The Shivah review
Let's get the pronunciation of this game out of the way first. The correct way to say it is "Shiv-ah", not "Shee-va". It's not a Hindu god, despite what some gaming magazines may have in print. Shivah is actually part of the Jewish mourning tradition. Appropriately, then, The Shivah deals with death and life and choices and mystery. And being Jewish.
The Shivah started off as a freeware entry to the 5th Anniversary of the Monthly Adventure Game Studio (MAGS) competition, where games have to be completely made in one month. After winning, author Dave Gilbert revisited the game and enhanced it with improved graphics, voice acting, extra puzzles and a refined story. He also provided an optional "kibitz" mode, which is just like those director's commentary extras you find on DVD movies, full of interesting trivia about the making of the game.
This is by no means Gilbert's first game, although it is his first to be sold commercially. Gilbert is renowned in the amateur development community for his highly acclaimed games, including Two of a Kind, Bestowers of Eternity and some excellent games in the Reality on the Norm series. Adding a small retail fee to his new projects seems like a natural next step for the developer, but the step between free and retail can be a big one, so let's see if The Shivah is up to the task.
After downloading and installing the game, players are first treated to jazzy background music as the simple but effective introduction plays. It's just a narrated monologue over a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, but it sets the mood well. The game begins mid-service in a dilapidated synagogue, and the only people attending are one old lady who falls asleep and Josh, the cantor (choir). Leading the service is the playable character, Rabbi Russell Stone. Stricken by the poor attendance, Stone gives up on his sermon and calls off the service, but is the poor attendance causing him a crisis of faith or has his own spiritual crisis caused the poor attendance? There's little time to ponder this, however, before a detective arrives to question him. It seems the past has come back to haunt Stone as an ex-member of his synagogue who left under acrimonious circumstances, Jack Lauder, has been killed and left a large sum of money to Stone, all of which places the Rabbi as prime suspect.
This is where the first distinguishing feature of the game kicks in. You are offered three responses to every question asked by the detective, and this degree of choice continues throughout the game. It's never clear which option will yield the best results. Sometimes being aggressive seems to work, sometimes being apologetic is better, and sometimes it's best to fit the rabbinical stereotype and turn the question right back at 'em. It soon becomes apparent that there isn't always a "right" answer, and this establishes an important theme of the game: there are not always right and wrong answers in life. And what to say to the detective is the shallow end; later on you have to talk to Lauder's widow, and even make life-and-death decisions. When it comes to serious and thought-provoking content, The Shivah makes The Longest Journey look like Leisure Suit Larry. But don't be put off by the seriousness, as The Shivah is never dull and has its moments of light relief. And although the game is very much about Jewish identity and issues, it certainly didn't ever become too obscure or uninteresting to this WASP. There is a Yiddish dictionary tucked away in your inventory that comes in very handy, and none of the puzzles depend on any particular knowledge that can't be found within the game.
The writing throughout the game is excellent. In the commentary bonus, Gilbert is quite self-critical of some parts of the writing, but despite his modesty, the quality shines through. Rabbi Stone delves into the mystery at hand, first by paying a "Shivah call" to the dead man's widow. Shivah is Hebrew for "seven" and represents the seven day mourning period, during which it is both good deed and duty to visit the bereaved in their home and offer words of consolation. Mrs. Lauder turns out to be very antagonistic, and as surprised by her husband's bequest as Stone is. You'll have to persuade her to answer your questions so you can track down those responsible, hopefully clearing your own name in the process.
As the game progresses, you deduce computer passwords from the clues around you, find out more about the past, make a connection with another murder and track down some shady characters. When it finally nears its climax, fans of the Monkey Island series are in for a treat with a punch-up reminiscent of insult sword-fighting. And even if justice prevails, there are three main endings depending on your decisions made earlier in the game. Some are better than others, but that also depends on your point of view: do you prefer sweet or gritty conclusions? I personally think that a tragedy makes a better story, but you may like a happy ending. Either way, it is worth replaying the game just to see how all the possibilities pan out, and this replay value is another great thing about The Shivah.
The replay factor proves to be important, as a single play through the whole game is unlikely to tax you for more than a few hours in total. And given the quality of the writing, you may find yourself wanting to spend that time in one sitting, as it is pretty un-put-down-able. Of course, if you really must stop playing, you can easily save your game and restore later.
The point-and-click interface is similar to the one used in the early Broken Sword games, where a left click interacts with objects, people and inventory items, while a right-click gives a descriptive observation. Along with accumulating inventory items, Rabbi Stone also acquires clues that can be combined with other clues to make connections and get further insight. These clues can also be used when asking questions to other characters, so the more clues you have the more can be gleaned from the questioning.
The Shivah is presented using low resolution graphics, taking us back to the VGA days of Monkey Island II and King's Quest V adventures. Some will embrace the old-school look and some will object, but regardless of your personal preferences going in, The Shivah is one of those games where you soon stop thinking about the graphics. In fact, having played both the original MAGS version of the game and now the improved commercial version, I have to say that the improvement in the art between versions did little for me. You need to accept the technological limitation to appreciate it, but if do, you'll find the graphics are very good for their resolution, and on the strength of its story and gameplay, you really won't care that you've only got 320 pixels across the screen. If it was good enough for Seurat, its good enough for The Shivah.
The voice acting is excellent, and unlike many AGS games, The Shivah features real actors, thanks to Gilbert's involvement in the New York improvisation scene. As an added bonus, you can hear some out-takes from the voice recording sessions after you have completed the game, although these are not all as interesting as you might hope. I found one or two amusing, but some went completely over my head.
By far the best extra is the commentary, which is provided in full speech as you play through the game (though without subtitles, unlike all the other voice acting in the game). Gilbert's comments and anecdotes are as interesting as the best DVD commentaries, and give a fascinating insight into his world. Sometimes more than one action can trigger the same commentary, but you can skip a particular comment with a simple keystroke, and the system works well.
The Shivah has already gathered much attention, both from the gaming world and from those interested in all-things-Jewish. The print magazine PC Gamer UK praised it by saying, "It's in games like this that gaming really starts to measure up to conventional literature for emotional and intellectual integrity", and erstwhile Infocom writer Brian Moriarty has made positive comments at Manifesto Games, while a newspaper in the Big Apple called The Jewish Week recently interviewed Gilbert. That attention seems to be spilling over into popular success, as the original freeware version has apparently had over 10,000 downloads, and Gilbert reports that the improved Shivah version has been selling steadily. It is heartening to see a lone independent developer starting to do well after paying his dues in the freeware community.
You can download a free demo (the original version is no longer available on Gilbert's site) or shell out the princely sum of $5.00 USD for the full game at Gilbert's Wadjet Eye website. I'd have paid that even for the original version of this game, and with the DVD-style extras, added voice acting and improved story, it's a no-brainer. The Shivah's interesting clues system, well-written dialog, logical puzzles and fascinating commentary make it easy to recommend. The story and detective-style investigation will keep you hooked and the multiple endings give the game some much-needed replayability. It is too short to be one of those epic, full-priced games, but in terms of value, it is more than worth the selling price. There will be those that argue such a short game shouldn't deserve a high grade, but if short films can get Oscars for being the best in their field, then The Shivah has earned the right to stand tall among its higher-priced contemporaries.