Gray Matter Preview: Gabriel Knight Creator Jane Jensen ReturnsBy Christopher Monfette - Posted Dec 08, 2010
Those of you savvy enough to recall the name Jane Jensen will no doubt remember her work on the Gabriel Knight series of Sierra adventure games. The supernatural franchise, which pioneered some timely gameplay innovation with each subsequent release (FMV, 3D environments, etc.), was a hallmark for smart, well crafted narratives with unique puzzle solving and first-rate game design. They were the kind of games that this editor might easily have played forever…until the adventure genre died, of course, or at the very least evolved into the modern-day RPG.
Now, however, after more than a decade away from our PC monitors, Jensen is preparing to reanimate – or possibly resurrect – the deceased genre with Gray Matter, a cross-breed of science-fiction and the supernatural with serious questions about the nature of life and the essence of mortality. A demo was recently released for the 2011 title and we had a chance to play through roughly an hour of the game to provide our early impressions.
First and foremost, this is old school adventure at its finest. The static environments of the sizeable manor in which the demo takes place are artistically rendered and beautifully illustrated. Your character will frequently access an inventory bar while clicking around the screen to move and interact with objects. Thankfully, the control scheme has been simplified so that your cursor will always default to the required action when placed over an object, eliminating the need to scroll through options like Pick Up, Use, Talk To, etc…You’d think this might make the gameplay somewhat easier, but the puzzles were pleasantly complex as we explored the manor of Dread Hill.
You’ll play very briefly at the beginning of the demo as Samantha, who chances upon the house in the game’s opening, animated sequence, and quickly becomes the assistant to one Dr. David Styles, an enigmatic neurobiologist with a Phantom-like mask covering half of his face. We’ll soon discover that the mask protects injuries sustained in a car wreck involving his wife, who died mysteriously and has seemingly been haunting David’s sprawling home.
Playing as Dr. Styles during the third chapter of the game, you’ll quickly realize that your goal is to search the house for items of emotional significance to David. These will be collected and inserted into a sensory deprivation chamber in the hopes that creating strong sense-memories of his lost wife will somehow embolden her spirit to communicate. And when you emerge from the tank to see that an arrangement of spinning block letters has been manipulated to begin an unfinished sentence, it’s appropriately eerie.
The demo features a fairly basic set of puzzles, but a strong sense of atmosphere and place, giving players a connection to the characters and locations. And it requires the same kind of logic, occasionally frustrating, that added another layer of difficulty to more old-school click-around’s. For example, after you rouse the spirit of your dead wife, the clue that presents itself can only be expanded upon after looking at a detective’s business card in the kitchen and then clicking on the phone in the adjacent room.
One interesting feature is a set of bars that charts your progress through the various objectives in each level, offering a real-time completion percentage as you play. The main thrust of each chapter is broken up into several missions or sub-missions, not all of them necessary to advance, and you can summon this counter for a good idea of your progress down any given path – i.e. collecting objects, questioning characters, etc.
The small portion of the game carved out in the demo feels very much like a Jane Jensen title, featuring intelligent genre material that’ll no doubt play to the X-Files / Fringe crowd. It left us incredibly excited to play the full game – which just so happens to be available right now solely in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. A U.S. release on PC and consoles is prepped for early next year.