Jane Jensen’s Gray Matter tells a story about magic—the paranormal kind as well as where burlesque performers squirt disappearing ink at baffled men—but the most interesting thing about it, ten years later, is the magic trick that happened off-screen.
Jensen, a Pennsylvania minister’s daughter, programmer and aspiring novelist, joined the game development giant Sierra in the 1990s, where she wrote and designed environmentalist edutainment and fairy tale fantasies until she got a chance to take Sierra’s reins and yoke it somewhere darker. Gabriel Knight, her trilogy of paranormal mysteries blending historical research and supernatural ritual, is still her definitive work. If you played the Gabriel Knights at the right age—I want to say, thirteen?—they were like reading your first Stephen King or Anne Rice and feeling that here was the end of childhood.
With Gray Matter, her follow-up to Gabriel Knight after a decade’s absence from mainstream game development, Jensen hoped to return to the game industry highs that made her famous. Only she no longer enjoyed the resources of a major studio, she was on her own, and in the eight years it took to make Gray Matter it would be cancelled, lose a publisher, and replace the entire development team twice. That the game works at all is astonishing, that it’s pretty good is magic—but the most interesting thing about Gray Matter, the real trick, is that Jane Jensen’s journey back into game development would end with her transformation into a full-time erotic novelist.
“I’m an okay novelist, but a really good game designer,” Jane Jensen concluded in 2003, after her second original novel—Dante’s Equation, a metaphysical thriller of moral philosophy, quantum mechanics and Kabbalists—was released to little commercial or critical enthusiasm. Jensen had left Sierra in 1999 and pursued the literary career she’d always wanted, spinning out the mysteries of Gabriel Knight into pseudoscientific thrillers in the vein of Michael Crichton.
Dante’s Equation burned her out. “I just put so much into that,” she said, “and when that came out and didn’t get a huge amount of success… I don’t know. I just felt like, maybe this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing.” Underwhelmed by the reality of her dream job, the obvious alternative was a return to making adventure games like Gabriel Knight, in the expectation it would be a return also to Gabriel Knight-level success.
Jensen wrote Gray Matter alone in 2003, at the Pennsylvania farm where she lives with her husband and collaborator, the composer Robert Holmes. Jensen’s design documents are long and comprehensive, outlining over hundreds of pages a story, and everything the player can do while unfolding it. Unusually—as any writer with game industry experience can attest—Jensen largely completes her work before anyone else gets involved, and the blueprint she lays down in pre-production doesn’t change much in the years of development that follow. “That is the core creative document,” she once said, “it’s not called the bible for nothing.”
Jensen’s methods hadn’t changed, but in her absence from game development, the market for her games—point-and-click adventures—had evaporated. At Sierra, Jensen and her peers commanded significant resources to make lavish stories rich in character and setting and dense with puzzles, but the industry had pivoted for the better returns of faster-paced, less-bespoke genres.
Adventure games were still made: not with huge budgets by major American studios, but for small audiences by boutique labels operating out of countries with lower labor costs. One of those, The Adventure Company, a Canadian imprint, signed Gray Matter in 2003 and hired a Montreal developer to make the game off of Jensen’s bible. Jensen was about to join the team in Canada when the project was cancelled. Two of the publisher’s major titles had just underperformed, and they could no longer countenance a Jane Jensen adventure on a Jane Jensen budget.
Jensen spent the following years bridging the purgatorial space between adventure games and novels by adapting the work of writers James Patterson and Charlaine Harris to cheap, casual hidden object games. Until Gray Matter was revived unexpectedly in 2006 by DTP, a publisher from Germany, where traditional adventure games are so disproportionately popular that Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry has been absorbed into the country’s dev scene and is German now.
Jensen’s work in casual games kept her busy, and she wouldn’t relocate or take an active role in development, but DTP had her document, and they contracted the Hungarian studio Tonuzaba to develop the game for a 2007 release. Tonuzaba is a small, generalist developer—as given to make games as photo editing apps—and its assignment reflected the publisher’s imperative to maintain a low budget.
