GameBoomers Talks to Jane Jensen

Among adventure game diehards, writer/designer Jane Jensen is best known for the Gabriel Knight trilogy. Sins of the Fathers, The Beast Within, and Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned all receive many votes every year on the GameBoomers' Annual List. Ms. Jensen designed the games while working for Sierra On-Line (nostalgic sigh). She has since gone on to design games for Oberon Media and I-Play, including Inspector Parker, the Agatha Christie casual games and the Women's Murder Club games. She has also written novels, including Dante's Equation, which received a special citation of the Philip K. Dick Award.

Currently, Ms. Jensen's highly anticipated adventure, Gray Matter, is in the final stages of completion. The story of street magician Samantha Everett, and of Dr. David Styles -- researcher in the fields of neurobiology and the paranormal -- is about to begin. The adventure game community is awaiting this event with bated breath. Keep breathing, fellow diehards, it's good for the brain!


GB: Gabriel Knight and Grace Nakamura are two characters from the Gabriel Knight series that have achieved a kind of immortality. Years after playing the Gabriel Knight games, people are still talking about them. How do you achieve that kind of engagement with characters in the games you design?

JJ: I don’t know. They are ‘real’ to me. I think, just as in real life, people enjoy being around a character with a sense of humor. Gabriel was funny and I think that’s what made him appealing.

GB: In the short story on your blog, "Twas the Night Before," Sam seems to have chosen to separate herself from family, friends, and everything familiar. Is the resulting loneliness important in shaping her character? Or is her isolation chiefly important in that it makes her unusually vulnerable?

JJ: I don’t see it so much as a choice. Sam was raised in foster care and was moved from home to home so she really had no ‘family’ to leave behind.  She is both very tough and, at the core, lonely and vulnerable.

GB: In the trailer on the Gray Matter website, there's something strange about David's face. In the "Artworks" section, he wears a white half-mask. Does David's face reflect an inner torment? Is his personality... Phantom-like?

JJ: The mask is a result of a car accident he was in, an accident which killed his wife. But it is symbolic of the damage that event did to him in more than just a physical sense. There is definitely a bit of Phantom, and also of Frankenstein, in this story.

GB: Are top quality voiceovers more important than top-of-the-line graphics?

JJ: Wow, tough call. They’re both really important. But I guess voiceovers would just edge out graphics.

GB: From a designer's standpoint, is it important to make it possible for every gamer to finish the game? How do you keep a player from being hopelessly stuck on a timed sequence, for instance? What are your thoughts on Hint features, or the option for the player to select different difficulty levels?

JJ: I can’t think of any timed sequences in this game that would be a sticking point. I think it’s possible for everyone to finish with a couple of caveats – first, that you have access to the internet and know how to search for walkthroughs! And second – that you are the sort of person who likes to play this kind of game in the first place. Not everyone has the kind of detail-oriented mind that likes adventure games.  

GB: Some aspects of your previous games have been controversial -- notably the religious themes in Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, which preceded the similarly controversial religious themes in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. How does the inclusion of a controversial storyline affect a game? Do you expect parts of Gray Matter to be controversial?

JJ: There’s nothing of that nature in Gray Matter. The controversial things in Blood of the Sacred came about because I chose that holy grail topic (which was already controversial) and then because there were further plot points that came up as the right things to do for the story (such as the ending) that were ‘shocking’. At that point, you look at the story and if it’s really the right thing, you fight for it. But Sierra was never one to worry about marketing controversial things. Other companies might have required the game to be changed. Sierra never blinked.

GB: How does writing for a game differ from writing for a book? Is writing for a game more difficult? Is pacing the story a problem with a game?

JJ: It is a lot more logic-oriented. You have to think about what happens if the player comes into room X and they haven’t seen the red shoes. And also, there are limitations that the budget imposes – like the number of locations and special effects. In a novel there are no limits. But the process of developing the core of the story and characters is really not all that different.

GB: Would your career in writing and game development have been different if you had been born a man? What advice would you give to young women just starting out as game developers?

JJ: I read a quote once to the effect that, to modern women, ‘equal rights’ is as antiquated a term as ‘suffrage’. I just don’t think about it. Maybe I’ve had that luxury out of sheer luck, I don’t know. But my gender was never an issue in my mind or in the mind of anyone that I worked with – at least not that they let on! I do think where it plays a serious role is in the kind of games I develop and perhaps who my audience is. As a female, I’m not attracted to shooters or action games and so I don’t design them. My games are more story-oriented and even a little gothic and romantic, so women tend to like my games. I received a lot of emails about Gabriel Knight from guys who said this was the first game their girlfriend would play. My advice to any designer is – design what you love.

GB: We have been thrilled to see that, via Good Old Games (GOG), Activision is releasing versions of Sins of the Fathers,  The Beast Within, and Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned that have been updated to play on newer computers. This argues that Activision is paying significant attention to the Gabriel Knight franchise. Have you signed any interesting Non-Disclosure Agreements recently? You know, the ones you can't talk about?

JJ: No… but I should probably try to email them and say hello and thanks!

GB: You were in on the ground floor with the casual game phenomenon. How did you first become interested in developing casual games? What effect does the casual game industry have on adventure games?

JJ: I got into it because of the very early statistics on who was playing these online games – mostly an older audience and mostly women. I knew that was a good demographic for adventure games, so I was intrigued. That has borne out. Right now ‘light adventure’ is the biggest genre in casual games. How it impacts the adventure game market in general, well, the games that become ‘big’ in the casual space will likely migrate to PC and console – or at least grab the notice of PC and console game makers. Plus, in and of itself, it’s a great place to make and play adventure games.

GB: Do you see any future for co-op adventure games -- where gamers can solve a mystery alongside another player, either on a home LAN or over the Internet? (The idea would be to involve at most three players, making it possible to play alongside a friend or family member, with each gamer having a character to control.)

JJ: Yes, I think adventure games are great to play with another person, and if you can play with Grandma in Florida, that’s cool. I don’t think you have to be each controlling a character – you could take turns or one person control the avatar while you both chat about what to try. But in any case, being able to connect in real time while playing would be great.

GB: Can you tell us about any of your other future projects? Do you see Gray Matter becoming part of a series?

JJ: I have a light adventure game called Deadtime Stories coming out from Oberon/I-Play in April. Of course Gray Matter is ‘the big one’. I would love to continue with the series if the first one does well enough.

*The information from the introduction to this interview is from Wikipedia and Moby Games.

copyright © 2010 GameBoomers

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