The Beast Within, she's an expert (much like J.K. Rowling) in taking real lore and history and combining it with her own storyline. In this case, she mentions that Tetelo was part of the Haitian Revolution, connects the St John's Day tradition of bonfires and burning wheels with the religious customs of African sun-worshippers, and posits that Marie Laveau was simply a front to hide the real voodoo queen in New Orleans: the ongoing line of Gedde women.
At no point are things spelt out for the player, not every clue is accounted for, and there are plenty of eerie little comments that only make sense later on..
As it happens, there is more than one version of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Of the original game released in 1993 there are DOS and the CD-ROM versions, the major difference being that the latter has recorded dialogue from voice actors, more fluid animated sequences, and a few variations on details (the location icon for the crime scene is police tape instead of a blood stain).  
But there's also a) a remake that was released in 2014, b) a graphic novel that details the game's backstory, and c) a novelization written by the series' creator Jane Jenson – and here's that things start to get interesting. All of them inform the others to one extent or another, each adding or subtracting a little from the story itself. Put together, they create a core narrative with a myriad of variations on detail – sometimes contradictory, sometimes expansive.
For instance, the novelization has an eerie scene that involves Gabriel sneaking into Mosely's office at the police station to steal some equipment (in the game he convinces a fast-food vendor to return to his spot outside the police station, and sneaks into the office while the desk sergeant is distracted. In the novelization, he simply climbs through the window).
He glances up and sees the cops going about their business through the one-way mirror – but as he's about to leave he notices they've all turned to watch him, their eyes and bodies zombie-like in appearance. Terrified, he leaps out the window onto his motorbike, and soon after gleans some inspiration from a jump-rope rhyme that's being sung by three pigtailed girls on the side of the road.
As it happens, none of the above happens in the original game, but Jane Jensen clearly liked it enough to insert a variation into the remake.
There Gabriel has to break through a window to get into Mosley's office, first by retrieving a tire iron from an abandoned car outside the station; noticing a dead crow lying in a pool of its own blood while he does so. (The remake has an exterior shot of the police station, as opposed to the original that just took the player straight inside).
Once he gets the tracker from Mosely's desk drawer, an animated sequence takes over in which he glances up and sees the zombie-eyed police force staring at him from the other side of the two-way mirror. Horrified he bolts for the window and leaps onto his bike, silently watched by three little girls who have been skipping outside (and which the narrator has already described as "a little off").
That's the same story, with three different variations, all of them differing slightly despite reaching the same conclusion.
Most of the changes between the original game and the remake are fairly inconsequential. Three fairly pointless arcade sequences have been added, and some locations can't be visited until much later in the gameplay (such as Grandmother Knight's house and Saint Louis Cemetery, to postpone the player from solving all the puzzles in the first day). In the original Malia says she: "quite abhors" snakes, though in the remake: "I don't fear them like most people do."

The game (original and remake) refers to Grandma Knight as Rebecca, while the book calls her Esther. Not sure why the change was made, but more interesting is the fact that the game indicates that she never knew much about her husband's past life in Germany; only that he was running from something. The novelization on the other hand has a poignant scene in which she watches Gabriel leave her house and silently prays (in oblique terms) that he be spared from what fate has in store for him.
The game also has a couple of days in which a man stares unnervingly through the window of the bookstore (though you can't interact with him), something that doesn't appear anywhere in the novelization.
It is however much more explicit about the three-snake link between Heinz Ritter's poem, Philip Knight's artwork and Gabriel's dreams – in fact, Gabriel actually finds the poetry book at Grandma Knight's house instead of at the bookstore, and clearly spells out that Harrison Knight was its author.
The novelization naturally goes into far more detail than the game when it comes to the entries in Gunther Ritter's journals. The game only gives us the SparkNotes of his investigation into the murders at Charleston, his meeting with Tetelo, and the tragic events that unfold, but the novelization can obviously delve more deeply into his first-person narrative to explore his thoughts, feelings and motivations throughout the whole sad business.
This is supplemented by the graphic novel, which adds even more insight into the proceedings, namely through a few panels that depict events through Teleto's point-of-view. Most importantly, it demonstrates she was serious about leaving behind her family's legacy when she contacts her father's spirit and insists that she's finished with his bloodthirsty work, wanting only to be with the man she loves. It's obviously a scene that Gunther wasn't present for, and so couldn't have been included in his journal.
But the novelization can inevitably delve deeper into their story, with Gabriel receiving psychic dreams/messages from both Heinz and Gunther, and an indication that he and Malia are reincarnations of the past lovers in the story's climax (or at least, they speak with their ancestors' voices at a critical moment).
But perhaps my favourite addition in the novelization is that Malia manages to silently point to the idol (the source of the cartel's mystical power) before she's permanently taken over by Tetelo. It's the clue Gabriel needs to end the game, and destroying it is the final action the player takes.
I can't say why, but this sort of thing has always fascinated me: that a single narrative can be tweaked and changed in so many important or inconsequential ways; staying the same, and yet changing at the same time. In this case, there are up to five subtly different versions of Sins of the Fathers, each one adding to and subtracting from the overall experience.
Miscellaneous Observations:
I've always enjoyed the pleasant dingy sound when the player receives points.
One of the running-gags of the Gabriel Knight trilogy is that every game will include a band playing The Saints Go Marching In at some point. Here it's at St Jackson's Square.
Another amusing gag is the escalating tone of the horoscopes that Gabriel reads in the paper each morning, going from ominous warnings to flat-out predictions of death and destruction. As Gabriel eventually states: "somewhere out there is a really confused maths teacher."
In this Grace is simply the research assistant and designated Damsel in Distress, though she becomes a playable character in the next two games, with her adventures alternating with Gabriel's.
The painting of three-snakes-in-a-skull by Gabriel's father is sold over the course of the game in order to pay for a voodoo disguise, though it returns to hanging in its usual place when Gabriel returns from Germany. It may seem like a glitch in the game, but I think it's safe to assume that Grace brought it back at some stage.
Sharp-eyed players will notice a flier on the bulletin board at Tulane University which mentions "Laura Bow Dorian", the married name of the main character in The Colonel's Bequest, another Sierra game set in New Orleans. The hat she wore throughout the sequel The Dagger of Amon-Ra can also be seen in the foreground of Grandmother Knight's attic.

