Adventure Gamers Awards
Jane Jensen. If you're an adventure gamer, this is probably a name you know. For many fans, her name is almost as revered as Gabriel Knight, the character she created for one of Sierra's best-known series. A celebrated storyteller, Jensen has a reputation for designing games with rich narrative, complex characters, and strong ties to real-world history and settings. More recently, she's become known for her persistent drive to get her newest adventure game made—an odyssey that has taken seven years, two major publishers, two different developers, and numerous release delays. With this legacy comes added expectations, making Gray Matter extremely difficult to view objectively now that it's finally here. Yes, it's the first Jane Jensen adventure game in over a decade, and it does have a lot to like. But Gray Matter is far from perfect, and is plagued by too many unfortunate problems to be the "instant classic" Jensen's fans were hoping for.
Without question, Gray Matter's greatest asset is its story. Told across eight chapters with control alternating between two main characters, the story has all of the depth and complexity we've come to expect from Jensen's work. On the surface, it's a story that explores the elements shared by magic and science—a study of the limits of the mind. Deeper down, it's a story about two people in very different situations who are both learning to cope with terrible loss. It unfolds gradually, giving the player ample time to become immersed in the narrative, and some of its most memorable and touching moments are the points of connection that the characters unexpectedly share. All of the game's other issues aside, Jensen is still a masterful storyteller.
For the majority of the game, the player controls Samantha Everett, an amateur magician in her twenties. An American with a troubled childhood, Sam is an "ex-goth" with purple streaks in her hair, piercings, a tattoo, knee-high boots, and a tough, street-smart demeanor. Sam has her heart set on joining the Daedalus Club, an underground society for accomplished illusionists, and as Gray Matter opens, she's trying to get to London to visit the club when her motorcycle breaks down. In need of shelter, she impersonates an Oxford student to gain entry into Dread Hill House, the ominous residence of a reclusive scientist who needs an assistant. Initially she only plans to spend the night, but decides to keep up the charade—at first to make money, and later due to a growing attachment to her new employer and a developing fascination with the experiment he's conducting.
This employer, Dr. David Styles—a brilliant neurobiologist with a tragic past—is the game's second protagonist. Three years earlier, his wife Laura died in a fiery car crash. He became disfigured trying to save her and now hides his burns under a Phantom of the Opera-style mask. His emotional pain is not so easily hidden. In fact, the loss of his wife has become an obsession for David, who's convinced that he can make contact with Laura's spirit through a series of experiments related to psi energy (the brain's potential for psychic abilities). But this is David's personal project; his official experiment is a study of the effects of imagined physical activity on the brain, using Oxford students as subjects.
As David's research kicks off, inexplicable and dangerous phenomena begin to take place around the campus, at the same locations the students are instructed to visualize. Sam believes these stunts to be the work of a magician attempting to pull off a "grand game"—a public illusion intended to earn entry into the Daedalus Club. David, preoccupied with his psi experiments, is sure there's a rational explanation. What they go on to discover will shake both of their worldviews and force these unlikely partners to meet somewhere in the middle.
Gray Matter's 2.5D graphics are beautiful, if disappointingly static. The muted color palette, gothic touches around Dread Hill House, and classical architecture of several authentic Oxford landmarks all support the story's dramatic tone. The backgrounds are detailed and interesting to explore—particularly the sprawling Timmons Park and the whimsical Daedalus Club—and each location contains a fair number of hotspots, providing many opportunities to hear Sam and David comment on their surroundings. Though the 3D character models are also fairly well done, especially the main characters, they don't really get to show off their full potential due to a lack of animation and close-ups.
Animation isn't completely lacking; characters do engage in a sprinkling of habits such as checking a watch or running a hand through their hair. There are even a few conversations where special attention seems to have been paid to gesture and positioning (an encounter between David and a girl in the park comes to mind). But many of Gray Matter's lengthy exchanges take place with two characters sitting or standing still, arms at their sides, with no acting or motion to punctuate their lines. As a result, dialogue that's generally well written falls flat in its delivery, and some important story nuances are easily missed. In a particularly questionable design choice, if you choose to turn subtitles on, these appear at the bottom of the screen next to a creepy 3D head shot of the character speaking, with no facial animation beyond basic lip sync. These dialogue portraits amplify the game's overall lack of movement and are more distracting than useful.
Even when the dialogue suggests that a character should be doing something, they'll sometimes stand there like statues. For example, at one point Sam, positioned a few feet away from the kitchen table, is offered a breakfast plate by the housekeeper. After several minutes of conversation, Sam says, "That was the best, thank you"—yet she has not moved from her spot, and the plate on the table has not changed. Even worse, some animations—such as David rifling through a nightstand drawer—are completely wasted by virtue of the background not supporting the action. (In this particular case, the drawer is closed, with David's hands visibly groping the air in front of it.) Interactions with other characters or the environment are often dodgy as well, with David reaching well below a desk's surface to pick up the phone or Sam's hand hovering far above a shopkeeper's as she passes him some invisible money. (Maybe she's paying by magic!) Though these are small gripes in the grand scheme, they add up to make Gray Matter feel incomplete and sloppy, exposing the seams on what otherwise would be a wholly engrossing story.
The lack of animation carries over in Gray Matter's dozen or so cinematics, but in this case it's on purpose. The cutscenes are very different than the in-game graphics, with a stylized effect that's a cross between a graphic novel illustration and a watercolor painting. Appearing mostly at the beginnings and ends of chapters, such scenes are meant to convey sweeping story points, but with minimal animation and no lip sync, these stills feel out of place in a Jane Jensen epic. Additionally, several characters look quite different in the cinematics than their in-game counterparts, which can make the movies hard to follow. Budget may have been an issue and these cutscenes are certainly better than nothing, but they often miss their mark, particularly considering the dramatic story moments they're meant to communicate.
Gray Matter's interface is straightforward point-and-click, with the option to double-click to run or exit screens automatically. The inventory is hidden at the top of the screen until you mouse over it, at which point left-clicking an inventory item prompts Sam or David to comment on it, while right-clicking selects it for use. In addition to the items they acquire, each character carries a diary that lets you review dialogue and re-watch cutscenes. Though this is a nice feature, it's poorly implemented. The diaries have tabs to navigate from chapter to chapter, but to find a specific comment you have to click through each page within a chapter, which is tedious enough to make it impractical. Also, since control alternates between Sam and David, when you're controlling either one of them you can only review dialogue and cutscenes from that character's chapters. Naturally, the few times I really wanted to use this feature, the information I sought was in the other character's diary.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of Gray Matter
Posted by andixoida on Jun 29, 2017
One of My Favs
Science, Psychology, Neurology and Magic, such a beautiful mix. This is in my top 3 Adventure point-and-clicks because it GETS YOU THERE, it's super-atmospheric, soundtrack is doing that for you. This game almost got me to study Neurology @Uni. 10/10...
Posted by charmer on Dec 13, 2014
Mixed bag of awesome
Let's just run down the good and the bad; the writing is excellent and the plot is intriguing and very well put. You can't easily guess what will happen next. The soundtrack sets the atmosphere very well, voice acting is of high quality for most characters,...