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Cognition and the power of writing: Jane Jensen speaks

Friday, 18th January 2013 12:56 GMT By Dave Cook

Jane Jensen is known for penning the Gabriel Knight series and is working with Phoenix Online on the Cognition adventure series. VG247′s Dave Cook talks with Jane and the team to learn more.

Jane Jensen

Author of the Gabriel Knight adventure games, Gray Matter, Jensen is currently working on the Cognition series and her next full game Moebius.

Jensen is working with Phoenix Online as writing consultant on the Cognition series. The first episode is out now – available here – and the second instalment is in development now.

As the Gabriel Knight license is unavailable, Moebius is said to have many spiritual links to the series that fans will appreciate.

Both Moebius and Jensen’s studio Pinkerton Road were both fully funded on Kickstarter last year. You can get updates on both over at the campaign page.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but there are many gamers out there who would rather swing a virtual sword and cut bad guys into bloody chunks than wrap their head around a dialogue-heavy adventure game. This all depends on what kind of player you are of course, but what does it take to really engross people in a solid adventure yarn?

In these days of action-heavy experiences, there’s a lot to be said for a good story. Sure adventure games may not be filled with massive explosions or cinematic set-pieces, but chances are if they tell a good tale – be it scary, comedic, sad or dramatic – then gamers of any creed can become engrossed in them.

Jane Jensen knows how to tell a good story. She’s been doing it for years, and has achieved mass notoriety for her Gabriel Knight adventure series. Jensen is a writer who commands attention through every one of her games, thanks to deep character treatment, as well as fleshed out worlds backed up by plots full of danger and intrigue.

Most recently, Jensen’s new studio Pinkerton Road became fully-funded on Kickstarter and with it, the developer’s first game Moebius became a reality. The game is currently in early development, and Jensen is also serving as writing consultant on Phoenix Online’s PC adventure series Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller.

It’s an episodic title that stars detective Reed as she unravels a series of murders as well as tangling with her own inner demons. She also has the power of cognition, adding another layer of mechanics on top of the game’s classic point n’ click puzzling. The ability to see the last few moments of a person’s life and more makes for an intriguing spin on the genre.

I caught up with Jensen, as well as Phoenix Online CEO Cesar Bittar and PR director Katie Hallahan to discuss development of Cognition, as well as Jensen’s plans for Moebius, and to better understand what makes for a well-written adventure title.

“I would say that – to me – the most important thing is the story,” Jensen stated, “The story, characters, the world have to be interesting, and that it’s suitable for a game, that it can be dramatic, emotional and fun. The concept is the first fundamental, and then I think art plays a huge part in having a beautiful world to explore.

“Then with puzzle design – I’m a big believer in having puzzles that are well integrated into the story, as opposed to just random ‘tic tac toe’, or logic puzzles that are just stamped on top of a world, and that they hopefully advance the plot and the character’s journey.”

Reed’s cognitive powers are more than just a mechanic geared towards spicing up Cognition’s gameplay, as they stem from deep seeded troubles in her past. For one, she was unable to stop a serial killer from taking her brother’s life – a traumatic event that haunts her throughout the story.

“When I work with a character I try to find the realism and the naturalness because everybody is flawed, so you can’t have a realistic character who’s perfect. There’s got to be a full picture there – black and white.”

As the plot progresses, Reed’s powers become more powerful, yet increasingly unstable, causing them to interfere with her work and cause friction with her fellow and superior officers. On one level she can touch objects or people and see their past, but eventually she can project images into the room or screw around with people’s dreams.

Reed is complex, and as Bittar explained, when Phoenix Online was handed the Cognition project, she existed only as a few drawings without any back-story of script. Fleshing her our proved to be a tough, but rewarding challenge.

“We actually received this project from another studio,” Bittar explained, “and at the time the character was drawn, but other than that we had no idea who she was, which got us talking about her. We started to think about what we wanted Erica to be like, and in our mind we had people like Debra from Dexter and Olivia Dunham from Fringe.

“She started to take little pieces from everybody – even Jack Bauer from 24 – as we wanted her to be a badass. I think the power Erica has makes her really unique, but it’s also something that hinders her as she works on investigations.

“Because it’s something that – on one side – she has this power, but on the other she doesn’t actually believe in the paranormal, yet she’s seeing stuff that actually doesn’t exist. I think that makes her really interesting, but she’s also a very tragic character because she couldn’t save her brother, and that’s what makes her.

“She’s somebody that – through the story – will be learning to let go of a lot of things that she’s just obsessed with. So she’s very driven, very obsessive, but through it all she wants to do good. Plus, she’s a very good detective.”

