[18 December 2013]
It is an interesting proposition to go back to a creator’s earlier work, when it was still rough, when said creator was still learning the ropes as it were. HD re-releases allow players to look at that older work with a fresh set of eyes, not tainted by graphics that may not have stood the test of time. While not an HD re-release, still that is essentially what we have gotten with The Shivah, an updated re-release of Wadjet Eye Games founder Dave Gilbert’s first commercially released point-and-click adventure game. The art style, character portraits, and interface have all been redone to contemporary standards, but the fundamentals of a point-and-click adventure game—the story, the puzzles and the flow—have all been left intact.
This version certainly looks better than the original, but what is interesting is the direction Gilbert went with The Shivah. Originally, it was created for entry into a contest back in 2006 and in response to people saying about his previous games that there wasn’t much of a reason for his protagonists to go on their adventures (they were detectives and the fact that detectives investigate was about the extent of the game’s narrative justifications for its goals), but Gilbert went the extra mile with this one. And the effort shows. It is a detective story, but you aren’t playing any ordinary investigator. Instead you are playing as the rabbi of an impoverished Synagogue that is nearly empty of members. The story begins when he comes into money left to him by Jack Lauder, a former member of his congregation, who was recently murdered. It plays out like a boiler plate mystery, but it is the characters that matter.
In trying to provide a reason for his main character to be invested in the outcome of the adventure, Gilbert developed characters and gave the work depth that otherwise might have been missing, and as a result, we become invested in the investigation. Rabbi Stone is a grump, but he is also a man struggling with his faith and his duty to his people. He is firmly in the camp of maintaining old tradition, as he equates such tradition with the moral and the right way to live, but this commitment also leaves him strained when dealing with others. And then there are other characters that strive to work in the social and moral context of the new century that they find themselves in. Mrs. Lauder is a gem of personality, the bereaved widow still angry at Stone for his treatment of her and her husband and only just willing to hear him out. While he is the hero and ostensibly the hero of the piece, Stone isn’t without his own failings.
The Shivah is based on the tradition of the morality play. The major characters each represent their own philosophies, then circumstances immerse them in conflict. But unlike the original structure of the morality play, the game does not end with a simple, solid moral statement. One side isn’t automatically declared right for winning or the other wrong for the actions that they have taken. Rabbi Stone is the hero, but he, like the others, has his blind spots. And while the villain is pretty much irredeemable, he has his own point to make about the current situation of their faith.
This is not to say that the game is overly serious and dour. It retains a certain sense of dry humor about it. It manages to insert just enough sardonic comments to keep Stone and the others a relatable bunch. Just click “Rabbinical Response” as a dialogue option to see what I mean.
The game is relatively short, but that means there’s no fat to it. It’s a lean piece of well paced detective fiction that only focuses on the material plot points of the investigation. There aren’t any extraneous puzzles. Additionally, none of the puzzles are outright aggravating, and the solutions make sense in the context of the game’s world.
The Shivah is, however, a re-release of an early work, which means it isn’t going to be as polished as those made by those with a wealth of experience at their back. The game is certainly interesting from a design perspective and on a thematic level, but it is rough. The plot has some glaring problems, like why the police can’t figure out what an untrained rabbi can over the course of a single evening or how such an incompetent henchman could escape notice. So on and so forth. The game is entertaining enough that these problems don’t take focus away from the main action of the piece, but they hover in the background just the same. The writing wavers between superb and grade-B material, and the whole criminal plot is a little hokey to begin with.
Ultimately, I think interesting wins out over the roughness of the game’s execution, though. The Shivah features above average design and presentation. Plus, there are enough good character moments and meaningful drama to keep the problems the game exhibits at bay. It isn’t a game that I think anyone should rush out to play, but you could do a lot worse, as the game is an interesting point-and-click adventure game tackling themes usually avoided by games. The talent that would go on to bring us a catalog of wonderful game shows itself repeatedly over the course of playing it.