One of the byproducts of a game being in development for several years is how much gets written about it in the meantime. Gray Matter is already the most-previewed title in Adventure Gamers history, as the build-up to Jane Jensen’s long-awaited return to the genre has been a seemingly endless stream of hope and despair, tease and deny, alternating glimpses of optimism with lengthy periods of silence. The background is well known to longtime fans: as “Project Jane J”, the game was started once and then canceled, then started again under its current title before a complete change of development teams set production back once again. And with the recent confirmation of an English-language release setback to early 2011, the disappointment, doubt, and cynicism have started all over again.
But Gray Matter is not vapourware; it really isn’t the Duke Nukem Forever of adventure games (or maybe it is, given Duke's triumphant resurrection). Rest assured, the game is very real and it’s coming fairly soon. And I know that, because I’ve just finished playing through an extensive preview covering the whole first half of the game. So no, the question isn’t whether it will ever be released, but what there is to say about it that hasn’t been said before. From the first look in 2006 to a day in the Gray Matter recording studio to our video interview with Jane herself, plus all the convention demos in between, is there anything new to report? Heck, I’ve covered this game for so long, I felt like I’d practically played the first chapter already. Still, there’s nothing like first-hand experience (which you’ll discover for yourselves soon enough!), and there are always other angles to explore.
Surely we all know the story by now, so I’ll recap only the basics. Samantha Everett is a young American street magician who arrives in Oxford in fairly dire straits, and stumbles (with a bit of blatant deception) into an assistant’s position with the reclusive Dr. David Styles at the aptly-named Dread Hill House. A once-renowned but now-retired neurobiologist, Styles was devastated by the death of his wife several years earlier, and now believes her ghost is trying to manifest itself in the real world again. Convinced of the potential for untapped psychic powers and desperate to be with her once more, he has now devoted himself to scientific experiments at his home-based Centre for Cognitive Abnormality Research. If successful, he hopes this will increase his chances of assisting her efforts to appear though disciplined mental visualization techniques. To that end, he has Sam take part in his latest experiment, along with five others subjects, four of whom Sam must first recruit herself.
This new study seems entirely benign, as each patient simply visualizes a harmless scene at a specified location while their brain patterns are recorded. The trouble starts when these locations become the targets of increasingly mysterious, terrifying, and possibly even dangerous real-world events at the precise time of each evening’s exercise. Is this just some elaborate hoax, a “grand game” as Sam suspects, or perhaps a selfish attempt by someone closely involved to capitalize on Styles’ eccentricity for personal gain? Is the power of the mind so strong that the collective will of the test subjects is somehow projecting physical realities? Or is there some dark presence beyond the grave that seeks to materialize, much like Styles is hoping to achieve with his deceased wife? Oh, you’ll have questions – lots of questions. But Jensen’s story is in no hurry to answer them, perfectly content to string its players along, both in-game and out, building on the doubts and fears and suspicions of all concerned.
You’ll get to control both Samantha and Styles in different chapters, though Sam gets the bulk of the playable time. Dual protagonists are hardly new in adventures (like that other Jensen series that slips my mind at the moment), but it’s a welcome feature here. The two characters are both strong, willful personalities that are impenetrable to each other, so it’s only by playing both that you’ll really get a sense of who they are. Styles is feared, scorned, and shunned by all, making Sam’s early recruitment task a challenge, but he’s not the brain-damaged loonie some claim. Far from it. Obsessively neurotic, perhaps, but brilliant and painfully tormented, as evidenced by his comments about the many reminders of his beloved wife around the house, several of which are needed as experimental stimuli. Styles comes off as arrogant, irritable, and entirely disdainful of that young “chit” Sam, but from the beginning this seems as much of a mask as the Phantom of the Opera-like one he literally wears on his face.
Samantha is a refreshing personality, though a little hard to pin down. An “ex-Goth” sporting abundant piercings, a spade tattoo, hair sticks through her ponytail, and tight ripped jeans with studded belt, Sam is clearly her own fiercely independent woman. Yet she’s no brooding emo-rebel without a cause. She is bright, articulate, and well-versed, able to discuss Homer and Frost on demand. She adores her pet rabbit Houdini, and though you’ll certainly direct her to do some rather mischievous things in the call of adventure gaming duty, she isn’t reckless, refusing to get on anyone’s bad side “unless she has to”. There are brief traces of demons from her own past introduced here, though whether those are more fully explored, I didn’t see myself. (This being Jane Jensen, my guess is “yes”. Then again, this is the start of a franchise with sequels already discussed, so perhaps the hints are all we’ll get for now).
