Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Beast in the Shadows

A mask I wore as I approached, I was what I am not.
And though the pattern was unclear, its meaning could be bought... 
"Sins of the Fathers"

I can't say that the cover is really attractive...

In Sins of the Fathers, author and bookshop owner Gabriel Knight learned about his heritage as the last in the line of Ritters and his destiny as a Schattenjäger, a shadow hunter who fights supernatural evil. After his first adventure, Gabriel moved to his ancestral home in Germany: Schloss Ritter, a castle overseeing the town of Rittersberg. A year later, a series of brutal murders around Munchen bring him out of the castle. While the news and police seem to think the murders are the work of a pair of escaped wolves, one witness to the murder of her daughter says it was a werewolf, which means that is work for the new Schattenjäger, even if Gabriel still hasn't gotten the hang of his new job as supernatural hunter yet. Several clues eventually lead Gabriel to an exclusive men's club, which seems to hold the key to the case. Meanwhile, Gabriel's shop owner Grace Nakimura (the Japanologist in me wants to correct the name to Nakamura!) has flown over from the US and is helping Gabriel out with historical research on werewolves, which has a surprising link with Ludwig II of Bavaria. The connection between the 'mad king' and the current murders is the main mystery of Jane Jensen's The Beast Within (1998).

The Gabriel Knight series is a beloved horror-mystery adventure game series that started out on the PC. The first game, Sins of the Fathers, was a wonderful mystery story with a Voodoo background and some supernatural elements. The novelization, which was released four year later and penned by the designer of the game herself, was a bit too close to the source material, I remarked two weeks ago. While the base story was still based on an excellent mix between fiction and history, the inclusion of pretty much all of the in-game puzzles in the narrative made Sins of the Fathers feel like a glorified walkthrough at times.

The sequel to the first game was released in 1995 with the title The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery. As shown above, it sported a completely different graphic style (real-life actors and full motion video instead of animated sprites) and has been met with varying opinions, mostly regarding the acting and the interactive elements of the game. Personally, I quite enjoyed the game (the first Gabriel Knight game I played actually) and the story in particular I find very memorable. This second game was also novelized by Jane Jensen in 1998, released under the same title.

The Gabriel Knight series has always featured supernatural elements in its universe: the concept of Schattenjäger is not just a title and you can be assured that at the end of the mystery, Gabriel isn't going to pull a werewolf mask of someone's face who grumbles he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for Gabriel's meddling. Yet the stories are also genuine mysteries and I absolutely love the story of The Beast Within. Gabriel's werewolf hunting starts with some 'normal' sleuthing, like you see in any detective story and there's nothing supernatural or unfair about that. But the story starts for great heights when Grace appears on the scene and attempts to find out more about werewolves and their link to Ludwig II. Sins of the Fathers was a good example of mixing good historical research with fiction, but The Beast Within surpasses even that story in that aspect. Gabriel and Grace's storylines slowly work towards an intersection, as they hunt for the werewolf in both present and past and the conclusion is a great spectacle. This is a great example of how to use historical research to present an entertaining mystery story.

I wrote a bit about literary detection in my review of Helen McCloy's Two-Thirds of a Ghost. Grace's storyline in particular is a great example of that. In the original game, this meant you had to listen for a long time to passages of documents being read by the actress, but reading the many documents on werewolves and Ludwig II yourself as a part of the narrative is much natural in the novel. It made me appreciate more how this was set-up, as many crucial clues are spread across the documents you read over the course of the story and work great a both hints and foreshadowing. Also, it's more streamlined than in the game, so no more hours of wandering in Schloss Neuschwanstein!

My biggest complaint about the novelization of Sins of the Fathers was that it was too faithful to the original game it was based on. All of the puzzles made its way in the narrative, which was unnatural. This is luckily resolved in the novelization of The Beast Within. This is partly because the original game featured fewer puzzles anyway. The game was filmed with real life actors and puzzles would just mean more filming. Instead, an emphasis was placed on literary detection, which as I pointed out above, works great for a novelization. But Jane Jensen was also wise enough to not include all of the few puzzles that do appear in the game. People who have played the original game may for example be relieved to hear that Gabriel doesn't buy a Cookoo clock to serve as the worst distraction ruse ever in the novel.

All in all, the novelization of The Beast Within is a great supernatural mystery with good historical resarch gone into it. It is also much more enjoyable as a book than Sins of the Fathers and feels much less like a novelization of a videogame (if at all). It is true that the original story was much more suited for novelization than Sins of the Fathers though. Anyway, a great substitute for those who don't want to play the game for whatever reason (too old, not into games), but still interested in its themes.

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