Interview: Cognition’s Jane Jensen solves the puzzle of adventure games

Jane Jensen helped spearhead adventure games with titles like Police Quest, Kings Quest, and Gabriel Knight. She knows the genre better than most.

Jensen designed her early titles for Sierra On-Line, founded casual games company Oberon Media in 2003, and briefly worked at Zynga. In April, she launched a successful Kickstarter for her new studio, Pinkerton Road, and its upcoming game Moebius. (Its first game, Lola and Lucy's Big Adventure, is available in the App Store.)

Working independently is the first step in the luminary’s future, but she doesn’t operate in a bubble. She recently served as story consultant on the new series Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller (read our review of Episode 1), which also found an audience through Kickstarter. We spoke with Jensen about the genre’s history and future, how she contributed to Cognition, and what role PC and other platforms and services (including mobile, Kickstarter, and Steam) have to play in its resurgence.

GameZone: You’ve been a big force in the adventure and casual game genres. And those are both doing well, or in the case of adventure games, starting to come back. There’s been a lot of attention to these types on Kickstarter as well. What’s special to you about the genre, and why do you think it’s experiencing a bit of resurgence now?

Jane Jensen: Adventure games are focused on story, characters, and puzzles and exploring a world in your own time rather than being a trigger fest. That sort of game was eclipsed for a lot of years by action shooters, but now I think the growth of the casual game industry has brought some people into gaming — women and older gamers — who want that more exploratory experience. Also, I think, I hope, that the industry as a whole is interested in more variety again instead of the same type of game over and over.

GameZone: Tell us about Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. What’s it about, what’s it like, and what makes it worth playing?

Jensen: The story is a serial killers/cops mystery, very intense and dark. It has a real old-fashioned adventure game feel to it. There are quite a few plot twists, and the puzzles are good. It’s gotten a really positive response from adventure gamers. If you like drama and puzzles, you’ll like Cognition.

Cognition Ep 1

GameZone: The first episode is out now, and you acted as a story consultant on that for Phoenix Online Studios, which is also helping you with Moebius. What sort of guidance did you lend the developers? What did your role there involve?

Jensen: My role as story consultant was mainly in helping the designers there, Cesar [Bittar] and Katie, brainstorm plot ideas and then reviewing the design docs and offering suggestions. Basically, mentoring.

GameZone: What were your and Phoenix Online’s goals when making Cognition in particular, and do you feel you’ve accomplished them? What kind of challenges were there?

Jensen: I can’t speak for Cesar and Katie, but my goal as a story consultant was just to help the story and design be as good as possible. The challenge with a story like this is not to have it be unrelentingly dark — you need to have good, positive energy to balance out the scary/dark parts of the story. So I tried to help them inject that and bring some lightness to it. Another challenge is to not broadcast the plot twists, which I think was accomplished.

GameZone: You’ve worked on adventure games since the early ’90s. How have adventure games evolved since then, and what hasn’t really changed?

Jensen: What hasn’t changed is the core of the adventure game, which is story and puzzles and that feeling of being immersed in a cool world. But [gamers] have shorter attention spans now, so some of the more obscure puzzles and sort of rambling backstory in dialogue doesn’t work anymore. It needs to be snappy and dramatic.

Cognition Ep 1 - 2

GameZone: Looking at technology today compared to decades ago, how is the process of making adventure games different? What obstacles have been removed, and what’s available to you now that makes the job easier?

Jensen: Well, Sierra had excellent tools for making adventure games. But Phoenix Online works with Unity and with their own tools that they’ve built around that, and that whole engine makes things like setting cameras and lighting really easy and intuitive. That enables us to tell a better story and focus on content rather than technology.

GameZone: What kind of future do you see for this genre, and what’s key to making sure there’s a place for it?

Jensen: I wish I had that crystal ball! I do believe there’s a future for adventure games, particularly on tablets. It’s a matter of trying to capture some of the book-reading market, which tablets have really grabbed in a big way. That’s a perfect audience for games like Gabriel Knight, Cognition, or Moebius. My goal is just to put quality production out there.

GameZone: What did you learn from your experience with the Pinkerton Road Kickstarter? Has any of the feedback from that community helped you in a way you didn’t expect?

Jensen: Our Kickstarter brought us back into direct contact with adventure game fans. And yes, it’s been helpful to be reminded about what they really like and don’t like. That has an influence on design for sure. We’re trying to bring back some of the classic elements, like being able to click on anything and get a fun response, or some of the types of puzzles people miss while still staying contemporary and updated.

Moebius Pinkerton Road

GameZone: Were the reactions from backers and the larger gaming industry what you thought they would be? Are more people embracing adventure games with an open mind, or is this still niche?

Jensen: I really didn’t know what to expect, but yes, I think the response to the adventure game related Kickstarter campaigns has been very positive and shows that people are interested in these kinds of games.

GameZone: Do Kickstarter and services like Steam provide a big push when it comes to promoting and supporting adventure games? What kind of difference is it making to the genre, with the added visibility?

Jensen: I think that remains to be seen once some of these games actually hit the market.

GameZone: Does releasing games in episodic format and by season passes help push interest and sales in adventure games today, instead of as one big release?

Jensen: I’m not sure if or how it helps interest and sales — certainly there is an opportunity to be in the press for a longer period of time as you release new episodes. But it definitely helps developers/publishers because you can start bringing in revenue that can help fund the later episodes. And therefore, you can do a bigger game than you have initial funding for — which is quite nice!

GameZone: If you had to recommend some adventure games to people who are hesitant to try them or have had a bad experience, which ones would you suggest — both new and old, and apart from the ones you’ve worked on?

Jensen: Telltale’s Hector and Puzzle Agent, The Walking Dead, [and] Indigo Prophecy.

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