By Marty Mulrooney
Jane Jensen is a game designer who needs no introduction. AMO recently caught up with the legendary creator of the Gabriel Knight trilogy to discuss her latest offering, Gray Matter. An interactive mystery featuring a unique blend of fact and fiction, the game revolves around an American magician, Samantha Everett, and a reclusive neurobiologist, Dr. David Styles, as they face paranormal activity in Oxford, England. Not only was Jane kind enough to answer our many questions, she even shared some exclusive artwork too!
Hello Mrs Jensen, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I’ve been a game designer since 1989. I’m married with one step-daughter. We live on a farm in Pennsylvania where we have two bulldogs, six chickens, two cows and a calf on the way. Besides gaming, I’m very interested in sustainable living and agriculture.
How did you originally get your job at Sierra Online?
I was a big fan of their games. At the time I was a software engineer for Hewlett-Packard and I was trying to write a novel on the side. So I wrote to them and offered to do QA, programming, writing, whatever they needed. I interviewed and was hired on as a staff writer to do documentation and dialogue.
I wanted to do a mystery series, something that involved the paranormal. I went through a lot of ideas for a main character/theme for the series. The one I ended up keeping was that of a guy who’s family fought supernatural evil for centuries but he was a long-lost relation and had no idea about any of it. It made a fun contrast to have a modern person thrown into this archaic lifestyle.
Which is your favourite Gabriel Knight game and why?
I like them all for different reasons. If forced to choose I’d probably say GK2 because it was so delightful to see the actors put their personalities into the roles live on camera like that. As a writer, that was really a thrill.
Would you like to revisit the series in the future?
Yes, absolutely, if I ever get the chance!
Gray Matter has recently been released. Can you tell us more about the game?
I’d say Gray Matter is a more mature exploration of the supernatural than Gabriel Knight. Whereas GK fought real vampires and werewolves, Gray Matter is about powers of the mind, things like telekinesis or remote viewing – things that might really exist (or are at least more believable). The main characters are a female street magician (magicians are notorious sceptics) and an Oxford neurobiologist (who happens to be the ‘believer’). Both have interesting backstories and are what you might call ‘damaged goods’.
The game was originally announced way back in 2003. What caused such lengthy delays?
The first publisher ended up dropping the project due to lack of funding. Then with the second publisher we had a development team change which really set the project back.
The game showcases both science and magic, contrasting them to great effect. What made you decide to blend these two subjects?
The neurobiology was the real hinge of the series – because it’s about the brain, about what we do and don’t know about it. And I was recently reading about the Spiritualist movement and got interested in how Houdini went to such lengths to debunk it. That got me interested in magicians, particularly in the role of the sceptic. Because a magician is all about illusion you see, and faking things, so they are always looking for the trick.
The game is set in Oxford: how much research was involved?
I had been there before, but I went back specifically for the game looking for locations. Using real locations and real history is something the Gabriel Knight fans always loved about the series so I pulled in as much ‘real Oxford’ as possible in this game.
The game’s soundtrack is provided by your husband Robert Holmes, with further contributions from his band The Scarlet Furies. What is it like to work with your family in this way?
It’s fantastic. And I’m so glad that the players embraced it. I knew early on that I really wanted to use some Scarlet Furies music, but when you’re that close to it, it’s hard to know if it really works or if you’re biased, so I’m glad so many people responded to the music. I think the music got more good press than the game!
The cutscenes are drawn in a 2D style that I thought worked quite well. Was this an artistic or budgetary decision?
Both. If we had done 3D cutscenes I would have had to cut down the cutscene story segments by half or more. I just couldn’t see cutting out that much story. The way we did the cutscenes I thought worked artistically and allowed us to keep all the content.
How would you describe the characters of Samantha and Dr. Styles?
Samantha is the tough street kid with a heart of gold. David is similarly brusque on the outside but barely holding it together inside. He’s become a total hermit. These are bright characters who were dealt very bad hands in life (Sam’s parents died when she was young and she was raised in a string of bad foster homes; David’s wife was killed in a car accident in which he was driving). They’re both kind of broken in a way. Because of this, they have a lot in common and can help each other heal.
What similarities/differences would you say Gray Matter has with your earlier Gabriel Knight games?
They’re both essentially mystery plotlines and both deal with the paranormal. Both games have a male and female protagonist. But Gray Matter has its own vibe and is a very different story. It’s a little more melancholy, I’d say. More gothic romance.
How do you initially design a game such as this? It must be very complex with the large amounts of dialogue and interaction possibilities…
It is a big, complex script. I just take it one section at a time. I usually write a full, detailed story overview so that I know exactly what has to happen when and where for the story. Then I break it into chapters and then rooms to detail out the interactivity and puzzles.
You are also an author: does this help you craft your game narratives more effectively?
Yes, I think so. But I wrote game narratives before I did novels. So perhaps it was the other way around.
Where there any parts of the game that had to be cut?
Not in Gray Matter, no.
What is your favourite part of the game and why?
I particularly like some of David’s neurobiology-centered puzzles – the hypnosis scene and the random letter generator for example. Those were fun. I also like the Daedalus Club riddles.
There is a small cutscene shown after the final credits roll, which has caused much debate online! Care to shed any light on its meaning?
I’m not sure what the debate might be… but the final sequence was meant to simply introduce a subtle doubt about what was ‘random’ and what was manipulated in Sam and David’s pairing up – the same question we might all ask about our lives from time to time when it seems like something larger is moving the pieces around.
Is Gray Matter a game you would like to create a sequel to in the future?
Yes, I certainly hope so.
What is next for you Mrs Jensen?
I’m in the process right now of trying to figure it out. But most likely more casual games and hopefully another big adventure.
Thank you for your time!
You’re welcome! Thanks for your interest.