Hyperrhiz 18: Reviews
Anastasia Salter, Jane Jensen
Salter, Anastasia. Jane Jensen: Gabriel Knight, Adventure Games, Hidden Objects. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. $24.95. 183 pp. 5 ½ x 8 ½ in. 25 b&w illus. June 2017. ISBN 9781501327469. [Publisher page]
Anastasia Salter’s book is the third addition to Bloomsbury’s Influential Video Game Designers series edited by Carly A. Kocurek and Jennifer deWinter. The first two books in the series were Kocurek’s Brenda Laurel: Pioneering Games for Girls (2017) and deWinter’s Shigeru Miyamoto: Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda (2015). The series’ aim is to profile game designers “who have shaped contemporary video gaming” by providing “insights into the practice, history, and artistry of game design.” The series is well-placed in the hands of editors like Kocurek and deWinter, who not only wrote the first two books, but are also scholars of the history and cultural practices of video gaming in the United States and of the production, circulation, and cross media development of computer games in Japan, respectively. Salter is similarly well-suited to the topic: she is an assistant professor of Digital Media at the University of Central Florida with an academic background in Digital Narrative Studies; Communication, Culture, and Technology; and Communications Design. In 2014, Salter published What is Your Quest? From Adventure Games to Interactive Books, which serves as a perfect stepping-stone to writing a book dedicated to Jensen’s work and to the adventure game genre more broadly.
The first chapter of Jane Jensen doubles as an introduction, covering Jensen’s entire early career at Sierra On-Line up until the development of her pivotal Gabriel Knight series (1993-1999). In this introduction, Salter states that the aim of the book is to “examine Jensen’s impact and her role as a designer” by “look[ing] at several genres Jensen has helped transform, including graphic adventure games, hidden object games, mobile games, and educational games” (p. 2). Salter certainly achieves this goal, and throughout the entire book, she makes it abundantly clear that Jensen is an unorthodox writer-designer whose blending of complex narrative structures, diverse characters, well-researched settings, and challenging logic puzzles “pushed the adventure game genre forward during the classical era of gaming” (p. 26). Salter states that “Jensen didn’t set out right away on the path to interactive narrative; she began as a computer programmer with a love for puzzles and a passion for stories and writing” (p. 3). One could argue that any computer programmer who loves puzzles and writing would indeed already be on the path to interactive narrative, but Salter directly attributes Jensen’s unusual strength for design and experimentation to this “diverse background” (p. 3).
In her second chapter, Salter focuses on the Gabriel Knight series, which really launched Jensen’s career as a “designer-director” (p. 26). Unfortunately, Jensen’s career at Sierra also ended with this series, even though it was her most successful franchise. Salter claims that the character of Gabriel Knight was designed to appeal to the women’s gaze, though he also resonated with male players. She states that “male characters designed specifically to appeal to players as a romantic interest is still incredibly rare in video games” and cites Link from The Legend of Zelda series (Nintendo, 1986-2017) as an example of a character that has filled this role in fan communities. Still, Link is rarely a “romantic” character in the Zelda games and is instead often an androgynous child who has a mostly platonic relationship with the female protagonist, Zelda. Link was not created to appeal to a romantic “women’s gaze,” rather he has always been designed as gender neutral and “relatable” (Peckham, 2016), with Peter Pan as an inspiration (Audureau, 2012). Salter’s discussion of Jensen’s Grace Nakimura character from the Gabriel Knight series is a far more convincing part of this chapter, as she remains a rare example of diverse and realistic female character design. Finally, Salter discusses the elaborate dialogue system of Gabriel Knight, correctly arguing that this type of intensely-structured conversation and high-quality voice acting was rare among video games in the early 1990s.
The end of chapter two reveals a key difference between Jensen’s career and those of other women game designers, including Roberta Williams, who co-founded Sierra On-Line: Jensen did not fade from the game industry when the adventure game genre died out. Instead, as chapter three elaborates, she turned to casual gaming. Chapter three focuses on Jensen’s productions for the casual market, underscoring the high quality of her hidden-object mystery games. Chapter four looks at Jensen’s attempt to return to the mainstream adventure game market by founding her own studio. Interestingly, during her time making casual games, Jensen learned to make more accessible, less frustrating puzzles, which demonstrates the importance of varied experience for a game designer’s career. However, casual games proved unsatisfying for a “writer-designer” such as Jensen, so she returned to the adventure game genre with Gray Matter (2010) and a number of other titles. The fifth chapter is a twelve-page interview with Jensen, which unfortunately repeats much of what was already covered in the book. The interview does, however, reveal more about Jensen’s lesser-known career as a fiction and fan fiction author under the penname Eli Easton and her current plans to focus solely on novel writing. A six-page conclusion rounds the book out, although given its shortness, its points could easily be dropped or integrated into earlier chapters.
