Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition (what a mouthful) was released on October 15, 2014. I actually did buy it soon after and started playing it, but exams and a move distracted me quite a bit. If you are not terribly familiar with the Gabriel Knight series, Sins of the Father was the first horror point and click adventure game produced by Sierra, debuting in December 1993. The game received a lot of praise for its gorgeous designs and its gripping story, penned by game designer Jane Jensen. As always, spoilers ahead!
The remake provides a 3D update to the game, as well as some cosmetic changes to the characters. Finally, Gabriel no longer reminds me of Conan!
The remake also added a few new puzzles and scenes, as well as new voice actors. Which was a bit of a bummer for me because I actually really enjoyed Tim Curry’s attempt at a New Orleans drawl. The new actor just does not chew the scenery in the same way. The game also includes behind the scenes extras with commentary, interviews and concept art from both the original game and the new remake. Each area you walk into has some extras you can read about. It certainly is an incentive to sit back and not rush to finish the game. Mechanically, other than a few new puzzles, there is not much difference in game play between this and the original, but it’s really nice to see the game in 3D and potentially gaining interest for a fourth Gabriel Knight game. My only grievance with the 3D graphics is that during conversations, when no one is talking, their heads bobble like helium balloons. Still, it is a fairly minor issue that I mostly stopped noticing as the game progressed.
I was first introduced to the original game five or six years ago by a roommate of mine, and I loved it. The story is full of suspense, the characters are utterly lovable, and it actually got me really interested in Voodoo, an interest that stayed with me when I went back to school and earned my Religious Studies degree. Going back to play it, knowing what I know now, made playing the remake a little more challenging.
Voodoo is a religion that was born from the slave trade, and is the result of syncretism between the Christianity of the slavers and West African Vodun. Voodoo in Louisiana is quite distinctive from Haitian Vodou, but when we talk about the representation of Voodoo in media, a lot of stereotypes apply to both. After the earthquake in Haiti, American Christian charities who went there to provide relief were accused of denying aid to Voodooists there, or used funds to try and convert them. American televangelist Pat Robertson said the earthquake was divine retribution for a pact with the devil made long ago. That pact probably came from the story that when slaves in Haiti rebelled and ousted the French from the island, they did so with the aid of loa (spirits), and from the white supremacist belief that there was no way black slaves could ever defeat white forces without demonic help. With or without the aid of loa, the success of the rebellion was a huge blow to France, and Haiti was swiftly punished. France ordered Haiti to pay 150 million francs (about 20 billion dollars today) for the loss of the slaves and property. Haiti was in no position to refuse, and it never managed to pay off that huge amount until 1947. That debt crushed Haiti economically and is partly to blame still for Haiti’s economic woes.
The media has never really been kind to Voodoo either. Until The Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies were essentially Voodoo horror films. White Zombie, credited as the first zombie film, features Bela Lugosi learning the art of turning people into zombies from a Haitian bokor. He uses this power to prey on a white woman, turning her into a zombie so she could serve his every whim. It’s a fairly common theme in these old zombie films; a white guy learns the zombie trick and preys primarily on white women, whom the heroic white hero has to rescue.
I’m laying this out because Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father does repeat a lot of anti-Voodoo tropes, and yet somehow still manages to be one of the most positive representations of Voodoo I have seen in media. I do not know exactly what Jensen’s process was, but I suspect that she started out making a more by-the-numbers Voodoo horror game, but then learned more about Voodoo and realized it’s actually really cool. But still stuck with the evil Voodoo cult trope anyway.
The game starts out with Gabriel investigating a series of Voodoo Murders, and he learns a lot about Voodoo through conversations with various New Orleans residents. While many of these dialogue options are not necessary to move on in the game, there is a part in the Fifth day where Gabriel is quizzed on his knowledge of loa, so to the game’s credit it really does encourage the player to pay close attention and learn.
My major issue with the depiction of Voodoo is that the game does not make any distinction between folklore about Voodoo and facts about Voodoo. For example, Gabriel learns of the term “cabrit san cor” and learns that it means “goat without horns,” and is a term for human sacrifice in Voodoo. Most Voodoo practitioners he meets are reluctant to talk about it, but most recognize the term. It is a university lecturer, Professor Hartridge, who finally translates it for him, and he never gives Gabriel an indication that human sacrifice in Voodoo is a myth or unsubstantiated. Finally, Gabriel proves that the Voodoo Murders are legitimate human sacrifices, not staged as the police had believed until now. They are the result of a shadowy Voodoo cartel, who controls much of New Orleans and sacrifices humans regularly. Of all the Voodooists you meet, if they are not a part of the evil cartel, they’re charlatans like the Dixieland Drugstore owner, or naive and powerless like Magentia Moonbeam.
According to Jeffery Anderson in The Voodoo Encyclopedia: Magic, Ritual and Religion, human sacrifice never really crossed the ocean:
Are humans sacrificed in Voodoo? The short answer is no, at least in the case of the New World. While human sacrifices were certainly part of the African religious ancestry of Vodou and Voodoo, history records only a few cases of the practice in Haiti. Many argue that there have been only one verifiable instance of the practice. Moreover, the broader Haitian Vodou community roundly condemned those who did so. There have been no verified cases of such sacrifices in Louisiana Voodoo. -(page 252)
Anderson suggests the fascination with “cabrit san cors” stems from stereotypes about West African religions practicing human sacrifice and cannibalism, and those stereotypes have been spread in pop culture from the time of the slave trade to the present. While it is true that human sacrifice has been practiced in West Africa, it is not a practice that was brought to the New World.
While Gabriel Knight learns that the veve involved in the sacrifices were of African origin, and travels to Benin to recover a family artifact stolen by the cartel, there is really no distinction made between Voodoo, Vodou and Vodun save in the trivia portions of conversation. The cartel celebrates St. John’s Eve, has connections in the Voodoo museum, and is even suggested to have been the true power behind Marie Laveau (who’s tomb is used as their message board). It is never presented as a long lost, secret African cult, but what Voodoo has always been about.
It is still impressive how much research Jensen must have done for this, and no easy task twenty years ago, before Internet research and when, to my understanding, there simply was not a wealth of academic research done on Voodoo. The level of accuracy is why I consider it one of the most positive representations of Voodoo. While it does take a turn down Harmful Stereotype Street, there is quite a large amount of authenticity that makes the story feel far more alive and real than your typical Voodoo horror flick.
All in all, I still love the game, misgivings aside. And I still really, really want to visit New Orleans and explore the landmarks featured in the game.