Gray Matter rediscovers the magic of adventure gaming's gold era
Adventure games are deceptively difficult to create. What first appears as a simple series of environments laden with hotspots and easily scripted "Item A used on Item B creates Path Z" instances would seem to put the genre amongst the easiest for coding neophytes to put together; a truth not unsupported by the fact that there have been plenty of Indie point & clicks over the years, thanks in part to very approachable freeware development tools like Adventure Game Studio. However, the most essential aspect to consider when creating a riveting adventure game is that of any sort of narrative fiction: Some damn good writing. Characterization and plot are more essential here as they've ever been in the wider universe of games; this becomes a problem when you consider that they're two elements to which the medium is often notoriously tone-deaf, as much as we'd love to believe otherwise.
So when I sing the praises of Gray Matter, I want the reader of this review to understand that I don't do so because of the gameplay. Though in adventure game terms, it's mechanically as capable as any of its peers from getting you from puzzle to puzzle (though with some odd design decisions I'll probe into a little later on), it's really the quality and the emphasis on the storytelling that makes the game. And as a long time proponent of the genre, I'll take an expertly told story over a superficial arcade mini-game or silly gimmick any day.
Gray Matter is a 2011 adventure game penned by industry veteran Jane Jensen, she of the Gabriel Knight franchise (among others). Like the Gabriel Knight games, Gray Matter is a gothic-romantic tale with a supernatural angle. It has a feisty and independent heroine (with just a touch of vulnerability) and a darkly brooding hero. It has an emphasis on beautifully rendered settings in a suitably moody environ, in this case the picturesque and almost fairy-book (helped in part by how strongly it influenced Alice in Wonderland and the Harry Potter novels, among others) South England University town of Oxford. I don't mean to compare the two series to be reductive - narrowing Jensen's vision to a "type" - but rather to emphasize that she recognizes her strengths and her interests and projects them through her work. Vitally, it also means that if you enjoyed the Gabriel Knight games it becomes very easy to recommend this game based on its similarity to that vaunted series. Hey, it's like half the work's done for me.
To synopsize this game's story, since it is rather central to the experience, a young female street performer named Sam Everett (think Longest Journey's April Ryan by way of NCIS's Abby Sciuto) is stranded near a reclusive professor's mansion on her way to London. Thinking fast, she poses as the new assistant that the professor, David Styles, had requested from the nearby colleges of Oxford in order to have a place to stay for the night. While attempting to hold onto her new position and conceal her duplicity, she's drawn into a larger conspiracy involving: The good professor; his bereavement over his wife; a neurological experiment taking place in his basement; the group of students she puts together for the experiment through various cons; the various other students and contemporaries around Oxford that might have a grudge against Styles as well as her own goal of becoming accepted into an exclusive circle of magicians known as the Daedalus Club. The game splits its time between Sam and Dr Styles, each pursuing separate short-term goals under wildly different perceptions about the larger case: Sam wishes to reveal the various supernatural activities that appear to be the result of the experiment as the fraudulent magician's pranks they seem to be while Styles, largely influenced by his own grief, maintains that there is some sort of ESP-based preternatural element behind the incidents possibly involving the spirit of his dead spouse.
It's an interesting take on the dual protagonist role, one I last saw in David Cage's Fahrenheit, where the two have profoundly different takes on the world and will even often work contrary to each other's interests, albeit unknowingly. Sam has plenty to say about the gothic architecture of the rather pointedly-named Dread Hill House in which she, David and the housekeeper Mrs Dalton reside - David, meanwhile, has little to offer about his house in his soliloquies beyond how much everything reminds him of his deceased wife in some way. Indeed, David's chapters in the games are full of the sort of exquisite romantic melancholy that appear to permeate female literature, as each of his chapters deals with trying to reconnect with specific memories he spent in his wife's embrace in order to channel her spirit. I hesitate to say that the story was written in women in mind, due to all sorts of negative backlash involving chauvinism that might be rightfully levelled my way in response, but I feel it's important whenever a game goes out of its way to cultivate a female audience: There are so few examples in this medium that bother to do so, without being universally accessible iOS/Facebook games or frankly condescending pre-teen make-up simulators.
Sam's chapters, conversely, are a little more approachable by a logical male audience. Occasionally, Sam will need to grift an uncooperative NPC into helping her out or conceding to her point of view. This is done by purchasing provisions at the local magic shop (don't worry, there's no money value to monitor) and finding the appropriate trick in her book of cantrips and following it to the letter in a mini-game where you closely mirror the trick's necessary gestures and sleights of hand. Occasionally this'll involve such classic standbys as an easily rigged card game, a trick where you appear to destroy something of value in order to surreptitiously borrow it and the applications of props like remote-controlled noisemakers and fake bloody thumbs. I always enjoy this sort of meta-puzzle, especially when you end up using the same set-ups in creatively different ways. I think back to games like Jolly Rover with its voodoo or Death Gate with its magic spells: It's an array of puzzle-solving abilities that pass beyond the dull "use Item A on Item B" set-up I mentioned at the start of the review that has the added benefit of also nurturing the idea that the protagonist has a unique talent that can and ought to be utilized, rather than being some likeable chump who just so happens to be at the beck and call of the player. Rincewind had his magic, Indiana Jones could throw down when he needed to and even Guybrush Threepwood could hold his breath for ten minutes. It's that sort of extra layer that can make adventure game protagonists feel more like the special heroes they are.
If I have any issues with this game, it's with the dressing around the story. Wizarbox is a French developer with a few games under their belt, but is a relatively small studio that cannot easily create the very expensive 3D adventure games of Gray Matter's sort that were in vogue shortly before the adventure game genre took the hiatus it did. In many respects the game is still beautiful, notably its 2D rendered backgrounds and the still image cutscenes that have an ethereal sketch-like quality to them. However, the actual 3D models used to represent the characters outside of cutscenes are very plain and underwhelming. The game is directed by a strange 16-point radial dial that will load in all the nearby hotspots on each of the points, so examining or manipulating the environment is as simple as holding a trigger button down and rolling around the dial until you find the hotspot you want. In some ways this is an effective method of getting around the issue of a gamepad-based interface; though it's just as often unintuitive and finicky, especially in areas with many hotspots in close proximity. There are also minor unprofessional flaws throughout, such as typos in the achievement descriptions. It's not egregiously bad, but it does kind of betray the game's budget roots. I can also point to a few mechanics I appreciated, such as the region map (which you can instantly travel to from anywhere) highlighting which areas still had puzzles to solve, as well as progress bars for each individual set of puzzles that told you how close you were to doing everything you could with that particular thread for the time being.
Despite these minor misgivings, I feel this is the sort of game this genre needs if it wants to continue to go from strength to strength: A philosophy that will prompt a resurgence of the talented fiction writers that once populated this type of game back when it was being overconfidently prepped as a Hollywood killer. Though that sort of pie in the sky thinking is what lead to the awful FMV adventures that sank the business, it was less the fault of the writers who found an entertaining new canvas to express themselves with and rather the opportunistic marketers who believed they struck gold in an exploitable fledgling artform. But that's ancient history. If adventure games can continue their current streak of managing to temper fantastic writing and characterization with approachable, non-moon-logic-based puzzles in the manner Gray Matter achieves, the whole world will be pointing and clicking again in no time.