Salter’s book is certainly a thorough retrospective of Jensen’s career, and the admiration Salter feels for Jensen is palpable. Salter’s case studies and examples thoroughly demonstrate that Jensen’s work was research-driven and detail-oriented, that she emphasized world-building and story in her game design process, that her environments were intricate and realistic, and that her characters were complex and diverse. The book sometimes provides examples that may seem contradictory or elide the complexities of genre considerations. Comparing the King’s Quest games to Doom (id Software, 1993), for example, in order to both point out the difference between narrative adventure games and first person shooters, and make the claim that “[k]eyboards lend themselves to language and contemplative typing … [which] allowed PC games to keep their ties to textual and literary elements” (p. 7), is undermined by the fact that Doom is also a PC game. Similarly, tracing influences from EcoQuest (1991) to BioShock (2K Games, 2007) and Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft, 2007), or Gabriel Knight to BioShock inevitably means that examples end up doing the work to stand in for whole sectors of the gaming industry.
Salter likely chose to write this book precisely because of her strong admiration for Jensen’s work. Unfortunately, this admiration leads her to somewhat overstate Jensen’s impact on the commercial video game industry, which undermines the book’s premise as a scholarly retrospective. The foreword by Christa Charter prepares the reader for this approach, particularly when she makes the bold claim that “[world building] is what Jane Jensen does better than anyone in games before or since” (p. xiii). Salter, similarly, refers to Jensen as a video game “auteur” and suggests that Jensen’s character, Gabriel Knight, inspired later game designers to create similarly “tormented yet desirable antiheroes,” without providing evidence of this inspiration (p. 34). While Jensen’s impact is undeniable, it is somewhat misleading to declare some game developers as “auteurs,” since game development is inherently collaborative, requiring teams of writers, artists, programmers, and marketers to work together. On the other hand, there are undeniably influential individuals whose work formed the foundation of video games as we know them today. Miyamoto, Laurel, and Jensen are undoubtedly among those influential individuals, and a focus on Laurel and Jensen is particularly timely, given the erasure and harassment commonly faced by women within the games industry and technology sector, more broadly. Throughout the book, Salter reminds readers that women were heavily involved in video game development from the start, and that Jensen’s success was partially the result of the mentorship she received at Sierra from women such as Roberta Williams. Jane Jensen is, therefore, a useful resource for the study of women game developers throughout the history of the medium.
Although the focus of this book is on Jensen’s career rather than her technical game design process, Salter helpfully provides a few examples and images of Jensen’s scripting (p.4), the “string of pearls” narrative design approach (p. 19), and excerpts from her game design documents (p. 42, 85-88, 91, 115). This book therefore serves as a useful resource for those interested in game development. However, it is important to note that readers do not need to have a thorough understanding of game design or of adventure games to appreciate this book. It is accessible in its tone and language, free from unnecessary video game jargon. The appropriate audience for this book could therefore be scholars and students at any level. Overall, Salter’s book fits well within the series’ aim and scope and provides a remarkably thorough and accessible retrospective of Jane Jensen’s career, although it is somewhat bogged down by the need to cover so much ground, which leads to inevitable redundancies, and a final chapter that could easily be incorporated into the body of the narrative. It goes without saying that Salter’s book is an extremely useful resource for any scholar specifically interested in Jensen’s work and her considerable influence on the adventure game genre.
Audureau, William. 2012. “Miyamoto, la Wii U et le Secret de la Triforce.” GameKult. November 1, 2012. Accessed May 15, 2017. http://www.gamekult.com/actu/miyamoto-la-wii-u-et-le-secret-de-la-triforce-A105550.html
deWinter, Jennifer. 2015. Shigeru Miyamoto: Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Kocurek, Carly A. 2017. Brenda Laurel: Pioneering Games for Girls. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Peckham, Matt. 2016. “Next Link May Not Be a Girl, But He’s Androgynous by Design.” Time. June 15, 2016. Accessed May 15, 2017. http://time.com/4369537/female-link-zelda/
Salter, Anastasia. 2014. What is Your Quest? From Adventure Games to Interactive Books. University of Iowa Press.