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Gray Matter Review

By Tom Dann

At the centre of Gray Matter are questions regarding the power of the mind. Our entry into these questions are the two contrasting characters of David Styles and Samantha Everett. David is, or was, a highly respected Oxford Professor, though he now lives the life of a recluse in his mansion, Dread Hill House. The students around Oxford spread vicious rumours that he’s insane, and that he conducts horrific experiments. Samantha, or Sam, is a street magician from Washington D.C. She is travelling the world, learning everything she can from other magicians, and has come to Oxford in search of the famed Daedalus Magic Club, hoping to join its ranks. The story begins as Sam breaks down in the middle of a storm, in the middle of nowhere. The only place she can find is Dread Hill House. Pretending to be the expected new Assistant, she stays the night, fully intent on leaving the next morning.

She feels compelled to stay, the lure of money having a not insignificant part in that decision. As Dr. Styles’ assistant, she is tasked with finding six students to participate in an experiment. It’s not hard to find a group of students willing to be paid to relax, but that evening, at the exact time of the experiment, an unexplainable phenomenon occurs. Is it a hoax? Is it related to the experiment? Could a magician be playing a “Grand Game” with all of the characters, or could the events be genuinely supernatural?

Gray Matter is  a story-driven game from legendary adventure game author Jane Jensen. The narrative is complex, driven by its characters’ backgrounds and personalities. You will spend most of the time playing as Sam, running investigations for David, and this clue-hunting and mystery solving forms the bulk of the game. As a classic point-and-click adventure game, the puzzles are reasonably easy to solve, though, as in any adventure game, there will be moments of frustration where a puzzle seems unsolvable, only for you to find you missed the tiniest detail in front of you all along.

Gameplay is very much informed by classic point-and-click traditions: that is, your input into the game will be limited to pointing and clicking. If you wish to talk to someone, you can left click on them. To examine a painting, left click on it. To open a door, left click. If the door’s locked, and you have the key, you move your mouse to the top of the screen, which reveals your inventory. Right click on the key to equip it, then left click on the door to open. You can also combine different items using this method. The game makes use of this regularly, and encourages logical thinking, making use of your items, and thinking about what items you could need, and where you might get them. The interface is slick, intuitive, and doesn’t interfere with the game.

The only real variety in the gameplay comes from Sam’s vocation as a magician. You have the ability to perform tricks on various people, whether to coerce, to enthral or even to steal from them. You have a magic book which lists the steps for each spell. Once you have everything you need, you perform the trick. This involves filling in each step through a simple interface, representing Sam mentally preparing herself. You move the different objects involved between her hands, sleeves and pockets, representing palming and hiding, as well as the context sensitive manipulations and misdirections. It’s perhaps a little too simple, as you can bring up the appropriate page in the magic book at any point, though it does break up the gameplay nicely.

There are a few dozen locations around Oxford for you to visit as Sam. Each of them is beautifully rendered, though the characters inhabiting them are often clunky and don’t seem to fit in. The process of navigating the world is, thankfully, sped up by double clicking, or just instant travelling through the map. Oddly, though, the Oxford on display here doesn’t entirely match with the real one. While the real Oxford definitely has a strong sense of it’s Victorian heritage, Gray Matter’s Oxford just feels plain Victorian. There’s barely a sign of modern life, with not a single car in sight. This is definitely stylisation over realisation, and one hopes no-one truly thinks Oxford looks this way. Similarly, there are one too many British stereotypes on display: the pub with it’s Farmer Giles-sideburned patrons, for example, or the grumpy but helpful Police Inspector. Though the most annoying mistake for British gamers will be the use of American-style phone numbers.

Despite the hits and misses with the gameplay and setting, it’s the characters and storyline that drive Gray Matter. Its rare that a videogame story is so rich with themes and characters that tie in together so neatly. On the most basic level, Gray Matter is a detective story: Sam and David must work out who is causing these phenomena, and whether or not they are supernatural. But there are additional levels to the story: David is a recluse because of the death of his beloved wife Laura, and the experiments are his way of trying to make contact. David holds the atypical view, for a neuro-scientist, that the brain is capable of, basically, psychic abilities; and that the mind and brain are two separate things. Essentially, he believes the mind can survive death, and that his experiments hold the key to making contact with his wife. Themes of loss and obsession tie David to another important character in the story, though to reveal who would spoil the ending. David’s obsession with finding his wife leads to plenty of flashback cutscenes, some of which are far better than others. One in particular involving a night-time swim in a lake is particularly corny, which is a shame as it detracts from the otherwise tragic storyline.

The story itself begins surprisingly gently for a video game, despite a few violent bursts, gradually building up to a point where it’s difficult to stop playing. As quickly as mysteries are solved, you ones pop up to replace them. Clues point to possible culprits, while new ones exonerate them not long later. Unfortunately, at the point where you need a conclusion, you find a stretched out and frustrating trip through an “Alice in Wonderland” influenced puzzle-maze, only tenuously related to the storyline. It’s annoying, as the game is perfectly paced up until that point.

The two main characters are positioned, initially, as opposites, though there are many points of crossover. David is a reclusive scientist, whilst Sam is a street magician, a social vocation if ever there was one. While David deals with the brain, Sam deals with the mind, learning how to trick it through misdirection an manipulation. She uses this skill in several conversations: those familiar with TV’s The Mentalist will recognise this technique. Both characters, however, are very much defined by their losses: Sam suffered a similar loss to David at an early age. A point is made frequently in the game; that the young adjust better than the old, and Sam’s response was, as soon as she was old enough, to travel the world, while David’s response to his loss was to hide away: not helped by the vicious rumours and the horrific scarring to his face, forcing him to wear a “Phantom of the Opera” style mask. The other characters are less interesting than the main two, but despite being heavily stereotyped on the surface, somehow surpass these stereotypes as their backgrounds are tantalisingly revealed. I enjoyed my time in their company.

Special mention should be made of the music, by Robert Holmes. The soundtrack is mostly piano led, and is absolutely beautiful. The story is a gentle, slow-paced and atmospheric tale of loss and hope, and the music fits that perfectly. Whether it’s in the foreground or the background, it does its job perfectly, and underscores the emotional resonance inherent in the story.

Gray Matter is an enthralling game: it’s a top quality story, with fascinating characters and wonderful possibilities, attached to a merely decent puzzle game. Hit and miss cutscenes, clunky animations and a baffling final chapter mar the overall experience, though the music, background visuals and atmosphere more than make up for it. The ending is satisfying, narratively and thematically, which is a rarity, and left me with the distinct feeling that I’d like to spend more time in the company of these characters.

Copyright Tom Dann 2011

Buy on GamersGate

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