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).Continued on the next page...