Werewolves of Bavaria: 'Gabriel Knight 2' Then and Now

How the sprawling historical adventure with a memorably queer love story took made the weirdness of FMV games work.

Feb 4 2021, 2:00pm

When Gabriel Knight 2 came out in 1995, I didn't play it on principle.

Don't get me wrong; I was a massive fan of Sierra's games. After receiving a copy of King's Quest II with my first computer in 1986, I dutifully played every Sierra game I could get my hands on, from Quest for Glory to Colonel's Bequest to Codename: ICEMAN. I even launched the internet's very first Sierra fan site in 1995, an HTML 1.0 shrine to the Space Quest series, a few weeks prior to Gabriel Knight 2's release.

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No, despite strong reviews, I passed on The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery for the dumbest reason possible: I was an adventure game purist. Whereas the first Gabriel Knight adventure, Sins of the Fathers, had been a traditional point-and-click adventure (featuring voice work by the legendary Tim Curry as Gabriel), the sequel made the leap to full-motion video. After disappointing experiences with FMV adventures like Return to Zork ("Want some rye? 'Course you do!") and Sierra's own Phantasmagoria, I had sworn off what I believed to be a passing fad in the genre. I would check back in on adventure gaming after they had boxed up the movie cameras, thank you very much. Even when Computer Gaming World ranked Gabriel Knight 2 at #17 on its list of the best PC games ever, I held the line like so many other self-righteous gamers who have taken bold stances on trivial issues before and since.

So, when I finally decided to stream Gabriel Knight 2 on my retro Twitch channel a quarter century later, I didn't entirely know what to expect.  What I discovered was a subversively campy adventure, bursting at the seams with ambition — a game that could only have been produced in the mid-1990s, yet one that nevertheless feels decades ahead of its time.

Gabriel Knight 2 is a game that defies a simple synopsis, but here goes. Our titular protagonist is a New Orleans-based novelist and the latest in a long familial line of Schattenjägers — "shadow hunters" who investigate and combat supernatural threats. Aiding Gabriel in his paranormal adventures is Grace Nakimura, his sardonic research assistant and eventual mystery-solving partner. After closing the case on a series of voodoo murders plaguing the Big Easy in his first outing, Gabriel jets off to his ancestral castle in Germany and stumbles upon a new mystery involving brutal mutilation killings attributed to escaped zoo wolves. What follows is an investigation that somehow encompasses everything from cuckoo clocks to 19th-century Bavarian monarchs to the staging of a lost opera composed by Richard Wagner himself as a trap to expose and kill a very sexy werewolf named Baron von Glower.

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Yes, it's a lot to process. But it's also an absolute delight.

Credit for weaving these disparate threads together into a cohesive, compelling story goes entirely to series auteur Jane Jensen. Playing Gabriel Knight 2 today drives home the fact that, as a writer, Jensen was head and shoulders above anyone else in the business — then and quite possibly now. From the dialogue trees that constitute much of the gameplay to her deep dive into Prussian history, Jensen demonstrates the confidence of a writer who knows when her words need to do the heavy lifting and when she needs to hang back and let the action on screen tell her story. 

Moreover, despite its pulpy tendencies, there's a level of maturity at play in the Gabriel Knight series that was all too rare in adventure games at the time. Compared to the gratuitous gore of Phantasmagoria or Leisure Suit Larry's cartoonishly sexualized brand of "adult" content, Jensen used the Gabriel Knight series to tell multilayered stories, explore genuinely compelling relationships, and grapple with darker, more challenging themes. In turn, it's easy to imagine Gabriel Knight 2 as a game meant to be enjoyed by actual adult human beings as opposed to a title aimed at the average 13-year-old kid's idea of what constitutes mature storytelling.