Being cast in the role of a street magician is no mere backdrop, but an integral part of the experience. Sam carries her trusty magician’s handbook filled with sleight-of-hand illusions, and you’ll get to perform them yourself. At least, sort of. After identifying the right trick for the job (if you’re wrong, she will say so), a distinct magic interface screen appears, allowing you to place objects in Sam’s right or left hands, sleeves, or pockets. Other icons such as “manipulate” and “misdirect“ round out the options, and successfully performing the trick involves constructing the correct sequence. You can have the handbook open the whole time, and the instructions are quite clear, so this isn’t quite the challenge it could have been, but it’s an interesting change of pace from the usual inventory formula. Besides, it’s so much more fun using a fake thumb, disappearing ink, and a noisemaker than everyday household items.
The magic theme factors into some larger meta-puzzles as well. Sam seeks admission to the exclusive Daedalus Club, and the first task is to solve a series of location-based riddles. While they won’t make anyone forget Le Serpent Rouge any time soon, these riddles are a good excuse to traipse around to history-soaked locations like the top of the Carfax Tower, the ornate Christ Church College nave, and the dinosaur exhibit at the University Museum. Of course, Sam gets to explore Dread Hill House as well. The part-opulent, part-creepy mansion is a study in contrasts, with posh elements like chandeliers, fine rugs, and polished hardwood floors alongside human skeletons, demon statues, and brain-filled jars on display. Only Styles has access to the room housing his sensory-induced isolation chamber and complex random number generator, which you’ll first need to program in order to receive possible messages from the beyond.
All these locations are richly designed, full of fine detail yet displayed softly in a way that gives many scenes an almost painterly look (remove the “almost” where the graphic novel-style cinematics are concerned). You can instantly transport to any major area through the map screen, though the internal scenes can only be navigated manually. Load screens occur between each room, but they’re so fast within indoor locations that you can’t even read the interesting factoids offered about history, science, magic, and myth. You can catch up in the larger outdoor scenes, however, like the gloomy stone streets of the Oxford town centre. These loads take quite a bit longer, making me think twice about how badly I wanted to revisit them. Fortunately, a colour code on the map itself lets you know if there’s more to do in a given area, though the game can be deceptively linear at times, so you may need to accomplish some tasks before proceeding with others.
The rest of the interface is intuitive and very traditional, with a few additional perks like a hotspot highlighter, progress bars that show your completion percentage for each task per chapter, and a journal that records all dialogue. Conversation is a simple matter of choosing a single word or phrase to initiate topics, and while some are optional, you’ll want to click through them all. Gray Matter isn’t a hugely talkative game, but you’ll certainly spend time getting to know the “Lambs’ Club” of fellow test subjects, among others. There’s a wide range of accents here, from the pervy British film student to the provocative French dilettante to the shy Scottish loner, and they’re all spot on. The actors for Sam and Styles are equally adept, making the voicework a consistent high point throughout.
Much of the time, Robert Holmes’ moody, thoughtful piano and guitar-heavy scores play in the background, though the game makes effective use of silence to ease the feeling of repetition. I was far less impressed by the unconvincing sound effects, whether footfall that never changes over varying terrain or drinking sounds that resemble a frat party beer chug. Similar corners are cut in animation, though there are some highlights, including the different ways the two protagonists move. Sam walks in a decidedly feminine way, hands swinging and hips slightly swaying, while Styles’ gait is appropriately more masculine. It’s a small point, but the nuance helps create a more complete sense of controlling such vastly different characters.
Gray Matter does a surprisingly slow burn in the early going, but if it takes a while for the pace to pick up, there’s clearly abundant promise established for what’s to come. As the experiments continue, you’ll begin to question what you know about everyone around you. You may even begin questioning Sam, as she too begins witnessing some “unusual occurrences” around Dread Hill House. Where it all goes, I have no idea, but I intend to find out when the full game is ready. It’s not Gabriel Knight, and it doesn’t push the bounds of the genre at all, but it’s still very much a Jane Jensen game with a striking blend of science and supernatural, mystery and myth. If that prospect appeals to you (and admit it, it does), then hold on a little while longer. Gray Matter is coming. Visualize it, believe it.