Tonuzaba owner István Endresz says the team got along well with Jensen, who checked in on progress remotely, but things quickly went south with the publisher. “We were kept on a very short leash, they were very picky on delivery from us, always had us work overtime to complete milestones and were always late with payments... for them it was merely a way to spare on development costs.” (DTP is out of business and couldn’t be reached for comment.) By 2008, Tonuzaba had built a fair amount of the game: the first of the game’s eight chapters was essentially complete, and early screenshots look a lot like the final version. DTP wasn’t happy with the art direction (“The furniture [looks] like it’s from eastern European communist countries”) or the relationship, and pulled Tonuzaba off the game: “We decided that from now on Gray Matter should be produced by a developer with experience in adventure games.”
In Paris, Dinga Bakaba, a designer at the developer Wizarbox, was asked to look over the Gray Matter design document. The studio had been invited to take over the project and was thinking of saying yes, purely to maintain a good relationship with their publisher. “It was handed over like, ‘Yeah, it’s this point-and-click thing? I don't know,’” Bakaba remembers. “I got back home, I printed the thing, started reading, and then I was like… Jane Jensen? Gray Matter, by Jane Jensen? And then, poof! Wait a minute: Gabriel Knight?!”
Gray Matter, as Jensen laid out in the document Bakaba read, told a mystery much in line with Jensen’s past work. Sam Everett, a young and corseted stage magician fleeing a Past, comes to live in the Oxford manor house of brilliant-but-damaged neuroscientist David Styles, where she works to assist his unorthodox experiments into that 90% of the brain we don’t use, i.e., where the telekinesis is.
David’s experiments correlate with incidents of apparently supernatural phenomena, which Sam—a magician whose conception of magic is joke shop tricks with instructions written in Comic Sans—dismisses as pranks. David, however, would much rather have found proof of the brain’s psychic power so that he might commune with his glamorous dead wife. Supposedly, David’s theories on psychic powers are informed by actual neurobiology research, though that claim sounds a bit like Michael Fassbender saying Assassins’ Creed is based on “a very feasible scientific theory.”
Bakaba had played Jensen’s games as a kid, and loved the promise of this one: Sam and David, and their love story. With her return to games, Jensen had embraced the conventions of romance fiction. “The romance in Gabriel Knight was always there,” she says, “but it had a very long arc. With Gray Matter, I wanted to bring that more to the forefront.”
When he went into work the next day he told his colleagues he couldn’t believe what had fallen into their laps. “I was like a madman with excitement. It started as this thing just to make a publisher happy, and for the team, it became a passion project.”
And yet, not an easy development: project lead François Francken says it was supposed to take eight months, but the design needed compromise and cuts—requiring Jensen’s approval—to wrest the scope into budget (“[S]o many of the things I suggested could not be done,” she bemoaned later) and eight months became two years.
A weird decade for Jensen, who completed the bulk of her work on Gray Matter seven years before the game’s release. Despite the low budgets and cancellations, it does speak to her clout that even after a break from the industry, she could write a screenplay and a design document and secure a publisher’s backing to just have that made, somewhere, by someone, and to spec.
“The publisher wants a full, Jane Jensen adventure game and that’s what we’re doing,” Jensen said during development, which does sort of imply that it doesn’t matter who builds the thing as long as Jensen wrote it. And, in the end, Gray Matter was what Jensen wanted.
The game is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Sam, a young, wilful and unsatisfied woman falls into the castle lair of David, an older, stuck-up and casually rich loner who wears a Phantom of the Opera mask to hide his (light-to-non) disfigurement and treats her, like everyone, with bitter contempt. When David was Sam’s age, “he wouldn’t have given me a single look,” she sighs, staring like Mrs De Winter at the enormous portrait of David’s pristine blonde wife governing the polished mahogany stairwell. Consumed with grief and the terrible difficulty of being brilliant, David has driven away everyone in his life and means to do the same with Sam, but she’s the one to break through his rough exterior to redeem the wounded man.
