On the Pinkerton Road to Adventure

An Interview with Jane Jensen


Jane Jensen, designer of the classic Gabriel Knight adventure series and the more recent adventure, Gray Matter, has just established a new game company: the Pinkerton Road Studio. Together with her husband, Robert Holmes -- who wrote the music for the games mentioned above -- she is planning to release an adventure game or two every year. Ms. Jensen will use her experience in designing adventure games and casual games to provide us with adventures that contain "...rich stories, gorgeous art and seamlessly fun play."

GB: Can you tell us a little about your new game design studio: Pinkerton Road? How did you come to create the studio, and why did you decide on Kickstarter for its initial funding? Have you met the Kickstarter funding goal yet?

Jane: Yes, we have met the funding goal!  Pinkerton Road is a small creative studio started by myself and my husband, composer Robert Holmes.  We’ll be focused on adventure games for the hardcore adventure game market and the casual game market.  We used Kickstarter because it’s a great way to build a community around our studio and get players involved.  It also lets us raise the funds for the game we want to make and not have to give away the IP (Intellectual Property) and creative control to a publisher.


GB: As part of the Pinkerton Road Kickstarter campaign, the early backers were sent profiles of three possible adventure games: Gray Matter 2, Anglophile Adventure, and Moebius.  They voted for their favorite among the three, and the clear winner was Moebius. If you hadn't asked for a vote, but had chosen the first game purely on your own, would Moebius have been the obvious choice? Can you tell us a bit more about the game?

Jane: Yes, I would have chosen Moebius myself.  I want to make Gray Matter 2, but since our studio plans to make games for tablets as well as PC, it would be nice to get Gray Matter 1 on tablets first.  Anglophile is a project near and dear to my heart – I love that game!  But realistically, I would not have chosen it for our first game.  It’s a bit too much of a departure from the games I’m known for, and a bit too risky.

In Moebius, the main character is Malachi Rector, a man who is part scholar and part adventurer.  He tracks down rare antiquities around the world and writes dossiers on their history and sells them to very wealthy collectors.  He has an eye, almost a 6th sense, for history.  He’s hired by a billionaire to investigate and write reports on a series of events.  As Rector investigates he starts to realize that the events are not what they seem to be on the surface, but have deeper ties to history.  The premise of the series is a bit sci-fi, but I can’t say much more about it without giving spoilers…

GB: Moebius is described as having a "2D, graphic novel look and feel." Will it be animated, or is it going to be a series of still shots, like a graphic novel? It's also described as a "metaphysical thriller." Does this imply a dark, spooky tale with preternatural occurrences?

Jane: Yes, of course, it will be animated like any adventure game, like Gabriel Knight 1 or Gray Matter.  By 2D / graphic novel I mean that the art style is 2D as opposed to real-time 3D so it looks more hand-drawn and cartoony. You have the definition of “metaphysical thriller” exactly.  J  When I say ‘metaphysical’ I mean it has to do with bigger issues, spiritual issues, which might be ‘paranormal’ or might not – usually when people hear ‘paranormal’ they think werewolf, vampire.

GB: Player characters (like Samantha Everett and Gabriel Knight) in your past adventures spend lots of time solving mysteries, despite their lack of background in crime detection or police work. Malachi Rector, the protagonist in Moebius, also belongs in this category. Is there a reason that you lean toward "amateur" detectives as the protagonists in your games?

Jane: I never really thought of it like that.  But I guess generally I prefer mysteries that aren’t so much crime related – like ‘dead guy, find killer’ but are more unusual, like the mystery in Gray Matter 

Gray Matter and Gabriel Knight

GB: A lot of players loved Gray Matter (it came in seventh on the 2011 GameBoomers Annual Games List) and are eager to see a sequel. Is this a possibility in the near future?

Jane: I hope so.  Honestly, I’d love to get ahold of the first Gray Matter and clean it up and put it on tablet first.  But that wouldn’t be cheap.   Still, it’s a worthy series and worth continuing.  A lot can be done with those characters.

GB: The Gabriel Knight games (released in 1993, 1995, and 1999) are recognized classics, beloved of many adventure gamers. Has your more recent adventure game, Gray Matter, suffered due to comparisons with Gabriel Knight, rather than being judged on its own merits?

Jane: I don’t think Gray Matter suffered from comparisons to Gabriel Knight, I think it just had a lot of technical difficulties.  And because I was not very involved in production, it didn’t get fine-tuned the way I normally would have done.



GB: Is it true that all the source material for the Sierra adventure games (including Gabriel Knight) eventually ended up in a dumpster? If so, why was it thrown out this way? Why weren't adventure fans invited in for a dumpster dive/rescue attempt?

Jane: I’m sure, at the time, the new owners were just closing up the building and didn’t realize or care about those old materials.

(Fans of Gray Matter may want to check out the question at the end of this interview -- the response contains specific information about the game's characters. Be warned -- spoilers!)

Adventure Games and Casual Games

GB: You co-founded a casual games studio, Oberon Media, in 2003. Since that time, casual games have become a big business. How would you compare the size of the casual game market to the size of the adventure game market? Why did you leave Oberon and casual game designing, to return to your roots designing adventure games at Pinkerton Road?

Jane: I’m not sure about the size of the casual game market vs the adventure game market, but it’s likely the same or a bit larger.  I just really wanted to tell a full-blown story again and do a bigger game.  There weren’t a lot of places I could do those things in casual games.  I guess, too, I’m nostalgic for adventure games.

