Interview with Jane Jensen: Her new project and the art of storytelling in games

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Posted May 9, 2012 - By Matt Cabral


Fans of the classic Gabriel Knight PC adventure series are already aware that game designer and novelist Jane Jensen is one of the medium's most gifted storytellers. Even those who haven't pointed-and-clicked through one of her twisty tales, though, may have recently noticed her name buzzing about the net.

Jane's pulling a Tim Schafer to fund her new studio Pinkerton Road and its first title Moebius. We recently caught up with the master mystery writer to discuss her upcoming projects, her approach to weaving an engaging yarn, and what she thinks of David Jaffe's recent rail against videogame storytelling.

What's your take on the current state of storytelling in videogames?

Jane Jensen: I'm really not an expert as I tend to focus on the games that I like and I don't play widely in other genres. But it seems like it's about what it has always been -- lots of people saying you can't do story, or wondering how it might possibly be done, and then some strong games that just do it. It's been that way since the Infocom days. There have been some good story games out recently and seems to be an uptick in interest in it.

Have you played anything recently you feel has told an especially good story?

JJ: I like the Blackwell adventure games and I'm fond of some of Telltale's games, like Hector and Puzzle Agent -- simple stories, but fun. I thought Heavy Rain was amazing.

More than ever it seems game designers are attempting to tell absorbing stories. As someone who's always placed a premium on narrative, do feel like you were ahead of your time?

JJ: Well, it's been in, and out again, several times in my career. I'm sure it will be out again. I don't know that I'm ahead of my time -- it's probably more accurate to say 'permanently on the fringe' in the game business. It's just my passion and I really don't know how to write a game any other way.

Do you see any consistent or common flaws in the way most stories are told in games today?

JJ: I'm really pretty tolerant of most stories and characters. If there's one thing that I don't like is when things ramble on when it's just not new or interesting information. But really, most games are short on story rather than long on it.

Gabriel Knights

What advice would you offer prospective game-makers trying to craft a compelling story?

JJ: I went to a seminar early in my career on the craft of storytelling by Robert McKee. It was really life altering. There are basic principles on how to craft an engaging story and he covers them well. He's got a book out, Story, that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in improve their story-telling.

How do you feel about the comments designer David Jaffe recently made about storytelling in games? I imagine you might have a counterargument to his point

JJ: I can only assume that he's referring to a certain type of game. Story may not be a great addition to some games -- games where action is the whole reason for the game to exist. But it's a bit like saying that people only watch movies for car chases and sex scenes. There are game genres in which story is an integral part of the game, and there are gamers who like to play them. I've been designing games for 20+ years and I have certainly not found the pursuit of story to be a dead end for me. Storytelling has always been my focus as a game designer and is today as much as or more so than ever.

Are you a storyteller first and game-maker second? Do you build your games around the story or vice versa?

JJ: I would say I'm a storyteller first, but game making is very wrapped up in how I think of story. If I were to have a story idea, and I decided to write a novel with it instead, I'd have to very consciously de-couple it from gamedom -- for example, deliberately add in things that could not be represented in a game scene. Because I'm so used to games I think in those very literal terms.

How do you balance telling a great story for those who want it, while also keeping the gameplay interesting for those maybe less interested in the narrative?

JJ: One reason why I wanted to return to adventures, is that it's accepted that adventure games are story-driven, so you don't have to sort of design a lot of extra hoops or escape clauses for people who 'don't want story'. But I have certainly done that with some games I've worked on in the past. It usually boils down to keeping the story as short and punchy as possible, letting players skip the story bits with a nice fat SKIP button, and representing things visually as much as possible.

So what can you share about your upcoming project Moebius?

JJ: It's a 3rd person adventure game, a metaphysical thriller with a little bit of a sci-fi slant. In the game you play a guy named Malachi Rector. He travels the world buying unique artifacts and researching their history for his clientele. He's hired by a billionaire to investigate and document a series of events that are going on around the world. As Rector, you investigate the events in these exotic places and you have to put together the big picture of what's going on behind the scenes. It's planned as an ongoing series.

Can you offer any specifics on the actual gameplay?

JJ: The gameplay will be classic adventure -- probably with a radial menu of action choices on hotspots. And I'd like to do some cool things with the touchscreen for the tablet version, like dragging drawers open, tapping for hit, etc. It's in early days of production still.

What sort of visual style and sound design will it adopt?

JJ: Art style will be very high-end, high-resolution 2D. Robert Holmes, my husband, will be doing the music but he hasn't filled me in yet on what he's planning.

Gray Matter 2

Will fans of your previous titles instantly recognize Moebius as a Jane Jensen production? If so, can you offer some examples of how?

JJ: Yes, I think so. There's sort of a "big idea" in Moebius that I can't really explain without it being a spoiler. But it's on the more philosophical end. That and the sort of mystery/thriller aspect of it should feel familiar to Gabriel Knight and Gray Matter fans.

Are you doing anything to make Moebius an experience that will appeal to more than your existing, passionate fan-base?

JJ: I think making it have a true classic adventure mode, as opposed to Gray Matter which was easier, is a nod in that direction. Also, we will be using our CSG members (the people who pledge to our campaign on Kickstarter) to alpha and beta test, so we'll definitely be getting the input from the hard-core base. (CSG stands for Community Supported Gaming - learn more on the Kickstarter page.)

How do you market an experience like Moebius to gamers unfamiliar with the point-and-click adventure genre.

JJ: Good question. Great graphics and a compelling trailer help. A strong publisher and big marketing budget helps! (ha) We'll be looking for opportunities to cross-promote with the casual game market and e-book market.

Do you think the genre needs to evolve to attract beyond its existing audience?

JJ: Yes, I think so. The casual game market is quite large and that's a perfect audience for adventure games, so that's the next nut to really crack.

You mention the e-book market and casual audience--do you think Moebius would also be a good fit for services such as XBLA, PSN, and the App Store?

JJ: We do plan to support iPad and Android tablets but have not looked at XBLA or PSN seriously as of yet. It's a possibility.

What can we expect from Pinkerton Road after Moebius?

JJ: Many more titles, hopefully. It's a bit early to say exactly what. I'd love to do Gabriel Knight at some point, if I can work out something with Activision. And Gray Matter II and a concept we called "Anglophile Adventure" on our CSG concept vote are definitely on my to do list.

Interview with Jane Jensen: Her new project and the art of storytelling in games


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