Gray Matter

Raz Greenberg takes a look at the latest generation of adventure video games.

Though I can’t point to the specific date it happened, I clearly recall the time when I stopped being a gamer. It was toward the end of the 1990s, when Sierra On-Line stopped making adventure games, starting its slow decline and marking a general direction for the entire gaming industry. Adventure games went out of fashion, and I pretty much lost interest.

Adventure games, interactive narratives that cast the gamers as their protagonists, sending them on quests to explore virtual worlds and make their way to the end of the story (usually by talking to other characters and solving object-oriented puzzles), were a leading genre in computer entertainment from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. At the peak of the genre’s popularity, Sierra was to adventures in the gaming industry what MGM was to musicals in classic Hollywood. The company produced the most lavish games in the genre, ever pushing the technical envelope — moving it from text-based games to interactive graphic worlds to multimedia extravaganzas of Hollywood-style digital footage. The influence of the company’s productions goes beyond the adventure genre: many elements in today’s games were pioneered by Sierra’s designers — but that’s another story for another review.

Gray Matter - Jane Jensen

The last truly great series of adventures produced by Sierra was the Gabriel Knight series, following the exploits of a novelist-turned-supernatural-investigator. The atmospheric games in the series featured strong plots, sharp dialogues and memorable characters, gaining acclaim for their designer, Jane Jensen. The third and final Gabriel Knight game, a disappointing attempt to upgrade the series to the era of three-dimensional graphics, was also the last adventure game published by the company. Following Sierra’s demise Jensen wrote two novels (one of them Dante’s Equation, was nominated for a Philip K. Dick award), worked on several games aimed at the casual audience, and began putting together Gray Matter, a game advertised as her triumphant return to the adventure genre. Originally announced in 2003, the game suffered many delays and setbacks before it was finally released last November. And despite some technical issues and what I personally consider to be a big design flaw in the game’s final chapter, Gray Matter was certainly worth the wait.

At the beginning of the game, gamers are introduced to Sam, a young American stage-magician, as she makes her way to London on an English countryside during a particularly stormy night. When her motorcycle breaks down, she attempts to seek help in a nearby mansion, from which she witnesses another young girl running away in horror. The girl has identified herself as the new assistant sent from Oxford to the mansion’s owner, a certain “Doctor Styles”, but the place freaked her out so much, that she did not bother to even cross the entrance threshold. On a whim, Sam decides to take her place, present herself as Styles’ new assistant sent by the University, and bluff her way to a free meal and bed for the night.

This introduction, though well-presented in an atmospheric series of graphic novel-style images, starts with what some might consider as an old cliché — hasn’t Sam seen enough movies to know that seeking shelter in spooky places during a stormy night is a bad idea? Even if she hasn’t, learning that the place proudly bears a name like “Dread Hill House” or that its mysterious owner is a person whose face got horribly disfigured in a car accident that claimed his wife and earned him a freak reputation around the University should have been strong clues that she’s in for trouble. Thankfully, once the introduction is over, players discover that they are in for something entirely different. Gray Matter could be considered in some respects to be a horror-game, but it’s not about lurking monsters or psychopaths – the game aims more for a disturbing feeling rather than for simple scares.

Throughout most of the game, Sam is the main protagonist, and her tasks are divided between running errands for Styles and finding clues that will lead her to “The Daedalus Club”, an exclusive society of stage-magicians she wishes to join. Sam is a typical Jensen protagonist: basically a decent person, though not above cheating and playing tricks on other people to get what she wants. One of the more interesting aspects of playing Sam is using her knowledge of various magic-tricks for practical purposes, mostly getting people to collaborate with her (a problematic task, given her boss’ spotty reputation). While the performance of these tricks is not particularly challenging — it’s basically a matter of following a written set of orders from a guidebook that Sam carries with her — it makes a nice alternative to the “go fetch” puzzles that are used in many traditional adventure games. The search for the Daedalus Club, on the other hand, employs the more traditional genre conventions of collecting, manipulating and using objects to get clues that lead to the next location. This part of the game made me raise an eyebrow here and there — would someone really go through all the trouble of planting these clues all over Oxford, and given that most of them are not hidden very well, why didn’t anybody other than Sam follow them? — it also proved to be great fun to play.

In three of the game’s eight chapters, gamers will also play Styles, and here Jensen’s talent for storytelling really shines. The very nature of Styles’ narrative is unique: following the accident that ruined his personal and professional life, he has become obsessed with re-living the days leading to his wife’s death, and even tries to go beyond these days — to reach his dead wife, whose presence, he’s sure, still haunts his house. Most of the puzzles that gamers will have to solve as Styles are related to his research. Once more this involves some tedious tasks (especially in dealing with different kinds of machines), and again requires a certain suspension of disbelief (I strongly doubt any academic institute, much less Oxford University, would approve of either the premise of Style’s experiment or the methods he chose to perform it). However, playing as Styles, gamers will essentially be conducting a scientific experiment. In how many games did you get to do that lately? In addition, gamers will also be treated to a fascinating trip into Style’s tortured personality while playing him. Suddenly, he becomes a different person from the rude and impatient man they interacted with while playing Sam — scarred both physically and emotionally, filled with regrets and fears. Interestingly, though gamers will spend more time playing as Sam, they’ll finish the game knowing a lot more about Styles, and since the games hints that Sam also has her own troubled past, it’s a bit disappointing that Jensen chose to leave her character relatively underdeveloped. Perhaps we’ll learn more about Sam in a future sequel.

Sam and Styles’ plots are linked through a series of strange events that take place all over Oxford, bearing an eerie similarity to elements in Styles’ experiment. In a classic Mulder/Scully conflict, Styles is certain that these events are a proof of his thesis, while Sam, the trained illusionist, is certain that someone is pulling a “Grand Game” trick in an attempt to beat her to membership in the Daedalus club. This mystery adds another layer of complexity to the game’s story, even though its solution, which I won’t spoil here, is somewhat predictable.

The only major problem I’ve had with the game was its final chapter. The games ends well, with an exciting climax that leads to a strong conclusion, but in order to get to it, you have to take Sam through a large maze of rooms, guided by a series of vague clues. This is exactly the kind of puzzle that turned people off the adventure genre: a puzzle-for-puzzle’s sake, having absolutely no narrative purpose other than keeping gamers playing a little longer (to make matters worse, the puzzle’s payoff is being told you’ve done all the hard work of solving it for nothing, and then sent in a deus-ex-machina fashion to the above-mentioned climax). It’s a shame that Jensen chose to go in this distracting and frustrating direction towards the end of the game, bringing game-play to a halt many times when gamers will simply have no idea what they should do next. It really hurts the game’s narrative flow, which has been pretty strong up to this point.

With the exception of this maze puzzle, and some other minor issues (character and dialogue animation is sometimes sloppy, and there’s an annoying bug or two), Gray Matter is truly everything adventure games’ fans have been hoping for: maybe not a full comeback of their favorite genre, but certainly a comeback for one of its greatest designers, who made a fantastic work in both preserving what made its classic games work so well, and come up with some cool new takes on the its old formulas.

Gray Matter has been available through German retailers since November 2010; distribution of the game in English-speaking countries should be underway at the time of this writing.