Non-MMO Weekend: Gray Matter

I used to be a huge fan of Point-and-Click adventure games. What I could get my hands on, I played in the 90ies. Sadly, the genre more or less died when 3D came around.  (I hated 3D back at the time, not only because I blamed it for the death of adventure games, but also for the hideously blocky models that replaced beautifully crafted 2D sprites. It took years until the 3D models were even close. But that is another story, and shall be told another time.) Grim Fandango probably was the last masterpiece, though I remember Gabriel Knight 3 to be a lot better than people remember it for these days. Not that it reached the glory of the first part of the series. But I’ll attribute that at least in part to the 3D graphics, which just couldn’t tell a story as intensely as 2D for many years.

Which brings me to Gabriel Knight, and its main designer. Jane Jensen has done marvelous work, and if you’ve never played any Gabriel Knight, go and do so! Please. If you can stand the pixels these days. Take the first part, it’s probably still the best. Jane Jensen has a knack for interweaving science and facts with paranormal fiction, and it shows in many of her works, such as Gabriel Knight and Gray Matter. Religious studies, voodoo, and New Orleans; or history, templars, the grail, and southern France (years before Dan Brown).

The story of the production of that game is quite complicated. It was supposed to come out many years ago, in the early 2000s. After a lot of back and forth, and near-deaths, I lost track of it at some point, thinking that it had been scrapped for good.

I just can’t keep up with stuff. Gray Matter was released 18 months ago,  and I totally missed it. Thankfully, Jane Jensen is getting ready to start on her next project, and she set up a kickstarter, which I conveniently was pointed to by… I can’t remember who? It might’ve been spinks, she had written a post about Jane two weeks ago. So I went there, liked what I saw, and immediately pledged $30. A real adventure game by someone with a good track record? That’s worth the 20-odd Euros to me. It was then that I realized that Gray Matter had not been canceled, after all. So I ordered it, and had time to play it this weekend.I’ll keep this description spoiler-free, or at least free of anything you won’t learn in the first 30 minutes of playing.

I said Jane has a knack for interweaving science, facts, and paranormal fiction, and she does it again this time. The main characters (and the two you take turns playing) are Sam(antha) Everett and Dr David Styles. Sam took me a moment to get used to, she was a bit too gothic for my taste in the beginning. But it blends well with the story, and her history as girl with a troubled youth, and street-smart street magician/con-woman works out quite well. When her motorbike breaks down, she happens to end up in the mansion of Dr Styles, a neurobiologist who became a recluse after the death of his wife, and, as you will learn, is maybe a bit too obsessed with it, even several years after the fateful car accident.

Maybe a bit too large and pretentious for my taste, but I'd still take it if I got it for free.

Again, David’s model heavily relies on stereotypes: his phantom-of-the-opera-esque mask that hides the disfigured part of his face was maybe a bit too much. The game revolves around two main goals: get Samantha an invitation into the prestigious Daedalus Club for Illusionists in London, and find out what really happened the night of the accident, and what’s behind the mysterious sightings on David’s deceased wife in the mansion.

The characters are maybe not likable, but they work well in the story, and you can’t help but become at least a bit attached to them. The strength of the prior games, faithful representation of the town in which it plays, seems to show again: I’ve never been to Oxford, but I’ve seen photos, and the skyline looks very much like the real thing.

That's Oxford alright.

In adventures, story is the point that decides whether they succeed or fail (style can be a close second). The story, again I want to say in the case of Jane Jensen, works very well; and that’s coming from a person who’s neither in King nor Brown nor any such stuff.  It might not have the pull of the first Gabriel Knight, where around day 4, I simply could not stop playing any more, but I still liked it. It was captivating enough that I played through the game in two days.