GB: Earlier in your career, you went from a situation at Sierra where you designed the Gabriel Knight games -- and where you had many resources and years to develop an adventure game -- to Oberon, where you were designing casual games that had much tighter budgets and a much shorter development cycle. How will these experiences affect the way you design future adventure games and how you plan to run the Pinkerton Road studio?

Jane: Well, I have learned something about restraint and about making a lot out of little.  So hopefully when I have more to play with, I can make it all give bang for the buck, as it were.  In terms of how I plan to run Pinkerton Road Studio, of course, I will have more latitude to make my own decisions about what to prioritize, but we still will have to work within our means.

GB: What expectations did you have about casual game trends when you first started designing them? Have you encountered any surprises? For instance, were you surprised at the transition from bright, cheerful casual games to the recent surge in darker, spookier games? Did you anticipate that Hidden Object Games would increasingly feature adventure game elements?

Jane: I had hoped and thought that casual games, and especially hidden object games, could get more and more adventure like.  I put adventure elements into ours (for example, I think Women’s Murder Club was the first to have inventory – though I could be wrong).  But it was gratifying to see that it wasn’t just my games that did that, everyone in the industry started doing it.  So I guess I have been pleasantly surprised, on the one hand, that I was correct… and yet it hasn’t gone far enough for me!

GB: What factors distinguish an adventure game from a casual adventure/adventure-lite game?

Jane: I see the difference being that a regular adventure game is longer (gameplay-wise and number of scenes) by 2 or 3 times or more.  The puzzles are harder and there usually is no hidden object in them.  There’s more story and more character dialogue. 

GB: Do you have any plans to continue designing casual games? Have you thought about using the Pinkerton Road studio to create casual games in order to fund the studio's adventure games?

Jane: It’s a possibility if we need to, but for now our plan is just to do adventure games.  However, we are planning to do the ‘casual adventure’ path on our adventure games and market to the hidden object game market.

Designing in General

GB: We hear all the time about the importance of a game's atmosphere, or the ability for a gamer to immerse himself/herself in a game. Are these factors that you keep in mind when you are creating the overall game structure? Or is atmosphere more a product of the graphics and the sound design, implemented at a later stage?

Jane: I think atmosphere is certainly dependent on art and sound design, but also on the story, the characters and the vision behind the game.  For example, if a designer writes a goth punk game, it will still (hopefully!) be goth punk when the artists are done with it.

GB: Have you ever positioned an important clue about a character or part of the story in a game -- and then nobody noticed? Have gamers come up with interpretations of your games that were completely different than those you intended?

Jane: Well, normally people are obsessive and they do notice every little thing, including things that don’t mean anything!  But take, for example, the things you asked me about Gray Matter.  Some people might not have noticed those things, but inevitably they’re the ones that get talked about on forums.

GB: Have you heard complaints from some gamers that a game you designed is too hard -- while at the same time other gamers say that it's too easy? How do you design puzzles that can be solved by thousands of different people, coming from different gaming backgrounds and having different puzzle-solving experiences and abilities?

Jane: Yes, it’s very hard to please everyone.  That’s one reason why we have decided to have a “Casual adventure” path and a “Classic adventure” path in our games, so that we can at least go for two basic approaches – easier and ‘seamless’ vs challenging.  Still, the best way to test things is to beta test pretty widely with analytics so you can see where, for example, 80% of people are not able to solve one particular puzzle.

GB: At what point in the production process does Robert Holmes begin writing music for games? Is the chief inspiration the story or the characters or the environments? Holmes' band, The Scarlet Furies, which provided memorable music for Gray Matter -- will they be providing music for Moebius?

Jane: Yes, I hope they will!  I love their music and it was great in Gray Matter and Dying for Daylight.  Robert usually begins to write the main theme when there is only a story but then later develops character themes or scene themes more around the art (and story).

GB: Many of your games feature more than one player character. What effect do multiple player characters have on a game's design? Does this automatically add complexity?

Jane: Not if they are in different chapters.  I like the POV (Point of View) that a new character brings.  This was key in Gray Matter, where it turned out that what David was up to was not at all what Sam saw or imagined.

Community Supported Gaming

GB: Could you explain Pinkerton Road's concept of Community Supported Gaming?

Jane: Our CSG members join or subscribe to the studio for a year.  They get all the games we do that ‘season’ but they also get a ‘virtual seat in the studio’ where they will get monthly video updates of the latest arts and design, get to do early playtests, see concept and production materials and other behind-the-scenes goodies.   That stuff will not be available to people who just buy the game online or in the store.

GB: Revolution Software has been adapting the classic Broken Sword games for new platforms like the Nintendo DS and the iPhone. Modern handheld gadgets seem to have injected life into the adventure genre and have the potential to reach a wide audience. Do you have any plans to port Moebius and later games to handheld devices?

Jane: We definitely want to do iPad and Android.  Not sure about other platforms right now.


Spoiler Alert for Gray Matter!

Stop reading here if you don't want to see a Gray Matter Spoiler

GB:  Controversial plot enquiries re: Gray Matter (these questions are so spoilerish that hints, white lies and downright deceptions are all welcome).

Is David Style's face scarred under the mask? Was there a Bride of Frankenstein Grand Game being played surreptitiously during the course of the story? Was one of the students in David's experiment group in cahoots with another faculty member? Is Samantha still hiding something about her past?

Jane: Yes, these are spoilers!  So mark it well as such.  The answers are:  no, maybe, no, I’m sure!

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