“David is stronger than you give him credit for,” Sam upbraids a group of Oxford students, while taking it on herself to investigate and blackmail David’s enemies in the faculty. “He’s reachable,” Sam assures anyone who will listen. “He just needs to be pulled out of himself, and for people to quit screwing with his head,” The worst thing she can imagine is his disappointment.
David, meanwhile, wonders if Sam is competent enough to use a filing cabinet.
“Look, the male character came to me and he was just great,” Jensen said, and though Sam has more screentime than David, the spiky, sexy man is always the game’s heart. “The truth is, I’ve always preferred writing men to women in my novels as well as my games,” Jensen wrote in 2014. “I don’t just write male characters, I write male characters who are hot simply because I enjoy it.”
Poor Sam, cast as the heroine to find and tame the minotaur at the center of the labyrinth—while never being allowed by her author to quite fulfil it. Like Beauty and the Beast, David’s abrasiveness is, to quote Jia Tolentino, “less like an obstacle in the love story than its central object.” Jensen writes tension, not release. There’s no completion in Gray Matter: Sam never transforms David, nor do they act on their feelings. Jensen powers the game instead with unresolved sexual tension, a conscious commercial gambit to make her return to games sustainable. “That unresolved tension is transferred to the player and now the player wants,” she wrote. “They want to keep turning the page (or buy the next game) to see that [sexual tension] resolved.” To that end, she hoped Gray Matter would become an episodic franchise, with a new instalment about every nine months. “I intended to eventually move Sam and David closer to a relationship over the course of the series. Which, of course, never happened.”
Gray Matter wasn’t a hit. Both Wizarbox and DTP folded a year after it came out. It’s not a bad game, though with its budget it looks about ten years older than it is. Jensen has a knack for keeping an audience on the hook, and a clever discipline for designing puzzles around the characters. Sam is no generic adventure game protagonist; rather, the player feels like they’re role-playing a magician, and an assistant, and that’s down to Jensen crafting a world and a story in which it is not too contrived that Sam should constantly have opportunity to overcome obstacles with magic tricks and filing.
But while the gothically romantic Gray Matter continues in the campy milieu of Jensen’s earlier work, it does miss Gabriel Knight’s audacity. There’s no wild swings like staging ten minutes of a “lost Wagner opera” that interpolates passages of Gabriel Knight’s score, and as a basis for a story, David’s neurobiology research is too speculative to recreate the rush of uncovering Gabriel Knight’s historical conspiracy theories and thinking, wait, is this actually true, and is Jane Jensen telling me where to find the body of Jesus Christ?
Gray Matter’s fine. It’s a minor work, but if the industry wouldn’t pay for the major stuff, what else would you get?
After Gray Matter, Jensen launched her own small studio, Pinkerton Road, funded by a modest Kickstarter, to make similar, low budget adventure games at a faster clip. Jensen had plans for a Gray Matter sequel but directed the studio’s efforts towards a remake of the first Gabriel Knight (for a smaller budget than the original, not even accounting for inflation) and a new title, Moebius, which like Gray Matter teased a romance (this time, between men) to be paid off later.
Pinkerton Road’s production model took after Gray Matter: Jensen would write a design document for a studio somewhere to develop. “The team we’re using is Eastern European. Their rates are pretty low,” said Jensen during the Kickstarter. Certainly, you can make a game that way—Gray Matter was made that way—but Jensen didn’t get back into games to make one game, she needed a career, and could this method of making games be sustainable when it barely worked the first time?
The very particular path Jensen had to carve out for herself is revealing of how the industry treats its superstars. There’s no real opportunity for an independent writer-director to lead a large budget work without either submitting to employment within a massive corporate structure or building a corporate structure of their own. The industry does not give any one person power and independence at once, especially not at the scale Jensen once enjoyed. That Jensen kept it going for as long as she did is impressive, but in the way that, like, it’s impressive how the Free Solo guy keeps on doing that.
“[My husband and I] lost a lot of personal money on those two games,” Jensen told the academic Anastasia Salter in 2015. “There’s not much opportunity in adventure games anymore.” Pinkerton Road, its games not especially well-received either, wound quietly down, and with it Jensen’s second act in game development. “I wrote my name on a wall in a restroom. ‘For a good adventure game: call me,’” she joked, in 2003, when it did seem like it could be a joke.