Although you can play the game without the audio-recordings from the voice actors, it's really worth hearing the likes of Tim Curry, Mark Hamill and Michael Dorn in their roles, and often the way things are said are just as important as the words themselves. For instance, the fortune teller at the park speaks with Tetelo's voice at one stage, and when Magnetia Moonbeam is asked whether she knows about "cabrit sans core", her subsequent nervous answer: "no, no I don't" is very indicative of someone who does know.
One last thing that the game is really good at (and which serves as a good lesson for writing in general) is that there are hints of other interesting stories lurking inside this one. They don't impinge on the plot itself, but neither do they end up as loose ends or unfinished plots. They exist for their own sake, and to provide intrigue and richness.
For instance, we learn from Grandmother Knight that Heinz/Harrison left Germany and immigrated to New Orleans in an attempt to escape his duty as Schattenjäger – and that's all. We don't get any details of his estrangement or the reasons why he rejected his responsibility because we don't need to know, though the speculation and possibilities that arise are worthy of their own story.
We also learn from her that both Heinz and Philip died when their sons turned eight years old, both in rather odd circumstances (Gabriel's parents were killed in a car accident that was apparently caused when something ran out into the road). Unfortunately the novelization does away with this particular detail, but remains an eerie little factoid that casts a pall over Gabriel's entire life.
When Gabriel finally meets Wolfgang, his great-uncle starts to discuss the role of the Schattenjäger and its history, saying that the talisman is as old as the family itself and that "some believe the role was given to us when..." At this point he stops himself, stating there'll be more time to discuss it later. Argh!
It's not only Gabriel, as other characters have backstories we don't get into, but are tantalizingly hinted at. Doctor John says he originally comes from the West Indies but: "was drawn here for personal reasons." Later Tetelo calls him: "my chosen one," though we never get any more information on their strange mistress/servant relationship.
Then there's the oblique hinting at the bizarre familial relationships in the Gedde family. In an early conversation with Gabriel, Malia mentions that her mother has recently passed away and that she never knew her father. When Gabriel comments that it's difficult to imagine any man walking out on Malia, she testily replies: "he did not leave, but that's really none of your concern." She also mentions that she's never marry, but will have children: "that's likely, some day."
Though we eventually glimpse Malia's mother in a portrait hanging in the hounfour towards the end of the game, an exertion into the Gedde family tomb reveals that there's not a single male family member buried there. Where the heck are all the men? This strange omission in Malia's life conjures up a lot of questions, of a way of life that's profoundly different from the norm, and a story from her point of view would be fascinating – but Jane Jenson knows it's best to keep things mysterious.
Finally, my favourite bit of intrigue comes when Gabriel is going through the initiation ceremony in Schloss Ritter to become the next Schattenjäger. It happens before a stained glass window of Saint George slaying the dragon, and that night the very same dragon visits Gabriel in his dreams to test his worth. According to this symbol of evil, Gabriel doesn't deserve to be Schattenjäger, given the selfish and lazy way he's lived his life up until that point. Only two things redeem him: that Ritter blood flows in his veins, and that "three women have loved you purely."
It's a tantalizing line, but not one that's ever mentioned again or given any kind of explanation. It's up to the player to guess which women the dragon is referring to – though any one paying close attention to the way certain relationships unfold won't find it too difficult.
So that's Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Playing it was like returning to a favourite book years after you read it for the last time, and noticing the minor differences between it, the remake and novelization more fun than it sounds (yeah, I'm a nerd).
There are clearly some elements that have dated – not just the graphics, but some of the story itself. That the villains are all black voodoo practitioners running a secret cartel in New Orleans sounds like the alt-right's wet dream, and even the fact that their crimes can be traced back to the evils of slavery doesn't quite mitigate the fact that it takes a Mighty Whitey male hero to save the beautiful black woman who dabbles in black magic (who ends up dead anyway).

Your mileage may vary on that one, but if you're interested in having a go for yourself, it's available on ClassicReload. Just make sure you have plenty of free time ahead of you. I'm going to continue this walk down memory lane by replaying The Beast Within, the second in the trilogy which sees Gabriel hunting down a suspected werewolf in Germany.

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