The Escapist Interview: Jane Jensen

For old-school adventure gamers, Jane Jensen needs no introduction. Her crafted gaming experiences rest indelibly on their minds: the fervent mouse-clicks leading them to discover forgotten Wagner operas about lycanthropy hidden in Castle Neuschwanstein, compose the holy geometry of Le Serpent Rouge in Rennes-le-Château or decode red brick scrawling on New Orleans tombs in order to communicate with voodoo magic men; clicks that lead them closer to, as she calls it, “the big picture.” The Escapist caught up with Jensen at a restaurant near her Seattle home to talk about her latest epic, currently titled Gray Matter, scheduled for release in 2008.


The Escapist: What kind of games did you play as a child?


Jane Jensen: I played alone a lot as a kid, because I was so much younger than all my siblings. I’ve always been into detailed patterns. My mom had a huge old box of quilt squares, and I would lay them out on our stairs and spend hours swapping them around into different arrangements. I would just make something up and then mix the pieces up and make something else. I’m really into details. To concentrate, I’ll do a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle – anything that gets me focused on detail, I’ll be into that. That’s one of the things I love about making games, is that it’s a complex, detailed process. It’s like computer programming: You write up a long list of commands, and every single thing has to be in the right place. Doing a computer game is like programming, except with fiction. You collect all these plot points and put them in the right places and create this complex matrix of story.

TE: You’ve brought language into your quilt pattern puzzles.

JJ: Almost every game I do is a mystery. I like them because a mystery is saying, “I know the whole picture. Now you tell me what it looks like.” You can imagine the background of what happened as a big picture. And then I take it apart into little pieces of information and decide when the player learns that little piece of information and how they learn it. You don’t want to find three cryptic notes with different information. You want to mix it up a little bit, build it all into a unique sequence.

TE: Do you ever imagine Grace and Gabriel trapped in a dusty closet in some Sierra On-Line warehouse, waiting for you to come and open the door?

JJ: No. I mean, I would love to do another story with them, but it’s really not the end of my life if I don’t. It’s been so long now.

TE: Are you forging a new bond with Samantha, the main character in Gray Matter?

JJ: I actually really like David, the other main character. He’s a very dark person, and he’s kinda screwed up and very interesting to write. I found when I was writing my books that it’s not usually the principal character that’s fun to write, because they tend to have to be the “straight man.” Gabriel was great because he had this really obnoxious sense of humor, but Samantha doesn’t have that. She’s not particularly funny. David’s more fun to write.

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TE: Does that mean he’ll be more fun to play?

JJ: I don’t really know. It’s going to depend on which types of puzzles you prefer. Just like Gabriel and Grace had different kinds of puzzles they would do, so will David and Sam.

TE: You divide the way you create puzzles based on the character you’re writing?

JJ: It’s more related to the plot. Gabriel was out there investigating and talking to people, so his puzzles tended to include exploring environments, discovering clues and dialogue, the discovery of the present story, whereas Grace was always a researcher on the back story of the game. All the puzzles are interwoven with what’s going on in the story, as opposed to games like Myst, where suddenly there’s this box in the middle of the room and it has nothing to do with anything other than it’s a puzzle. Ninety-five percent of the people who bought Myst never finished it. Did you ever finish it? I never finished it. It was just too freaking hard. I always wonder if Myst hurt adventure gaming – because it looked so incredible and it hit such a mass market thanks to that. People would play around with it, say, “Oh, that’s cool,” and then put it away because it was so hard. It probably didn’t make them want to play more adventure games.

TE: How do you feel about the multiplayer craze?


JJ: I don’t go to conferences often for this reason. I went to one, a storytelling/game designers conference in Boston, maybe four or five years ago, and at that time it was all about massively multiplayer games (MMOGs). You could divide down a line between the designers working on MMOGs, saying it was the way everything was going to be in the future, and then the rest of us, who were like, “We don’t really get it.” And now they’ve had a couple huge projects crash, like The Matrix Online, and lose millions. The problem is, and this is my curmudgeon surfacing, the creative industries in America are fucked. Film, books, TV, games, it’s all become about marketing. A committee of marketers will sit there and say, “What’s the last thing that did well? Do that.” And the MMOG thing was like that for a while, but then you have a $20 million project fail, and the marketers say, “It’s dead, it’s dead.” I never got into the MMOG thing because I even have trouble playing poker online. I don’t want to deal with some snotty 12-year old from Iowa. There’s only a certain percentage of people I like in the first place. It’s not like I’m going to go online to this false-reality world and find intelligent people.