From one angle, the story of Gray Matter and everything that followed is one of Jensen trying and failing to recapture her earlier success—but that’s an illusion. The truth is, she did it.
“Around the time I was working on a design for Moebius, I began reading gay romance,” Jensen says. “I’d read some isolated things before — Anne Rice and gay fiction like Maurice. But I discovered gay romance and found it fun and intriguing. I decided to try my hand at writing a few short stories and sent them to a publisher, who accepted them.” Since 2013, under the pen name Eli Easton, Jensen has written truly dozens of stories about gay romance—starring nerds, jocks, ex-military, sheriffs, angles, nurses, reclusive authors, Pennsylvania farmers, single dads, werewolves and Santa Claus—and now self-publishes, with a new title every few months. Billy and the Beast, an adaptation of guess what, reads like a gay retelling of Gray Matter (“There was something about him... handsome, masked, menacing.... Nothing this cool ever happened to me” and is absolutely of a piece with Jensen's past work. Her romance writing eschews esoteric mystery and deadly stakes, but the characters and their voices are the same, and the boldness that expressed itself in Gabriel Knight as audacity and opera is felt here through unabashed intimacy and appreciation of pleasure.
As a writer, Jensen’s always been more interested in her men—Gabriel Knight and David Styles are more sexual entities than their love interests—so it’s not wholly surprising this is where she should wind up exclusively focusing her gaze. “I’m crap at writing very feminine female characters. And, similarly, I don’t care for traditional [male-female] gender dynamics,” she says. “I was tested in a college psychology class once and my personality tested dead in the middle—androgynous. I tend to be most comfortable in that zone. Most of my main characters are neither hyper-masculine nor hyper-feminine…. It’s hard for me to write those kinds of characters from a place of truth. I’m more comfortable in the LGBTQ space where personalities and gender dynamics are in the middle.”
It is working for her. Thousands of readers rate Easton’s novels on Goodreads, always highly: “I love Eli’s writing…. It’s perfectly kinky while still being amazingly sweet.” “Died from shock after Eli Easton melted [my] cold, black heart into a puddle of goo.” “Eli Easton dared, and I love her for that.” “Eli Easton, your readers need some butt sex and we need it yesterday."
As Easton, Jensen attends conventions, does collaborations and guest stories in anthologies, and engages happily and often with her fans. She enjoys the kind of success and passionate audience that has eluded her since Gabriel Knight.
“I’ve come to love writing as Eli Easton,” she says, “[and] being part of a community you respect and enjoy is important too. About the time I completed Moebius, GamerGate broke. And there was so much toxicity, especially toward female designers. I wasn’t sorry to leave that behind.”
For now, anyway, Jensen is living her dream, as she originally dreamed it: she is a novelist whose books sell better than her games. The frictionless speed with which Jensen has found success in this niche is the absolute inverse of her experience of writing Dante’s Equation. That had been so difficult, and for such little reward: surely that wasn’t what she was supposed to be doing?
Getting back into games, the logical alternative, might not have wholly worked, but it clarified Jensen to her essential writing self. Jensen’s always been a romance writer, and always a writer of romantic men. The decline of the adventure game forced her out of studio environments into independence, which suited her: she’s an auteur, not a collaborator, who wants to write alone on stories that are, in and of themselves, the product and the whole point: not directions for developers to interpret or publishers to cut down. While she struggled with Gray Matter and Pinkerton Road, she was finding a perfect creative outlet for the writer she always has been.
“Am I a better game designer than a novelist? Probably,” she says today—but has Jane Jensen not been kind of both those things all at once? Eli Easton is not a career swerve but the fulfilment of the promise of Jensen’s second Gabriel Knight, back in 1995, which blisters with unconsummated attraction between Gabriel and a libertine, bisexual werewolf. “An indication that I’ve always been fascinated by the homoerotic,” Jensen says. An indication that—like the student ID Sam Everett hides in one hand while appearing to toss it into a shredder—was always there, in plain sight.