Review of Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within

by Amin Vahdat

for Infosys 296-A


Background

The Beast Within, the sequel to the highly successful Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, is an interactive movie. The interactive movie genre of multimedia games has been enabled by CD-ROM technology allowing an order of magnitude greater storage options for applications. In this type of game, players are cast in the lead of a movie. The development of the plot hinges on the player's ability to solve puzzles or complete action sequences. The genre promises the ability to determine how the story unfolds based on decisions made in the course of gameplay. The Beast Within is currently considered the premier example of the interactive movie genre. According to Sierra, the game's publisher, the Beast Within has won "Game of the Year" awards from a number of sources.

In The Beast Within, players alternate between playing the role of Gabriel Knight, a novelist and bookstore owner, and his assistant, Grace Nakimura. In the first episode, Sins of the Father, Gabriel and Grace solved a series of voodoo murders. By the end, Gabriel discovers that he comes from a long line of schattenjaegers, hunters of the supernatural in Germany. The Beast Within begins with Gabriel working on his next novel in his family's castle in Germany and Grace running the bookstore in New Orleans.

In the opening movie, we are shown a large wolf killing a small child. The frightened villagers make a trip to Gabriel's castle and convince him that he must carry out his duties as schattenjaeger. The game begins with Gabriel traveling to the farm where the child was killed. The player can use the mouse to direct Gabriel to examine objects, move from scene to scene, and to interact with other characters in the game. To complete a chapter, players must solve a number of puzzles ranging from the simple to the extremely difficult. Many of the puzzles simply require exploring available areas, talking to the right people to gain clues as to how to proceed. Once the first chapter is completed, the user switches to playing the part of Grace. In New Orleans, she decides that it is not right for Gabriel to be enjoying himself in Germany while she is stuck in New Orleans. She decides to book a flight to Germany to assist him in writing his new novel. Unfortunately, when she arrives he has already left to investigate the wolf killing. None of the towns people are willing to tell her where Gabriel is located.


Plot

A sample still from a
video sequence in the game.

As the plot unfolds, the player learns much about werewolf mythology, Wagner, the great German composer, and Ludwig II, a 19th century German King. The game is shot on location in Germany, so the player is treated to many authentic scenes of German landscape, castles, and museums. Jane Jensen, the game's primary author does a very nice job of putting together an interesting story with interesting characters. The acting in the movie is generally good (outstanding by computer game standards). The player actually understands the conflicts and motivations of individual characters. This empathy allows the player to actually care about what happens to the character.

Jensen has been compared to an interactive Anne Rice. Having read a few of Rice's books, I would say that the comparison is apt in many respects. Jensen and Rice both put interesting historical perspective around their characters and allow the reader to develop an empathy and understanding for both the good and evil characters. The conflict between "light" and "dark" forces are also very evident in both works. Taking some historical liberty, Jensen tells a fascinating story of how Ludwig II became a werewolf but attempted to resist the curse of the werewolf. For, as long as a werewolf does not feed on human flesh, his eternal soul is saved. The wolf involved with Ludwig has survived and is quite an interesting character with interesting philosophies. He appeals to many of Gabriel's own instincts. After Gabriel is inevitably bitten and turned into a werewolf, he must turn to himself to resist giving into his more primal instincts. His only hope of regaining his humanity is to kill the man he had befriended.


Technology

The Beast Within delivers some of the highest quality video and audio available from a computer game. The actors are shot using a chromakey or green screen process. These shots are seamlessly integrated onto the photographic backgrounds shot on site in Germany. Actors move through Bavarian locations with photographic resolution. Players navigate from location to location using a subway map for Gabriel and a tourist map for Grace.

The audio quality of the game is equally impressive. The music director borrows from John Williams's Star Wars work to develop a separate theme for each character and location. Most pleasantly, the video and audio work almost seamlessly on a relatively low end 486-66 machine. Of course, this observation is made in the context of the current state of the art in computer audio and video. When compared to standard television picture, this game suffers. The video is fairly grainy, and it is clear that the original filming was done against a green screen. The frame rate on my machine was not more than 15-20 frames per second. The video is also interlaced, meaning that alternating lines of each frame are dropped to reduce storage requirements and to improve playback performance. It will be a few years before computer games achieve television quality video, and a few years after that before most people have the necessary hardware to access such titles.

A scene from the Ludwig museum provides more clues of Ludwig's relation to the werewolves. Ultimately, the player must retry Ludwig's solution for avoiding the curse of the werewolf.


Interactivity

Grace uses a tourist map of Germany to navigate from location to location. Sites with remaining actions blink if the user asks for a hint.

While I enjoyed playing this game, I am not sure that I would spend my leisure time with such interactive titles in the future. The problem with such titles is that there is no space to explore within the game. The plot is entirely linear and predetermined. There is no world to explore, there is no opportunity to affect the development of characters' personalities, and there is no opportunity to explore different plot branches based on decisions made during the game.

The only way to progress the plot of this game is to solve the various puzzles presented to the player. While many of the puzzles are simply talking to the right people to gather necessary information, many are quite difficult and non-obvious. Solving such puzzles can be quite frustrating in my opinion: not necessarily the way I (and I believe most people) would want to spend their leisure time. Fortunately, the story in this game was sufficiently well-written, that curiosity lead me to play through the game (not to mention the fact that I had access to Internet "hint sites" that would provide a clue when I reached the end of my patience). In retrospect however, the 30 or so hours it took me to play through this game would have probably been better spent watching 20 good movies or reading a few novels.

In my opinion, for this medium to become truly effective, there must be some replay value associated with the game. For example, after playing through this game once, there is absolutely no reason to ever play the game again. For this genre to be truly interesting, characters must be modeled so that reactions and plot development can be tailored to individual decisions. Such a development would also allow these games to move away from the need to present silly puzzles to the player to progress the plot. I am afraid however, that the development of the technology required to actually present players with worlds to explore may be more than a few years away.


Conclusions

In summary, I enjoyed playing this game. The technology is first rate with excellent audio and video playback. Jane Jensen's writing is excellent and actually leads the player to care about how the story will turn out. This is an important fact, since otherwise the game would turn into the need to solve one puzzle after another. For those interested in seeing for themselves where the state of the art in interactive multimedia games currently stands, I would strongly recommend this game. Looking to the future however, I do not see this genre being anything more than a niche in the computer gaming market for years to come. The quality of the acting, audio, and video will no doubt continue to improve, perhaps converging with what is available from a good home theater in the next two to three years. However, the genre itself will remain mostly uninteresting unless people truly enjoy solving puzzles. It does not seem that such games can offer much more than a well-done movie.

One direction I can see such technology being applied successfully is in the area of interactive help and teaching systems. Given the availability of high quality video and audio, I believe that CD ROMs which aim to teach users about specific topics can be quite successful. Titles which use video clips to enhance text for such topics as the Civil War, World War II, and for various animals are already available. I believe that as the technology improves, such titles can be invaluable teaching aides.


Citations

The images in this review are all links to stills of the game located at ZDnet.