TE: Do story-based games without an action core have a future?

JJ: At Sierra On-Line, after we did A Beast Within [a FMV game], we thought Hollywood would merge with games and movies would become interactive and you’d be in these virtual reality worlds where you’re a detective, etc. I still think that’s going to happen someday, but it may be 50 years from now. I think the future is VR.

TE: Wasn’t VR dead?

JJ: It’ll come back someday. Maybe they’ll start with something simple, like game shows where the contestants are only really there virtually. … I don’t know how, but if we get to a point where you can be in an environment to explore, then they’re going to need stories that go with that. That was always my vision of where adventure games would end up.

TE: But will players still interact with a story when they’re literally placed inside a virtual world?

JJ: I think so. People want to participate with a story. If you have a beautiful girl run up to your character and say, “Oh my God, he tried to kill me,” and then run off, most people are going to want to follow. People want to do what’s right; that’s just a part of our nature. And if people know or sense what they’re supposed to do, they’re going to go do it. Think about a scene where the bad guy chases you into an alley. There’s three doors and a trash can, and you can try and crawl in the trash can or go through one of the doors, and as a writer, you’d want to provide for as many of those options as possible. It’s always been my long-term vision to have a feature film that’s completely interactive where you’re the main character.

TE: So, in a few decades, that’s what we’ll be playing?

JJ: I don’t know, but on the shorter term I think there’s a lot of potential for adventure games to do well on the casual market. I’ve given up predicating any of that. You can’t overestimate the stupidity of the mass market. Anything that’s going to be popular will have to be really simple and really entertaining, and I’ll strive for that in the future. I don’t think it’s necessary to make things hard. With Beast, I wanted to engage people’s minds with questions that weren’t “How do I find the code to open the safe?” but “Why did he say that?” and “Who left that note there?” In other words, to be complex, without having to put hard puzzles in.

TE: But sometimes things that are simple for you end up being hard for others, right?


JJ: One of the things Oberon Media does is play testing, where we go in and watch people play behind two-way glass. And it’s amazing how long it takes people to get stuff. We had a jigsaw puzzle that was 12 pieces, so simple to put together, and people would spend 10 minutes on this thing! And they’d like it and feel rewarded when they were done, so it was a success, but … that’s what’s really hard about being a game designer: I want to make things a lot harder than they probably should be. I always have to rein myself back in, and we end up adding hints and adding hints. The point is, it has to be intuitive and fun for most people or you’ve failed.

TE: You co-founded Oberon Media, a casual game company, in 2003.

JJ: I just finished Death On The Nile for them. It’s a “seek and find” game, which are really big in the casual market. Basically, you have a scene, which is filled with objects, and you have a list of objects you’re looking for, like three red lamps, or a mouse. When you find the items you click on them, they vanish and that item is crossed off your list. When you find everything on the list, you solve the room. It’s really easy, but it’s also compelling. People of all ages, you know, 65-year-olds get totally engaged, looking for those red lamps.

TE: Do you have fun designing casual games?

JJ: It’s fun, and it’s easy. We’re talking dev cycles around three months, as opposed to 18 months or three years, and the amount of writing is minuscule compared to an adventure game. The design document is around 20 pages. And the casual market is good.

TE: Considering the market, would you rather focus on casual games?

JJ: Well, I’m not even getting royalties on the games. Of course, if the company ever goes public. … But yes, I could make a good living just doing those.

TE: What about using them as promotional tools for your opuses, like Gray Matter?

JJ: The idea is that eventually all this stuff would merge. The more these games sell, the bigger their budgets can be, and then we can put more and more story in them to the point where they are a full-length adventure game. Story games do well on the casual market because the audience tends to be older, and they tend to be more than half female. That’s a great demographic for adventure games: people who want to take the time to explore their environment, they don’t want to feel panicked or rushed. They’ll get engaged with the story.

Paul Rice is a freelance writer living in Seattle. He never solved one of Jensen’s games without dialing 1-900-370-5853 at least once. Contact: [email protected]

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