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Gray Matter

After eleven years, there is a new adventure game by Jane Jensen who is best known for her Gabriel Knight Mystery series. Once again, the story is grounded in real locations and weaves facts with supernatural occurrences. The protagonists are obviously new – Sam, a street magician, and Dr Styles, a neurobiologist – and the chapters alternate between them just as we saw in Jensen’s two last full games.

A painting from Gray Matter

Sam is after an illusive Deadulus Club for magicians while Dr Styles goes to extremes to prevent his memories from ever fading

Comparisons to Gabriel Knight are inevitable, and invariably inaccurate: I was sixteen when Jane’s first title, Sins of the Fathers, came out. Replaying that game is more like reliving the memories so it is hard to see whether I would be somewhat less captivated if it came out today.

The game that Gray Matter often reminded me of was Black Mirror (Posel smrti). Probably because both feature a brooding male protagonist living in an old house in England with a servant. Fortunately, here the comparison ends since Jensen’s work does not suffer from a bland, generic story or bad ending.

Presentation

Jensen never repeated the same technical presentation. Her three previous adventures were hand-painted 2D, full motion video and full 3D. This time, we have 3D models over pre-rendered backgrounds which has been a popular choice for the declining adventure genre.

Gray Matter does not reach the heights of art direction set by Benoît Sokal in Syberia but it is also nowhere near as tedious thanks to its sensible game design. (Syberia kept me going on the strength of seeing breathtaking scenes alone which is nice but insufficient.) The cut-scenes are not pre-rendered 3D scenes as would be expected but sparsely animated sketches that resemble a storyboard pre-viz. I did not mind this but wondered what the game would look like if it was all hand-drawn 2D.

Gray Matter is a very linear story. This is fine – it is just the way Jensen’s stories work – unless you come with expectations of any true branching à la Westwood’s Blade Runner, or a clever illusion of constant choices (which was seen in David Cage’s Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy, and later expanded in his Heavy Rain).

A photograph of Carfax Tower compared to the in-game rendering

Reality vs. the game (photo by euratlas.com)

Music and Graphics

The first two Gabriel Knight games (also scored by Robert Holmes) had very prominent soundtracks. The music in Gray Matter is much less noticeable (except for the pieces with vocals), and overall feels appropriate and atmospheric.

One or two themes are rather close to the Gabriel Knight music and would be better suited if they were left for a potential sequel to those games. If you notice, it is a distraction rather than an enhancement. One piano piece used for Dr Styles reuses part of the melody of the title track to Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, and the climatic cut-scene recalls the theme heard during end credits of Sins of the Fathers.

The pre-rendered backgrounds are very professional and have enough mood and character to them to avoid feeling sterile. The 3D characters, especially in terms of full-body animations and facial expressions, leave room for improvements.

Density and Depth

The game suffers from ‘sparseness’ that contradicts its title. Yes, Jane Jensen said Gray Matter was going to be aimed at a more mainstream audience, and I agree that making things digestible and playable is a good idea. But the game – mainly in the later parts – is not as easy as it seems. Where the reductions hit the hardest are the number of active items (hot spots) in individual locations and the number of possible actions (verbs).

Gray Matter vs. Sins of the Fathers

A comparison to Jensen’s first solo game, and arguably her best effort (and not because of its difficulty), is revealing:

  • While Sins of the Fathers has no indication of hot spots, Gray Matter names them on mouse movement and allows revealing all of them with a key press.
  • Discounting movement, Sins has eight verbs (talk, operate, take, use object…); Gray Matter only one.
  • The number of hot spots went from ten to eighteen per location in Sins to usually three to six in Gray Matter.

Sacrificing a deeply implemented environment means that the number of conceivable actions in Gray Matter at any given moment is about four. In Sins of the Fathers, this was around fifty, and there were interesting responses even for unlikely verb-object combinations.

Gray Matter compresses examining and operating objects, performing magic tricks and using inventory items all into a single action (showing contextually what it is going to be). Granted, you still have to select the correct item from your inventory but the experience feels even more restricted than Jensen’s ‘full motion video’-based The Beast Within (which stands as the best FMV game to date).

There should have been at least an option to turn the magic tricks and inventory items into separate ‘verbs.’ This interface would be like Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (Circle of Blood) with three ‘verbs’ on hot spots: look at, contextual action (take, move, open…), and using an inventory item (including the book of tricks).

Still, the game has depth. Imagine a scale starting with a bland story in a generic setting with archetypal characters and no history, which would extend to specific settings, well defined characters and events with deep background. On such a scale, Gray Matter beats everything I have seen in many years, while at the same time any Gabriel Knight game would score even higher.

Story and Puzzles

Gray Matter does not match the Agatha Christie-like sophistication that Jensen displayed in Blood of the Sacred. On a story design level, I felt the player is easily too much ahead in figuring out who the real culprit is. The problem isn’t that the protagonist maintains her own theory about what’s going on (which the player will consider almost certainly wrong). This player-protagonist tension is actually good. But the player should not guess all the answers too soon, and the protagonist should not stay too much behind.

Jensen did a great job with the puzzles (a hallmark of adventure games). She elegantly combines elements of leisure games (finding hidden clues, crossing out things on a list) with interactions with a close group of characters, and includes puzzles which form a larger, overarching problem.

Small Complaints

Given how much the game discloses everything you can do, it is surprising there is no indication of when you can walk to an edge to scroll the screen and discover more. In one instance, the layout does not even hint at an existence of another exit.

At one point, I wanted to perform a trick with a knife but I was told that trick was not the right one. It actually was but the game wanted me to perform a preparatory trick first.

The color-coding of locations with remaining actions works well but you might be still forced to retrace your steps if you omit to do something the game considers as required.

And I wish Sam in 3D would look more like a young woman, and less like Lara Croft. This is especially disappointing in a game coming from Jane.

The solutions are nicely hinted. For example, maybe halfway into the game, there is a piece of conversation which you might recall when facing the very last puzzle. With the environment and options being so sparse though, you don’t really need a hint. Such subtle hints just show Jensen has a good puzzle design ingrained in her work, and the same goes for memorable characters and building of suspense.

The magic tricks are a great device, and I was amazed by the inventiveness and number of tricks that were nicely integrated into the story. Was the mechanism a bit too simple? Yes. But splicing a recording of Dr Klingmann or scribbling a free-form coded message on a tomb in her previous games went too far in the other direction.

One suggestion how the ‘magic’ could have been more involving: Allow the player to study and practice the tricks; but when performing them, the player would trigger the actions (on a split screen) without the book visible and the luxury of pre-sequencing it. This would require the in-game animations to be done more thoroughly though.

Verdict

If it seems I complained a lot, bear in mind that this was a critique. Syberia, Black Mirror, A Vampyre Story and many other games would fare far worse. Gray Matter merits attention despite the oversimplified interface and underwhelming production values.

If a large publisher makes a smart move and puts a sizable budget into the production and distribution of the next Jane Jensen’s work, we could see something truly special. As things are, Jane could have authored Gray Matter as an interactive fiction in Inform 7 with minimal costs, the development time of seven months instead of seven years and we would still get most of what is great about it, including the music.

1 Comment »

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Meche, December 27, 2010:

Not read this article yet as I’m at the beginning of chapter 1 and I try to avoid spoilers but I believe the review is positive. Now I enjoy every second of Jane Jensen’s adventure and I only hope the game will be a success so that she can continue developing the story as she promised in one of her interviews.

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