The trend-chasing shift to full-motion video in Gabriel Knight 2 also goes a long way toward making Jensen's fantastical story of opera-loving Bavarian werewolves feel more "real." After Tim Curry departed the series for the one place that hadn't been corrupted by capitalism, Dean Erickson stepped in to play a live-action Gabriel in the sequel (with Joanne Takahashi replacing Leah Remini in the role of Grace). Whereas most FMV games at the time were infamously stilted and cheesy, Gabriel Knight 2 transcends the limitations of the genre with a cast of a dozen or so actors who are absolutely giving it their all. From the series leads all the way down to minor characters like the husband-and-wife duo of American tourists who also happen to be tarot-reading spiritualists, the actors get what it takes to perform for a video game — including going broad when necessary. The earnestness of these performances not only sells Jensen's story, but also elevates Gabriel Knight 2 from cheese to camp. If the goal of these FMV adventures from the '90s was to earn the vaunted title of "interactive movie," Gabriel Knight 2 comes way closer than most.

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The game's most captivating performance undoubtedly belongs to Peter J. Lucas as the mysterious and charismatic Baron Friedrich von Glower. It's here that Gabriel Knight 2 truly makes it mark as a game ahead of its time. As the story unfolds, von Glower and Gabriel engage in what its perhaps best described as a queer bromance — a decidedly progressive development in a big-budget game from the 1990s. For years, I had read about Gabriel Knight 2's supposed queer subtext. Upon finally playing it, I was surprised to discover that it's hardly subtext at all. There's no subtle innuendo at play; it's simply text. Between loaded philosophical discussions about the savage beast that dwells within all men, von Glower actively, unambiguously pines for Gabriel. Meanwhile, Erickson's performance suggests that Gabriel, depicted as a womanizer up to this point in the series, is at least cautiously open to von Glower's advances. When they share scenes together, the sexual tension is both unexpected and undeniable. Granted, it's still the 1990s, so our enthralling, queer-coded character ends up being the bad guy, a 250-year-old werewolf who — spoiler alert! — gets Schattenjäger'd into a furnace during the game's climax. Nevertheless, engaging with LGBTQ themes at all was groundbreaking for a mainstream video game from this era, even if Gabriel Knight 2 falls back on some tired tropes along the way.

As I streamed Gabriel Knight 2 to an audience of fellow retro gamers, I kept thinking about how the game would be received if it were released today instead of in 1995. Sure, it was critically acclaimed at the time and apparently sold quite well, but it feels perfectly suited for our modern internet fandom. It's easy to imagine players filling entire Tumblrs with Schattenjäger fan fiction and fan art, especially since it's a game that practically demands shipping. Gabriel/Grace, Gabriel/Von Glower, Grace/That Cute Guy Who Works at the Wagner Museum — the game offers so many possible pairings (and so much great '90s hair). Plus, Gabriel Knight 2's campier moments, including some bold acting choices, make it a veritable meme machine. 

But it's Jensen's ambitious vision that truly sets Gabriel Knight 2 apart from most other games in the genre. Let's go all in on full-motion video! Let's feature Grace as a playable protagonist! Let's devote two hours of the game to learning all about King Ludwig II and Richard Wagner! Let's explore queer themes with our main character! Let's stage a goddamn opera in the final chapter!

Of course, Gabriel Knight 2 isn't a perfect game. For all her strengths as a writer, Jensen's puzzle design in Gabriel Knight 2 is quite fiddly at times. The game occasionally expects wild leaps of logic from the player, and even with a walkthrough close at hand, I frequently encountered moments when the storyline wouldn't advance simply because I had forgotten to click on some seemingly inconsequential hotspot a few scenes ago. It also suffers from pacing problems, likely due to the decision to cut an entire chapter from the game during development. 

Nevertheless, by the time I finished streaming The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, I walked away with a new appreciation for a game I had once stubbornly sworn never to play. At a glance, it's easy to dismiss as a schlocky lycanthropic horror game — or simply the Gabriel Knight game that came after "the good one" and before the one with the cat hair mustache. A closer look, however, reveals a game that is at once inextricably tied to the technologies and design philosophies of the 1990s, while telling a story and exploring themes that seem almost radically contemporary in hindsight. It's a minor masterpiece in adventure gaming and a testament to Jane Jensen's willingness to embrace the trends of the day while still pushing the boundaries of what the genre could be. 

Tagged:

Gabriel Knight, FMV games, Jane Jensen

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