gdc 2014

Moebius: Empire Rising

Examining History To Solve Mysteries
by Kimberley Wallace on Mar 28, 2014 at 08:21 AM
Publisher: Phoenix Online Publishing
Developer: Pinkerton Road
Release: 2014
Rating: Not rated
Platform: Android, iOS, Linux, Macintosh, PC

This year at GDC, I spoke with famed game designer Jane Jensen, best known for the Gabriel Knight series. Jensen was kind enough to demo her upcoming Kickstarter-funded game, Moebius: Empire Rising (a spiritual successor to Gabriel Knight) and discuss what gamers can expect from it.

For those unfamiliar with the project, Moebius: Empire Rising is a third-person point-and-click paranormal mystery game. You play as Malachi, an expert historian working with several auction houses to investigate if their antiques are the real deal. This takes him all over the globe, spotting contradictions and noticing when things are askew. You must analyze everything around you, including people. Maybe they will sport sweat on their forehead or hold a tight jaw, raising suspicions. Deductions about them must be made via multiple choice, lending different dialogue options. Make the correct inferences and you're rewarded with extra tidbits about the case. You also analyze plenty of artifacts; because Malachi has a photographic memory, you search it to compare what he's seen to what's in front of you. A hint system is also available in case you can't figure out your next move, and in the PC version I saw, pressing the spacebar reveals hotspots. 

Along the way, branching choice paths are present. In one scenario Jensen showed, you could end up at the job alone or even die depending on previous actions. The $400,000 budget restricted how often this could be done, but Jensen made sure to offer choices when they felt necessary for the story. "There are several places where it's really key to the story that the player makes the choice," Jensen said. "You know, 'I'm choosing to be with you.' 'I'm choosing to keep you around' or 'I'm choosing to be a loner.' There were just places where I felt it was just really critical to who Malachi was as a character and to his fate that he make those choices."

Malachi isn't a brainy ascetic, though, as he's not afraid to speak his mind. This makes for some interesting interactions as you just never know how far he'll push people by being so blunt. "He's an interesting character, but he does mellow more over the course of the game," Jensen said. "It's more fun to write extreme characters because normal characters are boring to write for and boring to play. I always like to have a main character that's pretty extreme in some way. I mean, Gabriel's a very extreme character and Malachi is definitely extreme. [He's] super intelligent and doesn't have patience with ordinary people and doesn't trust anyone, but he's kind of fascinating too in a way."

Although Malachi can be rather brash, you also have some dialogue options, where you can decide what type of attitude you want him to take during situations. "It's kind of fun because when you're talking to somebody there's usually dialogue choices to either try to be nice to them or just be really rude," Jensen said. "And of course, it's more fun to be rude, but you know, you're playing the game and you want to get somewhere, and usually if you're too rude, you have to end up apologizing to get what you want."

As the game progresses, Malachi forms a strong relationship with his security guard, David. The budding bromance between Malachi and David is something Jensen thinks will be a little different and exciting for those who know her work. "I think the historical puzzles and the complex mixing of reality, history, and fiction is what people would say makes [Moebius] one of my games," Jensen said. "I think what's different is the emphasis on the relationship [of Malachi and David]. It's kind of a romance in a way even though it's not. It's really a bromance, but in terms of actual plotting there's a lot of that kind of element to it."

It was obvious from certain scenes that something greater is going on than just Malachi investigating artifacts. He starts to experience strange symptoms such as panic attacks and nose bleeds, making me wonder if Malachi losing his grip on the past and the present. The mystery definitely adds a good layer of tension and intrigue and Jensen alluded to a deeper conspiracy going on when Malachi gets involved in a murder investigation.

Jensen is striving to balance out the puzzles and the narrative, especially for players who didn't grow up with her work or point-and-click adventures. "We tried not to make the puzzles super hard," Jensen said. "To me, what I want is for people to experience like a page turner where they keep playing through the next scene and next, and I don't want anything that's going to be a big roadblock in the middle of the path that makes them get frustrated, just give up, and walk away from it."

Jensen confirmed Moebius will have more puzzles than what gamers might expect from one of Telltale's recent games, but her goal is to strike a balance between gameplay and story. "It's definitely not an interactive movie," she said. "There's a lot of gameplay. The people we had test it recently from scratch that didn't know the game? It's taken them around 20 hours. It's a long game with a lot of play in it, but there are an awful lot of story moments."

I walked away from Moebius intrigued. The characters' interactions all play out naturally and I like how the gameplay intersects with its mystery thriller premise, letting me piece together shady occurrences. The cinematics are particularly noteworthy; you're not merely watching one static scene, it plays out in multiple camera angles with different focuses. Jensen might have the best of both worlds in this game, capturing enough of the nostalgic elements that made people fall in love with adventure games in the first place intertwined with accessible gameplay and an intriguing story.

Before I left my meeting with Jensen, I had to find out what's in the future for the Gabriel Knight series. After all, Moebius is a spiritual successor to it and fans have been pining for another Gabriel Knight game. Activision owns the rights to Gabriel Knight, but seeing Jensen and Activision team up for the upcoming remake Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers for the series' 20th anniversary looks encouraging. So, does this remake open up the door for a new Gabriel Knight? "Yeah, I hope so," Jensen said. "I hope that if we do a good job and the game is well-received that Activision will be open to letting us do a number four. We discussed it with them and they're like, 'Well, let's see how this does.'"