[25 March 2011]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Foreboding looking country manor? Check. Vulnerable, but feisty, young female outsider? Check. Emotionally scarred, embittered, older widower on hand to employ said young female? Check.
While it may sound like I am making a checklist of plot points for Jane Eyre (or any number of other 19th century Gothic romances), nope, I’m talking about recently released adventure game, Gray Matter.
Much of Gray Matter‘s approach is decidedly retro, though not all of that retro spirit hearkens back to storytelling from a couple of centuries ago. Instead, Gray Matter contemporizes not only the tradition of the Gothic novel (with archetypes like isolated, mad scientist translated into isolated, unconventional neurobiologist and vulnerable female outsider translated into, well, “Goth” girl), but it also attempts to bring that hoary genre of gaming, the point and click adventure, into the 21st century.
Both efforts meet with mixed results here.
Jane Jensen is the designer of the well regarded Gabriel Knight series of games, though that series’ last entry, Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, was released back in 1999. Known for her good writing (indeed, one of her novels was nominated for a Philip K. Dick award in 2003), Jensen’s return to the world of gaming should be met in some quarters with some potential delight.
And admittedly, Gray Matter has a well structured plot with a reasonably well developed heroine and anti-hero (the aforementioned young female outsider, Samantha Everett, and neurobiologist turned paranormal investigator, David Styles) and a fairly robust supporting cast. Also, the concept of modernizing a familiar storytelling genre, the Gothic romance, is not necessarily a bad thing (though not especially unique in the era of Twilight ascendancy). That being said, at times it is difficult when playing Gray Matter to determine if you’re playing an interactive version of Jane Eyre or simply an interactive Harlequin romance novel.
While certainly the latter is in itself simply a more sentimental, frequently sexed up (less so in the case of Gray Matter), and generally inferior version of the better examples from the tradition of Gothic romance practiced by folks like the Brontes, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker, one would hope that Jensen’s efforts at this style of romance would result in work more like the great Gothic romance writers and less like the aforementioned Harlequin stable of writers.
This sometimes is the case, especially in the appealingly weirder moments towards the close of the game when the masculinely nicknamed protagonist Sam (perhaps, in an effort to suggest less vulnerability than the usually “frailly feminine” protagonists of Gothic tales?) encounters and explores the weird environs of the Daedalus Club, an exclusive and secretive underground of professional magicians. However, the game’s initial development of Sam and especially her gruff, but sexy (in the manner that only a youngish (but experienced) haunted, grieving, embittered widower can be) employer, David Styles.
Styles survived an auto accident that took the life of his wife Laura and left him sufficiently scarred it seems, not only in his heart, but also on his body. Thus, necessitating his employment of a Phantom-of-the-Opera-style mask while out in public (a rare enough occurrence given the necessity for a man in such circumstance to spend much of his waking hours employed only in lonely brooding) or while interacting with the few live-in employees that he keeps around the house to assist him, his housekeeper and more recently his newly employed assistant Sam.
Sam is herself an orphan (of course) who through a case of mistaken identity has wandered into the tragic Styles household, which is a home that seemingly is quite literally being haunted by past events. David is—when not brooding—engaged in neurological experiments in his creepy underground lab in hopes of contacting the spirit of his wife through “scientific” means. These experiments necessarily require the use of some human guinea pigs from nearby Oxford, a group of students around Sam’s age who will fill out the cast and provide some initial layers of intrigue and potential betrayal in the larger plot.
The game itself is largely dominated by exploring the overly romantically named Dread Hill House as Sam and attempting to resolve the mystery of Laura’s haunting of David alongside the investigation of some other seemingly supernatural phenomena that is possibly being catalyzed by David’s experiments. All of this probably sounds deliciously twisted as well as a little bit overheated—which is true on both counts.
As the chapters of the story progress, the player also sometimes occupies the role of David, and it is especially in these chapters when the game grows especially sappy, sometimes tiresomely so and sometimes hilariously so. Exploring the house as David through a pretty typical point-and-click interface—clicking on something in the environment that causes David to muse aloud about its significance for the sake of filling in background for the player—results in some pretty heavy handed material. Everything in Dread Hill House reminds David of his dead wife, Laura, and when you click on your thirtieth household knickknack or piece of furniture or bathroom fixture and hear David breathily sigh about how Laura loved that particular choice of dishware or how she always used to sit by the window in that chair in the morning and brush her lovely blonde hair or how she adored taking bubble baths, the game lapses into uninteded self-parody.
Likewise, the player is frequently tasked, as David, with tracking down items that will provide “sensory data” to rebuild memories when David enters a sensory deprivation chamber to try to focus on Laura’s essence to hopefully summon her back into existence. Collecting these fragments of memory leads to some groan inducing cutscenes involving past recollections of midnight swims with Laura in the dark as David smells the shampoo in her hair. It’s all very, very breathless in tone and lapses into pure camp through its terribly extended quality, an extension facilitated by the mechanics of the point-and-click and its slow, exploratory approach to unfolding plot.
Which isn’t to say that the gameplay itself is terrible, just very familiar to anyone who played games in the genre during the ‘90s. There is nothing especially fresh in Gray Matter‘s approach. There is some nod at providing some ability to explore the game in a nonlinear fashion, since there are usually several subplots running through a chapter that can sometimes be explored in an order determined by the player. However, due to the necessity of the centrality of plot to these sorts of games, locking the player out of certain game locations until a certain set of actions has been completed is still the norm as the plot must adhere to a basic script. There isn’t the kind of hub-style advances in the genre that something like the more recent iterations of Sam & Max have attempted in order to enliven the drama of the point-and-click.
All in all, Gray Matter is a fairly typical example of the genre, especially of the genre as it was being presented to the public during the latter decade of the 20th century. It has a sometimes promising plotline that does more than occasionally devolve into mushy, sentimental, and even embarrassing camp, which can be enjoyed on some less than noble level (I actually did have to call my wife and 16-year-old daughter in to endure a full chapter of David’s moody reminiscences about Laura, and we had a great time giggling over it).
The final chapter, in particular, is more interesting in its kind of surreal quality (a few moments even have the vague feel of a David Lynch film as the result of some of the weirder parts of the Daedalus Club and its culture being underscored by softly played jazz riffs), and this section includes considerably more challenging puzzles than the pretty much by-the-numbers progression of the early chapters (click and learn this, click and learn that, and . . . time for a cutscene). However, don’t expect the best of a return to form of the best of 1990s-style point-and-click adventuring and storytelling (this is no Longest Journey, for example, not even close) or even the best of 1840s-style moody, doomed romance.