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.
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 (originally in Czech, 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 unsatisfying ending.
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).
Music and Graphics
The music was composed by Robert Holmes who also provided prominent soundtracks for the first two Gabriel Knight games. The music in Gray Matter is 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. I might have been imagining it, but if you notice, it is a bit of distraction.1
The pre-rendered backgrounds are very professionally done and have enough mood and character to them to avoid feeling sterile, which is often the case in other games. The 3D characters, especially in terms of full-body animations and facial expressions, leave room for improvements. Many actions would have benefited from additional one-off animations.
Density and Depth
The game suffers from ‘sparseness’ that contradicts its title. Yes, Jane Jensen said upfront 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 complexity reductions hit the hardest is the number of active items (hot spots) in individual locations and the number of possible actions (verbs).
Avoiding 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, is 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 (with an icon contextually changing). You do have to select the correct item from your inventory but the range of actions feels 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 a difficulty option to separate magic tricks and inventory items into two additional ‘verbs.’ This interface would be like Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (Circle of Blood).2
Still, the game has depth. On a scale from “bland story, generic environment, archetypal characters, no history” to “interesting story, specific setting, well-defined characters, detailed event background” I would place Gray Matter above most if not all adventure games 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 aimed for in Blood of the Sacred. On a story design level, I felt the player is 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.
The solutions are nicely hinted. For example, halfway into the game, there is a piece of conversation which you might recall when facing the very last puzzle. With the options being so sparse though, you do not really need a hint. Such subtle hints show Jensen has a good puzzle design ingrained in her work (despite some infamous exceptions), and even more can be said of her 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. Still, the ‘magic’ could have been more involving.3
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 worse. Gray Matter merits attention despite the oversimplified interface and somewhat 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. The development time of seven years for Gray Matter was too long. Personally, I would have like to see Jane Jensen games on a more frequent basis, even if the presentation was more sparse. After all, it is mostly about the story, the music and the atmosphere.
- One piano piece used for Dr Styles seems to reuse part of the melody of the title track to Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, and the climatic cut-scene recalls the music heard during end credits of Sins of the Fathers. ↩
- Three ‘verbs’ functioning on hot spots: ‘Look at;’ contextual action (take, move, open…); and using an inventory item. ↩
- For example, the player could be allowed to study and practice the tricks; but when performing them, the player would need to trigger the actions without the book visible and the luxury of pre-sequencing it. This would require more detailed in-game animations though. ↩