The city of New Orleans is terrorized by a rash of voodoo-style serial murders and Gabriel Knight, a local mystery writer, plans to spin the tragedy into a profitable new book. What he discovers during his investigation, however, is far more terrifying - and far more personal - than he ever expected. The gruesome killings have been committed by a supernatural cult that just happens to be led by Gabriel's demon-possessed lover. Worse, his hidden destiny - a previously unknown fate determined thousands of years ago by the choices of his ancestors - is to hunt and destroy all the evil of the world, which now includes her.
Why it’s the Best:
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is not suitable for children. In fact, this is one of the only games in the history of our hobby that is truly, and unequivocally, designed for adults. The themes are dark. The characters are haunted. The storytelling is pierced with violence from beginning (when Gabriel dreams of corpses hanging in trees) to end (when a key character rips their own beating heart out).
Blood and guts, however, are a staple of juvenile entertainment. What lifts Sins of the Fathers to a higher level is the maturity of the storytelling. Take the protagonist. Gabriel is a flawed and complicated man who was written to feel real, not to sell action figures. He drinks. He smokes. He womanizes. He's a sometimes lazy, often irresponsible ne'er-do-well that mocks his best friend, toys with the infatuation of his female assistant and forgets to visit his grandmother. His slow and reluctant transformation into a Schattenjager, or "shadow hunter," is not a tale of comic book cliches, but of a man realizing his potential and finally seeing beyond his own needs.
The game also features heavy doses of history and romance - two more elements sure to scare away the kiddies. There's a love quadrangle that plays out too subtly, honestly and tragically to be annoying. And Gabriel's journey is so intrinsically woven with the past of New Orleans that, by game's end, you'll feel as if you grew up in the place.
Sins of the Fathers features murder, suicide, torture and mutilation, but the horror is not played for shock value alone - it is the gateway to a deeply significant, fiercely intelligent mystery that spans continents, merges fact and fiction, blends dreams and reality and confronts both love and death. The next time someone complains that gaming is for youngsters only, introduce them to Gabriel Knight.
Above: The intro to Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers.
"How much sin do you have to burn?"
In the 1940s, driven by a need to escape societal, political and religious authority, the entrepreneur Andrew Ryan built a utopian metropolis under the sea and invited like-minded citizens to join him there. In the end, however, he gave his community too much freedom. Rampant commercialism led to crime, class systems and eventually civil war. Unchecked scientific experimentation led to a decimated population of genetic freaks, corpse-harvesting little girls and brainwashed super cyborgs. By 1960, although the city of Rapture is in abandoned ruins, four powerful personalities are still vying for control: Ryan, the founder; Atlas, the opposition leader; Fontaine, the supposedly dead mafia lord; and Tennenbaum, the doctor responsible for many of the people's mutations.
Why it’s the Best:
Ryan, Atlas, Fontaine and Tennenbaum are remarkably academic characters for a videogame; their psychologies and philosophies manage to reference everything from Ayn Rand and George Orwell to Walt Disney and Keyser Soze. One could teach a graduate class on the various influences and archetypes at play in BioShock. There is seriously heady, mind-warping stuff here.
What is brilliant about the story, though, is that these four dominant forces are not the most memorable or important characters. Despite appearing on dozens of billboards and blabbering away in dozens of radio messages, they are completely eclipsed by the real stars of BioShock... stars who are almost impossible to put a face to.
The first is Rapture itself. The city is so fully realized and so dense with detail that it becomes not only a unique personality, but also a narrator of its own sad tale. You don’t need anyone to tell you what has happened here... the environment speaks silent volumes. Garish and extravagant entertainment districts now flooded with dirty water. Posters that advertise genetic upgrades as if they were fashionable new hats. Majestic and living trees trapped in man-made glass tubes. You know exactly what to expect from the crazy surgeon at the end of the first level because you've already seen his bloody handiwork splattered all over the walls. You suspect Atlas before he betrays you because of the visual foreshadowing his creepy pamphlets provide.
The second star is... you, the game's protagonist. What's so surprising about that? Mute, unseen heroes are a dime a dozen, especially in first person shooters. Their transparency allows players to believe that they are the real heroes. The formula is tried, true and familiar.
But BioShock flips that equation upside down, and then shakes it around until it feels nauseous. As soon as you've placed yourself comfortably inside the hero's shoes, the game reveals a disturbing twist - you are no generic Everyman. You are a mentally programmed errand boy, specifically created and trained to do whatever your evil master demands, including murder. And when you, the player, try to distance yourself from this squirm-inducing new back story, you can't... because, minus the "evil" part, how is that description any different than what you do in all first person shooters?
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