To make matters worse, Reed doesn’t believe in the paranormal, so when she learns of her powers she does everything she can to deny their existence. She’s a heavily flawed individual, which is something Jensen believes makes for the best characters.

Said Jensen, “When I work with a character I try to find the realism and the naturalness because everybody is flawed, so you can’t have a realistic character who’s perfect. There’s got to be a full picture there – black and white – and it’s up to the writer to figure out what that is for any given character.”

There’s also the hot issue in the industry right now surrounding the treatment of female characters in games, and while Reed has been drawn to be an attractive person, she is by no means overly-sexualised or stereotypical. It’s an issue the group discussed amongst itself.

“For a female character – and for a male character – I think you just need to find the realism and to not have them be a caricature, even if they are sexy. Because you can be sexy and still be realistic.”

Hallahan explained, “I find it interesting that there’s a lot of conversation going on in the industry and among gaming culture about female characters and how they’re being presented and perceived. For me, I really like how Erica is attractive, but – at least to me – that’s not an aspect of her character. It’s more about who she is and what she’s doing, her flaws, and what her personality is.

“Sometimes I feel like a character is represented as the female working in the man’s world. Erica sort of is because she’s in law enforcement, which is a little more traditionally male, but I don’t feel like that’s part of her story here.

“She doesn’t get challenged on that at aspect like a, ‘oh you’re just a woman, what are you doing here?’ kind of thing. I don’t like that because she’s here, she’s on par with these other people in her job, whether or not they’re male or female.”

“It depends on the point of view of the designer or writer,” Jensen continued. “Because someone like a Tomb Raider kind of character is obviously meant to be fun – a fantasy character, a very sexy character. I’ve certainly been guilty of that in terms of making my male characters rather hunky, so I’m not sure I really have much room to talk.

“It depends on the goal of the story, because some times it’s perfectly fine to have a fun fantasy world, and to be playful, but obviously I prefer stories that have more realism and a little more depth.

“For a female character – and for a male character – I think you just need to find the realism and to not have them be a caricature, even if they are sexy. Because you can be sexy and still be realistic.”

“I actually played the demo of Tomb Raider when I was at PAX,” added Bittar, “and I’ve played many Tomb Raider games in the past. It really hit me how changed Lara was. She was still sexy, but she was somebody who was a lot more human, and you see her in a situation where you felt her plight, and what she was going through.

“I found it really interesting that a franchise like Tomb Raider wanted to inject some of this into a character that has been so universally iconic, and to change who she was to make her a lot more human and evolved. That was really interesting to see.

“Characters will continue to be hunky guys, or pretty, sexy girls, and I mean Erica Reed is not a bad girl to look at [laughs], but I think that it’s important to develop real characters, as opposed to just sexual stereotypes.”

“Moebius is going very well. We started production in September with Phoenix Online as developers and have already seen a lot of progress. The art style is really fresh, and the story turned out great. It has similarities to Gabriel Knight the same way that Gray Matter had.”

The first episode of Cognition is available now and the team at Phoenix Online – along with Jensen – are now working on the second instalment. However I asked Jensen for some insight into how her next game Moebius is shaping up.

“Moebius is going very well,” jensen confirmed. “We started production in September with Phoenix Online as developers and have already seen a lot of progress. The art style is really fresh, I think, and the story turned out great. It has similarities to Gabriel Knight the same way that Gray Matter had – it’s the same mystery and thriller genre – with some paranormal elements. But that’s about the extent of it.”

Bittar added, “From a different perspective than Jane’s, I’ve read the story, and I can say that the enigma of the game is something that feels extremely fresh and exciting. Gabriel Knight fans are definitely going to love every minute of it.”

In closing I asked Jensen if she felt if game writers were gaining greater notoriety both within and outside the games industry as the narrative depth of games increases, to which she replied, “This had been a ‘thing’ since I started in games 20 years ago. Every few years people get excited about writing and story ‘possibly becoming important’ in gaming.

“Honestly, there have been some great writers in gaming for a long time, since the Infocom days, and there are still really innovative things going on such as The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain.

“So I don’t see it so much as a new thing. I don’t think the industry as a whole is changing, no. Most game companies really undervalue the story aspects of a game. I just continue to do my thing.”

And as fans of Jensen’s work will likely agree, that ‘thing’ is coming up with stellar adventure titles, which makes the wait for Moebius all the more excruciating.

You can check out the Moebius project’s progress here, and check out the first episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller here.

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