There are a couple of smaller things that irked me. First, some things felt more American than English to me. Do they say “cell phone” these days in Britain? Then again, the Brits maybe just tried to be polite toward (US) Sam and used the American word. And second, sometimes it felt quite arbitrary whether you had to “do” things or whether “knowing” was enough. In many cases, you simply had to read or overhear things to use the knowledge later on. However, in other cases, that was not enough. For example, in one case, you had two lists that you had to compare to find a missing name. It required you to tick all the names on one list, so that Samantha would note how was missing. It was not quite clear to me I had to do the ticking; but you needed to do it to trigger the next puzzle. These are all smaller nitpicks though.

Difficulty-wise, it was about middle of the road. I only got seriously stuck twice, in which cases, I looked up what I was missing on the Internet after about an hour. One was a “how stupid of me” moment, the other a “that didn’t make that much sense to me” moment. I probably would’ve figured out both eventually, but I’m such an impatient person! I wanted to know how the story ended.

Overall, it took me about 12 hours to play through the game. I’d say it cost me about as much, per-hour, as a hardcover book, and it was worth that to me. That’s for the “Collector’s Edition”, which comes with additional goodies, one of them the soundtrack on CD. Which was worth it: the score is very atmospheric (done by Jane’s husband Robert Holmes, who also did the music for the Gabriel Knights) and well done, and I still catch myself humming the song “Safe in Arms” that plays a vital role in the story.

If you like adventures, and live behind the moon like I do, pick up the game now. If you don’t want to spend as much money, seems to have a cheap digital download version. Oh, and definitely have a look at the kickstarter project. Of all those that I’ve pledged so far (ok, that’s not been that many), this is the one I have highest hopes for. After seeing Gray Matter, I increased my pledge to $50. That’s how much I liked it.

6 thoughts on “Non-MMO Weekend: Gray Matter

  1. I was a big fan of the Monkey Island series (who wasn’t?) but I never moved beyond that series deeper into the genre. Well, except for a brief foray into Maniac Mansion, but lets not linger too long on that one…

    1. Monkey Island was a bit of a special case. First, it was one of the Lucasfilm Game, which came with their own kind of idiosyncrasies (not only could you never get stuck, you typically had a hard time dying in most of them too). Second, it was very tongue-in cheek and played with the fourth wall on several occasions.

      Gabriel Knight, on the other hand, was a game that had some humor, but was mostly focused on a story, and not a very funny story. It played it’s cards straight, without much self-irony, and thankfully succeeded. If you have the time, you probably should look it up on Good old Games, I think it costs something in the region of 5 USD. Even if you play it with a walkthrough at hang (advised unless you’re in for frustration), it will still be worth the money for the 3-5 hours of game time.

      Just switch off the voices. At least on my machine, the voices sound horrible; much better to play it “the classic way” with text and music only.

  2. I played the demo of GM and was really irked by the controls and camera. I got stuck a lot when trying to navigate different levels on the same, 2D picture – or kept targeting what I didn’t mean to target (the item/target ‘wheel’ annoyed me bigtime).
    it’s not like I haven’t played and enjoyed games like Monkey Island in the past, but even there movement seemed easier and targeting/commands more fluent. now that it’s 2012 I think even text adventures could do a little better than the fixed frame approach. it’s nothing I am nostalgic for.

    1. Weird. Maybe they fixed some things between demo and final release? Though that’s unlikely. In any case, I had no problem with the controls at all. Not sure what you mean by the “wheel”, either. I can’t remember any wheel. Maybe I missed some control functionality?

      The only thing that I noticed was that the “interact” cursor icon was a bit thin and therefore hard to see when you hovered over an object, but at that point you already knew you were supposed to interact with it, so it didn’t irk me too much.

    1. That might’ve been it then. Without a mouse (I assume?), they probably need a different control.

      Did you maneuver the character with one of the D-pads? Because that I can imagine could end up badly. With pointing and clicking, you have the built-in pathfinder that will adroitly navigate around potential nooks that could drive you crazy when you’re steering manually.

Leave a Reply